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Thursday, January 31, 2008

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Belonging Here, and There

I mentioned at the beginning of the year that I was resolved to put more literary fibre in my diet. Part of this involves reading books, of course. I'm currently working my way through Miranda July's short fiction collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You. It's taking me a while, because her writing is so astonishing and other-worldly, I'm not able to take in more than one story in a sitting. At the end of each one, I have to turn out my bedside lamp and curl into its naked backside, murmuring thanks.

During the day I've discovered I can put driving time to good purpose with podcasts, downloaded to my little ipod shuffle. I've discovered Garrison Keillor's daily Writer's Almanac, the New Yorker fiction series, and every Fresh Air broadcast I've ever missed.

The other day in the carpool line, I heard Terry Gross's 1995 interview with the then-86 year-old writer William Maxwell, who also was fiction editor with the New Yorker for many years. Listening to the interview requires real concentration because he spoke very slowly and softly, with slight impediment. But I found his reflections on a long life and old age to be so enthralling, so inviting, it was no trouble at all.

Maxwell was born in the midwest, in 1908 (the same year as one of my own late grandparents, I am pretty sure). It was the world of the horse and buggy. His mother died during the flu epidemic of 1918. He lived through the whole psychotic episode that was the 20th century, and outlived many of his family members and friends, some of whom were literary giants.

A Jungian friend of mine says that as a person gets old, they begin to transcend linear time. They come to belong to the ages. I'm not sure I knew what that meant when I heard her say it in a lecture, but listening to Maxwell speak, I knew it was true, or at least, true for him. His perspective seemed to come from a place apart from the rushing current of life. He could look both up, and down, river.
I liked the world I came into as a child...It was a beautiful world. I loved the sound of the horses going past the house. It was unhurried. It left time for brooding and thought. It left time for being nice to other people. For making presents instead of buying them. It left time for telling stories.

Maxwell spoke with particular eloquence about how interior life becomes more vivid as exterior activity slows down, saying he could picture his mother more clearly in his old age, that many long-lost memories were being returned to him, to his delight and surprise.
I love so many things about getting old...the wonderful opening up of memory...is like having a marvelous novel...I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

I've always expected and hoped that I will live to a great old age. As long as body and mind stay reasonably sound, I figure it has to beat the alternative. But listening to Maxwell affirmed to me that not only is old age not a condition to dread, it could be something to look forward to.

The interview was rebroadcast on January 25, 2008, and you can hear it here, with or without an itunes player.

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6 Comments:

Blogger Geoff Meeker said...

I agree with what you say, and now that I'm on the other side of 50, am able to identify personally with it (if only just a little). Maxwell reminds me of Ally O'Brien, a wonderful old soul I met and profiled in the early 1980s. I interviewed him at the century-old farmhouse on the edge of St. John's, in which he was raised and had spent his lifetime. I have stirring memories of him standing at his property boundary, next to modern bungalows, with a sweeping view of the Kenmount Valley in the distance. When he was a child, he said, none of this existed... no streets, houses, industrial park or Avalon Mall... just trees, fields, brooks and swamp. For me, the Avalon Mall and Kenmount Road were ALWAYS there; seeing what he was seeing took some imagining on my part, as if conjuring an illustration from a history text. Yet there we stood, alive in the same moment.

1:13 PM  
Blogger MommyTime said...

That is the kind of growing old we can all wish for. I love this image of age opening up our early memories for us again, and of that being a kind of gift. It helps me rethink a little bit what appeared to be the curse of Altzheimer's that my grandmother faced. Although I am sure it was unbearably painful to my father to see his own mother not know him, perhaps for her there was a delight in seeing again her long-lost brothers. Something to think about. Thanks.

8:40 PM  
Blogger jennifer h said...

This was beautiful. How much better to think of the end of life as something opening up, rather than closing. Also, Terry Gross has the best job. I love how she interviews people. There's such an ease to her questions.

I'm a new reader of your blog, and am glad to have found it. I'll be back.

11:15 AM  
Blogger GIRL'S GONE CHILD said...

I just love the way you write. The way you think. Wish we could have had chat-time, face to face, on your porch... Soon, I hope.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Schmutzie said...

I'm listening to the interview right now. Thank you!

12:36 PM  
Blogger Julie @ Letter9 said...

"At the end of each one, I have to turn out my bedside lamp and curl into its naked backside, murmuring thanks."

What a nice compliment. I hope she sees this sometime and it makes her feel lovely.

Have you seen Me and You and Everyone We Know?

8:11 PM  

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