Sat on their park bench
A newspaper blown through the grass
Falls on the round toes
Of the high shoes
Of the old friends
The old men
Lost in their overcoats
Waiting for the sunset
The sounds of the city
Sifting through the trees
Settle like dust
On the shoulders
Of the old friends
Can you imagine us years from today
Sharing a park bench quietly?
How terribly strange to be seventy”
(“Old Friends/Bookends,” Simon and Garfunkel)
I was out early this morning, fearing that last night’s rain and heavy wind would have brought down the ginkgo leaves before their time.
The two trees in my neighborhood look battered, a bit the worse for wear, and the carpet beneath them has a thick mix of gold with the red of the maple, but most of the leaves hang on.There is still a chance that these trees will live up to their reputation and drop their remaining burden in one night. But, as Oliver Sacks pointed out with regret, “most of us will be sleeping.”
As early as I arrived, however, just past dawn, the crossing guard, whose name I now know is Michael Brown, was there ahead of me, seeing children–and the occasional early morning photographer–safely across Colley Avenue. Today, as I head home, I shout back to him, “Mr. Brown! How old are you?” He holds up five fingers, then three. Mr. Michael Brown is only fifty-three years old. I have promised to print copies for him of anything I write featuring him and his trees.
If you are old enough to have identified the Simon and Garfunkel song just by reading the title of this blog–if you are older than Mr. Brown–you will probably agree that it is, indeed, terribly strange to be seventy.
There are, of course, the obvious drawbacks, most having to do with these organic containers in which we walk around–the simple aches and pains, the more alarming failing of eyesight, hearing, memory. It is generally considered a mark in the negative column that these bodies are now firmly and in a fairly focused way headed back to the earth. Regardless of how we think about this physical decline, it is inevitable. At age seventy, I can no longer avert my gaze from my own mortality.
Perhaps the body’s transformation–the leeching of energy and strength from arms, legs, torso, the annoying mosquito-like pain of arthritic fingers and toes–facilitates the quieting of the mind. When we are robbed of the ability to engage with the world in the same ways, perhaps we are forced back on ourselves. Or perhaps it’s as simple as something my mother said to me many decades ago, “When you turn 60 things just start falling off.”
I know, at least, that one-by-one those physical attributes that were a source of some small vanity– long, thick hair; slender, well-formed hands and feet; height and the strong straight back that could lift fifty-pound bales of hay; a clear voice that recorded audio books–are being stripped away. And so, at seventy, I am forced to confront the question that the story of Job raises:
And, of course, there are the deaths.
Each year more and more people who have been important in my life–publicly and privately–are dying. Since the Fall of 2014, three cousins, as close as parents or siblings, have died.
In 2016 alone, which has seen what seems to me an inordinately large number of deaths, I can name at least three–Julian Bond, Oliver Sacks, and Leonard Cohen–who had a significant impact on the person I have become.
Do I grieve that they are gone or rejoice that they were here? Probably both. One aspect of being seventy is that things that used to be either black or white are now complex, often confusing, shades of grey.
There are fewer absolutes in my mental file cabinet.
There are also fewer items on my official job description.
More and more are falling under categories like, “Not my responsibility,” or “None of my business.” It’s a relief, with a bit of hurt pride thrown in. The world goes on every day without my supervision or intervention. I am no longer the star of any shows.
I think my favorite part of being seventy is that I can now look backward down a long enough road that I can almost make sense of some of it, can almost see purposes and meaning, where once there were only random events and the frantic battle to keep up with the constant motion.
I read just this morning a sermon by Frederick Buechner, in which he writes, “Life is movement . . .We cannot say anything about it that is surer than that. We keep leaving.”
He goes on to respond to the obvious question of why we keep moving, keep leaving time and place and people and his answer is simple and difficult: we keep moving in order to become more fully human. If life is movement, I would add that movement is also life. If I am still for too long I run the risk of staying the same, no change, no growth, no enhanced understanding, no new ideas. I run the risk of not being alive at all.
Which raises another question:
If, at seventy, I can no longer “move” in the old ways, how then can I understand this need for movement? How can I keep myself alive?
Carl Jung addresses this in his description of the human psyche–that movement outward, engagement with the world, ambition, are the natural qualities of youth. We have to move, to go on life’s journeys, in order to discover who we are.
He also writes that in these last decades of our lives the natural movement of the psyche is inward and we begin, a bit at a time, to disengage from all the people and places that defined us when we were constructing ourselves in relation to the world.
Now we search for that core that is left when all those worldly entanglements and attachments fall away and we are left to stand in the wind that howls in the chimney and rattles the door.
In a little-known poem, “Bereft,” Robert Frost wrote:
“Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.”
And, to get us through these days, “A 17th Century Nun’s Prayer”:
“Lord Thou knows better than I know myself that I am growing
older and will some day be old. Keep me from the fatal habit of
thinking I must say something on every subject and on every occasion.
Release me from craving to straighten out everybody’s affairs. Make me
thoughtful but not moody; helpful but not bossy. With my vast store of
wisdom, is seems a pity not to use it all, but Thou knows Lord that I
want a few friends at the end.
Keep my mind free from the recital of endless details; give me
wings to get to the point. Seal my lips on my aches and pains.
They are increasing, and love of rehearsing them is becoming sweeter as
the years go by. I dare not ask for grace enough to enjoy the tales of
others’ pains, but help me to endure them with patience.
I dare not ask for improved memory, but for a growing humility
and a lessening cocksureness when my memory seems to clash with
the memories of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally
I may be mistaken.
Keep me reasonably sweet; I do not want to be a Saint–some of
them are so hard to live with–but a sour old person is one of
the crowning works of the devil. Give me the ability to see good things
in unexpected places, and talents in unexpected people. And, give me
O Lord, the grace to tell them so. AMEN