Today, around 1.43 in the afternoon, I turn sixty.
Then the second hand will click, and that’s that. Nothing else. If you’re a Headline News sort, you can stop here. You’ve got the gist. The rest, as President Eisenhower said of classical music, is just “airs and barcarolles.”
My birthday’s the time of day, and week, Robert Benchley called The Sunday Afternoon Menace (“When Pall Descends Over Whole World,” The Chicago Tribune shorthanded it on December 29, 1929:
The Blue Jeebs begin to drift in about after dessert at Sunday dinner...I would suggest setting fire to the house along about 1.30 p.m. If the fire were nursed along, it would cause sufficient excitement to make you forget what day it was, at least until it was time to turn the lights on for the evening.
Coming twelve days before Christmas, my birthday has always been rolled over into the bigger, later day, and so, mostly ignored.
High on my shortlist of observed birthdays past is 1964, when two friends and I celebrated by seeing Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (Санта Клаус завоевывает марсиан, in the Russian version), in theatrical release. Shot for $200,000 in an abandoned airplane hangar at Roosevelt Field, Long Island, it is widely reckoned one of the worst films ever made.
My birthday has fallen on Friday the 13th eight times. Nothing untoward happened on any of them.
I’ve spent 45% of my life gorging or unconscious: twenty-four years asleep, and three more at the table. Subtract those, and my time on the planet makes me out for 33.
Aside from the fact I look sixty, mid-thirties is a good state of mind. In The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Bracknell explained,
Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years. Lady Dumbleton is an instance in point. To my own knowledge, she has been thirty-five ever since she arrived at the age of forty, which was many years ago now.
Jack Benny, the American comic, steadfastly maintained he was 39 from 1933 to 1974.
At 85, the financier Bernard Baruch maintained “old age is always fifteen years older than I am.” He died, apparently still middle-aged, at 90.
An acquaintance told me this week, “60 isn’t old. Five more years, maybe then.” Freud, seeing an old man in a train window, realized it was his reflection. He was 63.
Researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and Stony Brook University have declared that, as life expectancies have lengthened, 60 is now the start of middle, not old, age.
According to a BBC report in October, as a stripling sexagenarian, I join a worldwide club of 800 million souls. Last June, the AARP sent me an invitation to join. When I failed to take the hint, they sent me a new one, complete with my embossed membership card, for Thanksgiving.
The New Yorker writer Henry Alford- 53, he- reported this month, on his Facebook page,
I watch a British baking show now, so I guess I've entered the third part of my life.
From what I read of the Disney Corporation’s plans, I will not live to see the conclusion of the Star Wars series of films. The first came out when I was 21. The latest one will be out next week. A Facebook app tells me that, were I a character, I would be called Tholi Cofay.
Boomers. Because it’s always about us, ya dig? My version here, if duller, takes way less time than the Star Wars director’s cut boxed set and is both free, and freeing.
Consider this my one, great, barbaric yawp.
Age, and what to think about it, is a moving target. A Washington Post story explained:
When you're one-year-old, a year is literally forever to you -- it's all the time that you've ever known. But as you grow older, one year is a smaller and smaller fraction of your total life. It's like watching something shrink in your rearview mirror.
This idea has stunning implications. It means that parents actually see their children grow up much faster than children perceive themselves to be.
It means that waiting 24 days for Christmas at age 5 literally feels like waiting a year at age 54.
So, at age 1, that year is 100 percent of your life. After 35, each revolution ‘round the sun is about 2.86%, declining gently to about 1% if you reach 98 years.
There are new options for contemplating eternity, too:
“When a man of 80 kilos is cremated, he becomes 2.5 kilos of ashes,” Rinaldo Willy explained. “With these ashes, we make a diamond of 0.2 grams, smaller than a button on your shirt. How heavy is the soul—if we have a soul?”
In its coupling of the tangible and intangible, it is a question that epitomizes Willy’s work. Every year, Algordanza, the company he founded in 2004, receives more than 800 urns filled with human ashes. For between $5,000 and $20,000, the contents of each parcel are transformed into a diamond.
