Watching Others Grow Old

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I’m thinking, I’m so glad this isn’t going to happen to me.

It seems like a terrible fate, to drag out your trash bags

and then head for a facility somewhere.

— from “Jane” in Imperial by George Bilgere

I’ve just reread George Bilgere’s unsettling poem, “Jane.” In it, the speaker gazes across a wintery urban street at an old woman moving her heavy trash bags. He thinks about the difficulties of growing old. He doesn’t want to grow old. He somehow doesn’t think he will. He stays on his side of the street.

The thing about the speaker, I’m thinking (I’ll call him Joe) is that he’s a thoughtful guy. At least he thinks he is. Also probably one of the few who pauses in the street when it’s cold, even snowing, to pay attention to Jane.

He does pay attention. There’s a lot of attention in this poem. That’s the great thing about this poem — how it gets you to pay attention to attention.

Joe (we’ll call him) notices how heavy Jane’s trash bags are. His unusual aesthetic sensibility is worth noticing — how he watches the bags turn white and gradually disappear. How the grey colors of winter provide a kind of setting for this poem. That Joe is composing, even as he watches Jane “taking out her ominous trash bags.”

“Ominous.” That‘s good. It goes with “black” and “vanish” and “terrible fate.” And all those good verbs: Jane is “lugging” “dragging.” He really got something about what’s weighty and dark.

Joe knows how to do point of view. Someone taught him how to situate himself early on, relative to the object of attention — like learning how to establish lines of perspective in “Drawing I.” Jane is across the street. They chat on the sidewalk — a kind of neutral space between his world and hers. Public space, where private lives turn into theater.

And Joe is self-aware. He knows we’ll think the poem is about Jane. Then we’ll see that it’s really about him. How he’s claimed his own life and intentions, how he owns them, how he’s learned a kind of acceptance of what is, of a good life within reasonable limits.

Jane’s a good foil for that. Joe doesn’t want to be Jane. We don’t want to be Jane.

We don’t, I think, want to be Joe either. This poem makes me think about why I don’t want to be Joe.

I don’t like Joe. Which makes me sympathize with Jane. So I start imagining Jane’s life. Jane is old. If I get the blessing of long life I’ve been conditioned to hope for, I’ll be Jane. I think about what it’s like to be old.

Trash bags are heavier.

You don’t take down the heavy bowls, even though you’ve always loved to make the bread in crockery rather than lightweight plastic. You hate plastic. Using it is a concession.

You postpone picking up the socks. Bending has to be budgeted. You can’t afford too many deep bends in the course of a day. You protect your back.

Shopping isn’t fun. It’s mostly a sequence of decisions not to get things — putting them back on the shelf because they’re too expensive.

You refuse kindly invitations. You wonder whether finally tell them you don’t actually like making conversation about things that matter to you less and less, or seeing the look of pity of condescension in the eyes of younger people. Like Joe, across the street.

You like quiet. Quiet is like clear water. You drink it.

You stay in touch with fewer people. You don’t need the news updates. You wish them well.

You spend your words on what matters. You offend some people. You realign relationships. Some fall off the mattering map.

You laugh. You can afford to be amused.

You eat less, and when you want, and the same things, and you enjoy them. People feel sorry for the limits you’ve found you like.

Your doctor looks as though she’s hardly old enough to drive. You match wits with her. You’ve developed strategies for avoiding condescension.

Other lives float a little further out. You find yours in a calm spot.

You love the shade in the afternoon in summer. You even love winter days, though taking the trash out hurts your arthritic hands and leaves you short of breath, and you have to rest afterwards. You take a long time with your one glass of wine.

You drink it by the window. You like being inside, looking out, watching people like Joe diminish into the cityscape, looking up the long street, noticing how the trees soften all the vertical lines of highrises, noticing how the sidewalks, lined with trash, come to a vanishing point.

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