I could be handy, mending a fuse
When your lights are gone.
You can knit a sweater by the fireside,
Sunday mornings go for a ride.
Doing the garden, digging the weeds,
Who could ask for more?
Will you still need me, will you still feed me,
When I’m sixty-four?
As a fall birthday boy, I’m partial to the season. The transition from summer activities to winter’s repose wanders through the fallen leaves of remembrance and longing, fertile territory for a writer prone to introspection.
Lately, I see banded woolly bear caterpillars munching thimbleberry leaves. I listen to bees humming among the poppies, seeking the last remnants of pollen to prepare for winter. Overhead, hawks soar above the hay fields thinned from the summer’s final cutting.
It’s mid-October. I continue to harvest tomatoes. Their cages collapse under the weight of unripe fruit. A cool spring pushed back the growing season on the calendar. Fortunately, mild fall weather persists. The yield will continue until a frost puts the plants to rest.
I also acknowledge the autumnal stage of my life: on September 27th I turned 64.
At my age, birthday gifts are unnecessary, especially since I live with an incurable cancer. The sights and sounds of the season are sufficient reward. And, really, with such natural wonders outside my door, aren’t I the man with everything?
Yes, but this year, I received a surprise: a bundle of letters saved from forty years ago. Evidently, upon moving from San Francisco to the Sierra Mountains of California, I’d left some belongings with a friend. It was the beginning of the 70s, and as one thing led to another; those belongings went forgotten and unclaimed.
The letters, penned by numerous friends, were unexpectedly returned to me. In the year they were written, turmoil reigned. We were scattering like proverbial autumn leaves, dispersed by the fickle wind of our idealism. Any attempt to make sense of the changing sexual mores, experimental drugs, and the renaissance in music was complicated by the Vietnam War.
Vietnam, for young men at least, was the core experience of my generation. It either froze you in place or pushed you beyond conventional boundaries. Some of us did as we were told, some not so much. I have no interest in re-visiting the argument as to who was right or who was wrong. We made decisions leading to consequences that determined our futures. The dreams dashed by the war’s realities will pass away with my generation. And that’s just as well, for it looks like we need to make room for new debacles.
Nonetheless, the letters presented me with a poignant glimpse of my youth. They transported me back to the carefree days of my mid-twenties. At such a time, before the responsibilities of children and careers, the age of sixty-four appeared as distant as the moon, just a cute Beatle’s song. And yet, here I am.
My friends passionately conveyed the uncertainty of those years. The letters were handwritten or typed and corrected with white out. Word processors had not been invented. Nowadays, email, Facebook, and Twitter have replaced personal letters. The confidential communiqué vanished along with our privacy. These days we target audiences, instead of individuals. We mute our emotions in deference to political correctness. Perhaps in our quest for a connection with others we’ve sacrificed quality for speed and quantity?
As gifts go, the letters hold remarkable power. They surprised me; they entertained me; they made me feel. At this latest birthday, in the midst of the autumn of my life, I experienced spring again, if only briefly. Even though the letters were re-runs, I appreciated receiving words intended for me alone, words full of the intimacy of anguish and hope, words that distinguish our humanity.
We are, after all, such funny animals. We pretend, even convince ourselves, that we have the answers. I’m still searching for reasons as to why things are the way they are. Observing plants and other wildlife seems to me to be as good a place as any to look. And, probably because I am a September baby, the fall is my favorite time for looking. As I age, however, finding what I’m looking for seems less and less important. And maybe, just maybe, that’s the answer I’ve been seeking all these years.