When Nan Narboe reached her 60s, the ground beneath her shifted unsettlingly. She had never lied about her age, but now, when people asked how old she was, she would experience a disconnect.
“I had a sense of not knowing what I was talking about when I named my own age,” she said. “I’d never had that experience before and I didn’t much like it.”
The feeling, echoed in conversations she had had in more than 40 years working as a psychotherapist, became the catalyst for “Aging: An Apprenticeship,” an anthology of essays published earlier this year.
A supermodel nearing 50 wonders about the confidence she would have developed “had I relied on wit rather than looks.” A former executive in his 70s recalls when he hit 50 and no one would hire him. A writer in her 90s muses on why exclamation marks disappeared from her writing as she aged.
Some of Narboe’s discomfort about speaking her age lay in the chasm between her personal experience and the images she saw of aging in the culture, which tended toward depletion rather than enrichment.
“Some of the ideas people have about aging are pretty toxic,” she said. “People fixate on the losses and are missing the other half of the story.”
The jumble of emotions that can come with aging reminded Narboe of the shift from childhood to adulthood, a comparison that is echoed in several of the essays. “A child’s body is very easy to live in. An adult’s body isn’t,” writes Ursula Le Guin, who is nearing 90. “It’s such a tremendous change that it’s no wonder a lot of adolescents don’t know who they are. They look in the mirror — that is me? Who’s me? And then it happens again, when you’re sixty or seventy.”
But while 12-year-old girls once got a brochure outlining what changes to expect, there is no universal guidebook on aging, writes Jan Slepian (born in 1921), noting that “We have to learn about old age on the job.”
The 54 contributors, who include well-known figures such as Le Guin, Gloria Steinem and William Maxwell as well as lesser-known writers, tackle the horrendous and the sublime, and their takes on aging diverge widely.
In her 60s, Jane Bernstein ponders whether it is time to throw out the journals she has kept all her life, diaries that, “sporadically kept, are mostly records of despair” and do not reflect what she would like people to remember of her. Barbara Neely takes the occasion of her 65th birthday to read through her journals and realize that “the heavy load of fears and foibles I’d once strapped to my back … had diminished.”
In her 70s, Jane Miller is relieved to discover that she no longer desires many of the things that used to please her, including sex. Mary Ruefle, who is in her 60s, describes menopause as a phase that is rife with mad desires.
To Narboe, it all makes sense.
“I think aging tends to refine who the person is,” she said. “So an intellectual becomes more so, a sensualist becomes more so, an adventurer becomes more so.”
The book is divided into decades, from “Nearing 50” up to “The 90s and Beyond.” Each essay lists the author’s birth year along with his or her “subjective age.” For Narboe, now 72, putting the book together helped resolve her own disconnect between the two.
“There’s a wonderful veil of denial that I and you and hopefully everybody else gets to enjoy, but eventually you realize that ‘Oh, this era of not questioning my health, my good fortune and everything else not only might come to an end, it will come to an end’ ” she said.
“The work I did on the book encountering other people encountering aging somehow took me through a course of study that was useful. In a way, immersion is always useful to a person. You come out the other side changed.”
Selections from Aging: An Apprenticeship:
You have the desire to leave your husband or lover or partner, whatever.
No matter how stable or loving the arrangement, you want out.
You may decide to take up an insane and hopeless cause. You may decide to walk to Canada, or that it is high time you begin to collect old blue china, three thousand pieces of which will leave you bankrupt. Suddenly the solution to all problems lies in selling your grandmother’s gold watch or drinking your body weight in cider vinegar. A kind of wild forest blood runs in your veins. — Mary Ruefle, b. 1952
One of the things that I’ve been aware of, in relation to the question of dying — as I come closer and closer to that day — is that all my life I have felt that way about the next step. When I was in the fourth grade, I could not have imagined my doing algebra. When I got to the stage when I needed to do algebra, it was okay. And I could name five or six or seven different, forward-looking impossibilities that, when the time came, turned out to be doable. Life is filled with those sequences and you can see death as one of those with some confidence that when you get there, it would be just as impossible. Actually, it’s quite possible. — Erving Polster, b. 1922
At fifty-plus, these women ran the world and they knew it. When I was a child I assumed that I would grow into one of them, and have a stubby umbrella which I’d use to point at the follies of the world. I never imagined I’d still be parting with money at makeup counters, or that I’d be racing off for a blow-dry when threatened with a photographer. — Hillary Mantel, b. 1952
One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving — and also more particular opposites such as a neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness. Misfortune can mean, of course, that these swings go from better to bad and stay there, so that an individual’s happy security ends in wreckage; but most lives are a matter of ups and downs rather than of a conclusive plunge into an extreme, whether fortunate or unfortunate, and quite a lot of them seem to come to rest not far from where they started, as though the starting point provided a norm, always there to be returned to. — Diana Athill, b. 1917
I realize now that the art of living in the present is not so much controlling time, it’s losing track of time.
This is most likely to happen when we surrender to something we love to do. … Seeking out what we love so much that we lose track of time when we’re doing it — that goes beyond Einstein’s theory and puts us into his life. He loved his work so much that he had to be careful while shaving; otherwise, he cut himself when a spontaneous idea struck.
That is a hint of the timeless Now. — Gloria Steinem, b. 1934