Photo by Karsten Thormaehlen, via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Browning’s poem “Abt Vogler” imagines composer Georg Joseph Vogler as an old man reflecting on his diminishing powers and the likelihood that his life’s work would not survive in the public’s memory.
Let us overlook the fact that Vogler was 65 when he died, or that Browning, who lived to 77, was 52 when he composed the poem.
What’s most striking these days is its significance to longevity expert, physician, and chairman emeritus of St. Luke’s International University, Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara, who passed away last month at the age of 105:
My father used to read it to me. It encourages us to make big art, not small scribbles. It says to try to draw a circle so huge that there is no way we can finish it while we are alive. All we see is an arch; the rest is beyond our vision but it is there in the distance.
Like many centenarians, Dr. Hinohara attributed his longevity to certain practices, backing it up with numerous books on the topic (including Living Long, Living Good).
He touched on some of these beliefs in a 2009 Japan Times interview with Judit Kawaguchi, from which the following pointers are drawn.
Ten Tips For a Healthy Old Age from Dr. Shigeaki Hinohara
Eat to Live Don’t Live to Eat
As far as Clint Eastwood, Sister Wendy Beckett and Fred Rogers are concerned, Dr. Hinohara was preaching to the choir. Your average Italian great grandmother would be appalled.
For breakfast I drink coffee, a glass of milk and some orange juice with a tablespoon of olive oil in it. Olive oil is great for the arteries and keeps my skin healthy. Lunch is milk and a few cookies, or nothing when I am too busy to eat. I never get hungry because I focus on my work. Dinner is veggies, a bit of fish and rice, and, twice a week, 100 grams of lean meat.
Keep on Truckin’…
Nor was Dr. Hinohara a sit-around-the-piazza-drinking-limoncello-with-his-cronies kind of guy. For him a vigorously plotted out calendar was synonymous with a vigorous old age:
Always plan ahead. My schedule book is already full … with lectures and my usual hospital work.
Mother Was Wrong...
...at least when it comes to bedtime and the importance of consuming three square meals a day. Disco naps and bottled water all around!
We all remember how as children, when we were having fun, we often forgot to eat or sleep. I believe that we can keep that attitude as adults, too. It’s best not to tire the body with too many rules such as lunchtime and bedtime.
To Hell with Obscurity!
You may not be able to pull in the same crowds as a man whose career spans founding a world class hospital in the rubble of post WWII Tokyo and treating the victims of the radical Aum Shinrikyo cult’s sarin gas subway attack, but you can still share your ideas with those younger than you. If nothing else, experience will be on your side:
Share what you know. I give 150 lectures a year, some for 100 elementary-school children, others for 4,500 business people. I usually speak for 60 to 90 minutes, standing, to stay strong.
Don’t Slack on Everyday Physical Activity
Dr. Hinohara schlepped his own bags and turned his back on such modern conveniences as elevators and escalators:
I take two stairs at a time, to get my muscles moving.
Having Fun Is Better Than Tylenol (Or Bitching About It)
Rather than turning off young friends and relatives with a constant litany of physical complaints, Dr. Hinohara sought to emulate the child who forgets his toothache through the diversion of play. And yes, this was his medical opinion:
Hospitals must cater to the basic need of patients: We all want to have fun. At St. Luke’s we have music and animal therapies, and art classes.
Think Twice Before You Go Under the Knife
Not willing to put all your trust into music therapy working out for you? Consider your age and how a side dish of surgery or radiation might impact your all over enjoyment of life before agreeing to radical procedures. Especially if you are one of those aforementioned sit-around-the-piazza-drinking-limoncello-with-your-cronies type of guys.
When a doctor recommends you take a test or have some surgery, ask whether the doctor would suggest that his or her spouse or children go through such a procedure. Contrary to popular belief, doctors can’t cure everyone. So why cause unnecessary pain with surgery?
Divest of Material Burdens
Best selling author and professional organizer, Marie Kondo, would approve of her countryman’s views on “stuff”:
Remember: You don’t know when your number is up, and you can’t take it with you to the next place.
Pick a Role Model You Can Be Worthy Of
It need not be someone famous. Dr. Hinohara revered his dad, who introduced him to his favorite poem and traveled halfway across the world to enroll at Duke University as a young man.
Later I found a few more life guides, and when I am stuck, I ask myself how they would deal with the problem.
Find a Poem That Speaks to You and Let It Guide You
The good doctor didn’t recommend this course of action in so many words, but you could do worse than to follow his example. Pick a long one. Reread it frequently. For added neurological oomph, memorize a few lines every day. Bedazzle people half your age with an off-book recitation at your next family gathering. (It’ll distract you from all that turkey and stuffing.)
