Living to Tell the Tale

An older human hand

A few years ago I taught a course at our Senior College called Conversations in the Third Act. Among other things we took photos of our hands, as hands show age in ways we cannot cover up as so many  try to do with the face. This photo is unmistakeable as one of an older person’s hand. It tells the tale of a life lived.

Living to Tell the Tale

The goal of all life, the end point, death, is what lies in front of us. In the third act of life it looms larger than it has before and is much more a part of consciousness. To be fully alive is to know that death lies ahead.

Between here and death, there is work to be done to deal with things left undone, to reconcile ourselves to our past, to seriously consider the story we have been living with an eye especially toward any changes we want to make in the remaining years.

A friend of mine, a woman in her mid-70’s wrestles with the conflict between the desire to do and the body that no longer wants to. And with the bubbling up of creative possibilities that she does not know she can bring to fruition. All of us in the third act are faced with having to prioritize in a new way, to come to terms with the certain knowledge that if there is something we want to do, want to create, we have to get down to work now because time is passing swiftly.

How to wrestle with these issues without succumbing to despair or melancholy and regret is a major concern. What does it mean to become old? What is old — 60? 70? 80? How do we come to terms with a body, a face that is not the face or body I carry in my mind’s eye of myself? How do we make sense of the story we have lived and consider how we want to live the last chapters?

Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams and Reflections:
“Thus it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth. I can only make direct statements, only “tell stories”. Whether or not the stories are “true” is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth.”

The story of our lives is our myth. People in mid-life and later often enjoy looking back and spinning yarns about what we have experienced. One thing to keep in mind is that myths tell not so much about the literal part of our lives but how we experience events internally, our perceptions and emotional reactions. These reactions can be radically different from what one might expect based solely on what actually takes place.

Stories are how our ancestors wove the fabric of meaning and existence as they made their way in their lives. Human beings are myth makers, story tellers. We remember ourselves and our lives in stories — stories we tell our friends, family, strangers, ourselves. When someone asks you, “What happened?”,  you construct a story to relay your experience. Memory crystallizes into story.  This is how we attempt not only to portray ourselves in our lives but also to find meaning. Meaning, or the search for it, has always been at the basis of story. Telling stories is the most human of all acts. Exploring our life story not only provides meaning, but also constitutes a celebration of our lives.

Writing your life story is one way of exploring the meaning of your life and an important one. Another is through depth psychotherapy.

 “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brené Brown

Memory and Memoir

The image above is La Memoire by Rene Magritte

At this time of year we often think and  write about things we remember. So this is a good time to stop and think about memory itself.

I read a lot of memoirs. I remember discovering biographies when I was in 3rd grade — remember Landmark Books? I found them and began to eagerly read biographies of people like Clara Barton and Abraham Lincoln. But there weren’t many about women. In fact women’s lives seemed not to be deemed interesting until the women’s movement began to encourage women to speak in our own voices about our lives.

Among the many wonderful memoirs by women I have read in the last 25 years or so are:

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

A Chorus of Stones by Susan Griffin

Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski.

The Shadow Man by Mary Gordon

Devotion by Dani Shapiro

Memoir necessarily engages in the problem of memory. Is what is remembered what happened or a narrative created on a mesh of emotion, images, and sensations? Diski says, “Memory is not false in the sense that it is willfully bad, but it is excitingly corrupt in its inclination to make a proper story of the past.”

Jung tells us: “The function of memory, or reproduction, links us up with things that have faded out of consciousness, things that became subliminal or were cast away or repressed. What we call memory is this faculty to reproduce unconscious contents, and it is the first function we can clearly distinguish in its relationship between our consciousness and the contents that are actually not in view.” (CW 18, p.39)

Now here is an example from my own life that I believe is a memory —

I am old enough that when I was in elementary school, we had a Christmas pageant in school, complete with angels and shepherds and everything. I will always remember the pageant when I was in second grade.