When my time comes, I don’t see my dwindling band of survivors turning me into an industrial diamond keepsake. Nor can I imagine my nephew telling his beloved, not the usual “that engagement ring came from my Uncle Lin”, but rather, “that engagement ring is my Uncle Lin.”
I seem to have safely crossed over the Death By Heart Attack Decade in my father’s family. If my mother’s family’s DNA picks up, I have about 25 more years, ending in sudden senescence and general decrepitude leading unto a swift end.
More likely, something completely off the wall will befall me. In my large, extended family, I am the only lefthander anyone can remember, like ever. I am the only gay man who admits it. I defy statistical norms. Who knows what lurks in my DNA?
Come what may, I am prepared. For years I have followed the advice of humorist P.J. O'Rourke: “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.”
I certainly hope my demise will be swift. I should not enjoy the fate of H.L. Mencken, who recovered everything from a stroke except his ability to read and write. The loss of movement, say, from ALS, would be very sad-making. Blindness would be a drag. Loss of speech or hearing? Less so.
Members of my tribe worry as we age, about when we need help managing. Will we get the same level of care as the majority population, and with a minimum of slights and digs?
It’s not an unreasonable question. Already legislation pends in a number of states to allow healthcare providers to deny services to individuals based on sexual orientation, real or imagined. Nor can we yet limn the futurescape of the repeal everything, replace-with-nothing school of thought in the Republican Party.
People who have grown up expecting to expect exclusion tend to avoid the experience when can, even if they needn’t. One recent study, in Massachusetts, reported,
[H]earings held around the state collecting testimony from older LGBT adults, community groups and elder care experts, mimic national surveys of LGBT elders showing that such adults are only 20 percent as likely as the general population to access services for seniors, or apply for housing assistance, food stamps, and other social safety net programs.
Given that today’s LGBT older adults are less likely than the general population of elders to have partners, children, and family who can provide caregiver support, and are often estranged from their families of origin, they are actually more likely than their non-LGBT peers to need the formal elder services they are actively avoiding.
Another study, just out in the journal Social Science & Medicine, surveyed hundreds of gay men of my generation and found we tend to see life from a half-empty point of view. Having grown to adulthood with the standard measure of internalized homophobia, we hit maturity only to find we seem increasingly invisible to the younger members of our tribe who tend to set the agenda. Every generation seems to believe it is inventing the gay experience all anew. Experience: not needed. Value: doubted.
“These men have traversed unparalleled, personally relevant historical changes across their adult lives and have paved the way for younger generations of sexual minorities to live in a time of less institutionalized discrimination,” [the authors] write in the conclusion [to their study]. “Still, they are subject to feeling socially invisible and depreciated in their later years, especially within the gay male community.”
I also worry about the afterword to my life’s narrative. Death is Life’s thumb-in-the-eye to the recently-departed control freak.The opportunities for mischief- whitewashed obituaries, the service I don’t want, the elegy by someone who didn’t know me but will read the script presented, hymns I hate- are plentiful. I have seen it done. Leave a list, people say. I’ve seen that done, too, and little good it did.
We all want to stage-manage our last scene. None wants to be the Klondike Rusher in the W.C. Fields monolog, who froze, huddled in a fetal position, and had to be buried in a bass drum. “He always wanted to go out with a bang,” Fields drawled. “The best he could manage was a slight, ‘boom, boom’.”
Such speculations are bootless. We imagine we have a say, some control. Winston Churchill titled his funeral plan, “Operation Hope Not.”
As Terry Pratchett- who died in March of early onset Alzheimer’s, at 66- showed us in his Discworld novels, the Reaper Man will just show up, ready or not, resigned to his duties:
YOU DON’T SEE PEOPLE AT THEIR BEST IN THIS JOB, said Death.
Me, I think having the Pratchett version of Death show up (he named his pet raven Quoth) will be reassuring. He’s a no muss, no fuss, let’s just get the paperwork done sort. A little banter, some half-hearted bargaining, then off we go. If God turns out to be the Ralph Richardson version in Time Bandits, so much the better. If Borges is correct- “I always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library"- then I’m aces.
