“Wrinkles should merely indicate where the smiles have been.” ― Mark Twain
“No, that is the great fallacy: the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.” ― Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
On the same windswept day that I looked, in my neighborhood stand-up Italian café, into the tawny cheeks of a woman who had had her face sculpted by and injected with botulinum toxin, I also flew out to meet a very dear friend of mine who lives on the rocky, squally, eastern edge of Canada and whose entire life has been dedicated to understanding and deconstructing toxins and drugs, and to examining the significance of nutrition, social division and inequality.
Her face had been uplifted. His life had uplifted others. She was a veritable Joan Rivers, indiscreet and silly, wanting to live infinitely, and he was exemplary, rational and realistic. She devoured attention and he was conspicuous with his quiet, inspiring, and innovative, out-of- the box thinking on nutrition, poverty and medicine. He was not well, but he knew what lay ahead. I needed to see him. She looked taut and oily, with a skin tone that could bounce off a low velocity bullet, if that exists. She was not prepared to die. He was readying himself.
Once on the plane….it got me thinking, rather acutely, and not for the first time–about the end of the road. When things come to a pass, a conclusion and nothing further happens. The purpose of living out the rest of your life, the road towards that end of life and the art of dying. Screw the rainbow. Only flat earthers believe in such tasteless, ribald metaphors about a colorful gaudy end somewhere at the end of the horizon. How does one depart, unobtrusively? That was the question on my mind. How do you really want to coast to the end of your life? With vanity and attention-seeking immortality? Or, quietly? By being there for others, as much as you can, in organic unity with one’s environment, to those who need you? Do you at some point ask yourself, what is out there for you to do, which comes from giving and not taking?
When we are sufficiently aged and aired and the bouquet has been distinct for a while, so as to speak, why should we be attempting to rebottle our abilities? Why should we want to leave a mark? What is this quest for legacy, for leaving behind a need to be remembered? Why not simply, take every day and see how you can be of use to others who either need it, or have simply been useful to others and therefore deserve it, when you are alive and can still do things? I am not talking about being there as in being physically available to help, only. I am talking about every form of engagement that helps individuals, a community and a people. Why is there a need to emphasize and reiterate all that you are good in, as an individual? Why make a point, concoct a case for your particular abilities to be recognized? Why camouflage your economic raison d’être by wrapping yourself with a higher morality? Why recycle what you have done always? Why repeat what you have already said? Why not simply realize the one great thing you have done for others and simply do more of it? Why not limit your goals, keep your integrity and plan your end in quiet dignity?
If you have an affiliation with humanitarian thought processes and have empathy for the disadvantaged, if fairness counts, if the need for justice has made a deep impression on you, why not follow it through with quiet clear-cut acts that reinforce that, instead of what else you need to do to reinforce your own attributes and presence to others? And, as an alternative, why don’t you consider reinventing yourself?
Now that we have addressed the business of ending one’s life, let us address the issue, as well, of aging.
Growing up and Aging are not the same
Some of us excel at certain things and continue to hone our skills and evolve further into new humans. Simplistic as it may sound, when we stop growing up, we start aging. That is when we start repeating ourselves, regurgitating the same stories. We live the same lives, we eat the same food, we walk the same path, we live the same stylized existence—be it in technical skills, be it in artistic endeavors, be it in our writing, in our paintings, in our music and in our politics. When we are unable to create, or engage in creativity, we age. We need “botulinum” then.
Let me digress here by giving readers a rather mainstream example of “growing up.” Some from our generation seem to come back again and again, but they do it with minimum ruckus. Growing up and evolving is not about age. It is sometimes about reinventing oneself. It is more about realizing and changing. Now that we are all ensconced in debating whether Syriza surrendered or not, and it is on everyone’s mind whether budget deficits, or surplus for that matter, really count– when social deficits are mounting–let us take the example of the state of California
Yes! California. We all should remember that that state was absolutely bankrupt. Nothing could be done about its budget deficit. By the time big brawny, eliminator-man Schwarzenegger left the office of California governor, he had dismantled and pauperized the economy. Suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, for us non-Californians, he was followed by the ghostly reemergence of a Woodstock era hero, Jerry Brown. By some accounts, Jerry Brown has now turned the economy around in a few years (debatable, maybe) but nevertheless the Democrats won’t consider him for a presidential candidate, because he is 76. Schwarzenegger meanwhile, nurses his failed wounds and some paternity cases.
“An inauguration is always a special occasion but today it is particularly special as I think about that day 40 years ago when my father and mother watched me take the oath as California’s 34th governor. It is also special because of how far we have come in the last four years. Then, the state was deep in debt – $26 billion – and our unemployment rate was 12.1 percent. Now, the state budget, after a decade of fiscal turbulence, is finally balanced – more precariously than I would like – but balanced. California has seen more than 1.3 million new jobs created in just four years and the unemployment rate has dropped to 7.2 percent. Thanks goes to the Legislature for cutting spending, the economy for recovering and the people for voting for temporary taxes.”
Those words are Jerry Brown’s in his inaugural address to the California State Legislature on January 5th of this year at the beginning of his fourth term as Governor.
I am not suggesting that these were glorious measures. Jerry Brown did achieve something impossible and he did it without much fanfare. Mitt Romney, the failed Republican Presidential aspirant has stated “America is going to become like Greece, or like Spain, or Italy…” Or like . . . California.
While this all may seem too pro-fiscalist or monetarist, especially with the onslaught of austerity politics worldwide, the fact is that Jerry Brown did a reboot of all the known structuralist norms peddled incessantly by a Republican era and, after 38 years, by becoming again the Governor of California, he has evolved and not aged. He reinvented himself and all the known concepts of fiscalism, given the existing norms of State. Jerry Brown has put California up as a leader on the global map on environmental issues, on carbon control, thwarting the efforts of fossil-fuel corporatism and has enhanced greatly the possibilities of rapid public transport systems. And yet, the United States would never consider him to hang around the Potomac in future. Because he is too old!
The Ballad of Narayama
When I started writing this essay, I wanted to talk about aging without embarking on the idea of death, real or metaphorical. I wanted to tussle with the notion of dying, without engaging with physiological death or the rituals associated with aging. But, this is hardly possible. Sometime in the late eighties, I saw a remarkable Japanese film by Shohei Imamura. It was about a Japan more than a hundred years ago. In rural areas, when a person was still alive till the age of 70, the eldest child in the family was expected to accompany anyone who had reached that age to a secret place on the top of a mountain and lay him or her down and walk away, as she or he passed on, alone. Such a mountain was Narayama. Starvation and exposure was forced on the elderly as a way to control and perpetuate the lives of the new born–to enable the availability of food for the rest of the population. While the lady in question was in remarkably good health, by the time she was 69, she was preparing herself for the climb to Narayama. By then she had arranged for a new wife for one of her sons and a sexual partner for the other. She had accomplished a few other things on her check list. And now she was tired and reconciled to making the climb. This was normal. She had done her job. If ending one’s life was so structured and mandated, some of us, who may have had a very jaded existence, would perhaps be thrilled to climb that mountain! And yet, the scenic beauty of that film, with the snow slowly drifting in and covering up the dying person on the mountain top, registered the ambiguity of living a full life and being prepared to face a non-momentous end.
The title of this essay was prompted by a comment made by my young son, almost a decade ago, when I expressed my desire to do new things and not the “same old shit.”