In my class, the best reader was to be made the head angel and would read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke. Well, I *knew* I was the best reader because I was reading several levels ahead of everyone in my class. My nearest competitor, Martha S., was a good reader, but I knew she was not the best. So I was absolutely certain that the head angel position was mine.

Imagine my shock, my horror, my outrage when on the day when parts were assigned, it was not I who was to be head angel, it was to be Martha S.! In my mind, this was a terrible injustice. Here I was, the very best reader in the second grade and I was to be consigned to the ranks of the ordinary angels! As it happened, Martha was a very pretty little girl with long blonde hair while I was chubby and brunette so maybe Martha fit the picture of an angel better than I did. Outwardly I accepted this injustice and quietly took my place in the ranks of the angels.

My mother made my costume, complete with glittery wings and a halo. We rehearsed. And then came the day of the pageant.

Martha stepped one step in front of the ranks of angels and took a breath to begin her reading. And then, just one word ahead of her came another voice from the back of the angels, reciting the story perfectly word for word. Martha got flustered but I continued on. Yes, I had memorized the whole story. I knew I was the best reader.

To my mother’s great credit, she did not get angry or make me feel bad. And what I did became the stuff of a story my family told about me.

BUT — is what I remember what actually happened? I certainly wanted to be the head angel. And to this day, I still know the words to the story. But if we could talk with Martha S., would she remember it the way I do? Or is it a narrative developed to fit the story of myself that I was weaving, the story of a spunky little girl who could make things go her way?

The words “memoir” and “memory” come to us from the middle English/Anglo-French word memorie, and from the Latin memoria, derived from memor, which means “mindful.” Russell Lockhart in Words As Eggs: Psyche in Language and Clinic traces it also to an Indo-European root smer– — which in one form refers to grease and fat. How is memory connected to ‘fat’? Think about how difficult it is to get rid of fat. It sticks. It adheres. It won’t leave. It leaves traces. A memory is what sticks, what adheres in the mind. Memory is the fat of the mind. Related words that share the history of memoir include remember, commemorate, memorable, memento, and memorandum. The word mourn also shares its derivations. The same root that gave rise to memory gives rise to mourn. When someone has passed away or slipped away, we mourn that memory. When we are in mourning, we are deeply engaged with the memory of that person. Our mind is full of memories. We can only mourn through memory and with memory. We mourn for what we had and can now have only in memory.

Think about a vivid dream you have had. When you write, it becomes something other than the dream. It becomes a text, an adaptation of the dream, but the dream, consisting of images, cannot be fully and accurately captured in words. The same with memory. The experience remembered is not a record, faithful in every detail. The memory is particular to the rememberer. Even in a family, the same event can and often is recalled differently by parents and children, even by siblings.

A symptom is an untended memory. It is the voice of a forgotten or banished part of ourselves… Memory is the medicine of the psyche – even, and especially when the memories are dark. – George Callan

In the Third Act

Almost 12 years ago I taught a course I called Conversations in the Third Act at the local branch of the University of Maine’s life-long learning center. If life is a drama in three acts, then all of us over 50 are in the third act and dealing with a whole new set of issues, questions, and challenges.

In the secret hour of life’s midday the parabola is reversed, death is born. The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death, since the end is its goal. The negation of life’s fulfillment is synonymous with the refusal to accept its ending. Both mean not wanting to live, and not wanting to live is identical with not wanting to die. Waxing and Waning make one curve. ~ C.G. Jung

Coming to terms with the loss of youth and the dawning realization that life is finite is intrinsic to later life. Much has been written about the passage into midlife and we have no doubt all heard of the Mid-Life Crisis. One person may experience the fear of losing control and the sense of self that once worked. Another may feel the fear of further losing areas of self-expression. Frequently, there is the existential fear of mortality and diminishing time, the realization that half of life is gone. And for those of us in our 60s and 70s and beyond, an even deeper recognition of the finiteness of our lives.

It is common  to experience anger or depression in response to lost time and opportunity for more authentic experience. Depression and underlying regret may reflect an emerging sense of emptiness and the superficial relationship to life of the “adapted self.”

