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“I am reminded of [W. G.] Sebald’s account of an experiment that intrigued him. ‘They put a rat in a cylinder that is full of water and the rat swims around for about a minute until it sees that it can’t get out and then it dies of cardiac arrest,’ he told me. A second rat is placed in a similar cylinder, except that this cylinder has a ladder, which enables the rat to climb out. ‘Then, if you put this rat in another cylinder and don’t offer it a ladder, it will keep swimming until it dies of exhaustion,’ he explained. ‘You’re given something—a holiday to Tenerife or you meet a nice person—and so you carry on, even though it’s quite hopeless. That may tell you everything you need to know.’ He chuckled. Disconsolately, merrily, companionably, bitterly, resignedly, darkly, theatrically, dourly, inconsolably? One is in no position to say.”

— Arthur Lubow, “Crossing Boundaries,” The Emergence of Memory: Conversations with W. G. Sebald (edited by Lynne Sharon Schwartz)

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“He is like to be the best judge of time, who hath lived to see about the sixtieth part thereof. Persons of short times may know what ‘t is to live, but not the life of man, who, having little behind them, are but Januses of one face, and know not singularities enough to raise axioms of this world : but such a compass of years will shew new examples of old things, parallelisms of occurrences through the whole course of time, and nothing be monstrous unto him ; who may in that time understand not only the varieties of men, but the variation of himself, and how many men he hath been in that extent of time.”

— Thomas Browne, Christian Morals, in Sir Thomas Browne’s Works: Repertorium. A Letter to a Friend. Christian Morals. Certain Miscellany Tracts. Unpublished Papers, Volume IV (edited by Simon Wilkin F.L.S.)

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“Those of us not yet in the departure lounge [of old age] and still able to take a good look at what has made them — us — like this can find some solace in doing so. What has happened is such an eccentric mixture of immediate and long-drawn-out, the arrival of a condition that has been decades in the making but seems to have turned up this morning. The succession of people that we have been — Sir Thomas Browne’s ‘varieties of himself’ — are suddenly elided into this (final?) version, disturbingly alien when we catch sight of a mirror, but also evocative of a whole range of known personae. What we have been still lurks — and even more so within. This old age self is just a top dressing, it seems; early selves are still mutinously present, getting a word in now and then. And all this is interesting — hence the solace. I never imagined that old age would be quite like this — possibly because, like most, I never much bothered to imagine it.”

— Penelope Lively, 'So this is old age'

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“[O]ld age has its needs, its greeds. You may not yearn for a Caribbean cruise — I don’t — but certain comforts have become essential, the accustomed perks that make daily existence a bit more than just that. I can’t start the day without a bowl of the right kind of muesli topped with some fruit and sheep’s milk yoghurt; I can’t end it without a glass (or two) of wine. I need the diversions of radio and television. I want flowers in the house and something tempting to eat — these are greeds, I think, rather than needs. And — high priority — there is reading, the daily fix, the time of immersion in whatever is top of my book pile right now. As demands, requirements, all of this is relatively modest. Much of it — the reading, the flowers — goes back to prelapsarian days before old age. The difference, though, is that then there were further needs and greeds, and those seem to have melted away, to have tactfully absented themselves as though to make things a bit easier because they would indeed be an encumbrance now.

Out with acquisition, excitement, and aspiration except in tempered mode. And, on another front, I don’t in the least lament certain emotions. I can remember falling in love, being in love; life would have been incomplete without that particular exaltation, but I wouldn’t want to go back there. I still love — there is a swath of people whom I love — but I am glad indeed to be done with that consuming, tormenting form of the emotion.

So this is old age. If you are not yet in it, you may be shuddering. If you are, you will perhaps disagree, in which case I can only say: this is how it is for me. And if it sounds — to anyone — a pretty pallid sort of place, I can refute that. It is not. Certain desires and drives have gone. But what remains is response. I am as alive to the world as I have ever been — alive to everything I see and hear and feel. I revel in the spring sunshine, and the cream and purple hellebore in the garden; I listen to a radio discussion about the ethics of selective abortion, and chip in at points; the sound of a beloved voice on the phone brings a surge of pleasure. I think there is a sea-change, in old age — a metamorphosis of the sensibilities. With those old consuming vigours now muted, something else comes into its own — an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in. Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold. People are of abiding interest — observed in the street, overheard on a bus. The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day — food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. It is almost like some kind of end-game salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new. It is an old accustomed world now, but invested with fresh significance; I’ve seen all this before, done all this, but am somehow able to find new and sharpened pleasure.”

