The Gift of Age

This is the third sermon/talk I’ve given for a local Portland congregation. It’s an attempt to keep my thought close to the hearts and minds of my listeners.

Luke: 32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.”

Our little flock will fear not, for the kingdom is here; good news; but where is it amidst the trouble and darkness all about?

We know it’s not in our material wealth, nor in our possessions.

33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys.

The kingdom will be a place of spirit, a place of the heart. What do we gather as treasure in our hearts?  We gather memories, feelings, stories. These are a heavenly treasure. They give us our spirit or soul, and our worlds. In rich and varied memories the kingdom is nigh. In memories I am spiritually present to myself, and to my friends and neighbors, family and fellows, present to gardens and family cats. We co-mingle in that special memorial place.

We listen for places and people we treasure. This is a place thieves can’t enter, where no moths corrupt. It’s a kingdom of ample sustenance. We fear loss of memory because we fear loss of our souls and of the soul’s rich co-mingling with others and place.

I’m slow to give up my material possessions. I have no choice but to give up parts of my physical prowess. But I have treasure to husband close to the heart.

With age, I become more aware of needs and infirmities. Though age debilitates it also illuminates. As age increases, the body darkens — yet the heart can glow brighter. Age is only sometimes a curse. We remember trouble and also joys, loves and delights. These we take to heart, where no thief can steal nor moth decay. Culled and cultivated, they become seasoned wisdom to treasure and share.

Tharcisse died a few weeks ago.  I hardly knew him. I wish I had done more to hear his story. I thought of him as an elder. Young in calendar years, he carried himself with the dignity of age and experience. Modesty and deference often cloak a wisdom harbored by those of a certain age. Tharcisse died before I could hear his story; no doubt I’d stumble trying to give him a glimpse of mine.

Of course, we come to know each other by sharing activities, but today I’d add that we know each other by listening – sharing memories, getting the gist or glitter of anothers treasure or trauma.  Pat Taub maintains her blog Women’s Older Wisdom for sharing memories. Peg Cushman and Eunice Bentley collect data behind our stories — birthplace, children, work, favorite activities.

Moving from essential facts to the art of sharing memories is not always easy.  We stumble. Some don’t know how to start.  Others tell bits and pieces, but tell it out of tune – say as a boast or a put down of others. Some don’t know how to stop telling. We like to listen but don’t like to be drowned out. It’s an art to speak from memory and an art to listen.

We’re cognitive, social, religious and Darwinian animals, and through it all we’re singers of tales, story-tellers, hearers of stories.  This is the place of heavenly timeless treasure.

Memories and story-telling persist even as we lower our shoulders to get things done.  Action flows into tomorrow’s memories of what we’ve accomplished or heard today. Memories flow forward to fund more doing. Singing, hammering, knitting; birthdays, weddings and funerals, generate stories we tell ourselves the next day and often for years to come. Openness to memories is an art that yields harvests of happiness, satisfaction, joy.

The older we become, the more we replicate remembered activities. This Sunday replicates last Sunday, back to the beginning of time. Often the present is reinvention, reenactment. Today’s singing, hammering, knitting, and feasting consolidate experience and spiritual life as it invokes past singing, hammering, knitting, and feasting; and it consolidates wisdom by foretelling future feasting and knitting.

A recent New Yorker profile sketched a wise, many-sided woman I’ve known slightly for nearly 50 years. In Martha Nussbaum’s story we get a glimmer of her heart. The profile’s headline is “The Philosopher of Feelings.” It tells us that her “far-reaching ideas illuminate often ignored elements of life—aging, inequality, and emotion.”

I get a glimmer of what she feels about becoming Jewish while raised Episcopalian, about being a world-citizen while being a local university professor, about being a daughter, mother, and athlete who at 70 still runs four miles a day. I get a glimpse of her taking voice lessons to get a more intimate feel of Mozart’s arias; I cringe at what she must feel about her father boycotting her wedding.

Her star-quality accomplishments make headlines, but they distract from the gift of her wisdom. In her books she tells stories of love, detachment, tragedy, and community. Her years are a gift of age, of a wisdom gathered from wide experience held in the heart, richly orchestrated in telling – a heavenly treasure.

Seventy isn’t inevitably old with wisdom; some give up on the heart long before that. And 70 might be young. My friend reminds me that in Genesis you become wise well past 70.  “This is the length of Abraham’s life: 175 years. He took his last breath and died at a ripe old age, old and contented.”

Mid-life 30-60 is typically a time to build social identities – we become uncles, church-members, lawyers, rock stars, librarians, doting aunts. This life-phase is full of work to get somewhere, to arrive, to get ahead: to further a career or start a new one, to be a better parent, sibling, daughter, or neighbor, to manage failure and success, to stay in shape and in good faith.

