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.


  1. I hope you have a happy birthday. And continue to write your interesting blogg,best wishes. Alison Rhodes

  2. Thanks for the good wishes, ALISON. I hope you will return and participate in the discussion that often occur on my site.

  3. Happy Birthday George. Keep going, old boy!

  4. Interesting George as I am shortly to enter the next decade up from yours!

    I think one of the worst things is that somehow you find the reality, which you always knew but chose to ignore, that friends are going to leave you for ever and leave a big gap in your life. Each friend who drops off the radar somehow destroys my reality and takes a lot of getting used to.

    It does help in my case I am married to a man who is twelve years younger than me, and who is also a very pragmatic man. I am sure he has no such thoughts as he confronts the passing decades.

    I also think the poem sums it up very well. Have a good birthday - and try not to do too much thinking. Nothing is good or bad - only thiking makes it so.

  5. Happy Birthday, George! What a beautiful birthday gift to us, your readers, and a wonderful reminder of how to approach what appears to be these swiftly passing years with our eyes wide open to life in all it's incredibly fine offerings. I love the Kunitz excerpt, espcially the lines about abandoned campfires. I have left a trail of those. But, the final quote by Annie Dillard that you've shared seems to sum up my own way forward with a compromise of the absurd and the sublime. Seventy years has the ring of wisdom and a willingness to continue, loving every precious stone on the road. May the years unfold before you with such love.

  6. This is one of the most beautiful posts you have ever written, George. And that's saying something. I just love your heartfelt honesty. Happy, happy, happy birthday, my friend. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

  7. Thanks for the good wishes, PHREERUNNER. I will indeed keep going, hat in hand and spirit in tow. I will also get over to that blog of yours that I just checked out. It looks quite interesting.

  8. Thanks so much, PAT. As you enter that next decade of your own, I trust you will provide a report to those of who are following in your tracks.

    As for the loss of friends, I completely agree that we are never fully prepared for our destinies. No amount of intellectual assent can prepare one for the losses that seem to grow exponentially for those who are lucky enough to live a long life.

    I will certainly heed your advice to avoid too much thinking. Indeed, now that I have expressed my feelings about the surreality of this passage through seventy, I feel quite liberated.

  9. Funny, I thought you might post a photograph or a painting today. But ask me if I’m disappointed? No, because you painted another kind of picture, and it’s poignantly beautiful. I agree with Robert that it’s one of the most beautiful you’ve written.

    I wondered what would rise to the surface as you walked the Cotswolds. Would something be seen in vivid relief for the decades ahead? Somehow I am not surprised that you feel that you are floating weightlessly from one country to another, for one thing you have gained from your years of living is an erasure of boundaries, I think. When a person embraces so much of this life and world as you do, there is no wonder that you feel these losses potently.

    The Kunitz lines you emphasized are great comfort! I have been finding similar comfort, strangely enough, from the story of Odysseus on his journey home. (I purchased the new children’s version by Gillian Cross and illustrated by Neil Packer for James to read a few years from now.) Sometimes it really is just putting one foot in front of the other, staying true to oneself as much as possible, and looking closely at those stones along the way.

    Happy, happy birthday!

  10. Thanks so much for the lovely comment and good wishes, TERESA. It's a gift to have this ability to communicate with friends with whom I have so much in common. And, yes, I agree that the final quote by Annie Dillard seem to sum up our challenge beautifully. If we can become comfortable with the fact that life is both sublime and absurd, we can press through this impenetrable mystery with both hope and wonder.

  11. Thanks so much for your kindness and good wishes, ROBERT. I simply wanted to share how I am experiencing this transition, even though it is difficult to condense the random thoughts that fight for primacy on this issue. I look forward to any other insights you have.

  12. Greetings from a fellow septuagenarian! Good times!

  13. Such honest thoughts of awareness you describe so well... I can feel every one of them with a pain that is hard to swallow and accept..
    I am saving this post because it is real and true.
    Take care George on this your threescore and ten, you have reached great visual clarity.

  14. Very insightful and thank you for sharing. And a very happy birthday to you! I found your blog through Teresa and am glad to be here.

  15. Thanks so much for your kind and thoughtful comments, RUTH. While I usually prefer to include an image with my postings, nothing seemed to quite fit with this piece. Perhaps I should have used an abstract image, one that expands, rather than limits, the imagination.

