Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, which I discovered nearly half a century ago in a graduate anthropology class, is one of the most amazing and original books I’ve ever read. And one of the most memorable.
In it, Bachelard–a Frenchman, philosopher by training, and reputedly a very humble and much-loved man–created a most extraordinary work that reveals the force of imagination and lifts the meaning of life and experience to extraordinary heights of understanding. He combined psychoanalysis (in the Jungian mode), philosophy, and ideas about the space we inhabit from childhood on, both mentally and physically, into a treatise of incredible poetic beauty, a work of profound poetic imagery, unconventional thought, and impact.
Reading Poetics of Space is not an easy journey, but anyone who stays with the density of the prose and complexity of the analysis (much of which was beyond my grasp as a young reader drawn to philosophy), is bound to think differently about the meaning of how a life is lived, and about how the nature of the space they inhabit shapes and nurtures their very being. Perhaps from even a simple browsing of Bachelard’s work, they will look through more poetic eyes at the meaning of their own life and of life around them. And they might just come to think, as I do, that this amazing man stimulates a new awareness that can truly have a transformational, lasting impact.
The Poetics of Space came into my life at a young age. Now, in my old and growing-older age, I’ve met another “transformational” thinker, Sherwin Nuland, whose counterpart book is The Art of Aging Gracefully. I’m at that point in life where the mind takes unusual meanderings as meaning of life issues come to the fore and one begins to reaassess. Have I lived my life to good purpose? Have I loved as well and unconditionally as I should have–my friends, my family, the outside world? Even when they have not loved me well? (It is more important to love than be loved, says Nuland.) How do I overcome the feelings of being diminished, those feelings the loss of loved ones deliver with increasing speed in older age, especially the ones that bring you to your knees and strike again and again at your core. How on earth will I manage financially with the lower income that tends to come with retirement? What meaning can my life possibly have if I’m no longer interacting with a large professional community of colleagues? And, for that matter, have I defined myself altogether too much over the years in terms of the work I do? What do I think of myself, and what do others think, as I watch my physical self shrink and shrivel, and worry about my mental capacity? As I witness my loved ones, friends and family, struggle with illness or misfortunes or end-of-life issues, how can I possibly ease their sadness or discouragement, except perhaps through the words of caring I can offer now and then?
Surely, there is nothing poetic or profound about these questions, these pressures of aging on the mind and body and on one’s sense of world-awareness and self worth–which most people seem to have sooner or later. Or is there?
Sherwin Nuland got me to thinking more carefully about this. It could very well be that there actually is something poetic about aging, or at least there can be if we bring our minds and bodies to the phenomenon in a creative, productive way. Bad luck can always intervene; we can do nothing about that. But according to Nuland, there is plenty we can do as we age to increase the meaning and longevity of our lives through the power of the mental and physical engagement choices we make. It isn’t just a matter of philosophy, it’s based on scientific evidence, which puts into question much of what is commonly said about aging as well as what we too often see in the condescending and dismissive treatment visited upon the elderly by insensitive or even well-intended young people.
Nuland is a physician (surgeon) and professor at Yale University. He has written many books and lectured widely about the subjects of death and dying and aging. He is 80+ years old, and judging from the rigor of his intellect, his effective oratory, and his stamina, with a little luck he will be contributing good thoughts and wisdom and medical know-how for many more years.
A few nights ago in a One Day University course at the CUNY Graduate School in NYC, I heard Nuland speak for two hours about “the art of aging.” I found his insights and message compelling, even awe-inspiring. So much so that I have decided to share some of what he said in this blog. Like Bachelard, Nuland is a thinker who has taken his scientific training into a new realm–where the findings of science, medical knowledge, poetry and literature, informed observation, and life experience are put together in creative ways to inspire mental and physical life choices that can extend and enrich life. I should note that Nuland infuses his writings and speaking with poetry, drawing on the likes of Dickens, Walker, Browning, and Longfellow.
He began his talk with these lines from Robert Browning, from the long poem Rabbi Ben Ezra:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be.
The last of life, for which the first was made.
At the risk of oversimplifying his message, which, like Bachelard’s, is more complicated and profound than I am adequate to express, here is what I took away from Nuland’s lecture. His remarks should be understood, as he made clear at the outset, partly in terms of Epigenetics, interactions in the HTPA axis (hypothalmic-pituity-adrenal axis) that science shows can physically change inherited genetic structure and in turn promote longer, healthier living.
