We roar, with the rest of the audience, when he ambles onto the sparsely set stage–there’s a fancy wooden chair with velvet cushions, a carved side table with a cut-crystal water pitcher and a gentleman’s cigar smoking paraphernalia. Ten feet away or so from that stands a wooden podium, also ornately Victorian.
He wears the cream-colored suit and the crazy white wig that brand him Mark Twain. And he greets us nonchalantly, picking up a cigar, trimming its end. Then he launches into a caustic tirade about politicians in Washington, DC. He is bitterly funny.
In the first act, he wanders around the stage and from subject to subject. Tucked into the pocket of his creamy vest are half sheets of neatly folded paper; I imagine lines and columns of tiny cramped writing, etched in fountain pen. Sometimes he will meander to the podium, pull out the sheets, flatten and rearrange them, harrumphing. We hold our breaths. Is this part of the act? Or–has he just simply lost his place, befuddled?
But he juts his chin insouciantly at the audience, clears his throat noisily, takes a big swig of whatever is in that cut glass tumbler. And then he embarks on a tirade about Presbyterians. We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, if that little blank space was a personal lapse or a character-driven moment.
After the intermission, he picks up one of the old books from the stack on the table, strokes it fondly, and talks about his writing, and then launches into recitations. By the end of the show, he IS Huck Finn, twelve years old or so, shuddering with sadness on stage, fighting back the tears, torn between his duty to convention and his care and compassion for his friend Jim.
With the rest of the crowd, we jump to our feet and pound our hands when he is finished, roaring in appreciation for the show put on by Hal Holbrook.
Who just turned 91.
Sometimes, I will wake up in the morning, totter into the bathroom, and surprise myself by my reflection in the mirror.
“Holy shit,” I will think, startled, half-awake, into vulgarity. “You’re OLD!”
I am not quite sure how that happened so quickly, but random aches and pains, the crepe-iness of skin in certain geographical territories, and the unwarranted deference of youngsters, support the fact that indeed it has.
I have spent the better part of the last thirty years thinking, “Okay. When we just finish THIS episode [when the degree is earned, or the program identified; when we find the house or settle into new jobs, or when we do whatever]–when THIS brouhaha all calms down, THEN I will….” I have a whole series of endings for that sentence, including organizing every cluttered space and thing in my extremely cluttered life, writing a book, learning to sew, and digging my paints back out of the plastic bin where they are buried in the basement.
Suddenly I realize that if I don’t DO those things now, I maybe–or probably–never will.
Life looks a little different through 61-year-old eyes.
This morning, I am having coffee with my friend and colleague Jeannette and Jeannette’s mother, Mary. I’m writing a story about Mary, who is 83, for a paper called Senior Times. Jeannette happened to mention, recently, that her mom went for a plane ride with our young colleague Phil last weekend. As the story unraveled, I discovered that Mary is a pilot. In their yard back in Kansas, back when Jeannette and her sisters were growing up, there was a dirt runway. That accommodated the four or five planes Jeannette remembers Mary having, the planes that she remembers skidding to stops on the gravelly dirt strip—just a fact of their lives in Kansas. An airstrip was to them like a driveway is to us: just the place you park your everyday transportation.
What the heck, eh?
Now Mary, who takes commercial flights quite often, who lives by herself and has a sweet little fur baby and goes on cruises and audits college classes and reads history voraciously, is losing her sight. And she mentioned to Jeannette that she’d probably never get back up behind the controls of a personally-piloted place, never again see the blaze of changing trees, the rivers twisting through our town, or the corn turning gold from the air.
Phil got wind of that, and up they went, he and Mary and Jeannette’s daring seven-year-old granddaughter. Despite disclaimers and denials, Jeannette is pretty sure that, for a significant part of the flight at least, it was Mary who was flying that plane.
I think about some other folks I know.
My widowed mother-in-law, Pat, has embraced the independent life thrust upon her in her early 80’s. She has fixed up her house and taught herself to use technology, and she just recently got a laptop so her computing could go mobile.
