Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sky Lanterns

You'll notice that I have not titled this post "On Turning Sixty." The title I've chosen is a small act of avoidance instead, or maybe a way of sidling up to my subject. Or a nod to the reader? Would I want to plunge into "On Turning Sixty"? It's been a long time coming, this year, and so I'll allow myself a while to come closer and back away, creep up to the edge and then stand back and reconsider.

Rounding a new decade feels momentous, especially as that first digit clicks higher. When I turned forty I wasn't at all bothered about it; I didn't, in truth, have much time to think about it, because we were in the grip of the epidemic then, my life entirely shaped by my lover's illness and the wildfire crisis around us. At fifty, I felt stronger than I ever had, and absorbed in my work as a writer and teacher, and if it was a little startling to find myself suddenly at the half-century mark, I didn't spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about it. 

But sixty has been looming on my horizon for a while now. I wish that I could say I haven't given the number power. Let me hasten to say I know sixty doesn't mean what it used to, and that plenty of the most vital people I know, those compelling ones most engaged in what they're doing, are in their sixties, or older. I don't especially want to be young again, and I don't find that I am attracted to younger men per se, or that I've fallen into that general category of invisibility older people, and perhaps especially older gay men, fear is their lot. No way.

But the fact remains that all my life sixty has been a demarcation point, a line in the proverbial sands of time, and when I try to visualize a person at sixty what comes to me are received images, old news. I suspect I'll be struggling with this for a bit. Five years ago, when I was a guest at Stanford, I wandered into a thrift shop in a neighboring town and found a sweater I liked, a copy of a vintage black pullover with a nice coppery stripe around the collar. When I took it up the counter, the woman behind the cash register said, "Would you like the senior discount?" I imagine my face crumpled a bit, because she immediately said, "You only have to be 55," and then I found myself fighting back tears. It's a little theatre of mortality, that sort of moment. It asks you to attend to the cumulative changes in your own body, to the odd experience of  that current that seems barely to move at all and then -- as a perception so universal as to constitute a cliche of aging goes --  suddenly there you are. My sister just wrote this to me in a birthday card: I work up one day and I was old, how did that happen?

My sister is 70. That little four-word sentence feels so unlikely to me.  I write it and immediately I am on the school playground in Tucson, in 1962; my sister has come for a visit, with her two very young children, and this morning early they have gone back home to Tennessee. Under the wide desert sky with its unshielded sun in the radiant blue, I am suddenly filled up with her absence. I am a fourth grader at recess, and she's a young mother, and though we share much in her bodies and in our language and knowledge she's nowhere near. That feels just as real to me as this moment, when I am sitting across the table from my lover, he at his laptop and me at mine, the dogs asleep on the couch, one of them whistling a little in his dream, and my sister far away, in Las Vegas, an old woman now. 

Alex and I have been talking about an addition we'd like to make to this house, to make the tiny kitchen a little bigger, a version of a Philip Johnson-style glass box from which we could look out at the garden, the autumn sky unveiling as the leaves fall, the astonishing moonlight here that some nights seems a white substance, a solid occupying every unshadowed space. Just today I thought about the kitchen, and found myself wondering if there's time to make the change. I don't think I have ever thought that way before, not quite so directly. How many more books will I write? I will see my beautiful dogs grow old, too -- I know I have that much time.

But I don't mean for this to feel saturated in self-pity; the motion through time is the lot every person and therefore you can't completely lament it without feeling self-indulgent. Before the birthday, I felt as if I were clenching a bit, bracing for the day, When it arrived, I thought I'd do things that would shape or predict what I might be doing during the year ahead, but in truth I pretty much slept the day away, unable to lift my attention toward some brighter things. But late in the afternoon the weight started to lift. Alex and I were going to an art opening, and he'd invited some neighbors over for drinks after. All a convivial and cheering time, and once it was dark two of our friends  came with us to a deserted bay beach for a thrilling (and illegal) celebration. We launched five "sky lanterns", also known as fire balloons -- a gift from Alex --  out over the dark water, one at a time, one for each decade of my life thus far.  Two of us would hold the fragile construction of colored paper and bamboo steady, while another lit the wax-soaked paper square beneath, and as the flames took the hot air released would fill the empty paper sack, and soon it would begin to tug upward at our hands. Released, it would go flying up into the night in a great rush, the fueling flame below the bell of  orange or green or yellow paper like a burning skirt. How wonderful to watch it spring to life and sail high, safely out over the dark water. I felt i'd been lifted up out of my low place, newly eager to witness the arc of the new decade,

The next day I woke feeling pretty much the same way; an interest, a curiosity, was growing where the sadness had been. I can't say I am fine with the motion of time; who among us could honestly claim that? A Buddhist saint, or one who believed the best way through this world was to get it over with in favor of the next. I was appalled, a week or so later, to be hit with the bald thought that in ten years I'd be seventy. Ten years seems like no time.

But then. So many I knew died in the plague years; so many never had the time I've had already, much less the time to come. And Eileen, a lovely acquaintance here in The Springs died yesterday, in her midfities, of cancer -- a bright spirit who'd have brought her characteristic inventiveness and joy to decades more. Something like what I hope to be doing myself, though my guess is you don't get to go there without at least a bit of self-mourning. Is it particularly difficult for gay men, or perhaps for people of my generation in general, to come to terms with our situation in time? Or perhaps for people without children or grandchildren? Is it just as hard for everybody? Whatever the case, my work's the same: to be here with my eyes open as wide as possible. To remember Galway Kinnell's essential "Prayer":

Whatever happens. Whatever
what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.

Friday, August 9, 2013

A few things the imagination achieves

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

                                                                                     J. G. Ballard