These are calls to attend to life issues which have been neglected. As Jung said,

We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning,
for what was great in the morning will be little at evening,
and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.

In drama the first act is used to establish the dramatic situation and introduce the main characters. At the end of the first act, an inciting incident complicates the story and moves the screenplay into the second act. — This is childhood through young adulthood, when we set the stage for our lives, choose our work and relationships.

The second act, commonly described as “rising action”, typically depicts the protagonist attempting to solve the problems caused by the inciting incident. The Climax, which ends the second act, is the scene or sequence in which the main tension and dramatic questions of the story are brought to their most intense point. —  This is the time from 35 or so to the 50s even 60, what has classically been known as midlife. At the end of this act, there is a dawning awareness of the end, even though it does not seem imminent.

Finally, the third act features the resolution of the story and its subplots. It is the third act that I have become most interested in, the time I myself now inhabit, This is the time in which life’s loose ends, unresolved plotlines, that is the denouement of life.

I know that I am younger at 72 than my mother was. Already at my age, she was old and seemed to have moved into just waiting for the end. Women become invisible around age 40 when we are seen as faded flowers, no longer attracting the eye of young men. That fading is even greater as we enter this last act of life. We are scarcely seen in movies or on television, in magazines or popular culture. In the last election, Hillary Clinton, younger than Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump or Joe Biden, was sometimes subject to open speculation about whether her age made her a bad choice for President. Men can be elder statesmen in the 70s; women of that age, no matter their accomplishments, are expected to disappear.

But this is a time of great possibilities as well. Look at me — I published my first book just 2 years ago . If you have HBO, watch Grace and Frankie — women in their 70s who are filled with ideas for new things to do, new businesses to launch while their husbands believe they must surrender to age and retire. 

There is work to be done in this act. It is our last opportunity to make revisions to this story we living, the last chance to reconcile holes in the plot and to move the story forward to its inevitable end.

No Going Back

No, no, there is no going back.

Less and less you are

that possibility you were.

More and more you have become

those lives and deaths

that have belonged to you.

You have become a sort of grave

containing much that was

and is no more in time, beloved

then, now, and always.

And so you have become a sort of tree

standing over the grave.

Now more than ever you can be

generous toward each day

that comes, young, to disappear

forever, and yet remain

unaging in the mind.

Every day you have less reason

not to give yourself away.

 ~ Wendell Berry ~

Time is on my mind

My daughter texted me today to ask me when she had her measles vaccination. She will be 43 this year so it was a long  time ago. Except that in old age, distant events sometimes feel more recent than last year. A trick of time and memory that lends a vividness to long ago. 

I dream about a little boy and in associating to it in an effort to reveal and understand what my psyche is telling me about my life today, I have a very vivid memory of walking with my son when he was 3. I can feel his hand in mine as we walk along the street and I can almost hear his stream of commentary about things  he sees. Yet that day was forty years ago. 

In another dream I see my grandmother’s kitchen, a room I have not seen in more than sixty years.

How can it be almost 20 years since that Fourth of July weekend when I flew to Detroit to meet the man I am now married to? A vivid image of the fireworks I could see from the window of the plane as I flew back to Maine and feeling they were for me, celebrating what I felt after that wonderful weekend.

Another dream: Pauline sends me a suitcase with gifts for me and another person important to us. Sent from beyond perhaps as she is dead.

People long dead. Places I have not seen in decades. My little boy with a little girl of his own now. My daughter who posts pictures of dinner parties she throws. 

I am almost 73 now. I look in the mirror and see an old woman. My dreams bring me myself as a girl. A young mother. And I am aware of the reality that the time left to me is steadily shrinking. Even as it stretches backward, I feel time speeding by rapidly.

It is spring. The lilacs have nubbins of greenleavesnow. The maples have swelling buds. Tulips and daffodils up in the garden. My town has a project to plant a million daffodils all over town, 100,000 per year. Nine more years to go. I wonder if I will be here to see them all.

Take a look if you will at the post, Dream Time, by my Twitter friend, Martha Crawford. You will be glad you did.