The Excitements of Being Mature
IT is a situation strange beyond belief: the entire unperfected world before us and all about us, yet everywhere human beings of mature years losing heart, losing their minds, dying outright — often at their own hands — because they have nothing to do. Not even the threat of universal war promises them much opportunity. For in the business of killing, as well as in industry and commerce and education, they are treated as of little practical value. And beyond the war — if it should come — they can see for themselves only the same years of progressive emptiness that they shall face if we continue in nervous peace. Yet the mature in years who have grown up as well as grown older never had so many interesting enterprises awaiting them as just now — enterprises that call for new and continuous effort ahead as far as anybody can see.
The essential trouble is that we have gradually been made to think wrongly: we have accepted the assumption that whatever those who pass a certain deadline age take up must of course be without major importance. They must give up the teaching of astronomy or lyric poetry and turn to the growing of a few turkeys; they must quit managing a factory or editing a newspaper and concentrate on building ships in bottles or collecting elephants. A hobby may, of course, be a man’s salvation. But for many men in reasonable health who have been accustomed to a responsible day’s work among fellow human beings year after year, these stopgap contrivances designed to fill up the hours are punishment and humiliation. To afford fundamental satisfaction, work must be felt to point in the direction that life in general is taking. And if it is to afford the profoundest satisfaction it must have in it the element of the poetic that quickens the spirit regardless of years.
Here are samples — for the mature of all classes: for those with plenty of energy; for those who possess this or that special skill or insight; for those who have money to spare; for those who have no money but an abundance of time.
Let us begin where life begins. Late last summer a woman wrote — in a letter— that in the course of a journey to the Gaspe country she had stopped off to see the Dionne quintuplets. It was possible to see them at a fixed time in the morning or at another in the afternoon. She chose the early hour. The visitors at that period, she reported, were lined up six abreast for a distance of four blocks. To see what? To see five little girls, much advertised because of the style of their arrival, who had been brought along by nourishing food, proper medical attention, and a cheerful environment, from precarious existence to distinguished health and spirit.
Now the mountains and the woods and the plains and the fringes of cities throughout the United States are alive with young children of inheritance just as good or better who would respond to the same treatment in much the same way if they had a chance. These millions did not happen to make their original appearance in fives. So they do not get the headline. They do not have private audience with any king and queen. But they are full of precisely the eager new life — until it is starved out of them — that might energize democracy up to the point where it could save the democratic ideal for the world.
Then why not give this young energy a chance? Why go on making ‘equal opportunity for all’ the most terrible of jokes — by having children underfed, scantily clothed, housed less decently than animals, and left without education altogether or else provided only with the barest of rudiments in the least favorable conditions? If we believe our own words about the importance of individual lives, why not take the easy way and save these millions who are coming along in unending procession? When the Surgeon General of the nation, or some other informed person, comes to town and tells us that 40 per cent of the people in the United States are not getting a diet adequate to sustain robust health and high morale, it may be well enough for us to grow eloquent on the dangers of pauperizing adult human beings by giving them food. But no such objection as this can be offered to the helping of small children. All children of whatever social fortune are dependent in the beginning, and must be helped to confidence and independence by somebody.
Nor is it longer possible to justify our indifference to the plight of so many children by saying that they are lowgrade and therefore not worth bothering with. The wrong kind of food and a depressing environment will create ‘lowgrade’ children — this we know now better than ever before. And we know also that children taken from a depressing environment to one full of good food and hope cease to be ’low-grade’ in their social outlook and show a definite improvement in their ‘intelligence’ responses.
Imagine, then, what might be brought to pass if the mature rose up with wise concern in behalf of unfortunate children. It would not be necessary to agree strictly on a motive. Those whose long lifetimes had led them to enjoy feeling that they were moved by practical considerations only could smile in quiet to think how much cheaper it might be to salvage children than to go on increasing penal institutions, hospitals for the incurably sick, and taxes for hundredthousand-dollar trials of young criminals.
Suppose that for a period of twenty years there were no underfed, rickety, tuberculous children in the out-of-theway places of Kentucky and Tennessee and Georgia, among the share-croppers of the lowor Mississippi Valley, among the transient laborers of California, in the congested areas of Boston and Cleveland and Indianapolis and Memphis and Atlanta and Birmingham and New Orleans. Persons who need something sunny to contemplate can try imagining the change in the United States in such a twenty-year period, if all the mature who wish to do something were to go to work — in any manner they individually might choose — to bring the remnants in an entire generation into the freedom of adequate energy.
