As an adult I’ve always felt a sense of urgency about life. I’ve been keenly aware that our time here is brief and we have a moral and existential obligation not to waste it. A friend once suggested I am this way because my father died young, puncturing any innocence about permanence and making a denial of mortality impossible. Perhaps. On the other hand maybe I was just born in a hurry and never changed.
Now 62, and having spent 36 years married to one 13 years older, these days I am even more aware of time passing. I wouldn’t call it a dread exactly, but “concern” wouldn’t be far off. Compounding all this is the fear that too little sand remains in the glass for me to realize my artistic ambitions.
One consequence of my temporal concern is that I pay heed to others’ observations about aging. I pay particular attention when those others are artists. One of the many reasons I so admire playwright Edward Albee, now age 83, is that he is still writing and being produced.
The acclaimed American poet Donald Hall, born the same year as Albee, recently published a wonderful meditation on aging in The New Yorker (January 23). Hall opens the essay: “Today it is January, midmonth, midday, and mid-New Hampshire. I sit in my blue armchair looking out the window. I am eighty-three, I teeter when I walk, I no longer drive, I look out the window. Snow started before I woke, and by now it looks to be ten inches.”
Winter is more conducive to such meditation. The essay revolves around the barn Hall looks at from his blue chair. “The cow barn raises its dim shape. It was built in 1865, and I gaze at it every day of the year. A few years ago, when we had an especially snowy winter, I thought I would lose the barn. . . . Over eighty years, it has changed from a working barn to a barn for looking at.” Looked at closely by a poet, a barn is not just a barn.
I’ll quote just one more bit: “After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other – thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty extended the bliss of fifty – and then came my cancers, Jane’s death [his wife Jane Kenyon], and over the years I travelled to another universe.”
Most New Yorker content is behind a pay-wall (not accessible online for non-subscribers) so you’ll have to find a copy of the magazine to read the full article. However, as an accompaniment to Hall’s essay The New Yorker produced a 13-minute audio interview that can be freely accessed online, where Hall expands on his essay. Sound has often been his access into writing poetry, he tells us, and notes that with age, the intensity and magic of sound have left him. “I’ve written poetry for seventy years. Maybe that’s long enough.” He adds that he still appreciates sound and relies on it in his prose; it’s just no longer as intense or magical for him.