By Paul M. Lewis
There’s something about turning 70, as I did not so long ago, that gets your attention in a way that turning 69 did not. One day, you’re still in your 60’s, and the next morning suddenly you’ve arrived at what sounds like a whole new level of agedness. Of course, these are just numbers, numerals that have their life on a page, or in a computer, or while otherwise calculating something that can be counted up. This momentous moving from one ten-year spacing of numbers to the next that startles us so is what I think of as the question of the decades. But it’s not the numbers per se that matter; it’s more what they remind us of. They seem to say: What have I done with my life; see how fleeting it all is; and what ought I to do with what remains? Ultimately, it’s the question of mortality that we all must face. How many more of these numberings will I attach to my life’s span before this particular series runs its course? The 17th century English poet, Andrew Marvell, put it this way: “But at my back I always hear/Times winged chariot hurrying near.”
Time – more to the point, fleeting time – is like that. It brings with it questions of meaning, of what we have done with what has been given to us. No wonder it’s a common topic in art of all kinds, since art at its finest puts us in touch with the ultimate questions. Art can make us ask ourselves, using whatever devices and conventions are specific to its particular expression, what is most important in life. We see it in theater, in novels and stories of all kinds, in painting (note the heartbreakingly beautiful and almost too painfully truthful self-portraits of the aging Rembrandt, for example), and as noted above in poetry. William Butler Yeats is one of those poets who spoke movingly of getting older. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” one of the great seminal poems of the early part of the 20th century, he says: “An aged man is a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick”. But he doesn’t stop at such a simple lament. The whole remainder of the poem speaks of what to do with our lives as we age: “unless/Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/For every tatter in its mortal dress,/Nor is there singing school but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence.”
Soul clap its hands and sing. What an interesting image; and what a wonderful thing to do as the body grows older, to make one’s own music, to choreograph one’s own life with a dance that incorporates the ages into it. How each person does that remains forever his or her own personal expression. And it is no one else’s place or right to dictate how that particular manifestation reveals and articulates itself. It is, after all, the reason for the journey in the first place, to give each of us the opportunity to create that most personal revelation of the ultimate magic of who we are. I am, as you no doubt have already noted, speaking here about nothing less than the meaning of life. And not just in some general philosophical sort of way, but specifically and most personally the meaning of one’s own life. That is the thing that no one can tell you, because as life unfolds, as we put foot in front of foot and make our way along its sometimes torturous path, our life slowly reveals itself to us, even as we create it ourselves. It could even be said that it reveals us, ourselves, as we most truly are. That’s why art is such a fine metaphor for life, because art too unveils itself through the artist’s use of what is within and without, all the while creating something utterly unique, a thing the world has never seen before, and which it will never again see the likes of.
What is it that the world sees? And in that ultimate sense, what do we see, as we both create and reveal our lives? Each day presents its own high and low points, its own opportunities for triumph and failure. Yes, of course, there are times in everyone’s life, critically divergent moments, when the choices we make set us along a certain course that veers this way or that. This also means that there were other paths that were presented, but which were not taken. Such are the decisions we all have to make, and we make them to the best of our abilities at the time. There is no room, no time later for regret, for the way we have chosen reflects who and what we were at the moment of the choice.
Still, it must be said, most of life is not so dramatic. We go about our business according to the diurnal patterns we all create for ourselves. We work each day, or we otherwise spend our time according to frameworks that have become familiar to us. And there is nothing wrong with that. Or, I correct myself, there is only something wrong with that if we do so unconsciously. Because the job of life must be to live as consciously as we can, in order to participate as fully as possible in its blossoming possibilities. It is exactly these steps we take each day, each moment, one following after the next that finally makes the fabric of the life we are weaving. Wisdom does not necessarily come with age. How many older people do we all know who have not achieved wisdom? No, it is not physically surviving for a certain number of years that counts, but the quality of the life that we have created. How to go about that? The best way I know is through reflection, dare I say meditation, that deepest form of introspection. Which one of us was born wise, and who has gone through childhood unscathed? These are the givens that we must deal with. What we make of it all is what is ultimately important. Life never skimps in giving us opportunity after opportunity to test ourselves, to grow, to flourish and blossom, or else to wither and fade away. The highest inner qualities, peace and joy and wisdom, do not always come at first invitation. They are shy and diffident visitors; they must be coaxed and cajoled, lured even into the warm hearth of the soul.
These are some of the things I think of as I turn 70. It seems natural that one should think about them at this stage of life, but we all do well to think of them at every stage. Who we are at any moment in life is the end creation of what we have thought and done, what our hopes and aspirations are, how we treat ourselves and others in the wider world. That is as much true at age 20 as it is at 70. And we can only hope that with 50 years in between we might have learned something about what is important and what is not.
In Yeats’s symbology, Byzantium represents the goal, the hoped-for end of life’s journey. It is a mystical place that can never be fully explained, only experienced, because it is not a thing of the intellect. And that perhaps is a good part of ultimate wisdom, the acceptance of the fact that we cannot explain any of life’s final verities, only strive to achieve what a human being can never fully achieve, left to his or her own devices. In the last stanza of the poem, Yeats likens the soul, the human spirit, to a bird “set upon a golden bough to sing/To the lords and ladies of Byzantium/Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”
It is a great metaphor. In the end, what more can any of us do but sing our song, work to understand the past, fully embrace each passing moment, and look with hope and trust for what is to come? Good advice to myself, as I enter into this next decade, and maybe not such bad advice at any age.