A chunk of Penelope Lively’s memoir Dancing Fish and Ammonites deals with the challenges of being over 80 years old. In addition to advanced aches and pains, Lively writes about how the rest of society deals with the elderly, and how it feels like the world is leaving one behind.
As if jinxed by Lively’s memoir, yesterday I felt like I was 47 going on 80. I decided to take advantage of John being out of town to go have a nice long dig through ‘the annex’ at a local used bookshop. I was stunned, however, when I showed up and the formerly chaotic annex had been sorted and organized and priced. Previously the annex was a large space with tall shelves with three rows of books on each shelf, absolutely no order whatsoever, and a pricing scheme that put all paperbacks at $2 and all hardcovers at $4. And it was a glorious. The thing I loved best was not the prices, but the fact that the books were so not sorted that there was often treasures lurking for those of us who like unwanted, forgotten, probably never very popular books that aren’t even all that pretty to look at. When it sunk in that the chaotic mess was a thing of the past I got deeply sad. Not only was this fun (for me) activity now impossible, but it became clear that there would no room in the newly organized shelves for those books that I love to find. They recognize the classics, and the modern classics, and the popular, but the possibility of coming across an R.C. Sherriff, or a Cecil Roberts, or a D.E. Stevenson or even lesser known authors than this esoteric bunch was all but zero. The staff was completely incapable of understanding what I was looking for and pointed me to Victorian-era books no one wants to read but that have pretty spines. And they pointed me to the rare book room. And they pointed me towards the fiction section. It flashed before my eyes that all those books I hope to stumble across would end up as pulp, or as props at a furniture store, or sold as books by the foot to decorators.
I didn’t leave empty handed, it was a bookstore after all, but I did leave feeling like a little bookish part of me had been dulled and a tad depressed. Flashing forward a hundred years I decided to drown my sorrows in Dairy Queen at a nearby mall and thought I would take the opportunity to upgrade my smart phone. I was first a little annoyed by the fact that shopping malls no longer seem to believe in directories or garbage cans. Both were few and far between. Then I get to the Apple store and the 12-year old working there made me feel about 500 years old. I could feel the old man shame creep into my face as I gave him my Hotmail address. I might as well have told him my phone number was KLondike 5-3452. When we discovered that my 8,000 digit Verizon password is not one I have memorized, he suggested I go to the Verizon kiosk and upgrade my phone there. At Verizon, the 16-year old working there made me feel not only old but really dumb. Do they have to talk that fast? Do they have to assume that everyone knows everything about everything about telephony? I might as well have offered him a Werther’s Original as I stuck a used Kleenex into the sleeve of my cardigan.
Perhaps I shouldn’t use the average age of the typical mall employee as a reference point for my own place in the world (don’t get me started on my misadventure in the food court or my failed attempt to buy running shoes at the Foot Locker). As I thought about it later, one of the things I found troubling was the fact that in none of these interactions were any of the people engaging with me aware of anything about me. They all misunderstood or didn’t hear what I was saying. They couldn’t recognize anything emanating from me: hope, friendliness, confusion, frustration, resignation. I’m not trying to make a comment on the state of customer service or the youth of today, or anything like that (that would make me sound like a cranky old guy). But I really do feel like got a glimpse of what life is going to be like when I really do get to old age.
To cap the day off, I had a bit of a nightmare last night. I don’t remember what I was dreaming, but it was one of those situations where my mind wakes up before my body does. Where I am aware that my body is asleep and that I want to wake up but as much as I try and call out (scream) or move my body, my vocal chords and my body won’t respond quickly enough. If it goes on too long it begins to feel like being buried alive. As I was struggling to make my limbs move and my voice audible, I kept thinking that surely John, lying next to me, would wake me from my disturbed dream–a comforting thought in my panic. When I finally did wake up with a shout I realized that I was in bed alone. Remember, John is out of town. As I stumbled to the bathroom I was relieved to be awake, but also haunted by the notion that isolation, both literal and figurative can be a big part of old age. Invisible during the day and trapped in a nightmare at night.
Dancing Fish and Ammonites by Penelope Lively
There is nothing in Lively’s memoir of old age that is as depressing as what I have written above. Lively is a delightful writer who puts a spin on her past, present, and shortish future that is humorous, enlightening, and comforting. Like much of her fiction, this memoir dabbles in the vagaries of memory, personal history, History with a capital H, and includes a the musings of a highly literate, creative, thoughtful mind. She makes me wish I were her friend. I will forgive the fact that she writes that she once enjoyed Pym’s novels, but now can’t stand them.
Judgment Day by Penelope Lively
One of my reading resolutions for the year was to read every month an author bio/memoir/diary/etc. and then follow it with one of their novels. There were only 2.5 days left of January when I remembered this was one of my resolutions and grabbed an unread Lively off my shelves. Judgment Day is basically a slice in time of village life. A group of lives that intersect in mundane and profound ways. Not only does the cast include the interesting-to-me newcomer to the village archetype, but it also includes one of my favorite situations: the closed off/hardened heart open/melted by unforeseen circumstances. I enjoyed every minute of the book and got emotionally caught up in the characters’ lives. And on top of that, it made me want to be a better person–a little more giving and forgiving.