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QUINTESSENCE

Legacy

Ancient Greek Temple, Sicily
MIDDLE AGE
by Robert Lowell

Now the midwinter grind
is on me, New York
drills through my nerves,
as I walk
the chewed-up streets.

At forty-five,
what next, what next?
At every corner,
I meet my Father,
my age, still alive.

Father, forgive me
my injuries,
as I forgive
those I
have injured!

You never climbed
Mount Sion, yet left
dinosaur
death-steps on the crust,
where I must walk.


My birthday was a few days past. This poem came to mind because as Lowell writes, there is that thing that happens when we are grown and we arrive at the age of someone important in our lives. Particularly at times of significance in their lives and in our memories of them. I remember turning 23, thinking "This is the age my parents had me and they became a family." Here am I, just out of grad school, wrangling debt and a bicoastal relocation, and barely mature enough to buy a new car, let alone be responsible for a small human. And then at forty-five, the age my father died, thinking, "But I've only begun to live honestly, to figure it all out." What tragedy, I thought, to exit life before reaching completeness. Whole. Defined somehow. And now I've reached another milestone, the age at which someone close to me was diagnosed with cancer and in that year lost that battle.

Would I be ready to face mortality? Right now? To understand life might end, here and now, as complete or incomplete as it may be? Would I be ready to look at all that I love and those I love...and yield? It's a strange and unsettling emotion, living on; walking in the footsteps of time past the last step of someone loved. Lowell writes, "dinosaur death-steps." The hulking enormity of legacy.

I imagine it's not a bad thing to realize we can't take time for granted. Nor is it a terrible thing to assess where we stand in that rainbow reach of dreams and ambitions. Certain things fall away, other things fall in. In truth, it is more important to me now to seek deep certainty about the world. To grasp this thing - life - and the precious people I share living with. I feel responsible, more so now than ever, for the ones I have brought into this world, and the ones I have buried. Did I get it right? Learn what I needed to learn to make the most of this gift?

It is critical now to excise the redundant, the superficial, the waste, the stupidity, the shallow, the ignorance. Yes, it is possible to live life at the level of a so-called reality television show. Lights, camera, drama. But after this scene, or the next, after the entertainment value is extracted, does the beating heart have anything to add to the wisdom carried forward into the next day? The day after that? Each year I am more fully sure that life - whether we live months or decades or a century - stands as witness to the present. Everything about life is in today. This day. Everything that will fulfill us, sustain us, define us - exists in today. Alongside all that is meaningless space garbage adrift in that galaxy between our ears.

On this birthday, the footsteps I walk sing this to me:
Live, live, live, live, live.

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