Beyond the Tunnel: the Arts and Aging in America was published some thirty years ago, based on my experiences bringing art appreciation and the cultural resources of the art museum to older adults in the Washington, D.C. community through my non-profit organization Museum One, Inc. The world has changed since then, sometimes for the better, other times not so positively.
The concept of the tunnel was based on an actual nursing home I visited frequently in the 1980s. The facility still exists although it has been turned into an assisted living facility that I hope has been modernized. Yet, the tunnel is a state of mind, representing the ageism that continues to permeate our society. Ultimately, Beyond the Tunnel is simply a story—human and I hope, enduring—as well as a reflection of our society and ourselves.
CITY OF TUNNELS–CHAPTER I
The city I live in is full of tunnels—and I vow not to live in one someday. Although that time seems distant, it may be closer than I think.
Tunnels…what number, what quantity of them are there? I sometimes lose count. But then I’ve known so many of them—as a fortunate, privileged visitor, free to come and go, to leave and return again.
All these islands of retirement and aging, suburban and urban, city blocks and exclusive lots; from the Cathedral heights to the hills of Anacostia, amid the flat plains of downtown and endless neighborhoods, pushing outward, south, across the river into Virginia, reaching northward into Maryland.
Every one, each one, revolving slowly, quietly, separately, around the great Capitol dome.
I can get to them all over the city and its outskirts by bus, by car, by Metro train; structures of considerable variety—low and sprawling, or high and rectangular. Composed of either reddish brick, tight and old fashioned, or some mod-tech substance, neutral in tone, ever smooth, always sterile. Neat Williamsburg facades, Ivy League in appearance, recalling prep schools and college campuses. Or modernistic edifices , resembling concrete blocks or cubes—late twentieth century in style, yet not always livable for contemporary humanity.
Named after local avenues or places, religious organizations or bucolic estates, tunnels are harmless looking, often innocuous. They fit regularly into the environment, snug among residential buildings on a city side street, or within a comfortable, upper-income neighborhood. Some are nestled in the rolling hills of the countryside, miles away from any public transportation, or across from a church or an embassy, or along the edge of a wooded glen.
Yet. inside, the world is quite different. For no matter how fashionable or drab the decor, how convenient or inefficient the service, how wealthy or poor the clientele, the tunnel is still an institution. A homogeneous place–a receptacle really, of the last age of man, or woman. Old, elderly, aged, all the synonyms that are used to describe what is inevitable are obvious here—exaggerated and compounded by the massive number of inmates.
Where are the children, the young, and even the middle aged? Where is the energy of everyday existence–the activity, the striving, and momentum of daily lives? And where is the education–the process of learning?
And what of that which has already been learned? Positions, titles, and jobs so essential in working life are not important now. Professions remain anonymous, mainly buried in the receding past. Hundreds of years of lifelong experience and knowledge remain untapped, unrecognized, and unused by a society that would rather waste than rediscover a potential natural resource.
And what of art? And the sciences? And communication in general? Televisions, VCRs, and radios sit waiting in corridors or lobbies, vehicles of entertainment and passivity, adding to the immobility and entrenchment of their audiences.
I have met many people in these tunnels–some my friends, others acquaintances, most barely known. I entered as an outsider–a teacher brining the universe of art and its artists: Van Gogh, Renoir, Michelangelo, and Picasso, just a few among a multitude of painters, sculptors, and architects.
I thought that I was the one offering the gift of a work of art–the color, the beauty, and the vitality. But I was a novice then, more than a decade ago, having no comprehension of what I was to receive in return.
COMING NEXT: CHAPTER II—SARAH
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