In an essay entitled “Out the Window,” published in the New Yorker in 2012, poet Donald Hall describes his experience of growing old. It includes an inexplicable element of surprise. In his eighties, “Antiquity remains an unknown and unanticipated galaxy” and his life, “A ceremony of losses.”
Having lost his wife to cancer long ago, he finds himself going back to her poetry as he contemplates the ways in which his life and the old farm where he lives are changing. She was a poet too and once wrote about dying using the image of a horse that was, “Running in wide circles, the circles growing smaller and smaller until they ceased.” Twenty years after that poem was written he sees how his own circles are narrowing, his balance growing poorer each season, his fingers clumsier, his inability to cook for himself anymore, and the driver’s license he eventually gives up before, as he puts it, “I killed somebody.” Worst of all, poems no longer come to him. Like Beethoven, who in the last decade of his life, was almost completely deaf and could hardly hear his own music, Hall sustains a major injury to his beloved art.
He writes that when he dwells on all of these losses, he accomplishes nothing. He prefers to sit and look out the window enjoying the birds. I admire his ability to delight in the beauty before him. This is hard to do. If you have had a good life aging is a bit like being loved completely and then left. The loss of aging can force us into eddies of regret and anger in which we find it hard to enjoy anything.
At age 41 his essay is a lamp lighting a section of my path not so far ahead of me. I will walk it too though some time will pass between his footsteps and mine. But to my mind there is far more than just loss ahead. While one type of circle becomes smaller, and that is beyond our control, another circle can grow. There is a second horse that can become more free and there is another circle she is making. That circle is personal transformation. There is an expansion available at the same time that life is contracting.
Every year we are lucky enough to have a birthday, though we may stop celebrating them, is a chance to uncover an inner beauty with which nothing else can compete. The satisfaction of material success, higher degrees, accolades, being beautiful, agile, or hip, can’t really compare to the satisfaction of this kind of growth.
There’s no stopping the grey hairs, the wrinkles, and the joint pain, but we can choose where to focus our attention. Like Hall, who chooses to enjoy the birds, rather than ruminating on his losses, we can choose where to put our attention and where to spend our energy. There is comfort and satisfaction when we sense that life still holds frontiers and that even the obstacles, disappointments, and losses can release us into ever expanding pastures.