Wendy’s neighbor Joan just turned ninety. She showed up for her party with hair died a bright magenta. Why not? she asked the applauding crowd–Joan has a lot of children. And she ruminated that now, when things are finally starting to settle down, NOW would be a good time for her to start to do some traveling.
Larisa’s mom turned 90 this week, too. She celebrated the passage with a tasteful tattoo. She thinks she might just get another.
And think about this. There’s a tribe of Mexican Indians called the Tarahumara–Christopher McDougall made them famous when he wrote about them in his book, Born to Run. McDougall was searching for ways to become a runner who didn’t endure various, constant injuries. He found the Tarahumara, who, often barefoot, just keep running. This people, an article on a site called Before It’s News tells me, are unconcerned with aging.
Or maybe no one ever told them they were supposed to slow down when they get older.
Some of the best Tarahumara runners are in their 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. Certainly, they don’t stop just because age encroaches.
Oh, all this consideration of age makes me ponder; it makes me ponder and search, English teacher-y, for a metaphor. And so I think that maybe, for women at least, aging is like the stages of a rocket-ship and its journey.
Childhood is assembly time: we gather our parts together, constructing ourselves, getting ourselves into working order. The chemistry of our compounds and the dynamics of our daily lives mold and shape us.
As teens, we launch, blazing, into a dense, thick atmosphere, where the friction of our frantic flight shapes us for the journey ahead. We jettison unnecessary parts. Some trappings of childhood fall away and burn to ash in an incendiary atmosphere.
And then we reach Space, where, after taking the time to calibrate our instrumentation, we insure the path chosen is the one we’re ready to take. There’s orbiting involved here. There are bold adventures into places, too, where no woman has gone before.
There are times when being beamed up becomes a necessity.
But it’s a rich journey, and its adventures are unexpected and enlightening in so many ways. We travel. We adjust. We encounter challenges and wonders.
And then one day we careen around an unknown planet and we can’t decide if it’s beautiful or frightening.
‘What IS that place?’ we ask our version of Bones.
‘Why, that’s Menopause,’ she answers in surprise. ‘You’ve been plotting this course for a good while.’
And we travel on, but something has changed; the urgency to explore is ebbing. Instead, we feel a need to go back to a safe, quiet place where we can spread out the treasures acquired, the lessons learned, where we can sort wisdom from folly and make sense of it all. Slowly but inexorably, we head for the re-entry that is the years of aging.
Like launching, re-entry burns things away. We jettison, again, things that are extraneous: we need our lightest possible load for the return journey.
The long trip doesn’t always leave us intact. We may have glitches in our systems–they may be minor, and we may be able to ignore or accommodate them. They may be major and irreversible, and they may derail our re-entry plans.
Our computers, our brain centers, may have been affected or impaired. We call in every damned Scotty we can think of. We fight to maintain.
And sometimes we make it through, battered by our travels, but ready for the next stage that life affords us. A journey is not complete, after all, until the destination is achieved. Until it’s been examined and assessed.
Oh, ours is not a culture in love with old folks. Sometimes they are discarded, ignored, or dismissed as ineffectual. And yet.
Yet, there is Pat, sharing posts on Facebook, sending greetings to grandchildren whose lives have taken them to far-flung points on the map.
Yet there is Mary, flying over the golden fields of corn. I picture her dipping a wing, saluting something that, while still there, has quietly grown and changed.
There is Hal Holbrook, his talent and his memory bank crammed with wit and message, and the ability to enthrall and entertain still strong.
There is a 90-year-old woman with magenta hair, dancing. There is a tattooed great grandma, drawing her family tightly around her.
I think of these people, alive and making an impact, and I know it is no time pack things in.
And there is stuff to be done. We do not know the number of our days, but we know what we should be doing with them. And I know, waking to being in my 60’s, that there’s no point in waiting any longer. THEN has now arrived.
Today, I think, I’ll get started on sorting a little of that clutter.