May 7, 2013

The Good Fortune of Having Young People in Your Life As You Age

I had planned to post a reflection today about the pleasure I felt last week getting back to work in my garden -- finally! -- after a long cold, wet spring. I remembered that Diana Athill, in her memoir Somewhere Toward the End, had written about her love of gardening. I retrieved my copy of her book, which I had placed at the top of my list of recommended books about aging.

I checked the pages I'd dog-eared and underlined when I'd read Athill's book book about two years ago. Happily, I came across her description of the good fortune she felt having young people in her life, particularly a friend's son and daughter, now young adults "who symbolize my good fortune in this respect."

Rereading it now, after more than a year of sharing my house with two young Nepali newlyweds, I'm struck by how perfectly she describes my own good fortune.  

Diana Athill on the Joy of Having Young Friends 
What is so good about it is not just the affection young people inspire and how interesting their lives are to watch. They also, just by being there, provide a useful counteraction to a disagreeable element in an old person's life.

We tend to become convinced that everything is getting worse simply because within our own boundaries things are doing so. We are  becoming less able to do things we would like to do, can hear less, see less, eat less, hurt more, our friends die, we know that we ourselves will soon be dead. . . . It's nor surprising, perhaps, that we easily slide into a general pessimism about life, but it is very boring and it makes dreary last years even drearier.
Whereas if, flitting in and out of our awareness, there are people who are beginning, to whom the years ahead are long and full of who knows what, it is a reminder -- indeed it enables us to actually feel again -- that we are not just dots at the end of thin black lines projecting into nothingness, but are parts of the broad, many-coloured river teeming with beginnings, ripenings, decayings,  new beginnings -- are still part of it, and our dying will be part of it just as these children's being young is, so while we still have the equipment to see this, let us not waste our time grizzling. . . .
Always we are being reflected in the eyes of others. Are we silly or sensible, stupid  or clever, bad or good, unattractive or sexy . . . . We never stop being at least slightly aware of, if not actively searching for, answers to such questions, and are either deflated or elated, in extreme cases ruined or saved, by what we get. So if when you are old, a beloved child happens to look at you as if he or she thinks (even if mistakenly) that you are wise and kind: what a blessing!
It's not that such a fleeting glimpse of yourself can convert you into wiseness or kindness in any enduring way; more like a good session of reflexology which, although it can cure nothing, does make you feel like a better person while it is going on and for an hour or so afterwards. And even that is well worth having. . . . 
It does seem to me that the young nowadays are often more sophisticated than I used to be, and that many of them -- certainly my own darlings -- relate to their elders more easily than we did; but I am convinced that one should never, never expect them to want one's company, or make the kind of claims on them that one makes on a friend of one's own age. 
Enjoy whatever they are generous enough to offer, and leave it at that.
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I could not hope to match Ms. Athill's elegantly expressed wisdom, so I'll just add:

Thank you, N and B!

A mundane observation: This is an example of why I prefer the "traditional" format to e-books like Kindle. If I had read this memoir on a Kindle, I wouldn't have had those dog-eared pages and underlinings to lead me back to Athill's beautiful passages. 

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