As we approach 100 or 150, getting ahead drops out. We’re free to cull and cultivate memories as we co-mingle with others. We take memories to heart and share things a mere 50 yr. old has no clue about.  We tear up blueprints for building up a self in its many sites.  We turn over the past for footprints, memories: where do I come from (spiritually)? Where have I been? What have I done — and not done? What have I felt — and not felt?

With the gift of age we speak (or stay silent) with authority — the authority of many winters, many weddings, many graduations, many burials, many hospital visits – memories of many falls and many recoveries, many climbs to the mountain top and many descents to the valleys; we become familiar with the shadows of death and the bright dawns of birth.

Happily, with age, there are fewer with authority lying in wait to contradict me. And with patience, I hope to edit out false self-inflation or false self-deflation.

Grandchildren will listen, as will friends of recent acquaintance – those whose memories only partially intersect my own. Bits and pieces are the name of the game — no long narrations, no monologues, no tedious holding forth, no drowning out others. It’s an art to fit story to setting and listeners.

For my grandkids, I’ll pick and choose episodes from my infinitely long life that might carry a smidgeon of wisdom. They’re 7 and 13 and healthily impatient to have their own way. I’ll tell them an apt story of my own rebellions youth, and how I managed to get free – or didn’t.

As I think of telling my story (or hearing yours) I ask “Who am I?”  — “Who have I been?” — Just as important, I ask “Who will I be?”  The future needn’t slam shut quite yet.

Who will I be? Reading literature and watching films help. I get immersed in the felt-realities of persons I’d otherwise never know firsthand – a smart detective named Morse, Downton’s Dowager Countess. These help me imagine who I might veer toward tomorrow and after.

Will I be a bit more like the musical Inspector Morse, or link arms with David Copperfield’s upbeat innocence, or veer toward the acid wit of the Couness, Maggie Smith?  And I listen for the “lilt” and “sheen” of things that surround Morse or Copperfield or the Countess. Oxford, London, and Downton are part of the song of the world, the song that wisdom remembers – it’s the place we move and have our being.

These sheens, lilts and rhythms seem to arrive more vividly, subtly, and frequently with the quiet coming of Age. Not that life becomes quiet, but that the soul takes on a stillness that allows more space for resonance.

It’s never too late to become definitively who one is. By 1940, when Paris fell, you might have thought that Henri Bergson’s identity was complete, finished. He was 81, winner of the Nobel prize in literature, a friend of William James and Einstein. But it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

At the start of the occupation, Jews in Paris were ordered to line up on the street to get yellow armbands. Bergson, a Jew, might have dodged this order. For years he had been close to converting to Catholicism. A quick conversion would have saved him from the arm band.

As a world renowned thinker he could have wrangled an exemption. Freud, Wittgenstein, and other notables bargained for favors. A frail old man, he might have stayed in bed rather than descend the stairs for a miserable yellow band. On a cold day in June, 1940, at this defining moment, the question was open: What would he become?  Bergson went out and lined up in a cold drizzle, catching the pneumonia that would kill him.

His then-accomplished, solid identities did not dictate who he would become. In a crucial moment he became a soldierly 81 yr. old — a man of action, courage, resistance, and solidarity.

His gift of action was also a gift of memory and wisdom.  He bequeathed a story to be retold and re-enacted, in small or larger ways, generation to generation. We need stories more or less anonymous wisdom, and also need memorial big screen stories of heroism and wisdom. Bergson was never too old to give us his gift of age.

The gift lodges in memory, in feeling, in the heart.

This is the kingdom bequeathed.

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2 comments on “The Gift of Age

  1. dmf says:

    During Harriet’s memorial service,
    Frances leaned, put her head
    on my shoulder and died—quietly

    as if she didn’t want to interrupt
    Harriet’s program.
    The minister didn’t see us,

    no one knew except me. At the piano,
    Mary played the introduction
    to Going Home. Everyone thumbed

    their hymnals for page two hundred forty-three.
    I didn’t know what to do, since Frances
    still looked like Frances, only not quite

    and she was ninety-five. I put my arm
    around her so she wouldn’t fall
    and waited for someone to notice.

    Through the French doors
    finches squabbled at the bird feeder.
    The squirrel we call Rocky

    contemplated his next move.
    A laundry truck rolled by.
    I looked down at Frances’ navy blue crocs,

    the ones she claimed felt so much
    like bedroom slippers
    she could wear them anywhere.

    “At the Sunny Ridge Retirement Center” by Peg Bresnahan

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