Thoughts on aging from runners, writers, and priests

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, September 19, 2021.

I walk my dog, Rhody, up Peirce Street on a quiet Sunday morning as the sun floats above the horizon like an orange crystal ball. We round the corner at the granite steeple of St. Luke’s Church and are greeted by the sound of a runner’s slow, steady gait. A balding, bespectacled man approaches, wearing a sweat-darkened gray t-shirt and Nikes that seem two sizes too big. As he clomps closer, I catch his eye to say hello, but his words beat mine:

“Don’t get old!” he huffs as he lumbers past. 

The man’s admonition amuses me. Do I have any choice? Rhody pulls me onward, unleashing a dull, familiar ache in my shoulder.

In “As You Like It,” Shakespeare delineates the seven ages of man, from “mewling” infant in a nurse’s arms to the “second childishness” of old age, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Sheesh.

Other writers opine on aging more positively. There are these heartening words from Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom.”

William Butler Yeats, also less despairing than Shakespeare, is nonetheless wistful: “How far away the stars seem, and how far is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart!” I remember my first kiss: fifth grade, 50 years ago, a furtive moment in a garage on Whitford Avenue in Providence, bubblegum sweet. My heart was racing.

Rhody and I continue up Church Street, passing the walled graveyard that sits behind St. Luke’s and then the playground beyond the church parking lot where young children are laughing.

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw observes that “youth is wasted on the young.” The Who’s Pete Townshend shoots back: “I hope I die before I get old.”

Another Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, declares “With age comes wisdom,” adding, in typical pithy fashion, “But sometimes age comes alone.”

Cheryl Strayed is grateful: “You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.”

My black rescue dog is three years old. That’s 28 in human years, according to the American Kennel Club. The organization has fine-tuned its age calculation methodology from the “one dog year equals seven human years” dictum that I grew up with. It now tallies more years for a canine’s early life and fewer as a dog ages. According to the latest guidance, if we’re both lucky, Rhody and I will be the same age sometime around 2029.

My furry sidekick looks like she’s smiling as she takes in the morning air, untroubled by times past or times to come. Rhody lives in the present.

In “I Remember Nothing,” Nora Ephron tends toward the fatalistic: “Everybody dies. There’s nothing you can do about it. Whether or not you eat six almonds a day. Whether or not you believe in God.”

Every Ash Wednesday, at the St. Luke’s altar rail, the faithful kneel with foreheads raised as a priest intones, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Forty-six days later, Easter offers the hope of a different ending.

I wrestle with the Resurrection story even as I am guided by the enduring teachings of the Old and New Testaments. 

I do, however, find comfort in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, who invokes the “durable pigments” of painters and “prophetic sonnets” of writers in describing an antidote to human transience: “the refuge of art.”

Immortality may be elusive, but 405 years after his death, Shakespeare lives. 

18 Comments

Tonight, while bouyant on the becalmed deep waters of prayerful meditation, I shall inform Dylan Thomas of the following:

a gentle passage is your door prize,
like a flowery centerpiece or
a small box of white almonds
meant to take home;
like you, spirit, unlike rage,
the light cannot die

    Lovely, Charles. I had Thomas in an early version of the column, but he dropped off at some point. My mom named one of her companies “Rage” in tribute to him. Mercifully, her passage was gentle. Thanks for reading and reaching out.

John, I loved it. And to add one more quotation, author unknown……….”If I had known I would live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.” BT

Awesome read as usual! Thanks
Tony C

Great post, John. And thank you for helping me to relive some timeless memories from my English major days. (By the way, have you watched “The Chair” on Netflix? – You must!)

Hey John… fantastic as always! “Don’t quit writing” … you do have a choice in that regard. We so appreciate your wisdom and talent.

Ernie

From the cheaper seats….the movie ‘Jumanji, The Next Level’- Grandpa Eddie (Danny DeVito): “Getting old is a gift. I forget that sometimes.”

Great one John. Thanks!

John, another great column. Brought to mind a quote from my dad: “Only the rocks don’t grow old.”

Hey John:
Another good read!
Late to the game here but I ran across a quote from Madeleine L’Engle:
“The great thing about getting old is that you don’t lose all the ages you’ve been.”
Joe P

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