It has become fashionable, as of late, to pretend that aging does not happen. Or, rather, it does happen, but suddenly — like a chasm opening up on a hiking path around a hidden bend. An inevitable physical fact that cannot be avoided, but for most, is around a hidden corner and will come upon us suddenly and without warning, forever separating us from the land of the not-old.
I am 34. This is an age that is not supposed to be old. I’m not going to argue that it is. But it’s old enough for me to suspect that age is not some sudden tiger that will spring upon me decades from now, but, rather, something that sort of laps at the ankles, swirls around the calves, envelopes and tugs and transforms. I have some kind of silver streak developing. I have lines at the corners of my eyes and funny vein smatters behind my knees and something about having children made my right hip a bit stiff when I don’t get enough exercise. These things aren’t all that visible yet. Sometimes someone thinks I’m an Ole Miss co-ed. But, not as often as they used to. (And mostly, the few who are mistaken assume I’m a grad student.)
For some reason, aging doesn’t feel like a good topic of conversation with the folks my parents’ age. I don’t bring it up, because, if reminded, they seem bewildered and slightly resentful. “You are almost 35?” my mother said recently. “How can that be?” And my grandparents — all four of them — have passed on. There’s only one I could have probably asked anyhow. I would have liked to know what she had to say.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been mildly obsessed with the question of what makes a good life. So far, my answers are luck, health, marrying the right person. But, what about after the kids are gone? What about as life slows down and the nights get long? What keeps you from becoming a person like a nameless elder I heard recently, saying crossly and accusingly, “What do we have to drink besides orange juice, water, milk, beer and wine?”
Denial seems to be the current refuge of choice. You can have kids into your 50s, be mistaken as a college co-ed for decades after graduation, achieve miracles of exercise-induced flexibility, wear open-toed shoes and open-backed dresses elegantly into old age. I’m not anti these developments. I’m basically a fan of people doing things and living their lives in a way that make them engaged and happy. But I want very much to know what life holds between the ages of 40 and 80, and I’m pretty sure that the answer isn’t that you’re done learning and growing after the age of 30. I think surely things come up that I haven’t even thought of yet.
For instance, how come Snooky and Mary Lou Williams, commonly referred to as the King and Queen of Water Valley, have coasted into their 80s with a sea of energy, iPhones in their hands, emailing with aplomb? And how come, on the other hand, I know a 65- year-old accomplished business man who can’t be reached any other way than a landline (his choice, sure, but it’s made life pointlessly difficult for his fellow business associates). How come some places see nothing but opportunities to try to make life better, and some places cling stubbornly to the line of “this is how it’s always been?”
I’m a native Virginian, and thus, I’m a fan of the past. I’m a history major to boot, and I’ve been known to argue that a history-based curriculum could teach every child everything they need to know. I’m a Luddite, and I have sympathy for those who can’t bend in the wind of new ways.
But I am also absolutely sure that things can be made better. And that it is our job, while we are here on this earth, to make them so. Denying that things can be improved upon strike me as being in the same category as denying aging. Time is moving past us. It can move us with it, towards some hopefully better future that we can be involved in crafting, or it can gradually erode us like a sullen rock sulking in a stream. Sitting there immovable until chip-by-chip, we too
Mississippi is celebrating its bicentennial. Two hundred years of history I can’t begin to imagine. Accomplishments and failures and a sheer breadth of human experience that boggles the mind. Let’s take a moment to have a party, and toast those who came before us. And then, in their memory, for their honor and our own, let’s go make things better. For everyone who lives here, and everyone who will be coming.