Saturday, March 21, 2020

On turning seventy

Turning sixty was a piece of cake.  Let me admit one of my silly, lifelong regrets:  that I would never be able to stand in front of a group of students dressed in tweed and professorially stroke my beard.  You have no idea how many times people have assumed that the bearded gentleman at a party or during breakfast at a B&B was the professor in the room!  Somehow turning sixty wiped that all out, as if with my life I had achieved something of the gravitas of a true professor (academics have a strong fraud complex) by dint of living well:  by observing and learning about the world with all my curiosity and compassion fully engaged, struggling to understand it. 

I'll fully admit that I approached seventy with trepidation. Enough so that about a year earlier I made use of a personal trainer!  I hated high school gym; what was I doing with the Fitness and Lifestyle's personal trainer???  My body aches.  I don't have as much energy as I used to.  So my trainer was going to sort some of that out--and he did--not all of it, but it's better.  So the mantra became 'strong at seventy,' though I have come to see that doing deadlifts isn't the only source of strength I've found.

I'm sure that many philosophers over the ages have observed that human mortality is one of our gifts, one of our strengths.  It's hard work getting the world to mean, to find your meaning in the world,  something you could easily put off beginning tomorrow, except for curiosity in youth and mortality in one's later years.  So here's the main effect of turning seventy:  I hold everything closer.  Everything matters more.  Everything is more irradiated with puzzles and possibilities and vulnerabilities--and 'irradiated' is not (only) a metaphor.  It's as if the world is more fiercely lit so that I can't ignore anything, not the birds at my empty feeder, not the cat who sleeps on my pillow, not the despair of someone I love.  So there are things to be done:  fill the bird feeder; find a way for your hands to convey to the cat how comforting he is; sit still with the despair: tease it out, listen to its plaint, and find some inadequate way for your love to assuage it.

And as you read this paragraph in March of 2020, you will realize that the coronavirus has indeed revealed how vulnerable we all are, and how the world sometimes refuses to mean on an unimaginable scale.  On the one hand, COVID 19 means that some governments have been more prepared than others--but how to explain that in a meaningful way?  It means, in Canada at least, that we all have a role to play in mitigating its effects, that our governments and our neighbours and the charming cashiers at the grocery store, who now add "stay healthy" to their goodbyes, take our individual responsibility as part of our social fabric seriously.  But the meaning of one death won't register, won't have a point, unless it is in some ineffable way balanced out by acts of kindness and generosity.  I suppose I could say that turning seventy is how we all feel right about now.  In the face of mortality--our own and others'--we  are all trying to find ways to make the world mean, not only by getting through the days, but also by finding meaning in the tedium and the terror.  A phone call to a grandmother in long term care facility.  A poem you read out loud.  The Zen boredom of making risotto.  An afternoon's deep dive into a book.  Your quest for something beautiful as an antidote.  Your creation of something beautiful as a road marker for you and others during the unknown weeks we have ahead.  We make meaning; it's not going to arrive anytime soon.

Turning seventy means redefining "a good day." When I was younger, a good day meant a good balance between three things:  giving care, thinking about ideas, getting stuff done:  all accomplished with a kind of manic energy.  I knew it was a good day because of the kind of exhaustion I'd feel at night.  Now I almost always take a nap after a morning's writing.  Energy is at a premium, and its disappearance can almost feel like profound depression.  A good day now is more likely to be just giving care and thinking about ideas, words, plots, narrators, poems.  A good day may have only three hours of "getting stuff done," and most of that in service of exploring ideas and words and giving care.  After that, you craft a good day with your attention.  Give your attention with all your senses:  cats; birds; sunlight or moonlight or candlelight; the colour, texture, geometry, adventure of quilts; the smell of dinner; the taste of wild mushrooms.  Not with doing.  With being.

There's a piece of paper from the pad behind the phone in the kitchen that's been kicking around the house and has finally fetched up beside my computer.  It reads "Mr. Jackson and civics class.  I'm in the dark, just growing away like a little mushroom.  Jointed sea grass--what is it?  This is the good life:  afternoon imagining a wild quilt; smell of mushrooms and olive oil; blue sky at six."  The first three are references to the plethora of memories that infuse my days.  (By the way, does anyone know what the jointed grass is?  It's found near lakes in Michigan, is cylindrical and hollow.  You can pull it apart and put it back together again.  Why do I remember this?)  The last three make one of those moments I spoke of above that's irradiated, mostly by my stopping to pay attention to it: to the earthy smell of mushrooms mixed with the fruity smell of olive oil, by sun on my skin, by the colours of the quilt that still swirl in my imagination as I try to refine my vision, by that infinite blue.

At seventy, you redefine "the good life."  Or maybe that's not precise.  If you are lucky and wise, you have a good life behind you, having done and accomplished things that were meaningful to you.  You now have a different kind of good life before you.  It's a wide doorway made of curiosity and attention, love and art, kindness and gratitude.

The bowl on the right in the photograph above was Bill's birthday present--in honour of my inner dragonfly.  I'll tell you about her someday.

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