Excerpted from

The Case for Elderhood in a
Time of Trouble

by Stephen Jenkinson
(reprinted with permission)

I suppose the day can dawn upon you when things become mysteriously simple for a while. It won’t last long, and you’ll be back at the abacus of abstraction and allegation, thinking about things. But for a while, it can all become alarmingly clear, and all the conjecture calms down into getting it. Maybe what follows is one of those times.


Imagine that you have endured long enough that the habits of your one true childhood have, for the most part, taken their junior position in the scheme of things. Imagine that you are not old yet, not by the lengthening standards of the day, but from where you stand, you can see “old” coming on. Imagine, too, that you are not caught up with the new spate of instruction manuals proposing to guide you through this new phase, that you haven’t given yourself over to the care of the reassurance brigade and their ministrations or to that soothing sound of having the best part of the thing ahead of you, of sixty being the new forty, or whatever those integers are. You’ve observed by now how the advertising for anything but sexual performance enhancement devices, arthritic reversers and endless retirement in the sun has utterly passed you by. You are still of the numeric majority, yes, but the vibe of the times isn’t yours anymore.

The temptation—and it’s a strong one—is to go with the music you remember, the recreational drug you remember or barely remember, the friends you’ve grown accustomed to and the classics you haven’t read yet, and wish younger folks a good day. You’re haunted with becoming a burden to your grown children, and though they don’t want to hear you say it, you’re more than a little relieved that now that they have begun legalizing marijuana they’ll get around to legalizing medically-assisted death in your district, hopefully in time to help. And LSD’s becoming popular again for people in their waning days, so there’s that to consider. It’s a consumer’s proper denouement, serving your unswerving demand to be on top, to be self-directed, even then. Still, with all of that ganging up on your conscience, a part of you thinks about what kind of a world you’re about to pass on. You move on from the morose things that you can’t change, but this business of young people tangles you. With luck, it won’t go away, and this version of the serenity prayer will begin losing purchase.

It is at just such a time, should the Gods prevail, that someone one-half or one-third your age might come around. Maybe an errand or a delivery brings them to your door, or some meeting brings you to them. You fall into casual banter, glad that the chasm of years has closed enough to permit casual banter. Then the page turns, or the pall slips, and without seeking your permission or your forgiveness first, and without much in the way of preliminaries, that younger person asks you a question:

When you were my age, did you know what was happening?

Questions that come from the Lords of Life, questions such as these, aren’t answered by a yes or a no. Certainly not this one. This one has to be answered as if many a thing were at stake. This is the sound of younger people turning to you in times of trouble.

But most of the troubles these days aren’t personal. “Is this it?” they’re asking. Can you hear it? Can you hear the unleavened mixture, half dread and half plea on behalf of scant sanity? This person isn’t asking about how cool you were back in the day, how hip or aware or awakened you were. This person is asking about whether anything means anything at all, just for starters. This person is asking whether the madness of these days has always been there, or whether it came on on your watch. Best be alert.

So the answer that you give, among the most authentic and faithful answers, won’t cover for your inattentive days or those years-long bouts of legitimate self-absorption. The answer won’t satisfy, may not ever be able to satisfy. It won’t answer for the grudge and the grievance and the greying of their technicolour world. Your answer could come to sound something like this:

Well, in those days, given everything, anybody who wanted to know what was happening could have known. It was there to know. But not everybody wanted to know. So not everybody did. That’s the way it went. For all I know, it’s still going that way.

It seems that there’s only one other question left, after a faithful answer like that. This person might look you in the eye right about then, and ask this:

So, what did you do?

This book is written as if that day is coming. I’ve used the ground ash of my disappointment for ink, my brittle memory for parchment. It’s written for the sake of that day, for the sake of that young person asking, and for the sake of that older person being asked. We’ll have to go deep into the gale for this one, deep into the sedated satisfaction of a consumer culture utterly bereft of its ability to rise in indignation at what is killing that corner of the world it feeds upon.

This isn’t something that requires inspiration to undertake. Expecting to be inspired by what troubles the world before coming to its defense isn’t defensible, not among grownups. That’s part of what got us to where we are. Inspiration is octane, but it isn’t give-a-shit, and it isn’t “getting it.” This is work, and work is that thing that you find yourself least inclined to do. The time is done—it’s more than done—for leaving the work of conscience and of grief-endorsed action to the kids. Get your heavy-weather gear on, that Gore-Tex you bought for a rainy day. This is the rainy day. It’s an hour before dawn. Let’s go.