Age on the Page

This blog entry is dedicated to the Plums.

Plums, October 2014
Plums, October 2014

The trees are changing color, but somehow they don’t seem to be as stunning this year. Their brownish-orange leaves almost look unhealthy to me. Even old.

Being old isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if you’re a tree. In an essay called “The Present” (contained in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), Annie Dillard says the odds of trees “actually improve as they age. Some trees, like giant sequoias, are, practically speaking, immortal, vulnerable only to another ice age. They are not even susceptible to fire…some trees sink taproots to rock; some spread wide mats of roots clutching at acres. They will not be blown.”

But when it comes to people, we rarely think of old as a positive trait. And we don’t usually like to read books about old people. It stands to reason; human bodies and minds don’t grow and strengthen with age. They deteriorate. We don’t want to envision these things happening to us. When we read fiction, we want to be entertained, uplifted. We want to live vicariously through the eyes of a dynamic character. Not an old person.

Yes, I know. There have been old people in great literature. Hemingway’s Santiago in Old Man and the Sea. Ira and Maggie Moran in Anne Tyler’s novel, Breathing Lessons. Olive Kittredge in Elizabeth Strout’s collection of linked short stories about a spunky old gal. But most of the time, protagonists are under sixty, thus more worthy of reader admiration. And that’s certainly been the case with the books I’ve selected to read, by and large.

And then I found myself selecting Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan to listen to this weekend en route to a girls’ getaway in the Columbia Gorge. By the time I’d driven the nine-hour round trip, I was beginning to feel pretty old.

I can’t blame it all on Emily, Alone. This feeling might be in part because I’ve been spending more time this year worrying about my aging mother than ever before. It might be because I visited a physician this summer who specializes in longevity. Or it might be because of the weekend’s conversations, no longer focused as much on our children and marriages and jobs. Now we’re talking about memory loss, mysterious maladies, lingering menopause. And friends who have already died.

Emily, Alone moves at a slow pace, which is appropriate because the protagonist shuffles along at a slow pace as well. It’s not a book to read when you’re dying for exotic adventures on the page. And maybe it’s not a book to read when you’re dying, period. But it’s a story that rings true in so many ways, as the protagonist reminisces about friends, bickers about trivia with her sister-in-law, contemplates what it means when the deceased neighbor’s house is sold, and waits in lonely silence for her grown children to come home.

Yes, we read fiction for entertainment, which is good. But we also read for truth. Once in a while, it’s good to read about old people growing older. Just as the changing leaves of autumn signify another cycle in the tree’s life, these stories remind us that old age is another true stage in our lives. We are not immortal; unlike the sequoia, we will, one day, be blown down. Old age is a stage that may look different from our youth, but it is a valuable part of life and quite worthy of contemplation, on the page or otherwise.





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