The title of this column comes from Diana Athill’s book, a memoir she wrote at 89. She wrote with wry humor of her life and what it is like to grow old and face death. In her 60s, Athill still felt she was “in hailing distance of middle age”. But at age 71 she thought she was old and observed that scarlet lipstick can run into wrinkles around the mouth, making a woman look like a “vampire bat disturbed mid-dinner.” In her 80s, she learned that she could “write for fun.” As an editor, she worked with great writers, but never considered herself one, even though she was a published author. However, upon retiring at age 75, she wrote nine books. “Somewhere Towards the End” was sixth from the last book she wrote. It won the National Book Critics Circle and the Costa Book Awards. The last book she wrote was published when she was 98. She died at 101.
Another favorite of mine is the poet Donald Hall, who wrote “Essays after Eighty” and “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety.” Hall never reached 90; he died at 89. His books are a frank, humorous, and grumpy portrayal of the path to old age. “When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers.”
Hall was the author of 50 books. In 1975, at age 48, he left behind the University of Michigan, tenure and security, to write unfettered on a farm in New Hampshire, inherited from his grandparents. Through the years, books and awards piled up and at 78, he was appointed the nation’s Poet Laureate. And then, “New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two …
“It’s almost relaxing to know I’ll die fairly soon as it’s a comfort not to obsess about my next orgasm. I’ve been ambitious, and ambition no longer has plans for the future – except these essays. My goal in life is making it to the bathroom.”
For me, while still in “hailing distance of middle age” and before “somewhere towards the end,” I want to follow Diana Athill’s advice, “‘enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people.” With a mixture of sadness and happiness, I will be retiring as Director of the Kent Memorial Library in December.