I think one of the noblest projects for anyone in age is to find a shape in his life
On Growing Old
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Like clockwork another Friday has arrived, and behind it a weekend full of promise and momentum. Tomorrow, a new month; in the distance, the unmistakeable glow of Christmas. Before you know it, 2022 is last year and 2024 is pulling on its running shoes, ready to forge ahead. All of which is to say: unless you’re able to travel at the speed of light, the passing of time will never relent and we are all, if lucky, destined to grow old. I’m now in my fifth decade, and I currently think about old age and my own mortality approximately 500 times per day, so naturally this felt like a good subject to look for in the letters of others. So that’s exactly what I’ve been doing this week, and here are the results arranged in no particular order. Hopefully you’ll find them as therapeutic as I did.
I am really fascinated by the aging process, even if the victim is me. Somebody told me humans age like trees. I had said one seems to be about 40 for 8 or 10 yrs. and then almost overnight teeth and hair and all age and you are 50 for about 10 yrs., then with a big clank like a rusty chain you’re 60 and so on. Anyway, they tell me trees do this too. The ring of the age cycle on the trunk shows up the same way—suddenly.
Dawn Powell, age 67
Letter to Phyllis Cook, 14th Mar 1964
Selected Letters of Dawn Powell
I think one of the noblest projects for anyone in age is to find a shape in his life. It was a drama in how many acts. How can he make the last act worthy of the earlier ones? He is the author, the protagonist, the audience and the critic. He has to work under handicaps while the stage hands fidget and the audience is eager to go home. But perhaps he can succeed in acting out “I was” or even “I was this.”
Malcolm Cowley, age 80
Letter to Thomas Ferril, 30th Aug 1978
The Long Voyage
The days potter by here much the same; sometimes the sad sound of their ticking feet gets into my ears as they disappear into history, carrying nothing in their delicate hands but a yawn.
J. R. Ackerley, age 63
Letter to E. M. Forster, Mar 1961
Connecting with E. M. Forster
I have seen and heard enough of the miseries of old age to have decided on a short life and merry one. I mean what’s the actual point of foregoing various simple pleasures, like smoking and drinking, if all it does is to keep you going, only to be attacked from some unforeseen direction like palsy or not being able to breathe?
Jessica Mitford, age 44
Letter to Barbara Khan, 17th Aug 1962
Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford
Since old folk can’t do anything else but give wise advice to young folk, I’ll give you a few handy tips, because a man’s sixtieth birthday is just the right time to do it. At this age it’s time to give up some of one’s youthful or manly pride and obstinacy, and start handling life—which one has hitherto bossed around—a bit more gently and warily. This includes a degree of care and attention and flexibility in relation to weaknesses and illnesses—one should stop moaning about them and forcing them to take a back seat, and instead one should give way to them and be nice to them, coddle oneself and, with doctors and medications, as with rest periods, taking the waters, having breaks at work, show them the respect they deserve, because they are all messengers from the greatest power that exists on earth.
Hermann Hesse, age 70
Letter to Max Wassmer, 24th Aug 1947
Hymn to Old Age
It is very sweet of you to send that birthday card, where we are walking toward the sunset together. It is a lovely sunset, but sad, and the night is beyond it. Hold fast to my hand, dear little boy, and keep me with you as long as you can. Some day, I hope not too late, you will know how I love you.
William Dean Howells, age 72
Letter to his young grandson, 1st Mar 1909
Life in Letters of William Dean Howells
Work is slower than it used to be, and I know that I do things partly in order to prove that I am still alive enough to finish them. I’m working hard, and I think you are too. I honestly believe that there are things that make the long experience worth struggling through, although now and then, on a creaky day, it is rather difficult to accept what are too loosely called “the rewards of old age.” I don’t mind looking old, but at times I resent the infirmities of the Aging Process. I’ve never been one to do things by halves, and by now I have cataracts on both eyes, osteoarthritis, and Parkinsonism on my whole right side! All of these conditions are advancing at a good pace, too. But I cope quite well with them, so far.
