Of a certain age
Reeve Lindbergh on the art of getting older
When she recently crossed into a new decade of life, Reeve Lindbergh - author of several novels, nonfiction books and children's books - began exploring for herself a famous pronouncement by her mother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh: 60 is "the youth of old age." Her musings on this subject are contained in a wonderful new collection of essays, Forward From Here: Leaving Middle Age - and Other Unexpected Adventures. The book's title leaves no doubt as to Lindbergh's viewpoint on growing older. "I am prepared for delight," she writes in the opening essay.
Speaking from the farm in Vermont which has been her home for the past 35 years and where she and her husband, Nat Tripp, still raise chickens and sheep, Lindbergh revels in what she terms the joys of growing older. "It has to do with a kind of freedom that you feel as you get older," she says. "You don't have to worry about being what one of my mother's friends called 'The Belle of Newport.' . . . It isn't all about what I see in the mirror."Whatever drawbacks Lindbergh may find in growing older - everything from the aches and pains of the body to the aching of the soul when a loved one is gone - she never loses sight of what is important to her. "Getting old is what I want to do," she writes. "Getting old, whatever the years bring, is better by far than not getting old. . . . I am going to be sixty years old on my next birthday. This seems very old to me on some days. Then my friend Nardi Campion, almost ninety, writes about aging with the words, 'Oh, to be eighty-seven again!' and my thinking changes. If I can't be twelve years old forever, then when I grow up I want to be Nardi."
Lindbergh's sense of humor spills over into much of Forward From Here, whether in a hilarious account of capturing a large snapping turtle as a gift for her husband or in the description of her friend Noel Perrin's adventures with the Department of Motor Vehicles. One of the strengths of the essays is the way Lindbergh uses everyday occurrences or small rites of passage as springboards to larger issues. Musing on another friend's habitual lateness becomes a question - can we give ourselves permission to go through life more slowly? The joy of a friend's annual visit at Thanksgiving becomes the universal grief we feel from death, grief manifested by the inability of Lindbergh's husband to make Brussels sprouts, the friend's favorite dish, for their next holiday meal. Helping her mother downsize becomes a metaphor for the mental clutter we often carry around for no good reason; it is also a prelude to what will inevitably come to pass. And yet, even in situations such as disposing of someone's ashes, she can find humor.
Laughter is an integral part of life for Lindbergh, and one she is gratified to see echoed in the senior citizens she teaches in her writing workshops. "They're very funny. In spite of everything else, they're living. Everybody has losses, and aches and pains, but there's no loss of sense of humor, no loss of enjoyment of life, and it's fun to be with those ladies. You look at them and think, being a little old lady isn't so bad!"And there's another advantage to gray hair and wrinkles Lindbergh hadn't anticipated. "I think for me it's such fun because I know I look like my mother. I knew her at this age. It makes me feel as if she's back again, a little bit."Lindbergh wrote about her mother's final months of life in 2001's No More Words. It was from her mother that she learned the habit of daily journaling, something she continues to this day. "It's not so much that it captures anything, although I suppose that's the way you think about it, but it's that you're marking your own life in a way that seems important," she says.
Reading her old journals also is a reflection of how Lindbergh has changed and the ways in which she has remained the same. "As a younger woman, I think I was much harder on myself for not getting things done, not doing things well - sort of a sense of berating myself quite a bit. And yet, I've looked at my mother's diaries about the same time, and she did the same thing, so that's interesting," she laughs. "And I think also, as a younger woman with kids and a career starting, you're apt to have pretty high expectations of yourself and your life. It's very different now. . . .
The kids seem to be OK and the work seems to be more or less OK. I don't have that pressure that I see in many young women."The final essay in Forward From Here is about Lindbergh's late father, famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. A postscript of sorts to an earlier memoir, Under a Wing, it was written after she learned her father had three secret families in Europe. Having listened to his many lectures on proper moral and ethical behavior while growing up, she now found herself with a bevy of half-brothers and sisters and a revised image of the man who lived by a different set of standards than those he taught his children. "I raged against his duplicitous character, his personal conduct, the years of deception and hypocrisy," she writes in Forward From Here.
Once her anger cooled, however, her viewpoint changed. The fact that her father had four families which he kept apart now seems to her "unutterably lonely." "Yes, that's the truth," she says. "People say, 'Oh yeah, right! All these women and all that.' But what a restless, lonely spirit. And so much secrecy. It makes me sad, actually, and not for us and not for the other families, because I know them now and they're OK. But for him. Unutterable loneliness."Although Forward From Here is Reeve Lindbergh's personal exploration of growing older, it is a book for all age groups to enjoy and appreciate. Its themes are universal and her opinions both realistic and comforting. As she writes, "Everything happens in life. Some of what happens is terrible. We know this is true . . . But there is another truth available. . . .
The living of a life, day by day and moment by moment, is also wild with joy."
Rebecca Bain was the host for many years of the public radio author interview program, "The Fine Print." She lives in Nashville.