What does it really feel like to grow old? Not the everyday getting older but the really, really old — those of us in our 70s, 80s, 90s after all of our family elders and most of our peers have long gone.
Residents of my retirement community in Claremont, Calif., created a booklet of original poems about their own aging experiences titled "The Poetry of Aging." We elders are part of a cohort of the oldest citizens in the history of this country, the vanguard of the larger generation to come — the Boomers. We arrived before World War II.
The medical profession hasn't figured us out yet — they have to experiment with drugs and exercises and surgeries and diagnostic guessing to see if there are treatments and maybe even cures for the many ailments we describe. Mainly we can't believe we're so old ourselves. Who is that wrinkled old face in the mirror? How can we be that old when our selves (not our bodies) feel so good?
The best way to reveal this reality for most of us is through poetry, and believe me, we can do this even when we say we cannot: "I'm not a poet."
Proof is our 52-page booklet containing 51 poems by 39 residents under four chapter headings: Fully Live — boldly facing the diminishments to come; Pondering — what it all means; Wintertime — the tougher aspects; and Glad to Be Alive — the critical elements of humor and love.
We published the book a few years ago and sold it at our annual fundraising festival. The money raised is for a fund devoted to covering expenses for residents unable to afford their health and living costs.
As a retired journalist and book editor, I became general editor and pleader for my friends to ignore their fears of exposing their feelings and put some words on paper. They turned in 174 original poems in couplets, sonnets, free verse, haiku and witty limericks over a five-month period. The final poems were selected for the book by 12 co-editors using a secret ballot (no names on them). Many of the contributors had never written poems before, including myself, whose two submissions were not chosen. That's how fair we were! Having so many judges ensured a great cross-section of names and themes.
I believe we really are presenting an ethos about growing old that few others have captured. It takes poetic language to do this, and our residents have risen to the challenge. I can include a couple samples with permission from these unpublished poets. The first is by Rupert Nelson, a retired missionary agriculturist who served mainly in Thailand. It is titled "Like the Rings of a Tree":
My father taught me how to count the rings,
When we cut firewood with a two-man saw.
I learned a tree has birthdays,
And celebrates them with rings.
My father taught me how to read the rings;
Narrow rings for drought and hardship,
Wide rings for good years.
Dakota rings were narrow,
good times were hard to find.
Life leaves rings on people too.
Old injuries are hidden as life moves on.
A twinge reminds us of their presence.
I was but a sapling in Dakota,
but rings were added; Iowa, Korea,
Montana, Thailand, Claremont.
The rings of my life speak when
I should be sleeping.
I hear the voices of people long gone.
Smell the hay and horses of old barns.
See old comrades from Korea,
a war not forgotten.
I feel the first grasp of a baby’s hand.
My father taught me how to live.
Honor, kindness, integrity and respect for all.
The trail has been long and rough in places.
Growth rings, they make a tree,
they make a life.
A shorter poem by resident Jim Brashler is titled "Praying":
As a child I prayed to God on my knees,
Telling him my iniquities,
But now that I’m older
I have become bolder,
So I tell her whatever I please.
Jim retired as a seminary professor from Union and Presbyterian School of Christian Education before moving to our place.
A poem titled "No Going Back" by renowned poet Wendell Berry (born 1934) appears on the back cover of the book with the permission of the author. It ponders the reality that what was in your life is no more and now “you can be generous toward each day ...”
Our residents primarily come from the helping professions, so many of the poems reflect that orientation. The current oldest members often were teachers living in foreign countries, so their views on aging as on life are often global.
I challenge residents of other retirement communities to preserve in writing what it feels like for each of them to become old. Such information is needed by the medical and legal professions as well as by civil servants and politicians, and I still believe poetry is the most honest mode of communication. We are increasing in number as well as in age, and we do have something to say about it.