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October 01, 2010


Absolutely marvelous. And very you, Beth. Thanks for this. I look forward to Wah-Ming's response.

I've only read Ricardo Reis in parts--I almost said "I haven't read the whole thing since I wrote it," but perhaps that's too flexible with the... truth.

I wonder about what you said about age. My question isn't whether 48 is different from 58: for each individual it must be, of course. But I wonder if it is essentially different.

"[Saramago] ascribes feelings to [Ricardo Reis, at 48] that I find more credible in a person ten years older - the age I am now."

I'm neither 48 nor 58, so I don't know. But I doubt it. I can extrapolate from 25 vs 35--a personal difference, yes, certainly, but is there a massive essential difference? Culture, gender, marriage, children, mode of employment and, above all, life expectancy: these seem to be stronger factors than the actual number of the age itself. Some 48-year-olds are very old indeed, very weary indeed. And some 60-year-olds were just born yesterday. Or at least not so weary as their age-mates.

Does a 70-year-old in Japan have more in common with a 70-year-old in Libya or with an 80-year-old in Japan?

I bought my copy of "Ricardo Reis" in 1996 in Boston. And then the years began to happen, and I learned some things about shifting identities, about melancholia and quiet rage, about desire, about heteronyms.

Now I'm ready to enter the world the book long ago prepared for me. Your thoughts will serve me well as I return to those marvelous and impossible sentences...

Thanks, TC. Yes, your point about relative ages is well taken. I was speaking mainly about myself and friends. A major factor, actually, seems to be whether people have worked for institutions or for themselves, since some are dealing with job loss, mandatory retirement, or incentives, in this economic climate, that try to encourage early retirement. For artists and writers both the challenges and insecurities are different; Saramago is an encouraging example, producing most of his best works after the age of 60 and continuing to feel a moral responsibility to engage in questions facing society.

Pessoa, of course, died at 47 of cirrhosis - so we can draw our own conclusions about how that age felt to him.

Well I am intrigued so today i went to the little bookstore in my town and ordered the Saramago book.I look forward to checking it out

God, Beth. Why are there not more writers and more women like you? And why are paeans like this so rare? I read this letter--though letter seems not the right word for something that to me seems so catholic, and so achingly necessary--and wanted nearly to weep with gratitude, both for the beauty and courage of the expression, and, even more, for what you described, and the particularity of the perspective. Voices from the vantage of an encroaching 60 years are, to my mind, so much more needed--and so much more muffled--than so many of those with a briefer chronology.

In your comments you called Saramago an encouraging example. In my (starry-and-perhaps-still-too-youthful) eyes, to write, and to be an artist, at such an age is a strength. In my eyes, the answer (or at least a part of it) to your earlier comment about shaping the future lies in the power of your present voice, and the embodied realization and experiencing of an inevitable human exhaustion. Your voice vibrates with that tensioning wire, strung between birth and the end, and is all the more poignant and unforgettable for it. And if so much of the world seems deaf to such explorations, well, all the more reason to speak.

I don't know what the future may bring, no more than I know whether you or I will outlive the other, and no more than I know the reason for believing that what may come matters. I do know that letters such as this are important, though, and all the more so for their rarity. I want to know what it's like to experience an encroaching sixth decade, and I hope that my own expression of it will be so true.

Siona, I came home from a long day of singing to find your response to this post, and it made me happy. Thank you for what you've said here, and for reading carefully and being willing to engage with what I was trying to express.

Another commenter told me offline that he had read this post and liked it very much, but just felt he had nothing to add or say. That felt to me like a failure on my part (somewhat redeemed by what you wrote!) because I should always leave enough room, or offer an explicit invitation, for the reader, since my goal is never to lecture but to open a conversation. That's why blogging has been an almost perfect medium for me, as opposed to, say, being a professor, or writing books which are, by their nature, a sort of self-contained argument, which readers are free to discuss but only after the author has left the room. That sort of thing doesn't interest me at all.

I find myself wondering, then, how best to initiate this sort of conversation while still trying to express ideas in an essay-like manner. Sometimes I've found that when I've really worked hard on a post, there are fewer comments. One reason can be because, OK, it was fairly well thought-out or carefully written and people think they don't have much to add. Maybe the post has provided food for thought, and that's good. But there's always room for different viewpoints.

It reminds me a little, unfortunately, of being a smart kid in the class who, after a while, didn't get called on. Do we continue to have that kind of stigma follow us around all our lives, just because we're articulate? And when there's also a patina of age that falls between us and younger readers, god help us! So I'm asking you and other readers for your opinions about how online dialogue can best be opened between younger and older readers and writers, between experienced writers and those who feel somewhat intimidated, perhaps. Because that is certainly not the intent here (as I hope most readers know.)

From my own experience, all I can say is that the way to grow as a writer and thinker is to plunge in, and not worry about seeming foolish, less-well-read, or inexperienced -- there's always someone more erudite, more learned -- so what? The way to hone one's skill and one's thinking and self-expression is to engage not only with our peers but with people we like and admire, and this just continues throughout life, it never ends. And one of the disappointments I've heard in people of advanced age - like my father-in-law, who lived to 99, is the difficulty of finding people to talk to on a deep level, because one's friends thin out, and once you're out of the intellectual mainstream, younger people don't come around so much; he used to talk about his "conversations" with the authors of favorite books -- some of whom had lived centuries before!

The internet has changed this, but we need to learn, I think, to use it in a more free-for-all way, like one of those wonderful and memorable dinnertable conversations where normal daily hierarchies of rank and age and position cease to matter, and everyone (inhibitions loosened by good wine and good food, maybe) surprises themselves by entering in, and finding their ideas and contributions welcomed.

Goodness. I feel flattered at having evoked such a luxuriously long response! I hope you do turn it into a post at some point; it seems to me a conversation well-worth having.

I wish I had an easy answer for the question around how to open such intergenerational dialogue. (Or perhaps I don't; easy answers don't lend themselves to much insight or discovery.) I think it takes a certain undoing of assumption--I know I've often assumed not only that more well-organized posts such as the one above are whole and of a piece, and that adding on might somehow unbalance the structure, but that writers such as yourself (or human beings in general) might not need or want my affirmation--but I'm not sure how to encourage this outside personal efforts to undo them.

(An aside, but I find blogging an ideal medium for precisely the same reasons. Thank you for that perfect articulation.)

In any case, it's not hard to append the occasional italicized set of questions to a post, asking for feedback or expressing any other not-explicit-in-the-post-thoughts. I imagine this too takes a certain courage and vulnerability on behalf of the poster, and does run the risk of seeming to pander for comments, but it does seem the simplest way to start.

There's more I could muse on, but I'd love for others to weigh in, and would love, too, for this to be expanded into a post unto its own. I'm sure there are plenty more who'd have something to say but who might this this buried-in-the-comments beginning.

Ever since you posted this, I have been haunted by the achingly clear vision you have on that "fatigue that comes at late middle age." As one who suffers from it, with god days and bad ones, the latter in increasing number, part of me did not want to engage with this dialog, nor consider the call you put out there for us to make the choice for action, in spite of the weariness, in spite of that knowledge of what lies ahead.

I haven't read The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, so I can't engage in a dialog over his work, but your response to it, that call to resist giving in to the fatigue is not lost on me, even if I happen to be at a loss for words. That you wrote it as a letter, a personal address, makes it that much more intimate and urgent. I hear you!

Siona's response is a spark to light that fire that makes it possible to believe that we are not talking just among ourselves, we of a certain generation. Her affirmation and desire for an inter-generational dialog is an inspiring "tonic" for overcoming some of that fatigue.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.