Several sources inspired this piece as I get ready to leave a pretty island and head out yet again into the unknown
About two hours ago, three-thirty local time, I woke up to the sound of roosters, which is my favorite alarm clock, and the buzzing of the ever-present mosquitoes. At this time of the morning it's the only reasonable temperature. It sits in the low eighties, which is about as hot as I generally can stand it when the humidity is also high. Stay with me here, this is in fact, relevant.
Dr. Michael Hunter, over on Medium, yesterday published a piece about heat, humidity and the effect on mental health incidents. I only have to watch my own irritation levels rise in direct proportion to the heat index to know how crime rates spike. However, as I wrote him, I was born in Central Florida pre-air conditioning. Like all before me, we dealt with it, so I have to wonder how much of this is conditioning to comfort. Most assuredly it is in my case, which I readily admit.
The older I get, the more I have to watch my predilection for comfort, which can in some cases cost me growth. How much of resistance to growth and discomfort add to our irrelevance? No idea.
I read so many articles about the relative irrelevance of the aged, or the young. Such articles force me to ask those very questions about myself. Am I even relevant any more? At what point are my words useless to anyone? As a writer this is a most poignant thought, for this is my work, my love, my passion.
Are we only useful to the young in terms of what they can inherit from us in terms of worldly goods (please not gramma's china OR that big ugly cabinet)?
Saga Supporter Penny Nelson wrote me the other day about how my willingness to be frank about and make fun of those various aches, pains, irritants and whatnots are helpful to her. Those gifts, handed me by my aging mother and others who were able to find hilarity in life's hurts, have served me well.
But does that translate to younger people?
My generation was famous (and hardly alone in this) for saying to not trust anyone over thirty. I feel awfully silly for ever falling for such idiot pap, but a lovely read over at The Marginalian made me both laugh out loud as well as think hard about this very thing.
In a truncated quote from this particular issue (it really is worth reading the whole thing, as it is most of the time), Popova writes about Jane Ellen Harrison, who lived for years with a much-younger female partner:
That same year, Harrison was startled to hear one of her young, talented colleagues at Trinity College proclaim that “no one over thirty is worth speaking to.” With her winking intelligence, she observed:
This is really very interesting and extraordinarily valuable. Here we have, not a reasoned conclusion, but a real live emotion, a good solid prejudice, a genuine attitude of gifted Youth to Crabbed Age. It is my business to understand and, if I can, learn from it. Give me an honest prejudice, and I am always ready to attend to it.
First of all, what a charming reaction, wholly lacking in the kind of self-righteous defensiveness that I myself have felt upon hearing such things. Of course all too many of us past 65 fall prey to this dismissiveness as well.
The piece goes on to take you on an exquisite journey, which was so perfectly timed today I could weep. Because this:
Medium writer Rachel Presser, who is 37 and single, responded with a very moving comment to an article I wrote recently about having given up on Great Passionate Love at this point. Rachel writes:
This is why it’s so important that older childfree women, especially long-term singles, tell their stories because it proves what a crock of shit those chuds are peddling with “OMG YOU’LL BE SO SAD AND LONELY!”
To Rachel, at least, the truth of lived lives as told by older women validates her feelings. There's a lot to be said for the storytelling which allows others to feel comfort that their choices, their journeys are legit. Now that I am older, it's good to know that on occasion, at least, a story, an admission, is useful to someone a lot younger.
While there are plenty of older folks who do little more than complain, online writing platforms have allowed many more of us to express the truths of being female, for example, and the prices we paid ten, twenty, fifty years ago. All too often they are the same or similar to what young women today are facing. Like, abortion rights and body autonomy, sexual assault.
There is terrific grace possible in aging well. That of course is why I do what I do and then write about it. I'm trying to find that myself.
That said, social media or no social media through which to share our various generational grievances, how do we stay relevant to one another, old young and in-between?
Let's just leave out, for good reason, anything that includes "young people today." The second it's uttered, the rest becomes forgettable. Likely such comments or thoughts arise out of being chided for being too old or out-of-date. Then, of course, we prove that we ARE too old or out of date by being defensive about it.
There has been a pattern for me which has worked, for what it's worth. As a child growing up in bluebird-heavy, tourist-infested Central Florida and Florida in general, I was always surrounded by grey hairs. Hell, my parents were mostly on their way to grey when my brother and I were on our way.
When I was barely seventeen I befriended a woman in her early fifties, who was ridiculously gorgeous and fashion-conscious. I watched her fall madly in love late in life, then struggle with menopause, about which her partner was quite cruel. Those were instructive chapters. I lost track of her, which is my fault. I am sad I failed to follow her to her final journey.
There have always been older women around my life. The older men all too often slipped over the line into lechery, mistaking my daughterly interest in them as a sexual come-on. I found that both disturbing and disappointing, if consistent. Yet still I found that the variety of the experiences, the richness of the stories those people told me most certainly added value to the decisions I made early on. And helped me dream.
