An hour before the 1960’s ended, I left a noisy party in L.A. and headed for the ocean, craving some solitude where I could reflect on a memorable and formative decade before it passed. I drove into a large asphalt lot next to the beach, parking in a pool of light beneath a street lamp. There were no other cars around. The surf broke faintly in the blackness beyond the sand. Just before midnight I would walk out far enough to peer beyond the waves into the horizonless dark and wait for the future to roll on in. But for the moment, I propped my journal against the steering wheel and began to write.
I wasn’t alone for long. After about twenty minutes, a police car pulled up beside me. The patrolman got out and walked over to my window. He asked me whether I had heard of the Zodiac serial killer, who had been terrorizing northern California for the past year. Police were on statewide alert, and a single male, parked alone in a deserted spot around midnight, had aroused his suspicion. He wanted to know what I was doing there. I told him I was journaling. He asked, politely, if he could take a look. Instead of asserting my First Amendment rights, I was delighted to have found a reader! I handed over my notebook, and he began to murmur aloud from the first entry, written months earlier when the Clyde Beatty–Cole Brothers Circus came to Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The magic of that circus – a tent of wonders suddenly erected in an empty field, only to disappear and move on the next day – had been, for those of us doing campus ministry at an Episcopal coffeehouse, a vision of the Kingdom of God. It arrived with little advance warning, defied the dominant order of gravity, hierarchy and death, then moved on to somewhere else before we could possess it for ourselves.
And so it was that on a bare asphalt stage at the edge of the sea at the end of the Sixties, a policeman performed aloud my whimsical musings on a day at the circus:
And those still endowed with the gift of longing caught another glimpse of the darkness and the dance. But the kingdom is not yet … The circus priests of pain and laughter remain on the other side, though for a day and a night they seemed near enough to touch.
These were not, in his judgment, the ravings of a serial killer, so he wished me ‘Happy New Year’ and departed in peace.
That surreal night comes to mind because I now find myself at the end of another sixties – my own. Tomorrow I turn 70. That seems officially old in a way that 65 did not. Of course I don’t feel old in the way my younger self once imagined life’s third act to be. “Old age isn’t for sissies,” my mother and her friends would joke in their nineties, as they struggled bravely with failing bodies. But I’m not there yet. No one rises to give me their seat on a crowded bus. I can walk 500 miles in a month. My work isn’t done. I am not tired of life.
But “70” feels like a border crossing, though the change may not be immediately apparent. When you travel Highway 5 from California into Oregon, the rainy land of evergreens is still far up the road. The dark green oaks scattered across the arid grasslands of southern Oregon look just like the landscape in your rearview mirror. It’s easy to imagine that you haven’t really gone anywhere. But somewhere up the road it will finally hit you: you aren’t in California anymore.
It still seems premature to brood on mortality. The question posed by one’s seventies (at least while good health lasts) is not so much about death as it is about time. How much time do I have left? How shall I spend it?
“Have you lived here all your life?” asks the Arkansas traveler in the old folk song. “Not yet,” the farmer replies. Exactly. My story is not yet done. But the number of pages preceding “the bookmark of Now” are far greater than the ones remaining. As always happens when the unread portion of a novel shrinks to a fraction of an inch, I wonder how much incident can possibly be crammed into the remaining pages. How will the author tie up all the loose ends in so brief a space?
I could panic over the ceaseless erosion of future; I could rue my wasted past. Or I could just keep on walking (as in this video from my Camino), thankful for a refulgent sun and fruitful earth, mindful of the privilege, for a time, of casting one’s own shadow upon this sweet old world.