When you’re old and you happen to speak the words “I’m old,” out loud, many people are quick to disagree. “You’re not old!” they insist, a signal of their feelings, known or buried, that being old is not a good thing. To them, old is not a wide view from a far shore but a dark sea you could get lost on due to some failure of navigation. They try to rescue you by pulling you back on course, a younger course, even if you don’t want to go.
I’ve always liked old things – old dogs, old movies, lockets with photos of forgotten people snug inside, books by Longfellow or Emerson passed hand to hand long ago, complete with inscriptions, “For Our Dearest Eveline, Congratulations on your matriculation– With love from Mother and Father,” letters written in careful, inked swoops on paper so thin you can see your fingers through it, mountains, rivers, oceans, prairies. If it’s old, lead me to it.
The chair in which I write this today is an old chair, ivory-colored wicker, with arms wide enough for solid human arms to rest on. The arms that once rested here belonged to my friend Teresa’s beloved great aunt, Marie Jordan Bell. Marie lived on a ranch in Wyoming among animals dear to her. “My heart is with my horses,” she used to say. She loved dogs, too, with a tenderness that might surprise people on either coast, given that ranch women are legendarily tough. Let us acknowledge Marie was that, too. At seventy-two, her pelvis was crushed when a horse fell on her, and she was told she’d never ride again. She rode again.
Why not say that when she sat in this chair on her porch at a hard work day’s end and looked out over the meadow and corrals, sipping her favorite bourbon, Marie was a living, breathing set of contradictions? This is what old women realize they always were and will always be. The lucky ones make peace with it, even though they recognize this as something the world doesn’t like to recognize. Old women are supposed to turn simple. And quiet. They’re not supposed to own a fierce desire to live, let alone to ride again.
So let’s say Marie, when she sat in the chair day after day until her death at 85, lived contentedly as a bundle of contradictions. For example, she might have longed to feel the tide of youth rushing through her veins while, at the same time, she was becoming increasingly curious about old age. Probably long before she suffered a heart attack in her eighties, she would have come to appreciate the human heart itself as a curiosity—so handy as a metaphor in youth for speaking of love but also a real muscle with a real job in a human being – to keep blood coursing.
Some people make this discovery only when the heart muscle forgets its job and does other things—makes up a new rhythm for the bones to dance to or drops the task of pumping blood absolutely everywhere throughout the entire body, as if that’s a kind of ridiculous goal, or just gives out a great sigh now and then. Whoops! Didn’t mean to scare you, says the old heart, which is still trying to do its best, just as the young romantic tried to do her best to learn how to keep love going.
It feels good to reach an age when you can truly understand the heart’s complexities. It’s a little cathedral within from which hard-won lessons, eternal mysteries, love and sustenance flow, a constant author of replenishment. Sometimes young people learn all this quickly, but many of us can only come to deeply know the heart if we live long enough to be old and to feel the truth of it when we say we are old and know being old is okay.
Marie, the ghost who sits in this chair with me, may have wandered now and again over to the gravestone in the tall grass where a favorite dog of her younger life, Mike, was buried. She may have sat by Mike’s grave for a while wishing she could feel him at her heels again as she worked through each chore of her day, just as I long for my own youth sometimes and wish that I could whistle my dogs back to my side and jog with them again along the Oregon coast.
We miss those we love who are no longer with us, not to mention the capacities we once had and cannot have again, but missing is no reason to deny what we have now. No one could be more surprised than I am to find herself an old woman, yet here I am, as many millions of us are. Turn away if you don’t want to listen to what we have to say, but don’t try to talk us out of our place here on the shore. You’ll arrive, too, soon enough. We’re all headed in the same direction, after all, and so it’s only natural to name the place we are looking from and to comment on what we can see from here.
Andrea Carlisle wrote a blog for seven years about caring for her mother: Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Catamaran, Travelers’ Tales, J Journal (John Jay College, CUNY), So to Speak, Northwest Review, Calyx, The Ledge, Willow Springs, Funny Times, and various other publications. Her poem, “Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List,” has appeared in anthologies, most recently in Literature and the Writing Process, Pearson (10th Edition). She also published a book of fiction, The Riverhouse Stories (Eighth Mountain Press). You can find out more at andreacarlisle.com.