I’ve just finished Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty. As with Le Guin’s book, he was in his mid-eighties when it was published and like her he has died since. I bought his book shortly after it became available in 2014 but didn’t finish reading it; since I was only in my late 60s I may have had trouble relating to it, but no longer. Aging is its background, and often foreground, theme but it’s a collection of short pieces on whatever interested him at the time, again, much like Le Guin’s. He can be extremely funny and I always appreciate that when done well. Also, his good humor stands out as especially laudable when seen in the context of the physical impairments brought to him with age. He was a mess as far as mobility and keeping upright were concerned. He seems almost the stereotypical old guy in many ways, what with dropping lit cigarettes down reading chairs, giving up driving after two wrecks in a few months, falling regularly, having to perambulate with a walker and, if going any distance for any time, being moved about in a wheelchair. He must have been charming for he was uncommonly fortunate in finding an array of admirable women as either lady-friend or paid helper to assist with his care. All of which, from time to time, he could laugh about then and take me along with him now, after he has gone. Early in the book he sets his tone: “…old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. 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.” My thoughts exactly. I am surprised but coming to believe that this last stage of life is the most interesting one. Launching a career had its excitement as did changing career and moving, marrying, and maturing (a process that takes a lifetime). But aging reflects on the preceding stories and engenders new ones; the ceremony Hall speaks of encompasses losses but also gains in understanding and newly charged awareness of the importance of details and moments, what’s worth concerning yourself with and what’s not. He was an accomplished man with many honors and pride about it but not vanity. I don’t know what his last days were like but I’ve no doubt he managed them with dignity and humor. He’d written many books and knew that each one had its last chapter and that it was good to have written them.

Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash

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