There are innumerable literary perpectives upon the subject of autumn, many of them metaphorical. As the nights become earlier and colder the prospect of book and armchair becomes ever more alluring and the consideration of literary procedures becomes a seasonally defensible activity, especially where it reflects one’s own situation. You may perhaps read that statement as being, in itself, something of a personal metaphor, reflecting the prospect of my own imminent retirement. This, in our culture, is one of the major symbolic acknowledgements of advanced age, as certain as arthritis, liver spots and hands with reptilian skin where one was softer, pinker flesh. The senses are attenuated, shrunken, reduced in responsiveness and we are forced to admit that we are victims of a process that we have so long denied. Hardly surprising, then, that, at this problematic juncture, weÂ often feel the need to equip ourselves with the experience and wisdom of others. Some of us get religion, some join clubs and others………….politely withdraw.
The late Clifford Simak is a favourite author many of whose writings confronted aging with gentle and courteous dignity, offering (albeit fictional) hope for those of us who, similarly confronted, find ourselves disoriented and adrift from society at large. Simak, however pastoral he may be deemed by his works, carried a strength, a toughness in his writing that belied what could at first glance be seen as acceptance of and compliance with the inevitable. For him, the agoraphobia of aging was not a weakness or degeneration of spirit; it was an clear statement that the world is a hard place built for and by hard people and that there are those of us whose hardness ebbs away with age, taking with it our ability to defend ourselves against the agression of the world and leaving no alternative to withdrawal. Simak sees this not as capitulation but as a right to be asserted by those who no longer wish to engage with competitive culture. In gently documenting fictional withdrawals from an untenable society, he explains and extols the values and virtues of solitude and the reflective cognition that it engenders. For him, alone-ness is not to be equated with loneliness: his characters are not anti-social but are simply un-social and no longer feel the need to compete with others or to assert their social position. They have more important and internal issues and now come to give these priority.
A fondly remembered and sorely missed neighbour spent much of his working life in a local factory to which he cycled every day. He retired and, to the best of my knowledge, never set foot outside his front gate again save to go to the local hospital to die. The instinctive response to this is to see a wasted retirement, a sad and perhaps pathetic withdrawal, a sign, possibly, of mental illness or dementia. Nothing could be further from the truth. He lived a rich and fulfilling life, gently tending his garden and delighting in the world around him, now reduced to a scale that he could comfortably comprehend, encompass and, where necesary, bend to his will. His plants grew richly and prolifically and he parted with them joyfully and generously. I once spoke to him with trepidation about a proposed extension to our house. To my horror, he said that he would object to the plans and then, pausing with a smile, explained that his objection was based upon the fact that he would henceforth have to walk further down his garden to bid me good morning. This was not an attenuated, shrunken life nor one that had become pathologically eremetic but rather one that had finally been able to assume a scale that was natural to it.
In one of his charming stories, Simak wrote of a old man’s encounter with benign aliens who acted as babysitters and childminders and whose fee was a share of the energies, enthusiasms and delights of childhood which they later redistributed to those who needed it most: the newly elderly. This latter group are little known and poorly understood by the so-called social sciences and rightly so: their situation is as un-scientific as it could possibly be and as thoroughly resistant to logic as the worst excesses of adolescence. Here the child enters, often awkwardly and unreasonably, into the world of adulthood. We understand and, to some extent, accept the gawkishness, the sullen silences and the defiances that are signifiers of this process.
At the other end of the timeline, however, the transition from adulthood to elderliness is rarely acknowledged as other than a physically and mentally degenerative process. The psychic changes that accompany it are largely disregarded and seem for most people to be as acceptable a conversation topic as menstruation. Like menstruation, however, it remains something that happens to an awful lot of us and perhaps it too is overdue for inclusion in our list of acceptable topics. Women bleed and get older: men don’t bleed but they get older too so this is something in which we all find ourselves involved. And dammit, it can be hard, just as hard and confusing as puberty but, unlike puberty, there is little understanding and often less recognition of this fact.
Growing up is exciting so why should growing old and the journey that it entails be any less so?