I shouldn’t fret so much, all things considered. For a long time, I expected to have been dead thirty years by now.
I grew up listening to my elders talk of family suddenly carried off by the Influenza Pandemic of 1918. HIV/AIDS was my generation’s 1918, only it dragged on for fifteen years before it was wrangled into the category of a chronic illness.
I was two-thirds of the way to sixty when I came out. One reason was that in the legal profession in the mid-’80s, it would have been professional suicide.
The other was family. The actress Lily Tomlin, now 76, put off coming out well into this century to avoid both problems:
I knew it would hurt my mother. She was so southern, so Methodist, she believed so much in Jesus.
“My mother was pretty traditional,” says Tomlin. “Most of my relatives? Same thing. That generation would be horrified, 20, 30 years ago, if I’d announced it to them. So I never did.”
I, too, kept putting it off. After my dad had a couple of heart attacks, I worried the news might, literally, kill him.
But before that, I was just afraid to come out. I didn’t know what else to do, so I stayed in. When I was a teen, being gay was still classified as a mental disorder. There was nothing to read. There was no Internet. On TV and in movies, the very occasional character one saw was a tortured soul, and usually homicidal (decades later, I love the film American Beauty, in which the only family that was normal was the one that wasn’t). As awful as the reaction was when I came out in 1995, I cannot imagine what would have happened in 1975.
A rational adult by 1995, thinking rationality a common human trait, I tried to help my parents out. I sent them books. I believe every problem has a solution somewhere in a book, and there were books about discovering when to do on learning one is parent to one of them.
“I can’t show your father this stuff,” she told my sister as she threw them in the trash. Thanks to the miracles of Facebook, I have been able to thank one author, Robb Forman Dew, for the helpfulness and encouragement her 1994 book, The Family Heart: A Memoir of When Our Son Came Out, gave me, if not my parents. She was very helpful and encouraging all over again.
My father died in 2001. After Thanksgiving, I learned my mother has embarked on the journey President Reagan called the sunset of his life. Absent an uncommunicated, and highly improbable, change of view, her last conscious thoughts of me were of a son who embarrassed her before the world by coming out. On the two occasions I last saw her- late in the last century- when she spoke to me, it was while looking at the floor.
We never talked about “it.” My parents dealt with me, as needed, politely. But it was always as if nothing had happened, except when my mother inflicted one of her occasional, surgical cruelties. Her mark was always true.
Every attempt at reconciliation was rebuffed, even as she claimed- to others- she had lots of gay friends (all people, of course, who provided services to her, or sold her things) and that I was the one pushing her away.
I suppose, in a way, I did. Kids my age grew up watchful kids.
“You have to watch everybody, you have to watch your parents, and you can’t show anything.” That severely limits what you can express, like the uncomfortable sense that Mr. Hodgman felt growing up or the schoolyard taunts.
I read that in a profile of George Hodgman, who, in his 50s, moved from New York to Paris, Missouri to care for his mother as her mind failed; he published a widely praised book about the experience, Bettyville, earlier this year. Like him, I was a stranger in my house, growing up. I had UN observer status. I was an undercover agent, a deep mole, burrowed into a suburban family for decades, waiting for instructions that never came. I was a pod person in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, only in reverse. The real me took a long time to come out of his pod, having been born a simulacrum.
It must have seemed to my parents as it did to a character in Peter Cameron’s The Weekend, on meeting his new beau’s friends:
It was strange to see someone you have only known alone begin interacting with other people, for that somebody known to you disappears and is replaced by a different, more complex, person. You watch him revolve in this new company, revealing new facets, and there is nothing you can do but hope you like these other sides as much as you like the side that seemed whole when it faced only you.
And, as I quickly learned, they didn’t. The few times I heard from my father after the 1995 letter, he was, invariably, gracious; he even managed to ask about my partner a few times (Once was in my mother’s presence: she looked about, everywhere but at us, as if seeking a lighter with which to set her hair on fire).
