FEB 21: THE SCREAM

In the 80’s, the Casa Cloister, a hostel in Guanajuato, Mexico, was a haven for aging gringos un-mooring from their American pasts, or trying to. The word out on George was that he’d been an important man north of the border, a legendary architect, or something like that. Now almost broke, and half blind from macular degeneration, among several other “tatters in his mortal dress,” he was navigating the terrain of old age as best he could.

Besides being inexpensive, the Casa was perfectly located for George, catty-corner to the city’s main square (the “Jardin” it was called), and in the other direction, with only one street to cross, a short walk to Truco 7, where he took his meals. The food was both good and inexpensive. More than any other place, I ate there too.

Holding court (and George could talk), he would sometimes linger at Truco’s too long, and then get disoriented walking “home” in the dark, especially if it was also raining. Once I happened upon him when he’d gotten totally turned around. Talk about a man lighting up to a familiar voice.

“Old age,” he lamented as we walked back to the Casa scrunched together under my umbrella. “Nothing prepares you for it.”

Basically a one tequila guy, I’d had three or four that night and was leaning on him as much as he was leaning on me. This will be a moment I’ll remember, I was thinking, though I didn’t care much for the old age talk.

“You look in the mirror one day and ask who’s that old man?… What an irony, Jim. You finally see how beautiful life is as it’s coming to an end. It makes me want to scream.”

“How beautiful life is?” Did I hear George say that? His room at the Casa was next door to mine, with a pretty thin wall between us. I’d often hear him pacing in the night, talking to himself, suffering his infirmities, his ironies, his dark angels, sometimes shouting in his sleep. Whereas, for me, in my 40’s, it was an exuberant time in my life, especially during the few months I was spending every year in Guanajuato, writing, walking, dancing, meeting other writers and artists, native and ex-pats, gringos and gringas; and music, music, music everywhere, the mariachis in the Jardin, serenading couples in the patio restaurants; the brass band playing in the Gazebo; the Cervantino Singers, the symphony every Wednesday in Teatro Juarez; and that just scratched the surface of it.

Step outside the Casa’s front entrance, there it all was, most of it free. You could live well in Guanajuato for a fifth of what living in America cost. George told me once that if he had his druthers he’d never cross the border into America again. “Greed is God over the border. Money and Youth. That’s no country for old men…. If you live to be an old man, Jim, get down here as soon as you can.”

It was one of those remarks that catches a guy off guard. First, unbeknownst to George, I’d just been polishing up an essay I’d written on “Sailing to Byzantium” when he quoted from it, the “no country for old men” thing. But what really rattled me was how he had spoken of wealth idolatry and youth idolatry in the same breath, as if they were on the same plane. Wealth idolatry had long been easy for me to see through. I had been long familiar with Eric Hoffer’s observation: “you can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” If anything, I felt sorry for rich people. Greed made people cruel. Wealth made people dull.

But this desire to hang on to youth for as long as one could — to see that as greed was a new thought, and one with deep implications in terms of how I saw myself. Something I’d been thinking of as simple had become suddenly complex.

It was my generation that coined the expression that our 60s are the new 50s, our 50s are the new 40s and so on. Had I got suckered in? Could I no longer simply assume that to snatch an extra decade of youth from Father Time was a good thing? A healthy desire?

You know, eat your greens, drink lots of water, cut back on the sugar, salt, fat, caffeine, alcohol. It wasn’t all that hard to do. Watching what you put into your mouth was half the battle. Fasting now and then. Observing a few don’ts, like don’t smoke cigarettes, no matter how sexy smoking might look in Bogie/Bacall movies. Just going over my list in my head slowly reinvigorated me back into my game plan. If you can buy ten more years of youth, even the appearances of youth, surely that would be a list well worth attending to.

I didn’t say this out loud to George, of course, so as not to offend him, but what marginalizes a person more than looking old? There’s no up side to it. Zero. It’s far too close to looking dead…. But still, in this more or less offhand remark, George had pricked a hole in my confidence.