— Penelope Lively, 'So this is old age'

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“I am sharing old age with friends, but not with a partner. In that, my situation is entirely average: three in five women over 75 in this country live alone. The men go first. Jack knew that, and expected it; after his retirement, he spent much time organising our affairs, and would talk routinely of a future that excluded him, to my irritation. I would remonstrate, and he would smile amiably: ‘Statistics …’ Well, he was right — though cheated, statistically, since he died at 69. The world is full of widows — several among my closer friends. We have each known that grim rite of passage, have engaged with grief and loss, and have not exactly emerged but found a way of living after and beyond. It is an entirely changed life, for anyone who has been in a long marriage — 41 years, for me: alone in bed, alone most of the time, without that presence towards which you turned for advice, reassurance, with whom you shared the good news and the bad. Every decision now taken alone; no one to defuse anxieties. And a thoroughly commonplace experience — everywhere, always — so get on with it and don’t behave as though you are uniquely afflicted. I didn’t tell myself that at the time, and I doubt if it would have helped if I had, but it is what I have come — not so much to feel as to understand.”

— Penelope Lively, 'So this is old age'

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“When [Simone d]e Beauvoir published Old Age in 1970 she was 62, so from my viewpoint she was barely even on the approach road to the status itself. And, indeed, her own life experience is hardly cited at all in her long, densely researched, somewhat impassioned and rather wonderful book, which remains an illuminating investigation of the subject. She embarked on this, she says, because she saw a conspiracy of silence about old age, as though all were in denial, refusing to anticipate their own future, and, in consequence, choosing to ignore the situation of the old. She wanted to explore the way in which old age is not just a biological but a cultural fact. She ploughed through history to see how the old had got on, from classical Greece to the present day, she pursued evidence of attitudes towards old age. She searched out the voices of the old. The book is laced with references from art and literature, from sociology, psychology, philosophy. She died at 78, so she got there herself — in 1986 you would certainly be considered old at 78.

Whether or not she turned the analytic eye on her own old age, she had already had a grim experience of it, managing the care of Jean-Paul Sartre in his wretched decline into infirmity and blindness. A harsh diminishment, for these two intellectual heavyweights, and nicely reflecting all that she had written of the alienation from oneself that is the condition of old age.”

— Penelope Lively, 'So this is old age'

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“Simone de Beauvoir confronted the problem in her extensive study Old Age: ‘Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species: “Can I have become a different being while I still remain myself?”’ What is at issue, it seems to me, is a new and disturbing relationship with time. It is as though you advanced along a plank hanging over a canyon: once, there was a long reassuring stretch of plank ahead; now there is plank behind, plenty of it, but only a few plank paces ahead. Once, time was the distance into which you peered — misty, impenetrable, with no discernible landmarks, but reassuringly there. In old age, that dependable distance has been whisked suddenly behind you — and it does seem to have happened suddenly. Not long ago, there was some kind of balance — a fore and aft, as it were. No longer; time has looped back, regressed, it no longer lies ahead, but behind. It has turned into something else, something called memory, and we need it — oh dear me, yes, we need it — but it is dismaying to have lost that sense of expectation, of anticipation. The mind does not always keep up — the subconscious, rather. In dreams, I am not always the self of today; I am often young, or younger, and if my children are present they have often become children again, obligingly — we have all jumped backwards. The mind cannot bear too much reality, it seems; in the same way, my husband Jack is nearly always present in my dreams — it is 12 years since he died, but at night he returns, not always recognisably himself, but a shadowy dream companion figure that I always know to be him.”

— Penelope Lively, 'So this is old age'

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“The worst was a cracked vertebra, four years ago, which required surgery — balloon kyphoplasty — which left me in intense, unrelenting and apparently inexplicable pain for three and a half months. Pain that had the specialists shaking their heads, baffled, passing me around like the unwelcome parcel in that children’s game — and I am sorry, apologetic, through the miasma of pain, sorry to be such a challenge, but sorrier still for myself.

I have sometimes wondered if an experience like that has some salutary value for any of us: it puts into perspective subsequent distresses.”

— Penelope Lively, 'So this is old age'

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“Can’t garden. Don’t want to travel. But can read, must read. For me, reading is the essential palliative, the daily fix. Old reading, revisiting, but new reading too, lots of it, reading in all directions, plenty of fiction, history and archaeology always, reading to satisfy perennial tastes, reading sideways too — try her, try him, try that.”

— Penelope Lively, 'So this is old age'

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“I am a gardener, but a sadly reduced one, in every sense. I have a small paved rectangle of London garden, full of pots, with a cherished 20-year-old corokia, and two pittosporums, and various fuchsias, and Convolvulus cneorum and hakonechloa grass and euphorbia and heuchera and a Hydrangea petiolaris all over the back wall. It gives me much pleasure, but is a far cry from what I once gardened — a half acre or so that included a serious vegetable garden. All I can do now is potter with the hose in summer, and do a bit of snipping here and there, thanks to the arthritis; forget travel, what I really do miss is intensive gardening. Digging, raking, hoeing. Pruning a shaggy rose: shaping for future splendour. Dividing fat clumps of snowdrops: out of many shall come more still. And that was — is — the miraculous power of gardening: it evokes tomorrow, it is eternally forward-looking, it invites plans and ambitions, creativity, expectation. Next year I will try celeriac. And that new pale blue sweet pea. Would Iris stylosa do just here? Gardening defies time; you labour today in the interests of tomorrow; you think in seasons to come, cutting down the border this autumn but with next spring in your mind’s eye.”

