My mom wrote a letter to her cousin (first cousin, twice removed, actually), trying to give this person some insight into her (unknown to her) grandfather, my mother's cousin. Whew. Relationships. There ought to be a tree thing or something.
She passed it along to my siblings and me, and this inspired her to stretch her recollections even further. All of this is fascinating to me, and I'm urging her to do more. This stirs up some odd neurons, apparently, because I love this stuff.
It's the details. I've heard the stories, always having an interest, but the devil resides where he does. Her memories begin in the early war years (she was born in 1937), and some of those nuggets have stuck around now that I'm an adult. The black-out curtains they had to put up (she grew up mostly in southern California, although had some time in Texas and Arizona while a child), for example. Rationing. Soldiers returning home, silent and mysterious and changed.
But she's giving us here details about feelings, and relationships, that don't leap off a piece of paper without personal experience. The relationships she cherished as a little girl, with my dusty ancestors, make them pop into existence, real-live people whose lives stretched from the Reconstruction era into the Atomic Age. How could I not be fascinated?
And now there's me.
I wandered down a Thomas Merton rabbit hole the other day, by accident (duh). I've read quotations by him over the years (also duh; he's very quotable, like Chesterton or Lewis, on faith, particularly the Christian faith. And the internet is made up almost entirely of cats and quotes).
But I'd never read in detail, and I had no idea how special of a writer he was. And probably his most famous reflection, now referred to as his Epiphany, or the Louisville Epiphany, or the 4th and Walnut Epiphany, occurred on March 18, 1958. Here's a bit, eventually fleshed out in his book, Reflections of a Guilty Bystander:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
It's unlike me to get excited about spiritual writing, although I do fall in love with writers from time to time, and I spent an hour or so wandering through Merton until my wife mentioned that she had a couple of his books she could pass along. Powerful stuff. But that's not really the point here.
I was led to Merton from an article about a showing of his photographs, taken after his Epiphany, 60 years ago this Sunday, and supposedly interesting from that perspective. I didn't really dig into that. I just focused on the date.
I've mentioned before that I have some element of synesthesia, a neurological oddity. I was surprised, and sort of relieved, to learn this was a relatively rare but not particularly unusual condition, with lots of variability. In my case, I tend to see numbers as colors and shapes, mostly shades and variations on rectangles. It's fairly mild, and doesn't carry over to, say, music. It doesn't give me an edge in mental math.
But it makes dates leap out and stick. Also geography, for some reason. Pretty good at that, if I think about it. I can pick out Slovakia on a map without labels, for example. It seems like a nice place.
Dates, though. Martin Luther put up his 95 theses on October 31, 1517. Elizabeth I was born in 1533, and finally put on the crown in 1558. William Shakespeare was born six years later, and outlived his patron by 14, nicely encapsulating the Elizabethan Era. Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809, Theodore Roosevelt 49 years later, and John Kennedy 59 years after that. Off the top of my head.
No reason I should retain these, other than it's easy because they have specific colors that correlate with the 20th century, which I know well. And when it comes to, say, Roosevelt, born in 1858, I'll always remember that shit. Give me a '58 and that will stay around.
Because I was born in 1958. These hang with me by association (1758? Halley's Comet first identified, Noah Webster born, etc.), easy to regurgitate if I'm in an obnoxious mood, but mostly they serve as handy bookmarks or touching stones for trips through history.
And since Merton's epiphany came only four months before I was born, you know I'm never forgetting that. Book me on Jeopardy! and I've got dates covered.
So, sixty. It's almost here. I need to come to terms with it. My terms currently are mostly various forms of meh.
If you've turned 60 in the past 20 years, you probably know about this. When my grandparents turned 60, in the 1970s, it was a BFD. We honored lifetimes, knowing they were almost over. They were old, some a little feeble but mostly just gray, a bit bent, a little hesitant. Feeling the physical consequences of many decades, they seemed exactly what they should be at that point, at least from my perspective.
They weren't jumping out of planes, in other words, which would not surprise me the least today. Skydiving, marathon running, country running. Marrying and having new babies. People have aged differently over millennia, but I see a pattern here. Sixty is nothing, my friends, and unless you're 30 and so far away you can't really see it, you know it.
But we can't escape the connotations, and that's what I'm interested in. I can't say, I'm 59 years old! with nearly the same amount of passion as I can when I bump that up one digit. Which, really, I've been doing since last summer, when I hit my penultimate year. Thinking I'm already 60 makes July 26 not loom so much as feel like closure, a "t" crossed. Not the river Styx.
I posted a picture of me yesterday on Instagram, finding it accidentally while looking through archives and feeling a little charmed. It was taken Christmas 1981, when I was visiting my parents and holding my brother's 7-month-old daughter on my lap, the first child of the next generation. I was more clean-cut than a year before, hair trimmed to a respectable length and beard taken down to the 'stache (for a play I was in, actually; not a mustache person myself, not these days). And Cory is very cute, looking much as her own daughter would a bunch of years later.
While looking at it, though, I realized I had a tendency, at least in a lot of photos, to tilt my head in a particular way. I also tend to dip a shoulder. We all have quirks.
And I also realized I had other pictures with that same tilt, and I found one from a few months ago. I messed around with Photoshop, seeing if I could do a comparison, and ended up morphing the two in a short video. Face ages, faces gets younger. Rinse and repeat.
I can't show it to you. Maybe this half-and-half.
It's a strange thing, watching your face age. Particularly when, you know what? It's not that different. Just older. But the shape stayed the same. The nasolabial fold has some thickness, and a closer look would show saggy eyes and missing hair. But I'm not that different from the 23-year-old version.
Age is a state of mind, then. Of course, it's also a state of joints, and backs, and teeth, and digestive tracts, and everything else that makes calamity of so long life. I'm just saying. I can still see the guy. I still am the guy.
And in 20 years, assuming I'm around, I'll still be the guy. The picture will be different, but you know what? This soothes me about the whole process.
We're always seeking the familiar, anyway. The house I lived in as a teenager has become very different according to Google, bars on the windows, grass gone, additions built, and still. My heart still leaps at the familiar, at the memories, at instantly establishing a temporal connection to what was when and when is now. It's a real thing.
As is turning 60, but you know what? Fuck off, sixty. I may have a giant hole on the back of my head where hair used to live, and missing molars, and horrible eyes and a butt that has been doing gravity's bidding for quite some time now, but I'm not there yet.
And I look my age, no question. No one would look at me and say, no way! My age in this current culture is nebulous and hard to pin down, and maybe someone would peg me in my mid-50s and some might aim higher, but I'm not Rob freaking Lowe.
And in 10 years, that little picture puzzle will be different. My hair will eventually get with the program and go gray, or just leave for more fertile ground. The cartilage in my nose will soften and sag, my chin will do embarrassing things, hair will continue to grow where it's not supposed to (I'm waiting for it to start sprouting out of my fingernails), and I'll be shorter, no doubt.
I really need more money. Our medical crises of the past 15 years (there were five of them) emptied us out, and no one cares to think about aging under a bridge in a cardboard box. Around $10,000 would make a world of difference with dental issues, and that's not magically going to appear. There are many, many more things that could make seeing the road ahead less than fun.
But I'm good here, really. I worry but not that much. I've done some fun stuff and I suspect I'm not finished yet, and when I look at that picture it gives me a lift. I'm an old guy, but that's just an adjective. I'm that guy. I can live with that, and I've got the pictures to prove it.