“I suppose you think that persons who are as old as your father or myself are always thinking about very grave things, but I know that we are meditating on the same old themes that we did when we were ten years old, only we go more gravely about it.” — H.D.T., letter to Emerson’s 10-year-old daughter Ellen in 1849
“Here I am, thirty-four years old, and yet my life is almost wholly unexpanded. How much is in the germ! There is such an interval between my ideal and the actual in many instances that I may say I am unborn. There is the instinct for society, but no society. Life is not long enough for one success. Within another thirty-four years that miracle can hardly take place [...] Is it important that I should mature as soon as an apple tree? Aye, as soon as an oak? May not my life in nature, in proportion as it is supernatural, be only the spring and infantile portion of my spirit’s life? Shall I turn my spring into summer? May I not sacrifice a hasty and petty completeness here to entireness there? If my curve is large, why bend it to a smaller circle?” — H.D.T., July 19, 1851
Dear Henry –
Why indeed? Life’s short. Sorry for not having written. You’d frown upon me for the frenetic way in which I’ve passed this whole week! In the span of four days, I wired money internationally for the first time, wrote at least several dozen emails; almost all of them to overseas recipients, baked and sold more sugary foods than my over-caffeinated 28-year old system could reasonably handle (not through ingestion, but labor and distribution), and traveled two time zones eastward to visit my in-laws on 4 hours of sleep. I’m still exhausted and subconsciously awaiting H1N1 to take me to the next level.
I know full well, Henry, that this is nothing to be proud of. You were well-acquainted with life, aging, illness and death, through family experiences and your own reflections on human mortality. I have been reading some of them in your journal and wish I could be half as perceptive, as doing so would dispose me to lead a fuller life. You’re probably asking what sadistic strain in me drives me toward old age so prematurely. It’s really not intentional. Actually, I sometimes feel like an unwilling passenger on a freight train headed downhill and picking up speed. There’s no button I can hit to stop it; no brake for me to tap on to get it to slow down. I would definitely rather be home than on a ride which I know has to end somewhere. And you would know it if you were watching me converse with Phil’s grandparents tonight.
I’m staying at their home in Crawfordsville, Indiana, for the Christmas holiday. After a lifetime of adventure, they are in possession of a glorious collection of fossils (mostly crinoids), half of which they had donated to the Crawfordsville Public Library for an educational exhibit. After visiting the library to see it and the book project to which they devote most of their free time, we came home and sat for an evening snack of cheese, crackers and chocolate – premature aging = premature death, right? – and stories.
And oh, what amazing stories were told. Richard, who is 83 or so, told us about how by a hair’s breadth he made it into the Navy instead of the Marines during World War II; how at Iwo Jima he was called to be a transport officer for the final wave of troop landings rather than chosen to fight and so was given a chance at survival, and about how by some miracle he survived two heart attacks and a surgery in his late age. His wife Doris is also 83 and sharp as a razor. She defeated cancer 2 years ago and is still swinging. Though she has had rheumatoid arthritis since 30, she still uses them like a normal person just by staying active. Later in the conversation, our thoughts shifted to what it means to grow old. What Doris said was so simple, and echoes in my head now: So you get old and sick? You do what you need to do to keep moving, or you give up and end it. It’s a choice.
Honestly my friend, I would be lying if I said I’m not afraid of getting old or sick. I glanced in the mirror the other day and felt both dismay and resignation when I saw that for the first time, a fine line had appeared on my face, right near the left corner of my mouth. Panicfest, right? No, not really. I remember thinking, so this is how it is. Throughout its run your machine loses oil around the hinges, gets rusty, pops its screws, and eventually – after a very long time, if you’re lucky or unlucky, depending on how you look at it – it goes kerplunk. You also get to watch everyone around you die. But dealing with such changes is what constitutes the fine art of life, which you mastered so well.
Teach me to slow down and savor it, Henry. Because sometimes it gets a little scary.
Your loyal successor on the freight train,
P.S. John Mayer, a modern singer and songwriter, wrote a song that inspired the appellation on this letter to you. It makes me just a little sad every time I hear it.