By: Victoria Smith
I’m writing this column on the eve of my 57th birthday. And my God, I do feel old! How fitting then to seek solace in Yeats’ poem:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep, And nodding by the fire, take down this book, And slowly read, and dream of the soft look Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep; How many loved your moments of glad grace, And loved your beauty with love false or true, But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face; And bending down beside the glowing bars, Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled And paced upon the mountains overhead And hid his face amid a crowd of stars. (W.B. Yeats, 1893)
I must admit I rediscovered this poem by simply googling “poems about aging” (yes, this is a confession of the deficiencies of my literary memory!), compelled by an urgent need for inspiration that could help me see the good from getting old. For what, if not this terrible state of senescence, is symptomized by increasing joint pains, forgetfulness of where I’d put things away or why I’m even in a particular room in my house, and—the surest sign of obsolescence: my alarming expanding ignorance of who apparently are otherwise considered famous pop stars and celebrities?
I was struck that Yeats had used the phrase, “pilgrim soul” because, oddly enough, the title of my first poetry collection is, “Warrior Heart, Pilgrim Soul: An Immigrant’s Journey”. When I decided to entitle my poetry collection as such, I swear I wasn’t remembering Yeats’ poem, or at least I wasn’t consciously thinking of it (I’d read the poem in high school, which since receded to the fuzzy folds of my brain), and perhaps I’d accessed what Jung called, “the Collective Unconscious”. Wikipedia defines this as “a term coined by Carl Jung (that) refers to structures of the unconscious mind which are shared among beings of the same species”. How flattering to think I’m a “being of the same species” as the great master poet! And how shamelessly vain of me to even consider that Yeats anticipated someone like me when he wrote his poem, until of course I realized he was likely thinking of his muse—the beautiful actress, Maud Gonne, who’d declined his many marriage proposals yet remained a lifelong friend to him.
I believe we are all pilgrim souls, and that is why the poem resonates in many of us. Such designation suggests pilgrimage, reminding me that for all the triteness of the saying, life is indeed a journey and aging is only another stage of our adventure. Belonging to an older generation need not mean degeneration or irrelevance. In our society’s forever-young bias, however, it’s hard not to feel irrelevant sometimes.
Let’s remember though that “relevance” is a relational term. In other words, relevant to whom? The young may not think much of the old, but only the old could make themselves feel old and irrelevant to themselves. And this happens, I suspect, when one loses one’s childlike innocence and enthusiasm, against which the La Dolce Vita Sylvia- channeling character, Katherine, often warns Diane Lane’s heroine, Frances, in one of my favorite books-turned-into-movies, “Under the Tuscan Sun”.
I chanced upon the film while aimlessly and listlessly channel- surfing during my recent annual pre-birthday descent into depression. And wasn’t this just the pick-me-upper that I needed? I literally sobbed myself into cheerfulness! To me, the movie’s most sobering scene came in this exchange between Sandra Oh’s hilarious character, Patti, with her best friend, Frances:
“Patti: I think you’re in danger.
Patti: Of never recovering. You know when you come across one of those empty-shell people? And you think, ‘What the hell happened to you?’ Well, there came a time in each one of those lives where they were at a crossroads.
Frances: Crossroads. God, that is so ‘Oprah.’
Patti: Someplace where they had to decide to turn left or right. This is no time to be a chickenshit, Frances.”
So now, when I notice a new wrinkle on my face or another grey strand on my head, or my left knee fails me and I can’t get up for an embarrassing eternal moment, or I’m asking what else is left for me in life, I tell myself, “This is no time to be a chickenshit, Victoria!” It also occurs to me that the lover in Yeats’ poem that declares, “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, /And loved the sorrows of your changing face….” should be none other than we to ourselves. What does it matter how many still love us when we’re old, if we continue to love ourselves despite our changing faces and bodies?
Happy birthday, indeed, to me!
(All rights reserved. Copyright ©2018 by Victoria G. Smith. For updates on her author events & publications, go to VictoriaGSmith. com. “Like” her on Facebook at Author Victoria G. Smith. “Follow” her on Twitter @AuthorVGSmith)