“Experience of life (not of books) is the only capital usable in such a book as you have attempted …” —Mark Twain
Inward is not forward; it’s not backward, either. In fact, turning inward is going nowhere. Yet we’re so often told that’s what people do, quite naturally, as they age. Translate ‘naturally’ to mean, it’s a good thing. Charles Dickens worked on his last book (never finished) and, “faced with this declining mobility, Dickens focused on routine, and on daily matters of food, drink, and entertaining.” That doesn’t sound like such a good thing to me. The book was unfinished in favor of making an inventory of his wine cellar because of his ‘declining mobility’. No thanks!
The key to escaping the ‘going nowhere’ label in older years as well as earlier, can’t be found without physical movement, often the simple prescription offered by all practitioners who understand that first and foremost, the body is built to move. Twyla Tharp writes of this in her new book on aging, Keep It Moving. There’s nothing new in it, just everything I’ve always believed in fully, including the necessity to exercise the mind and spirit just as hard as you exercise the body. Yet with all this, and all the things I’ve been doing all my life to stay vigorous into old age (see, I can say it!), I still have a deep-seated fear of aging I can’t fully conquer. Just like Tharp’s description of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s panic over aging at twenty-seven, we all know as soon as we’re mature adults that we start the worrying and can feel old and irrelevant at any time. Of course that’s ridiculous from the POV of aging, but therein lies the first key, perhaps. If we can remember the fear of aging at an earlier time and see how absurd it was from our current perspective, surely we can draw the conclusion that our current fear is just as irrational!
Still, that’s just one of the useful go-to tranquilizers we can pop when our anxieties are taking us off the rails. I think the best one of all was described by our beloved American icon, Mark Twain, as a necessity if one wants to be a writer (the label ‘artist’ works here as well). After being asked by a young mentee to critique his manuscript, Twain said, “Experience of life (not of books) is the only capital usable in such a book as you have attempted …” Old Sam Clemens was good for what ails us all as we age. Yes, he was certainly an example of a man on the move at a level that would have winded even Twyla Tharp, but more helpful than the example he set was his belief that wisdom can only come from years lived. And experience gained and put to use creatively is the only way to be fully alive. By Twain’s valuation, white hair or personal tragedy were almost prerequisites for being a great writer (artist). Apparently he put the Bronte sisters in a category of genius, with youthful disaster bringing them all the way to the exalted level of wisdom the rest of us older writers have attained more easily. I wish Charles Dickens had placed Twyla Tharp on one shoulder and Mark Twain on the other. Perhaps he’d never have had ‘declining mobility’ and would have valued his white hair more to say nothing of finishing his book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Obviously the lessons for us are clear. While we don’t have to bench press twice our weight as Ms. Tharp does at the age of seventy-eight, we do need to keep moving, all the time, every day starting early and never stopping. And instead of feeling our personal lens is narrowing, the expanded reality of increased physicality combined with the knowledge that some art forms can only be fully employed by an aging, wise mind should encourage us to applaud our white hair rather than condemn it. I admit I’ve had the feeling of improving my writing for a while. It surprised me initially, but now I see what Twain was getting at. That sense of growing and getting better at something is surely the full antidote to anxiety about aging, so experience as much of life as possible to get rid of the fear and thank Mark Twain for glorifying old age. I’m getting better at that, too.