Passages
by Tom Bentley
Copyright 2001, Tom Bentley




I witnessed an interesting phenomenon the other night. I was sitting right off the dance floor in a club, listening to a blues band. Some couples were strutting their stuff to the music, nothing special, just a few folks dancing to an average R&B tune. Then up popped a new addition, and he was worth a closer look.

He had some pretty unusual moves: strange, spread-legged squats, lunging dips, some weird Travolta-like Pulp Fiction arm whips across the eyes, a full repertoire of whirls, twirls and theatrical poses. But the best part was that he was at least 75, maybe even older, his full head of creamy white hair wobbling with every wiggle of his hips. His first partner was a woman at least 40 years his junior, and his subsequent partners were younger yet.

At one point he even did a break-dancing variant, doing a beetling Gregor Samsa number, flailing on his back on the floor, legs kicking in the air. He was impossible not to watch, and I stared with a combination of fascination and admiration, tinged with fear and embarrassment. I was fearful that he might hurt himself, embarrassed that he was so old and so willing to act the fool in front of a crowd.

The prejudice of my thinking really hit me later: here was a guy who seemed to relish his moments, whose exuberant expressions and loose limbs probably expressed the essence of his character, but I couldn't quite get over the notion that someone his age shouldn't be acting that way. It made me wonder if there was no rightful way for a guy like the demonic dancer to get his jollies on the dance floor without being looked at as a fool or a freak.

Here was a guy who surely must be nudging up to the closing years of his life--and he was going to go out dancing. His antics made me realize that if I were that age, and I was looking forward to going out for a night of music and dancing and fun, that self-consciousness and worry about your social standing was a big waste of time--time being a commodity in shrinking supply. All of these thoughts brought me to the real subject of this essay: how do you wrap up your life, if you have the luck to see that it's time to start wrapping?

My parents and the parents of my peers are facing the question, with varying degrees of change and challenge. The first issue of consequence is whether you have the ability to steer some semblance of a course. For some people, the rudder is taken from their hands. My sister-in-law's father, a genial and gregarious man, was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease, and his decline was fairly rapid. He was a man who loved conversation and the play of ideas, but the disorder quickly robbed him of the control of his speech, the coherence of his muscles and the clarity of his thoughts. The disease took his life's essence, and finally his life, without giving him the opportunity to sort through its final phase, to order his thoughts and his things, to judge his life lived.

If indeed you weren't laid low by some cruel condition, wouldn't one of your biggest concerns be the simple question, how was your life lived? Those kinds of queries sound so simple, but are so hard to answer: so many areas of gray, so many tricks of memory. Is it possible to answer questions like How did I do? Did I make the right decisions? Was I fair? Was I kind? Did I make a difference?

Perhaps those examinations have too many intangibles for even the most rational and introspective of people to answer. What about the tangibles, the things, the objects of a lifetime--what do you do with them? I'm not talking about the mentality that takes the phrase, "Whoever ends up with the most toys wins" at face value. The broad face of a lifetime's worth of gains and losses doesn't break out in a self-satisfied grin over one more shiny trinket, on a sagging table of trinkets.

The assets I'm talking about aren't ephemera, T. S. Eliot's life measured out with coffee spoons, but more the belongings that have served to define or reflect a person's engagement with his or her existence. For instance, my girlfriend Alice's father, a man who recently died after a long illness, spent much of his life working with his hands. It's hard to name a thing he hadn't built, turned on a wheel, shaped on a press. He had a long life of work, where some of the work was just work, and where some of the work was the body's poetry, moving in the rhythms of material accomplishment, where cutting, drilling, and pounding were a song of satisfaction.

When a man like that looks over the things of his life, he sees many tools. Before his death, Henry had to let go of many of the things he'd accumulated. Alice brought home a box of his hammers, perhaps 10 or 12 of them. They are of great variety, distinct shapes and weights, the handles worn smooth with time and use. Some were even owned by Henry's father. Even though I've always been a one hammer kind of guy, there's a sure pleasure in gripping each of them, considering what each one's purpose might be, and wondering if they still might find good employment. They tell you that here's a man who has worked--look at all these hammers! I can only guess, but when someone like Henry looks back, he probably gets a good feeling to know that he had used many tools well, and used them to build solid, lasting things.

