8 months ago

Yes, I Love Growing Older: Let Me Count The Ways


Anne Harris is no longer a slave to a routine – and that’s just one advantage …  

All young people are alike. Each ageing person is ageing in their own way. With apologies to Tolstoy, and to young people for the generalisation, let me explain.

By and large young people have good health, hopes and dreams of lifelong happiness and absolutely no intimations of mortality. All that changes with the passing years. Status changes; happy partnerships become widowhood. The body, like the body politic, is a repository of change – even the shape changes. And the horizon of eternity is ever present.

But hopes and dreams I am happy to say are a stubborn reality.

Do I love growing older? Let me count the ways:

Going to movies in the afternoons.

Enjoying the stratagems of children rather than worrying about them.

Reading novels instead of six newspapers a day (nobody needs more than two.)

Going with the flow which means swimming when the tide is high, rather than being slave to a routine.

Having no deadlines on morning coffee – just letting the conversations take you where they will.

Hopping on a train for lunch with a pal in another city. No matter what the gender, there’s always the shade of Brief Encounter.

Hanging out with hot old men without worrying about meaningful relationships

Reading magazines without guilt.

Accepting I’ll probably never get through all the poetry I want to, thus settling for other people’s choices (Clive James in particular) and enjoying them.

Looking out for the next big adventure.

I could go on and on, but the editor stipulated ten good things. And as I looked over these, one thing struck me: the ten things could be distilled into one. What I really love about getting older can be summed up in one word. Time.

Somewhere in my early years, lines by the wonderful hobo poet William Henry Davis, lodged in my consciousness.

“What is this life if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs.
And stare as long as sheep and cows.”

Not surprisingly, the poem is called Leisure. And it closes with the damning ring

“A poor life this, if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.”

Getting older presupposes retirement, but not always. And for many people the urge to continue making a meaningful contribution in the workplace, the market – wherever – is their joy. For artists, of course, there is no cut-off point at all. In my view we are all artists at one level, even where sheer survival is the challenge, perhaps particularly where sheer survival is the challenge. We are all endeavouring to create something out of this life, be it family, a home, a better future for the generations.

But in my view leisure, after a lifetime of hard work, should be tried. The only training you need for it is the enjoyment of your own company.

The great French philosopher and essayist, Michel de Montaigne, who devoted a lot of his thinking to time – it’s not the length of our days, but what we do with them – said: “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.”

When I was retiring, a dear friend, a former civil servant, sought me out to offer advice, things he had found very helpful himself. “Try to do one thing every day,” he said. “One social interaction, meet someone for lunch. Or go for a walk. Do something,” he said. I’m sure it was very good advice. But my challenge would be to try to do only one thing a day – to safeguard my standing and staring.

As for the ageing process itself, there are, it seems, two schools of thought for women (and increasingly for men). There’s the Jane Fonda school and the Vanessa Redgrave school. On a recent brilliant documentary Jane Fonda in Five Acts, Fonda discussed her cosmetic surgery. “I wish I had the courage to be like Vanessa Redgrave,” she said, “but I just can’t.” She meant that Redgrave had allowed her face to show her age, to show its lines. It’s clear that Fonda recoils from that. And that’s her prerogative.

WB Yeats could have been writing for Redgrave – and for all the rest of us who choose that route – when he wrote:

“But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.”

He’s right, as always. It is sorrow which changes the face. Some people can live with the evidence of that on their face, others would rather not. What matters is how you greet that sorrow.

But Yeats presents another subliminal challenge for our generation in these lines. If your face has been loved, has provoked passion and devotion, would you really want to change it?

“Getting work done” is rather like opinions. Everyone is entitled to theirs and nobody can say what’s right for someone else.

So what do I think is right? On the physical or aesthetic aspects of ageing, I’m with Baz Luhrmann’s great hit track “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen” (but I have to admit to being negligent about it.) And like him, the rest of my advice is merely based on my own meandering experience. So here goes, swim (in the sea if you can), walk in nature, eat well (particularly in the middle of the day – lightly in the evening) and enjoy it all.

On the cosmetic side, I am about to try retinol: skin scientists say it’s the only real anti-ageing discovery of the last 25 years, and the fact that you absolutely have to use sunscreen is a plus – the terror of what will happen if I don’t (will my face fall into the basket?) is an imperative in itself.

Politicians, if they thought about it, might embrace growing older. Because this is when Payback Time becomes a reality. Payback Time is when your children choose your company because they like it. It’s when your grandchildren choose your company because they like it. It’s when you choose theirs because you like it.

But above all, Payback Time is when you choose your own company because you like it. When you give yourself to yourself.


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