Subjectively, no one grows old in increments; one day, all of a sudden, you see your reflection in a mirror (or in someone else’s eyes), and you ask yourself who that old person is, and it’s you. Of course, you make light of it: “Shucks, if I knew I was gonna live this long, I woulda taken better care of myself (diet, finances, exercise, dentistry, dreams, aspirations, family commitments, love, and/or life in general)!” That sarcasm doesn’t wash well as a rationale, and even you can see the flaws in it. So, you lose yourself in memories, including the memories of the different bodies that you’ve inhabited along the way. Ponder, if you will: time is a thief; it steals all of the selves that you ever were.
What is your earliest memory? Is it being tossed in the air (and caught) by some big person, being cuddled, being suckled? Standing in your crib crying because your diaper is full, you’ve just woken up, and you’re alone in a dark room? Perhaps your memories don’t go back that far.
How about the feeling of being little around bigger people? Learning, in a group of kids your own size, to deal with the politics of school? Falling in love with your first grade teacher; learning to tie your shoes, read phonetically, sit patiently with hands folded; or taking a forced nap after “cookies and milk time”? Or, having your rage suppressed?
What about being told to go to bed when you’re not tired; getting awakened before you’ve slept enough; told to clean your plate, drink your juice, get dressed, get dressed, you’re not wearing that! and button up your overcoat? What was your first nightmare?
You grow into a preteen and your voice changes, your feet and nose get bigger, you’re judged by how well you play sports, pull off mischief without getting caught, defend yourself physically and verbally. You want to belong somewhere, but you don’t seem to fit anywhere. You tell your mother that you didn’t ask to be born. Your face breaks out.
High school happens and your hormones rage; everyone is against you; you learn to slow dance, French kiss, have a crush, go steady, and get your heart broken; rinse and repeat. You join a tribe, rebel, study, and can’t wait to get it all over with. Nobody understands the “real” you: you’re artistic, sensitive, all-knowing. Finally, you get a driver’s license, a Social Security card, a part-time job, an acoustic guitar, and a peer group. You sing out for social justice.
You graduate into a radical departure: you leave home, join a band, cult, fraternity/sorority, or the Army. You’re drinking with the best of them, no longer a virgin, doing your own laundry, and you can play your music as loud as you want. You have roommates, you watch art movies, discuss philosophy, name your cat Rimbaud, roll your own (cigarettes). You protest inequality. At this point, there is so much to do in life that you get very little done. It’s okay, you’re young, free, and independent; you wire home for money. You visit the folks on holidays and surprise them with your new wardrobe, hairstyle, and ability to talk adverse politics peppered with expletives.
At 21, you’re exhausted: you’ve taken lovers, gotten a tattoo, had a brush with the law, been fired for incompetence. At 25: you’re golden; 27: you’ve been kicked to the curb; 28: you give up; 30: you settle into a career. It’s time to get serious about relationships, money, security, and the possibility of having a family of your own, a golden retriever named Marilyn, 401k, and a car that is dependable. You buy insurance, use your degree to get ahead, and embrace the responsibilities you once avoided.
The years tick by in a flash. You take on more than three people should. You start a business, buy a house, raise kids, or live alone in an apartment with a tank of tropical fish and the work that you’ve taken home from the office. You’ve been paying your dues and bills, you’ve fallen down and picked yourself back up. People count on you; you’ve found and lost Jesus on several occasions; you’re the life of the party, the master of the snappy comeback, always ready with a smoke or a joke. Shot at and missed, sh*t at and hit.
Settling into what might pass for maturity, you trudge along, taking happiness in your accomplishments, disregarding your shortcomings, everyone around you finally knows what can be expected of you. People around you get sick, get well, some of them die. Younger acquaintances get married; you go to weddings, funerals, baptisms, and sometimes you just send a gift. You forget birthdays. You get regular checkups, quit smoking, and cut back on the booze. You don’t understand the current musical trends or electronic gadgets and don’t know who these people are at the Academy Awards. All young people start to look alike and upstarts begin to call you “Sir” (or “Ma’am”). You still pay attention, you’re interested in the news, you remember when you marched and protested—you believed that good would triumph over evil.
And then one morning, you see that that old person in the mirror is you, and today, you tarry a little longer and look deeply at that face. It’s a good face. A roadmap of decades of a life; lines of laughter, sadness, worry, and joy. A scar here and there where a memory was born, an obstacle overcome, a time where you were laid low by an enemy—or worse—by a friend. A scowl, surprise, suspicion, sorrow, or a satisfaction, leaving telltale signs that are unseen from the inside but apparent when viewed in the looking glass (or someone else’s eyes). So much done; so much more to do.