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QUINTESSENCE

Light They Burn

“What the old lovers have had time to learn,
That the soul is a lithe and serene athlete
That deepens touch upon darkening air.
It is not energy but light they burn,
The radiant powers of the Paraclete.”
- “Old Lovers at the Ballet,” May Sarton, Halfway to Silence, 1980

Perhaps it is my recent birthday, but bear with me as I continue with more thoughts from midlife...

I have been musing on the odd dissonance between the aging of the body and the freshening of the soul. It seems that as wisdom deepens and the long view sharpens in contrast our bodies begin to wobble, falter, losing the strength we have taken for granted. Young, we ran wild on thin legs through fairy forests, our imaginations unfettered, our knowledge framed by the delights or sorrows of the day. Older now, we walk those forests aware of all we once did not see, carry in our hearts the things we now know.

The cliche is that youth is wasted on the young; reflecting a truism that if we were but armed with old age’s self-knowledge along with the physical stamina and courage of youth, we should finally conquer those peaks unchallenged. What I have noticed is something has "settled" which feels more subtle than an either/or (young or old) duality to me. In middle age, I feel confident of an inner prowress, a deep knowledge of my body and being that still reflects a much younger "me." I take inventory: These are my running legs; the lanky arms that haul book crates up the stairs; the length of elbow, knee and calf that curled in sleep through a Sunday rainstorm. But there is also a keen new awareness of the importance of the moment: I am not thirty, however thirty I may feel. The accumulation of time is fully evident in the detritus of living - the mementos of travel, collected photographs, overstuffed business files, books on the shelf, tickets to theater, the bright fat folder of kids' art - time that in my youth I often squandered. Moments tossed, half-tasted in the rush to better, future things. In mid life I still value what I wanted when I was young, but I appreciate why so much more. What the "having" means and consists of, what this brings to the enjoyment of life.

May Sarton’s poem begins with two aging lovers at the ballet, aching at the mirrored contrast, the reflected ridicule in the youthful dancers' performance of physical and lissome movements they feel but can no longer accomplish. And then, through immersion in the beauty of the dance, the old couple realize that it is not the body but the self that is forever in movement. That they are not limited by age, but only their imaginations. “It is not energy but light they burn….”
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