Thursday, November 30, 2017
ON AGEING: a tattered coat upon a stick
The film LUCKY (Harry Dean Stanton), held few surprises. That’s not to say it wasn’t any good. It was pretty good. But there were things in it, in terms of what LUCKY did, and how Lucky felt, that did not surprise me. I’ve seen some very good films about getting old- the French one by Haneke- AMOUR- comes to mind. And the Paul Cox film, A WOMAN’S TALE. Also something by Sarah Polley- AWAY FROM HER- and older people in some of Mike Leigh’s films as well. LUCKY is as good as most of these.
What wasn’t a surprise was the way in which Lucky did the same thing every day. Got out of bed in his white underwear and did exercises. Then took his crossword to his local coffee shop. Shuffled home again and watched TV even though what was on the screen was crap. Fell asleep. Stared at the alarm clock. Noticed that time was passing. Became irascible with other people and became a bit nasty and anti-social. Began thinking there might not be a good reason for living. Felt very lonely, and after an inexplicable fall, felt more mortal than ever.
Then Lucky was able to tell a kind, female visitor that he felt lonely- or was it scared? Then he accepted an unexpected invitation to a Spanish boy’s birthday. Here he felt moved enough to sing, beautifully, and received genuine, warm applause that touched him. Suddenly life had improved and he felt like he was worth something after all. He looked directly into the camera and smiled for almost the first time- a radiant, beautiful smile, very different to the scowl given by Harriet Anderson in SUMMER WITH MONIKA. And Lucky didn’t die in the end, but walked off into the Arizona distance, possibly even shuffling a little less as well.
I know someone a bit like Lucky.
He stays up very late and becomes very lethargic in the mornings. He shuffles around the unit each day, propped up in his favourite armchair. He sits in that armchair until evening, having short little breaks. These might be regular toilet breaks, or standing up to look out the window at the car that has driven past. He also checks the letterbox at regular intervals. Accompanying him in the armchair is the daily newspaper, the one put out by the Murdoch press, the one he says he loathes.
At the south end of the unit there is the back glass sliding door, and a neat little courtyard, garden table, and garage. It is here that various birds seem to gather during the day. He has always liked birds; always favoured them over cats, for instance. These days’ birds have become more important to him. Something he can talk or whistle to. He also enjoys proffering gifts, such as water, and nibbles and the like.
Memories, the past. These things sometimes invade his thoughts. The issue is, however, that sometimes he is fuzzy on detail. The things that occurred in boyhood, with his parents, are shadowy and far from blunt or acute. Details of the early years of his marriage are easier. But even here he can’t remember the bridal car, the church where the events took place, the details about the honeymoon…except it must have been close. He remembers there wasn’t a lot of money. Like a bright flash in his mind he is suddenly conscious of the money issue again…now. However it wasn’t always like this.
He had money sifting through his leaky hands when he was younger and stronger. He worked more than one job. Sometimes three- well, two at any rate. They were the best of times. The times when he could saunter into a TAB and unleash a whole heap of notes and coins onto the women behind the grill, and take piles of those thin white betting papers into his sweaty palms. He felt like a rich man on these occasions. Money no object. And no matter if he lost. He would work hard and there would be more to play with, and other places to play…poker machines. He deserved it. He worked hard. It was his money. And it was a private matter- that made it more thrilling. He could hide it from his wife.
I have had plenty of experience with nursing homes over the years. It may have been visiting relatives, or more commonly, arranged visits associated with my line of work. I have often enjoyed these times. I like talking about different experiences, other people’s families, and memories. Memories are so important. When you’re old I imagine it is very difficult not to look back.
I enjoy associating things with film and literature. When I think about old people and film, I can’t help remembering some awful things, like the young getting onto the old in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (can you spare some cutter, me brothers?’). In ‘Amour’, Georges has difficulty accepting the state of things when his long time marriage companion, Anne, suffers a debilitating stroke. I can think of at least three films that involve suffocation using a pillow, and this is easily the most moving of them. Old age throws up incredible challenges for the sanest and fittest of the partners. He is grief stricken by his wife’s illness and can’t bear to let go of her, and she simply wants to die.
