Last evening we had some friends over — a couple who teach history at the local university, and a man who, in some measure, is responsible for my decision to begin writing. He is 78 or 79, elfin in appearance, but with a penetrating look that speaks of depths of experience and understanding that I cannot begin to fathom. He was a child of the holocaust — an Austrian jew who, as a child, was taken by his mother to England to escape the spreading darkness of Nazism. He spent some time in the camps, as I remember, and ended up in the United States where he has worked in the union cause as an editor, and with the Ojibwe tribe here in northern Minnesota as the coordinator of housebuilding efforts during the halcyon days of government programs during the sixties.
The other friends who were at dinner teach history; he manifests it. He is an historical artifact in the best sense of the term: the passage of time is etched in his face and his memory, and is part of the warp and woof of his life experience. A person could do worse than studying his life as a way to understand America in the last fifty years. But, more than that, listening to him and trying to understand the world as he sees it is to gain an insight into our contemporary life that can be attained in no othe way.
Then, today, I was at the local recreation center where I huff and puff on various weight machines in an effort to hold off the ravages of my own encroaching age. A man was sitting next to me in the locker room and we struck up a conversation about the trials and travails of the various exercises we do. He was old and sagging, but, like our dinner guest, he had an immeasurable depth in his gaze. He happened to mention that swimming was his therapy. “I’ve been doing it for over eighty years,” he said. The math, though not exact, was easy: he had to be at least eighty five, maybe more. He was pleased to enter into a conversation with someone. Since it’s a university recreation center, most of the people using it are somewhere around twenty. A sagging, balding old man whose skin is stretched tight and mottled over his skull is not a person with whom most of them would strike up a conversation. But I, being closer to his age, was better able to see past the age to the man himself.
It’s a funny thing, aging. In the cases of both these men there is a wealth of knowledge and experience. But neither of them looks like Bertrand Russell or Arturo Toscanini. They just look like old men. And because of that, they are seen as elderly rather than wise.
I’m not about to make some romantic claim that all old people are fonts of wisdom. But it is true that a certain understanding comes with age. We have not been where they are, but, at least chronologically, they have been where we are. They understand something fundamental about me, just as I understand something fundamental about the strapping, headphoned twenty year olds with whom I share that exercise room.
The look that I saw in the eyes of both those older men in the past two days was a look of people who know they are societally irrelevant, but know that they understand something essential that the rest of us have yet to comprehend. They have simply accepted the fact that they are not likely to be sought out by the younger generations to share what it is that they have come to understand. Their time has come and passed, and few of the younger generations want more from them than reminiscences.
I was pleased to speak to both these men. I hope I did them honor in our conversations. I hope, too, that I was listening to them for what they can teach me about life, not merely for what they can reveal as witnesses to the past. They both rest strongly in my memory, more strongly than any other human interaction that I have had in the last two days. Their respective mortality is so close to the surface that it echoes in some deep and irreducible part of my own being.
And then, there are those eyes. “The lamp of the body,” as we are taught. But more, the reflection of the spirit. And it’s not what they see, it’s the depth they reveal. In both cases, I felt both judged and understood. It was disconcertingly calming. It somehow said, “It’s okay that you are who you are, because you are where you should be for your stage in life.” It was the kind of ratification that I hope to give my son as I see him moving through choppy waters — a look of understanding that says, “You are not alone.”
It’s so easy to dismiss these looks that come from our elders. We live so strongly within the boundaries of our own experience. If we long for anything, it is usually a time past, when we were younger and not yet shackled by some of the crazy decisions we have made. We seldom long for a future where our bodies are less, but our spirits and insight are more. Yet, that future is there. It’s in the eyes of those who have lived longer, seen more, and come closer to a resolved understanding of their place and purpose on this planet.
I feel better as a man, better as a human being, and filled with a new sense of challenge and responsibility for having had the encounters with those two old men. I feel observed, and, in a strange way, ratified. They have given me the gift of their witness. May I take that gift, learn from it, and find a way to pass it on to my son, to other young men, to all those who come behind me, thinking they are discovering a world that has never been seen before.