I turned sixty-five a couple of Sundays ago, and am still in shock. Of so many things in life one thinks, yes that can happen, but surely not to me.
But the reality first appeared a few months earlier when I received a thick envelope in the post from the guvmint of Her Majesty in right of Canada. My heart freezes whenever I see such envelopes, and I wonder, what do the (bad word, plural) want from me now? I let the nasty brown things age for a few days until some moment when I feel the psychic strength to open them; hands shaking from that animal combination of fear and rage.
That was when the reality hit me. The (same bad word) were trying to give me a pension.
How dare they!
Well, it could be worse, I decided, then tossed it in my folder of desolating guvmint forms, knowing there would be a catch somewhere. For not one of my encounters with Her Majesty’s guvmint has ended happily.
Even under your republican system down south of the border, I believe there are people who think as I do. As Mr. Reagan of fond memory suggested, if the guvmint offers to help you, run away. Even as an adolescent atheist, I would have preferred to be impinged upon by agents of the Church. After all, they are sometimes restrained by conscience.
But there is no appeal against advancing age. As an approximate contemporary – witness to his own hair turned white in a mirror – explained there is only one cure. It is a French invention, and it is called the guillotine.
It happens (if one thing happens, then another can, too) that there are other signs of age. A certain pertness may be observed, gradually slipping away.
This is worst in springtime: a form of physical exhaustion, common among bears when they emerge from hibernation up here in the northern wilds. One resumes one’s habit of wandering for miles, in search of berries, or in my case, old books. By June, perhaps, the spring may return to one’s steps. Or if not, maybe in July.
Previous to being old, I was always young. This was for a reason.
I left school and family at the age of sixteen, as my father and grandfather had done before me, eager to make some circuits of the big round world. Not until sixteen, however: that’s when the truant officers give up on you.
As a consequence, I skipped over the decade or so when my exact contemporaries were subjecting themselves to further, debilitating “education.” Immediately I fell in with those a decade or more older, and came to think of people my own age as insupportably young.
This notion persisted, along with its corollary, that I was myself embarrassingly young, and should bide my time accordingly. When older, I would have a chance to DO something.
It happens that most of my old buddies are now in their mid-seventies and up, their careers quite behind them, and a proportion are actually dead. Is it time for me to accomplish something, yet?
As Shakespeare (or a very good imitator) says in The Passionate Pilgrim:
Age I do defy thee. Oh sweet Shepherd hie thee:
For me thinks thou stays too long.
But some things never change. For example, I now find young women scary, with their beauty and power and ruthlessness. Yet I always did, even when I was under-annuated myself. Not even my theories change, though it might be in my interest to amend them.
At some point, my theory was that boys can not only read maps, but comprehend boundaries. You might go a little over one, but you know that you’re over and can get quickly back. Whereas, a girl will watch a boy transgress a boundary, think “I can do that too,” and keep going. Or won’t even notice where the boundary is. Which is why in traditional society we tried harder to mind them.
It is a sign of age that I can write that, and still believe it to be true. But see what happens when one speaks it aloud, on say, a college campus. That much has changed.
Old age itself has changed, it seems, as I look around me. I remember the old ones in proper attire, affecting some dignity. Now I see great numbers of them have given up on dignity entirely. They behave like children, even before their second childhoods have “commenced.”
Or rather not “they,” but “we.”
I was borne upon the last wave of the “baby boom,” so that other baby boomers now precede me into dusk, and the possibility that we never grew up is constantly before me. Could something still be done before the last of us wash up like jellyfish upon the beaches?
Or shall we continue to behave as if, “This is the first day of the rest of your life” – with that youthful optimism that wears so poorly.
And what will our children be when they are old? The evidence suggests that they’ll be worse than we were. For after all, we taught them the nothing they have learned. But we never really considered them our problem, and they won’t be, soon.
For decades I tested every pen with the same line, from the Sonnets: “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow, and dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field. . .”
And now the forty winters have besieged, and all the other lines of verse redound against me. Except, perhaps, these verses of Edmund Waller, stuck and not yet moved from a slipping memory:
The Soul’s dark cottage, batter’d and decay’d,
Lets in new light through chinks that time has made;
Stronger by weakness, wiser men become,
As they draw near to their eternal home:
Leaving the Old, both worlds at once they view,
That stand upon the threshold of the New.
*Image: The Seven Ages of Man (“As You Like It,” Act II, Scene 7) by William Mulready, c. 1837 [Victoria and Albert Museum, London]