My cousins visited this weekend for the first time in months, a needed visit for all of us. We laughed and played and enjoyed one another. We talked a lot, too, into the wee hours. We talked about sweet memories, of course, remembering so many good and fun times. We talked about old boyfriends and childhood disagreements and family idiosyncrasies.
I think we talked most about aging and the physical and emotional changes it brings. We lamented it, of course, and wished it away. We cursed it just a bit, and tried in vain to find ways around it. In the end, we agreed that we can’t get around it, but just have to go through it. Right through the middle of it until the pathway ends.
Right smack dab in the middle of dialogue about age spots, edema, muscle pain and a plethora of bodily ills, we stopped, suddenly realizing that there must be more to the aging process than physical symptoms. Where is life’s meaning when we draw nearer to life’s end? How do we grow old held by the same grace that held us when we were children, young adults, middle aged?
I came across an intriguing word this morning in an NPR article. The word is Lastingness What an astounding word to ponder. Perhaps we should consider lastingness instead of aging. Various creative artists are the subjects of Nicholas Delbanco’s latest book, Lastingness: The Art of Old Age. Delbanco examines artists who either maintained or advanced their work past the age of 70 — from Claude Monet, to Giuseppe Verdi, to Georgia O’Keeffe. Because I am an artist, I was captivated by the idea of lastingness, especially when Delbanco told the story of Monet’s later years.
Delbanco writes that French impressionist Claude Monet — who painted well into his 80s, even after his vision was clouded by cataracts — created some of his most well-known works in the last decades of his life. After a long career as a renowned and financially successful artist, Monet retreated to the beloved gardens of his home in Giverny, 20 miles outside of Paris. His gardens became his artistic obsession. It was Monet’s failing eyesight that posed the greatest threat to his work. “He became more or less legally blind as we would describe it now,” Delbanco says. “So Monet compensated for, or focused on, the visible world in very different ways in his older age.” The works Monet created in his last years at Giverny are regarded as masterpieces.
In the last decades of his life, French impressionist painter Claude Monet focused much of his work on the water lilies in his garden at Giverny. He continued painting well into his 80s, even after his vision had been clouded by cataracts.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Monet’s exquisite impressionist paintings eventually ended because of his cataracts. The poet Lisel Mueller has captured Monet’s cataract story brilliantly, in “Monet Refuses the Operation.” As of 1919, the Monet was urged to have the cataracts attended to; in 1923 he had operations on his right eye, and glasses improved his eyesight — but only briefly, fitfully, and he had trouble distinguishing color. Mueller’s poem begins:
Doctor, you say there are no haloes
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being . . .
I don’t know exactly what “lastingness” means, but I think it might mean seeing haloes glowing around street lights or the ”vision of gas lamps as angels.” I’m pretty sure it means learning to look at life as softened and blurred, banishing life’s sharp edges. Perhaps “lastingness” means that my writing or my art will have a lasting impact on the world. Maybe it means that I will pass on my wisdom to my grandchildren. Or that the child I helped recover from long-term sexual abuse will find happiness in her life. Perhaps “lastingness” means that my faith in God will carry me to the grace that is the end of life. That kind of “lastingness” brings a kind of peace to my aging, a grace that assures me that aging is much more than painful joints and aching muscles. “Lastingness” is holier than physical afflictions and I think it blurs and softens them until they are tolerable.
When I cannot find the right words, I can always count on Bishop Steven Charleston to write them.
I see more clearly, now that I am aging. Not with my eyesight, but with my soul. I see the fine detail of what I missed in younger years. I see the place of faith and forgiveness in my story. I see the possibilities of life in ways I never imagined. I was not blind in my youth, but my vision was limited to only a few seasons of seeing. Now I am an old man standing on a hill. I see more clearly. The universe stretches above me in infinite glory and the Earth spreads her shawl to wrap me in creation. Open the eyes of your spirit. Look out in wonder. See the fullness of the life you have received. See the promise of love walking in beauty before you.
Bishop Charleston’s words might just be the very best description of ”lastingness.” Maybe “lastingness” means that because I am aging, I now see not only with my eyesight, but with my soul. Maybe it means that now I can clearly see the fullness of the life I have received and the promise of lasting grace holding me close.
Even to your old age I will be the same,
And even to your graying years I will bear you!
I have done it, and I will carry you;
And I will bear you and I will deliver you.
— Isaiah 46:4 —