There are a thousand ways. Here is what one New England woman has been doing. She has gone about among the isolated schools in the mountains of Kentucky for twenty or thirty years and told stories — good stories — to the pupils who have had no opportunity to see what the great world is like. She has become an established part of a community. Every so often she appears at a given schoolhouse to the delight of everybody. She was seventy-three years old in 1940, yet she walks five miles or even farther in one day — and she is a slow walker — over rough rocky roads and paths in order to reach her schools. The day before I last saw her she had walked two miles each way after the school bus had left her by the roadside.
She made a confession to me. Several years ago she knew the most discouraging family she had ever come upon. They had nothing, and they lived as if they never expected to have anything. Despite her great faith, she decided that this family was hopeless. The other day ‘a very pretty young woman’ with a little girl came to see her. ’Do you remember me?’ the young woman asked. ‘I am —’ and she mentioned the name of a daughter in the family. She had married a man somewhere up in the flat lands, and was doing well!
Two of my friend’s ‘boys,’ now grown up and living by themselves, had an opportunity to work on a reservoir that was being constructed in the region and make a little real money. In order to get across country and be ready to go to work at six or seven o’clock they had to get up every morning at three-thirty and do the chores. At night they were so tired that they went to sleep trying to listen to the radio. She regards herself as a kind of great-aunt to them, and every two or three days, while they are at work, she goes out and tidies up the house.
But it is not necessary to go to Kentucky. It is not necessary to leave any populous city. In Greater Boston, one evening just before last Christmas, four Italian boys rang the bell at a house near the end of a comfortable street and asked if they might come in and sing carols. After they had sung, their hostess asked them to sit in the warmth — which may have been what they were after, since nobody else on the street had invited them in — and talk. One was of a family of twenty-one, another of seventeen, another of sixteen, and the other of five. They spoke of certain disadvantages of having families so large.
One boy craved the privilege — it ought to be a sacred privilege guaranteed to every boy — of sometimes being by himself. He complained that at his house they were so thick in bed that he had to stick his hand up in the morning to be sure whether it was himself or somebody else. And it was hard to endure the noisy meals. ‘Sometimes I just take my plate of spaghetti and go off and eat in the quiet corner with the dog.’ This sensitive boy is on the way to being a voter in the United States and helping to determine the destiny of us all. He may turn out to be a Caruso. He may turn out to be an A1 Capone. Why not establish some havens — some Houses of Quiet — where such boys could go and devote themselves to whatever they are interested in, instead of being forced to live continuously in the hubbub of a small collectivist nation?
The most romantic-minded dreamer could not imagine half the fruitful results in a democracy of having a generation of the mature devote their thought to a generation of hapless children.
Specially open to the mature of years also is the unending occupation of salvaging creative minds. The greatest tragedy in our contemporary world — we are proving it every day — is that we have not yet learned how to make use of the best energy we have available. We live in an age of miracles, yet we persist in believing that the next one cannot be wrought. Or perhaps we do not wish to bother with finding out.
When the world seems wide and the market is on the up and up, we speak casually about ‘impractical’ inventors, about poets who eke out incomes of two hundred and fifty dollars a year and get too much at that, about crazy proponents of new abundances who ought to let good enough alone, about all sorts of men and women who have lopsided heads. But when distressful times come, and the easy formulas no longer work, and sleepless neighbors commence going out to the garage with well-loaded pistols, we sneak off in the quiet to see if there might not be sustenance in some half-forgotten poet whose works have long been idle on the shelf. If our desperation is great enough we may turn to the burning words of some lonely prophet in the Old Testament. We turn to the consideration of other lives — of some starving composer who turned out to be great; of some architect who insisted on building as if he were moved by his own mind and not by some dead hand reaching out of the past; of all sorts of dreamers of new dreams from whom we might now derive a little of the pretty-nearlyeverything that we need so desperately.
