There was a certain Christmas Eve night, back when I was still single, when I left my parents’ houseful for some night air. It was cold—and a very white Christmas—snow covered the ground and a sprinkling of fresh snow sparkled and twirled in its fall past the street lights. I walked down Edgemont Road towards the church end (my old paper route when I was little) and all the homes seemed to spill their golden glow out onto the snow-covered lawns and trees.
Even though I had just come from a crowded house full of cheery voices and drunken laughter, those other homes seemed to cast a spell of isolation upon me. It was as if the whole world was gathering into hug-fulls of holiday togetherness behind all those windows while I walked silently by on snow-padded sidewalks.
I found it hard to bear, being without a lover on such a night. It wasn’t that I would sleep alone—or, being a man, I should say it wasn’t only that I would sleep alone that night. It was more about not having someone with which to share the goodness of the celebratory eve. But the ache of it was as strong as if there were a specific woman to go with the lacking—it seemed to echo backwards in time, tolling heavily against my heart.
I’ve often felt that way since—I recognize it now as ‘nostalgia’—an ugly word compared to the ineluctable, bittersweet bliss of sorrow it signifies. It is a yearning that requires time to acquire. That first time had to have been the earliest age at which I had accumulated enough memories— encompassed a large enough timescale—to be able to feel so distant from my earlier days. And, too, I had to have been acquainted, over time, with enough personalities that I could imagine a crowd of missing consorts, friends and relatives to put up against my solitary condition, standing on a street corner in the nighttime snow-flurries of Christmas Eve.
Call me a masochist, but I always embrace such painful wistfulness whenever it arises. Perhaps our lives, while we are living them, are too much about the ‘doing’ for us to focus on the feelings of a thing. I suggest that our hindsight has the bulk of the feeling, being at leisure to examine our feelings without actually being in the middle of, say, the conversation or, perhaps, driving to a party—or whatever. We live in our moments, but we feel in our memories.
I’ve even had the strange, occasional reversal of my feelings about a past event when, having been brought to mind off and on for years, its memory suddenly shifts into the opposite of what I’d always thought had happened!
T.S. Eliot has described this experience much better than I ever could:
“Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
— section II, “Little Gidding” (No. 4 of ‘Four Quartets’) by T.S. Eliot
So I am consoled by the knowledge that this is not a unique failing of my own, but simply a part of the human condition.
I have always been derided for acting like someone much older than my age—but I chalk this up to the fact that I’ve put on more mileage, and on rougher road, than my critics may realize. Besides, if one were to count cigarettes (and other such bad habits) as ‘taking X number of years off of one’s life’, then why can’t they be counted as ‘additional years elapsed’’ just as easily? By that measure, I’m about two hundred and twelve.
That’s counting the smoking, the drinking, the drugs, the running, the lifting, the worrying, the illnesses, the cancer, the transplant, and the work—work of years without vacation, work through weekends, work of 24 hours duration, the work on algorithms until my head was a cloud of algebra, the tensions of work in a family business—and the stress of parenthood, and the chaos of networking with the subculture that was a part of life for my generation.
But it’s more than all that—lots of people’s lives are a trip through the wringer—it’s also a matter of my being a ‘delicate flower’, easily shocked, easily tired, easily hurt, and quick to assume guilt. Loud noises create gouts of adrenalin; bright, flashing lights cause massive migraines; talkative chatterers make me dizzy with confusion. I was born a sprinter, but any extended efforts are always tortuous to me—my endurance is ephemeral. It’s not that I dislike excitement—I love to be caught up in things—it’s just that I can only take it in small doses.
Being different has always been a given—I’m not quite certain of the exact reasons other people see me as unusual. What I came to recognize, with maturity, is that everyone is unusual. As a kid, I took for granted that other people were all the same—well, they all looked at me funny—and I didn’t know much else about them. What a waste of my school years, thinking I was outside of unanimity, rather than a unique element among an entirety of ‘unique’s.
But the time is past. Whatever I want to blame on my parents, my teachers, my schoolmates, my siblings, or my business associates—that is all in the rearview, for good or ill. I’m a middle-aged man in a privileged society, supported by others, challenged by nothing more difficult than wiping my backside or picking up stuff that I drop on the floor. I’ve lost all four grandparents, my father, my aunt (his sister), one sibling, and a father-in-law. I’ve also lost many friends, some to illness, some to suicide, some to insanity. If I was ever going to relive parts of my life (as if anyone could) I am rapidly losing cast members. And those that remain are better appreciated than confronted. In short, I must take responsibility for myself—for who I am, for what I’ve been, and for whatever happens next.
There is a tragic shadow over the middle-aged—we remember old plans, erstwhile ambitions—things we meant to reach out for, but never had the time. And it isn’t until we are past the age of becoming that we clearly see that past as a golden dawn, a time when adults were eager to help us make a good start, when we were still young enough to be prodigies, when we were forgiven our lack of experience and understanding. Those privileges are for the young—we who have lived the ‘meat’ of our lives aren’t necessarily finished with living, but we are finished with beginning.
This is our burden—to know about singles bars, but be unable to hang out in one without the word ‘creepy’ being involved; to love the thought of taking college courses yet be without any chance of being an intern or junior associate after graduation. The ideal is that anyone can do anything, regardless of age. But the reality is that a mid-50s-aged law school graduate is not going to be chosen by HR personnel used to inexperienced, energetic hot-shots barely out of their teens. After 35, or 45 (I forget which) one cannot even join the army—the universal ‘plan B’ for every disadvantaged youngster.
I find my life history quite interesting—but I can never seem to write it down in such a way as to make it interesting to others. This suggests that my appraisal of my ‘adventures’ is biased and I simply don’t want to admit that my life has been unexceptional. But there is always an inner voice that tells me I just don’t write it properly. So those are my choices: I’m either living a meaningless, empty life, or I’m a really bad writer.
Happy Turkeyday, Evabody!