I read the paperback edition of Donald Hall’s 2014 book, Essays After Eighty, within the last few weeks of 2015. A reading list was compiled during that summer, which didn’t include this newest of Hall’s publications. As happens with summer reading lists, it promptly extended itself into the fall and winter. More than a few titles from last year are now due to be held this summer in my hands, with morning coffee nearby or propped upon my lap before bed. However with Hall’s book I felt an urgency to take in his voice on the page immediately. It was also an unexpected purchase, and as I heard no complaint from the other books in queue, I followed his literary towpath into the world of the former Poet Laureate’s native New Hampshire town and into his home at Eagle Pond Farm.
His ancient and warm voice can be heard here, if you’d like to pair sound with his prose on the page. The essays are not terribly vast in their range but are bound by the horizon line of his current locality, his bodily state and the breadth of his memories. We return again and again to the landscape of his last few decades: to the barn of his grandfather’s farm; to the local roads he looks out on from a passenger seat window while being driven to physical therapy or the airport; to his farmhouse where mice and snakes scurry and wriggle their way across the floor while he searches for his dentures. What’s unique about the perspective of Hall’s voice in this book is his humility through the advance of his years. It is both self-deprecating and appreciative of his limiting dependence and diminishing energy.
While the end of our lives are never known (except perhaps by medical diagnosis or superstitious prophecy) we are freely given mountains of advice as to how to live it. For the devout especially conservative religious we are told to repent now and strive to live without blemish or sin in our actions and thoughts – for the next life. For the hedonistic, never mind the soul – you better live it up while you’re able to function, as the body is sure to wither away. Then, there is the strange cult of fitness that is the sort of flip side of the latter: eat well, watch your diet, don’t smoke, work out, drink smoothies, etc. Even if the body is going to pass away, it ought to be in the best possible condition! And for as long as it can exist. What is most common with all these prescriptions is this: whatever you are doing with your life probably ought to be changed before you die.
We never know when we’ll divest the planet of our consciousness, but while we age the reality of this fact makes different impressions to different people, and is often dependent more on our outer practices than our inner beliefs. In his essay titled “Death” Hall proclaims, “at some point in my seventies, death stopped being interesting.” Later he affirms that his activities in spite of the reality of old age are very much the same things he was doing in the middle of life – “I try not to break my neck. I write letters, I take naps, I write essays.” I was reminded of an interview by Q TV’s Jian Ghomeshi of CBC with Leonard Cohen (another brilliant human past the age of seventy) who quotes his deceased friend and poet Irving Layton that “it’s not death that he’s worried about, it’s the preliminaries.” It makes a good point about where our heads usually are – do we live life from death’s perspective with dread or see death from life’s vantage point? He later tells Jian,
Of course, everyone has to have a certain anxiety about the condition’s of one’s death-the actual circumstances, the pain involved, the effect on your heirs. But there’s so little you can do about it. It’s best to regulate those concerns to the appropriate compartments of the mind and not let them inform all your activities. We’ve got to live our lives as if they’re real, as if they’re not going to end immediately, so we have to live under those…some people might call them illusions.
I see in Donald Hall, Leonard Cohen (and another of my “Don’t Trust Anyone Younger Than 70” club: author, educator and essayist Marilynne Robinson) a number of great inspirations to me and others that while we are wading through life’s swampy marshes or traipsing through its golden landscapes, we will continue to fade. How we are or aren’t becoming to the inevitable is but a little difference of musculature in the face – either a tensing up to brace, or a relaxing into the pleasant smirk of acceptance.