Thus we arrive at such a state as we are in at the present moment. We begin to move by tens of thousands — as we should — to see an exhibit of Van Gogh, but make wisecracks about the seedylooking artist who lives above the plumber’s shop round the corner — as we would have done had we seen Van Gogh when he struggled — without so much as inquiring whether this young man may not be a Van Gogh in the making. Toastmasters with trembling lips and a few mispronunciations stand and read what they call ‘the immortal words of the poet.’ And they are right. A poet who is good and dead is one of the few things remembered out of a long past. He has a way, if he can survive life, of surviving death. But a living poet is another matter. When the people on half a continent are ridiculing one another, organizing hatreds, declining into indifference and moroseness, or making ready to throw bricks, a poet rises up and sings. Of course there must be something wrong with him. Or somebody looks at what seems to most people to be only confusion and sees in it a symphony. Or somebody more or less oblivious of the turmoil captures the sun and creates a symphony in stained glass. It is something unbelievable. So we do not believe. ‘Why,’ we ask, ‘do we have no real poets any more?’ ‘Why has America never produced a great composer?’ ‘Why is it, that nobody in modern times can make glass like that at Chartres?’
We forget the people who seek with a great hungering to extend our freedom as well as their own. We expect their contribution; take it for granted; in truth, prize it. But the contributors themselves we neglect. We pay high tuition fees to have our daughters read the poetry of a young woman who has to go to work in a hospital at five-thirty in the morning, seven days in the week, in order to have so much as a half-chance to contribute her poetry at all.
We are likewise indifferent to the people everywhere about us who originate things of everyday utility. All over the United States for fifteen years I have been asking who designed the bridges and public buildings and monuments of which cities are proud. In Chicago, fifteen business men out of four hundred and fifty were willing to stake a month’s income on naming the architects of the Tribune Tower. In another city I tramped the streets for two hours begging people at random to tell me who designed a very unusual bridge there before I happened upon a man who could do it. And in yet another city I did not chance to stop even one person who could tell me the name of the architect of a Memorial Bridge that had recently been opened. In despair I addressed a man abruptly: ‘I am interested in bridge architecture. Who designed your Memorial Bridge?’ ‘Why,’ he replied as he pushed on, ‘nobody designed it; the city built it.’ And when I asked a brisk-looking New Yorker who designed the Holland Tunnel, he regretted very much to say that he did not know.
Now if this is our attitude toward creative minds mature enough to be active in the current of our lives, how much may we be expected to know about the faltering novices not yet themselves sure whether they possess capacity? ‘I am twenty-three years old and an invalid — that is, my legs and back are paralyzed, but I get around in a wheel chair and can keep house when Mother is away. I also go out in our car, so you see I am not so badly off. And I write. . . . But I don’t seem to be able to do much with prose. One reason is that I don’t know anything about real life. Why, I don’t even know how a person goes into a store and buys something. You see, ever since I was four and a half I have been like this, so I don’t know much about how the world wags. But poetry is my very life’s blood. I couldn’t live without it, and inasmuch as it transcends the ordinary routine of life, I feel more at home in it. Do you think I could ever do anything with my poetry?’
What has become of her? What has become of the more than five hundred others from whom I have received equally honest letters within a few years? What is becoming day after day, year after year, of as many potential American composers who cannot complete the first step toward having their work performed because of the expense of preparing scores for conductors? Who has a report on the forty-five-year-old mill worker who discovered that he was a wood carver capable of enriching the environment of scores of people, but who was bound by a large family to a job that deadened him physically and mentally? Where is the man who perfected a relatively inexpensive artificial anthracite that would guarantee clear city skies? Who can report on these — on all the countless natural enemies of hideousness who have resulted from happy crossfertilizations of blood and of spirit?
They do not require glass-topped desks and boards of trustees. But they profit by some wise person’s belief in the legitimacy of what they are trying to do. Any man or woman who has done imaginative work in any field and has not cultivated forgetfulness can look back to a time when one mature friend who spoke both truthfully and sympathetically made the difference between worst work and best. Somebody must stand ready to make a high percentage of investments of time that do not turn out well. Somebody must be ready to engage in prolonged attempts to understand the imaginative mind and know how it must sometimes work. Somebody must discern, too, that any worker’s best creation may be off in the haze still, and because of its elusiveness in a disconcerting world may be in danger of not coming to realization at all.
The thoughtful are constantly pointing the way. A gray-haired professional woman with no family to support shares her income with a poetess who never had money but who possesses a great will to live and to write. They have grown to be inseparable friends who speak of what ‘we ‘ are doing, as if neither of them could do it alone — and that is true. Another woman has had friends act as scouts for her. When she learns of this or that aspiring young man or woman who is starting in a field where our perverted notion of values necessitates a long wait for returns, she very anonymously sends checks. A man with a bank balance has purchased good paintings by young contemporaries and made his house a place of animation. Another whose bank balance is slight but whose artistic understanding is very great writes a letter once in a while, or just happens along to let the strugglers know that something is still expected of them. We need a vast crop of his kind to develop into a goodsized American public.
