When my husband’s grandfather turned 90 his grandchildren asked him what he thought was the most important invention in his lifetime. His answer was the airplane. Indeed, hearing from someone who has lived nine decades or even ten, perhaps it is natural to want to know what has changed the most over their many years. When Nora Krug of The Washington Post spoke recently to writer Beverley Cleary on the occasion of her 100th birthday, the great children’s author pointed out how different her childhood was from that of youngsters today. “Kids today don’t have the freedom” I had, she explained.
So it came as something of a shock when another 100-year-old writer was asked to talk about his early years and the most salient point he thought to make was how one of the simplest pleasures he enjoyed as a boy had remained the same throughout his life: waking up to the sight of sunlight streaming through his bedroom window.
“By luck, my childhood bedroom faced the sun,” centenarian novelist Herman Wouk told the Wall Street Journal recently.
I grew up on Aldus Street in the Bronx, where my family lived on the top floor of a five-story walk-up in an apartment way in the back. Each morning from my bed, I’d see a beam of sunlight with motes dancing through it pass through the window. I felt good right away. The morning sun is cheering, no matter what mood you’re in.
Doctors agree with Wouk about the benefits of sunlight even as they may warn of the risks of too much exposure to UV rays. “Exposure to sunlight is thought to increase the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin. This is associated with boosting mood and helping a person feel calm and focused,” write the experts at healthline.com. Plus, spending more time in the sun provides an added benefit of increasing an individual’s amount of vitamin D in the blood, and that helps with bone strength.
Wouk wasn’t talking about any of the physiological benefits of waking up to a sunlit room, however. He was sincerely appreciating the powerful impact of enjoying a simple pleasure. And though he no longer lives in the Bronx he still wakes to a sunlit room, in Palm Springs, California, and he enjoys it just the same as he did as a boy. As Wouk explained to the Wall Street Journal,
When you reach my age, you don’t yearn for friends who are no longer here. I’ve always been very much to myself, and when [my late wife] Sarah was still with me, that’s all the company I really needed. I do have the same excitement each morning when I see the sun. That sense of enjoying being alive is still very real. When you reach 100, you’re glad you’re alive. Very glad.
Wouk, whose 1951 novel The Caine Mutiny won the Pulitzer Prize, wrote books about some of life’s greatest complications—war, betrayal, the need for heroism in times of danger. But he was also a keen observer of everyday life. As one critic noted, his novels “pulse with the everyday details of 1940s America: What it felt like to wait for a letter in the post, the passage of time on a transcontinental railway trip, the crinkle of the carbon paper between two copies of an army report, the uncertainty of knowing who would win the war, and when, and how.”
These everyday details continue to keep Wouk grounded at his advanced age. The lesson Wouk has to teach us is twofold: Appreciation for life’s simple pleasures and the importance of gratitude for waking up each day. Both are obviously meaningful to anyone who have lived to age 100, but Wouk’s observations should serve as a reminder to the rest of us that even in our impatient, on-demand era, slowing down and appreciating the little things in life is a virtue worth cultivating.