CNN, July 16, 2016

Wisdom for every decade of your life

Herman Melville, Toni Morrison, Dave Eggers, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf: Every one of them and thousands more have paused to reflect in their writing not only upon time and aging but upon specific ages too. What does it mean to turn one, or 15, or 38, or 65, or 97?

I had the idea to look for the answers in literature — to assemble a list of passages about every age from birth to 100, put them down on the page, and take in the patterns of a life. And indeed, when the list then came together, those patterns did emerge — there in the annual articulations of what it was to be a child and a teen, what it was to be of middle and then old age.

I knew of course that any such observations were subjective. Life might swing unpredictably one year to the next. Experience might vary by accident of birth. And as lifespans lengthen, we age more slowly than we once did, reaching “the yellow leaf,” as Shakespeare put it, after ever more seasons.

Still, within the list, there was the undeniable arc of the human experience, its desperations and delights. And not because I curated it so. I simply hunted for passages about age, and steered clear of those that seemed less true than tidy, preferring, say, Updike to Twain, Plath to the Dalai Lama. And though the majority of the passages came from libraries I scanned online, and not my everyday reading, they somehow seemed familiar to me, true to my own life; when I read the words of Donald Justice, that

Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

I nodded.

Everyone I showed the list to nodded too, seeing in its prose and poetry their past and current selves. My friend Erin recognized in Tim O’Brien her unresolved feelings at thirty-six toward motherhood. My mother held as fast to life at seventy as did Nazim Hikmet. Victor Hugo and my grandfather Max were in agreement that at ninety-six there is no room left for new experience. And watching my first child take in her first breaths only months after the list was complete, I breathed in Samuel Beckett anew, his conclusion that “Birth was the death of him.” It might be so that death inexorably followed birth. But first, a blessed century could pass.

Here is a sampling, one passage per decade, of what our great writers have written of each of those hundred years.