I've lately been noticing people in their eighties and beyond, particularly celebrities that Facebook highlights. Often an obituary or a commemoration appears on the date of their births or deaths. Annually in November my two sons-in-law and I observe and mostly celebrate our birthdays, their ages far lower than mine, but this year I'm often reminded that aging is, inevitably, linked to mortality. As some of your powers dwindle, pondering the eventuality of losing them all is occasionally unavoidable.
Carl Klaus, tracking his own aging in The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian's Chronicle—"octogenarian" is a word I run across more frequently these days—mentions reading, in his eighty-second year, Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall, published in 2014. Klaus' own book will take him into his eighty-eighth year, but he doesn't mention whether he encountered Hall's final book, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety; it was published in 2018, the year Hall died three months shy of his ninetieth birthday. Klaus had read Hall because he was "curious about his octogenarian experiences, as well as his way of recalling and writing about it." He credits Hall with being "very frank and self-deprecating about his recent physical mishaps, bodily infirmities, and mental lapses, but he never mentions memory problems," an issue then troubling Klaus. Acknowledging that Hall "writes extensively and vividly about his past, much more so than about his octogenarian experience," he refers to moments in Hall's life that Hall's readers over the years are likely to be very familiar with.
As it happens, I've been such a reader, not only of those two final books but also of some of his poetry collections and many of his books of essays and memoir, starting with Seasons at Eagle Pond in 1987. Both Henry Thoreau and E. B. White had aroused my interest in New England essays and memoirs and Hall and his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon (whom I'd also read), had left Michigan to live on a family farm in New Hampshire. Hall's memoirs and his final books of essays are set at Eagle Pond. Thinking about everything I'd read by him, it took me awhile to recall publishing a review of his memoir Life Work in a 1995 issue of The English Journal.
At the start of the review I claimed, "I keep Donald Hall's Life Work on my bedside table because I take it personally. I first read it for insights into Hall's work habits (and perhaps my own); I now reread it to bring perspective to the intimations of mortality tolling around me." To me, the first half of the book was "a personal meditation on the nature of work" and Hall admits that the idea for the book arose from his saying, in his analyst's office, "'work' where he meant to say 'life'." But the second half of Life Work deals with his concern about his own mortality as a cancer survivor who had "discovered a growth in his liver, and the implications of the title changed again." The book became more "open and intimate" from that point on. I wrote, "So movingly does Hall portray his clear-eyed awareness of imminent loss that we sense our own inevitable losses as well as his."
In fact, at 64, Donald Hall had another 25 years to live, enduring the loss of Jane Kenyon to leukemia only two years later and weathering a host of "physical mishaps, bodily infirmities, and mental lapses" (in Klaus's terms) into his eighties. Essays After Eighty and A Carnival of Losses are very much evidence of Hall's tendency to make "life" and "work" mean the same thing. Near the end of the final book, in the next to last chapter, he claims to have "admitted to myself that I had stopped writing my new book, notes and essays of memoir and meditation, as I shuffled towards ninety." He finds himself unable to "add a sentence to the manuscript, which was hard, because I had written or tried to write every day since I was twelve." He says he knows he won't have another birthday. He died a month before A Carnival of Losses was published. His life and his work ended close together.
While I've been composing this, I've been sitting in a local library with high windows that let me view autumn-hued trees where a brisk wind swirls yellowed leaves across the lawn. Driving away from our condo this morning, I noticed that almost all the trees in front of our complex were entirely bare. It's November in Wisconsin and snow is predicted for the weekend. The seasons will change, the weather reminds me. It's time for me to shelve those aging books, make sure we celebrate those birthdays, and find more work to do in coming days.
Notes: Carl H. Klaus. The Ninth Decade: An Octogenarian's Chronicle. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2021: 52-53.
Robert L Root, Jr. "A Poet on Why We Work." The English Journal. 84:2 (Feb 1995): 125-126
Amanda Petrusich."Postscript: Donald Hall." The New Yorker. June 26, 2018.
Hannah Aizenman. "Page-Turner: Donald Hall in the New Yorker." The New Yorker. June 26, 2018.