October 18, 2014 2 Comments
In about 1986 my friend (in some ways my dearest friend) Gina told me that her 30th birthday had been wild and fun; that on her 40th birthday she threw herself the biggest party of her life, remembering the old book, Life Begins at Forty by Walter B. Pitkin; that she and David had a quiet dinner on her 50th birthday; that she had had another wild party on her 60th birthday; that none of those “milestone” birthdays had bothered her one bit. “But my 70th—this is hard. I can’t imagine being 70.”
In 77 days, assuming nothing untoward like my being run over by a Mack truck, I will endure my 70th birthday. I will have completed my 70th year with only minor (perhaps) disappointments. I wish Gina were still around to assure me it will be OK. She lived to be much older.
Julia Spicher Kasdorf was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, December 6, 1962. She has published several books of poetry and two widely acclaimed works of non-fiction. She teaches creative writing and women’s studies at Pennsylvania State University.
I’m not sure how someone who is only 52 years old can write a poem about getting old, or—perhaps—about dying. However, that was Shakespeare’s age when he died, and he wrote a great deal about aging and dying. Of course, as I understand it, 52 would not have been thought of as an early death in Shakespeare’s time.
For the past ten days I have been trying to write to no avail. That’s not exactly true. I have written a great deal, none of which I would put here both because of the incomprehensibility of the writing and because of the subject matter.
Gina was about my parents’ age. I’ve forgotten exactly when she was born, but she was of my parents’ generation. I remember my father’s 40th birthday, August 21, 1954. Our church, the First Baptist Church of Scottsbluff, NE, of which he was pastor, had a picnic—a large gathering—at Pioneer Park just north of the high school. Someone gave my father a copy of Pitkin’s book as a joke (but he read it and found it interesting after he stopped laughing about it).
The other memorable event at the picnic was that, when everyone else sang, “Happy Birthday, Pastor Knight,” at the appropriate point in the song, my brother sang (shouted, rather), “Happy Birthday, old timer,” and cracked up the crowd.
How, how on earth, do I remember that?
I don’t remember my 40th birthday. Probably because it was just another drunken evening. I have no idea. My partner Frank had bought his house in Beverly, MA, by that time, and we were living there in splendid inebriated isolation. My PhD was on hold while I tried (several times unsuccessfully) to get sober. A couple of months after my birthday, I got it together enough to travel to Los Angeles to play an organ recital at the Wilshire Avenue Methodist Church, where a dear friend was the music director, marking the 300th birthday of J.S. Bach.
Now I’m approaching the end of my 70th year.
Everything I’ve written for the past 10 days has been about the process of becoming an old person. I’m not hating this. I’m not depressed by it (any more than normal). There’s little in my life that is not OK. I’m tutoring my guys (SMU football and basketball players—what fun that is!). I’m teaching my little ESL class for adults at the Aberg Literacy Center. I’m substituting as organist now and then. I’m keeping too busy and making enough money that I haven’t yet had to dip into my retirement funds.
I think—at least it’s my experience, and I can speak for no one else (I haven’t talked with friends about it)—my feelings about things in general are more intense than they ever have been. I thought as one aged, one had less emotion. I have more.
It’s not my clinical depression that makes my feelings about, for example, the genocide of the Palestinian people being perpetrated by the Israelis while the world stands by doing nothing—no, actually assisting—more heightened as time passes.
It’s not my clinical depression that makes me care more about the racism and classism that surrounds and stifles my guys, and all college athletes who happen to be black.
It’s not my clinical depression that nearly makes me weep over the idiocy of the American public’s conviction that we have an “Ebola crisis,” when the entire fixation is trumped up by the news media and politicians who will use racism to influence votes.
It’s not my clinical depression that grieves my own personal losses of my job, my balance when I get up too fast, my parents (even if that was three years ago), my partner (even if that was 11 years ago), and my ability to think of any word I need at the moment I need it. Or—perhaps most important—my ability to rely on the permanence of loving relationships.
No, I feel grief—and also pleasure and joy—more acutely than ever. I need to begin asking my friends if this is their experience, too. When I was 40, I could imagine that eventually the problems of the world I care about would be fixed. I could imagine that, when a dear friend moved away I could easily find another. I knew that everyone would die eventually, but it was eventually, not soon.
So here’s my reaction to all of this. I have my tickets to the Dallas Opera productions of The Marriage of Figaro on October 29, and of Salome on November 6. I’ll watch the Countess forgive her philandering husband and Herod’s daughter dance with John the Baptist’s head on a platter, and lose myself in reality.
“First Gestures,” by Julia Spicher Kasdorf (b. 1962)
Among the first we learn is good-bye,
your tiny wrist between Dad’s forefinger
and thumb forced to wave bye-bye to Mom,
whose hand sails brightly behind a windshield.
Then it’s done to make us follow:
in a crowded mall, a woman waves, “Bye,
we’re leaving,” and her son stands firm
sobbing, until at last he runs after her,
among shoppers drifting like sharks
who must drag their great hulks
underwater, even in sleep, or drown.
Living, we cover vast territories;
imagine your life drawn on a map–
a scribble on the town where you grew up,
each bus trip traced between school
and home, or a clean line across the sea
to a place you flew once. Think of the time
and things we accumulate, all the while growing
more conscious of losing and leaving. Aging,
our bodies collect wrinkles and scars
for each place the world would not give
under our weight. Our thoughts get laced
with strange aches, sweet as the final chord
that hangs in a guitar’s blond torso.
Think how a particular ridge of hills
from a summer of your childhood grows
in significance, or one hour of light–
late afternoon, say, when thick sun flings
the shadow of Virginia creeper vines
across the wall of a tiny, white room
where a girl makes love for the first time.
Its leaves tremble like small hands
against the screen while she weeps
in the arms of her bewildered lover.
She’s too young to see that as we gather
losses, we may also grow in love;
as in passion, the body shudders
and clutches what it must release.