Thursday, October 18, 2012


The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected.
Robert Frost 

Today is my seventieth birthday—that biblical milestone of "threescore and ten years" that was etched into my mind at an early age—and I am compelled to admit that it's one of the strangest transitions I have ever experienced.  I'm not quite sure why it feels so odd, so disorienting, but I hope to work through the confusion by writing this little piece.  So please bear with me.  My words may need to walk in several directions before I can find the center of this maze.

For the most part, I have paid little attention to the boundaries that separate the unfolding decades of our lives.  Each transition has been negotiated smoothly, with little nostalgia and virtually no anxiety about the future.  Seventy, however, feels like a seismic shift in the tectonic plates beneath one's feet.  It's like one of those weather forecasts that you blithely ignore until the storm strikes your home unexpectedly in the middle of the night, banging the shutters, ripping off the roof tiles, and demanding that you pay attention—serious attention—to the realities of the moment.

As for the storm named Seventy, I have received the usual assurances that I'm only as old as I feel, and that, in any event, "seventy is the new sixty."  I appreciate these optimistic sentiments, of course, but they are simply inconsonant my own sense of reality.  Reaching seventy is the same as it has always been.  It represents seven decades of struggling to survive; struggling to live an authentic life; struggling to find and retain love; struggling to build and support a family; and struggling to find meaning and purpose in one's life.  It's seven decades of confronting one's fears and anxieties, while holding fast to the hopes and dreams that move each of us inexorably forward.

That's the reality of being seventy.  It's nothing more and nothing less than the accumulated history of our lives. But here's the odd part:  My personal experience of turning seventy seems completely untethered from reality.  It does not feel like becoming, reaching, or attaining anything.  Indeed, the image that comes to mind is one of floating—floating weightlessly above the earth as gentle winds nudge me out of one country and into another, the new one being far more more surreal than the former. This is a place the ancients would have clearly defined as terra incognita, warning unwary travelers that "here be dragons."

It may be that this feeling of surreality is simply the manifestation of an existential anxiety that seeks to abandon the subconscious and take up permanent residence in the conscious realm of my brain.  Instinctively, however, it seems like something quite different, something that is difficult to define and quantify specifically.  All that I can say for sure is that it involves the mounting losses that come with each passing year.

Most poignant, of course, are the losses of friends, family members, and those unique people who gave me unexpected solace, support, and joy.  Losses are not confined to people, however.  There is also the loss of innocence, the loss of opportunities, the loss of illusions that may have provided convenient props in youth and middle age.  Whatever the case, few persons of seventy will be able to deny the truth of what Annie Dillard writes in Teaching a Stone How to Talk:  We eventually become painfully aware of "the losses you incur by being here—the extortionary rent you have to pay as long as you stay."

So what is one to do?  I, for one, will take my first clue from Stanley Kunitz, whose poem, The Layers, describes not only the terrain I must travel, but the best path through it.  In part, Kunitz writes:

                       I have walked through many lives,
                       some of them my own,
                       and I am not who I was,
                       though some principle of being
                       abides, from which I struggle
                       not to stray.
                       When I look behind,
                       as I am compelled to look
                       before I can gather strength
                       to proceed on my journey,
                       I see the milestones dwindling
                       toward the horizon
                       and the slow fires trailing
                       from the abandoned camp-sites,
                       over which scavenger angels
                       wheel on heavy wings.
                       Oh, I have made myself a tribe
                       out of my true affections,
                       and my tribe is scattered!
                       How shall the heart be reconciled
                       to its feast of losses?
                       In a rising wind
                       the manic dust of my friends,
                       those who fell along the way,
                       bitterly stings my face.
                       Yet I turn, I turn,
                       exulting somewhat,
                       with my will intact to go
                       wherever I need to go,
                       and every stone on the road
                       precious to me . . .
                       (emphasis mine)

The Swiss philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel wrote that "to know how to grow old is the master work of wisdom, and one of the most difficult chapters in the great art of living."  At this point in my life, I seriously question whether I can master anything during my remaining years, especially something so vast and complex as "the great art of living."  I can move forward, however—go where I need to go, do what I need to do.  I only hope that every step will hear my soul, in Yeats' immortal words, "clap its hands and sing, and louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress."  And it would be wise to remember something else that Annie Dillard wrote in Teaching a Stone How to Talk:
Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand—that of finding workable compromises between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


A couple of weeks ago, I returned from a nine-day walk of the Cotswold Way, a U.K. national trail that runs approximately 102 miles from Chipping Campden to Bath. Set forth below are some photos taken along the way.  While I will occasionally describe the scenes, I will allow most photos to speak for themselves.

Gatehouse of Parish Church of St. James, Chipping Campden
(suggested by some guides as the preferrable starting point for the Cotswold Way)

Chipping Campden Market Hall (ca. 1627)
(official starting point of the Cotswold Way)

Thatched-roof cottage in Chipping Campden

 A pleasant place in Chipping Campden that could have persuaded
an old romantic such as I not to leave at all, but, of course, I did . . .

Leaving Chipping Campden Behind

Broadway Tower, Built in 1798 as a Landmark Folly for the Earl of Coventry

Descending into Broadway

Broadway Cottage

Leaving Broadway

A Rather Ornate Kissing Gate

On the Path to Stanton

Jacobean Gatehouse in Stanway

Common Waymark for U.K National Trails

Ruins of Hailes Abbey, Built by Richard, Earl of Cornwall and Brother of Henry III

Sudeley Castle
(the final home of Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII
 and the only one who was neither beheaded nor divorced)

Neolithic Burial Chambers

Top of Cleeve Hill, Highest Topographical Point on the Cotswold Way

Church in Painswick

Neolithic Burial Site (contained the remains of eleven persons)

Hang Gliding off of the Cotswolds Escarpment

Fruit and Vegetable Market in Wotton-under-Edge

Path Near Tower That Honors William Tyndale, 
Who Translated the Bible Into English

Dyrham House (where much of "The Remains of the Day" was filmed)

A Garden at Dyrham House

A Cotswold Farmhouse

Encountering Other Walkers as I Descend Into Bath

Bath Abbey (the southern terminus of the Cotswold Way)