And there that hole still is, over thirty years later, grown much larger now, even though I got those extra years of precious youth, and thus of precious life itself; have already lived three years past the life expectancy of the American male, with likely still several more years to come; am already twelve years older than was my Grandfather Cairl and two years older than was my Grandfather Ralston when they died, and am fast approaching my father’s age when he “passed away.”

“Passed away.” I smile at that euphemism as I write it. Dad himself referred to dying as taking the big wink. Like his father, he didn’t put up a lot of resistance to life’s natural flow. He lost both a wife and a daughter, grieved them deeply, but recovered in a timely manner, remarried, and grew old cheerfully. And when it was his turn to die, he died uncomplainingly. Aging and dying were in the nature of things. He’d often say as much.

None of that Dylan Thomas “Do not got gentle into that good night/… “Rage rage against the dying of the light” for him. He happily ate white bread and preferred the fat on a pork chop to the lean meat. He liked my ten-day watermelon fasts, more or less, because they were good fodder for jokes.

It troubled him deeply though, that I, his own son, called myself an agnostic, which to him was the same as atheist.

“A little bit of learning is a dangerous thing,” was his frequent comeback to something wise I’d think I’d said. There was a long run of valedictorians and salutatorians from this one family in our home town, two or three of whom suffered from migraines and depression. Dad would point to them as examples of what happens when you overthink life. “A person can think too much,” he was wont to say.

How does that song lyric go: you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. I miss those conversations. I miss my father’s very being. My grandfathers’, too. Ironically, I miss the way they aged. Maybe that’s another way of saying I miss the way I was also meant to age, was born to age, but didn’t, having been so determined for so long to stay young. But nowadays I’m less sure than ever of the value of my fight with time.

When I see pictures of my dad and grandfathers when they were near my age now, they were genuinely old men, and looked it. In regard to aging, they didn’t dwell on it; whereas, by my 40’s, if not earlier, I was already carrying a secret pride in passing for younger, even as, at the same time, I was becoming an avid reader, almost disciple-like, of Carl Jung, who shouts out strong warnings against striving to be younger than we are.

In “The Stages of Life,” Jung says the challenges of old-age stage of life are just as important as those in our youth (soul important, George would have said), and they need to be lived abundantly. What’s more, and here’s the rub, they need to be embraced in a timely way. We do ourselves harm when we hang on to who we already are; and even more harm when we try to go backward, to look and act younger than we are. Our eyes are located at the front of our face for a reason, says Emerson, who provided a good bit of the foundation for Jung’s thought.

The best attitude towards aging, Jung says, is to keep one life’s moving forward in its natural flow. In the autumn and winter of life, you must let spring and summer go, even if you feel you haven’t fully lived them. (“Who ever succeeds in draining the whole cup of youth with grace?”) To everything there is a season, and to get caught up in playing catch-up is like trying to correct a mistake with another mistake. Now you run the grave risk of missing the old age stage, too. As failed souls. As failed elders.

As youth can be wasted on the young in not fully living it, so can old age be wasted on the elderly — a mistake typically precipitated by clinging too hard or too long to youth and middle age.

Word wisdom! What good is it until it joins with experience? If you can pass for 55 when you’re 65, even with its obvious element of false self-presentation, you’re going to damned well do it. Vanity will trump wisdom every time. Vanity will whisper in your ear: “age is just a number,” or “you’re as young as you feel,” or “you’re as young as you think you are.” And in a youth worshiping culture, those whispers will be echoed everywhere.

But time accelerates in the second half of life. There’s another rub, this little trick Father Time plays on us where a week starts to feel like a day. Everybody blessed with a normal lifespan experiences it. One day you’re 50, the new 40, rocking and rolling; a blink of an eye later, you’re 60, the new 50, and maybe square dancing; two blinks later you’re 77; and more or less the 77 that 77 has always been. George’s age when he died. My age now, as the house in which I once semi-proudly lived grows smaller, shabbier. I know that it has been a good ten years since it has reflected well on me.