M. F. K. Fisher, age 73
Letter to Lawrence Powell, 18th Apr 1982
M.F.K. Fisher: A Life in Letters
I want to put this “aging” on hold for awhile now.
I don’t expect to be on the A team anymore; but I want to play golf with you. And I want to fish or throw shoes. And I want to rejoice in your victories be they political, or business, or family happiness victories. And I want to be there for you if you get a bad bounce in life, and no doubt you will for the seas do indeed get rough. When I say “be there” I don’t mean just showing up—I mean in the game, in the lineup, viscerally involved in your lives even though I might be miles away.
George H. W. Bush, age 74
Letter to his children, 23rd Sep 1998
All the Best, George Bush: My Life In Letters and Other Writings
I’ve decided that it’s a waste of precious time to think about getting old. We’ll have to think about creeping and wheezing when we’re actually doing same, but to hell with letting such miseries cast their shadows before them; while things like not looking pretty anymore, getting fat (me), losing eyelashes (you), hair getting terribly thin (me) … it’s amazing how little they matter if you forget about them. I reckon my looks were more of a worry to me in the days when they could aspire to being good than they are now—Jesus, the anxious hours I used to spend painting absurd Thirties faces onto my faultless 19-year-old skin!
Diana Athill, age 68
Letter to Edward Field, 10th Sep 1986
Instead of a Book
Do you ever feel the childishness of old age? I don’t mean second-childhood, but the particular childish excitement at being able to do things dexterously?—to pour out milk without spilling it, to put things back in their proper places, to be capable and responsible? It is a pure pride, as it was then. I only get it occasionally, and it lasts like morning dew.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, age 82
Letter to David Garnett, 30th May 1976
Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner
Welcome to the club!
As one who turned eighty-five in July, I have a message for you: Don’t fall down. I waited what I thought was a decent interval, then fell on rough ground and broke a couple of ribs. There is no way to get to sleep when your ribs are broken, so you stay awake, turning things over in your mind—what’s left of it.
I hope you have a nice party, and I hope you live as many more years as you can be either useful or happy or both. Stay on your feet, it’s the place to be!
E. B. White, age 85
Letter to John R. Fleming, 12th Sep 1984
Letters of E. B. White
The strange thing about growing old is that the intimate identification with the here and now is slowly lost; one feels transposed into infinity, more or less alone, no longer in hope or fear, only observing.
Albert Einstein, age 73
Letter to Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, 12th Jan 1953
Einstein: His Life and Universe
The years seem to rush by now, and I think of death as a fast approaching end of a journey—double and treble reason for loving as well as working while it is day.
George Eliot, age 42
Letter to Miss Sara Hennell, 22nd Nov 1861
George Eliot’s Life as Related in Her Letters and Journals
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad, say I’m growing old but add, I have written 85,000 words in the year now rushing to a close. This in spite of the fact that people keep shoving crutches under my arms and stretchers under my powerful physique. I am happy that the Board of Health has not yet complained about the body of my work and ordered it to be buried, but I suspect every knock on the door and every ring of the phone. Until they do come for me I will keep on going. Right now, though, I must get back to my strenuous inactivity. Love and kisses.
James Thurber, age 62
Letter to John Crosby, 20th Nov 1957
Selected Letters of James Thurber
It has today, for the first time, become evident to me that my memory as to recent occurrences is no longer to be trusted. I think it my duty to tell you this at once in order that you may take measures to guard the business from possible consequences. I try to look at the situation from an outside and impersonal point of view and so looking at it I see that I ought no longer to be trusted to carry on important business for the firm alone. I have no reason to think that I have lost capacity in respect to invention, design or reasoning powers in any respect, only that my memory (or presence of mind) in regard to recent occurrences is less trustworthy than it has been.
Frederick Law Olmsted, age 73
Letter to John Charles Olmsted, 10th May 1895
The Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted
The photo up top, of an elderly man using a Serbian Cyrillic typewriter, is via Getty.