Destination Death

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    To This Favor by William Michael Harnett, 1879 (Wikipedia)

Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble keeps a skull on her desk, one of many sent her by her followers, and believes that the words ”You are going to die,” can give comfort. These are part of her mission to revive the practice of memento mori, Latin meaning “Remember you will die.” As a practice, a memento mori object reminds us to consider  death daily and that life will end. Thus we learn to value the present as well as the future. Sister Aletheia argues that we tend to think of our lives as continuing and continuing, but confronting the inevitability of death, as opposed to pretending it doesn’t exist, leads us to a deeper understanding of our lives.

Sister Aletheia Noble is forty years old. As I think back to my forties, I don’t remember that I thought excessively about death, although the black colored themes and cards we send on 40th birthdays suggest that forty is a transitional age, when we at least acknowledge our mortality. Now, in my mid-seventies, every day brings me manifestations of aging, from the mundane wrinkles, to the chronic, aching knees and hips, slowing steps, and consciousness about falling. All of which, in their entirety, lead to diminished mobility, the inability to experience life as we once did. For me, the Tiger Tail foam roller on my desk is as good as a skull, because it reminds me of where gradual physical changes lead, that I am mortal, and that death is my ultimate destination. 

Interestingly, I came across the Sister while looking for information about people who maintain exceptional physical fitness into old age. I was back from a week at a cabin on Lake Superior and had done both some easy and quite strenuous hiking, including the seemingly innocent path from the cabin down to the lake shore.

For the first time in my many visits to the cabin, I felt hesitant, even a tad scared. The path starts with a series of steps with a handrail and becomes a long needle-covered slope descending to a rocky barrier with the necessity of almost scooting, legs first, (at least for me) over the rocks to the beach itself.

To my 77-year-old judgment, the path looked doable, but deceptively so, because one wrong step, one foot mistakenly placed or unable to hold its position, would lead to a long slide ending at or on those rocks. And, at my age, that wouldn’t be a pretty ending.

With the help of a hiking stick, something I wouldn’t have used in my younger years, I made it down the path—more than once—and enjoyed the beauty of Lake Superior, the thrill of the icy water on my feet, and basking on rocks in the spring sunshine. But I didn’t attempt the path at night, as much as I wanted to gaze at the spectacular night sky. Instead, I enjoyed it from the driveway. Later, thinking about my hesitancy and realizing that the path will only get more difficult as I get older, I asked myself, how long will you be able to do this, Karen? 

The internet is full of answers to this question and full of examples of elderly people running marathons, swimming the English Channel, lifting enormous weights—you name it. But impressive as these are, my sense is that such achievements require unquestioned and total commitment—24/7 if you will. Which reminded me of our old friend, “purpose.” These people clearly have a sense of purpose and it’s all about the physical challenge, making the infirmities of old age seem optional.

Which leads me to ask how facing death on a daily basis, whether it’s contrived as in the Sister’s revival of memento mori or simply the harbingers of death as we age, affect how we construct our old age. I respect that some people find a big purpose in exceptional physical fitness to which they devote their remaining time (although I sometimes wonder if this is a way of ignoring the reality of destination death), but for me, as much as I treasure all the wonderful activities the body allows us to do, as I age, I want to stay open to new callings that could potentially replace lost abilities. So what if eventually I can’t navigate a difficult trail? I can still mentor my grandchildren and the occasional student. I can learn rosemaling, tutor middle schoolers, enjoy Bridge, enjoy my friends and family, publish an occasional article and read books that make me think. My days balance small purposes, the “little p’s,” that make up a life. As May Sarton says, “I have work to do and a constant response to it that makes me feel that life has meaning.”

When my mother was nearing the end of her life, if we planned something like an all-night wedding reception or party that would keep her up late, we’d ask her if she wanted to attend because we worried she’d get too tired. She was always up for it. She’d say, “I’m going to spend a long time asleep in my grave. I want to be awake for my life.” She didn’t need a skull on her desk to be reminded of her mortality. Part of aging is facing our deaths gradually – very gradually. Aging does slow us down; it incrementally steals once taken-for-granted skills. The challenge is to stay immersed in living while knowing the inevitable ending.

Big P, Little p, or What I Make of It All

The ubiquity of retirement “experts” telling seniors they need a purpose borders on tiresome. Hammering about purpose as necessary for giving meaning to life seems quite male to me, a sort of Big P (and I don’t have to tell you what else begins with p). It’s as though the adjustment to retirement converges on this one construct—Purpose—as a solution. But what if my way of adjusting to retirement is constructed from my web of relationships, interests, opportunities, family, etc? What if it’s not only ONE big purpose that drives me and helps the world, but a series of small day-to-day purposes, little p’s. To me that would be a more female way to consider the idea of purpose.

