Strange things happen in life––a ticket here, a ticket there, and twenty, thirty, forty years later the destination.
–– William McPherson, Testing the Current
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
–– W. H. Auden, For the Time Being
Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection.
––– Collect for the first Sunday in July, Book of Common Prayer
Today I turned 75. I’ve seen it coming for a long time, but I’m still surprised! I took my first breath early in the evening of July 16, 1944, at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles. Twenty-two years later, four days before my birthday, my father would take his last breath in the same place.
Every birth date collects an assortment of associations and memories. My favorite film noir, Double Indemnity, begins with a doomed Fred MacMurray speaking into a Dictaphone, beginning with the date: “July 16, 1938” (the film was released in 1944, and co-star Barbara Stanwyck’s birthday was July 16). On my 7th birthday, Catcher in the Rye was published. I saw Paris for the first time when I turned 17. On my 29th birthday, Alexander Butterfield revealed to the Senate Watergate Committee the existence of the Nixon tapes.
When I turned one year old, the first atomic bomb was exploded in New Mexico. On my 25th birthday, Apollo 11 blasted off for the moon. And on my 50th, a comet crashed into Jupiter, creating the largest explosion ever witnessed in the solar system.
If those explosive bursts of heat and light were some kind of sequence (1…25…50…), what was in store for 75? Apocalypse? Thankfully, on this 50th anniversary of the moon launch, the iconic phenomenon proved both gentle and fitting. No great event, no big bang. But not a whimper either. What happened tonight was this: a full moon rose in silently over a collapsed volcano (whose supposed similarity to the moon’s surface had provided a valuable training ground for the lunar astronauts). The tranquil orb shed its luminous blessing, the close of a perfect day. O gracious Light!
From 1956 to 1962, I attended an Episcopal boys’ school in Los Angeles. In my class of sixty-five, three of my best friends had, like me, been born in July of 1944. After sharing a formative passage through adolescence and being collectively imprinted––or cursed––with the high expectations fostered by a privileged education, we maintained our bonds into adulthood. In the month of our thirtieth birthdays, we gathered at a California beach house for a weekend of celebration and memory. Toward the end, there was a midnight toast. “Hey Jude” came on the stereo as we lifted our glasses to past and future selves. Take a sad song and make it better. We were not yet where we wanted to be, but we still feasted on dreams and a sense of promise. In ten years, we pledged, our forty-year-old selves would gather again to trade stories of the journey.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.
Dylan Thomas wrote these hopeful words when he turned thirty. But it doesn’t always work that way. A year after our glad toasts by the sea, on the last day before our birthday month, one of the four committed suicide. We three who remained gathered to sing him home in our old school chapel. We could only guess at the pain that took him from us.
When Jon died, I was deep in the mountain wilderness of the Sierra Nevada. Just before sunrise he came to me in a dream, assuring me that he was all right. I awoke and looked at my watch––6:00 am. It was, I learned later, the hour of his death.
A week after his funeral, on the day of my 31s birthday, I rose early to take a long walk in the hills above Los Angeles, where pockets of wildness and quiet still thrive in the heart of the teeming metropolis. Jon and I had both been runners in high school, and we loved training together in these hills. Our school was situated along their lower slope, so it only took a few minutes of running to leave the cityscape behind.
As I walked these same hills so soon after his death, Jon was very much in my thoughts, and one particular workout came to mind. Just behind the school chapel, a 150-yard stretch of road climbed steeply to a crest. During our senior year, in a pouring rain, Jon and I challenged each other to run a series of all-out sprints up this grade, one after another, until we both collapsed, utterly exhausted and sick to our stomachs.
We made it back to the gym to recover. Jon stretched out on a bench and closed his eyes. He lay there a long time, not saying a word. When he finally spoke, he said he’d had it with running. He was going to quit the team. The feeling soon passed, and he would go on to win the southern California half-mile championship in a time of 1:53.1. But I remember feeling genuine alarm in the presence of his momentary despair. It was like a black hole, sucking up all the light around it. Jon was made for running, and his powerful spirit made the rest of us faster. To see that spirit falter, if only for a moment, was unsettling, like witnessing a saint’s crisis of faith and wondering about the fragile poise of your own soul.
