What does it feel like to be old? Not middle-aged, or late-middle-aged, but one of the members of the fastest-growing demographic: the “oldest old,” those aged eighty-five and above? This has been the question animating me for a couple of years, as I’ve tried to write a novel from the perspective of a man in his late eighties. The aging population is on our collective minds; a statistic that intrigued me is that the average life expectancy in the U.K.—and, by extension, most of the rich West—is increasing by more than five hours a day, every day. I’m in my mid-thirties, but felt confident that I could imagine my way into old age. How hard could it be, really?
Somewhere along the way, though, things went wrong. My protagonist became Generic Old Man: crabby, computer illiterate, grieving for his dementia-addled wife. Not satisfied to leave him to his misery, I forced on him a new love interest, Eccentric Old Woman: radical, full of energy, a fan of wearing magenta turbans and handing out safe-sex pamphlets outside retirement homes.
In other words, I modelled my characters on the two dominant cultural constructions of old age: the doddering, depressed pensioner and the ageless-in-spirit, quirky oddball. After reading the first draft, an editor I respect said to me, “But what else are they, other than old?” I was mortified, and began to ask myself some soul-searching questions that I should have answered long before I’d written the opening word.
The first was: Why did I so blithely assume that I had the right to imagine my way into old age—and that I could do it well—when I would approach with extreme caution the task of imagining my way into the interior world of a character of a different gender, race, or class? Had I assumed that anybody elderly who might happen to read the book would simply be grateful that someone much younger was interested in his or her experience, and forgive my stereotyping?
The conundrum of who has the authority to write about old age is that, unlike the subjective experience of most imagined Others, seniority is something that many of us will eventually experience for ourselves. By contrast, I can imagine what it might be like to be a man, for example, but won’t ever know for sure. As the literary scholar Sarah Falcus writes, building on the work of Sally Chivers, “We may all have a more mobile relationship to age than to other perspectives or subject positions … because we are all aging at any one moment.” Yet just because I may, one day, know if I got it right—perhaps, to my surprise, I will find the world of my own old age populated entirely by grumpy old men and old women who are either lost to dementia or sprightly and renegade—doesn’t mean that I should be cavalier about how I imagine my elderly characters now. Of course, like any fictional representation, old age can be done well or badly regardless of one’s own positioning as an author, but there’s less chance of being called out on hackneyed depictions of old age, in part because those in the know—the over-eighty-five-year-olds themselves—haven’t historically had any cultural power.
Stereotypes of old age, whether positive or negative, do real harm in the real world, argues Lynne Segal, the author of “Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing” (2013). She says that the biggest problem for many older people is “ageism, rather than the process of aging itself.” There is no possibility of diversified, personal approaches to aging if we are all reductively “aged by culture,” to use the age critic Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s iconic phrase, from her 2004 book, “Aged by Culture.” Gullette highlights the limitations of having only two socially accepted narratives of aging: stories of progress or stories of decline. Neither does justice to the “radical ambiguities” of old age, Segal says. We’re forced either to lament or to celebrate old age, rather than simply “affirm it as a significant part of life.”
Old age is perplexing to imagine in part because the definition of it is notoriously unstable. As people age, they tend to move the goalposts that mark out major life stages: a 2009 survey of American attitudes toward old age found that young adults (those between eighteen and twenty-nine) said that old age begins at sixty; middle-aged respondents said seventy; and those above the age of sixty-five put the threshold at seventy-four. We tend to feel younger as we get older: almost half the respondents aged fifty or more reported feeling at least ten years younger than their actual age, while a third of respondents aged sixty-five or more said that they felt up to nineteen years younger.
The researchers also found “a sizable gap between the expectations that young and middle-aged adults have about old age and the actual experiences reported by older Americans themselves.” Young and middle-aged adults anticipate the “negative benchmarks” associated with aging (such as memory loss, illness, or an end to sexual activity) at much higher levels than the old report experiencing them. However, the elderly also report experiencing fewer of the benefits that younger adults expect old age to bring (such as more time for travel, hobbies, or volunteer work).
These perceptual gaps between generations are large and persistent. Simone de Beauvoir, in her exhaustive study “The Coming of Age” (published in 1970, when she was sixty-two), wrote, “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species.” The anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, who made the documentary film “In Her Time,” about a community of elderly Californians, when she was in her forties, believed that “we are dehumanized and impoverished without our old people, for only by contact with them can we come to know ourselves.”
Even more confusingly, we don’t experience old age identically. As Germaine Greer puts it, “Nobody ages like anybody else.” The poet Fleur Adcock, who is eighty-one, says “this great range of abilities and states of health confuses the young: they can’t figure us out.” We age as individuals and as members of particular social contexts, yet the shared experience of old age continues to be overstated. The eighty-two-year-old British novelist Penelope Lively writes that her demographic has “nothing much in common except the accretion of years, a historical context, and a generous range of ailments.” At the same time, though, she warns that aging is such a “commonplace experience” that nobody should “behave as though … uniquely afflicted.”
The actress Juliet Stevenson, who is in her late fifties, recently commented that “as you go through life it gets more and more interesting and complicated, but the parts offered get more and more simple, and less complicated.” The same could be said for the dearth of good roles for old characters in literature. Lively believes that “old age is forever stereotyped … from the smiling old dear to the grumbling curmudgeon.” In fiction, she says, the stereotypes “are rife—indeed fiction is perhaps responsible for the standard perception of the old, with just a few writers able to raise the game.”
I started to realize that, in creating my spunky elderly female character, I had romanticized the version of old age that tells a story of progress, indulging a fantasy of who I might be when I’m old. When writing her, I had been thinking of Jenny Joseph’s “Warning,” regularly voted the U.K.’s favorite postwar poem, in which the young speaker imagines with longing the freedoms of rebellious old age and the prospect of making up for the “sobriety of youth.” I’m hardly a renegade now, however, so why did I harbor the illusion that as I get older I will somehow throw off the shackles of propriety? Most of what has been written in the sociological literature about life in our seventies, eighties, and nineties suggests that who we are when we are old remains pretty close to who we were when we were young. There is comfort in the idea of some consistency of self across the decades. While sometimes distressing, the denialism of old age—think of the sixty-three-year-old Freud’s horror at realizing that the elderly gentleman he’s glimpsed on the train is in fact his own reflection, or the scientist Lewis Wolpert’s lament, “How can a seventeen-year-old like me suddenly be eighty-one?”—is also proof of our ability to remain on intimate terms with younger versions of ourself. “Live in the layers, / not on the litter,” as the Stanley Kunitz poem goes, and he knew what he was talking about: he became Poet Laureate of the United States at the age of ninety-five.
Another aspect of my fantasy was that old age is a consistently satisfying bookend to a shapely arc of a life, a time for getting things in order. But in this, I was ignoring the fact that old people are just as vulnerable to disorder, not to mention happenstance, caprice, and bad luck, as anybody else. Grasping for closure might be the goal of fiction, but it is not necessarily the lived experience of old age. As Helen Small writes in “The Long Life,” her study of the literature and philosophy of old age, “declining to describe our lives as unified stories … is the only way we can hope to live out our time other than as tragedy.” Lively describes the frustrations of autobiographical memory in old age. “The novelist in me—the reader, too—wants shape and structure, development, a theme, insights,” she writes. “Instead of which, there is this assortment of slides, some of them welcome, others not at all, defying chronology, refusing structure.” After reading the stories in “Stone Mattress,” by Margaret Atwood, who is now seventy-five, I began to question my portrayal of old age as a time for the tying up of loose ends; as one reviewer wrote, Atwood’s stories depict “the stored-up rancour that one can amass over the years.” Many of her characters express a desire for revenge over reconciliation.
I’m not alone, among my generation, in falling into this trap of positive stereotyping. A friend my age who is in medical school recently chose to specialize in geriatrics, and over drinks with some other doctors she was asked why. “Because I love old people,” she replied. “I like hearing their stories and what they have to say about the world.” One of the doctors made a dismissive sound. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Old people are just regular people who happen to be old.” My friend stuck with geriatrics, but realized that she had been fostering an idealized notion of the elderly. “At the end of the day,” she told me, “an old person can be just as trying as any other person; just as messy, just as unthankful.” She has also become wary of her instinctual empathy impulse when dealing with elderly patients. In this, she draws on the academic work of Kate Rossiter, who advocates fostering “ethical responsibility” rather than empathy in medical practitioners. “There’s something almost greedy about empathy, because it relies on the notion that we can somehow assimilate the other,” my friend explained. “A respectful and thoughtful distance is also part of what enables us to respond to the other’s needs.”
A few years before he died, at the age of eighty-nine, the literary critic Frank Kermode wrote that “the young know nothing directly about old age and their inquiries into the topic must be done blind.” Perhaps this is why younger artists seem to get waylaid by the same tropes: we are sometimes tempted to imagine old age as one big, funny, wisdom-rich adventure, with the comic caper a stalwart of the form, from the film “Grumpy Old Men” to the novel (and later film) “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared” (one film critic has dubbed this genre Old People Behaving Hilariously). At the other extreme are the mind-disease psycho-dramas that we might call Old People Behaving Terrifyingly—recent novels like “The Farm” or “Elizabeth is Missing,” or the films “Iris” or “The Iron Lady.” As Sally Chivers argues in “The Silvering Screen: Old Age and Disability in Cinema” (2011), “in the public imagination … old age does not ever escape the stigma and restraints imposed upon disability.”
There are notable exceptions, of course, and too many to mention in full here. Lynne Segal, the author who warned against the negative impact of stereotypes of old age, admires the work of Julian Barnes. Even as a young writer, she believes, he had an uncanny ability to write old age well. Perhaps this is because he is a “thanataphobe,” as he puts it in his recent memoir, “Nothing to Be Frightened Of” (published when he was sixty-two); that is, he is more afraid of death than of old age, and so his elderly characters—in, say, “Staring at the Sun” (published when Barnes was forty)—are void, to Segal, of “any of the customary expressions of horror accompanying the portrayals of old age.” In this way, Barnes also manages to capture the unexpected indifference of many old people to death; as Lively has written, “Many of us who are on the last lap are too busy with the baggage of old age to waste much time anticipating the finish line.”
The Scottish writer Muriel Spark has also been commended by authors who are themselves elderly, including Lively and her fellow British novelist Paul Bailey, as proof that a young writer can successfully make a leap into the imagined territory of old age. Spark was only forty-one in 1959, when she published her novel “Memento Mori,” a black comedy about a group of nursing-home residents who begin receiving mysterious phone calls from an anonymous caller who announces portentously, as if it were unknown to them already, “Remember you must die.” Lively lauds the book for its “bunch of sharply drawn individuals, convincingly old, bedeviled by specific ailments, and mainly concerned with revisions of their past.” V. S. Pritchett, in an introduction to a 1964 edition of “Memento Mori,” praised Spark for taking on “the great suppressed and censored subject of contemporary society, the one we do not care to face, which we regard as indecent: old age.”
A more recent example is the thirty-seven-year-old Australian author Fiona McFarlane’s 2013 début novel, “The Night Guest.” McFarlane’s protagonist, Ruth, though succumbing to dementia and at the mercy of an unreliable caregiver, is capable of seeing beauty or taking great pleasure in her present—in a sexual encounter, for example—while also deriving equal parts enjoyment and pain from memories of her unusual past. She is neither hilarious nor terrifying. McFarlane says that, while writing Ruth, she thought of her as “an individual who, at seventy-five, is the sum of years of experience, memory, opinion, prejudice, decision-making, and desire.”
But why search for depictions of old age by the young when I should instead be seeking out narratives by natives of old age? I don’t mean the rich body of work by late-middle-aged authors, which tends to be more about the fear of aging than about the experience of old age itself (fiction by Martin Amis, for example, or, further back, T. S. Eliot’s poetry), but literature written by authors aged seventy-five and older.
I started off thinking that, beyond the well-known examples of Saul Bellow (whose final novel, “Ravelstein,” was published when he was eighty-five), Thomas Mann (who died at the age of eighty, and who supposedly claimed that old age was the best time to be a writer), May Sarton (called “America’s poet laureate of aging,” who died at the age of eighty-three), and John Updike (who died at the age of seventy-six, and who, in his final story collection, has a narrator musing, “Approaching eighty I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know, but not intimately”), the pickings would be fairly slim. Bellow’s own biographer mused, after the publication of “Ravelstein,” “Who are the other great writers who have done anything like this in their eighties?”
Frank Kermode summed up the problem: “Those who have had actual experience of old age are likely to be dead or very tired or just reluctant to discuss the matter with clever young interlocutors.” Philip Roth, for example, who is now eighty-two, decided to retire from writing at the age of seventy-eight, after the publication of his quartet of “Nemeses” novels, saying in an interview about fiction, “I don’t want to read any more, write any more of it, I don’t even want to talk about it anymore ... I’m tired of all that work. I’m in a different stage of my life.”
But if you dig deeper the vista opens up, the voices multiply. My little sample may be idiosyncratic, and biased in favor of eloquence—these are elderly writers, all over the age of seventy-five, who clearly still have their wits very much about them. Yet their take on old age can perhaps offset some of the delusions and fantasies of people like me, who have not yet lived it for themselves. Each of the following three authors is alive and still writing prolifically, and was gracious enough to answer a few questions from me by e-mail.
The first is the British novelist Paul Bailey, who is seventy-eight, and who published his first novel, “At the Jerusalem,” at the age of thirty. It’s set in an institution for the elderly, and the main character, Faith, is a woman in her seventies, who Bailey says he purposefully did not make “likeable or sympathetic,” as he didn’t want her to be an object of pity. “I can’t begin to tell you how patronized and stereotyped the elderly were at that time: put-upon plaster saints were the dramatic order of the day,” he told me. Critics wondered why a young man would choose to write about the elderly in his first novel, but Bailey says he took inspiration from two other first novels by young male writers, also focussed on institutions of old age: Updike’s “The Poorhouse Fair” (1959) and William Trevor’s “The Old Boys” (1964). Bailey felt confident that his take on old age was grounded in real observation and experience, as his parents had been advanced in age when they had him, and he was later cared for by a much older couple. “I grew up among people who were getting on in years, so old age was never a frightening surprise to me,” he says. “I didn’t regard pensioners as a race apart.”
He remembers a mime class that he took when he was training to be an actor at London’s Central School, in the mid-nineteen-fifties. “We had to pretend to be old. Most of the students elected to bend their heads down and shuffle their feet. None of the old people I knew, especially my forbidding grandmother, walked or moved in this manner. My classmates were succumbing to easy caricature.” He doesn’t think much has changed today. “More sentimental rubbish has been written about the ‘plight of the elderly’ than I can bear to contemplate,” he wrote in a preface to a Guardian article in which he selected his top ten narratives of old age. (He praises work by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Alice Munro, and Stefan Zweig; the readers’ comments to the article are a good resource for anybody looking for further recommendations). And sentimentality can be pernicious. In a Paris Review interview, the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, who is now eighty, mentioned Flannery O’Connor’s warning: “She said that sentimentality is an attitude that does not confront reality squarely in the face. To feel sorry for handicapped people … is equivalent to hiding them.”
Bailey told me that he thinks some of the best depictions of old people “can be found in books and plays that aren’t specifically concerned with people getting old,” citing the memoirs of Sergei Aksakov, Maxim Gorky, and Leo Tolstoy, and the works of Balzac, Proust, Turgenev, Dickens, and Eliot, where the “old wander in and out”—for example, the “tender portrait” of Wemmick’s Aged Parent, in “Great Expectations.”
In 2011, Bailey published the novel “Chapman’s Odyssey,” in which an elderly male protagonist, lying ill in the hospital, is visited by people real and imagined: lovers, dead parents, characters from literature. It was inspired by Bailey’s own extended hospital stays, which he says he has come to enjoy “in a perverse way” because of the interesting people he meets there, “like the man who covers his breakfast cereal with anchovy essence.” Though the novel is about old age, he says he feels “younger for having written it.” He helped me pinpoint where I had perhaps gone wrong in my own imaginative attempt when he said, “I never, never thought I was tackling the ‘problem’ of old age. It was never a fictional problem for me. It was just another aspect of being alive, and human.”
The second writer who shared her thoughts with me is Fleur Adcock. If poetry, as Auden wrote, “might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings,” then the medium seems particularly suited to capturing the ambivalence of the old toward old age. The New Zealand-born British poet Adcock published her first collection when she was thirty, and she is now eighty-one. Like Lively, she says that old age began for her at the age of seventy, when she fell seriously ill for a period, though she says “a more honest but less tidy answer might be that it has been a very gradual process, with old age retreating and advancing unpredictably over the years.” She does remember feeling peculiar on realizing that, in her mid-seventies, she had outlived Yeats, whom she thought of as “that iconic ‘old poet,’ ” and who died at the age of seventy-three.