My own parents are at the late stages of their lives, and it's hard--and scary--to watch them inevitably slowing down, adjusting their days to their diminishing of their bodies. I'm grateful that they've been spared most of the harshest pains of aging, and can reflect on their lives' bounty or burdens in good time. I hope they feel happy about the lives they've led--I know all their children appreciate the unvarnished decency that has been the character of their days.

Maybe the old happy hoofer on the dance floor hadn't done a lot of dancing when he was young. Maybe he was too self-conscious, too shy, but now he was operating under that dictum of F. Scott Fitzgerald's, "It is only when youth is gone and experience has given us a kind of cheap courage that most of us realize how simple such things are." (In other words, he was so much older then; he's younger than that now.) Who knows, maybe the dancer is one of those rare people that have always felt comfortable in their own skins, moving with time's changes without misstep or falter. Maybe he'd learned to turn a deaf ear to that little voice in our heads, always telling us that we are screwups, losers, unworthy of living large in the self.

It's hard not to be embarrassed by portions of your past, where you did things that were less than distinguished. I can remember myself at 19, just a few months' removed from my parents' house, thinking that the most reasonable thing to do was to violate, as quickly as possible, most of the ethical basics they had taught me.

I became a very enthusiastic shoplifter, and it wasn't until I'd spent 3 days in jail for palming a pint of Scotch that I took a breath to wonder what in hell I'd been doing for the past six months. I can still see, both with sympathy and scorn, that scared kid behind those cell bars. Not that adding more years to my total seasoned my maturity much: I remember vowing at 30, with great gravity, to kill myself if I hadn't written a novel by 35. Well, 35 is more than 10 years gone, and I'm still every letter shy of beginning that novel's first sentence.

Some people's personalities and pursuits push them to take constant care of tasks, so they don't have a great deal of time to reflect on what they've done with their time. Since I'm a freelance writer, I spend a lot of time alone. I can't help but let my crockpot of consideration bubble, and it seems to brim over regularly with regret. For instance, I deeply regret never having said goodbye to Joyce, my first true love, who disappeared in Columbia on a photographic expedition 20 years ago. That was long past when we were even together, but it's easy to evoke in memory what a sweet soul she was. However, as Katherine Mansfield said, "Regret is an appalling waste of energy; you can't build on it, it's only good for wallowing in."

Joyce didn't get a chance to see 30, never had a chance to sift the sands of her time, never had the chance to consider whether she'd done well or poorly, if it's even possible to know. Maybe the esteemed feelings of your friends and lovers can substitute for your cut-off chances to ponder your legacy. Of course, thinking of other people's untimely ends sometimes can make you assess your own course, perhaps try and do better, under whatever codes of betterment you operate. It's always a work in progress.

But in trying to "do better," I can't help but think of another Fitzgerald quote, "The natural state of the sentient adult is a qualified unhappiness. I also think that in an adult the desire to be finer in grain than you are, 'a constant striving' (as those people say who gain their bread by saying it) only adds to this unhappiness in the end--that end that comes to our youth and hope." But looking at life through the bottom of a glass does distort it a bit.

F. Scott probably needed to look more often at things through that wonderfully distorting drug of the ego: when I was 15, I thought I was unimpeachably cool because I smoked blueberry Tiparillos and tippled a little port wine stolen from my parents' cupboards. You don't realize until later what a fine comedy act most of your doings have been.

A life lived is a whole lot to reflect on. At 46, it's clear to me that I must look like a comical old fool to twenty-somethings on the dance floor. We can't all be Picassos in what we do, but we can use him for an example of inhaling life deep into the lungs--and to keep breathing. That old dancer, he might be a kook, but I can see that he's had a life. Its seems that for him, it's not time to tally it up yet--there's more dancing to do.