Few know how to be old.
I read 41 books in 2022.. I’m writing about excerpts I saved. Some formed a group, like these. I may post a handful about writing later. No surprise about the aging focus—growing old is a major learning curve now. Mindful of my word limit, I resisted elaborating on why they struck me. You, dear reader, may respond to any or all in comments.
After the age of fifty we begin to die little by little in the deaths of others. The great magi, the shamans of our youth, successively go off. —A Certain Lucas, Julio Cortázar
…thoughtless ingratitude is the armor of the young; without it, how would they ever get through life? The old wish the young well, but they wish them ill also: they would like to eat them up and absorb their vitality…Without the protection of surliness and levity, all children would be crushed by the past—the past of others, loaded onto their shoulders. Selfishness is their saving grace. —The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
“I no longer need to save face. This is one of the benefits of extreme age. Nothing matters much and very little matters at all.” Borges, quoted in Borges and Me: An Encounter, Jay Parini
…a long widowhood strictly observed had kept her childish, not youthful. —Across the Bridge, Mavis Gallant
Old prisoners are your true conservatives: they only demand that the order around them remains exactly the same. “The Blood of the Martyrs,” in Twenty-five Short Stories, Stephen Vincent Benét
But—strange to relate—all these best moments of a pleasant life now seemed quite different from what they had seemed then. All of them—except for his first memories of childhood. There in childhood was something so truly pleasant with which he could live, if it returned. But the person who had experienced those pleasant things no longer existed…
—The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy, translated by the gifted translator Peter Carson, who was ill and died several days after finishing this work
Once we have reached a certain age, it’s hard to be reconciled to the fact that people are always going to be impatient with us…repeating, yes, yes, yes, avoiding eye contact, checking the time… —Drive Your Plow Over the Bones, Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
My wife, who knows that I’m working on a book of which the only things certain are the desire and the title, reads over my shoulder and asks: “So it will be a book of memoirs? Arteriosclerosis has already begun then?” —Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, Julio Cortázar
The air is drying out, preparing us for the coming Sahara of centrally heated winter. Already the ends of my thumbs are fissuring, my face withering further. If I could see my skin in the mirror—if I could only get close enough or far enough away—it would be crisscrossed by tiny lines, in between the main wrinkles, like scrimshaw. —The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
Nora wondered, given her feelings upon first moving here, how she’d managed to churn up so much goodwill writing about it now. Perhaps the old folks had been right—getting mawkish about one’s life, no matter its substance, took nothing but time. —Inland, Téa Obreht
From a column on dropping his son off at college:
But with due respect to my son’s feelings, I have the worst of it. I know something he doesn’t — not quite a secret, but incomprehensible to the young. He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go. Put another way: He has a wonderful future in which my part naturally diminishes…Parenthood offers many lessons in patience and sacrifice. But ultimately, it is a lesson in humility. The very best thing about your life is a short stage in someone else’s story. And it is enough. —Michael Gerson, The Washington Post. In 2022, Gerson died at 58 of cancer.
Now I am old enough to know what I’ll never accomplish. I will never be a soldier, a physicist, a thousand other things. It feels like relief.
My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it.— Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso
For me also, abandoning the desire for some achievements feels like a burden lifted. But those hopes of the young—I couldn’t do without that light shining far into the future I will not see.