I have reached the age when I must ask “what kind of old person do I want to be?” One thinks it may be an American question, the pursuit of happiness has no age limit. I don’t mean wealth, or success in common forms. I don’t know how the coming years will unfold. All I know is I want to be flexible, kindly, and retain my curiosity until the end. This isn’t a workday ambition. It’s a matter of soul. Soul clap its hands as William Butler Yeats once said.
Often these days I’m forced to reflect on Marcus Aurelius’ famous maxim: “the soul becomes dyed with the color of its thoughts.” I am 63 and entering the age of disappointments. This means I’ve had my share of luck. I wasn’t a refugee child. As a boy I was treated with penicillin. If my schooling wasn’t superb it was adequate. It is proper to reflect on one’s advantages. If I was a blind child who was bullied—well, I also fell in love with Duke Ellington in solitude and later an excellent professor told me about Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” and so muscular lyricism came my way. I have enough good sense to count these discoveries as good luck.
I remind myself to stay mindful of small fortunes. The color of thought is yet another thing I can’t describe. But reflecting on it has to be good. Before this sounds like a self-help book let me point out human imagination is dark. 9/10 of it is pessimistic. You don’t have to be Buddhist to know it’s difficult to hold a clear thought in mind. The direction of thought influences its coloration. This much I know.
Perhaps I’ll die lonely without money. America is such a place. Maybe I’ll die in good company like Allen Ginsberg. If I pass like my father I’ll fall over while walking my dog. The soul has its own “thing” as they used to say in the sixties. Steeped in its iridescent moon-glow it can be open and unconcerned.
Of disappointments there are many. I know I won’t live to see a golden age of peace and tolerance. I understand it was silly to imagine such things even as late as fifty. Americans are encouraged to be naive. I wept with joy when Barack Obama was elected in 2008. I even allowed myself to believe if only for a minute in the phrase “post-racial America.” Of course remembering optimism is like recalling seasons of love. I see all about me younger people who will not give up on equality and justice. They are still progressively Romantic. Disappointment is nothing compared to future hope. Even in age I can have this. The soul says so.
Maybe I sound like a half baked version of Martin Buber. Or Mary Poppins. I don’t know any more than you what colors the soul prefers. Let’s say it’s a clean window after everything we endured.
ABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.
(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger