Leaving Florence

...is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch
or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, ... from vanishing away?

— from “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The various “rites of passage” that usher in later life — the empty nest, the winding down of a long career, a severe medical emergency with its whiff of death — have this in common: all are experiences of loss and diminishment. Something is taken away from us: our role, our identity, our youth and vitality. And each of these losses in some way prefigures that final loss we call death which looms uncomfortably nearer each passing year. Indeed, “loss is the great lesson,” as the poet Mary Oliver reminds us:

…nothing stops the cold,
black, curved blade
from hooking forward.
      — from "Poppies"

Our visceral fear of growing older is rooted in our culture's view of aging as a season of loss and decline. Must this “strange eventful history” that is our life culminate inevitably in the humiliating final act that Shakespeare describes in As You Like It:

[a] second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

And so we frantically search for “some latch or catch or key” that can keep these losses at bay. A magic pill (why not, if age is, after all, an illness?). A rigorous regimen of exercise and sound nutrition. A good health care plan. A well-tended 401K.

But perhaps there is another way to think about loss. When the great Italian artist, Michelangelo, was asked how he created his masterpiece, David, he replied: “I simply removed everything that was not David.” In describing his other works he will resort to this metaphor again and again: The sculpture was already contained within the block of marble; his task was to allow it to merge. 

Reflecting on this same comment by Michelangelo, John Sullivan, Second Journey’s Sage in Residence, explores the idea this way:

Such is the way of letting go and letting be. This mode of living does not center on striving or achieving, nor does it even focus on time and steps. It is more like realizing that we exist at two levels: (a) the surface level of our fears and desires, wherein we compare ourselves with others using the prevailing cultural measuring sticks, and (b) a deeper level wherein we already are all we seek to be and we already have all we truly need.

If we think about loss this way — not as a taking away, but as a letting go — of what are we letting go? Of the masks and personas we must each create to succeed in the world. And when all of these are shed, with what are we left? Those primal passions, those deepest longings, which we — for the sake of that same success — had to stifle or censor. In this letting go, everything that was not YOU is sloughed off, and you are left with your essential self.

Many of Michelangelo’s masterworks were completed before he had reached midlife. He was only 23 when he finished the serene and breathtakingly beautiful Pietà. David was completed five years later. He was to live another 60 years, dying in 1564 at the age of 89, by Renaissance standards an extraordinary gift of years.

In his wonderful historical novel, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone imagines Michelangelo taking leave of Florence, the beloved city of his birth and much of his work. He has finished carving the six larger-than-life sculptures that now stand in the Medici Chapel of the Church of San Lorenzo. The undertaking has taken 20 years of his life, and he is by now nearly 60 years old:

 ...He had no idea what the future held for him... If the astrologists who centered around the Porta Romana had cried out to him as he passed that he still had before him a third of his years, two of the four loves of his life, the longest, bloodiest battle, and some of his finest sculpture, painting, and architecture, [in his] contempt for their pseudo science...he would have laughed, tiredly.
 But they would have been right.

Rondanini Pietà

Like Michelangelo, we do not know what the future holds for us. Something is true now, however, that was not true in Michelangelo's time: What was an individual gift to Michelangelo — the gift of long life  — is now a boon for the generations now living on the earth. As we each enter elderhood, most of us can expect to outlive our great, great grandparents by 20, 30, or 40 years.

There are two challenges. The first is to live these added years with something approaching the zest and passion that Michelangelo brought to his life. The second is to realize the search in later life is not for success, but meaning.

When he died, Michelangelo was at work on another sculpture of the Virgin holding her dead Son. The earlier pietà is work of great clarity, great confidence. There is nothing tentative or uncertain. All is light. In the later, unfinished work, perhaps time has taken its toll; perhaps there is some falling off of the artist's skill. But what strikes you is how the light of earlier work has been so thoroughly replaced by darkness — or, rather, mystery. For Michelangelo — like Lear — had come to that place that is the destination of old age, where we “take upon’s the mystery of things / As if we were God's spies.”

Poppies by Mary Oliver

The poppies send up their
orange flares; swaying
in the wind, their congregations
are a levitation

of bright dust, of thin
and lacy leaves.
There isn't a place
in this world that doesn't

sooner or later drown
in the indigos of darkness,
but now, for a while,
the roughage

shines like a miracle
as it floats above everything
with its yellow hair.
Of course nothing stops the cold,

black, curved blade
from hooking forward—
of course
loss is the great lesson.

But I also say this: that light
is an invitation
to happiness,
and that happiness,

when it's done right,
is a kind of holiness,
palpable and redemptive.
Inside the bright fields,

touched by their rough and spongy gold,
I am washed and washed
in the river
of earthly delight—

and what are you going to do—
what can you do
about it—
deep, blue night?