After my birthday walk, I put this recollection in a letter to an east coast friend. But I prefaced it with a report of what I had seen around me on that particular day––not darkness and death, but the beauty of a summer morning in the hills of home:
“The intensely blue panicles of a ceanothus shrub arched across the path like an enchanted boundary, a gate back to Eden. Near a jocular little stream, a California thrasher poked its long, curved bill into the debris beneath an oak tree. A solitary yellow leaf, suspended by a long spider’s thread against a background of dark mist, spun ecstatically in a ray of sunlight. The path unfolded before me like a narrative––meandering through the hush of sheltering thickets, emerging onto a golden slope of drying grasses, climbing upward into the enfolding blankness of a beclouded ridge, dipping downward to become a gentle country lane, purple-strewn with eucalyptus leaves, and finally spilling out into the alluvial plain of houses, lawns and swimming pools.”
It was as if an essential part of my response to loss and grief was to pay close attention to the gifts of one summer day, offered so generously to my receptive heart. To pay attention as if my own life depended on it.
“How shall the heart be reconciled / to its feast of losses?” asked the poet Stanley Kunitz, who lived to an even 100 years. The longer you live, the more the losses mount up––but also the beauties, the graces, the affectionate motions of the heart. I like what another poet, Vera Pavlova, says about this:
If there is something to desire,
there will be something to regret.
If there is something to regret,
there will be something to recall.
If there is something to recall,
there was nothing to regret.[i]
In one of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, the boy gets a letter from his past self. It reads: “Dear future Calvin, I wrote this several days before you will receive it. You’ve done things I haven’t done. You’ve seen things I haven’t seen. You know things I don’t know. You lucky dog! Your pal, Calvin.”
Calvin sniffles a bit and says, “I feel so sorry for myself two days ago.” To which his tiger friend, Hobbes, responds, “Poor him. He wasn’t you.”
Stanley Kunitz could sympathize. “I have walked through many lives,” he wrote, “some of them my own, / and I am not who I was . . .” So who am I now? Hmm. But ever since my baptism in November of 1944, the more critical question has always been, Whose am I?. As we say at the end of every mortal life, “whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.” Is it possible to live in the light of that truth, come what may?
After my mother died in 2010, I found a prayer she had written on the flyleaf of her Daily Office book. It’s something she would have said almost every day: “God, whatever . . . Thanks.”
On my twenty-first birthday, my father, a priest, celebrated eucharist in our living room with my mother and me. Afterward, he presented me with a letter he had composed for the occasion. “Happiness is not found in security,” he reminded me, “nor can it be bought with money, but it is a holy mystery that is a gift from God, found only in serving Him.”
When I turned 40, my sister Marilyn sent me a list of questions.
What would you like to accomplish in your work? In your personal life?
How long do you think you will live?
What would you like to begin?
What would you like to end?
Name a physical risk you’d like to take.
Name an emotional risk you’d like to take.
Of what might you be afraid?
What do you want to mend?
What song describes your life at 40?
What writer touches you deeply at 40?
What would you like to create for yourself? For the world?
What are 3 things you are most satisfied with so far in your life?
These remain searching questions for me today, despite the somewhat eroded sense of future produced by thirty-five additional birthdays. I’ll start to ponder my answers tomorrow (God willing). Meanwhile, what Stanley Kunitz says, that is what I say:
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.[ii]
Twenty-five years ago, on my 50th birthday, I made a 9-mile pilgrimage through English countryside to an old church cemetery in the Lake District. Arriving just after sunset, I laid a pair of California wildflowers on the grave of William Wordsworth. A waxing crescent moon hung suspended over a nearby hill. Shining very close to it was Jupiter, where the comet was making its cosmic crash. But here on earth, in this quiet churchyard, nothing but peace. I had pressed the two flowers––California poppy and Farewell-to-Spring––in my copy of Wordsworth’s Prelude, whose buoyant embrace of the human journey––rejecting the melancholy “wandering steps and slow” at the end of Paradise Lost––I claimed for myself at the beginning of my sixth decade. In these latter days, I do so again:
The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!
Related post: Grace Me Guide
[i] Vera Pavlova, “Four Poems,” translated from the Russian by Steven Seymour, The New Yorker, July 30, 2007, 37.
[ii] Stanley Kunitz excerpts are from “The Layers,” The Collected Poems of Stanley Kunitz(New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2002). Poetry Foundation link: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/54897/the-layers