I’m in a room at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. My agenda is to do some work on a novel that I began here on a previous visit. One of the things I’ve allowed myself to do is to read at night after dinner. There’s a television in one of the public rooms, but I have no idea—and I don’t want to have an idea—if
it’s been turned on. Mercifully, the Wi-Fi is too slow to accommodate streaming.
I’m one of those people who can be easily seduced by television. But as brainy, as good-for-you, as some of my choices are, they’re still images on a screen, and not words on a page.
There are a few books in every working space here. I assume that a few of them are written by previous occupants. Hidden on the shelf between last year’s Poets and Writers and a July, 2013, New Yorker was a fairly unlikely book: I Feel Bad About My Neck (and other thoughts on being a woman), by Nora Ephron. So I read it. I can read Middlemarch later.
I know she wrote When Harry Met Sally. And Sleepless in Seattle, (which she also directed). Especially in this environment, I’m supposed to be too highbrow for her. But she’s a good writer. I guess I should say she was a good writer. She died in 2012—what I’m mandated to say is after a six year battle with cancer—six years after being diagnosed with cancer.
Of course, I don’t identify with any of the specifically female things she talks about. I don’t particularly feel bad about my neck. I feel bad about other things. I’m not crazy about my arms. Any problems I’ve had with facial hair—and I’ve had some—are quite different than hers .
I’ve also read her I Remember Nothing, written when she knew she was dying, and which includes a list of things she will miss (her husband and children) and things she won’t (email).
The striking insight I found in I Feel Bad About My Neck is in the essay “Consider The Alternative.” She writes, “…I don’t know why so much nonsense about age is written…I am dancing around the D word, but I don’t mean to be coy. When you cross into your sixties, your odds of dying—or of merely getting horribly sick on the way to dying—spike. Death is a sniper.”
There is, of course, a quite extensive body of books of those chronicling their sometimes terminal illness. These are not always cheery. There’s Old Age: A Beginner's Guide by Michael Kinsley about his own Parkinson’s, Dying: A Memoir, by Cory Taylor who had melanoma-related brain cancer which she dealt with unflinchingly, and Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir, by Paul Monette.
Then there is the larger group of “dying” but coming back stories, the ones in which those who are “dying” leave their body and come into the light. These are remarkable, and very easy to take, because they offer proof of an afterlife. When those who have “died” come back, they come back from somewhere, and that somewhere is waiting for all of us.
One of these is Heaven and Back: A Doctor's Extraordinary Account of Her Death, Heaven, Angels, and Life Again: A True Story, by Mary Neal. There’s also Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back, by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent, and Beyond Sight: The True Story of a Near-Death Experience, by Marion Rome.
Even someone who, as the New York Times said, “declared war on the denial of death in America,” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, still promulgated metaphors that, although they undoubtedly provided comfort to many, had the effect of making death acceptable (if not desirable). She was the originator of the since famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
In the forward to Kübler-Ross’ On Life After Death, Caroline Myss says that “dying is only moving from one house into a more beautiful one.” Kübler-Ross, even though her intention is clearly to say that knowledge of one’s death can be a spur to living life (the same thing that Brad Pitt’s character says in Fight Club), nonetheless says that “Death is as much a part of human existence, of human growth and development, as being born.”
The surprising thing is that most books about aging and death have nothing bad to say about either. Aging is either:
A cursory search of Amazon reveals the following titles about aging: The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully, by Joan Chilttister, Aging as a Spiritual Practice: A Contemplative Guide to Growing Older and Wiser, by Lewis Richmond, and The Grace in Aging: Awaken as You Grow Older, by Kathleen Dowling Singh. The March, 2017, issue of Redbook includes the article “Look Great at Any Age,” which seems to promise that age is unrelated to appearance.
Let’s suppose that we grant one of the claims above, which is that age brings wisdom. It certainly is true that experience often brings with it the ability to better understand events in the light of similar events that happened before. But it is also true that age brings with it the gradual (or abrupt) decline in physical abilities, including often skills as essential as walking, the fairly common onset of cognitive impairment, the greater and greater chance of a disease, the judgment of society that one has become irrelevant, and, of course, a daily journey closer to death itself.
The knowledge of our own mortality seems to be uniquely human, although who knows? Animals certainly make every effort to avoid physical harm, which implies awareness of the consequences of such harm. Mammals especially seem to be in great distress when they are in a situation in which death is near (for instance, when they are being eaten). But they don’t seem to spend much time worrying about it. The Onion, a satirical website, had an article in which they claimed that:
Scientists Successfully Teach Gorilla It Will Die Someday
Tulane University researchers say Quigley is now able to experience the crippling fear of impending death previously only accessible to humans.
The unfortunate thing is that humans can, indeed, access that fear, although they try hard not to.
The prevailing view in the zeitgeist that age can be transcended, that it inevitably brings gifts that more than compensate for its costs, brings solace only to those not going through it. Of course someone not experiencing the insults of aging would prefer not to look at what actually happens: it’s too uncomfortable.
The central idea in The Denial of Death, the 1973 book that won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for its author, Ernest Becker, is that a person’s personality, and indeed, all of civilization, is organized to avoid contemplation of human mortality. This is the book that Diane Keaton gives to Woody Allen when they are breaking up in Annie Hall, saying that all the books about death are his. (It’s also on Bill Clinton’s list of twenty favorite books.) The book is also considered to be, at its heart, an apology for Christianity
So the reason that, as Nora Ephron says, “so much nonsense is written” about aging, is, in a way, proof of the validity of Ernest Becker’s thesis. We have to put a good face on aging: —it brings us closer to the unmentionable Death, about which no word can be spoken.
As Becker says in The Denial of Death, “What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression and with all this yet to die.”
Perhaps the best way I’ve heard to face this essential truth is from a friend who died not so long ago at eighty: “We can acknowledge the fact of aging, but that doesn’t mean we have to hurry it along.”