George Levine: On Turning 90

November 22, 2021

By George Levine 



I’m writing this on the eve of my 90th birthday. Let me tell you, it feels weird. 

At the vigil of my birthday, I have got to a moment of retrospection. I had not expected to be here. I remember that when I was a very little boy I often fell asleep wondering if I would survive to see the next century – the year 2000. As we zipped past 1984, the year of the futuristic book written in 1948, I began to think that time was astonishingly indifferent to thought and feeling. It is relentless despite the illusion of speeding up or slowing down. It will happen. It will get there. And, I thought, after all, I might make it. As my parents died and I became the patriarch not the oedipally afflicted son, I thought well, perhaps I will live until I am about 75 (the year 2006), the age at which they died. . . . 2006 passed, the year of my retirement but not of my demise. Fifteen more years have passed, time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, and now I am older than my father by a long way, and we are more than a fifth of a century beyond the limit I imagined in childhood. 

What’s that old Jacques said about the seventh age and second childishness (was he thinking 90 years?): when the manly voice turns again “toward childish treble” and there is the deeply dark “sans” – sans teeth (well, I have most of them), sans eyes (vision is dimming) sans everything (not ready yet, not yet).

But no, despite Jacques even at 90 I feel no ambivalence about still being alive. I could sing in chorus with Gerhard, “Ain’t I a lucky feller.” Glad to be here, glad to be hacking away at the computer confident that a lot of people will read this, but not at all confident about how they will regard it. But there remains ambivalence because I can’t kid myself about it anymore: the quality of life at 90 is distinctly inferior to the quality of life at, say, 50…40, 30. I won’t, even in this self-indulgent mode, talk about body functions (well not much) but it takes no genius to figure that the body is not, shall we say, as resilient, robust, vital, as it used to be. It finds a way to surprise every morning with a new symptom of decline accompanied with surprise that I am, nevertheless, still me. My wonderful heart doctor, who saved my life 10 years or so ago, encourages me at every visit but – in a frankness of mode that I much admire and even enjoy – tells me these two things: “you are doing very well – for someone your age,” and “It isn’t going to get any better.” It isn’t getting any better. It’s ok so far. 

Part of the weirdness of being 90 is discovering with much pain in visits to places I have taken for granted as part of my life, places that I have walked or climbed or bicycled without reflection not that long ago, that they are very difficult if not impossible to traverse. They seem not to have changed, but my relation to them has changed without my having been aware of it. The greater difficulty is convincing my body, used to those places and those difficulties, that this time I really can’t do it. I keep saying yes, like Ado Annie, when I ought to say no – and the cost is exhaustion and the threat of worse. The ambivalence is that perhaps I won’t be able to do that bird walk in Arizona where only two years ago I spotted a trogon, that I can’t take that morning walk on the beach with my daughter in Cape May in hot weather, that I can’t walk Lucy the dog down to the shore where she can throw herself into the ocean for a good cool swim, that I can’t spring up from that low couch that I never had to think about before, that I can’t see the signs on the highway as soon and as clearly as I need to. Not quite sans eyes, sans everything, but diminishment of quality of life. The fear is that nobody quite trusts a 90- year old to drive (I never did), that at some point the difficulties (damn my truth-telling cardiologist) will mean that I have to have help doing ordinary things.

But the “future” is still not a fantasy word. There is one. There is work to be done, even if I find myself writing to a generation that understands me no better than I understand it. The world remains astonishingly interesting (and scary –as I move down into my 90s I find the crisis of now the most critical ever, as I thought most critical the crises of the second world war, and the Korean war and the cold war and the Viet Nam war and the civil rights movement and the assassinations and 9/11, and the Iraq war, and the financial disaster of 2008). Everything matters as much now as it did then. 

Yet in these later years the wonders of the natural world have opened much wider for me just as, we fear, threat to its existence becomes more immediate. It isn’t Eliot’s I did not know death had undone so many, it is rather I did not know life had produced so much, so variously. In any case, talking personally, narcissistically, the world remains quite worth it, right? – until it doesn’t. When the future goes, I suspect that the threshold will be crossed. But on this night of vigil, as of now, I’m still on this side of threshold. Words are there even if I always magnify the print so I’m not straining so much. And Lucy still seems to love me (or the biscuits she knows are in my pocket) and I remain a lucky feller. And being 90 looks like it might be doable after all.