MOXIE

There are people who seem to have been born old.

People to whom it isn’t possible to attach anything other than the qualities of adulthood and maturity; upon whom the traces of youthfulness seem to have had no hold. People who can be projected into middle and old age with almost no effort of the imagination.

Actor Simon Oakland
Actor Simon Oakland
Actress Mary Wickes
Actress Mary Wickes
Actress Eve Arden
Actress Eve Arden

Sometimes, when I’m watching movies with my son Christian, older movies especially, we’ll fall upon great character actors at the beginning of their careers, and after admiring their craft, I’ll find myself thinking and often exclaiming: My God, he’s probably only 25 in this, but he looks 45!

A lot of it has to do with the styles of the period (was forties fashion designed to rush everyone into middle age?), and sometimes, it’s about the face, shape, movement and especially voice of people from whom all traces of lightness, silliness, innocence and of becoming have been erased.

junior-moderns-1944  1947-mens-sport-coats-two-tone-mont-catalog-292x500

There’s a bagger at the grocery store down the street that I feel very protective of. He’s been working there for several years but he can’t be more than twenty or so. He isn’t tall: maybe 5’6” or 7”. Some days, he wears glasses, but not always. He’s blond but his hairline is already receding dramatically and I expect he’ll have lost most of it before he’s forty. His body looks unloved: soft, with a belly already, and sloping shoulders that indicate humility, or the absence of self-confidence. The way his head leans forward exacerbates this. Not so much geeky as simply neglected. This is accentuated by the generic, shapeless clothes he wears. His face is gentle, mild and unassuming. You can barely hear him when he speaks.

body_2

There’s intelligence in his eyes, a presence, and something else. Resignation? Retreat?

Every time I see him, I have the thought that high school must have been such a desert for him and I wonder what his life’s like and what his plans are. Has he found love? Will he? What are his ambitions? What are his parents like? What home life does he return to?

It’s so easy to imagine him at forty, fifty and even sixty. Even now, in his youth, he doesn’t look or act young. It makes me feel that his life path is inalterable.

objectivity-subjectivityOf course, and thankfully, not a single part of this is necessarily true.

It’s simply the way I see him and my vision is often faulty. It’s easily fooled by my subjectivity.

My mum is a case in point.

Up until recently, she just wasn’t aging. At least not to me. For the past thirty years, which have seen her live through the loss of her father, aunts, mother and husband (my dad: to cancer at 61); then seen her regroup, reinvent a life for herself and fall in love a second time, she was always my vital, energetic, indomitable, beautiful mother. Eternally so.

While I’ve been painfully aware of the signs of aging in my own body and on my face and hands, my mum remained in stasis: always keen, active, lithe and unsinkable; her vital energy not having diminished one bit, her wits about her and her face still unlined.

And then, about five years ago, storm clouds gathered again. She’s been hit, in succession, by aggressive breast cancer and the ensuing chemo and radiation; she fractured her hip in a freak accident a couple of years ago while traveling, had it mended with screws and then, just a week ago, finally had it replaced.

She’s had the sh*t kicked out of her.

It’s during these past five years that it occurred to me that my mum is, in fact, growing old along with the rest of us. It’s still hard for me to think of her this way. And yet, the evidence is mounting. The gruelling, punishing periods of sickness, surgery, injury and more surgeries provided me with a glimpse into her fragility and her vulnerability.

We’re most exposed when we’re dependent upon the care of others. When getting out of bed is something we can’t do unassisted. When we’re dressed in drab hospital gowns and bedridden. When our veins are being pumped full of poison. When there’s no point in offering a façade to others.

My mum is growing older. She’ll soon be 82, and still, if you saw her, your jaw would drop. In spite of everything she’s been through, she’s more beautiful than ever. And just as resilient.

My mum last year
My mum last year

The morning after her hip replacement, my son Simon and I went to visit her at the hospital. I’d had an anxious night, worried that hers had been tough, that walking on her own would be too much.

