Yup, today I am trailing 3/4 of a century behind me. The word “surreal” comes to mind.
I have always thought September 20 was a cool day for a birthday, so close to the equinox. And now on this autumn day, I can no longer avoid the realization that I am entering the autumn of my life. But as in the Nature around me, my life feels filled with bright colors and fresh, crisp air. My wife, Carolyn, and I are blessed with perfect health (we walk 2-5 miles every day, and enjoy a neat yoga routine), a beautiful family, wonderful friends, and lots of shining dreams.
Although I retired from full time teaching just two years ago, at age 74, life continues to be vibrant. In just a few weeks, Carolyn and I will be returning to Spain to continue our love affair with the country and her language. I so enjoy enrolling in language schools in the countries we visit. It is a joy being a student again, reveling in the thrill of learning and becoming a part of a community. Rather than simply being a tourist gliding over the surface of things, this feels more fulfilling for me and more respectful of the culture,
I taught my first university class in 1962 at the University of Detroit, and so completed 50 years as a professor. Apart from a few sabbaticals, that means close to 100 semesters of intense and lovingly intimate dialogue with thousands of wondrous students, who taught me far more than they will ever know. To any who might read this, “thank you” doesn’t begin to express my gratitude.
At the beginning of the Republic, Socrates says to an old man, “And now that you have reached an age when your foot, as the poets say, is on the threshold, I should like to hear what report you can give and whether you find it a painful time of life.” This “foot on the threshold” bit is a little creepy. With luck, I have another 10 vigorous years. Death, however, is not the most impactful realization. Finitude is; and that makes every day precious. I find myself echoing the old man in the Milagro Beanfield War: “Thank you, God, for giving me another day.” I recommend that little prayer to everyone.
As far as pain goes, I think the most difficult part of aging is the loss of the friends and family who die before us. The absence of each treasured loved one alters the fabric of life in significant ways, leaving holes that never fill, but also bright threads that weave patterns of joy and love that only deepen with time. We have all come through dark valleys and over shining hills to arrive at today, and with a modicum of attention, learning and growth do happen. I can honestly say that life just gets better and better with each passing year. Maybe there will come a point of diminishing returns, but somehow I don’t think so. Life continues to be “wild and precious” as Mary Oliver has it, and so I raise my morning glass of orange juice, and say “l’chaim.”
From time to time, I still stumble into fear and forgetfulness, but I find hope and reassurance in this lovely poem by Hayden Carruth:
So often has it been displayed to us, the hourglass
with its grains of sand drifting down,
not as an object in our world
but as a sign, a symbol, our lives
drifting down grain by grain,
sifting away – I’m sure everyone must
see this emblem somewhere in the mind.
Yet not only our lives drift down. The stuff
of ego with which we began, the mass
in the upper chamber, filters away
as love accumulates below. Now
I am almost entirely love.