    You eloquently state that "sometimes it really is just putting one foot in front of the other, staying true to oneself as much as possible, and looking closely at those stones along the way." Frankly, I think it's always that way, and we usually run astray when we delude ourselves into thinking that there are better solutions to life.

    Yes, there is so much meaning to extract from the journey of Odysseus. The daunting journey home is part of the metaphor, but so is the journey away from home. There seems to be a constant pulse in our lives—pressing beyond our comfort, returning to our comfort, pressing beyond . . . so on and so forth. At this moment, with your reference to the Odyssey, I recall those words from Tennyson's Ulysses:

    "I am a part of all that I have met; yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move. How dull it is to pause, to make an end, to rust unburnished, not to shine in use!"

  16. Thanks for your good wishes, FEARGUTH. You're the first to call me a septuagenarian. I can only say it's one of the more benign things I have been called during my life.

  17. Thank you so much, GWEN, for your kind and generous comment. I tried hard to keep this post as "real and true" as I am personally experiencing this brief passage. I'm delighted that it resonated with you.

  18. Thanks for your comment and good wishes, LADYCAT. Feel free to drop in at any time. Your comments are always welcomed.

  19. Teresa sent me, and I'm so glad she did. This is a lovely essay. One of the things that struck me is that past decade-changes haven't been highly significant for you. I suffered through each one beginning with 40, and I hated 60. I turn 70 in March and I find myself thinking "Now I'm really old," followed by "Hold on, don't give in to that line of thought." I will come back to this post often as I work through this milestone. Happy birthday to you!

  20. Thanks for your comments and good wishes, BLISSED-OUT GRANDMA! First, let me say that you will have no problems whatsoever with seventy if you remain true to your screen name, "Blissed-Out." Second, at the risk of offering unsolicited advice, I suggest that you banish that ongoing debate about being old or not being old. I have found that the only issue worth considering (with due attribution to Hamlet) is whether "to be or not to be." Just BEING here, BEING present for every moment of my life—that's challenge enough for me.

  21. Your post is thought-provoking. If our lives weren't measured as they are in human terms of time I wonder if we would be so 'affected' by a number whether it be 60, 70, 80 or whatever. And although it is a cliche we are as 'young' as we all still feel inside. It is true that we shall lose loved ones along life's way and we shall all die in the end. That is inevitable but I believe it is like a going home. I think that's why the aged and young children get along so well, one has just arrived from the very place to which we shall return. Babies and children arrive touched with the spirit. That is my belief anyway but I know not everyone will agree. Anyway I wish you very many happy returns George and I look forward to many more of your beautifully written and thought provoking posts.

  22. A very Happy Birthday George - 70 is a real milestone but I think that every decade of life brings its own compensations. I echo Phreerunner's words which rather amused me - keep going, old boy! :):)

  23. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, CAIT. I quite agree that culture probably makes too much of the significance of being sixty, seventy, or eighty. By the same token, I think that major changes occur on the edges of things, whether they be hedgerows, mountains, coastlines, or decades. Whatever the case, life is what you make it, and I'm delighted that you have found a philosophy that supports and sustains your own journey. I, too, feel that nothing is ever lost in the larger scheme of things. Everything is ultimately folded into the ongoing work of creation from which it came.

  24. Thanks so much, ROWAN. This septuagenarian will proudly accept any and all compensations that come with the advancing years. I trust there will be something more than special parking places.

  25. Happy 70th, George. Keep exploring both within and without as you have been doing your whole life. The older I get, I realize there are no answers, only questions. I'm satisfied with that. (And I find that you always bring up the most interesting questions.) I'm staying with my new baby grandson for several days. He is at the starting line as I head toward the finish. I wonder what we will teach each other in whatever gift of time there is remaining?

  26. Thanks for your comments and good wishes, BARB.
    Yes, there are few answers in life, and the most we can hope to do is walk comfortably with the questions. Perhaps you and your grandson will teach each other that anything, including major differences in age and experience, can be bridged by love and laughter.

