Friday, August 8, 2014

Roundup: Bigotry, Beauty and Being Fully Alive

Poet W.S. Merwin

My Montana friend and yoga teacher Cache Hartzell posted a link to an interesting article this morning.

"Prize-winning poet still at work at eighty-six"

proclaimed the AP News article's headline.

The prize-winning poet featured was W.S. Merwin, who has had a long, distinguished career.

"I think of one of my greatest heroes, (William Butler) Yeats," Merwin says in the interview. "He wrote at length - although nothing of Yeats is too long - about old age. He came to it with real anger, as though it was an outrage."

Merwin's attitudes about aging are different from those of Yeats.

Merwin says,  "I think of old age as being a time like the others. It has its revelations of its own that you can't come to any other way. I don't have any of those feelings Yeats had at all. I accept it with a certain amount of curiosity."

It is cause for celebration when humans remain vitally engaged in their gifts and the work that brings them joy, no matter what age they are. Merwin is an outstanding poet,  passionately engaged in writing poetry in his late eighties. Hallelujah. That enriches each of us, even if we never read any of his poems.

But back to that headline, which proclaimed that he "still" writes well into his eighties. Is this surprising? Not really, unless you are one of those who expects aging to equal complete disintegration of all talents, interests and passions. May Sarton, W.B. Yeats and Stanley Kunitz are just a few other poets who lived long lives and continued to write in their old age.

Many, many human beings continue to thrive, flourish, create, share and contribute in marvelous, rich ways though they are truly Very Old. Is this surprising? No, but it is wonderful and I sure wish that the majority of people in our culture would wake up to the truth that the vast majority of older adults are healthy, full of life experience and capable of wonderful contributions to family and society.

Right now, it is not that way. Instead, we as a society believe that if an old person is "still" dancing or or "still" creating gigantic welded sculptures or"still" doing complex mathematical equations in late life,  they are an anomaly or an exception. How sad, this belief.
Old people are expected to sit back, shut up and stay out of sight. How sad to see the way that so many older adults collapse into noxious stereotypes about being old and begin to embody them. What a gigantic waste --all that soul, love, creativity, life experience eroding from disuse. May this shift, and soon.

This week, I read a couple of other articles about our cultural attitudes toward aging that I found interesting. One was posted on Facebook on the page called Confronting Ageism. It was written by Alice Fisher, who works in the office of a New York state senator, and who in her private life runs consciousness-raising groups for older adults, to help participants investigate ageism and create positive ways of confronting it. That's good news, don't you agree?

Apparently, they are creating a manual that can be used by others to create similar groups, and I look forward to seeing that once it is completed.

Fisher writes, "Ageism is an interesting prejudice. Aging is the common denominator for everyone who is born. If fortunate, we are all going to get old. We are all going to die. So being judgmental about people just because of their age, or their wrinkles, or their slower pace, is sowing the seeds for our own internalized ageism."

We have been educated about racism and sexism, but many of us are not very aware of what comprises ageism, either in society or within ourselves. It is largely unconscious.

Another piece that influenced me this week appeared in Ronni Bennett's Time Goes By blog. In this post, titled "The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations," Bennett featured excerpts from an article from the Montreal Gazette written by Daniel Nonen. 

In his article, Nonen notes,  "It continues to be acceptable to patronize old people with low expectations...

“Old people need a liberation movement like the great North American movements of the past 60 years that are improving the lot of blacks, women, gays and lesbians..."

Later Nonen states,"...the most important accommodation that society should make doesn’t cost anything, People should simply start to expect more from old people. They should reject the 'soft bigotry of low expectations."

Yes indeed. Of course, that kind of change must take place within each one of us. Consciousness raising involves investigating our own attitudes and beliefs about aging and growing old.

What are your key motifs, beliefs or mottos about this time of life and yourself living through it? Where did they come from? How realistic are they? Are you collapsing into self-created stereotypes? If you were to define your main characteristics as an older person, what would they be?

I would love to hear back from you on any of these, too.

Sending warm regards to each of you. Here in Oregon's Rogue Valley, the wildfires are dying down and the air is clearing.


  1. I don't have anything profound to say in regard to the questions you ask. I simply continue with living -- curious as to what each new day will bring. Somewhere along the way in life I began to think of my life as an adventure and continue to embrace that concept. I have no preconceived notions of what to expect in my remaining years or even how many more there may be. I have considered living to at least a hundred, or maybe even to 130 is a possibility based on science reports that say some of us may do just that. I have been aware of physical changes but take them all in stride. Fortunately I've not had any major health challenges to date but like to believe I would adapt to whatever the situation as I have with less significant ailments that periodically occur. Adjusting to varying life circumstances with survivor mode hope and rationale has served me well.

    I have chosen to accept fewer work opportunities in recent years and, in fact, haven't accepted any patients at all this year -- but the year isn't over yet. I find I enjoy being free of the commitment, but continue to maintain all my licensing requirements -- just in case. I enjoy exploring a variety of activities or indulging myself by literally doing nothing. Interacting with individuals of various ages is particularly stimulating in thought for me rather than always being only with my contemporaries, but those opportunities lessen the older I become it seems. Such interaction does provide a natural demonstration to all of the vibrancy an aged person can have -- especially when ages of most in the group become known.

    My independence was fostered by my mother from the time I was a small child. I was also quietly observing actions of the adults in my life, especially as they impacted me. I became aware of cultural and societal attitudes, governmental limitations and inequities -- all contributing to the formulation of my approach to living as I matured. I've never accepted stereotypes, or given much effort to fitting into them at any age which has not altered as I approach the eighth decade of my life.

  2. Because I began ePublishing my books December 2011, I've had a lot to think about which has nothing to do with my age. I entwine myself with these characters and find once in awhile when i look up at my own life, I am surprised by it. Writing fiction can swallow you; and for me, although I wrote all my life, learning the problems and issues of bringing out books really doesn't have me thinking about me most of the time.

    I hear that old people are prejudiced against; but my husband, who is my age, is a consulting engineer who has more work than he wants although it's often for a percentage of the potential enterprise and not always a salary. For indie writers, age isn't even a factor other than being older has some advantages as we have lived through a lot of different stages. I guess if I had gone the traditional publishing route where a publisher demanded I do book signings, etc., I might find my age more of a drawback-- as I am not particularly fond of a lot of travel.

    I think having been around old people all of my life, I saw it as not negative or positive but just a reality. Yes, an old body is deteriorating; yes, it can do less than it used to do (ranch life gives vivid examples of that; but I don't expect others to overlook all of that and pretend I am still young.

    I don't know if it's so much prejudice against the old in this world but prejudice against the weak. And older folks are weaker than they once were and will be weaker yet in the future. That's just reality. It might scare some young ones as they realize they will be there too.

    Frankly, having grandchildren, I worry more about whether they will have a good life than whether I am getting all I could/should. I had my chance. I just hope they will get theirs.