I was halfway through the audiobook edition of novelist Penelope Lively’s meandering Dancing Fish and Ammonites: A Memoir before it occurred to me why I must have chosen it from all the books out there in the literary ether. There is Ms. Lively, reaching back cogently into her childhood and the events that shaped it and speaking of the rigors of age, and there is me, in my usual fog, listening while scrubbing down the chicken coop when it suddenly occurred to me that I was about to have a birthday!
Of late, the days have blended so together that time has become less a progression of ticks on the calendar and more a mush of porridge. Nothing on that calendar to note, so no need to check the date. Talk about birthdays creeping up on you – this one came out of nowhere! But part of me must have known that I would need Penelope’s instructive thoughts to help me through it.
In her case, the erudite novelist was formed by a childhood that began in Cairo and wrapped up in London, punctuated by the global sea changes of the Suez Crisis and World War II. In my case – so much humbler and not the least bit erudite – it was a rundown town in the armpit of the Midwest and a post-war upbringing that promised everything being made of plastic and that sentinel dining invention: the TV dinner.
While Ms. Lively’s intellect digested the ramifications of Nasser’s canal nationalization and the North African Campaign, I was somehow only dimly aware of the Cold War and Sputnik. I do remember the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination – we were let out of school early and I walked the several blocks home alone, feeling a general sense that the world was perhaps not a safe place to be. It only got worse with the subsequent assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King and there was a continual distant and fearfully discordant hum of the Vietnam War. Distant for me partly because, mercifully, I lived in a backwater where nothing from the outside world seemed to penetrate the slow, safe steadiness of daily life. And also because, there was me, in my usual fog, not paying attention.
I do recall watching the grainy footage of the moon landing on television, and there was a soundtrack playing over that arc of time featuring The Doors and The Rolling Stones (I didn’t like The Beatles, go figure…) and the breathtaking moment when I heard Joni Mitchell for the very first time. That might be the one thing that broke through the fog. But while Penelope Lively made sense of her world by going to Oxford University and studying history, I spent most of my late adolescence in a concerted and ultimately failed quest simply to straighten my hair.
I was not then and I am not now very good at paying attention. Luckily I woke up long enough to meet the CE, take a deep breath and dive into raising children. And then, two minutes later, it seemed, but some two decades and change in real time, that was over.
Real time. Real time is what apparently happens when one is busy elsewhere in a fog. Because this morning I woke up another year older, and math-challenged as I may be, I can add up the writing on the wall and it is not pretty. Bless Ms. Lively for informing me that, at least in the UK where she abides, “elderly” is currently not perceived to begin until one turns 68.
Since today I turn 67, this gives me a year – by Ms. Lively’s definition – one whole extravagant year, to get my head out of the fog and start paying attention before I am truly “elderly”. I am grateful to the past few months for showing me the way: scarcity of resources makes one more deeply appreciative of them and it now occurs to me that just as I will cherish Clorox wipes going forward, I am facing a scarcity of a different commodity: time. It has always, of course, been running out, but it seems to be running faster now. Running a marathon, in fact. “Slow down!” I call, but time is not listening, not even slowing down to look back at me over its shoulder.
This new year sits before me, the loveliest gift imaginable. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Penelope Lively comments in her book that the old cannot appreciate some things as young people do, observing that spring is experienced more vividly by a young person who has not worn through as many seasons as us oldsters. Here she and I part ways – I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated a spring as I have this one, given the intensity of this moment in time. Head finally out of the fog? It’s about time! Happy birthday to me!