We arrived to the sight and sounds of my mother being wheeled out in her bed by her nurse, both of them laughing their heads off, headed to get a hip x-ray done. The nurse was saying: “You’re a superstar! You’ve done more in one night than most people do in a week!”.

That’s my mum. I know she’ll never grow old because I know her superpower. It’s moxie.

WHAT WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN

Photo by Lisa Zane

I met up with my cousin yesterday. She’s also my godchild. Sixteen years separate us. She’s a twin. On most week days, during the summer she was born, I used to cycle a dozen or so kilometers to the duplex her parents rented, to take care of her not-quite-three-year-old brother, and help out any way I could while her young mum (my aunt) cared for her newborn daughters and tried to finish writing her master’s thesis.

That’s to say that I love my cousin immensely and that our connection has deep roots. The fact that she’s a twin, and that I eventually also had twins, has only strengthened our bond. But our lives are full and we see each other too rarely.

 

Yesterday, we sat with our coffees and tried to catch up with each other’s lives. When there’s so much to say and so little time to say it, conversation does a strange thing: it cuts to the chase.

And so we found ourselves discussing insights that come only with time and distance.

If you were to represent our lives on a timeline, you might expect to see two parallel lines on which the usual signposts of life—youth—studies—romance and coupling—establishing a career—children—mirror each other’s, with hers lagging behind mine at a consistent interval.

But it isn’t really so.

In part, that’s because I got off to a very early start in some things, and she in others. We made different choices and we live with them.

 

What an easy and fruitless explanation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation. I’ve had these thoughts about the road less traveled and the road not taken—complementary expressions (and titles)—one inspired by the other, that are intended, in part, as meditations on the meaning and responsibility of choice.

This morning, I looked up Robert Frost’s poem to refresh my memory (I’ve included it at the end of this post). I followed him from the fork in the road that brought him to a place where one path wouldn’t allow him to see too far ahead: to where it bent in the undergrowth”.

I followed him as he looked from that path to the other, the one “having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear” and chose that one, the one less traveled by, which “has made all the difference.”

It’s made me realize that you can read it over and over and understand it differently each time, according to where you’re standing on that day.

What strikes me most readily is the traveler’s avoidance of the road that doesn’t allow him to see too far ahead. I’m struck by his delusion that the other is really any different. Because even a straight line to the horizon offers only a partial glimpse of the road ahead.

We place enormous stock in the choices we make in life, and we should.

My cousin and I talked a long while about those. Such conversations inevitably lead to “what might have been”, the weight of which increases as we grow older.

 

Looking at her beautiful face that is just beginning to show the slightest evidence of her age, and her smile which is as luminous as it was when she was still a preschooler, you would never know what she carries with her. The pain. Held inside her from childhood and still poking gashes into her like a shard of glass. How it changed the way she walks in the world. How it has diverted her from who she might have been.

For some of us, those injuries come early on in our lives and for others, only much later. Sometimes they’re so savage and unrelenting that they break something inside us. Sometimes, they drip, drip, drip, drip until they’ve created a hole that we’ll never be able to fill or close.

 

But all of us are wounded at some point in our lives. All of us sustain blows that we rise from. All of us struggle to integrate suffering.

How different would my cousin’s choices have been had she carried a lighter burden?

That’s a question I ask about my own life as well.

It’s enormously important and also futile.

It matters: not because it’s answerable—it isn’t—but because it leads to self-knowledge and to a self-awareness that generates the truest compassion.

It has also led me to a deeper understanding of all that flows from WHAT WE CANNOT CHOOSE.

* * * *

Brompton Cemetery, London, England

 

On Monday August 22nd, I went for an afternoon walk with my youngest son, Christian. It was his 25th birthday, but we’d done most of the celebrating that weekend.

It was a cool and breezy day and that’s probably what convinced us to head towards the Library and then see where we wound up next.

Across the street from the Library is a cemetery that belongs to Saint-Joachim parish, which is three centuries old and situated a few kilometers away, on the lakeshore, the dead having long ago exceeded the space made for them near the parish church.

My father’s buried there, as are loved ones from generations preceding my parents, but I hadn’t visited it for years.

 

Brompton Cemetery, London, England

I’m not sure why that is, because I love cemeteries. When I went to London to visit Christian last year at almost the same date, one of the first places he took me was Brompton Cemetery for a long and lovely walk.

Most European cemeteries are old enough to have been partially reclaimed by nature: the trees have grown tall and many headstones—monuments really—have long since begun leaning back toward the earth.

 

That’s not the case at the Pointe-Claire cemetery. When my dad was buried there in 1989, only ground plaques were allowed. It bothered me and it bothered my mum that people could so easily walk over the stone upon which my dad’s name was engraved.

 

About 10 years ago, they changed the rule, and so my mum decided to have a new monument made for my dad’s grave, and asked me if I’d go with her to choose it. While we were there, she told me that she also wanted to have the name of my stillborn son—Gabriel—inscribed on the stone. The circumstances of his death were such that no memorial of any kind marked his passage through our lives. I accepted of course. It was such a kind and sensitive offer.

 

That must be what drew me to the cemetery with Christian on the day of his birthday. There we were, together, searching for my dad’s new headstone. It took a while because the cemetery has expanded in the years since I last visited and I was confused by the extra rows.

 

Then I found it. Christian came to stand by my side because it had immobilized me. And there we saw, below my father’s name near the base of the headstone, the inscription: “À LA MÉMOIRE DE BÉBÉ GABRIEL DAOUST”.

It was beautiful to see. It marked a traumatic event that occurred more than a quarter century ago. We stood there for a while, whispering how lovely it was and what a good idea my mum had had.

 

My mouth had gone dry and I felt a bit unsteady. We began walking toward the edge of the cemetery which overlooks a hill, and then, as though someone had thrown a switch, my heart pounding, the tears came. I said to Christian: It’s 26 years away and it’s two seconds away. Then he took me into a gentle hug and there we stood, embracing in the cemetery on a sunny summer day; his birthday. And it felt like the most appropriate thing in the world.

It was life coming full circle. Because you see, had I been given the choice, I would never have chosen to go through the dark and painful experience of losing Gabriel. I would have opted for “the better claim”, the greener path.

 

I understand that it’s good that life gave me no choice. I wouldn’t be the person I became. By choosing to not go towards the pain, I would have sidestepped one of the deepest and most resilience-building passages of my life.

Had I done so, I would never have had Christian.

At the cemetery’s edge, August 22nd 2016

On his Facebook page for August 22nd, Christian posted pictures of the headstone and a selfie he took of us both standing on the edge of the cemetery, in that moment of utter vulnerability and tenderness. They were accompanied by the following message:

 

 

“Today of all days, I should give thanks to my mum and honour one of my namesakes. A quarter century on this planet and I’m feeling really lucky. Thanks everyone for making my life grand.”

 

 

Christian was born nineteen months after Gabriel.

Had I been able to choose, Christian is WHAT WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN, in my life.

He has made all the difference.

 

The Road Not Taken – by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

 

 

CARRYING YOUR CHILDHOOD WITH YOU

Alexander Milov’s “Love”

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.” 

Abraham Sutzkever

 

I came across this quote one morning.  Scanned it in a flash. It felt so familiar. Almost toss away. A well-worn reference to being young at heart, or to the importance of cherishing my inner child. Trite.

 

And then I read it a second time, and noticed that where my eyes had registered child, they should have read childhood.

It was early and I sat staring at the screen, bothered by the way that word altered Sutzkever’s message.

What did he intend? What does it mean to “become older” ?

I looked him up, and learned that he was a great Yiddish poet and survivor of the Holocaust. Born in Belarus in 1913, he later lived in Lithuania and was sent to the Vilna Ghetto during World War II.

