With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Age 40 is generally recognized to mark the end of youth, the beginning of middle age. Turning 40 this past summer, I am perhaps too new to middle age to know much about it from the inside. I sometimes wonder what it will be like.
In my dark moods I foresee myself becoming dusky, frustrated, introverted, regretful that I never established enough structure around my life to protect myself against diminishing strength and virility. I foresee myself becoming one of those poor souls my Dad warned me about: people who think too much for their own good and get into life over their heads. I foresee the dreaded failing health, the death of friends and loved ones so precious that the heart must either harden or explode. I foresee the loss of innocence to plunge back into the new as I once did, thus the slow erosion of my feeling involvement with life.
But these are the dark moods, and against this dark sky I see the faint shoots of morning light. I trust it will not be a false dawn. I foresee, in my middle years, relaxing more, learning the value of the passing moment, letting loose of the dreams and fantasies of far away and later. After all, it should be clear soon that I won’t play baseball in the major leagues; clear also that I won’t be a legend in my own time. (It was always clear from some vantage point; it’s only youth that doesn’t know.)
So my youthful dreams will fade (are fading), youth’s illusions drop off, freeing more of me to be there with the momentary, the everyday, the passing. This autumn I have greatly enjoyed driving around in the mountains of western Maryland, watching the leaves change colors and fall, feeling the melancholy of early November sunsets over low mountains. I am in less of a hurry than I was last year at 39. I am less going anywhere, I am more where I am. Even on the expressway, I drive slowly, 45 to 50 miles per hour.
As my youth’s fantasies and dreams fade, so will my dreams and fantasies for other people’s lives. I will care less and less how my kids do in school. I will support them against possible tyrannies, but feel no ambition for them. In a way, this will put me into a grandfatherly attitude. I will just want to be with them while I am with them. I won’t want to make them into anything — not even good. I will like their “badness” when they feel nasty. I will like the flavor of bad temper no less than a raw November wind.
I foresee, given a somewhat active and reflective youth, that in full middle age, I will no longer seek to be special to anyone, to be a “best” friend or an exclusive lover. I will see, as I already begin to see, that life is varied — even a tree goes through its moods, its cycles, its preferences — and that it is destructive to desire any fixed attitude or mood in anything in life, particularly in other people and in oneself. Paradoxically this will give people (and trees and myself) a lot more room to love me, to feel safe around me to exhibit themselves, to express themselves. I already begin to see it happening. Wanting only what is, is the fertile ground for transformation that is possible in mid-life. It seems unlikely that it could happen much earlier.
Middle age is life’s season of ripeness. In youth there was all that work to do. There will still be work to do at 41, 51, 61 — there will still be fire, but one’s attitude will be different. Now work won’t have to go anywhere, it won’t have to burn anybody. One will be satisfied if it is merely warm, because warm is more pleasant to touch than hot. If one is a writer, one will slowly move away from thoughts of results and into the act itself. One will let the results take care of themselves as they will. One will write a sentence at a time, and enjoy that sentence. If it hooks up with the next one fine. If not, fine; one will begin again, start another sentence, enjoy the pen moving across the paper.
I foresee that middle age could be an almost sensuous surrender to one’s limits. One will develop a few solid friendships and give up ambitious dreams to be all things to all people. One will live in one town at a time, will sin one sin at a time, and will become virtuous the only way virtue is possible: without effort, without the left hand knowing what the right hand is doing. My fondest hope for middle age is a second innocence, a compassionate innocence, a wise innocence that knows without judgement, bitterness, or disappointment; that lives with a sad smile and a joyously aching heart; that waits patiently, unexpectantly to awaken.
Garrett Community College
— A palm-reading Indian offering special discounts outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York told me, for five bucks, that I would live to be “83 or 85.” So, between birth and death, I guess, at 43, I’m about middle-aged.
