Via Echidne, we learn that Gerda Lerner turned 90 yesterday. See her interesting essay, “Reflections on Aging,” from her 2009 book of essays, Living with History/Making Social Change. (The essay on aging can be read in its entirety by following the links on the UNC Press blog.) (Be sure to see the well-wishers in the comments, which is an all-star list of senior women’s historians–Ruth Rosen, Leslie Schwalm, Estelle Freedman, and others.) From Lerner’s essay:
[Aging] is part of life, and yet it is more difficult than anything that came before it. It presents us daily with new challenges and demands. When one is younger, one goes through various life stages, all of which are culturally recognized and supported. Childhood, adolescence, adulthood, the stage of nurturing one’s own family and children, maturity in work and social relations–these stages following predictable succession. . . . If we fail to make good choices in one stage, there is always the next stage in which we can do better. But in old age there is only one next stage and that is death. Aging is the way to do it, and it poses its own inexorable demands.
In old age we cannot take for granted that we will be able to enjoy the luxury of making good choices; we often have to choose the lesser of two evils. Our body, which we have always trusted as a reliable, familiar friend, now confronts us with its weaknesses and limitations. We have to develop a new relationship with it, adapting to its slow decline in capacity and strength. Pain and physical impairments become our steady companions. We have to get used to them, respect them and adjust to them, as best we can. Without pain and impairments nobody would ever be ready to die.
That’s a really fascinating observation. I’m sure the prospect of imminent death would be much more difficult if one felt terrific through old age. Death would arrive as an outrage, an insufferable imposition. I wonder if what Lerner is describing is like the gradual adjustments that pregnant women’s bodies make throughout a pregnancy that help get her prepared for staying home with a mewling infant: exhaustion and a variety of discomforts (some passing, others accelerating through the pregnancy) mean that most pregnant women are not out partying every night or burning the candle at both ends. They’re already staying home a lot, sleeping when they can, so that when the infant comes out it’s only a comparably minor adjustment to the slower, quieter pace of life they’re already living.
I also loved her aside in the introduction to the essay in which she writes of having “recently regained my ability to speak and read in German with the competence of a native speaker.” That’s how you make it to 90, friends: never turn down an intellectual challenge.