me and my grandfather, my First Communion. Ignazio Severini was around 60.
Again, in terra incognita for baby boomers, the 60s generation. Though since turning 65 at the end of June, a bunch of others have done it, including Bill Clinton and George Bush. So obviously it's different for all of us.
It's been a more ambiguous and perhaps a more sobering milestone that 60, which may have something to do with the fact that I've waited almost two months to post this. Emotions specifically around this birthday were definitely muted. It was no big deal, and that in itself says a lot. 65 used to be retirement age, when you got a retirement dinner and a gold watch. It was a rite of passage, acknowledged and celebrated by family and friends. None of that happened.
Besides the fact that I’m not “retiring” in the sense of quitting my paltry-pay jobs, there was no retrospective beyond what happened in my head, which actually wasn’t much.
In the weeks and months leading up to the day I did feel some sadness and even anger about the lack of honor and recognition for the good work that I’ve done. A feeling of being taken for granted, or more specifically, of being ignored. I have no place—let alone an honored place—in this community, or in any other. And even though I have acquaintances of varying degrees here, I can’t say I have friends. I don’t think there was anyone here who even knew about my birthday, unless it was a friend of Margaret’s.
But when the day came, I was happy to spend it quietly with Margaret, hiking by the ocean, enjoying this quiet life. I am aware every day—in fact, it worries me how aware I am—that all of this can turn on a dime. The last five years have been notable for nothing happening—nothing earthshaking or terrible. In our families there have been births and marriages and a break-up, but no deaths except for one of Margaret’s aunts. A week or so before my birthday, her mother visited. She’d just turned 90.
My family in Pennsylvania is healthy. Margaret is healthy. I am healthy. Pema the cat is healthy, though a worry. So far our lives haven’t been economically threatened. But any of that could change at any time, and all of it will change at some time. That (along with regrets about the past that emerge from dreamtime) wakes me up early with anxiety at times, and at times postpones my falling asleep.
Part of life has become the lived ironies of being this age—all the cliches, of always being young in dreams and in my head, to the point of seeing people who probably are younger than me as older. Of never knowing how people will react or respond—person to person, or person to the paradigmatic old person. Individuality disappears from our persons as we all start to look alike: men with white beards, red cheeks, no mouths; small, tentative, distant eyes.
When I turned 60, my touchstones were Michael Ventura’s essay on “saying goodbye” and James Hillman’s book, The Force of Character. Saying goodbye is a continuing process, though it is saying goodbye to possibilities. I just watched a DVD about the reunion tour a few years ago by Sting and the Police. I must always be saying goodbye to the dream of enthralling an audience like that, let alone leading to their ecstasy after more than 20 years of their devotion. Not that this is a new thought, but it is renewed, with different emotions each time. Which of course is not to negate the fantasy, while playing into the silent night.
I’ve already said goodbye to much of contemporary culture, though that is a continuing and not complete process. And anyway, much of it has said goodbye to me. I have entered more fully that melancholy area where you know you have perspective to contribute, but no one cares to ask for it. I guess it’s a fairly common observation of “elders.”
I don’t know what to say goodbye to in my work. In the past year I began to say goodbye to even completing another book, but now this summer I’m not so sure. I’ve got focus and energy for a project that seems clarified.
Which leads me to my touchstone this year, and it’s James Hillman again. But this time it’s his work on Puer and Senex. I came across a moment on YouTube from a seminar he gave just last year about it. It spoke to me, so I looked up what’s available. It turns out his definitive edition of his Senex and Puer work was published in 2005, and is already out of print. The university library, notoriously buying few if any books these days, has no Hillman past his early work. There were DVDs for sale of this seminar, but they were pricey. Still, as a birthday present to myself, I ordered them.
I have some of the essays, notably in The Puer Papers from the late 60s, and a key one in Picked-Up Pieces. But I wanted to see what he had to say now, now that he is of Senex age, and he’s out of the puer paradise of the 60s.
Though the DVDs have too little of him, too much of the crowd’s questions and comments, it was worth it. He’s still vital, and though showing his 80s, his voice is strong. Puer (Latin for boy) is a particular archetype of youth, as Senex is for old one. He championed the Puer in any age, and talked about the union of puer and senex. He talked about the puer flights, the longing that is its own reward, and how that must be honored even in the senex age.
I was a pretty classic puer type, leavened with some senex (the melancholy, the seriousness, and some need to be organized, etc.) but clearly the women in my life saw the puer dominance—the impatience with ordinary life, the anxiety, the looking down on it all from an imagined height. The devotion to the dream, and to the vision that was too far, too high, too big. Plus all the wounds and failures.
The puer inflated ego is no longer a problem for me. The outside world has injected plenty of humiliation over the past 15 years especially, with little compensating affirmation or confirmation. Together with aging and the receding of dreams, the weakening and diluting of visions, and given my status and precarious and vulnerable position in the world, I’ve been humbled.
So combining my particular circumstances with the senex qualities that naturally emerge, a certain fatalism adds easier vulnerability to hopelessness. Given the human prospects as made clear in just the past year or so, the larger world of time only adds weight to that side of the scales.
Hillman offers just about the only straw to grasp, in his idea of the senex and puer union. He points out all the similarities in the two archetypes, and says (as I interpret it) that the senex qualities of organization and discipline, and even the depths of soul (the sadness and the perspective) can be applied to the puer vision, to be true to the calling.
To paraphrase Hillman: The recovery in the senex is the recovery of the puer—the freedom that was once there...the recovery of the range of thought, of imagination. But the senex can have the greatest range of all, like Beethoven’s last quartets. “He recovered something in the midst of disability by letting his imagination go. But that imagination had spent many many years working his gift...staying faithful to the original vision. That’s the important thing—it isn’t being related to your partner, or to all the things we use relationship for and drive the puer man to a frenzy of anxiety, but related to the calling, whatever that strange thing is, that wounds him and names him.”
The calling, the vocation is one article of faith I retain from my Catholic schooling. So I respond to this idea. Even if it’s more about soul-making than destiny, unless they turn out to be the same thing.
I’m monitoring my abilities and except for a sometimes unpredictable fluctuation in energy (which is perhaps different in quality from the fluctuations I’ve always experienced), I don’t have a lot of disabilities of age. I’ve kept my writing sharp through use, if only with moronic work for hire and these bolts into the nothingness on my blogs. But I don’t know how deep I can still go anymore, or how high. That’s the challenge. Even there it may not be a matter of ability as much as why put in the effort, why turn everything else upside-down (as I did often enough in my puer years to disrupt my life, leading to financial vulnerability now) to try and once again fail? And what would success be anyway? As a writer in the marketplace, I may as well be already dead.
But I’ll grasp at any straw I can find that can convince me even for part of the day, so I’ll take Hillman to heart, in my 65th year.
Being faithful to the vision is an end in itself. Whether something comes of it is not entirely up to me. Pretty much nobody accomplishes anything as difficult as writing a book (let alone publishing it) without help. Without the faith of others, there’s only a faith in the future—as part of the vision, if it is such—that motivates towards expression or completion. That, and for the fun of it. Of having done it.