Richard Pierce

Richard Pierce – author, poet, painter

Life, Writing

Trying (too hard) to grow old disgracefully

Dear Ren,

Two weeks ago, my alarm went after I’d got three hours of sleep after getting into JFK at 23:00 EST, getting a ride back to where I was staying, and settling in my room with a couple of bottles of Guinness and an easy route to the back door to indulge my need for nicotine as well. I set my alarm for 5:30 EST because my first meeting was before 8, and my body needs time to wake up.

Silver birches in Connecticut, the night I arrive

Thanks for your healing thoughts for my back which gave me no particular trouble while I was out there. It’s just very odd to have been back for 10 days and still to be feeling totally and utterly exhausted. Even two 3-mile runs at 11 minutes a mile don’t seem to have shaken off the cobwebs. But maybe there’s more to it than that anyway. Suffice to say that this is the longest M and I have been apart since I went on book tour to the US in 2012, and before that when I went to the Antarctic in January 2008.

The more than just that I’m referring to is this – time is passing so very very quickly, and yet to me it feels like this winter is dragging on forever, that the dark nights are getting no lighter, that the days aren’t getting any longer, that the optimistic taste of spring isn’t in the air yet, that the world instead is holding its breath for something bad yet to happen this season. I hope I’m wrong, but meltdowns are happening everywhere. And in the US I somehow felt even more keenly this clash, this conflict between absolute wealth and absolute poverty sitting there side by side, just waiting for something incendiary to happen. And then the whole world will be blown sky high. I hope I’m wrong, and we’ll all find some better way of creating equality and peace than violent conflict. Because any such conflict creates martyrs on either side, and that just perpetuates everything. Montagues and Capulets all over again, and on and on.

Anyway, I didn’t set out to be maudlin in this second letter bashed out straight to screen without my brain and hand having time to think and stop. I wanted to say I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write back (the backlog of work was huge when I got back, plus the symptoms above). I’m lucky to have been able to travel, when so many others have not, for want of funds, for want of understanding nations, etc etc. You see, there I go again. This has been a long winter of the soul – been going on since 24th June for those of us who don’t want Brexit to happen, I guess.

What I was going to say is that I’m convinced you’ll age much more gracefully than me – and I’m almost seven years ahead of you on that road, so I must be the expert. Much more graceful in thought and looks than me. I am that Dylan Thomas poem to the extreme

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at the close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Or maybe I try too hard to be. I always think being disgracefully old rather than gracefully old, like you will be, would suit me much better. I do remember my father being thrown out of some government employment offices when he was trying to sort something out for my younger sister; he told me he’d sworn at the person the other side of the counter (something like “why don’t you move your arse and do something about it”). He was over 80 at the time. Even if he made it up, the story still makes me smile – and I can’t imagine him making it up; he was too German and upstanding for that.
Last Friday I did something almost the same – K is having an issue at her school because I think the teachers don’t understand how to deal with a 17-year-old female creative who has ideas beyond the norm, and who (like me) doesn’t understand the need to go into school if there aren’t any lessons (I have blogged about this) . After having phoned to request a meeting on that day and not having had a call back, I just drove to the school and demanded to see her. Two flunkeys now less, at separate times, suggested I might just like to give them my phone number and arrange a meeting for the week after half-term (ie the week starting on 20th Feb). I just said no and told them I’d wait, no matter how long it took. It didn’t take very long after that for me to get my wish. By the way, do people with ear-rings sitting in a school reception playing chess on their mobile phones always get weird looks? But, actually, before you go praising that courage of mine again (which I don’t think I possess in the slightest), I feel like Walter Mitty 90% of the time.
There are stories in the aches and the sagging flesh. Oh, so true, and wise. You see, I am the one raging against the sagging of the aching flesh, because I’ve always wanted perfection. Is that because society conditioned me, because my father conditioned me (not sure he did, actually)? I don’t know. But I do know you’re right, and that I should learn to read those stories in my body and others, that I should accept that I am on the gentle downward curve, and that my body has already lasted longer than most cars, all computers, and some of my peers. But while accepting that I shouldn’t make it worse by just letting myself go. When I was running yesterday, coughing my guts up, and cursing myself for being an unfit reprobate, that other inner voice of mine reminded me of the 14-year-old boy with the 40-inch waist just moved back to England, fat and immobile of body and mind. And the voice told me if a reprobate can still run a mile in 11 minutes, he can’t be that bad.
I liked your recollection of the 60-year-old lover. Shouldn’t we all bring all of ourselves to bed, each and every time? … I left a pause there while writing, because I wanted the silence to be the sound of my question. Perhaps I am just too idealistic, unreasonably so, with expectations way too high, of myself, and those in the past, and the only one in the present and future. I note I ask more questions in my letters to you than answer any of your questions. I’m sorry. And I, too, look at men and women whom I find aesthetically pleasing. They decorate my world.
As is my wont, I often print out these letters of yours – I must actually print them all out and put them in a box for when the Internet is a thing of the past; and I’m sitting here at my desk reading the last page, and loving the weight you put on each word, just the right weight to make your wisdom not something heavy to bear, but something that brings a smile to my face, and a nod to my neck when I find myself agreeing because it’s so true. Yes, we will regroup. Yes, the rain will eventually stop. Yes, the pain will go away (and that is how I deal with pain by looking forward to a time when it won’t be there, but that’s not easy all the time). Yes, loving is enough. Yes, caring is enough. Putting in all the effort is enough, because the fruits of our labours will look after themselves. And in that way, we change the world.
Much love to you and yours, across the North Sea,

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