In last week’s column, I reminisced about the poems through which my parents helped to shape my mind and character, as well as my sister’s.
Truly, there’s nothing quite like poetry for the purpose. A poem, especially when committed to memory, works over the years to re-shape the way we think. I’ve always been grateful to my teachers - at Enon Elementary and Thomas Dale - who required me to memorize longish chunks of poetry.
It saddens me that so few modern teachers do the same.
Of all the poems I have encountered since Mom and Dad read to us at bedtime, the most important was handed to me by my sister, shortly after I began acting. She said the poem reminded her of me. She hoped I might like it.
It was Tennyson’s Ulysses, seventy lines of unrhymed iambic pentameter - what we Shakespeareans call “blank verse” - in the form of a monologue. The speaker is Ulysses - Odysseus - who has returned from his long voyage home, resumed ruling Ithaca, and is growing restless. He’s aging, but what bothers him is the lack of new adventures.
In Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses has about decided that it’s time for another odyssey. We hear his discontent with his present state; his decision to hand the throne over to his son; and finally, his invitation to old companions to join him in a new quest.
It’s really quite inspiring. Most people know at least a few of the lines - especially the last:
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
When my sister gave me this poem, I loved it. And I recognized three things immediately.
First, I recognized myself in it. Then entering middle age, I was beginning an entirely new career as an actor.
Second, I realized that this poem was ideally suited for an audition monologue. The blank verse was “Shakespearean”, but it wasn’t Shakespeare - which meant I could use it to audition without being the seventh guy that day to use the same monologue.
Third, the poem clearly had the power to influence the way I thought about growing older. This was a poem to memorize - a poem to use in shaping my mental approach to middle-age and beyond.
It took me about a week to commit Ulysses to memory. With a bit of brushing up, I’ve had it at my command ever since. And it has truly influenced my thinking about the second half of life’s journey.
Recently, I’ve begun to realize how profound that influence has been.
During the past twelve months - ever since I gave up the responsibility of my mother’s daily care - I find myself reading the occasional internet piece about retiring overseas.
Apparently, there are a great many places where an older American can live inexpensively and well - without foregoing quality medical care or the companionship of his compatriots.
Just in the past week, I’ve read articles about ex-pat communities in the mountains of Ecuador and in southern France. And I’m starting to collect ideas about such places.
I’ve recently become quite familiar with an American assisted living facility - and it’s a very nice place. But on the whole - if I live long enough to be genuinely elderly - I think I’d prefer to live out my last years in a “new world”.
This line of thought has recently gotten a real boost from a movie. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which opened in Richmond theaters last week, is a thoroughly delightful film about a group of elderly Britons who respond to an ad for a retirement community in Jaipur, India.
When they arrive, they discover that the young entrepreneur in charge of the place has vastly overstated the readiness of the accommodations. Indeed, the pictures of the hotel have been photo-shopped to show what he someday hopes the hotel will be. At present, it’s distinctly run-down.
But of the seven adventurous seniors, six eventually surrender to the charm, color and vitality of India. As the hotel slowly improves, we witness a “coming of age” story in which senior citizens discover new talents, new interests - even new romances. And with a cast of great British actors - led by Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Nighy, and Penelope Wilton - the movie is funny, touching, and thoroughly inspiring.
And of course, it fits right into my recent fascination with the idea that I might, as Tennyson put it, “seek a newer world”.
Not such a bad idea, really. Find a foreign town or city, full of beauty and life, in a country which has decent and affordable medical care.
Make sure there are enough English-speakers to justify starting a little theatre company, and maybe a book club - but not so many that you don’t interact with the native culture.
Not such a bad dream - even if it’s only a dream.
And who knows?