(Today is my 61st birthday. A year ago, I wrote this post about my 60th. I’m still away, but I’ll be back on Wednesday. Meanwhile, this post seemed apropos.)
So long ago that I can’t remember when, I read The Romantic Comedians, a novel by Ellen Glasgow about a 65-year-old widower who marries a 23-year-old girl. He sees her for the first time:
The flushed air was so soft that he lingered a moment before going indoors; and it was just as he was turning away that he caught a glimpse of Annabel through the web of sunlight and shadow under the elm boughs. Swiftly, mockingly, she came toward him, like some vision that is woven of desire and illusion; like some vision, he felt, that is as transparent as sunlight and as unattainable as ideal beauty. And while he watched her, it seemed to him that youth itself was approaching; youth as fugitive, as radiant, as hauntingly sad, and as immortally lovely as the dreams of age. In his eyes was the vision, and in his ears was that April whisper of an ecstasy which he had never known in the past, and which, since he was old, he could never hope to know in the future.
Eek. Here’s another passage I want to share with you, though by a lesser writer than Ellen Glasgow:
There are some things in life you cannot understand till you’ve lived them. One is being a parent. You don’t know love or fear till you’ve been a parent. Another is aging. You can’t know what it’s like to lug this duffel bag of experience on your shoulder—a shoulder that, by the way, has been giving you this funny pain lately—unless you’ve actually been stuffing it with experience over time.
That one’s mine, of course, right here on 317am a few months ago. It comes to mind today because, when I first read The Romantic Comedians, I could not have known—simply because I had yet racked up the years—the nature of “the dreams of age.”
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Here’s what strikes me. The passage by Ellen Glasgow is not about the old guy’s yearning for some ecstasy from the past. If that were so, the yearning would be mere nostalgia, and I could say that yes, I’ve always understood that sort of thing. You don’t have to be “old” or even dangerously close to “old” to understand nostalgia. I was nostalgic for 21 when I was 35. But read the passage again. It is not the April whisper of an ecstasy from the past that stirs the old guy, but “an ecstasy he had never known in the past, and which, since he was old, he could never hope to know in the future.”
Aha! We have located the dividing line between youth and age: the realization that some things never were, and, simply because you’re old, never can be. And with that realization, you must resign yourself to what is and what, at your age, actually can be, or risk putting your dignity in the big trouble.
This doesn’t just apply to chasing youthful women. It applies to chasing youth.
Which is not to say that age hasn’t its consolations, among them the allowance to withdraw gracefully from the littered fields of ambition, whether in romance (high or low) or wealth or power any other quest for status. But age does put you at a widening distance from youth, and when the distance is sufficient, the careless luxuries of youth are gone. One such luxury is the illusion of infinite time. Another is waking up and not feeling that pain in your shoulder. And of course, another is the pursuit of Annabel, age 23.
I’ve little interest in Annabels. But I understand the whole damned business of Annabels a lot better now than I once did.
While mulling it over—the tragic carnival, the hilarious catastrophe, that we make of the primordial urge to mate and what that urge makes of us—I couldn’t help thinking, as always, of W.B. Yeats. His longing after Maud Gonne lasted eons past their youth, and makes a tender tale indeed. As of May 9, 2010, I’m 60. Yeats was still writing like mad at that age. A good muse is a thing to value.
The photos are of Maud Gonne young and old. The song “It Was a Very Good Year,” and the man singing it–a mere 53 years old at the time—speaks for itself.