It is work for the mature. For, to begin with, it must be done by looking patiently about without any proclamation of intent that would bring all the lazy, the counterfeit, the neurasthenic running. The chances of missing, moreover, are very great. But so are the chances of finding. In a decade or two, it is perfectly possible to find two or three who have the basic imagination, the fundamental great sincerity, the right balancing of confidence and humility, the heavenly magic of knowing the difference between the important and the unimportant, and the craftsman’s willingness to discipline himself. Where could any mature person find anything more exciting to do?
There ought, likewise, to be mature persons interested in the important enterprise of making known what we as a democratic people are actually contributing to the long-time resources of the race. Men and women of experience who enjoy traveling ought to cover the United States with thoroughness and make some maps that would tell us something. What good does it do to make maps which show only that the rivers run downhill, or that the mountains are higher than the plains, or that the density of population is greater in Harlem than in western Nebraska? What we need is a map, for instance, that will show the density of sophistication. The strange and agreeable incrustation that brings to normally sensitive human beings a blinding skepticism, or an overboisterousness when somebody does something as if he honestly enjoyed it — where is the density of this greatest? It may not be in New York, after all. And why does not some mature person versed in atmospheres prepare a map that would indicate the social temperature of the different parts of the country? Where is the region in which a man just naturally feels at his best among his fellows? And where is the point of greatest frigidity? It is possible that it may be somewhere outside New England. But where? And in the world of more tangible things, where is the greatest density of smoke? The smokiest, dirtiest spot in the United States —is it at the headwaters of the Ohio River, or in the region of Lake Erie, or at the south end of Lake Michigan, or halfway down the Mississippi, or where?
And then in contrast there should be a full series of maps which show the diversified specific things that somewhat free people are doing in order to have what they require. Here is a city that has just completed a great municipal auditorium in which symphony concerts and liberalizing discussions are available to immense audiences of citizens; here in a region where water in abundance has never been seen is a new lake that would do credit to New England, or to any other region where lakes are to be had for the looking; here an inland city has put itself on the seashore by building a canal for ocean-going ships right up to its front door; here in another city fantastic bridges miles long swing high in the mists; here is the home of a music festival that for weeks each year attracts listeners from a vast region, and musicians from the entire United States; here a woman has reclaimed an interesting historical spot — Fruitlands or Shaker Village — and contributed it to the nation’s enjoyment; here a priest has developed an institution devoted to the rehabilitation of all sorts of oddments of men who are down and feel too sure that they are out; here on the prairies in a new agricultural college the student symphony orchestra plays programs of Brahms and Tschaikowsky; here a biologist works at new crops that will outwit the weather; here and there all over the country the ‘idealists,’ the really practical people, are engaged in making democracy work. These would be maps worth producing and distributing in quantity. They would reveal our true marching strength.
The mature, too, who ought to be somewhat appreciative of what it means to be alive, could establish a community event in honor of the community’s heroic. It would not be any nationally advertised day accompanied by national advertisings of chocolate or gin. It would be a day of celebration, among a few understanding friends, of the really heroic in the community who have done much with little, most with least; who have passed through agony and tragedy and ridicule and poverty, yet have not sold out, have not surrendered faith. There are women all over the United States working over hot stoves in plainlooking houses who are so skillful in financing matters which to them seem worth financing that they make the professional budget balancers seem like spendthrift amateurs. Down in Tennessee I came upon one in a conversation between a colored woman and the wife of a college president.
‘Yes’m, three boys.’
‘Do they all have work?’
‘Yes’m. One’s a lawyer in Knoxville, one’s a lawyer in Nashville, and one’s a professor,’
‘Yes’m.’ She mentioned the university.
‘How in the world did you ever do it, Liza? ‘
‘Oh, I jes’ took in washin’.’
We need a little of ‘the mora equivalent of war.’ It is time to get out of the softness of beauty parlors filled with men preparing for the rugged democracy of night-club existence, and see how all sorts of people in the stark world reveal something that we must have in the texture of our life if we are to survive.
It would be wholly safe to express our respect and our gratitude to these quiet ones. They are the kind who will not immediately announce for political office, or sign up for the movies. Some of the discriminating mature should try out the plan — very tactfully. Patiently and informally carried through, it might make such headline enterprises as ‘oomph girl’ contests seem almost what they are.
