Thursday, July 5, 2012

To Grow Old Disgracefully

New Zealanders are often rugged and irreverent individualists. Although they number only 4 million people, they are prone to be themselves and be heard, albeit their accent makes them less likely to be understood, at least by me. Nonetheless, Kiwis are welcoming, or at least that is what I found when I attended the Ulysses Club (Auckland chapter) as a guest of my local contact, Lloyd Jenkins. For those of you who do not know (and I did not know before arriving in New Zealand), this club is comprised of motorcyclists over the age of 40 who refuse to accept that riding motorbikes is only for the young. Their motto is the title to this post. There were people of every description, some fully decked out in leathers who, despite the cold weather, road their motorbikes to the meeting. Some of the retirement age attendees were bald, others were clean-shaven and had business haircuts, while others had beards of various types and had their long gray hair in a ponytail. The meeting began with food and drinks, and a lot of loud, but friendly, laughter and chatter, which was followed by a minimal amount of business and a maximum amount of fun. When introduced I played the part by announcing that I hadn't seen any mountains in New Zealand, only a few hills, and that if they were really wanted the best motorcycle rides they would have to come to British Columbia to find roads suitable. Goodhearted jeering followed. 
Upon returning to my hotel I felt an ancient memory probing my consciousness. As an English major in university, James Joyce's "Ulysses" was mandatory reading. I found the Irish author less than stimulating. Of course, there was also the Ulysses of the Greek mythological classic, "The Odyssey". It was not until I researched the origin of the Ulysses Club that I found and re-read the epic poem by Tennyson. 
To my discredit, I have spent very little time studying or even reading poetry since my undergraduate days as an English major. The practice of law naturally affords little opportunity to do so. But "Ulysses" spoke to me like no poem has for many years. I might not have related to it as a young man, as it is spoken by an old King. One who, despite his age and infirmities, yearns to see more of the world, experience adventure again and sense a purpose for his final years that is bigger than himself. It gave words to my longing to make more of life than would those who sit by some "still hearth", "As tho' to breathe were life!" It was reflective of my engagement with people and experiences around the world when it said, "I am part of all that I have met". The elderly narrator of the poem acknowledges the losses and limitations he has experienced. But he recognizes the desire, even the need, to fight against the seductive comfort.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
I was stirred by the poet's language, as he quotes the old man's commitment to unreservedly live life to the fullest, no matter the obstacles: "I will drink Life to the lees."
This classic poem speaks of purpose for the elderly, not relegation to "retirement". It preaches living life with a sense of importance not irrelevance, and contribution to our communities. The confluence of more than two months traveling around the world, facing the fears and limitations that come with Parkinson's, and approaching my 60th birthday next week all dictate a need to make decisions, commitments, and resolutions that will take me through the final phases of life. What will I do with this invaluable global experience? How will I reach out and serve the communities of which I am a part, making them part of a better world? How will I meet the challenges that lie ahead and reach beyond the limiting horizons? Maybe I'm part of a Ulysses generation. Maybe his battle cry will be echoed by those of us who struggle with the reality of aging. It's not too late to sail beyond the sunset.

Old age hath yet his honor and his toil.
Death closes all; but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
…Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die. 

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