When I was young I took a girl to a party. I can’t precisely remember my age at the time; my guess is that I was a little over twenty-one. There was a lot of drinking going on at the party but that’s no indicator; I had been drinking at parties since I was fifteen or sixteen. In the course of the inebriated reveling I met a girlfriend of the girl I was with, and I got her phone number and arranged to meet her at a park the next day. Not very chivalrous of me you might say, and looking back I might agree with you. Be that as it may, I met this girl at the edge of the woods on a fresh sparkling sunny day. It might have been spring or early autumn; the sun had that perfect clarity it loses a bit in the summer. I remembered the meeting, but I had been so drunk at the party I couldn’t clearly remember what the girl looked like. I supposed, though, that due to the isolated nature of the place at which we had planned to meet no one else would be around so I wouldn’t miss her. She showed up right on time, and I wasn’t either disappointed or elated. It was a casual liaison, nothing more. But what with the beauty of the sunshine and the forest and the fact that I had a girl to meet up with on such a stellar day, something metaphysical blossomed within me. My awareness expanded and I saw far ahead in time. Somewhere in that far-distant future I would grow old, I suddenly realized. But it was so far away I could not conceive of arriving at that point in my life. I had so many years ahead of me it was as if that time would never come.
And yet it has. It must be built-in for young people to ignore their mortality. It’s a strength, I think. It wouldn’t do for young people to be worrying all the time about what will happen in the far future. It is sufficient to step out and live in the present, to take risks, to explore, to invent, to create. Yet somehow along the way it catches up with you.
I am almost sixty years old. In the past few months I have come to the realization that I have started to age. All right, I have been aging all along. As yet I have very few gray hairs. The physiological change manifests in internal things that you don’t see at first glance. My body aches more. I especially have a problem with one of my hips, which has been paining me for months now. Have it looked at, you might say. But there’s no money to do so. My reasoning goes like this: whatever I spend on medical expenses is less I can spend on my sons, three of whom I am solely responsible for now. In Greece I had medical insurance; here I do not. Just to go in for a doctor’s visit will cost me more than I can afford. He would probably recommend tests, which would cost more. And treatment after the tests discovered whatever was wrong? Forget it. It’s out of the question. So I endure the pain for now, hoping things will improve financially in the future so I can have it looked at. But that’s not all. I am prone to muscle cramps, especially when I sleep. I awaken with my muscles, especially the calve muscles, all knotted up and tight, and the pain is excruciating. I used to be able to walk all day long. Recently I took a walk of just a couple of miles and not only had painful cramps afterwards, but I felt like my hip was going to rip free of the rest of me. And I do dynamic yoga stretches regularly, three times a week, along with calisthenics and balancing exercises. My body is just starting to break down. It is inevitable.
I’m not telling you all this because I want you to listen to my woes and sympathize. There is a point. And the point is: it creeps up on you unawares. I have always been active. I’ve traveled much of my life. With my wife and sons I have moved from country to country, city to city. This limitation of ability is something new. It frustrates me, discourages me, annoys me. I have plans and dreams enough to last for several more lifetimes. What will become of them?
Another scary thing in my life is the state of my finances. As I mentioned, I have been traveling the world. We settled in Greece for many years, but then I felt compelled to return to the States for the sake of my sons’ futures. Here I have had to start from scratch without a home, furniture, a car, medical insurance, social security, unemployment insurance. I had to leave that all behind. Not that the odds were good that the government entitlements would have lasted; the Greek economy is in such a horrendous state that even guaranteed payments are getting slashed and eliminated. But right now I’m struggling from week to week to feed my family. I read articles about the hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars retirees should have saved up by the time they are my age, and I cannot muster up much more than a bitter chuckle. It’s like fairytale land to me; those folks ready to kick back in the rocking chair with their bundle in the bank live in an alternate universe as far as I am concerned. I always hoped that my writing would generate enough income to support me by this time. So far it hasn’t happened. And so I find myself out on the extreme edge financially, with banana peels all around just waiting for me to slip on.
Another thing that happens when you age is you start to lose your looks. I have held on to mine longer than most. Most people guess I am forty-something. Just a matter of months ago my twenty-five-year-old son and I were out together and someone mistook us for brothers. That felt good, let me tell you. But when I look closely I see the wrinkles and lines inexorably increasing. I always knew abstractly that it happens. And now it is happening to me. Related to that is the fact that I am alone now and I worry, as time passes and I continue to deteriorate, that I will always be. I long for a woman just as much as when I was young, and I’ve learned enough over the years so that I know how to pleasure one better than back then when I was still learning how, so to speak. Will I have opportunity again? Who can say? But people don’t take kindly to older folks with sexual appetites; they scorn them, ridicule them, make jokes about them, demean them. Is it their appearance that is subject to censure? Or is it the fact that they are supposed to be dignified, and dignity is associated with celibacy? Or is it the same as any other bigoted, prejudiced, low-minded, shallow, crowd-following, moronic pre-judgment of a person without getting to know them first? I have noticed many negative things about American culture since I have returned, but one that is more annoying than most is the hypocritical attitude towards sex. Many advertisements use sex as bait to sell products, and that is perfectly acceptable; it is, in fact, the American way. But should an actress accidently show a boob at a football game – my God, it’s a national scandal. It goes viral; it inspires debate; it creates opposing armies of opinionated fanatics. Politicians hit the news more for sexual indiscretions than for fighting for the freedom of the nation and its people. At the same time most everyone is out there trying to get some, if you know what I mean.
My self-worth takes a pummeling from time to time because I have not accomplished what I had hoped to in my life. I have not fulfilled my dreams. I see time catching up with me and I start to wonder if there is enough of it left to see me through, or if I will collapse before the finish line, my life’s work incomplete. Yes, I have published eleven books. Many of my forty or fifty published stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies, and I have several upcoming. But who reads them? I am for the most part unknown, undiscovered. I write for readers, and my audience is miniscule. Henry Miller said an audience of one good reader is enough. Theoretically I can agree with him, but practically I long for recognition, not to mention the income recognition would bring. I am told by the mentors I study in books and on the internet to be patient. That’s good advice for the young, but questionable for those whose time is running out. I don’t want to be one of those writers who start getting read after they are dead and gone; I want to see my success. I feel I deserve it; I have paid my dues.
And what is the legacy I can pass on to my sons? They regard me as a good father, thank God. I have done what I could given the circumstances, and I continue to do it every day. But I can’t help them with their university tuition, at least not now. And when I die, I have nothing to bequeath them. Nothing but the life I lived, and some published stories and books that might someday earn them a little cash.
Again I emphasize that I am not writing this to sing the poor-me blues. I am pouring this out to give you an idea of what it feels like to grow old. The stories of others will vary from mine. Some people have an abundance of money and things but their kids are estranged from them. I’d rather have the kids than the money any day. But my point is that growing old involves a process of questioning, wondering, soul-searching. Our time here is finite. It’s not a process of continually getting halfway there and never arriving. One day we will all cross the finish line of death. Growing old makes you more and more conscious, in a multitude of ways, of its approach. Perhaps that’s what it is meant to do.
And don’t worry. I do not plan this series of essays to be all lamentations. I am acutely aware that there is much to rejoice about in maturity. I am sure that in time all this will find its way out onto the page as well.
I’m a professional writer; I make my living by my words. I’m happy to share these essays with you, but at the same time, financial support makes the words possible. If you’d like to become a patron of the arts and support my work, buy a few of my available books or available stories. Thanks!