Doug Bruns

“You will think of old men.”

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Wisdom on August 7, 2016 at 8:18 pm

It is commonly accepted that one should strive to “live in the now,” to “be present.” I don’t dispute this wisdom. There is a great deal of distraction in life and given enough rein, distraction will eventually snuff out the vibrancy that is life itself. Memories, it seems to me, are often put into the category of distraction. “Oh, she’s living the in past.” Or, “All he has left are his memories.” I am probably universally wrong on this, but it seems to me that we have been trained to keep our memories at arm’s length, that in some fashion memories are guilty pleasures that we are wrong to enjoy. The Proustian in me says, that is bull shit.

I sit this evening in the mountains of Colorado. The air is chill, even though it is August. Indeed, it is growing cold. I am outside and remembering summers past. I look through old notes and read old blog posts to jog my memory. Sometimes I feed memory like sometimes I pour myself a second bourbon. I know I shouldn’t–there’s that guilty pleasure–but I do because I want to. Tonight I am thinking of Maine on a summer evening and I miss it, even though this afternoon I photographed an elk with a five foot antler span.

I dreamt of my father last night and that is a form of memory, I think. I suspect experts know better, but I’ll not be dissuaded. Regardless, I have dreamt of my parents more often than not these days, certainly more than when they were alive. I have no idea what that means. But again, if that is a fashion of memory, then I embrace it. Is part of growing old the breaking down of resistance to reflect on the past with nostalgia? Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos, for return home. That seems at the core of many things.

No doubt these thoughts are sparked by four months on the road with no prospect of returning home any time soon. My father used to say that a certain place felt like home. He never said, as best as I can recall, that such and such a place was home. He desired to return to his roots, though he did not have a complete understanding as to what such a place was. He was eternally restless in such matters and I am restless too. To use a word my mother used, He was discombobulated. I am somewhat discombobulated too.

I was reading Seneca today. “The fool with all his other faults is always getting ready to live.” A bit further on he continues: “…you will think of old men who are preparing themselves at that very hour for a political career, or for travel, or for business. And what is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old?” What is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? I’ve read through this section repeatedly and cannot fully parse where he’s coming from. Yet, it seems to address this business of growing older and the attendant restlessness that I’ve noted. The wisdom of Seneca has withstood the ages so I’m going to give him the nod on this one. Yet it seems contrary, don’t you think? I suspect the old stoic would accept the fact in the mirror: You’re old. Face it. You’re not going to start getting ready to live.

It seems a curse of modern times that we are prompted to embrace eternal youth. Surgery, drugs, yoga, trophy spouses, fast cars, money, whatever–all seem to be evidence toward this notion. You’re not old, sixty is the new forty. I am sixty. I am not young, yet, with deference to Seneca,  I still occasionally throw out a scheme or plan to do something new. Today, in fact, Carole and I discussed living in a foreign country and learning its language. We went down to Boulder, a college town, and I talked about getting more education, or perhaps teaching something or other. What is baser than getting ready to live when you are already old? Tomorrow I am going to spend the morning fishing the Big Thompson, here in the high Rockies. That is not getting ready to live; that is living. Seneca would give me a wink, I think. Maybe I get it after all.

  1. Wink,wink

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Glad to hear your thoughts still drift to Maine summer evenings, Doug.

    As to the Seneca question, I don’t see Seneca as being contrary in his admonishment of old men preparing themselves to live. I am well acquainted with a 12-year-old boy whom Seneca would describe as an old man preparing himself to live. This youngster is cautious about making a mistake or looking foolish, thus hiding his talents from the world and from himself. Despite his young age, Seneca might call him a fool or an old man as he compulsively spends his time preparing for life without fully stepping out into it. Surely Seneca would applaud the person of any age who was preparing himself for a new interest binge in his/her life.

    Your focus on memories, combined with devising a scheme to do something new sounds exactly like mid-August, that most nostalgic and anticipatory time of the year: Back to School! Who can ever get rid of those childhood August feelings? The summer is almost over; days grow short; sadness is just below the surface, yet simultaneously we feel the excitement of new teachers, classmates, books, and activities.

    I am just finishing At Seventy, a thoughtful journal by the Maine author, May Sarton. She says,

    “The autumn of life is a matter of saying farewell but the strange thing is that I do not feel it is autumn. Life is so rich and full these days. There is so much to look forward to, so much here and now, and also ahead. I do not feel I am saying farewell yet but only beginning again, as it used to be when school started.”

    Sarton also describes the appearance and disappearance of different muses in her life. I liken her muses to my interest binges. They ebb and flow. A new one pops up, frequently after a time of quiet nostalgia. Like back to school days! She describes,

    “This morning I am fully aware that the presence of a muse literally opens the inner space, just as November light opens the outer space, and when the trees are leafless I am given a wide hemisphere of ocean. The clutter falls away. The nonessential things cease to trouble the mind. A miracle indeed.”

    Seneca would likely wink at more than fishing in your life. Sounds like your muse is hovering around you these mid-August days. I look forward to hearing more in Victor. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    • So many rich and textured thoughts here Susan. To focus on your–and May Sarton’s–thoughts of autumn: Autumn has always been my favorite of seasons. Why is that, I wonder? Part of it is the anticipation of winter, that cozy time when being indoors and enveloped in darkness is not a motivation for anything but quiet and contemplation, a time of year when one is given permission to be lazy. There is too, the forever notion of returning to school, sewn so deeply and completely into our being that even now I can imagine the joy of organizing a pencil box…or fly box, as the case may be. I appreciate your comments and guidance regarding this business of Seneca. The passage seems to suggest a surrender, I think, and that is what I found most difficult to embrace. Surrender seems core to so much of the Stoics, or rather the acknowledgement of surrender. They seem different, it seems. You are right, however. One must fully step out into life, mustn’t one? To continue my fishing metaphor, one must step into the stream (with a nod to Heraclitus) and into the current to cast to the hole where the trout lie. Growing old gives one the pleasure of contemplation, a depth of contemplation, that escapes the younger thinker, don’t you agree? There is pleasure to that I did not anticipate and I am grateful for that. It is one of the things going for us, eh? The rest of it, I can do without. Thank you, as always, for your well constructed thoughts. I look forward to talking with you in person soon. D

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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