— My nephews and nieces think I’m “old.” I know people old enough to think me “young.” And contemporaries, as always, don’t bother. How does all this square with the incorrigible lightness in each man and woman that expresses itself without discrimination — sometimes in a wheelchair, sometimes on a tricycle? Always the same; always different . . . that ageless and impersonally personal quality . . . how does it square with all the names? I don’t know.
— Thomas Huxley once described the human life span as being divided into “hope” (youth), “doubt” (middle age), and “understanding” (old age). The little boxes into which intellectually-adroit writers place human beings never fail — no matter how sweet the sound — to give me the collywobbles. Still, in deference to Mr. Huxley, I hope I understand enough to doubt. Or, I doubt if I understand enough to hope. Or, I understand that hope is a very doubtful commodity. And other crossword puzzles.
— Answers don’t intrigue me as much as they once did. I can’t say I feel cynical or downhearted about it . . . it just sort of happened, like white hair. It’s as if answers had turned into cap pistols or dolls — a kind of congenial, once-upon-a-time make-believe that probably has some relevant accuracy in the human spectrum since human beings are the only ones who make the answers up. Support! Oppose! Blame! Praise! Success! Failure! “OK, this time you be the daddy and I’ll be the mommy.”
— Questions are more fun. Just questions. Two that I like are, “What do I want?” and, “Who am I?” Utterly sophomoric and equally practical. Of the first, I mean, “What do I really want?” Hershey bars, power, Buicks, sex, money, enlightenment, fear, and so forth are all wonderful in their time, but what I really want is usually fairly persuasive and simple. Sometimes I think people want maybe two or three things, tops. All people. And from there everything else just spills out. My experience is that there’s a lot of trickery between me and what I really want. Which must, for the moment, mean that I am content with trickery.
Close on the heels of what-do-I-really-want comes who-is-this-one-who-wants. Asked in a divisive, discriminatory spirit, this question only brings answers. But floated gently, like a feather on the water, this suggestion-question arouses and nurtures a something-or-other that is so honestly clear and so utterly non-contradictory that hope, doubt, and understanding slip away like cook-fire smoke above the crowded pines.
New York, New York
Last month I turned 30. I remember once reading a Richard Brautigan poem where he says he has “a thirty year old nose” and thinking, “That’s something that could only happen to Richard Brautigan.” Now I too have a thirty year old nose.
I have a few grey hairs, one in my beard. One night I dreamed that it stood out from the rest of my beard in the mirror — bright silver. I woke up frightened.
Last week my friend Max tested my brainstem for his psychology internship at Mount Sinai Hospital. When he put the electrodes on my head, he said, “Your hair is thinning.” When he played tones in my headphones, he said my left ear didn’t hear too well. My vision hasn’t been much good since I was ten.
It feels like the world is retreating from me.
Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination. I asked my mother what she was doing that day. She couldn’t remember. I can remember it so clearly, Mr. Hassett coming in the class, telling us the President was shot, all of us stunned.
“In another twenty years, I’ll be 80,” my mother said. “I’ll be 50,” I said. Twenty years go by so fast.
Where does our life go?
New York, New York
We are born in the winter of infancy, and die, God willing, in the winter of our age, having passed through all the seasons of our life; middle age is the summer, the high summer and the Indian summer, the early harvest and the late harvest, and so often we are too busy to enjoy it.
All seasons are beautiful in their time, so beautiful that it hurts, but if we could have roses in any season, we would not appreciate them. Middle age is the second blooming of the rose, the autumn damask, that knows a second Spring.
It is a sad season, too, the late summer when it will not come again. We only go around once, but if you do it right, once is enough. If you do the things you want to do, before it is too late, or if you give them up to follow a finer dream, then you know the sweet sadness of time gone by, and of knowing you have loved life so much. There are bitter sadnesses, too; may you never know them.
The tragedy is not in growing old. And it is not in dying young either; the quality of a life has nothing to do with its length. The tragedy is to waste your life, or even a part of it; not to love and lose, but to lose the ability to love; not to fail, but to quit trying, to be utterly quelled and defeated without ever making a stand.
Therefore, I do not wish you eternal youth, but middle age, and old age, too, and I wish you joy of them!