People commonly say that seventy is the new 50. Not so, says Nuland. Seventy is seventy! But through certain kinds of physical and mental exercise, and nurturing of certain attitudes, we can live better at seventy than we used to and live much longer and in better health. Here are the elements of “aging well and gracefully” that Nuland speaks about:
Mental and physical exercise. Regular physical exercise (especially aerobic exercise) is important for aging well, not just because it strengthens muscles and gives one a sense of well-being through the release of endorphins, but because it impacts on epigenetic structures in the brain. There are neural stem cells just as there are physical ones, and they can be restored and brought to more fruitful functioning as a result of conscious choices we make. As research evidence attests, we can actually improve our genetic inheritance to favor longer, healthier lives–a sort of nurture over nature phenomenon. Mental stimulation of any kind–which can come from listening, learning, pursuing new adventures and ideas, anything that is new and different and active, something as simple as walking a dog, writing or reading, and even thinking about this blog–can promote longer healthier life by triggering epigenetic activity and challenging the physical properties of genes.
Pride in being vibrant! According to Nuland, “pride in being vibrant” is a key ingredient found scientifically to be associated with a longer healthier life. It means giving emphasis to doing things for others, being cherished in return for that giving, and unconditionally loving and giving to friends and community. In fact, one of the reasons, and science shows it, that people feel useless when they age is that they don’t or don’t continue to give to others. It is also vital to want to “repair the world” and to keep doing it as one ages. This provides the sensation of one’s goodness and importance and a kind of “virtue” or “secret of happiness,” to use Nuland’s terms, that fosters fewer regrets in old age.
For longer life, it is important to do things that give the most reward to the psyche. Mental and physical activity is one of the six interacting variables Nuland stresses. The others go hand in hand with exercise. The content of your character and the nature and quality of attitude toward others matter hugely. Be kind, he says, and keep in mind that “everyone is fighting a great battle.” Be ever curious, for curiosity is a transcendent life force. Recognize your limitations. There are certain things you can’t do as you grow old, including the speed with which you do them. But so what! As the courageous and wise feminist thinker Betty Friedan reminded us in her book Fountain of Aging, we old and older people know and can do things younger people can’t, and the world can benefit from what we know and can do. And not least, we often get annoyed by trifles, which Nuland sees as a waste of time and energy. “It ain’t the bumps,” he says, “but the way you ride them.”
The core of Nuland’s message is that to age well and gracefully, we must seek out new adventures, learn new things, give generously of love to friends and to a world in need, and engage in a regular physical and mental exercise. Choice remains even in the face of diversity.
My newly-discovered philospher-scientist concluded his presentation with these gentle thoughts: The best part of old age is nurturing a relationship. The ultimate thing in life is love!
It’s important to note that many women thinkers have also contributed great wisdom to the matter of aging and the poetry in our lives. I don’t mean to slight them here. Indeed, as a feminist and woman myself, it’s only natural that I should mention Betty Friedan above. The power of her thinking and personal example improved life for us all, men and women alike.
But wisdom is sometimes also often found in the most unlikely places. Whether she is your kind of comedienne or not, Roseanne Barr stopped me in my tracks a while back with a wise, perceptive article she published about women’s aging.
“We’ve run the gauntlet and we stand, battered, bruised, and perhaps even worse, some of us, but we’re consciously here and mostly intact….With a little luck, we have some time to affect things. Some sources cite Crone as the third stage of goddess formation: Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Well, I like the goddess part, but I don’t mean to insult or diminish women who aren’t mothers. In fact–after holding the world up to the light and subjecting it to a quick exam I call “Do the math!”–I’m here to say, we could use a lot more women who don’t become mothers of their own offspring, but instead Mother the world in a more expansive way–and help to alleviate some of the misery and need of countless millions of people who are here already.”
“Let’s get past the idea of things we have to do,” she says, “breathe a sigh of relief, and remember that there’s probably more time to do things we want to do. Form or nurture a few good and real friendships, and silently observe the world. You don’t need a young athletic body or piles of money to read some of the world’s great books; or to soak up brilliant music and art; or to grow something beautiful (and edible?) in a little garden spot…”
I hope some part of this blog will resonate with you as a subscriber to the Purple Scooter Poetry website, regardless of your age. Because humor ought to have a place, let me say that writing this has no doubt prolonged my life, and maybe reading it has done a little something for you. Stay tuned for an update on additions to the PSP website in the near future, including poems in a new page titled Poetics of Aging.
In the meantime, good luck! And a long healthy, meaningful life to us all! When I grow up, I may become a gerontologist, or maybe even a poet. By the way, I still have my original by now dog-earred copy of Poetics of Space. It cost a whopping $2.95 way back when.
Editor, Purple Scooter Poetry Blog and Website