Friday, June 13, 2014

Rip Van Winkle - a Metaphor for Growing Old?

Almost everyone knows the story of Rip Van Winkle who was the main character in a short story by American author Washington Irving published in 1819.

Van Winkle's story was set in the years before and after the American Revolution. Van Winkle, a colonial villager of Dutch ancestry, lived in a village in the foothills of the Catskills Mountains. He preferred to wander in the woods and spent more time telling stories to the children than he did working his farm or keeping his house in good repair. His industrious wife nagged him constantly.

One day, when he found his wife's nagging unbearable, Van Winkle hiked up the mountainside with his dog. From high up the mountain he heard thunder, and as he looked around he saw a man wearing clothing worn generations earlier in Holland. The man was carrying a beer keg up the trail, hailed him by name and asked for his help.

Together, they carried the keg up the mountain until they came to a hollow where Rip discovered the thunder was from a group of ornately dressed, silent, bearded men playing a noisy game of nine-pins. He did not ask who they are or how they knew his name. Instead, he drank some of the beer offered from the keg and soon fell asleep.

He awoke to discover shocking changes in himself. His musket was rotted and rusty, his clothes were rags, his beard and hair were long and white and his dog was gone.

Stumbling down the trail to to his village Van Winkle found no one he recognized. He learned that his wife had died and that his close friends had died, fallen in war or moved to other places. He was also disturbed to find another man called Rip Van Winkle was his own son, now grown up with children of his own.

Rip learned he had been away from the village for at least twenty years. However, an old resident recognized him and Rip's grown daughter took him in and cared for him.

And so we came to ask ourselves as we talked tonight; did Washington Irving actually write Rip Van Winkle's story as a metaphor for growing old?  For us it aging has not been a gradual dawning. It's really just hit us psychologically in the last little while. Suddenly we need grab bars and a bath bench and arms on the toilet, daily help to shower and care for our home. Admittedly this has probably come a good 10-15 years earlier for us than for the average Canadian. Even though we both have excellent general health we both have muscle disorders that compromise our strength and balance. This diminishing strength does not mean a reduction of one's worth as a person, but it is certainly something you need to be prepared for psychologically.

But we both admit it "getting old" seemed to occur so suddenly, though it's not actually been sudden. It seems one day we were 25, 35. We were young. Our children were small or running in and out the door, in school. There was always "Winkle's stress" of keeping up with business, suffering a fractious boss, dealing with house repairs, mortgage payments. Parents who didn't approve. Foster children who needed all the love and acceptance you could pour into them and more. Times of illness, financial struggles. These were the cares, and the joys, of youth. 

Did we sleepwalk through those times, drinking deeply the draught of everyday life while those who peopled our childhoods died, fell in wars and moved on? When your mother dies when you are 35 you don't realize that 35 years later she will still move through your dreams, but as in life, on her own terms. The thunder of anger long cooled will echo in your dreams, but so will the sweetness of baby kisses and of the kisses that led to those babies.   

One day you wake from your living slumber, look in the mirror, and see that you are actually old. And like Rip Van Winkle, you awaken to it all.  Or maybe you have just awakened, period.

Is there a story, a myth, that you have found personal meaning in that's perhaps a bit out of the ordinary, or different than a superficial reading of the story might suggest?  


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