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In addition to this blog, which I have been writing since 2012, I have written a monthly essay for the Spirit of the Senses salon group in Phoenix, Ariz., since 2015. I was, at various times, a presenter for the salon, which arranges six to 10 or so lectures or performances each month for its subscribers. Among the other presenters are authors, Nobel Prize-winning scientists, musicians, lawyers and businessmen, each with a topic of interest to those with curious minds. I recently felt that perhaps some of those essays might find a wider audience if I republished them on my own blog. This is one, from May 31, 2020, is now updated and slightly rewritten.

The only thing physical we carry with us since since birth is our bodies. And while they stay with us through the decades, they change radically — and the older we get, the more radical. 

I finished college 50 years ago, and I’ve changed a great deal in that half-century, and I don’t just mean the issue of losing hair on the top of my head and gaining it in my ears.

We accumulate much over the years. Some of it we lose over time, divorces, moves, and job changes. Much we divest ourselves whenever we feel on the verge of being overcome by our possessions. And some few objects stay with us, year after year, either because they are meaningful, or, sometimes, through mere habit. 

My sense of myself is most directly the continuity of my memory. But memory is sometimes faulty. And we make up stories about ourselves — usually they flatter us, although sometimes they convict. But our physical possessions tell a harder-edge story. 

Surely the self is more than our own cogito ergo sum, recalled in memory. It is embodied in what we keep around us: more pointedly, we are what we can’t get rid of. Sure, it is also our behavior, the sense we make of the world and how it is constructed and how it functions. But much of that we learn through what we have owned. It is not simply our past, but our expectations of a future. And there should be some outward manifestation of our selfness, not solely the interior rattling around of snippets of memory, strung together like a necklace of remembered events.

I began to think of such things when I woke one morning and sat on the side of the bed, facing the bookshelf on the wall in front of me. I happened to spot the slim volume of The Elizabethan World Picture by E.M.W. Tillyard, an ancient paperback that I had in college. It is a book I’ve owned for more than 50 years. It is where I first encountered the idea of the “Great Chain of Being.”

Then, I gazed over the shelves to discover if there were other books I’d owned that long, and saw Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I attempted to cook from during my first marriage, when I was still in college. Are those two books as much a part of my selfness as the memories of the old school or the failed marriage?

As I wandered through the house later that day, I pored over the many bookshelves to seek the books I’ve owned the longest, through divorces and break-ups, through four transcontinental relocations, through at least a dozen homes I have rented in five different cities. Nine cities, if you count homes from before college, which I didn’t rent, but lived with parents.

The oldest book I still have is my great-grandmother’s Bible, which was given to me when I was four years old. I also have my grandmother’s Bible, in Norwegian, and the Bible my parents gave to me when I was a boy, with my name embossed on the cover in gold. I am not a religious man and don’t believe any of the content scribed therein, I also have to recognize that the culture that nurtured me is one founded on the stories and strictures bound in that book, and more particularly, in the King James version, which I grew up on and which has shaped the tone of the English language for 400 years.

Surely, completely divorced from doctrine, the KJV is a deeply embedded part of who I am.

The second oldest book is one my grandmother gave me on my eighth birthday, a giant-format Life magazine book called The World We Live In. It was a counterbalance to the Holy Writ, in that it was a natural history of the world and gave me science. At that age, I was nuts about dinosaurs (many young boys are in the Third Grade), and The World We Live In had lots of pictures of my Jurassic and Cretaceous favorites. It also explored the depths of the oceans, the mechanisms of the weather, the animals of the forest, the planets of the solar system, and a countering version of the creation of the world, full of volcanoes and bombarding meteorites. I loved that book. I still love it. It is on the shelf as a holy-of-holies (and yes, I get the irony).

Both the Bible and The World We Live In are solid, tangible bits of my selfness that I can touch and recognize myself in, as much as I recognize myself in the mirror.

I pulled down Tillyard from the shelf, and gathered up the several Bibles and began piling by my desk, and went through the bookshelves finding the many books that have defined me and that I kept through all the disruption that life throws at us, with the growing realization that these books are me. They are internalized and now their physical existence is an extension of my selfness into the world.

The pile beside my desk slowly turned into a wall, one stack next to another, building up a brick-foundation of me-ness. They were cells of my psyche very like the cells of my body, making up a whole. And they began to show a pattern that I had not previously noticed. The books I’ve held on to for at least 50 years sketched a me that I knew in my bone.

I’ve kept books from 40 years ago, from 30, from 20. I’ve got books that define me as I am at 73 years old that I have bought in the past month. But the continuity of them is a metaphor for the continuity of my self.

When I was just out of college, a neighbor of my parents died and left my a pile of old books, printed in the 18th and early 19th century. There are three volumes of the poetry of William Cowper, a History of Redemption by Jonathan Edwards, a fat volume with tiny print collecting the Addison and Steele Spectators, and a single volume of Oliver Goldsmith’s History of the Earth and Animated Nature. I have Volume IV of five volumes, which contains descriptions and illustrations of birds, fishes and “Frogs, Lizards, and Serpents.”

And while my great-grandmother’s Bible gives me a sense of roots running four generations deep, these older books take those roots deeper into the culture that made me. I see myself not as a single mind born in 1948, but as part of a longer-running continuity back in time. A reminder that any single generation is simply a moment in a process: seed, sprout, plant, flower, fruit, seed. Over and over. My self grew from my mother’s womb and she from her mother’s. And my psyche grew from all the books I’ve read, and all the books that have shaped the culture that produced those books. It is a nurturance that disappears in the far distant past, like railroad tracks narrowing to a point on the horizon.

I am not here making an argument for nurture vs. nature. I am not simply the sum of the books I’ve read. Rather, the books I’ve read that have remained with me — and there are many times more that haven’t stuck with the same tenacity — have not only nurtured me, but are the mirror of who I was born, my inner psyche, who I AM. They are the outward manifestation of the inward being.

I have books left over from college, such as my Chaucer and my Shelley, my Coleridge and my Blake.

I have the poetry I was drawn to when first discovering its linguistic and cultural power, such as all the Pound I gobbled up.

There are the two volumes of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, edited by Artur Schnabel. I could never be without them. I read scores for pleasure just as I read words. 

I still have piles of Kalmus and Eulenburg miniature scores that I have used over the years to study music more minutely than ears alone can permit.

Books that have turned the twig to incline the tree stay with me, such as Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen, or the Daybooks of photographer Edward Weston, or The Graphic Art of the 18th Century, by Jean Adhémar.

I still have the Robert Graves two-volume Greek Myths that I had when taking a Classics course my freshman year, and the Oxford Standard Authors edition of Milton that I took with my in my backpack when I tried to hike all of the Appalachian Trail (“tried” is the operative word), and the photographic paperback version of the Sierra Club book, In Wildness Is the Preservation of the World.

My many Peterson Guides and wildflower books have only multiplied, but the basics have been with me for at least five decades.

The Thurber Carnival I still have was actually my mother’s book that I took from home when I went off to school. The catalog from the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. is now browned out and tattered and the Hokusai manga is another holy of holies.

All these have stuck to me like glue all through a life’s vicissitudes, many with ragged and torn covers, as I have myself in a body worn and torn by creeping age.

I could name many more, but you get the idea. And it is undoubtedly the same for all of us. For you, it many not be books; it might be a shirt or blouse you have kept, or maybe a blanket that comforted you when you were an infant, or your first car. These are the outward signs of an inner truth. The you who is not separate from the world, but embedded in it, connected to it, born from it and in some way, its singular manifestation.

NB: The books illustrated are all some of them I’ve lugged with me for at least 50 years; anyone who knows me would recognize me in them. 

Click on any image to enlarge.

I am old, Father William, I am old. I wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. And I’m not kidding: I am sitting at my keyboard and there are wide cuffs on my dungarees. I have shrunk. I am only minimally shorter than I was when I was young, but I have settled, like an old house. I have been crawling around on this earth for 72 years. 

Two days ago, the maple tree in the front yard was a deep forest green. Today, half its leaves are yellow and orange. I don’t know if this will be my last fall, but certainly the number of them ahead is dwarfed by the number behind.

It has always been my favorite season, although I lost 25 of them by living in the desert, where fall is really just a period of about 17-and-a-half minutes between the thermometer at or above 100F and the moderating drop to about 80. In Arizona, it skulks by almost unnoticed. Winter is the great season in Arizona. 

I grew up in the Northeast, where fall has a special character, with nippy, dry October days and a sun getting lower in the sky, which makes the leaf color all the more ruddy and the shadows more deeply lined. Leaves raked into piles for kids to jump into. A skim of ice on ponds in the early morning. 

Now, I am in the North Carolina mountains and this time of year, the Blue Ridge Parkway begins to feel like the 101 in Los Angeles, clogged with cars, their inhabitants seeking the perfect fall-color experience. 

In most of my past years, what I noticed about fall was the color. It wasn’t always as postcard-perfect as the New England autumn of The Trouble With Harry, but then, in Hitchcock’s movie, they had to paint the leaves orange (they shot the film in summer). Still, that is the mental image most of us have of the season. 

But the calendar-picture image of fall is too pretty, like peonies or dahlias. I am not moved. They belong on postcards with names like “Autumn Paintbox” and “New England Rhapsody.” The very word “autumn” is too Latinate. It reeks of literature. It traces its etymological roots back to Proto-Indo-European words meaning “cold” and “dry.” In plain-spoken North America, we prefer to call the transforming season simply “fall.” It is the leaves that fall, after all. 

It is much as I love weeds and dislike flower gardens. The gardens are too prissy. Perhaps they smile in bright reds and yellows, but their smiles are unearned. But weeds at the side of the road have strained and labored and live without permission. They are ungoverned and profuse: The force that through the green fuse drives — weeds. 

Gardens are planted in rows, people march in columns, books are alphabetized, plants are given phylum and genus, but any idea of order in this profuse world is a fiction.

There is a rankness to the weeds that I love. If you need a demonstration of the difference between the pretty and the beautiful, it is there beside the roadways, the Joe-Pye weed, the ironweed, the asters, the thistles, goldenrod, cow-itch, cockle burrs, pokeweed, teasel. Most distinguished by their textures and scratchiness. You can feel them on your skin. “I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

Now that I am old, with liver spots and wrinkles, it is not the color of fall so much as its texture that appeals to me. The leaves spot and crinkle, curl at the edges and almost rattle as you walk through them as they collect on the walkway. I recognize myself. 

The inner world and the outer come to match. We have inner weather, and we have an interior climate as well. At the extreme it is Lear’s “cataracts and hurricanoes,” and it is my own sense of the textural maculation of my old age: Those blackened spots and browned edges are my own. 

I cannot distinguish between my projection of myself on the world, and that world’s identification in me. It is all one. And the shrinking leaves are verse and chorus. 

And so I look with a burning concentration at the sere and weakened leaves with an intensity brought by my own awareness of how few recurrences of the season I will get to witness. They are all the more beautiful for that. 

It is a gray rainy day, cold and damp. I am standing at the glass door looking out. I am 70 years old. Yes, that is relevant.

Leaves on the ground, bare trees like leading against the sky, hands on the edge of being numb by the cold. I have my camera and decide to make photographs from where I stand behind the door. How many different images can I frame without moving my feet?

Each of the captures bears the weight of meaning. The leaves are dry, curled and brown. Some make patterns, but most are merely random scatterings. There is no avoiding the match between the internal and external worlds.

I am alone in the world. A lifetime of experience has built up a complex web of neurons in my brain, like interwoven roots. Those connections, alive with electricity, hold seven decades of memory, learning, disappointment, fears, joys and, perhaps more than anything, language. It is the means through which I most interact with the world.

Or so it seems. Yet, it is also imagery that carries meaning. I have been speaking since I was a toddler, reading since before kindergarten, but I didn’t begin making images until I was out of college. I don’t mean snapshots, but consciously trying to find visual analogs of emotional and mental states. Images as art, if that is not too fancy a word.

So, again, through the window, I see the tangle of vines that are axons and dendrites. I see the crisped leaves wet on the ground, their lives and usefulness complete. I see the trees as nudes against the colorless sky, a black-and-white photograph even while in full color. Naked we come into the world; naked we leave it.

