Queen Anne Hill - Seattle, Washington
The second week of June, 2012
Despite wanting to resume regular postings on this website, an unexpected birthday tsunami rolled over me. It seemed that all I could do was to keep paddling in the waves of good times just to stay afloat.
The birthday celebration seemed so simple and sane in advance.
An afternoon reception on Sunday, with a party on Monday night.
But the celebration continued almost nonstop for a week.
More people than anticipated wanted in on the whoopee.
Surprise guests came from afar and stayed on.
Incoming presents and cards and letters, and nights on the town flowed on.
Spontaneous kitchen gatherings developed early and lasted late.
The Big Bash was one to remember - an overflow crowd at St. Cloud’s Honky-Tonk-With-Eats, the Rolling Blackouts Band in juggernaut form, and friends in full costume - chicken suits, sugarplum fairies, a lion tamer with whip, Vikings, Lady Gaga, the Irish Ambassador, a flapper, the Greek Ambassador, an angel, a sultan, a large white rabbit and more.
With dancing in the aisles and halls, and elegant speeches.
Overwhelming, but deeply satisfying.
I’ve agreed to do it all again.
On my 100th birthday.
In the quiet moments between bouts of beautiful bedlam there has been time to work alone in my garden - only because I get up at five in the morning and none of my friends and family do.
As if joining in the celebration my roses are flourishing, putting on the best summer show ever. (Though, I do suspect that my dear mother-in-law has been praying over the roses behind my back again. Whatever helps . . .)
But I’ll take all the blessings in all the forms they came in, and rejoice.
Here’s a reflection on aging - from mornings alone in the garden.
A child is born.
And the birth announcement comes in the mail, giving basic statistics:
“Mary Ann Smith arrived at 3:15 a.m. on June 1.
8 pounds, 4 ounces; 21 inches long.”
Usually there’s a photograph, with the baby looking as good as possible under the startling change of circumstances.
To the parents we say, “Oh, how cute.”
And often it is.
Even though among ourselves we sometimes make more critical comments.
“Looks just like Aunt Lucille on a bad day.”
“Did they drop it on its head?”
“Well, maybe it will grow out of its condition.”
As time moves on, time is marked in larger units.
“She’s 3 weeks old. 10 pounds now.”
And the units get larger.
“She’s 3 months old.”
Then 15 months - even after 1 year, age is still given in months.
And then the year-count kicks in.
“She’s just turned two; she’s almost three.”
Somewhere along the way the child becomes aware of age and becomes the keeper of its own data.
“I’m four and a half.”
The half becomes important because the child wants to grow up.
They never report, with regret, “I used to be four . . .”
(And they’ll never, ever say, “I’m 39 and a half.")
For awhile things get blurry - birthdays come and go.
The report now is about one’s place in school - “I’m in fifth grade.”
Becoming a teenager counts next.
And then high school data - in class terms - “Sophomore year.”
Sixteen counts - because it’s the edge of driver training and cars.
Independence - behind the wheel of one’s own life.
And, finally, twenty one - the Big One - defined by booze and voting.
The last big one for a long time, actually.
Though privately there’s the day it dawns on you that you are 30.
“What? Me? No!”
Statistics get blurry again - pounds and inches and halves are not mentioned.
It’s categories now - ones projected on us by others.
“She’s in her twenties; early thirties . . .”
And, “I don’t know . . . hard to tell . . .”
Then comes the vague middle-years phase where numbers are avoided.
You can’t believe you are as old as you are, and don’t want to deal with it.
Just dress young and keep your mouth shut.
It’s the long age-stage of “Don’t ask. Don’t tell.”
Fifty is big - when you hope people will say, “Fifty? You? No way.”
And 65 is noteworthy - “You’re not working?”
It’s a relief - you made it - and now there’s social security and Medicaid.
And no matter how much yoga you do, how many half-marathons you run, there’s a suspicion that people think you are in denial.
And nobody will mention or celebrate 66.
For another long awhile the statistical data is truly vague.
“She doesn’t look that old . . . or she’s older than she looks.”
Or, “My god! I thought you were dead.”
Until pride sets in for the healthy survivors.
“I’m 94! Want to wrestle?”
And real denial for those in the outbound waiting room.
Finally, there’s Finally.
Nobody gets a card saying,
“Mary Ann Smith died yesterday. 134 pounds. 60 inches.”
Just dates - “1930 - 2012”
With a photograph taken 25 years before.
How, then, shall I present myself at 75?
To the world and to me?
One may choose one’s own referential numbers.
My current statistics, as of the afternoon of June 13, 2012 at 12:23:
221 lbs. - 58 and 1/2 inches long.
I have lived . . .
39,432,960 minutes . . . and the hand of the clock moves on.
As far as I can tell, the clock is still wound tight, and the alarm is not yet set.
The title of this essay is Vanaprastha.
Partly because I’ve been reading books about the Hindu religion and culture.
And partly because I like the idea of reincarnation - another ride on the merry-go-round in another form is attractive.
Vanaprastha is the term for the last stage of life, when all of one’s affairs are in order and all of one’s obligations have been met.
In the ancient tradition a man retired from active life, surrendered possessions, ambitions, and worldly concerns.
He was to go to the forest to live simply with other seekers of wisdom.
To live at peace with himself, the animals, and the gods.
And quietly pass into the universe through cremation, the shift from matter into energy - as preparation for reincarnation.
Whether anybody ever did or does that, is not the point.
It’s a metaphor about letting go and moving on - at ease with the turning of the great wheel of existence.
Wherever you once were, you will return there - no problem.
Someday, when I am truly old, I will do that.
My costume for my 100th birthday party will be a loin cloth, a turban, a walking stick, a cloak, and a begging bowl.
I may even paint myself blue and smear ashes on my forehead, as preparation for the journey into the forest.
You’re invited to the party.
Meanwhile . . . as Robert Frost said,
“These woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”