John T. Harllee
Florence, South Carolina
I once chose the age at which I would not mind dying — 96. Since I am now approaching 40, that gives me another 56 years. So, about 30 years belong to youth (at least), another 30 to middle age, and the last 30 for old age — is that the way the chronology works? Or, is it about 50 percent of the time to feel young and innocent, 50 percent of the time to feel old and wise? Or is middle age like straddling the middle of the road (if there’s a fork, would you go right or left?), or does the middle spread like an overblown bologna, or midway upon the road of life we’re bound upon (wrote Dante) do we wake to find ourselves in a dark wood? Midway, here’s a progress report:
I left home at age 17, off to college to educate my mind. I’ve been financially independent since 22 and never married thus responsible for finding my own security, home, work, friends. I have been journal keeping for 25 years, have written poetry and articles, have taken photographs, have made at least ten thousand salads, have canoed in the waters of the Canadian Sound, climbed many mountains, travelled by train. I have stood on my head endlessly, danced ballet, acted in a play, driven across the American continent four times, been to Europe alone with a backpack. I play the flute, recorder and autoharp, have been licensed in massage therapy, make a living with my hands (and wits), bake bread, correspond with dozens of individuals, study esoteric subjects, dance, meditate, hike, bicycle, embroider, swim, plant, tend and harvest gardens, ask no one’s pardon. I must be middle-aged by now, with chapters blowing in the up and coming wind, moonlight, ocean, forest, stepping stone circular stairway. Yes, I’d say I’m fair to middling, on a cool Fall October afternoon.
Katya Nina Sabaroff
Perhaps self-awareness is possible for young people. It was not so for me when I was young. It’s taken me half a lifetime to know who I am. Youth gave me the false perception of immortality. Life had no visible end and I felt I’d have plenty of time for my own needs later, so I was the daughter who called twice a day (gritting her teeth through most of the conversations), the friend who always had time (even when I’d rather have settled in alone with a book and a mug of hot tea), and the solicitous and loving wife (who, having read the magazine articles before the “liberation,” tried bravely to minister to all her husband’s needs).
But there was another Barbara Mitchell who didn’t want to make the twice-daily phone calls, or give up reading the book, or leave the last chocolate chip cookies for the kids, or smile at her husband when she was angry with him.
A rabbi — Susya — said some time ago, “In the world to come I shall not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ I shall be asked, ‘Why were you not Susya?’ ” So, at mid-life, having unquestionably lived half my life as some image I had of myself, I vowed to spend the rest of it as Barbara Mitchell.
It was easier when I did my role-playing. The rules were laid out — all I had to do was follow the do’s and don’t’s. It was safe. This path of self-exploration is unclear. I have to rely on my own rules and I have to do without much of the approval I used to get from my family and friends, who now shake their heads and wonder what’s come over me.
But I have a lot of years of living in my storehouse, and as I reach out to be my own person, I feel remarkably capable. I’m getting to know Barbara Mitchell and to trust her and like her. I’m giving her more and more freedom to do the things she likes — reading, writing, listening to serious music. I figure it’s time — she’s earned her freedom. And she’s rewarding me by becoming a more interesting and loving person. I guess it’s what is called “mellowing.” At any rate, she’s someone I’ll be happy to have with me when I’m old. I’d sure have hated to drag along that other person. She would undoubtedly have been a nasty old lady — justifiably bitter at seeing her life slip away before it was ever hers.
Park Forest, Illinois
I wanted to write about middle age, but, like most people approaching 40, I keep thinking it is not me . . . not yet, anyway.
Then again, I think of it as a process that is slow and gradual. Surely it must be the path to old age!
Remember what the horse said in The Velveteen Rabbit about becoming real?
“You become real over a long time so it doesn’t often happen to those who break easily, have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter when you are real.”
Age is of the mind — and the mind seldom forgets that it is aging.
My daughter asks, “Daddy, when are you coming home?” after visiting me at the Florida State Prison, and I am reminded of getting older.