In her recent collection “Glass Wings” (2013), the picture she paints of old age is utterly eye-opening. Her elderly speakers are comfortable with technology but use it in ways particular to their needs. In “Match Girl,” the speaker asks, of her little sister,
But how can someone younger than me
have osteoporosis, and sit
googling up a substance that might
help it, or give her phossy jaw?
In “Alumnae Notes,” the speaker laments old school friends who have died or been lost to dementia, but then reasserts her connection to the present:
The class photos fade. But Marie and I,
face to face on Skype in full colour
and still far too animated to die,
can see we’ve not yet turned to sepia.
In “Mrs Baldwin,” the speaker describes the “muffled pang” of envy that clutches her whenever she hears that someone has been given a diagnosis of cancer. In “Having Sex with the Dead,” the speaker remembers past lovers: “The looks on their dead faces, as they plunge / into you, your hand circling a column / of one-time flesh and pulsing blood that now / has long been ash and dispersed chemicals.”
Adcock has known Jenny Joseph, the author of “Warning,” for many years, and says that Joseph is “fed up” with her iconic poem, written so long ago, when she was a young woman imagining old age (“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple / With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,” the poem begins). Joseph is now in her mid-eighties, and still publishing poetry. A recent poem by her, “A Patient Old Cripple,” makes a beautiful counterpoint to the earlier, blustering tone of “Warning” with its final lines: “I curse the world that blunders into me, and hurts / But know / Its bad fit is the best that we can do.”
The third writer I spoke to is the eighty-two-year-old Penelope Lively, who published her first book when she was thirty-seven, and who also often imagined elderly characters in her fiction when she was younger (in her novel “Moon Tiger,” for example, which won the 1989 Booker Prize). Her most recent novel, “How it All Began” (2011), revolves around an elderly female protagonist whose broken hip precipitates a series of random but significant collisions in the lives of others. She’s currently working on a set of short stories, many with elderly protagonists.
Lively has also chosen to share her view from old age in a memoir, “Ammonites and Leaping Fish: A Life in Time,” from 2013. This is not a traditional memoir but a meditation on old age and memory. She takes pride in her right to speak of these things. “One of the few advantages of age,” she writes, “is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here.” She also highlights the importance of the mission: “Our experience is one unknown to most of humanity, over time. We are the pioneers.” She likes the anonymity that old age has given her; it leaves her “free to do what a novelist does anyway, listen and watch, but with the added spice of feeling a little as though I am some observant time-traveller.”
She is among the first true anthropologists of old age, both participant and observer. Many of her attitudes seem almost unimaginable to the young: for example, she’s not envious of us, she is still as curious as she always was, she doesn’t miss travel or holidays, she has become used to physical pain; she still has “needs and greeds” (muesli with sheep’s-milk yogurt, the daily fix of reading), but her more “acquisitive” lusts have faded. Most surprisingly, she insists that old age is not a “pallid sort of place,” that she is still capable of “an almost luxurious appreciation of the world.”
It sounds to me both wonderful and terrible, a permanent contradiction in terms, but perhaps this ambiguity is why, in her view, “memorable and effective writing about old age is rare … a danger zone for many novelists.” She singles out Kingsley Amis’s “Ending Up” for avoiding stereotypes of old age, by being “funny with a bleak undertone,” and the trilogy that Jane Gardam started writing in her mid-seventies and recently completed in her mid-eighties (“Old Filth,” “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” and “Last Friends”).
Lively is hopeful about any new interest in and awareness of old age, and thinks that, in part, the reason younger people find old age “more interesting than daunting” is because her demographic is “much more attuned to the times than … the old were in the past. We have mutated, and may have one toe still in 1950 but have an outlook very much of 2015.” The gap between generations is “closing up” in a way it wasn’t when she was young, she says. But when I asked her about the ethical responsibility younger authors have to depict old age realistically, she responded, “As a writer, you have to think—am I capable of this quantum leap of the imagination? If the answer is dubious—then don’t do it. Stereotyping is a kind of fictional abuse.”
As for what she thinks she got wrong when she was creating elderly characters as a younger writer, she says she wasn’t quite able, back then, to imagine the less dramatic physical aspects of being old: the constant pain from various forms of arthritis, the slow impairment of sight and hearing, and a “kind of instability,” a loss of balance “that would be unnerving if it came on suddenly, but, because it is gradual, you adapt.” With the elderly protagonist Claudia, in “Moon Tiger” (written when Lively was in her early fifties), she says, “I ducked the problem … by making her a mind rather than a body—she is dying in hospital, but not much is made of that, what you know of her are her thoughts and her memories.” What she believes she got right, however, is that Claudia’s mindset in old age is much the same as when she was young; this, she says, has been true to her own experience of getting older.
Why does literature about old age matter? A better question, perhaps, is one posed by John Halliday, the editor of the old-age-themed poetry anthology “Don’t Bring Me No Rocking Chair” (the title is taken from a Maya Angelou poem): “Who is calling the shots when it comes to aging?” For Halliday, it is the power of poetry to offer us a “fresh language” of old age that is so important. Lynne Segal agrees. Literature, she says, has the potential to give us texts in which “the experiences of the old unfold and collapse back, like concertinas, into narratives that are rarely reducible to age itself.” After all, as Sarah Falcus writes, “Literature does not … simply mirror or reflect a social world, but, instead, is part of and complicit in shaping that social world.”
For my part, I’m not sure I will return to my novel. It now strikes me as an exercise in speculative showing off: look at me, so young and hard at work imagining old age! I think I prefer to watch and learn as this “coming of old age” literature continues to explode in scope and scale, and listen closely to artists who, in their advanced years, “have the confidence to speak simply,” as Julian Barnes says. Forget the bildungsroman. We are on the cusp of the age of the reifungsroman—the literary scholar Barbara Frey Waxman’s term for the “novel of ripening.”
Everywhere I look now, I seem to stumble upon new writing about old age by those who are themselves old, personal and creative accounts of the many subcultures and subjectivities of old age, and I feel increasingly ashamed of my earlier ignorance of this blossoming body of work. My to-read list now includes stories by the ninety-six-year-old Emyr Humphreys; late work by Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, and Seamus Heaney; poetry by Elaine Feinstein, Dannie Abse, Maureen Duffy, and Ruth Fainlight; a new novel by the seventy-three-year-old Erica Jong, “Fear of Dying”; fiction by William Trevor, David Lodge, Kent Haruf, Toni Morrison, and Kenzaburo Oe; memoirs by Vivian Gornick, Roger Angell, and Diana Athill. It’s an exciting time, to have a brand-new feature of human experience—living longer—described by people as they live it, by people who have learned with age, as the late poet Adrienne Rich said, the year she turned eighty, to balance “dread and beauty.”
When considering the idea of ageing, what likely comes to mind is clichéd images of the aged man or woman. The wilted rose. The once-beautiful woman – now haggard and tired, like a worn leather bag – looking despondently into the mirror and considering what once was. Perhaps she is wondering how time managed to creep up on her like this. The knees are the first to go, I’m told, then the hips. The eyesight rapidly deteriorates after this, and doing most things becomes harder and slower. Everything becomes a chore.
However, as someone who is only 18, it can be hard to relate to these images as I have yet to age at all. How can one comprehend what it is to physically deteriorate, when they’ve only just become fully grown? You’re on the upward part of your life, growing into yourself and your own skin, as opposed to slipping out of it. So instead, you are as of yet indifferent to the clichéd fears of aging. Thoughts of hip replacements, the crunching of arthritic knuckles and the approaching horizon of your own mortality all seem very far off. This is not to say that you have not had your own experiences of ageing. Rather, for someone like me, who is still in the beginning of life, this concept of ageing cannot be directly applied.
Instead, I have had a very different experience of ageing. I think of it more as a ‘coming of age.’ That time in your life when you physically become more suited to your own body, develop confidence in yourself and are more comfortable expressing your ideas and opinions. You “come into your own,” meaning that you have a firm sense of who you are as a person and are glad to be in that position. Coming of age is the time in which you learn all the difficult lessons that early life provides. That time you tried and failed, the first heartbreak, the bitter sting of being the last one picked for the Netball team. You have those necessary experiences to grow as a person and emerge as a better, more mature and grounded version of yourself. I think of those iconic bildungsromans. Jane Eyre for instance. I read this book at age 15, and then again at age 18, and each time it took on a different meaning. Upon my first reading, I was baffled by the improbability of the story and couldn’t see much further than that. However, on my second reading, I began to look into the notion of coming of age as it appears in the book. Over its course, Jane transforms from the uninhibited, underestimated and troublesome child to the more eloquent woman. After spending a significant amount of time in subservience and debt to the other characters, with her life dictated by them, she finally emerges as someone who they can respect and rely on. The self-doubt and confusion she suffers at the beginning of the story gives way to her later certainty and a much more autonomous and self-assured character. Towards the end of the novel, as opposed to being the one who is kept in the dark, it is she who switches on the light. This was my own teenage understanding, and I believe it resonates with most teenagers’ understanding of ageing at this point in their lives. Instead of the transition from vitality to decay, I think more of the transition from child to adult. Crossing that invisible but anticipated boundary and emerging as the fully transformed version of yourself.
