“It’s an interesting question—what one tries to do, in writing a letter—partly of course to give back a reflection of the other person.”
Virginia Woolf to Gerald Brenan, October 4, 1929 from The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume 4, 1929 - 1931, edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann
After posting yesterday's letter to you, I found myself continuing to write to you in my imagination. And so I start this letter, knowing that you've never minded finding my handwriting in your letter box. Let us call this a postscript to my last missive.
It is a coolish day today, and I am feeling awake after a full night’s sleep. What a treat! How wonderful to feel “normal” or at least what I think might be normal. How would I know? How would I recognize it? Certainly there are no clues in my writing, none in my morning thoughts, which this morning were about the Dickman Sisters—the missing twin, specifically—and then I wondered what might really have happened. Shaken baby syndrome? I must look it up.
Today I’ll write with Cousin at the Center, starting in a new notebook. Remind me to never write again in a large format (8 1/2 x 11) notebook, especially one with blank pages instead of lined or grid. What was I thinking! I thought I’d never finish the damned thing, and in fact didn’t. On Tuesdays when I write with Cousin, I feel determined to finish this larger one before going to the new one—smaller format, perfectly spaced lines, purple (which makes it easy to find in my bag)—and then I come home and toss the big one aside, seeiming always to have at least 20 blank pages left to fill. So I said to hell with it and have packed the new one for today’s writing.
Do you think it takes egotism to write letters? Or to keep a blog?
“My letters have been awful—I know dreary invalidish egotism.”
Virginia Woolf to Vita Sackville-West, February 15, 1929
But what is there to say if we don’t write about ourselves and our thoughts and opinions? What is letter writing all about? And if I write to you about this ever-changing and mysterious process of aging, if I tell you of my experience, I might sound like I am complaining, but really I am also asking for your experiences and insights. Share with me. Laugh with me. Comfort me. Tell me how arthritis has made it impossible for you to play the guitar, and I feel your sadness and share the loss. Laugh with me about constantly having to cup my hand around my ear to hear someone across a lunch table. Have I told you my eyesight is much less than it was? And it was never that much to begin with! You may remember that I started wearing glasses for nearsightedness when I was just 10 years old, ugly things—that cat’s eye lifting at the outer edges that never looked good on any one, especially a shy and ungainly 10-year-old. Now I rarely drive at night for fear that I won’t discern the road from the construction cones and I’ll drive into a ditch—or worse, into the back end of a big truck dumping gravel. This morning before I got out of bed, I tried to check my email on my iPhone and couldn’t read a word. I rubbed my eyes—like that would help!
But more than the daily frustrations, I am interested in how we see the world as we age, how our own aspirations change—or disappear—and how this is not necessarily a bad thing. A much younger friend once told me about her grandmother’s depression, and I suggested that it must be frustrating to know that there were things she could no longer do. My friend snapped at me: “Grandmother can do anything she wants to do! Age has nothing to do with it.” All well and good when you’re 40 and only beginning to notice that little clicking noise in your right knee as you walk upstairs (I used to imagine it came from tap-dancing mice). “No,” I said to her, (gently, I think). “She can’t.”
In some ways our worlds grow smaller as we age—sometimes literally. I no longer take walks. I’ve mostly stopped driving at night. Traveling by plane exhausts me. Blaze told me recently about her trip to California, about wandering all over San Francisco, and I remembered how it was to walk the Financial District, to hop on a cable car, to climb those almost hidden stairs between hedges that took you from one steep street to another. And here’s what this takes me to: As my world has grown smaller physically, it has grown larger in other respects—deeper, wider, softer, and so much more interesting and complex. I read and have time to contemplate what I read. I sleep—well, when I can sleep—until noon, if necessary, and in the waking space—that foyer between sleep and not-sleep, I find a world I never knew when my hours were circumscribed by the ringing of an alarm clock in the morning and the setting of the same alarm at night. That drift is like lying on my belly on a raft in calm water, listening to small splashes, watching my own thoughts swim by like darting fish.
It’s too easy to complain that the world is moving past us, leaving us behind, maybe throwing us away. It’s too easy and just plain wrong. My age doesn’t make me invisible, but my attitude about my age can. And then I ask myself just who or what I want to be visible to in the first place. I no longer need LinkedIn, a résumé, or a network. I don’t need business cards, “work” clothes, or the ability to suffer fools. And I get excited when I talk with friends my age who have created rich lives for themselves—outside the box, the cubicle, the office, and the office Christmas party.
I wanted you to know that I’ve decided to take grace as my new password, my morning entrance into the day. We’ve entered a place one can get to only by living long enough. But there is more, so much more. Please tell me what you think.
You are dear to me.
“Take away my affections and I should be like sea weed out of water; like the shell of a crab, like a husk. All my entrails, light, marrow, juice, pulp would be gone. I should be blown into the first puddle and drown. Take away my love for my friends and my burning and pressing sense of the importance and lovability and curiosity of human life and I should be nothing but a membrane, a fibre, uncoloured, lifeless to be thrown away like any excreta.”
Virginia Woolf letter to Ethel Smythe, December 1931