Onward and upward forever?

Onward and upward forever?

The realities of an individual life—and of aging—reveal the limits of unlimited growth and expansion.

Doug Muder
Stock photo of stacks of books on a bookshelf.

© Brasil2/istock

© Brasil2/istock


Photo albums, seldom looked at, but irreplaceable: keep. Notes from previous career, including research projects I once thought I’d get back to: trash. Classic books, now available free online: donate to library.

For the first time in more than a decade, my wife Deb and I are moving. And for the first time in our 36 years of living together, we are moving someplace smaller.

I had not expected that downsizing to bother me, but it has come to symbolize something of greater significance: life has high-water marks, and I’ve probably already hit most of mine. At age 61, I am still active, healthy, and fortunate in very many ways. But I can feel the tide going out.

Clothes that no longer fit: give to Goodwill. Clothes that fit, but I don’t wear, that hang in the closet accusing me of profligacy and neglect: Goodwill.

All my life, I have spun my stories to have an upward trajectory. I acquire skills, get wiser, and do ever-more-interesting things. I don’t always keep up with the Joneses, but I stay ahead of where I used to be.

There is no Museum of Me, and I don’t want to spend what’s left of my life curating one.

Rationally, I’ve always known that couldn’t go on indefinitely. Even for the turn-of-the-century Unitarians, “onward and upward forever” applied to humanity as a whole, not individuals. Émile Coué’s famous affirmation “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better” has never been part of my conscious belief system. And yet . . .

Snowshoes unused these past two winters: keep. Camping equipment unused in more than a decade: Goodwill.

In my 20s, I took constant self-improvement for granted. Of course, next year I would run a faster mile, visit a more exotic land, and climb a higher mountain. In my 40s, the omnidirectional upward trajectory required only a small amount of self-delusion. Sometimes I got rusty, I told myself, but when I focused on something, I could still be better than ever.

By now, though, the reality of physical decline is undeniable. Once I could leap up and touch a basketball rim, but now the Earth holds me far more tightly. Among my contemporaries, I have little to complain about. But I remember how it felt to hang in the air.

Books on subjects I haven’t thought about in decades: donate to library. Novels I liked but will probably never reread: give to friends. Art we won’t have wall space for: give to friends.

Mental decline is harder to assess, but I shy away from chess matches, and my record for consecutive FreeCell wins has stood for a suspiciously long time.

But even more worrisome is the way that time itself seems to enclose me more tightly. “Someday” can no longer expand to contain whatever I might want to put there. If a book has been gathering dust on the shelf by my bed for five years, how likely am I ever to read it? I can hope for several more five-year periods, but they are ticking down.

Statements from accounts closed years ago: trash. Souvenirs and other memorabilia: drastically reduce. Decades of Christmas cards: trash. Letters from people we were never that close to: trash. Hideous gifts from people we’ve lost track of: donate somewhere, anywhere.

Old short stories: keep. Binder containing the novel I wrote in high school, which I never look at and would be embarrassed to let anyone read: keep, but still don’t show anybody. 

A few years ago, I was cleaning out the house where my parents raised me, in preparation for an estate sale. Deep in the basement, I found my first typewriter, a tiny manual Royal. As a writer, I recognized it as a key artifact of my life. In a Museum of Me, it would deserve prominent display.

In that moment I came to a realization and a decision: there is no Museum of Me, and I don’t want to spend what’s left of my life curating one. The typewriter went to the estate sale.

Toys and books for kids younger than any we currently know: reduce, but keep a few just in case.

A time of decline is a time for priorities. If we can’t hope for progress “every day in every way,” what do we especially want to hold on to?

For Deb and me, one major answer is “community.” And that’s what motivates this move. For many years, our social life has centered on our church, which is 25 miles away. Most of our friends live near there, and comparatively few in our current town.

A 25-mile drive didn’t seem so long when we moved here. It still doesn’t, most of the time. We make that drive on most Sunday mornings and a few other times when there’s a reason. But the reasons, I’ve noticed, have to be better than they once did. We don’t come down on a whim any more, just to see if something might be interesting.

When I project these trends out a few years, I don’t like what I see: without intending to break with our community, we might fall slowly away from it, becoming ever more isolated precisely at a time when we will increasingly need all the small favors a church community offers.

But now an apartment is coming open only blocks from the church and from several of our best friends. There are tradeoffs: we’re moving from an edge city to a big-city suburb, so less space will cost more money. Fewer interesting shops will be within walking distance, but the urban center will be closer. It’s a story of gains and losses, not onward and upward.

All in all, we like the trade.

After we move, we’ll probably never again have the space we do now. Life has high-water marks. But as we age, and the radius of our lives continues to shrink, we want it to shrink around our community rather than shrink away from it.