There could I marvel
Away but the weather turned around.
First, about birthdays: as threatened, I survived my eightieth back in August. But as I didn’t anticipate, I felt the need of a long time out. For a while the need puzzled me. I wasn’t uncomfortable, but I knew I was experiencing some life change, the kind of thing Gail Sheehy called a passage in her popular self-help book of the 1970s. Sheehy didn’t have anything to say about reaching my age back then, but she has more recently written another book in which she opines about the years between ages 45 and 85 as a “second adulthood.”
I’m resisting this second Sheehy book, but I have needed to think about what was changing in my life or perhaps what had already changed without my marking it. And my need for a time out is in itself a change. It’s been like being on a retreat, something I’ve not needed (or not felt I needed) in the past. I’ve been doing something like what Isaiah calls waiting upon the Lord, though I’ve mostly resisted church during my time out. I don’t want the formal closures of doctrine, scripture, or liturgy at present. I’m rather trying to attend to what a medieval author called a cloud of unknowing.
And here presently I’m writing mostly about the attending. I continue to wait, and the waiting is slow. I’m an intuitive person. Intuition isn’t always lightning fast: indeed the big intuitions almost always come slowly, piece by piece. But on the other hand I’m quite clear about what triggered my time out; though the clarity came after the fact and as often happens for me, from reading. Looking for something else, I came across this wonderful Homeric simile in one of Robinson Jeffers’ poems.
The future is a misted landscape,
no man sees clearly, but at cyclic turns
There is a change felt in the rhythm of events, as when
an exhausted horse
Falters and recovers, then the rhythm of the running
hoofbeats is changed: he will run miles yet,
But he must fall: we have felt it again in our own life
time, slip, shift, and speed-up
In the gallop of the world; . . . .
I’m shamelessly wrenching this figure out of its context in a political poem entitled “Prescription of Painful Ends.” And as I say, I became aware of the stumbling and recovery only after the fact; so that I can’t say just when these things occurred. I infer their occurrence from the fact that I am coming to think of the remainder of my life just so—as the remainder. And that is a new thing; though I now realize it has been a growing awareness in me for some years.
Dylan Thomas’s “Poem In October” is one of the first modern poems I seriously loved. But I can no longer feel much solidarity with the child evoked there. There was joy in my childhood to be sure, but there were also pain and grief and almost unbearable loss. Last summer my brother and I wandered about the neighborhood in Albuquerque where we lived as small boys just after World War II. When I left Albuquerque’s Monte Vista school in the middle of the fourth grade in 1946, my teacher embraced me and wept. I wept as well but not without some sense of ironic distance, knowing as I did that my teacher’s tears were for a boy who had lost his father.
I am no longer that boy, but I loved wandering the halls of my former school back in August with my beloved. Along the way we happened on a couple of rascally boys late for an outdoor class meeting. “We’re busted,” said one—“We’re so busted!” exclaimed the other as they ran past us. A few minutes later we observed them sneaking into the back of a class meeting outdoors on a fine day that happened to be the first day of school. This, among timeless things, resonates like the clock on my mantelpiece. But what vista opens for me now, at eighty? Both my brother and I recalled being sent to the principal’s office at Monte Vista school because we had been caught playing in a small grove of trees that were for some reason off limits, the very grove of trees indeed, in which we observed those boys settling at the back of their class.
Mutatis mutandis . . . surely a part of the point is that one’s love of the world, my love of the world, need not diminish, has not diminished, with age—other things being equal that is. But I am fortunate. Many of my friends and colleagues have not been so fortunate. My doctor, who I sometimes think is too young to be the excellent professor of medicine that she is, reminds me that my job at eighty is to work at retaining my health. Good advice to a fortunate man for whom the future perhaps remains an open question, the rhythm of the running out of life not yet slipped into terminal illness or dementia or misanthropy.
Thus, the gospel injunction to remain awake at first Advent arrives when I am already sleepless, and if not glad of it at least content. It isn’t what the Te Deum terms the sharpness of death, or its prospect, but the openness of life to that prospect that gives new meaning to me at eighty.
—more to come . . .