Thus far I have been negligent of those who can live only when fighting. They can wage war on the tawdriness that is tolerated in a democracy and that constantly threatens the democratic conception. There is, for instance, the billboard in its newest phase. The billboard is no longer just an eyesore. It is a symptom of something that affects our entire national life. It stands for the defeat of the general will on a technicality that can be turned to financial account. Of course, this does not make it less an eyesore. And it is the most obvious largescale insult to the race that has yet been devised; for it treats us as if we were idiots who would try to run our automobiles without fuel, or would be in danger of starving to death or going unclean or naked unless every time we looked up there were lurid signs screaming at us about gasoline, about breakfast food, about soap, about clothing. But its fundamental evil has come to be its infringement on the idea of government of the people, by the people, for the people. Wherever the people band together to make the face of the earth more inviting, there you will find the billboard establishing itself to sponge off the people’s investment — and, in the process, to nullify much of their effort.
While you hurry to a subway train you are begged to remember that ‘your undertaker is no farther away than your telephone.’ The river basin, rendered comely by public expenditure and private gift, must be made to reflect flaming commercial winged horses in the sky and similar profanations, when the people wish to enjoy subdued light, and outdoor music, and detachment. To have all this jumble changed back to what the people had in mind in the first place would mark a twofold era in America: the beginning of a more livable out-of-doors, and the end of the confusion of mind forced upon us by the billboard in its insistence that we surrender all fundamental distinction between one motive and another.
Of course the billboard will disappear. When grandchildren of this generation look back to find some special stupidity among us that they can laugh at in order to induce the richest sense of superiority over us, they will exclaim in whatever the late twentieth-century mode happens to be: ‘No! Why, I can’t believe it! Ideals of democracy and education lifted to the level of a superstitious worship, hundreds of millions of dollars spent in gathering up art treasures from all over the world where they belonged and burying them here in stuffy museums in the interest of beauty, and other hundreds of millions spent in public buildings and parks and attractive roadways — and then letting the whole of it be smeared over with all that is recorded here in these old photographs! It does not make sense.’ And they will be right. But why let them have the opportunity? Why do not those who are looking for something to do today have it understood once and for all that the emotionally appropriate may have value, that it is not to be infringed upon needlessly, and that the billboard therefore is barbarian and antiquated and must give way to decent sorts of advertising that we can take or leave as we wish?
And always for those who have no money, and who fear that they have no distinguished capacities, and who have limited energy, there remains the opportunity to radiate good will. When people have free hate floating about in their minds, it is sure to attach itself to something. If there are no Germans or Russians near enough to give it reality, then it can be applied to people who are nearer — to fellow citizens of some other political party or religious faith or racial extraction or economic rating. Or it may be applied in blanket fashion to all the too numerous fellow beings who are guilty of nothing more than being in the way.
Men who seem much alike look into each other’s eyes as if they were not only strangers but predestined enemies. Anybody, therefore, who unpretentiously would express a little of the attitude that we are all here and maybe it is just as well, who would imply belief in a social solidarity of the race, faces a wide-open field, with little competition even distantly in sight.
So it is not necessary for the mature in years to wait idle and hesitant. Late life should be, and may be, the period of most fruitful activity. History is alive with men and women who have proved it — the men and women who have finished great work at eighty or ninety or even a hundred. We begin — anything of importance — by doing some specific thing. It is as Miguel de Unamuno declares: the way to get rid of lying is to get rid of one liar. Just so, the way to lift the level of childhood is to lift the level of one child; the way to foster the creative spirit is to let one creator have his chance; the way to secure recognition for the heroic who have done much with little is to celebrate the life of one of them; the way to get rid of the tawdriness of the countryside is to get rid of one billboard; the way to promote good will in the world is to go without hate for a single day.
Not one of these sample enterprises is a time-killing makeshift. Instead, every one of them provides the valid feel of life. Not one of them is an occupation from which anybody can be excluded by a top-heavy organization or institution. And not one of them will result in any frightening overproduction. Nobody can imagine children with health and spirit too ruddy; nobody can imagine — at least not yet — a world made by the creative-minded into something too interesting for human endurance; nobody can imagine a landscape too free of extraneous matter; nobody can visualize a world in which decent fellow feeling has made the spiritual unity of the race too complete.
Would it not be a pleasant irony worth savoring for many a day if the mature in years — the discard of our scheme of things — should not only find something interesting to do but show the rest of us how to come up to an exhilarating level of life that thus far we have dreamed of only in our rarer lucid intervals?