In less than two weeks, I will turn eighty. It feels huge. When I was young, no one I knew lived that long. My father died at the age of forty-three when I was four; my mother lived to be seventy, and my stepfather seventy-three. I encountered my first eighty-year-old several decades ago, a relative of a relative, a silent old man sitting unmoving in a chair, and I was mesmerized by the simple fact of his existence.
So my feelings about this birthday are mixed. I’m deeply grateful to have been allowed so many years and experiences on this beautiful planet, though sometimes it feels like what we used to call in grammar school “a bit of a swizz.” In other words, I have stolen time.
The world is full of stories about the joys of old age, how you can keep yourself healthy, happy and occupied while—at least if you follow the inspirational posts on Facebook—doing fifty pull-ups a day or bending your feet behind your neck during a yoga class. Also, you acquire wisdom and perhaps profound self-knowledge, and can tell people who annoy you to fuck off (I have never understood why this was considered a plus). But, as W.H. Auden once said,
“Ah, let not time deceive you
You cannot conquer time
The glacier knocks in the cupboard
The desert yawns in the bed,
And the crack in the teacup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.”
At some point, even if you exercise daily and dutifully eat your vegetables, your knees will begin to crack, or your back to ache. Your intestines will betray you. You’ll get tired. But Auden also said something else:
“Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique
Worships language, and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.”
Which is obviously true for him, as his words are in my mind at this moment, and perhaps in yours as I share them. People who meditate know there’s a world outside time. So do artists. And there are transcendent moments most of us experience now and then. Perhaps it’s a painting we gazed at for long minutes, a hallucinatory moment created by an actor onstage, hearing Leonard Cohen singing Hallelujah, or Suzanna and the Countess joining voices for “Che soave zefiretto” in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
The afternoon I met photographer David McClintock at his home in Arden, Delaware, provided such an experience. Pete Fisher, a musician friend of mine knew David’s wife Judith Tay, also a musician, and as they chatted about music seated opposite each other on the windowsill, David and I talked. He told me he was dying of cancer, and I asked if he was afraid. He had pills for that, he responded,
“If I didn’t I’d just sit here all day and cry.”
He told me about a fellow cancer patient with whom he’d bonded and how lonely he’d felt when that man died. Then he pulled up some of his work on the computer to share with me. The images were lovely, thoughtful, intriguing. But the one I most remember is of a beach in New Jersey, crowded, but not crammed, just full of people. Some lay on towels, some paddled in the waves. Children played on the sand. David pointed out that the picture had been taken some decades earlier, perhaps as early as the 1970s or 1980s. I don’t remember exactly. If he returned to the same place now and took a photo, he said, it would be completely different. It might be more built up; the people would certainly be heavier. But this image had been captured at exactly the right time, and what he particularly liked about it was that everyone on the beach had been caught by his camera doing exactly what he or she should be doing—bending to dry a leg, tossing a ball, running, or in total repose. Later, I found a Nabokov quote about his childhood that seemed to fit exactly:
“Everything is as it should be. Nothing will ever change. Nobody will ever die.”
David Anthony McClintock, who died in 2008, had preserved that moment on the beach in time. And I can’t help feeling that that particular afternoon, with Judith and Peter talking quietly by the window, me and David at the computer, is still gleaming silently somewhere.