And I thought: well of course, he was 26 when the war began. Memories of his childhood would have sustained him; he would have drawn deeply from that well of familial love, protection and relative innocence—and then the words “you never become older” : those foundational memories acting as a talisman of sorts, warding off the damaging effects of disillusionment, cruelty, suffering and despair in a world made by adults.

Alexander Milov’s “Love”

I’m not sure of any of this. I don’t even know whether he wrote this or spoke it. And so, what I have is what his words mean to me and might mean to anyone else.

I’m puzzled by the phrase.

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.” 

IF ?

There’s no if. We all carry our childhood with us. What matters, then, is only whether its weight supports and grounds us or instead burdens us—and if so, how heavy the burden is.

If I polled a bunch of people asking them to list the distinctive elements of childhood, what would they come up with? Maybe something like:

 

It’s precious because it’s over so quickly;

It’s the most carefree period of a human being’s life;

It’s usually the healthiest period, too;

It’s when humans change the most rapidly;

It’s when we’re most curious and able to learn;

When our minds are most plastic;

It’s the only age of innocence;

It’s when everything seems possible.

 

A positive list. But few of those elements can be carried forward into the future because time runs out on them.

I’m bothered by statements like Sutzkever’s that are predicated on the notion that childhood is the space-time of optimistic possibility from which we slowly but surely lose our way.

I’m bothered by the unintended pessimism of it.

Władysław Wankie. Alone in the Park. ca. 1900

Childhood is frequently the place of our deepest wounds and traumas, and when this is so—especially when this is so— it  becomes either the crushing burden that stunts us for life, or else a powerful agent of resilience; of growth through experience.

I resist the implications of Sutzkever’s message and others like it because I don’t believe that a happy childhood is a sine qua non for a happy life.

I think it’s probably true that:

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

The wryness of this makes me smile.

I see childhood as a crucial period of growth on a lifelong transformative continuum.

Penelope and Graeme, photo by Anne Hildebrand

We speak of childhood as an idyll, but I think that our vulnerability in childhood is one of its most poignant dimensions.

Watching my grandchildren Penelope (four), and Graeme (two), grow up is a daily reminder of this. While I feel all kinds of strong impulses to protect and shelter them, I believe that this same vulnerability  is childhood’s precious bridge to adulthood. From our places of shelter and support, we learn to go out into the world and live fully.

Why wish to never become older?

Just a few months ago, as her father—my son Jeremy—was putting her to bed, Penelope had a moment. Lying above the blankets, her lovely eyes welled up and she turned to her father and said:

“I miss myself when I was a baby.

Oh papa, I’m so tired.”

Imagine that.

Maybe she felt old that day.

Maybe she has already begun to understand that she’s leaving her childhood behind a little bit every day.

The next morning, she woke up rested, happy and looking forward to what the day might bring. Four years old and fresh as a daisy.

She and her brother do this every time they go out into the world and gather experience, as they, like their parents, constantly reinvent themselves and grow older together.

Penelope and Graeme looking for the squirrel, fall 2015, photo by Anne Hildebrand

 

Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along―the same person that I am today.”

― Orson Scott CardEnder’s Game

A note about the photos of Alexander Milov’s gorgeous sculptures:

Gripping Sculpture At Burning Man Reveals The Harsh Truth About Adulthood

Published sept. 2015

“This year, the “Burning Man” festival in Nevada featured its first artistic piece from Ukraine. Alexander Milov’s “Love” was the first Ukrainian piece to receive a festival grant in 30 years. The sculpture consists of two hollow, metal frame human silhouettes, one man, one female, sitting back to back. Sculptures of children touch inside of them (and light up at night).

“It demonstrates a conflict between a man and a woman as well as the outer and inner expression of human nature,” Milnov explains. “Their inner selves are executed in the form of transparent children, who are holding out their hands through the grating. As it’s getting dark (night falls) the children start to shine. This shining is a symbol of purity and sincerity that brings people together and gives a chance of making up when the dark time arrives.”  “