The vines are not just a projection of brain-tangle. They are also the way I have come to understand the narrative of my existence. Once, it may have seemed like a simple story line — a plot with beginning, middle and an upcoming end. But the longer I live, the more the plot becomes muddied, clouded, balled like tangled yarn. What was linear becomes a Pollock painting. Where does my remembrance intersect with yours? Where does it knot, where disengage? We met once; which of us recalls? Or perhaps we didn’t.

There is more ahead. I write this as I perhaps begin a new adventure.

Many years ago, when I was still a student at Guilford College in North Carolina, my Classics professor was one of those friendly, inviting pedagogues who invited students to their homes for dinner or conversation. And one of the things she said at the time that has stuck with me is the idea that we all have some “ideal” age we always remain.

It might be an age we have not yet attained, or one we left behind long ago. She said that although she was then in her late 30s, that she had always felt 25. It was her internal age, the age at which she thought of herself. She said back then that even when she was in high school, she thought of herself as 25.

She is now 88. I met her again recently, but I forgot to ask if she still feels the same. From other things she mentioned, I take it she does.

My wife always said she thought of herself as her nine-year-old self. She always maintained that openness to the world that she had at nine.

I have had a different experience. I cannot find an “ideal” age. That is because I can’t think of my mind as having any age at all. I am not philosophically a dualist. I don’t believe my brain is separate from my body; I believe my body generates my mind. But while my body bumps through time, my mind sails on frictionless.

I recently wrote about this concept of “self” for my other gig, a monthly essay I write for The Spirit of the Senses, in Phoenix, Ariz. (link here).

Last month, I turned 70, but my brain doesn’t feel any older. It isn’t that my brain feels young, but rather that mind exists in a consciousness that takes no note of age: It simply exists. My mind feels no different now from when I was young, except perhaps a bit more full (sometimes I feel like I need a metaphysical Bromo), but it is aware that it occupies a body that is losing its vitality, whose knees hurt, whose eyes are rheumy and whose hams are weak.

Several people have asked if 70 feels any different than other bookending birthdays.

Oddly, yes, 70 does feel different from 69. I don’t know why. The only two odometer clicks that have had any meaning are first, when I turned 21 and believed against all evidence that I was genuinely a “grown-up” — I could drink, vote, sign contracts, and brag — and second, a month ago, when I turned 70.

When a car’s odometer flips from 69,999 to 70,000, it can happen on a trip to the grocery store. It is that meaningless. The car knows no difference. On Jan. 11, I was a mere 69; a day later, I was Methuselah. The flow of time is steady, but our clocking of it comes in ticks. That most recent tick was loud.

The fraction through which I see my lifespan has flipped upside down: The numerator is now the denominator. In other words when I was 20, I was one-fourth of my allotted life expectancy — a 1 to 3 ratio — and now seven-eighths of that time — a ratio flipped to 7 to 1. The numbers are hard against me.

I can count a number of people my age who aren’t my age anymore because they stopped aging. Others are in the process of winding down to the final broken watchspring. It’s one of the universal experiences of getting old: reading the obituaries of those you have known, those you have cared about. I keep losing context.

All this is psycho-mological,  because, except for the weakness of hams, I’m in relatively good health, and I was handed decently good genes. But 7 to 1. The math is solid.

So, pace Professor Deagon, pace dear Carole, I do not feel mentally 25 or mentally 9. I feel physically 70: the same a-chronological mind in an unquestioningly aging heap of meat.

carole-at-okiedokies

Next week, my wife reaches a milestone; not one with a round number, but perhaps more significant: She fills 75 percent of the century-long container she was born into. She has passed her “three score years and ten” by five.

While she is hampered by a dozen ailments requiring enough medicine to count each morning as a full breakfast, none is immediately life threatening.

But it started me thinking about those traditional milestones we set for ourselves. There are annual birthdays that we count off, but really, is there that much difference between being 32 and being 33? So, there are longer stretches that actually count out time that feels significant. For many, watching the odometer turn over from 29 to 30, or from 39 to 40 is accompanied by an unwelcome breakfast of existential angst.