The mind seldom forgets it is getting older. When it tries, it is reminded by the face of a child, now a woman, whose first walking step was into my arms.
Age is of the mind. It must be — that is what I have been told by all the spiritually enlightening books.
My daughter getting older, my woman getting older, my ink pen getting older, my hopes, wants, dreams, face, body, my spiritually enlightening books all getting older. . . .
And with age there is birth. I am getting older but am reborn within myself, nourished upon the breast of new life to come.
John H. Streeter, Sr.
Florida State Prison
The Middle Ages were also called the Dark Ages because the hierarchical and oppressive monster known as the Roman Catholic Church discouraged freedom of conscience, freedom of inquiry and study of the Bible in the native tongues. The light of the truth was snuffed out. The inevitable consequences, superstition and blind tradition, caused the darkness of the Dark Ages. The promising advances made by the zealous and energetic group of original Christians, without extensive money and organization, were gobbled up in a maze of crazy clerical crusades.
And so with your life. You haven’t believed the Saviour’s dictum that you must become as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. No. You have not sought to capture the virtues of your former age of puberty and innocence (don’t misread this — there were a lot of faults there too; I’m not writing this for Pollyana). No. You have not sought purity, vulnerability, non-judgmental acceptance, childlike trust, and simple joy in small things. Instead you have sought professional advancement, cars with less rust and more elegance, more comfortable living, respectability, and keeping up the image. You are in the Middle Ages.
And now that you’ve staked your claim on outward appearance, and have landed it, at least to a degree, you take a pause during these Middle Ages and remind yourself that you are never going to be a concert pianist as you once thought about in fourth grade, and you are not going to have a best-selling novel as you once boasted in college, and really you’re just an ordinary person with an extraordinary self-esteem An AGING ordinary person with an extraordinary self-esteem. For a moment you’re beginning to see your strayings from the Pure Path of Life and sensing something of a dead-end road of respectability. And you know that if you don’t grab hold of something now you’re going to be stuck on that road that has drowned you with Middle Age middle class.
So where did the Middle Ages go? Into the Reformation and the Renaissance. Will you? We could be able historians and conclude that the fulcrum turning point of the Change was Martin Luther’s self-examination and personal inner struggles. Should I be a lawyer for my daddy’s sake, should I be a priest as I sense I should be, and if so, should I whip myself twice or five times a day? ALAS! EUREKA! I need not make my chief motive pleasing my superiors or parents, I need not gloat over my shortcomings and sinful nature, I need not restlessly pursue acceptance and esteem from my fellow men, no! a thousand times no! God is leading me. God is watching me. God is interested in me. God is not like men. God is better. God is different. God loves me. God has forgiven me. God wants me to be content to be a nobody (on an earth filled with people seeking to be somebody) filled only with the warming, buoyant knowledge that He loves me and wants me to live selflessly for others.
Martin Luther had looked to God and now he had no fear of man, even a Pope and council dressed in this world’s finery, surrounded by power, servants, influence, and money. Martin Luther looked them all in the face and said, “You’re caught in the Middle Ages. Yes you are. But not me. I’ve broken through to the other side. I’ve caught a glimpse of God, I’ve seen the poor carpenter-rabbi hanging innocently on a tree, faintly petitioning His Father to forgive those who were making him bleed. Yes, I’m out of those Middle Ages, into the Eternal one, where time is no more and love and peace and the joys of existence fill the air.”
Now you are caught in the Middle Age. The carpenter who was born in a donkey’s feed box, and hung on a Roman cross, also rose from the dead. He conquered, not Grenada, not the American car buyer’s market, not three sex partners in one week, but the grave. He conquered the grave. He’s out of this age, and calling us out with Him. Now we could go back into the Middle Age, and forget all about this nonsense. Keep our nice things and our nice appearance. Or we could forget all that and prepare for His return.
His name is Jesus. Isaiah said his name is Wonderful. I pray that you get into Him before you buy your deLorean. One of them will never rust.
Elk Grove, Illinois