Would that the structure brave, the manifold music I build,
Bidding my organ obey, calling its keys to their work,
Claiming each slave of the sound, at a touch, as when Solomon willed
Armies of angels that soar, legions of demons that lurk,
Man, brute, reptile, fly,—alien of end and of aim,
Adverse, each from the other heaven-high, hell-deep removed,—
Should rush into sight at once as he named the ineffable Name,
And pile him a palace straight, to pleasure the princess he loved!
Would it might tarry like his, the beautiful building of mine,
This which my keys in a crowd pressed and importuned to raise!
Ah, one and all, how they helped, would dispart now and now combine,
Zealous to hasten the work, heighten their master his praise!
And one would bury his brow with a blind plunge down to hell,
Burrow awhile and build, broad on the roots of things,
Then up again swim into sight, having based me my palace well,
Founded it, fearless of flame, flat on the nether springs.
And another would mount and march, like the excellent minion he was,
Ay, another and yet another, one crowd but with many a crest,
Raising my rampired walls of gold as transparent as glass,
Eager to do and die, yield each his place to the rest:
For higher still and higher (as a runner tips with fire,
When a great illumination surprises a festal night—
Outlining round and round Rome's dome from space to spire)
Up, the pinnacled glory reached, and the pride of my soul was in sight.
In sight? Not half! for it seemed, it was certain, to match man's birth,
Nature in turn conceived, obeying an impulse as I;
And the emulous heaven yearned down, made effort to reach the earth,
As the earth had done her best, in my passion, to scale the sky:
Novel splendours burst forth, grew familiar and dwelt with mine,
Not a point nor peak but found and fixed its wandering star;
Meteor-moons, balls of blaze: and they did not pale nor pine,
For earth had attained to heaven, there was no more near nor far.
Nay more; for there wanted not who walked in the glare and glow,
Presences plain in the place; or, fresh from the Protoplast,
Furnished for ages to come, when a kindlier wind should blow,
Lured now to begin and live, in a house to their liking at last;
Or else the wonderful Dead who have passed through the body and gone,
But were back once more to breathe in an old world worth their new:
What never had been, was now; what was, as it shall be anon;
And what is,—shall I say, matched both? for I was made perfect too.
All through my keys that gave their sounds to a wish of my soul,
All through my soul that praised as its wish flowed visibly forth,
All through music and me! For think, had I painted the whole,
Why, there it had stood, to see, nor the process so wonder-worth:
Had I written the same, made verse—still, effect proceeds from cause,
Ye know why the forms are fair, ye hear how the tale is told;
It is all triumphant art, but art in obedience to laws,
Painter and poet are proud in the artist-list enrolled:—
But here is the finger of God, a flash of the will that can,
Existent behind all laws, that made them and, lo, they are!
And I know not if, save in this, such gift be allowed to man,
That out of three sounds he frame, not a fourth sound, but a star.
Consider it well: each tone of our scale in itself is nought;
It is everywhere in the world—loud, soft, and all is said:
Give it to me to use! I mix it with two in my thought:
And, there! Ye have heard and seen: consider and bow the head!
Well, it is gone at last, the palace of music I reared;
Gone! and the good tears start, the praises that come too slow;
For one is assured at first, one scarce can say that he feared,
That he even gave it a thought, the gone thing was to go.
Never to be again! But many more of the kind
As good, nay, better, perchance: is this your comfort to me?
To me, who must be saved because I cling with my mind
To the same, same self, same love, same God: ay, what was, shall be.
Therefore to whom turn I but to thee, the ineffable Name?
Builder and maker, thou, of houses not made with hands!
What, have fear of change from thee who art ever the same?
Doubt that thy power can fill the heart that thy power expands?
There shall never be one lost good! What was, shall live as before;
The evil is null, is nought, is silence implying sound;
What was good shall be good, with, for evil, so much good more;
On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round.
All we have willed or hoped or dreamed of good shall exist;
Not its semblance, but itself; no beauty, nor good, nor power
Whose voice has gone forth, but each survives for the melodist
When eternity affirms the conception of an hour.
The high that proved too high, the heroic for earth too hard,
The passion that left the ground to lose itself in the sky,
Are music sent up to God by the lover and the bard;
Enough that he heard it once: we shall hear it by and by.
And what is our failure here but a triumph's evidence
For the fulness of the days? Have we withered or agonized?
Why else was the pause prolonged but that singing might issue thence?
Why rushed the discords in, but that harmony should be prized?
Sorrow is hard to bear, and doubt is slow to clear,
Each sufferer says his say, his scheme of the weal and woe:
But God has a few of us whom he whispers in the ear;
The rest may reason and welcome; 'tis we musicians know.
Well, it is earth with me; silence resumes her reign:
I will be patient and proud, and soberly acquiesce.
Give me the keys. I feel for the common chord again,
Sliding by semitones till I sink to the minor,—yes,
And I blunt it into a ninth, and I stand on alien ground,
Surveying awhile the heights I rolled from into the deep;
Which, hark, I have dared and done, for my resting-place is found,
The C Major of this life: so, now I will try to sleep.
- Robert Browning
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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.