“Am I really getting old?”passages-cover

Gail Sheehy wrote a famous book about the changes we go through as we grow. But Passages is more about the psychology of such changes. What I’m talking about are the arbitrary milestones. In Sheehy’s book, the lifestages are sequent, but not hardwired to a specific age, but a likely decade — your 20s or your 30s. What I am looking at here are not the stages themselves, but the signposts that we recognize as they pass.

For me, this starts with age five, when we first leave home daily to attend kindergarten. It is a great wrench in our lives, and we are no longer always safe in our nests, cared and fed by an attentive mom.

bar-mitzvahThe next big one is when we turn thirteen. Eleven and twelve are technically “teens,” but only when we hit thirteen does it seem to count, perhaps because the syllable “teen” is explicit. On your thirteenth birthday, you proudly consider yourself no longer a child, but an adult, or at least and adult manqué. “Today, I am a man,” goes the rite of the bar mitzvah, along with the gift of a fountain pen.

Houston quinceaneras photography. Photography for quinceaneras. Fotos y videos para quinceaneras.Next up is a bifurcation of genders. Girls have their “sweet sixteen” party, or, if Latina, their quinceañera, marking their fifteenth or sixteenth birthday. In the past, this advertised their marketability as brides, although nowadays, when people marry later, it is a vestigial celebration of “coming out” as a wearer of party dresses.

For boys, sixteen goes by unannounced. When I was growing up, boys had their counterpart at 18, when they signed up for their Selective Service card, marking their eligibility for the military draft. Then, it was accompanied by a deep hard swallow and a nervous smile waiting for a letter from the draft board. Nowadays, without an actual draft, registration is largely a formality.

For boys and girls, there is the age of the learner’s permit for driving, but this varies widely from state to state, beginning usually at fifteen, but for some not till eighteen. Northern states tend to a later age, Southern states tend to let their bairn get behind the wheel much younger.

Eighteen also marks the official “age of consent,” demarking the legality of sex. This is currently an age more honored in the breech than in the observance. It is also voting age, also honored more in the breech.

For most states, eighteen is also the age of legal majority, save Mississippi, where you still must reach twenty-one.

free-white-and-21-2Twenty-one used to be the standard bar for majority, when you become legally responsible. In less enlightened ages it was accompanied by the boast of being “free, white and twenty-one.” Now it is primarily the age at which it becomes legal to get drunk. It is the signal irony that just at the moment the person in question finally declares him- or herself a grownup, he (or she) is most likely to do the most immature thing imaginable.

Most of these age signposts seem front-loaded into growing up. After that, they become more spaced out over time. For some, turning thirty is a hazard, for others, it hits turning forty; it is the moment you realize you will never be young again, that the responsibility of adulthood, family, career and citizenship have replaced dating, playing and experimental sex. Sobriety hits, and it isn’t always fun.

Fifty is a quiet marker; most people find they are relatively happy at that age. There is, perhaps, more satisfaction at having reached the half-century mark than unease at getting on in years. Most of us, at fifty, are still vital and energetic, and we have the added benefit of all that accrued experience.

(When I was young, I calculated how old I would be at the turn of the millennium and realized I would be fifty-two, and I was daunted because I really didn’t believe it likely I would live that long. When it actually happened, it almost snuck up on me. I was hardly aware I was over fifty.)

social-security-cardSixty is stealthy, because it comes and goes hardly noticed because one’s eyes are firmly on the big sign ahead: sixty-five and the finality of retirement. They keep moving the finish line on us, upping the age for Social Security, but sixty-five is so deeply entrenched in our collective psyches, that the subsequent years just seem like a tiny hesitation. george-burns

The round numbers seem less meaningful than the fivers. Seventy-five is three quarters of a century and an accomplishment more than merely a signpost. Beyond that, the years seem less important than the life put into them. Currently the average life expectancy for American men is seventy-seven and for women, just under eighty-two. Past that, the only one that really counts is the even hundred. The George Burns point. Beyond that, you begin to count every years once again, just as you did as an infant.