  27. George…

    I'm so very sorry to be late seeing your post and getting this off…but I trust you know my thoughts and best wishes are no less sincere for being tardy. I do hope you've enjoyed the happiest of birthdays—and hope, too, you're beginning to find your stride and personal equilibrium as you strike out into this fourscore-and-ten territory. It is, indeed, a "new country." And while it's true the same could be said of any previous decade—or year, for that matter—seventy seems uniquely to arrive with a psyche-programed reality check…or so I've been told and observed in others, having not yet crossed that Rubicon myself. (I am, however, beyond the three-score marker, and thus already starting to feel unmistakable intimations of it looming out there like a mountain pass in the fog.)

    As to those losses—at some point we all begin to notice and perhaps start to inwardly tally our personal account. And they do accumulate, in so many ways, like lights winking out on a Christmas tree; each and every one diminishing us accordingly. Our hearts get battered, bruised, broken. We can rail and weep, to no effect. Time and life goes on.

    Introspection should cover both sides of this ever-flowing stream. Sometimes we seek what we've already been given. When losses seem to be taking over my soul, I simply do my best to find and hold to their residual joy, be it memories or lessons. Recover the good. The rest I try and let go. Seldom easy, often impossible. But I still try, and somehow that seems to help. More than anything, I pray that I never live so long that I don't have anything left to lose, which is, to me, the saddest world imaginable.

    My dear, wise friend, there's no need to worry about mastering "the great art of living." No one can; it is an unattainable goal given the human condition. Instead, find joy and solace in living as fully and well as possible, each day, every hour, within the moment. And when you sometime fail—and fail you will—look to the next moment, the next hour, the next day and know it's new, unblemished, yours to savor. Happy, happy birthday. May your many years ahead be truly blessed.

  28. Thanks so much, GRIZZ, for your generous and thoughtful comments. Yes, I think that seventy does come with a "psyche-programed reality check," and my conversations with others who have made this passage seem to confirm my own experiences.

    Your metaphor of approaching a fog-laden mountain pass is right on point. With every step toward the crest of the pass, the fog becomes more dense, so disorienting sometimes that you can only see your own feet. Just seeing one's feet, however, is usually enough to get us through the fog and over the pass. If we keep walking in hope, we soon find ourselves over the crest and descending to a level where the fog lifts and the verdant landscape in which we make our lives become clearer and more inviting. That's been my experience on this little chapter of the journey. I see better now than I've seen in recent weeks, and I look forward to every step of the twisting path that I see attenuating into the distant horizon.

    I will keep in mind your observation that a life with nothing left to lose is hardly a life at all. Perhaps we have been given loss to remind us that we have been fortunate enough in life to have loved and been loved.

    Thanks for your good wishes, my friend. You've taken a few pounds out of my rucksack.

  29. Oh dear George, I love you.

    In a way it is wonderful that you find the next decade, the one which is supposed to be the gift on top of your allotted span on this earth to be such a milestone. For those us living this life, here and now, any decade is cause for pause, 60 as much as 70.

    But let me assure you that life goes on as it ever has; of course we have changed, those who are lucky and thoughtful enough certainly have; who would wish to go through life without assimilating the wisdom of our experiences. But otherwise, nothing changes. A heightened awareness of the next phase, yes, we just can’t help being aware of the next decade which brings us nearer to the culmination of our life’s journey, a decade closer to the inevitable end. But such thoughts soon disappear as we gladly bounce along, doing what we’ve always done.

    Every time I’ve been close to death (yes, I have at times in my life) I promised myself that there will be changes. I soon forget and life continues in its happy and unhappy phases, there are good times and bad times, and all are dealt with in the ways that are familiar.

    Philosophy and thought are permanent partners throughout life, at 40 as much as at 70.

    Go ahead and enjoy what you have. Life is life, at whatever age. Only death can put an end to it.

    Happy belated birthday.

  30. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, FRIKO. It's always helpful to hear the stories of how others have encountered and managed these transitions. Rest assured that I will be pressing forward as I always have. It's really quite simple when one thinks about it—the only thing we ever need to do is to take the next step, whatever it may be, and then the next step . . .

  31. So well written -- meaningful to me at my age of 72. Thanks you -- barbara

  32. Thanks for the lovely comments, BARBARA. Nice to have you stop by, and I hope you will feel free to drop in and join the conversation again.

  33. A belated happy birthday! My internet time has been patchy of late (it still is) so I missed this post when it first appeared.

  34. Thanks so much, DOMINIC. My birthday present came last night with the reelection of Obama.