— Penelope Lively, 'So this is old age' (via ayjay)

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“Am I envious of the young? Would I want to be young again? On the first count — not really, which surprises me. On the second — certainly not, if it meant a repeat performance. I would like to have back vigour and robust health, but that is not exactly envy. And, having known youth, I’m well aware that it has its own traumas, that it is no Elysian progress, that it can be a time of distress and disappointment, that it is exuberant and exciting, but it is no picnic. I don’t particularly want to go back there.

And in any case, I am someone else now. There are things I no longer want, things I no longer do, things that are now important. Writing survives, for me — so far, so far. Other pleasures — needs — do not.

[…]

This someone else, this alter ego who has arrived, is less adventurous, more risk-averse, costive with her time. Well — there is the matter of the spirit and the flesh, and that is the crux of it: the spirit is still game for experience, anything on offer, but the body most definitely is not, and unfortunately calls the shots. My mind seems to be holding out — so far, so far.

[…]

[I]t is of the varieties of myself that I am aware, seeing how today’s response to Browne links me to that Oxfordshire self, in mid-life, busy with children, but essentially the same person. The body may decline, may seem a dismal reflection of what went before, but the mind has a healthy continuity, and some kind of inbuilt fidelity to itself, a coherence over time. We learn, and experience; attitudes and opinions may change, but most people, it seems to me, retain an essential persona, a caste of mind, a trademark footprint. A poet’s voice will alter and develop, but young Wordsworth, Tennyson, Larkin are not essentially adrift from their later selves. There is this interesting accretion — the varieties of ourselves — and the puzzling thing in old age is to find yourself out there as the culmination of all these, knowing that they are you, but that you are also now this someone else.”

— Penelope Lively, 'So this is old age'

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“You aren’t going to get old, of course, when you are young. We won’t ever be old, partly because we can’t imagine what it is like to be old, but also because we don’t want to, and — crucially — are not particularly interested. When I was a teenager, I spent much time with my Somerset grandmother, then around 70. She was a brisk and applied grandmother who was acting effectively as a mother-substitute; I was devoted to her, but I don’t remember ever considering what it could be like to be her. She simply was; unchangeable, unchanging, in her tweed skirt, her blouse, her Shetland cardigan, her suit for Sunday church, worn with chenille turban, her felt hat for shopping in Minehead. Her opinions that had been honed in the early part of the century; her horror of colours that ‘clashed’; her love of Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Berlioz. I never thought about how it must be to be her; equally, I couldn’t imagine her other than she was, as though she had sprung thus into life, had never been young.”

— Penelope Lively, 'So this is old age'

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AUSTIN and MARCY:
I love you because you’re not the person I dreamed of at all
I love you because you pushed me in a direction that I thought was lost
You’re the answer to a question that I never posed

— Ryan Cunningham, I Love You Because (from I Love You Because)

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Touch

by: Erica Jong
from: Poetry, February 1971


A man in armor,
A huge plume
shooting from his head,
velvet buckles at his hips,
joints of oiled steel
moving with the sound
of taffeta,
comes to my room
late at night.

His face is visored.
His chest
is emblazoned with crowns.
A fine tattoo of gold
Blooms on his arms.

Through a chink in the visor
I see what may be an eye
or perhaps the reflection
of its loss.

His codpiece gleams like a knife.

I think myself naked,
my skin white
as the cut side of a pear.
I think he will slash me.

But when we move
our bodies together
we make such noises …

It has been this way for years.
Our steel hands clasp.
Our legs lock into place
like coupling freight trains.


(via poetrysince1912)

Link

excerpts:

"[A] study published Thursday in the journal Science… found that after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence — skills that come in especially handy when you are trying to read someone’s body language or gauge what they might be thinking.

The researchers say the reason is that literary fiction often leaves more to the imagination, encouraging readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”

———

"The researchers, [Louise Erdrich] said, ‘found a way to prove true the intangible benefits of literary fiction.’"

———

"Dr. [Nicholas] Humphrey, an emeritus professor at Cambridge University’s Darwin College, said he would have expected that reading generally would make people more empathetic and understanding. ‘But to separate off literary fiction, and to demonstrate that it has different effects from the other forms of reading, is remarkable,’ he said."

———

"In literary fiction, like Dostoyevsky, ‘there is no single, overarching authorial voice,’ [David Comer Kidd, one of the researchers] said. ‘Each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.’"