Never wrong, never sorry, my mother became a character in a Margaret Atwood story, acting out “the stored-up rancor that one can amass over the years.” She also affirms the results of a study just published in The Lancet. It found that unhappiness does not shorten life. “Good news for the grumpy” is one way to interpret the findings, said Sir Richard Peto, an author of the study and a professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at the University of Oxford.
What is there to do? Peter Cameron again:
There are things you lose you do not get back. You cannot have them, ever again, except in the smudging carbon copy of memory. There are things that seem irreconcilable that you must find a way to reconcile with. The simple passage of days dulls the sharpness of the pain, but it never wears it out: what gets washed away in time gets washed away, and then you are left with a hard cold nub of something, an unlosable souvenir...And here, like a stone I carry everywhere, is a bit of someone's heart I have saved from a journey I once made.
This holiday season, with this memo to the file, I move the Mom Account moved into the Inactive Drawer. I cannot close it just yet. There are a few things that will eventually need attending. But I will not be a disappointment any more.
Not to me.
Such an odd life we have led, my 1950s cohorts and I.
An Indiana photographer who documented the gay rights movement said, at the opening of an exhibit of his work this year,
It could be argued that individuals of my generation have lived our lives backwards: we dealt with death and dying in our twenties, began adopting kids and raising families in our thirties and forties, and marrying in our fifties and sixties. It is only fitting that this current exhibition at the Indiana Historical Society representing a retrospection of thirty years of images should culminate with the struggle for marriage equality.
The wedding hinge has probably, almost certainly, swung shut for me. I inhabit a subculture that celebrates youth and looks even more than the majority does its Kardashians. Swimming in a demographic stream that was small to start and has been reduced to a trickle, I can do the math. Just this week The Washington Post reported,
Among same-sex couples, 45 percent are now married, up from an estimated 33 percent at the end of 2014. This prompted Gary Gates, a scholar at the Williams Institute, to tell me, “The speed of change makes it clear that the majority of same-sex couples in the United States will be married in the very near future.”
Even now, occasionally, people- who really want to ask another question- that one- ask (with the usual disarming opener), “As good-looking as you are, why haven’t you married?” I smile, and reply, “I’m not that good-looking, never was, thanks, and it was illegal.”
I was partnered then and am single now. When I could, I couldn’t. Now I can, I can’t.
Still, as St Sebastian used to say, moodily contemplating another arrow, “It could be worse.” Depending on the election returns next year, it may yet be.
There are candidates who promise to repeal over a million marriages. They advance religious freedom bills designed to protect the ability of the majority to discriminate against others in non-religious arenas; being deprived of that gift of God, they maintain, is discrimination- even persecution- directed at them for their faith. In North Carolina this year, the legislature passed a law to let county magistrates opt out of performing same-sex marriages, but if they do, they can’t perform any marriages for six months. Problem solved, the legislators said. Substitutes come in from other counties. Everyone can still get married- after casting about a bit- and the magistrates’ consciences remain untroubled.
No one thought to mention- probably deliberately- that those same magistrates sit in judgment, daily, in cases involving gay and lesbian North Carolinians, having already, publicly, declared they will not treat them equally under the law.
About half the candidates for president say we can ignore Supreme Court decisions. To restore respect to the Court, they promise to appoint justices who will rule as they are told.
In Kentucky, the faith and family values advocate Matt Bevin, raised ecumenism to new heights at his gubernatorial inaugural last week, giving pride of place to celebrities ranging from Jon Voight, co-star of the first X-rated movie to win an Oscar, and Kim Davis, a jailbird county clerk briefly in the news during the dog days for insisting she can make the law what God tells her to (released from jail, she held a rally attended by Bevin and two candidates for president).
I and my tribe are such a threat to the decency and good order of American life, these folks insist, it is necessary to be able to fire us on a whim and evict us from our homes; to be able to discriminate against us in credit applications, car buying (Congress doled out a specific exemption to auto finance companies just recently), adoption and foster care placements, and jury selection (In this last arena, it will be fascinating to see evangelicals- facing service on a ten-week murder trial- torn between their loathing of The Gays and the get-out-of-service-free-card claiming to be one dangles, just within reach).
I belong to a group powerful people have called a greater threat than terrorism, vengeful murderers set on decimating Christianity, regularly credited for causing catastrophic weather events by evangelicals.
Alphonso Jackson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, even declared gay homebuyers caused the financial collapse of 2008. You can look it up.
It has to be a choice, they say. Otherwise, they would have to look elsewhere for an “Other” on which to pin their discontents:
While things have changed- in some ways- with lightning speed in my lifetime, those who refuse to accept change grow more strident daily. Dr. James Dobson, who has fueled as much animus as anyone over the last thirty years, commented in a recent TV interview that with the Supreme Court’s marriage decision in June, he realized “we had lost the whole culture war.”
This has deterred no one. It was simply a hunk of raw meat tossed out to whet the animal spirits of the people as we head into an election year. Three presidential candidates accepted speaking invitations to a recent Iowa conference of evangelical Christians where one of the main themes was the summary execution of every gay American, to lusty cheers all around the hall.
The Palmetto Family Council, Dobson’s South Carolina Mini-Me Club, has set up a War on Christmas hotline for the aggrieved to call, lay out their crochets and whimsies, and have an Alliance Defending Freedom lawyer (things have been a bit slow since they got handed their heads in the marriage equality case) tell them whether they have a good enough case for a federal lawsuit and a $500,000 gofundme.com campaign.
While slower on the uptake in some ways, physical and mental, I find my analytical paths less burdened by undergrowth from the past. We develop- I hope- a greater perspective into what’s important. The ability to problem-solve is streamlined after years of practice. And there’s accumulation of certain types of knowledge – what’s called crystallized intelligence. In a good way, I am just too old for some stuff any more.
The playwright Tom Stoppard notes, however, that “age is a high price to pay for maturity.” In the big world out there, views of aging continue to be bipolar. As in Frost’s poem, the popular view is that our life’s road diverges: one either declines into a general state of indignity or flourishes in a happy and flamboyant one. We celebrate, or we lament. We worry about whether we matter any more, or are as happy and fulfilled as the folks in a Big Pharma TV ad after a course of their latest wonder drug. You, too, can hold hands with your spouse, on a mountainside, in adjoining, empty bathtubs. Cured of bladder problems, guys, a trip along the Pacific Coast Highway, in a ‘65 Mustang convertible with three pals, is yours.
I am trying for the latter state of being- content, if not giddy with life’s sillier pleasures- minus the drugs and the terrifying recitation of side effects that always end those ads. Living differently- I hope, better, too- has meant spending some considerable time, in recent years, considering my prior life.
This has been made simpler, I learned this holiday season, by an ex-brother-in-law. Accepting an invitation to store things for which I did not have room for a time, I entrusted them to him I assumed I would be asked to take them back once I learned of the divorce proceedings.
No word came. He simply disposed of everything. All of my published work, diaries, albums, records, antiques and the most valuable art- all gone. My Oxford English Dictionary was tossed, but the magnifier for it was left behind. Go figure.
In a real sense, I am a dead man, after all. My past has been largely obliterated.
I figure all I can do is treat the news as one would a home fire or some home-leveling natural disaster. Clearly, the record of me proved of little lasting interest to those closest to me. No industrial diamond keepsake now, for sure.
Until just recently, then, I had no idea just how clean a slate my life really is. I have to rethink steps already taken; there is no life into which to integrate them.
It will, at least, provided some grist for my long-locked-up introvert side, which in recent years, I have let roam again. Having chosen a respectable, reliable career over options I preferred, but would not have been able to sell my parents on, I spent decades forcing myself into roles not naturally suited to me: public speaker, political activist, candidate, trial lawyer, sometime teacher. I over-credentialed myself to the eyeballs- a common tendency among closeted gay men of my generation (less so, I hope among those who have come later).
It’s called the “Best Little Boy in the World” hypothesis, first put forward in 1973 in a book by Andrew Tobias, then writing under a pseudonym. It’s the idea that young, closeted men deflected attention from their sexuality by investing in recognized markers of success: good grades, athletic achievement, elite employment and so on. Overcompensating in competitive arenas affords these men a sense of self-worth that their concealment diminishes. (Skeptical? You can look it up: see, Pachankis and Hatzenbuehler, The Social Development of Contingent Self-Worth in Sexual Minority Young Men: An Empirical Investigation of the “Best Little Boy in the World” Hypothesis, Basic and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 35, no. 2, 2013. I hope the progression of things will render it a curiosity to future generations).
An avid practitioner of the theory, with the c.v to prove it, I hoped- if I got outed (personally or professionally), or finally screwed up the courage to tell my parents, I could say, “well, yes, but look at all this other stuff I’ve done…” And indeed, my first few drafts of the coming out letter began with pages of reminders of all the offsetting good stuff I had done.
Which turned out to be completely pointless, both on the merits and in my reading of my audience. I never won their favor for being accomplished at much of anything. It was either the wrong thing, or done at the wrong time, or the right thing done the wrong way. In one memorable set of conversations, I learned it was a mistake to take a job as a prosecutor. Three years later, it was a mistake to leave it, too. But my parents were proud of me, to other people.
At home, my reviews were always equivocal. I used to joke that if I called home with news I’d won the Nobel Prize, the response would be, “That’s nice, dear, but, you know, John Bardeen, Marie Curie, Linus Pauling and Frederick Sanger won two each...if you really buckle down now, you can do that, too…there’s no need to get huffy, I’m just trying to be helpful! Time’s getting on, you know.”
After I came out, when I had some of my most singular professional successes, my mother reacted to them as if each only increased, exponentially, the number of people in the world who knew her son was like that.
Eventually, the push and pull of constantly putting on an act- trials and appellate arguments exhausted me- began to fray the connections holding the mess that was me together. I started coming undone, and walked away from a career I had come to hate, and having realized that, for decades, I had let my professional colleagues pass, in my imaginings, for friends.
It was a dumb way to do things, just walking away from my work one day. But burning that bridge freed me. I got to leave the character I’d played for so long behind, ablaze in the bonfire I made of my career.
But therein lay a great liberation.
The career out of the way, and the attempt to win my parents’ approval with groaning shelves of glittering prizes having been proved pointless, I could get about the business of being myself again: a rather shy sort who would much rather sell old books.
I realized, too, that I had run out of things to say- if indeed, I had had anything to say all along- long before I realized I should largely stop talking. Times come when I miss good conversation- my neighbors mostly tell me what they have seen each other doing, and speculating on what it meant- but doubt I know enough of interest to hold up my end of one.
Ditto writing. After 36 years and hundreds of articles, essays and reviews, I stopped in 2007, and only set free a short essay this year for a college publication. It pretty much sank like a stone. I used to regret having not tried to go into professional journalism- I helped a number of others start their career paths as a pretend-editor in college and grad school- but have come to realize if I had done so, the implosion of the newspaper industry would have led to my having been laid off by now.
Of course, I continued to beat myself up, for several years over all the things I had got wrong, or badly. I still do. It’s the Calvinist way. I have apologized where I could. The rest will have to sort itself out over time.
Life has handed me a fairly solitary existence. I am fortunate to live in an unusually quiet place, and, over 18 months here have slowly shed old distractions I long considered companions. I see perhaps an hour of television in a day while I prepare and eat my dinner. I listen to radio for three hours before bedtime. This has afforded me time to read differently, and with different insight. I pay more attention to things around me. Birds. Seasons. Whether my elderly neighbor Mildred needs checking on.
I have meandered-without intending it- into a contemplative life. Monastic orders have always been an interest; Kathleen Norris’ writings on being a Benedictine oblate have been favorites for years. I was never able to find the time and the place to try a retreat, which probably means I was just being a dilettante about it. Now, my circumstances have made me a right solitary, if no anchorite. I miss the good company of smarter minds than mine, but still have a good many on the shelves, trapped in their books.
