Monday, August 27, 2012

The Circle of Existence

In Loving Memory of Pauline Winifred Ward
October 7, 1933 - August 21, 2012

In my youthful ignorance, I used to wonder why so many writers - John Updike and Philip Roth spring to mind - became so obsessed with mortality in their middle age. Well, now I know. After you turn 50, the awareness of your inevitable decay and death becomes inescapable. It’s no longer possible to ignore the fact that life is short and goes by at the speed of a runaway train.  
This undeniable fact is borne in on us middle-aged people by the deterioration and deaths of our elders. They are our forerunners in life – the people who have nurtured us and relished our joys and successes and commiserated with us in our disasters, both large and small. As they vanish, it’s as if a protective ceiling is gone and we’re now exposed to the elements in all their bleakness.
Having lost a very dear aunt last week, I am acutely aware of this phenomenon and have found it echoed in the reactions of my friends and contemporaries. It seems like only yesterday that we were in our 20s while our elders were the age we are now – still vibrant, fully engaged in life, and seemingly indestructible. And yet the 30 or so years since then have gone by almost without us noticing. A decade went by before I got used to writing a new century on the dateline on my checks. Now I wake up in the middle of the night in a panic at the thought that my 60s are only five years away. I want to plant my feet against the dashboard of time and shout Slow down for god’s sake!
What can we do in the face of this daunting reality but seize the day. Smell the roses, take the leap, work through that bucket list. And do whatever makes life worth living – playing golf, making ships in bottles, bungee jumping, or, for those of us so inclined, writing.
For me writing is the only activity I know that has the potential to transcend losses and impermanence and aging. Not only does it give me solace and satisfaction to form an elegant sentence, a flowing paragraph, and a coherent chapter, but it gives me a sense that I am doing what I was designed to do.
Michel Foucault has described Scheherazade’s nightly telling of tales to the Sultan as “the effort... to exclude death from the circle of existence.” So even as I mourn the loss of my incomparable aunt, I am continuing to make up stories – from memory, research, or just my imagination – in the hope of keeping the darkness at bay just a little while longer.

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