Reprinted with permission from the February issue of PineStraw magazine.
There are two great days in a person’s life, Mark Twain said — the day we were born and the day we figure out why.
Like it or not, once a year, everyone gets a birthday. It’s one of life’s few ironclad guarantees.
For some, a birthday is an excellent reason to push back the rug, open something bubbly and be toasted by your friends. For others, it’s simply a good reason to retreat to the nearest wing chair and open a good book until the moment quietly passes, hoping no one pays much attention. “I’ve outgrown my need for birthdays,” a sprightly friend who recently turned 90 cheerfully confided not long ago. “At this point, I’m just looking forward to a nice weekend.”
For better or worse, when it comes to celebrating birthdays — one of which I have this month, as it happens — I tend to fall somewhere between these social extremes: pleased that I’ve notched another year of good health (knock wood) and service to those around me (knock wood again) but no longer someone who needs, or even desires, a birthday party in his honor. For better or worse, wing chairs mean far more to me these days than wing dings.
Since about age 40, in fact, birthdays — like every item on life’s crowded calendar — seem to come whizzing around again with the startling swiftness of tax day. Looking back from the milepost of threescore years, I’d scarcely gotten adjusted to cracking 50 before I was suddenly 52 and feeling powerfully nostalgic and not a little worried that only five minutes ago I was a giddy 40-year-old and first-time father cradling a pink and wiggly newborn in my hands, with a second one soon to follow.
Now (and this is almost dizzying to accept) that beautiful wiggly newborn just turned 26, her kid brother is 24, and both live in Brooklyn, building admirable lives and making their fortunes in a city that never sleeps.
Tempus Doth Fugit
Back here in the provinces, meanwhile, as of the second day of this month — Groundhog Day to the wider world, a day when a cantankerous, overweight rodent forecasts winter’s future — yet another birthday came with alarming celerity, and their old man fields all sorts of bad jokes and silly cards from well-meaning friends and colleagues about seeing his shadow, all meant in the spirit of good clean furry fun, my having finally made peace with life’s brevity but mildly wondering where all the time went? How quickly tempus really did fugit.
To many people, including this aging ground hog, the unsettling feeling that life speeds dramatically up as you age — summers that pass in a blur, Christmas decorations that seem to go up only weeks after they came down — is a very real phenomenon and apparently quite commonplace among all of us as we age. Theories abound why.
When you’re very young, the most prominent theory goes, the passage of a single day, week or even a year represents a larger percentage of your life than later years, hence “time” is stretched out, accounting for the relative slowness with which the hours seem to pass. Mathematically speaking, this explains why when you’re a sprout, quiet summer days can seem a small eternity, while Christmas takes its own sweet time coming. As cold theories go, this sounds remarkably logical — though in fact there’s not a lot of truth to it.
According to folks unlocking the last frontiers of brain science, neurologists and geriatric psychologists and such, the real answer to this riddle lies purely in our brains, not our clocks, located in the realm of human perception and that portion of the brain researchers say is responsible for recording new experiences and emotions, setting down the vivid details of life as they happen, accumulating memories and forming impressions as the years unfold.
In a nutshell, when you’re young, new experiences make a strong impression upon your raw perceptions of reality, stimulating the brain’s ability to record and process every small detail, and thus “time” appears to pass slowly as data is collected. As the brain matures and life becomes more routine, generally speaking, only fresh experiences or peak events (getting married, meeting your sports hero, visiting Tahiti, winning an Oscar) tend to highlight the passage of years, like distance markers on a memory highway. Other events flicker before us as if from the scrapbook of our lives — blurring memory with life as we age — thus speeding up the passage of time. One notable exception to this phenomenon that proves the rule involves individuals who live through some variation of a life-altering event (car crash, death of a loved one, earthquake, divorce) and often describe “time standing still.” During such trials their brain works overtime to record the details of what is happening.”
The Active Years
“Time is a rubbery thing,” notes neuroscientist David Eagleman. “It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, ‘Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,’ it [time] shrinks up.”
Which, in part, explains why many older folks — even those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia — seem to dwell in the past. They often hang onto amazing details from their earliest days, even as the sands of their hourglass dwindle, recalling distant events with startling clarity, almost as if “it happened just yesterday,” as my own mother used to say even as mild dementia ravaged her short-term memory.
In other words, by the time you’re, say, 40 or 50 or 60, you’ve basically seen and done it all (or think you have) and most of your furry groundhog days are so ruled by devotion to familiar routines of work and play, time literally flies past without us bothering to notice.
The researchers say that the cure for altering this perception — slowing down the illusion of time’s inexorable flight, if you will — is to consciously alter the routines of daily life, adding fresh experiences that stir the soul and stimulate the brain and deepen one’s perception of the “here and now.” That way we revive time’s remarkable elastic ability to record different experiences and form new insights, awakening one’s awareness of moments as they arrive, something mystics, wise grannies and baseball philosophers have understood for millennia.
“Age is a case of mind over matter,” observed one Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige, the fireballing African-American pitcher who made his Major League debut pitching for the Cleveland Indians at age 42 in 1948. “If you don’t mind, it don’t matter.” Paige pitched brilliantly in the bigs until age 47, appearing in three All Star games.
Satchel helped break the color barrier in American sports. Sophocles wrote new plays into extreme old age. Cicero took up learning to play the lyre in his 80s. Da Vinci’s most celebrated works and scientific breakthroughs came in his dotage. Astronomer, mathematician and philosopher Galileo Galilei was an old man approaching his 70th birthday when a papal court condemned and excommunicated him for the heresy of defending his view that the sun — not the earth — was the center of the universe. It only took the Catholic church another five centuries to issue an apology for its divine error in judgment.
“Age, toward which you draw amid the storms of life,” wrote the Renaissance poet and scholar Petrarch to his anxious friends and former pupils near the end of his life, eight centuries before Satchel Paige came to the same conclusion, “is nothing so dreadful. Those who call it so have found all stages of life unwelcome, thanks to their mishandling of life, not a particular age. The latter years of a learned, modest man are sheltered and serene. He has appeased the storms within his breast, he has left behind the reefs of strife and labor, he is protected as by a ring of sunny hills from outer storms. So go securely and do not delay. A harbor opens where you feared a shipwreck.”
Growing in Grace
As I’ve learned from sixty-two Groundhog Days, time may indeed fly, but it also deepens things, including one’s appreciation for the onward journey. As your legs weaken, your perception of living in a world that is as flawed as it is beautiful and your ability to notice what makes us all so human, given half a chance and mind open to new experiences, really does gain strength as the days pass away.
Perhaps as a result of this unexpected gift (one of life’s greatest unadvertised compensations, I think) the very idea of growing older doesn’t rattle me one bit. Quite the contrary, it advances the possibility — certainly the importance — that one may somehow grow in both stature and wisdom as we age and mellow, enjoying the opportunity to acquire the grace and perspective to accept life on its own terms instead of imposing our wills and agendas on people and circumstances.
The older I get, for example, the more I’m pleasantly surprised to discover that I’m far less judgmental about a million little things [insert annoyance here] and find myself worrying less and less about death and where and how I’ll end my journey than how I choose to spend the precious hours of whatever time I have remaining, enriching my own days by giving more and needing less.
Like T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, who grew “old and old” and wore the bottoms of his trousers rolled, I find my tastes have become surprisingly simpler, perhaps an echo of the farming race I hail from. One way or another, as I grow closer again to the earth, I find the landscape of home and place means more than I ever imagined it would when I set off four decades ago to see what was over the horizon.
So for my birthday this year, I plan to take a nice long walk with my wife and the dogs through a winter-brown field and maybe plant a couple of river birches in my yard.
The definition of an optimist, my father told me many decades ago, is a fellow who plants a tree so late in his life he knows he’ll never be able to sit beneath it.
Growing older helps you understand what such a gift really means. Besides, river birches grow rather quickly.