While I wish it might be as spiritually improving an existence as, say Thomas Merton’s, few of us are called to be Cistercian monks, or blessed- and challenged- by his contradictory calling to be apart from the world and gift of speaking to it. My speed, I guess, is more that of the writer Anne Lamott:
A hundred years from now? All new people.
Thank goodness for self-help articles. Last year, The Huffington Post published “60 Ways to Find Meaning in Life After 60.” The Guardian newspaper ran “60 thoughts about turning 60” in 2013. In 2012, The Harvard Business Review managed to come up with twelve useful insights on the topic.
Oprah and Dr. Phil explained what it was like, being the 60-year-old them. Overall, still pretty fabulous.
Emma Soames, granddaughter of Sir Winston Churchill (and, therefore, well-known simply for being well-known), positively gloated over turning sixty:
I looked up an article I wrote for this paper when I was in my early fifties and I have to say that I feel much the same. Thanks to a fabulous armory of anti-ageing weapons, including exercise, Botox, highlights and increasingly creative corsetry, 60 doesn't look like 60 anymore.
Just to rub in the whoosh of time's winged passage, economist Tyler Cowen posted this in early December:
By the way, Rubber Soul came out fifty years ago today, which puts it closer to World War I than to 2015.
In 1972, Neil Young was 26, singing, “Old man, look at my life, I’m a lot like you were.” Now he’s 70. Me? Well, here we are.
Dealing with 60’s advent is mostly, I find, a matter of adjusting expectations. In the 1950s, a friend who, walking with Samuel Beckett in Paris on a perfect spring morning, said to him, “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” Beckett answered, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”
I’m inclined to agree with Penelope Lively, an 82-year-old writer quoted in that New Yorker article:
“One of the few advantages of age,” she writes, “is that you can report on it with a certain authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here.” She also highlights the importance of the mission: “Our experience is one unknown to most of humanity, over time. We are the pioneers.” She likes the anonymity that old age has given her; it leaves her “free to do what a novelist does anyway, listen and watch, but with the added spice of feeling a little as though I am some observant time-traveller.”
She is among the first true anthropologists of old age, both participant, and observer. Many of her attitudes seem almost unimaginable to the young: for example, she’s not envious of us, she is still as curious as she always was, she doesn’t miss travel or holidays, she has become used to physical pain; she still has “needs and greeds” (muesli with sheep’s-milk yogurt, the daily fix of reading), but her more “acquisitive” lusts have faded. Most surprisingly, she insists that old age is not a “pallid sort of place,” that she is still capable of “an almost luxurious appreciation of the world.”
All these words: a few forced jokes, some clever allusions. My usual schtick. I got nothin’ for ya tonight. You have to find your own way. Life is an overpriced, one-off, customized package tour with no tickets or maps. You just show up and hope the guy from The Great Race says he’ll see you next episode.
Me? I’ll keep doing what I do: crib somebody else’s insights. In this instance, Anne Lamott (again). She cleared Year 60 in April, and this is what she said on Facebook:
I am going to be 61 years old in 48 hours. Wow. I thought I was only forty-seven, but looking over the paperwork, I see that I was born in 1954. My inside self does not have an age, although can't help mentioning as an aside that it might have been useful had I not followed the Skin Care rules of the sixties, i.e. to get as much sun as possible, while slathered in baby oil. (My sober friend Paul O said, at eighty, that he felt like a young man who had something wrong with him.). Anyway, I thought I might take the opportunity to write down every single thing I know, as of today.
1. All truth is a paradox. Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift; and it is impossible here, on the incarnational side of things. It has been a very bad match for those of us who were born extremely sensitive. It is so hard and weird that we wonder if we are being punked. And it filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.
2. Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.
3. There is almost nothing outside of you that will help in any kind of last way unless you are waiting for an organ. You can't buy, achieve, or date it. This is the most horrible truth.
4. Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy, and scared, even the people who seem to have it more or less together. They are much more like you than you would believe. So try not to compare your insides to their outsides. Also, you can't save, fix or rescue any of them, or get any of them sober. But radical self-care is quantum, and radiates out into the atmosphere, like a little fresh air. It is a huge gift to the world. When people respond by saying, "Well, isn't she full of herself," smile obliquely, like Mona Lisa, and make both of you a nice cup of tea.
5. Chocolate with 70% cacao is not actually a food. Its best use is as bait in snake traps.
6. Writing: shitty first drafts. Butt in chair. Just do it. You own everything that happened to you. You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart--your stories, visions, memories, songs: your truth, your version of things, in your voice. That is really all you have to offer us, and it's why you were born.
7. Publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and sometimes nearly-evil men I have known were all writers who'd had bestsellers. Yet, it is also a miracle to get your work published (see #1.). Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheese holes. It won't, it can't. But writing can. So can singing.
8. Families; hard, hard, hard, no matter how cherished and astonishing they may also be. (See #1 again.) At family gatherings where you suddenly feel homicidal or suicidal, remember that in half of all cases, it's a miracle that this annoying person even lived. Earth is Forgiveness School. You might as well start at the dinner table. That way, you can do this work in comfortable pants. When Blake said that we are here to learn to endure the beams of love, he knew that your family would be an intimate part of this, even as you want to run screaming for your cute little life. But that you are up to it. You can do it, Cinderellie. You will be amazed.
9. Food; try to do a little better.
10. Grace: Spiritual WD-40. Water wings. The mystery of grace is that God loves Dick Cheney and me exactly as much as He or She loves your grandchild. Go figure. The movement of grace is what changes us, heals us and our world. To summon grace, say, "Help!" And then buckle up. Grace won't look like Casper the Friendly Ghost; but the phone will ring, or the mail will come, and then against all odds, you will get your sense of humor about yourself back. Laughter really is carbonated holiness, even if you are sick of me saying it.
11. God; Goodness, Love energy, the Divine, a loving animating intelligence, the Cosmic Muffin. You will worship and serve something, so like St. Bob said, you gotta choose. You can play on our side, or Bill Maher's and Franklin Graham's. Emerson said that the happiest person on earth is the one who learns from nature the lessons of worship. So go outside a lot, and look up. My pastor says you can trap bees on the floor of a Mason jar without a lid, because they don't look up. If they did, they could fly to freedom.
11. Faith: Paul Tillich said the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. If I could say one thing to our little Tea Party friends, it would be this. Fundamentalism, in all its forms, is 90% of the reason the world is so terrifying. 3% is the existence of snakes. The love of our incredible dogs and cats is the closest most of us will come, on this side of eternity, to knowing the direct love of God; although cats can be so bitter, which is not the god part: the crazy Love is. Also, "Figure it out" is not a good slogan.
12. Jesus; Jesus would have even loved horrible, mealy-mouth self-obsessed you, as if you were the only person on earth. But He would hope that you would perhaps pull yourself together just the tiniest, tiniest bit--maybe have a little something to eat, and a nap.
13. Exercise: If you want to have a good life after you have grown a little less young, you must walk almost every day. There is no way around this. If you are in a wheelchair, you must do chair exercises. Every single doctor on earth will tell you this, so don't go by what I say.
14. Death; wow. So f***ing hard to bear, when the few people you cannot live without die. You will never get over these losses, and are not supposed to. We Christians like to think death is a major change of address, but in any case, the person will live fully again in your heart, at some point, and make you smile at the MOST inappropriate times. But their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you. All truth is a paradox. Grief, friends, time and tears will heal you. Tears will bathe and baptize and hydrate you and the ground on which you walk. The first thing God says to Moses is, "Take off your shoes." We are on holy ground. Hard to believe, but the truest thing I know.
I think that's it, everything I know. I wish I had shoe-horned in what E.L. Doctorow said about writing: "It's like driving at night with the headlights on. You can only see a little ways ahead of you, but you can make the whole journey that way." I love that, because it's true about everything we try. I wish I had slipped in what Ram Dass said, that when all is said and done, we're just all walking each other home. Oh, well, another time. God bless you all good.
At Charlotte, December 13, 2015.