I miss the simplicity of my youth. That’s not to say I don’t also revel in the unprecedentedly huge menu of possibilities that are available to me in middle age. But when other people make many of your choices for you, it leaves you with more time to think about the choices that you have to make—as well as folding into your life the delicious element of surprise that arises from placing yourself in someone else’s trusted hands.
I miss going on vacations that my father planned. I miss wondering what my mother will cook for dinner. I miss wandering through the smallish public library of the tiny town where I grew up, hoping against hope to find something new and exciting on the shelves. I miss waiting impatiently to hear a good song on the radio for the second time. I even miss living in a place that had no cable TV and only one movie theater with two screens.
All of which, I suppose, is on some level merely to say that I miss being a child. Part of that feeling doubtless has to do with the fact that I’m intensely and increasingly conscious, like most middle-aged people, of the fact that life is short. Nor would I be surprised if it had something to do with the extent to which I miss my parents, whom I loved very much.
At the same time, postmodern life is far more complicated than the world into which I was born, and there is no escaping its daily burden of ceaseless choice, any more than it’s possible for a responsible person to shrug off the demands of adulthood. To be sure, history didn’t demand that I bear arms for my country, and I decided willy-nilly not to be a father, but otherwise I’ve partaken fully of every part of the common dilemma, from paying the rent each month to shaving my face each morning.
Writing that last sentence has reminded me of a favorite quotation. It’s something that V.S. Pritchett said about the novels of Sir Walter Scott:
Yet, if we except this serious criticism for the moment, and measure Scott in the light of the full noon of life, we see that he belongs to that very small group of our novelists—Fielding and Jane Austen are the chief of them—who face life squarely. They are grown up. They do not cry for the moon. I do not mean that to be grown up is the first requirement of genius. To be grown up may be fatal to it. But short of the great illuminating madness, there is a power to sustain, assure and enlarge us in those novelists who are not driven back by life, who are not shattered by the discovery that it is a thing bounded by unsought limits, by interests as well as by hopes, and that it ripens under restriction. Such writers accept. They think that acceptance is the duty of a man.
He wrote those words during World War II, at a time when the common dilemma for him and his fellow Englishmen was vastly more painful and laborious than anything I’ve ever had to shoulder. Perhaps for that reason, I find that they sustain me now, just as Scott’s realism sustained Pritchett.
At the same time, though, I won’t deny that whenever Mrs. T asks me what I want for dinner, I’m more than likely to reply, “Whatever you feel like cooking, darling. Surprise me.” Sometimes—perhaps more often than is good for us—it’s the purest of pleasures to let somebody else make up your mind.
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Neil Young sings “I Am a Child” in 1978: