EASIER SAID THAN DONE

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One of the “attractions” we visited last weekend during a short trip to the Berkshires was The Mount.  (I say “we” because I went with a relatively new acquaintance from Windrows who had proposed the trip and volunteered to do all the driving, which was about 3 1/2 hours each way from Princeton.)

The Mount is the house the novelist Edith Wharton designed and built in Lenox, Massachusetts, and occupied most of the time from 1902 until 1911, when she separated from her husband and moved to Paris.  It is white and cool — important in the sweltering pre-air-conditioned New York and New England summers — and sits on raised ground.  In the rear is a magnificent landscape of Italianate gardens, formal on one side, “natural” on the other. Although I’d been to Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Lenox, several times in my several past lives, I was never before able to visit The Mount because it was under reconstruction each time.   However, for several years now it’s at last been open to the public.

I’m a sucker for gift shops at such places. I always want some little reasonably priced something to remind me I was there.  At The Mount’s gift shop you can buy heavy and expensive illustrated books of Italianate gardens and others about The Mount itself, which I didn’t.  You can also buy copies of most of the over forty books of fiction and non-fiction Wharton wrote and published during her lifetime, which I also didn’t.

According to the guide who led us through the house, she did the writing in bed from 8:30 to 11:30 every morning of her life, before arising to don the corseted, restrictive day clothes of her era. She tossed each handwritten sheet on the floor, later to be gathered and typed up by a secretary.  In her bedroom on the top floor you can see scattered on the bed photocopies of some of those pages — of The House of Mirth, written at The Mount.  The writing enabled her to enhance her inheritance so as to support expensive living in Paris and the Riviera. She was a great success in her lifetime.  (The three novels still generally recognized and admired today, whose titles you may recognize and movie adaptations of which you may have seen, are The Age of Innocence, The House of Mirth, and Ethan Frome).

Not surprisingly, several pithy sayings suitable for printing on cards may be found in the collected works of a woman who wrote so much. Again no surprise — such cards were indeed in the shop, and then they were in my purse, and now they are going to be in the blog.  ($4.00 each: How’s that for a reminder I was there? Ah well, the Mount’s reconstruction is still paying for itself.). Although faithful blog readers may be able to surmise why these two particular cards spoke to me,  I suspect they may have general relevance to most everyone past the first flush of youth. (Or else why would they have been in the shop?)

But first some Wharton back story.  She was born into New York high society in 1862, when women were discouraged from achieving anything but a proper marriage. Unfortunately, she was a bookish girl who read widely (in French, German and Italian as well as English), and early on yearned for a wider intellectual life than was thought seemly for those in her social circle. Her marriage to Ted Wharton was not good.  He was social, outgoing and apparently not much of a thinker; she relished solitude, books, and good conversation. There were no children. Eventually he became mentally unbalanced, they separated, and she achieved a divorce.  She is known to have had only one lover, after separating from her husband; the lover turned out to be a cad with a divorced wife, a mistress, a fiancee, and a propensity for sticking his pen in many inkwells. Nonetheless, she hung on for three years before giving up.  (Her private papers reveal that it was with him, at the age of 47, she had her first orgasm.) Afterwards, she continued her ongoing and copious written correspondence with male friends such as Henry James and Walter Berry, but seemed to have had no later intimates.

As she advises (on the card above), “If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we’d have a pretty good time.”  And perhaps she did have a pretty good time.  (Not to be cynical, but I can’t help thinking the money helped.  However, she earned it herself. And I do believe she enjoyed the writing as well as the spending.) Moreover, I once had a psychotherapist who said just about the same thing.  He asked me what I wanted.  I was fifty-seven.  I said I wanted to be happy. He said happiness was not the goal of therapy.

Another card (which I also bought) quotes Wharton’s thoughts on how to have a pretty good time without trying to be happy.  Actually, the thoughts are not specifically about not trying to be happy, but about how to stay alive — which I take to mean alive in all senses of the word — well after the age at which most (all right, many) people start to fall apart.

But it seems to me it comes to the same thing in the end:

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Be unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things?That’s a tall order, about which we could talk for days. For one thing,  life is change.  Often we forget it.  Our lives continue day to day, seemingly the same.  Boring even.  And then, suddenly, boom! — it’s not the same at all.  And yes, it is scary.  Especially the older you get.  But what are you going to do?  Give up?  Or go on?  I’m not going to wax philosophical about intellectual curiosity or interest in big things, either. You’ve got it.  Or you don’t.  (Although I suppose you could force yourself because you know it’s good for you; better to be insatiable about learning something new than be insatiable about chocolate cake.)

But happy in small ways?  Well, sure. Small ways to be happy turn up all the time, usually when we least expect.  In fact, six of them turned up right in The Mount’s gift shop, next to the Wharton lessons in life. However, I’m also discovering that part of becoming old old (“long past the usual date of disintegration”) is pacing yourself.  So I’ll just save them for the next post!

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23 thoughts on “EASIER SAID THAN DONE

  1. Marjorie Ellenbogen

    Thanks for sharing your good time. I’m gritting my teeth and having both large ceilings skimmed and sealed, new living room rug… and down the road recarpeting bedroom. Much should have been done 28 years ago when I moved in, or last year on my 80th. But better late than never.

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    • Well, Marjorie, as you say — “Better late than never” about confronting fear of change, even if it’s just changing the flooring and ceilings. And thanks (really!) for the thanks….

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  2. Nina, your posts always make me think! The older I get, more of what you write makes sense! The last gift card quote also made sense. Edith died at age 75. Wonder at what age she wrote that. I like the quote’s whole meaning, and I’m in my late 70s. Also like another of her quotes, ” There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.” That made me smile too! Look forward to reading more of your adventures & insights! 🎶 Christine

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    • Although I don’t know for sure where your quote came from, Christine, I suspect it’s out of the mouth of one of her male or maternal fictional characters, and therefore not exactly in the same category as the unisex principles set forth on the two notecards. I take your quote as consolation for a restive woman of her period: “You may not yourself be a candle to light someone’s way forward, but at least — faithful spouse that you are — you can reflect it.” Meaning, I suppose, that if you chose or were chosen by the right man (aka the candle), you will reflect his glory. That said, I’d rather be the candle. Wouldn’t you?

      Glad you’re thinking, though! 😀

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      • Nina, you got me thinking. I researched the quote and found it at the end of Wharton’s (long) poem, Vesalius in Zante (1564). Vesalius was a Belgian anatomist/surgeon. He was traveling from Jerusalem back to Italy, On the way he became ill and died (1564) in Zante (a Greek Island). Wharton composed the poem “in which she perpetuated the myth that Vesalius had vivisected a girl pinioned hand and foot/In catalepsy.” She pictures his life full of accomplishment and full of regrets. At the end of the poem she makes him say: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. I let my wick burn out – there yet remains to spread an answering surface to the flame that others kindle.” Wharton was around 40 when she wrote it. Not sure what sparked it. Maybe she was the mirror that reflected it (the spreading light). She was 51 when she divorced her banker husband (after 20 years of an intellectually and sexually incompatable marriage). She had a very interesting life to say the least.

        Yes, I’d rather be the candle! 🤔 Christine

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  3. I visited The Mount this year as well – with a college friend. We went to a local yoga retreat : Kripalu. The only yoga we actually did was called “resting yoga” and felt a lot like trying to find a comfortable position for a nap. And I admit, there may have been some napping. I was also struck by Edith’s story – and more than heartened by the idea that Edith was pretty old when she first started publishing her work. I’m glad you went – and I love these quotes. I resisted buying anything. Just took some photos instead and enjoyed reconnecting with my old friend.

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    • I too once had a weekend at Kripalu with a friend. I was a bit older than you, but not by much. It’s renowned among American yogis as “the” place to go. What I chiefly remember were the saltless, silent vegan meals (no talking, in order to cultivate spirituality), much “meditation” and “walking meditation,” and peeking at my watch every ten minutes during the hour and a half yoga sessions. (It sure wasn’t “resting” yoga.). But I am older and stiffer now, and don’t have to think anymore that I should go! However, reconnecting with old friends, one at a time, is always good, or instructive — even at Kripalu.

      Similarly, I too used to take photos of every place I went and had them printed. (These were the days before digital.) Then I laboriously labeled them and put them in big heavy albums — this after sometimes 80-hour weeks of law at the effing “Firm.” Afterwards I hardly ever looked at them again, until finally ditching most of them during the big downsizing preceding my last move. (Where would I have put them all?). Ergo, the notecards. Smaller, lighter — and blogworthy!

      But I’m glad you went to The Mount too. And I bet your photos are spectacular.

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      • I store my photos digitally. I’m meticulous (ruthless) about deleting photos as well – knowing that digital storage can lead to sloppy archives where nothing can be found – and then what was the point ? Trying not to be encumbered by stuff – having two kids and a dog comes with enough stuff for me, thank you !

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  4. Thank you so much for your charming post. I found the advice excellent, and the background information interesting. You also put your finger on my greatest difficulty in old age; the difficulty to adapt to change. As a younger person, it was once an enjoyable challenge… but it’s become a cause for suffering. Still I try not to despair.

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    • Thank you, thank you, thank you, Shimon, for all the complimentary things you always say. Unfortunately, change IS. We just can’t make it not happen. One of the women here at Windrows says she’s fortunate in the way she’s able to respond to change. (And there have been huge ones in her life.) She tells me she’s like a cork. She just keeps bobbing along. I found her observation somewhat helpful. If you keep a picture of a bobbing cork in mind, perhaps it might somewhat alleviate the despair? After all, bobbing corks don’t sink. They survive.

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  5. Yes, dear Nina. Right up my alley too. Happiness is hugely overrated, and Edith Wharton was right on the money.

    I have reached the stage where happiness is a night without having to go every two hours. What is this insane correlation between imbibing less and having to go more?

    So far, I have yet to fall over but that might well be behind the next corner. Little bits of flotsam of happiness might well lay in still lucidly able and curious to await the disintegrations in the years to come. Sorry about the self indulgence, but your posts do sooth the tortured soul.

    You did very well in avoiding buying the larger and heavier items in the shop. I look forward to the next snippets of wisdom.

    You know Nina, some people live forever.

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    • Ah, Gerard, I admit I still yearn — childishly, girlishly — for happiness. (That explains the appeal of the two Wharton notecards.) I am trying on hair shirts for size, but they all itch and burn too much, so I take them off again.

      What’s that about living forever? Yes, we may “live” past death in the form of memories (often inaccurate) lodged in the minds or hearts of the people who loved us. But then those people also die. And is that brief post-obit “life” really comforting? If we are geniuses, we live on in the words or music we wrote, or the art we created. But it’s a bit late for either of us to reach for that golden ring. So I will leave that remark about living forever with you, until such time as you make your meaning clearer.

      As for your nocturnal trips to the bathroom, I have considerable second-hand experience with this issue in its male version and suggest you hie yourself to your urologist. The cause of the difficulty is more likely than not to be an oversize prostate pressing on the bladder, which can be addressed with medication and/or laser surgery to shrink the prostate and relieve the pressure. If you’ve already done that, without relief, perhaps you can shop around for another doctor? I have no idea why I am messing around with this particular problem of yours except that you brought it up. And the thing about trial lawyers — even retired ones — is that if you open the door, we walk right in. Be warned in future!

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      • “Some people live forever” is meant to imply that your words and the associated personage , meaning you Nina, could very well end up in the annals of a longer stay of immortality than you are so modestly presenting. This is not to flatter or curry favours, but more of an admiration of your obstinacy not to throw in the towel.
        In other words, you are a remarkable woman.
        That’s all.

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    • I won’t argue with you. (Although I could. I used to be a lawyer. Also I’ve got twelve years on you and, believe me, those years aren’t only a number. I’d trade in a heartbeat.) However, I too am still plugging away. And thank you so much for the “delightful” — another small joy to help savor the day!

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