What does this coming of age metamorphosis look like to a child? At ten or eleven, this may manifest itself as that early, stifling awkwardness. The feeling of not quite fitting into your own body. Your limbs are too long and stringy. You struggle to make them all work at once. Your ears are far too big for your small head and you’re still stuck in that androgynous body waiting to become yourself. You spend time watching the teens around school, only a few years older than you, and wondering how they’ve managed to grow so successfully into themselves. You wonder when you will become as confident as them. They interact in a way which still feels foreign to you, full of attitude and confidence. Then you arrive at age fifteen or sixteen, perhaps now at last slightly more comfortable in your own skin, but hungry to move onto the next phase of your life. You want nothing more than to be that adult figure. You want to be the clean, polished and finished version of yourself. For most of us there is a point which marks this arrival. A universally known point: the age of eighteen. That famed moment.
Like a golden, star studded, vodka flavoured, (legal) club admitting enigma. Eighteen. This is the point when you have arrived. When you come of age and arrive at the best version of yourself to date. For most teens, coming of age is what ‘ageing’ actually represents and juvenile as it may seem, this is glorified and celebrated amongst popular culture as your biggest achievement and most exciting change in your life to date! Extravagant parties are thrown and celebrations continue well past the day itself. This is the point, all shrouded in mystery, and it is bathed in the excitement of having finally arrived. Having come of age. But why at this point in our lives do we choose to place so much emphasis on ageing? Why do we choose now to celebrate it, as opposed to shy away from it as is often the case later in life? For someone like me, up until recently, I would argue that this is because ageing never had any foreseeable downfalls. It didn’t represent a pension or incontinence. No, ageing meant independence. It meant freedom. It represented finally knowing who you are. No more anxieties in your own body. Never again would you have to tolerate the condescending attitude of the adult world, because at last you would finally be in it. At this moment, once you have come of age, every aspect of your life that was previously up in the air, would fall neatly into place.
Unfortunately, much like the melancholy feeling of opening a birthday present you neither wanted nor needed, instead of elation and satisfaction there is a sense of disillusionment – a slap in the face. There is no sense of having arrived. There are no fireworks. There is a noticeable lack of epiphany. The profound knowledge and understanding simply isn’t there. Instead, what you are left with is the creeping realization that yes, you have aged. But in terms of how you feel in yourself, little has changed. You are left with a concerning sense of disappointment and anxiousness that perhaps, this is as good as it gets. You don’t feel older or wiser. You are no more self assured or confident than you were before. Your flaws and insecurities are all still there, except now, to you, they seem even more glaringly obvious. You are one of the elite members of the adult world that the younger version of yourself always idolised, yet you feel like an imposter, a knock-off version, about to be found out at any moment and swiftly kicked out of the bar. Despite finally having aged to maturity, you feel younger than ever.
When going in to school or college a few days after turning 18, it seems to be a tradition to be asked how exactly you are feeling: “You’re an adult now. Congratulations!” Followed by the mandatory “-do you feel any different?” You take the first moment of reflection since your celebrations and come to admit to yourself and your friends that “why, I feel exactly the same.” You can, at this point expect to see that sense of sympathy, recognition and understanding in their eyes. Nothing has changed. When I asked my friends what they thought about the idea of ageing, what they thought of more than anything was this profound sense of disappointment and confusion. Suddenly becoming aware of your own incapability. You aren’t the wise and experienced person you imagined you would suddenly become. After spending your lifetime expecting to feel more mature and in control of your own life, you are faced with the most hideous paradox: Despite all the ageing you’ve done, you’re still arguably at the beginning of your life and have no idea where to go.
