As an old person who writes, I’m drawn to what well-known, even revered, authors have to say on the subject of their aging—and especially those who do so in personal letters, that pre-email form of communication that invites, I believe, more intimacy and honesty in expression.
And so I was eager to read the December 2016 Atlantic article* on the letters of Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Elizabeth Bishop, and Robert Lowell, and to what they might reveal about how each felt about growing old.
Here’s how the article’s author Robert Fay explains the importance of those letters:
“Reading these letters is meaningful, not so much because some elderly people are ‘wise.’ Rather, there is much practical and intellectual guidance to be gleaned from spending time with imaginative, highly articulate individuals as they face the existential realities of illness, declining productivity, the death of friends, guilt, and, finally, letting go of cherished activities and passions.”
Fay goes on to comment on, and include some excerpts from, each of the letters. I found the following three to be of particular interest. My very brief comments follow each:
“[Beckett’s] letters are a reminder to avoid seeking out a single cookie-cutter approach to living a long and active life, since everyone must draft their own map through trial and error.”
Yes—there is no one single way to age, despite all those recent books and articles on aging that attempt to do so.
“Lowell reminds readers of the mixed blessings of aging: There is a certain satisfaction derived from maturity and lessons learned, yet it can be accompanied by the sour realization that most of one’s life has already been lived.”
Yes—both the “certain satisfaction” and “sour realization” of aging does, as with most of life, bring mixed blessings.
Bishop: “I minded being 35 very much, I remember, but haven’t been able to give a damn since—there are too many other things that one can do a little something about, possibly.”
And the best of all from Elizabeth Bishop: “there are too many other things” we can actually address and effect as we age, including those that bring us and others pleasure, some relief, and satisfaction.
To find some of your own favorite bits from these four writers, and from Kay’s commentary, click here: