Today I’m 66 years old. The number seems wrong. It can’t possibly be true that the group of people with grayer hair and deeper lines are the same ones who walked with me out of childhood. Wasn’t it just last week that we were in Topanga Canyon? Last week that we were listening to The Eagles new album and drinking margaritas?
My friends are precious to me, some known for 40 and 50 years. They’re the source of birthday cards and calls, emails and birthday lunches. Gestures of love scatter like almond blossoms across a well-worn path, and I feel blessed that it’s the small, heart-felt things that have come to mark the years.
The past and the future colloid: I’m rooted in the longhaired, idealistic girl with bare feet and poetry on her lips; now the serious writer, with wool socks and messy pages, trying to tell “the” story, because honestly, I’ve only ever written one story. My life has grown out of that place where idealism and reality crash into each other, and the current takes you. Marriage, career, divorce, marriage again happened in a kind of planned chaos, but let me live to tell the tale.
I’m 66 years old and keenly aware of how life recedes as the numbers increase, aware of wavering significance and limited hours. So many things fall away, and what remains is the fullness of the experience; the gratitude alive in the heart, the old friends from a certain time and place who remind me of where I’ve been.
Today my true companion, my one great love, will sing to me. We’ll wander the aisles of the gardening center and gather flowering plants for the empty containers on our deck. We’ll hold hands. We are that older couple that makes young people sigh, envying the kind of love that survives the journey.
This morning, as I drink my tea and muse about the years, I reach an easy conclusion: I love my life. I love my friends. I’m grateful for each turning of the wheel, for each memory, for each deep line etched into the map on my face, telling a story of so much joy, so much pain, so much living . . . I’m blessed to able to say, “this is a very happy birthday, indeed.”
The impervious feeling of youth is a delicious drunk of newness and firsts: first apartment, first true love, first heartbreak; the delight of garage sales and thrift shops, that furnish the backdrop upon which one begins to build a life, blissfully unaware of the baggage of childhood that follows them into independence and self-sufficiency. In my twenties, I surfed in the mornings with Bernie, napped in the afternoons and then waited cocktails at night to pay for a life style that was both joyous and fraught with uncertainty as well as longing and idealism. All that created its own kind of pain and regret. No one escapes the wrong turns, but instead we seem to spend our lifetime burrowing into the core of what ails us before we find the gifts within the inevitable ruin.
At twenty something, I swung my long, gangly legs over the precipice of the 1970’s, watching Viet Nam unwind. The grainy television images of so much human destruction were soon to be replaced by Nixon and the exposure of con and corruption that would define the word “sensational” for decades to come. And as twenty marched ahead into thirty, I realized one day how difficult it was to pay the rent, and repair the car and I had new empathy and understanding for my mother, who worked at a time when the cartoon character of a wolf chasing a nubile secretary around the desk wasn’t that far off the mark.
While the twenties, for many of us underscored a time of adventure and ideals, the thirties was of time of finding a comfortable position within the grip of unrelenting responsibility. Overtime at my work place became a way of life, a badge of proof that I was committed and in the game for the long haul. I bought my first “new” couch and read T.S. Eliot, Yeats and May Sarton for leisure. I wrote in dozens of spiral bound notebooks– an attempt to discover who I was and who I was becoming, and whether or not I had just put on the costume of adulthood without really checking out what I was wearing. Thirty gnawed the bones of idealism and free-spiritedness, replacing the hunger for those things with “want.” Want is a thorn in the foot of human condition, a lusting and longing for those things or people just out of our reach; a strange coming to grips with a shadow of greed, that if we are honest, dogs us until we wrestle it to the ground and learn to balance it with a generous heart.
When I turned 40, I had a realization that life was just a series of stories and somehow we were all connected by those stories. By then I was married, with a choice to remain childless, but with a passion for creating business and a raw and reckless spirit, still wild from my surfing days that allowed me to take the risks necessary to be an entrepreneur. And having a partner with which to play that out remains one of the great satisfactions of my journey. The time of work and creation was marked by this decade and the joke of “over the hill” was really more about the pinnacle of the hill and the overview provided from the vantage point of focus and determination.
Fifty saw the departure of my mother and though I felt beyond independent and accomplished when she left, her absence was piercing in a way I could not have anticipated. She lingers still, her hands seeming like they are mine, veined with age. I catch glimpses of her in the mirror, a face layered over my own as I brush my hair. Life is shorter than you think.
So in my sixties now, the question of age as a number and whether that means anything or not? It means everything. Age is a marker, the signs that dot the highway that tell you how far you have come. Age is a container for the experiences that push us forward and challenge us to unfold. Age is a reminder that physical strength lessens with the years and beauty fades. Whether or not we like it or want it, age is what pulls us to our knees while it knights us with the sword of humility and hard-won wisdom. What lies beyond? In my twenties, I could not sit still in the morning hours, knowing that the surf was up. Forty years later finds me on my deck, holding a cup of tea and easing into the day as I marvel at how the apples on the tree in my yard have gone from green to red and are becoming larger in the summer sun. The cycle of beginnings and endings are everywhere around me in nature. In my heart I let go of memories that are stitched with pain and discomfort. They drop like apples from the tree. I like to recall instead the touchstones of surfing and careers and a life education that was beyond divine. I revel in the partnership of a marriage, now tender and softened with grey.
I embrace the years, each decade a lamp unto the soul, lighting the way into becoming human. The striving for some sense of self-honesty and awareness, for a sensuous breeze in which to throw back my head and close my eyes as life takes me; this has made the journey purposeful. To paraphrase Mr. Yeats: “I am an old woman with a dry mouth, waiting for the rain.”
The first page is where the second chapter begins. The two of them are sitting close on a hammock, wearing matching Yankee baseball hats. His jaw line is strong and his arm is around her. Her face is the soft, smiling face of beautiful youth. They are looking directly into the camera, confident. This is where it ended and began for them on the same day–chapter two. It’s the first picture on the first page of the album, taken the first week that they knew each other. She had fled Los Angeles, dusted off old dreams and created new ones. He had survived the betrayal of a divorce and giving away a fortune to someone he now called “ex,” and somehow they had found each other, fallen into each other in the aftermath– in a chaotic life that makes no sense at all when you are living it, but in retrospect is absolute order and perfection.
Now they are in their sixties and it seems strange that such a full life, a so many feelings and experiences life, rushed by them faster than they ever thought it could. Over the years they aged, took fewer pictures, but for this one: a 60th birthday when she was standing behind him, leaning over, with arms wrapped around him. A birthday cake sits in front of him with candles lit. They are still smiling, but their eyes are cast down, more focused on the event than the camera lens. The third act is about to unfold.