In Colm Toibin’s beautiful novel, ‘The Heather Blazing’, we are presented with a similar situation. Eamon, the retired judge living in Enniscorthy, has to manage his wife, Carmel, who has had a stroke, and on one terribly sad occasion, has to soap her body when she loses control of her bowels after a mountain walk. It is a difficult thing for him to do because their intimacy has always been uneasy. He is a reserved man who loves his wife but has difficulty reaching out to her. She, on the other hand, has always felt this gap painfully, and is able to reflect, after her illness, that she isn’t certain of his feelings. It becomes very important to her, this idea of just wanting to know, of the reinforcement or acknowledgement of his love for her.
Any consideration of old age and the confused and traumatic worlds it conjures up must include a reference to ‘King Lear’. Here it is at least two-fold. Firstly, the moving and deep love for Lear by the wounded and dutiful daughter, Cordelia. Near the end, when he partially regains his senses, and realises the folly in his earlier abandonment of his youngest and kindest child, Lear cannot fathom her undying love. He knows he doesn’t deserve it. And yet, due to her unblinking devotion, he is able to imagine, even if it is futile, a world beyond the crushing defeat of his reign:
‘Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news, and we’ll talk with them too—
Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out—
And take upon’s the mystery of things
As if we were God’s spies. And we’ll wear out
In a walled prison packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon.’
The other side of the coin is the attitude to the twin monsters, Goneril and Regan, Lear’s other daughters. Lear is expendable. He is no longer useful. He has become a foolish old man. And this is what happens sometimes to the elderly. They become foolish old people. I sometimes wonder if quite young people ever fully realise that they, too, will become quite old. I guess it is something we think about as we get older. At the age of 10, or 15, or even 20 or 25, you don’t contemplate things that are so far away and seem somehow intangible.
W B Yeats wrote a poem called ‘Sailing to Byzantium’:
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress…’
Here, the body has faded, it is beyond use, only scarecrow-like, yet the old man is not defeated. He is raging further along, expressed in his very vibrant and very alive soul that has not departed. He is not falling towards death but rather fighting it and refusing it. He is simply not ready.
The man I know feels bereft. He is no longer able to drive. He feels hemmed in, somehow…helpless. Is there any need to dress? Will tomorrow be the same? What of my regrets? Did I work long enough? Do I care that I never went overseas?
The film, LUCKY, throws up new possibilities about getting old. Where routine can be broken and new things and places can be discovered. It doesn’t all have to be futile. For me? All I ask for is the crossword and a pen and a few books if I can still read, and I hope I will still like to talk to other people, but part of me suspects, probably not.
When I walk around shopping centres, in particular, I think about ageing. It’s because here I see teenagers, boys and girls, strutting around, looking for cool clothes and meeting up, maybe seeing a film. They are a world away from getting old, and they know it. Old people have zero significance in their life. The old, grey-haired woman with the walking frame and the slightly sour expression means absolutely nothing to them. They don’t even see her- or, for that matter, the old man in the grey cardigan with balding hair who has allowed his eyebrows to grow wild, as well as the hair in his ears. They are invisible, unless they accidentally stumble and fall, in which they would become a spectacle. Old age, like this, is a world away for them, and they don’t think about it. Like the young Simon and Garfunkel singing OLD FRIENDS- ‘how terribly strange to be seventy’. They surmised that at seventy you would become a ‘bookend’- now, though, they probably see it as not being as old as they once thought (Garfunkel was born in 1941, Simon a month earlier) which makes them both 76. Now, are they both bookends, on park benches?
These teenagers at the shopping centre have a grandfather or grandmother, or Nonno, or Nonna, etc. Living in Rome as a teenager in the 30’s or 40’s, Nonna probably sat on the Spanish Steps in her short skirt, exhibiting almost the exact behaviour as her future granddaughter in Melbourne, or Sydney, etc seventy or eighty years hence.
Someone said the other day- it might have been Barry Humphries- that this is the era of ageism. And I think he is probably right.