When you’re young, you take for granted that life is conjectural and its possibilities unlimited. Once you reach middle age, you know better. Each time I look up from the screen of the laptop on my desk, I look at a framed photograph of my parents, thinking for the umpteenth time that I’ll never see either one of them again. For them, the book of life is closed.
For me, on the other hand, the book is still open, and apparently remains full of surprises. Here’s something that I wrote on my fiftieth birthday:
Like many people, my life has been a series of goals, a things-to-do list, and at fifty I now find myself in the position, at once pleasing and disconcerting, of having accomplished most of them. As for the things I haven’t yet done, nearly all of them are things I’m no longer likely to do, assuming I ever was: I doubt, for instance, that I’ll learn a second language or write a novel or become a father. I could spend the rest of my life running in place, and I suppose that would be perfectly fine. Except that I know it wouldn’t. The time will come, if it hasn’t already, when I’ll want to try my hand at something new–and I haven’t the slightest idea what it might be.
Now I know: I wrote a play and two opera libretti, all of which have since been professionally produced. In 2006 I had no idea that a part-time career as a dramatist lay dead ahead of me. It wasn’t something I’d ever imagined, much less sought, and no day passes on which I fail to be amazed by the fact that it happened. Presumably I’ll get used to this strange new reality sooner or later, but not yet.
Being a writer, I feel instinctively that I ought to have something staggeringly pithy and wise to say about all this. Alas, I have nothing to offer but the usual fill-in-the-blank clichés, which are no more interesting for being true. You are, of course, at liberty to feel hopeful or inspired by my experience, but the older I get, the less sure I am that anybody’s experience, least of all mine, is relevant to the rest of the world, or that life itself has some intelligible “meaning” that is capable of being communicated to others.
H.L. Mencken, who was the blackest of skeptics, offered this dire perspective on the meaning of life in a 1920 essay:
(1) The cosmos is a gigantic fly-wheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute.
(2) Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it.
(3) Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him the ride.
I think that Mencken, as he so often did, was coming it more than a little bit high. Justice Holmes, on the other hand, said something similar but truer around the same time in a letter to an old friend: “I was repining at the thought of my slow progress–how few new ideas I had or picked up–when it occurred to me to think of the total of life and how the greater part was wholly absorbed in living and continuing life–victuals–procreation–rest and eternal terror. And I bid myself accept the common lot; an adequate vitality would say daily, ‘God, what a good sleep I’ve had,’ ‘My eye, that was dinner,’ ‘Now for a fine rattling walk’–in short, life as an end in itself.” Those are wise words.
I became friends this past summer with a pair of installation artists, both of whom freely accept and embrace the ephemerality of their creations. I admire them for it, since this is something I find all but impossible to do. Most people who write books, after all, do so in the (usually) foolish hope that their work will outlast them. I regret to say that I’m no different, though at least I’m realistic about my prospects for posthumous survival, which I take to be nugatory.
So why do I write, other than for money? The answer is surprisingly simple: I do it because making art is one of the best ways that I know to make the present moment an end in itself. “Why are you stingy with yourselves?” George Balanchine used to ask his dancers. “Why are you holding back? What are you saving for–for another time? There are no other times. There is only now. Right now.”
I thought of those words on Saturday as I watched Satchmo at the Waldorf at Philadelphia’s Wilma Theater. John Douglas Thompson had the opening-night crowd in the palm of his hand, and the applause at show’s end was tumultuous. All of us–myself very much included–were completely present in the moment. Nothing else mattered, or even existed.
It happens that I included Mr. B’s words, as well as the preceding quotation by Justice Holmes, in a 2005 posting on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the day that I moved to New York City. Here’s what I said at the end of those fugitive reflections, which are not unlike these fugitive reflections: “Like the cops say, Rule No. 1 is to go home alive at the end of your shift. Every day is a victory over the abyss.”
It is, I gather, a privilege of middle age to repeat oneself, and I hope it’s not an abuse of the privilege to do so at a seven-year interval. So for those of you just joining us, allow me to sum up what I think the creation of Satchmo at the Waldorf, The Letter, and Danse Russe has taught me, which is that surprising things can happen to a person who marches into the nearest crossroads, takes a deep breath, and moves decisively in one direction or another. It may not even matter which path you choose. The only mistake you can make is to stand still. Yes, the possibilities of life are strictly and cruelly limited, but to move forward, to grasp the larger hope, is to defeat the abyss, if only for another day. There is only now.
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Robert Johnson sings “Cross Road Blues”: