On the wall near my desk at home, there’s a sign: thirty-five words inside a simple metal frame.
“Let me respectfully remind you,” it reads, “life and death are of supreme importance. Time swiftly passes by, and opportunity is lost. Each of us should strive to awaken, awaken. Take heed. Do not squander your life.”
Age. For most of human history, to be old has been a mark of honor. Today it’s a source of fear, even shame. Yet my fiftieth birthday was strangely joyous. It began as my days usually begin: I walked to the corner cafe, drank my coffee, read my New York Times, watched the world go by for a while. (Tough life, right?) Usually, after this languid beginning, I do what writers call “work”: a kind of restless hunting, tracking a strange beast in the jungle of oneself. In my case, this looks like hours of pacing up and down, smoking lots of cigarettes, and drinking many cups of strong tea while staring out the window. (When the beast is finally found, the writer-hunter must then refrain from killing it; rather, you sit very still and let the creature devour you.)
I have been in many women’s groups: walking groups, writing groups, ritual groups, clothing-exchange groups, exercise groups, even a long-ago Tupperware group. So it wasn’t odd to hear Sarah talk, at a meeting of my oldest women’s group, about an entirely different group of women with whom she met. These women rode horses into the deepest part of the woods, and upon arrival, each told a secret.
I stood in line with the others and made my way slowly to the front of the chapel, head bowed, my arms folded in front of my crotch. I still didn’t feel right about it, so I lingered near the back of the line. I wondered what it tasted like. The exchange students were all ahead of me. I naturally seemed to fall in with the exchange students at St. Martin’s.
The videotape began with a Japanese family standing in front of the Statue of Liberty. I’d never seen them before. There was a mother, a son, and a daughter. The father, I assumed, was behind the camera. They had on all the gear: Big Apple T-shirts, Yankees hats, Nikon necklaces. They smiled, waved at the camera, stopped, then waved some more. They pointed at the statue behind them with goofy looks of surprise, as if they’d just now noticed it. They nodded their heads continually, cracking jokes in Japanese. Standing in front of my television, still holding the rest of my mail, I was jealous of them.
We were in the locker room after practice, shedding our uniforms, each of us with three ridges of sweaty hair on his head from the helmet padding, when Chuck Davis, our starting fullback, slammed a locker door and said, “Three days and only twenty times? Christ, with her I’d’ve done it two hundred times!”