Trying to scrub the Big P notion out of my mind and come to what gives me meaning led me to recall three women whose careers I’ve followed closely, probably because they are writers, but also because their lives took such different paths where purpose is concerned: Rachel Carson, Carolyn Heilbrun, and May Sarton. I’ve listed them in the order that they entered my life, because recalling them in that order has helped me form my idea of Big P, little p. 

I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota when I read Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring. I remember reading it during those big lectures of 300 or more students in biology, underlining it frantically; reading it whenever I had a break in my day; carrying it everywhere with me.

Carson, a woman with a Big P, believed that the rampant escalation of chemical use in our environment was harming the biosphere—she called these chemicals biocides. Carson wrote much of Silent Spring while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for breast cancer.  She kept her illness quiet because she thought if the chemical industry knew, they would claim she had a personal vendetta in writing the book.  In fact, her entire career of nature writing culminated in this book. Sadly, Carson died of her cancer two years after the book was published.

As an idealistic freshman, Carson inspired me to want to do something big that would make the world better; I think we all hold similar aspirations at that point in our lives.  My direction turned out to be marriage, family, and teaching school, most of which kept me busy enough that I didn’t pause often to reflect on whether I was changing the world. I kept putting one foot forward—after all, aren’t raising happy, well-adjusted children and educating the young gifts to the world?

Many life events and years later, I encountered the Kate Fansler mysteries, written by Amanda Cross, a pseudonym for Carolyn Heilbrun, a professor at Columbia, and the first woman tenured in the English department. 

At the time, I was working on my Ph.D. so reading mysteries by a professor had special appeal. Later, during my MFA studies, I ran into Heilbrun again, this time in her book, Writing a Woman’s Life. Then, as I reached my late 60’s I encountered her a third time in The Last Gift of Time: Life Beyond Sixty. This was the book that held my attention. The prologue is essentially an argument for life being over at 70.  She notes, “is it not better to leave at the height of well-being rather than contemplate the inevitable decline and the burden one becomes upon others?” She also states, “I was—and am—one of those for whom work is the essence of life.” And that I think is where she sold short the possibilities life affords. Heilbrun committed suicide at age 77 by taking a sedative and putting a plastic bag over her head. She left a note that read, “The journey is over. Love to all.” 

I read about Heilbrun’s suicide mid stroke on my exercycle—She really did it. She meant what she said. It took me days to process her suicide.  I even wrote about it in my application to the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. Heilbrun had much to live for, a loving husband and family, grandchildren, good health, a successful career, respect, etc. It made no sense to me to define one’s life solely in terms of work, which I presume she did.  Once she anticipated a decline in the Big P of work, she wasn’t willing to construct a life that included both some, though less, Big P and also more of the many little p’s of everyday living. She was and still is for me a cautionary tale about nurturing both curiosity and flexibility.

Which brings me to my last admired female writer, May Sarton. I know Sarton primarily through her journals, which many critics believe to be the best of her 53 books, most of which are novels and books of poetry.

Starting with I Knew a Phoenix, published in 1959 until her last journal, At Eighty-Two, published in 1997, two years after her death, Sarton chronicled aging, isolation, solitude, friendship, building and loving a home, relationships and more. What stands out for me is that although Sarton started out with the Big P of an ambitious writer, she matured into a person who accepted, albeit with regret, that her work was not considered part of the literary canon of her time, and she went on to cultivate the many little p’s of her life. Her journals charm with details of daily life: ordering bulbs for the garden; walks with her beloved dog, Tamas; visits and long talks with lifelong friends; keeping a lively correspondence, sometimes with complete strangers; and following the antics of her various cats and neighborhood critters around her secluded house in Nelson and later on the coast of Maine. These were the small p’s of the solitude she captured in her journals into old age. I keep a Sarton journal next to my bed and read some every night before turning out the light.

I’m not writing to criticize anyone who has a Big P in their life. No way, it’s a gift. I myself will always sustain a passion for teaching and writing, the stuff of Big P. But I am arguing that a web of little p’s has the substance of a Big P and of a life well-lived. A few days ago, I woke up excited to attend my grandson’s senior speech—before the Corona Virus put a lock on outside life.  I had an exciting small p purpose for my day. Now, as I recall the day with my family, the speech, the cheers, the hugs, the brunch after, I realize that while the search for a new Big P to enliven retirement has been, for me, akin to finding a four-leafed clover in my lawn of Creeping Charly, most days I have little p’s everywhere. I walk my dog around a lake that changes with the seasons; I have lively lunches with friends; I enjoy dinners and vacations with family. My latent Big P for writing and teaching will always be part of me, and meanwhile, every day has something to savor, right until the moment when my cat walks across my face before settling at my feet for the night.