What's It Like to Be Old?
Last updated: Jan 26, 2012
My 90-something grandmother used to crochet lap blankets "for the old people." My dad, in his 80s, poked fun at slow drivers: "Another old man with a hat on" (even though he himself had given up driving by then). If it's hard to see yourself as old when you're so late in life, it's harder still to imagine, at younger ages, what the experience is like or even that it will eventually happen to you -- never mind that the longer we're around, the older we all inexorably get.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall -- who was awarded the National Medal of Arts last year, at 82 -- knows. And with his sharp, feeling poet's eye he gives a beautiful, haunting first-person account of aging in a New Yorker essay called "Out the Window."
"After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself," Hall writes. He ticks off the passing decades -- the "terrifying" 30s, "40 I never noticed because I was drunk," and how the 50s and 60s were the best, until cancer claimed his mother and his wife, in short order, ushering in his own travels in "another universe."
"However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life," Hall writes. He describes how younger people see older adults as a species apart, as if they had green skin and two antennae'd heads -- "permanently other."
Then, he continues: "When we turn 80, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances."
He gives examples of being ignored and condescended to. A patronizing guard at the National Gallery of Art informs him and a companion about a Henry Moore carving and asks later, after lunch, if he enjoyed his "din din" -- little realizing that the frail old man in the wheelchair is in the nation's capital to receive an honor and has written a book about Moore. Hall tells the story ruefully, matter-of-factly.
Much of the piece records what he observes out his window -- as his mother and grandmother, in their dotages, had sat and looked out windows before him. Life goes on in cycles, Hall reminds us -- even if we can't possibly fathom what it's really like until we're deep in it.