Yet suddenly adults, “real adults” as you think of them, are expecting things of you. Independence, self-awareness, social capabilities, understanding and controlling your emotions in public. It’s your name that goes on all the forms now, not your mother’s. It is you who books all of your appointments and attends them on your own, without the comforting softness of a parent or guardian hand in your own. It is you who has to navigate the smoky, loud, and disorientating world of the night club; full of music you feel you should like but can’t quite relate to yet, and men old enough to be your dad offering to buy you drinks, when all you can think of is how you’re surely still too young to be here. Can they tell by your dancing that you’re not truly aged? Is your youth obvious in the way you walk? Can they tell your blatant naivety from the way you sip that drink?
Then on those nights when you find yourself leaning at the bar, telling yourself you’ve grown up now, you’ve arrived, you realise between sips of a cocktail you’re too young to appreciate, you’d much rather be at home, in bed, but also realising there is no obligation for you to be there anymore. Legally, nobody has any requirement or obligation to care about you, to know where you are. You are your own voice of authority now. Is this what growing older means?
As this sense of self-awareness arrives, you begin to question constantly what is and isn’t socially acceptable now that you’ve aged enough to cross that boundary into adult life, never knowing where exactly you stand. Suddenly and paradoxically you realise that after spending all this time anticipating your own ageing, you suddenly wish that you were young again. You realise that your youth, and all the time that you have had so far, are never going to be yours again.
You’ve become too old to watch high school films. Each iconic character receives the privilege of being frozen there in time. They can revel in their own teenage angst, safe in the knowledge that they never have to grow out of it. They still have everything going for them, and relive the experiences you condemned as juvenile and immature, again and again and again. In fact you’ve surpassed them. You are what comes after the film ends. After the credits roll, you are the life afterwards that continues on, and was never worthy of gracing the screen. You’re the adult life that comes after the iconic moment when John Bender punches the air. You are the mundane life that carries on after every pupil has stood up from their desk. You’re life depicts what happens when the camera stops rolling. Your time in that moment is gone. Spent.
At the realisation of lost time, my immediate reaction was to panic and wonder whether ageing is in fact a trap. A disorientating, misleading trap. However, when confiding in a friend about all of these fears a month after this infamous birthday, she agued that it all depends on your outlook. At the time, and with a disappointed and closed mind, I ignored her suggestion. To me ageing seemed like an inevitable and constant, unstoppable force. Sooner or later I’d be expected to leave home. I’d have to get a degree or a part time job. Then a real job. I’d have to actually have some meaningful relationships. Eventually I’d do “what all the grown ups did” and get married. I suppose after that I’d have children. Around this time, I’d begin to worry about the first type of ageing I mentioned. The type where gravity becomes your worst enemy and everything begins to sag. That’s when I start to wander round my house murmuring to myself about the state of youth today, tutting at the television whilst chewing on soft cereal to accommodate the dentures that I’d inevitably need.
Once I had managed to put this rather oppressive and condemning train of thought on hold, I returned to my friend’s earlier suggestion, more seriously considering what she had said. Ageing is what you make of it. Yes, you get older physically, and the inevitable aches and pains start to creep up. However, the older you become, surely the wiser you are getting. Now this certainly does not happen all at once, as any eighteen year old or twenty-something can tell you, but logically you can expect to know more. You begin to understand yourself better and become more creative. You become more yourself. All those freedoms that may overwhelm you now, later you will use to make something more of yourself. You learn that the perfect version of you, which you assumed would occur over night with age, is something that you have to piece together for yourself. Perhaps for some, that initial feeling of dissatisfaction that comes with age is something that never quite goes away. Perhaps it is all about a slow physical decline, and perhaps you never feel you are truly acting your age. However, after experiencing firsthand the fear and discomfort that thinking this way causes you to feel, I prefer to orientate my outlook on aging in a more positive way. Something to look forward to but not to rush towards. Something to anticipate but not to overindulge in. So all the petty observations about those older than me which I have made are not something to shy away from, but rather something to look forward to.
Charlotte Bronte, Originally titled: Jane Eyre: An Autobiography, (Smith, Elder & Co. of London, England, under the pen name “Currer Bell.” 1847)
CrashCourse (2014) Reader, It’s Jane Eyre: Available at http://youtube.com/watch?v=Z8tqY8fX0Ec (Accessed: Friday 16th September 2016)
The Breakfast Club (1985) Directed by John Hughes [Film] Universal Pictures
Dead Poet’s Society (1989) Directed by Peter Weir [Film] Buena Vista Pictures Distribution