Trying on a pair of pants in men’s dressing room during Bon Tons’ close out sale, I notice one more time how thin my legs have grown. I see in the mirror, once again, how visibly false my false teeth are. In the side panels of the three-way mirror outside the dressing room, however (since I almost never see myself three ways at once), I see for the first time how hunched over I’ve become.

Oh, well, I’m accustomed to these little epiphanies by now. What’s one more? Dear God, take me over the edge, I’m almost ready to say — until in the central panel, instead of me looking back at myself, surprise, surprise, for a second or two I see George. A shorter George, to be sure, because George was very tall. I’d never thought of myself as looking anything like George before. Maybe it’s because he’s been popping up in my memories. Maybe it’s just that old people all start to look alike, I tell myself, knowing any other interpretation could be downright spooky.

In the mall parking lot, I can’t find my car. And then it’s right there in front of me. I’d been looking for a Jeep Patriot, my previous car. That’s pretty funny, but not really. Once I’m seated firmly in the driver’s seat of my own current generic car, I begin to breathe more easily. I need to go someplace, anyplace but where I already am. A line from Robert Frost’s “Bereft” comes to me. I’m in my life alone. To keep my wits about me, I repeat it over and over. I’m in my life alone. I am in my life alone, then throw in a line from “Sailing to Byzantium.” Soul clap your hands and sing. I’m in my life alone. Soul clap your hands and sing.

It’s winter. Late February. There was an ice storm last night, but the roads are now dry. A few miles out of town, driving over Martin’s Mountain to nowhere in particular, I look down into the long valley to the south, as I always do when I drive over Martin’s Mountain, but this time every branch on every tree for unending miles is ice coated and glittering, gleaming in the morning sun. I say this now, but for a few seconds I didn’t know what I was seeing or who was seeing it. For a few seconds I was gone and someone else was me. And he screamed.

I could say he shouted, or yelled, but, no, it was a real scream. He screamed for beauty. He screamed for joy.

3 Comments

  1. Chris Hersh

    I enjoyed reading this, and have many times thought similarly. I feel the oldest in the ice. Had an accident on Jan. 2nd and realized that my bounce wasn’t quite as on point as it used to be. Neuropothy makes my winter driving not as on point. I really miss that! There is so much wisdom with age, such freedom from vanity! Funny how the body slows down and the behavior more peaceful.

    Reply
  2. Matt Chelf

    Jim, per our conversation last week I came in prepared to be hyper critical. But to tell you the truth, this piece is more dynamic than your other writings. I would be critical of your January piece; it feels like something you’ve already written before. This February piece is new. Not only is it new, but the ideas feels more realized and, by extension, so does the prose. I mean, this essay is familiar; I know your other writings, thoughts, and blog posts so it’s not out of left field, but as I keep looking for a way to better articulate my thoughts I keep coming back to the same: it feels realized in terms of thought and prose. I think a major stylistic difference is the use of imagery to convey your feelings and thoughts. Very beautiful images of Mexico, George (I like how he came back around at the end), the dressing room, and the ice laden forest. Resonant. The writing feels relaxed and spontaneous, youthful, if I dare say, while also mature.

    I also really like how you handle the out-of-body experience/epiphany at the end.

    I couldn’t pinpoint why you were anxious about this piece (maybe I did, and I pointed it out toward the beginning).

    Reply
    1. james ralston

      Hmm. Now there’s a synchronicity for you. I haven’t looked at this blog, or any blog, for a year or so, and the day I decide to read a few, maybe to see if I’ve got something here to collect into a book of essays, you have responded to “The Scream” earlier THAT DAY.

      Is someone trying to tell me something?

      Thanks, Chris

      Reply

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