©2013 By Bob Litton
I will reach — perhaps peak at — seventy-four next Sunday. Let that announcement be a warning that you can expect a heavy dose of “navel-gazing” in this, my last post of the year, maybe last post ever.
I was sitting in one of the two rocking chairs at Judy’s Bread and Breakfast cafe this morning, sipping my honey-sweetened coffee and reading D.H Lawrence’s Women in Love for about the fourth time. I had read it first back in the 1960s. The novel had enthralled me, mostly through what I perceived to be its perfectly balanced structural architectonics. I was a history major at the time, and when I returned to the university for a master’s degree in English literature, I chose Lawrence as the subject for my thesis largely because I had admired that particular novel. Naturally, I had to reread it a couple of times, along with other of Lawrence’s novels, stories and essays, to complete my thesis. Although I liked some of the other writings, Women in Love remained preeminent in my estimation.
Now here was I forcing myself to finish the last thirty pages of that novel. Why? Why did I have to force myself? Forty-two years of changes in the world and my own maturation is the only answer I can offer. I can no longer perceive the “architectonics” of that novel; rather, mostly what I see is a drum-beat of repetition and a whole cast of characters obsessed with their own ambivalences, their alternations between hate and love. It is a very dreary world: but Lawrence’s attitude can be understood, I believe, when one considers that the book was written during World War I and that Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, were hounded all over England.
But neither Lawrence nor Women in Love is my primary topic here: change due to aging is.
In an essay I published here on December 2, “Looking Backward”, I noted how many items and experiences we had enjoyed in our youth lose their luster over the years. I still do not understand why that should be the case, especially to the extensive degree that it holds true: I mean, the degrading of some items and experiences I can understand, but a massive load of them? Give me a break!
Surely, I thought as I sat in that rocking chair this morning, surely we should be able to retain something of value and true to the fact as it first appeared; it should not all be flushed away. If the face of everything fades or gets distorted over time, then what is the point of ever liking something in the first place?
That thought led me to wondering if I could point to anything — hopefully, many things — I had learned during my seventy-four years that was still valuable. One possibility was a comment that I had heard from two people, at different times but still similar almost verbatim. One young lady, speaking to her mother in my presence about a boy in her high school class, said, “He is brilliant, but he hasn’t got any common sense.” On another occasion about thirty years later, an elderly woman, speaking of her daughter, told me, “She’s brilliant but she hasn’t got any common sense.” Since that second instance, by its exactness and remoteness in time, seemed to strongly support the first, I deduced that such a quality in humans must be at least somewhat common. I even could see the quality in myself; for, even though several people through the years — from one of my Chinese professors at Yale University to a tradesman in a Dallas pub — have remarked that I was very intelligent, others have been exasperated by my inability to perform the most common of everyday tasks.
While I was sitting there in the rocking chair pondering that and similar episodes, a customer, who was standing in line, waiting to make his order at the counter, addressed me, “What are you reading?”
“Women in Love…by D.H. Lawrence,” I replied, with a rather doleful smile on my face.
“Do you like it?” the customer asked.
“I can’t stand it now, although at one time…many years ago…I enjoyed it very much; I can’t imagine why now. I am forcing myself through it. It’s awfully cynical.”
The man smiled and said, “My son says I am cynical. He’s twenty-four. ‘Just wait a few years’, I tell him.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll be turning seventy-four in a few days, and I’ve been trying to recall whatever I’ve learned during all those years, but it seems that the lessons I’ve learned…well, there never is an occasion to apply them. The problems that develop are never the same; they are different.”
“That’s true,” the customer said. “I’ll have to write that down.”
Many people over the centuries have asserted that aging and experience foster wisdom, but all I can say is I am still waiting: So where is the wisdom?