mapping a foreign country

It was May Sarton who wrote “The trouble is, old age is not interesting until one gets there. It’s a foreign country with an unknown language to the young and even to the middle-aged.” I came across the quote in this lovely blog post by Judy Fox, and it’s a metaphor that bears reflection. It reminds me of a reckoning I finally arrived at, long after losing my way in what was to become This Chair Rocks


Originally called So When Are You Going to Retire, this project was going to be a book about people over 80 who work. The topic was upbeat and soundbite-friendly, and it got me started researching longevity and meeting a crew of octo- and nonagenarians. The more I learned, the greater the discrepancy that emerged between my grim notion of late life and the lived reality. I knew I was onto something. But as I’d realized from the get-go, my focus on economic and physical outliers was problematic. So was the fact that the benefits of working were intuitively obvious; fresh insights were few. Reluctantly I abandoned ship. 


I found myself being carried along by a wide river, perhaps a border of Sarton’s “foreign country.” Not drowning but directionless, with no idea how or where to reach the shore, and there, midstream, I floundered. It was several years before I found my direction, and yet more time passed before I realized that the focus on work, safe and bounded, had been my “transit visa” into the uncharted and far scarier waters of old age itself.  In the meanwhile, specific concerns replaced nameless dread. I kept telling myself that if all I got out of all this work was an infinitely improved attitude towards my own impending dotage, that had to be enough—and that it was no small thing.


I’d been floundering, yes, but I’d also been studying the terrain across the water, spotting landmarks, acquainting myself with its topography, scribbling in my soggy notepad. I was figuring out for myself what the wonderful M.F.K Fisher writes in Sister Age: “Parts of the Aging Process are scary, of course, but the more we know about them, the less they need be. That is why I wish we were more deliberately taught, in early years, to prepare for this condition. It would leave a lot of us freed to enjoy the obvious rewards of being old.” As I was carried along, I learned that the rewards are less obvious than the terrors, but they are real. Almost without realizing it, I was making my way towards shore. 


Best known as a poet, May Sarton was also a novelist and memoirist who wrote at length about aging and was no stranger to its hardships. She survived breast cancer, the death of her great love, and debilitating illness, including a stroke that left her unable to write, so she recorded her last books on tape.  The quote is from her novel As We Are Now, an unflinchingly grim portrait of a 76-year-old woman’s move to a hateful nursing home. I’ve ordered the book and googled the quote on the web, where it’s easy to find. Usually—and significantly—the next sentence is missing: “I wish now that I had found out more about it.” 


That’s just what Fisher is saying. It’s also the task I’ve set myself: to deliberately explore, to learn what I can about that “foreign country” before time alone renders it familiar. To help rectify its omission from the American mindmap and detoxify its portrayal. To help demystify it for anyone who’s interested, my fellow “old people in training.” To coax others, of all ages, into the water. It feels fine.




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