Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/10/2009

Old age, Walt Whitman, Social Security, and Medicare: Not a word about conspiracy theories

But I'm barely 65!

Drifting along without much thought (ever) to the process or to the concept, I suddenly find myself at the beginning of what I used to think of as old age. Dying? yes, much thought. Aging? not so much. Retirement age used to be sixty-five. Now, who knows? Sometime in the next three weeks I am told by our human resources department, I need to sign up for Medicare. Yuck! I’m told by one of my colleagues who’s been drawing her social security for awhile (and is over 65) that I don’t have to do that until I actually retire. Given the state of Social Security and Medicare and health care reform these days, who knows who’s right?  

Walt Whitman died at 73.
Johannes Brahms died at 64.
Carson McCullers died at 50.
Flannery O’Connor died at 39.
Mozart died at 36. 

Following the examples of Brahms, McCullers, O’Connor, and Mozart, by now I should have produced some lasting corpus of creativity and skipped off into eternity.  

This is not morbid. Maybe a little. Somewhat depressed at the thought of getting old. For some reason I’ve been reverting to reading the poetry of Walt Whitman after a hiatus of forty years. I don’t understand poetry. No hypergraphic could. What’s all this terse, organized, whittled-down-to-the-bare-minimum language, anyway? When I write, it comes out in great gushes, disorganized, unfathomable, impossible to comprehend. It’s messy and will never be thought of as a “corpus” of anything.  

I’m not sure why I’ve been drawn to Whitman lately. He was, if my readings of his biographies are correct, a sort of unkempt, almost anti-social wildman who loved people and was beloved by the people who knew him—so much so that he was able to write poetry about all human beings and their relationships, and about his personal relationships (intellectual, communal, friendly, sexual) with a mélange of people, poetry so affective anyone can be awakened by it, even though (or because?) it is messy and real. (I’m not saying anything new or insightful.)  

The messiness (at least on the surface) of Whitman’s poetry rouses my mind and spirit. Messiness and control at the same time:  

Youth, Day, Old Age and Night (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, 1881-82)  

Youth, large, lusty, loving—youth full of grace, force, fascination,
Do you know that Old Age may come after you with equal grace,
force, fascination? 

Day full-blown and splendid-day of the immense sun, action,
ambition, laughter,
The Night follows close with millions of suns, and sleep and
restoring darkness.

Old age (at least at this moment, this early morning moment of writing without being able to accomplish today’s chores—or even today’s rewarding activities—until I’ve done this writing), I am afraid, is not coming after me with “grace, force, fascination.”  

Excuses are easy to come by:  

Anyone (if there is such a person) who has read the palaver I’ve posted here over the past three or four months knows I write often about my (supposed) Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. “Supposed” because it’s not like diabetes: it’s pretty hard to “test” medically and come up with a diagnosis doctor and patient can see as an abnormal result of scientific procedures. The condition itself is so nebulous (my opinion) it’s impossible to say definitively that’s what’s going on in one’s head is epilepsy (or any other disorder). I almost never have seizures that other people can see and know what it is. Mostly I have Simple Partial Seizures. I love that term. Something in my life is “simple.”  

If you’re at all interested in this weirdness, you can do what I do: look it up in Wikipedia—it’s so much easier than real research. And the complicated stuff I already know is so clear there:  

In temporal lobe epilepsy SPS usually only cause sensations. These sensations may be mnemic such as déjà vu (a feeling of familiarity). . . .The sensations may be auditory such as a sound [b-flat three octaves above Middle C, and white noise]. . . .Psychic sensations can occur such as an out-of-body feeling. Dysphoric or euphoric feelings, fear, anger, and other sensations can also occur during SPS. Often, it is hard for persons with SPS of TLE to describe the feeling. SPS are often called “auras” by lay persons who mistake them for a warning sign of a subsequent seizure. In fact, they are indeed seizures.(1) 

I’m not sure why I’m once again writing about TLE. It’s scattered throughout my writing. In this context it’s a question: how much of my (current) discomfort with the idea of growing old is the result of TLE? That’s the same as asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I am what I am.  


AhHa! Whitman could have described a seizure. At least he could have recorded its messiness. Here’s what Whitman, the poet, can do that I cannot. In “Thanks in Old Age” (published 24 November 1887 in the Philadelphia Press), Whitman writes a line my liberal anti-war convictions can barely wrap around,  

Thanks. . . .For all my days—not those of peace alone—the days of war the same, (2) [full text] 

But then he entangles the metaphor of war and of gratitude for those “who’ve forward sprung in freedom’s help” (reference to soldiers who helped save the Union?) with the metaphor of poets, “life’s war’s chosen ones, the cannoneers of song and thought—the great artillerists—the foremost leaders, captains of the soul.” He is grateful for those who “help” the soul as “soldier[s] from an ended war return’d” defend freedom. Whitman can be thankful for growing old because he understands life both as the physical difficulty of war and as the reality of “song and thought” led by the “captains of the soul.”  

I understand growing old as an entanglement, perhaps even as metaphor of entanglements, but I don’t know how to accept the duality of—on the one hand the strange physical realities of Social Security and Medicare and producing a “corpus” of anything (Whitman’s “shelter, wine and meat”) and, on the other hand the, shall I say “spiritual” reality of “beings, groups, love, deeds, words, books.”  

This writing, when I began, seemed headed somewhere. It’s not. Growing old without feeling old, without—yet again as in most of my life—having been in line when the instruction book was given out.

(1) Please don’t tell my students I quoted Wikipedia. 
(2)  Whitman, Walt “Thanks in Old Age” (published 24 November 1887 in the Philadelphia Press).  

Thanks in old age—thanks ere I go,
For health, the midday sun, the impalpable air—for life, mere life,
For precious ever-lingering memories, (of you my mother dear—you,
father—you, brothers, sisters, friends,)
For all my days—not those of peace alone—the days of war the same,
For gentle words, caresses, gifts from foreign lands,
For shelter, wine and meat—for sweet appreciation,
(You distant, dim unknown—or young or old—countless, unspecified, readers belov’d,
We never met, and ne’er shall meet—and yet our souls embrace, long, close and long;)
For beings, groups, love, deeds, words, books—for colors, forms,
For all the brave strong men–devoted, hardy men–who’ve forward
sprung in freedom’s help, all years, all lands
For braver, stronger, more devoted men—(a special laurel ere I go,
to life’s war’s chosen ones,
The cannoneers of song and thought–the great artillerists—the
foremost leaders, captains of the soul:)

As soldier from an ended war return’d—As traveler out of myriads,
to the long procession retrospective,
Thanks—joyful thanks!—a soldier’s, traveler’s thanks.


  1. Your secret is safe with us. besides, Wiki is a good starting place and you can always reference its references!


  2. You didn’t mention that your father is 95!


    • Not all of my writing (I wish it were so–that is, I wish this were all I wrote on any given day!) ends up here. I have much writing about him and his remarkable life that I keep meaning to cull through and try to make some (at least minimally) coherent statement about him. It turns out, writing about one’s father is no easy task! You know that.



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