She (Harrison) notes that while there is often great friction between the young and the old, this friction can, “if rightly understood and considerately handled on both sides, take the form of mutual stimulus and attraction” — for it most often springs from a lack of understanding of each other’s state of being and frame of reference. (author bolded)
For this reason, I continue to cultivate relationships across generations, cultures, religions, all of it. I read articles and comments by a broad swath of folks. Some I virulently disagree with but their thoughts are important especially when they reflect the thinking of many of those much younger than I am.
One of my closest friends is a Millennial, whose considered challenges to my sometimes thoughtless opinions are part of what not only keep me thinking but also keep me relevant. And while I am not averse to having gauntlets thrown down, it's how he goes about debating me that I admire the most.
Conversations among generations have ever been challenging. Youth claims agency where they most certainly don't yet have it -what Harrison refers to as "masquerading," of which I was most certainly guilty. It's part of what we trade off as we age into the self we can fulfill rather than the self we imagined.
Those of us who are older can envy what external youth and internal vivacity we might have lost. Then we may attack youth for, in effect, being us when we were that age and somehow are guilty of not knowing any better. We didn't either.
But now that we're older and perhaps DO know better, they should too, right? That is what can make us irrelevant. Being dispossessed of patience, empathy, compassion and above all, humor.
Wit wins a lot of hearts, particularly if it doesn't bear a bite with it. Being thought stupid or useless simply due to a number is uniquely insulting. Ageism goes both ways. The wholesale disregarding of a human being's ideas and reference points due to the crime of being over or under thirty is, well, silly. But it's a sport. I'm done playing it.
After I read through Popova's piece I winced to admit that a fair few of my earlier articles on Medium likely were laced with a certain superciliousness. I'm not proud of that. I got lots of likes, which is an unfortunate invitation to write more along those lines. Bashing Boomers also gets a lot of likes, so people do what pays.
Neither helps us communicate or learn from each other, which we most desperately need to do.
As Harrison proves, above, post-thirty bashing most certainly is not a unique conceit of the Hippie generation of my youth. Nor is youth-bashing solely the purview of today's Boomer and older generations.
Being friends with JC, my social media guru, that endlessly patient conversational partner and one of the singularly most important people in my life (and it's mutual for which I am eternally grateful) has been quite a gift. At times it gets bumpy, for his opinions at times have struck me the wrong way. Over time, though, I've learned to hold that thought in abeyance, let it sit while we discuss.
JC suffers from a surfeit of brains, an endless curiosity about all things and the ability to throw all kinds of perspectives onto an argument. We should all have such friends. Those who nod and agree and placate teach us nothing at all. Those who challenge us, frankly, keep us relevant.
When something he says feels like fingernails on chalkboard, I've learned to attend. It's almost always something buried in my ego, some need to be right or a belief that has cobwebs on it.
To that, then, let me again quote Harrison in this lovely piece:
It is a waste of time putting up signposts for others who necessarily travel by another, and usually a better, road. Old people are apt to make disastrous confusion between information that can be accumulated and conveyed, that is identical for all time, that is knowledge, and experience, that which must be lived and cannot be repeated.
But Old Age does worse than that. In trying to impose its experience as a law to youth it sins not only through ignorance, but from sheer selfishness. Parents try to impose their view of life on their children not merely or mostly to save those children from disaster — that to a certain extent and up to a certain age we must all do — but from possessiveness, from a desire, often unconscious, to fill the whole stage themselves. (author bolded this paragraph only)
This is particularly wise. The compulsion to rob center stage from our children, and thereby rob them of their right to live a very different kind of life in a very different kind of world which did not exist for the parent, is being a Thief of Always (with apologies to Clive Barker). This is what my father did with me. He didn't realize he was a roadblock.
It's one thing, as Presser wrote, to tell our stories. This can, and often does, provide critical validation for younger generations to better understand that their experiences are neither unique nor strange. By this I mean that to Harrison's point, there is so much about life that is universal (navigating puberty, our menses, etc) which most of us do indeed share. However. What might have been universal before isn't now, with sex and gender fluidity, that kind of thing which makes elder advice sometimes laughingly idiotic.
Advice on how best to navigate those experiences needs to be offered in the understanding that we do not know the world of the young. It isn't our world, we don't have the kind of intimate access to the conditions they do. At no time has that been more glaringly obvious than right now.
Being irritated that our often outdated advice isn't followed- and in this case financial advice being among the worst offenders-is a further insult to those struggling with conditions we older folks can't even begin to imagine. Those can make us irrelevant. But attending, sharing and caring...there are no expiry dates on those.
I had a beloved uncle who told me back in 1983 that the secret to life's success was get a job, work for forty years and retire with a pension. It was offered in love and was ridiculously outmoded advice even back then. You see my point. These days that's right up there with telling younger people to eschew Starbucks and get rich.
Perhaps all we can do is to model our better selves, to challenge ourselves to continue to be useful in our own ways. All I can do is read, listen, attend, debate, discuss, do my damnedest to check my ego at the door. If I am asked for advice, fine. Otherwise, what did that guy Falstaff say about the better part of valor?
And with that I'm going to head out today to Bangkok, then to Phuket for more experiences, more life, more laughter and hopefully more life stories. And with any luck at all I can continue to be relevant.
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