Because the past has a script, we think it is easier there.
* * * *
In an informal survey that I have conducted my entire life, there are no popular songs about the experience of life at fifty-two years of age, which is too bad because today I am fifty-two.
Fifty-two is of course the same number as a full deck of cards, which is something that I had not noticed until it was pointed out to me, I am ashamed to tell you. Thus: not a full deck here.
I relate to certain lines in some songs a bit more closely than I may want to admit (Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” has the pithy, “I ache in the places I used to play,” for instance), but what is fifty-two? There is no answer to that any more than there is to the same question about the round-number ages, about which society deems it okay to be dramatic and sing songs about the significance of one’s body and the number of revolutions around our star it has made.
There can be an emotional shock when one hits the round-number age of fifty, and I have found that two years into this sixth decade, I still take on the tone of a preschooler whenever I answer the question, “How old are you?” I reply with an audible exclamation point (“Fifty-two!”) and an expression on my face that communicates that I expect to be handed a cookie for my ability to count that high. This will not change any time soon, I do not think. Who doesn’t like cookies?
All of the pop songs about aging are about the wisdom that comes from the accumulation of life experiences that affords one a sense of context about life which grants a greater ability to connect with one’s fellow humans. It is probably true that I feel younger at fifty-two than I felt in my thirties, and this is not from a sense of renewed vigor or newly discovered stamina. It is more that life as I experience it has shifted my priorities away from the obsessions of my twenties and thirties: dollar bills and public esteem. I would like more of both, of course, but I no longer need more of either in my day-to-day life.
I tell myself that I should feel relief at what I just wrote, but I do not, not all the time certainly, but more now than a decade ago.
That word, “should,” has haunted my existence and it has for decades. It is a powerful word in that it can reduce every achievement to a smaller one or increase every challenge to an insurmountable one. If I am somewhere, either physically or emotionally, I have either arrived later than I should have or I have arrived at the wrong spot altogether. I should feel relief that I think I know so much less than I thought I knew when I was twenty-one, ah, but, I do not always feel that as relief, so I am in the wrong somehow. Thus, there is a someplace or a someday in which I will be better, in which I will arrive, if only I could do more or have more or … be … not me somehow.
“Should” tells me that I am not enough unto myself. It is a belief in my own myth of scarcity, in which I do not possess enough money, have enough love, perform a sufficient number of good deeds, live a full enough life.
Someone wise explained to me some years ago that the desire to be anyplace other than where one is is the smallest definition of the concept of Hell. She was correct. I spend fewer days in that Hell. Perhaps that goes some way towards a description of life at fifty-two.
Nostalgia is the emotional world’s expression of the belief in the scarcity of now. Because the past has a script, we think it is easier there. Nostalgia is rarely, for me, a healthy feeling. (Does nostalgia qualify as an emotion unto itself? Further, when did I start to use the word, “unto?” Is nostalgia a large enough feeling? So much of our entertainment economy depends on cultural nostalgia—we continue to relive the Nineties, which has been too bad, as I was there for the first go-round and I was not impressed.)
No doubt, I can be a nostalgia junkie about my personal life experiences, sometimes to the detriment of current, still-building-new-memories friendships. Here is a thought that I can visit and re-visit: I see an old photo of myself and I think I can return there. A previous year, another existence, is merely another place I have experienced, lived in, breathed the air of. The Nineties are only as far away as a bus ticket whose price is a bit out of my reach; I think I can visit 1979 as easily as I can visit Phoenix if I would just save up money for a couple of months. I am going to see Vermont again, I am going to visit Iowa again; I have not seen the Pacific Ocean yet, but I know I will. Next year, maybe. I’m not there now, but next year or in memory I can be there again. I know what the Eighties sounded like, what food tasted like then/there, just as I know what Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or Poughkeepsie, New York, sounds like. The ability to visit one (Poughkeepsie) but not the other (1983) offends some part of me.
If anyone told me in 1983 that I would enjoy my life, I certainly would have assumed that this meant I was famous and wealthy. Neither fame nor wealth fell on me so far, yet I enjoy my life.
The little boy on his daddy’s lap in the photo at top, his gaze fixed on his mysterious new companion, his baby sister: he probably does not yet know that things leave. So far everything has been an arrival, new, like his baby sister. I say “probably” because I can not ask him, even though he is me. His daddy’s lap is gone, as his father died on May 10, 2020, and his father would not have liked it if Mark at any age older than four would have hung out there. Like many American fathers and sons, my dad and I learned how to not say “I love you,” and then we lived long enough to learn how to say “I love you” again.
That is a rare but essential life experience.
There are analogies between my thoughts of fifty-two and the fifty-second element, tellurium (Te), it strikes me.
Tellurium is a rare metalloid (an element which contains metals and non-metal properties as part of its own properties) that was not identified as an element unto itself (there’s that word again!) until the late Eighteenth Century because it is so often a part of the mix in other more common ores like gold and copper. (Metallurgists speak of “gold tellurium” and “tellurium copper” when one speaks with them at parties. Some free advice for small talk.)
It is rare, platinum-level rare, in the earth’s crust, and its uses over time have been found to be almost as rare but essential: its presence with copper makes copper easier to work with and its is of great use in solar cells. It is also present in most rewritable CDs.
Rare but essential, like the day-to-day processes by which one learns how to say I love you again.
* * * *
Thank you for your indulgence.
Mark Aldrich is a journalist, award-winning humor columnist, and writer/performer with the Magnificent Glass Pelican radio comedy improv group, now in its thirtieth season. He is the publisher/sports editor of Meghan-Jenkins.com.
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