One should always have a definite objective, in a walk as in life-it is so much more satisfying to reach a target by personal effort than to wander aimlessly. An objective is an ambition, and life without ambition is…well, aimless wandering (Wainwright iv).
As friends begin to learn of our trip, many are skeptical as to why we would want to take this sort of vacation, particularly because many trentaginarian celebrations usually involve an all inclusive resort in the Southern Hemisphere. This trip has, from the start, been a way to sort out the more unsettling things about aging. I am continually drawn to Keats’ When I have fears That I May Cease to Be . Keats writes about aging as a Victorian, someone whose life expectancy was around 35 years (and in Keats’ particular case, far shorter), a time when folks quite literally had to accomplish his or her life’s goals by age 30 or else those dreams may “cease to be.” As 21st Century Americans we are blessed with a life span quite longer and yet, with all of that extra time comes tremendous confusion and trepidation about how to proceed. The landscape of our lives is distinctly less planned than that of our parents and grandparents. Perhaps this is how each generation feels, unique to its own discontents and misfortunes. Still, there is a very real feeling that the time has come to make one’s mark, whatever that may be and the uneasiness of indecision, the aimless wandering of our twenties pushes us to make a decision to exist with purpose or to continue to wander (I’ll reflect more specifically on my own wanderings in a later post).
Octogenarian Donald Hall, former Poet Laureate, recently reflected in The New Yorker that “After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other-thirty was terrifying.” He goes on a brief embittered rant about forty, then exalts the glory of the latter years, which he, unlike Keats, had the privilege to enjoy. Even for the prolific Donald Hall, thirty was terrifying. For those of us far less prolific, it is difficult to grapple with the delicate balance of who and what we will become as we determine which goal to hold steadfast as we enter our thirties. As Laura Kipnis notes in Against Love, that as Americans we work longer hours than the rest of the Western World, for far little economic and social benefit. We’re exhausted. Kipnis writes before the collapse of ’08 and all of the unravelling that occurred in our lives. If our occupations in and of themselves are not to direct the purpose of our life, then what kind of work should consume us (in addition to or instead of) the professions we have chosen?
When I received the news that a former classmate was dying of Cancer, and could no longer work, I felt hollow. Cheated of the dreams that she would never accomplish, I turned back to Keats. Keats died a horrid death of pneumonia, which he caught over the course of a long distance walk, without his jacket, in the English countryside. Although we have the privilege of investing in the appropriate hiking gear for our walk, I am acutely aware that even in our era of more modern medical advancements, we are not invincible. Perhaps this friend, like Keats, will be memorialized for posthumously published great works, but what comfort does posthumousness bring to the last moments of the living?
A poetry professor once said that in our art we should try to not be Keats, but rather to be like the poet Ruth Stone, who at the time was in her mid-nineties, on the cusp of becoming the National Book Award winner and poised to enter the cannon after a long life, well lived. Of course, we are never given these choices of one life path to walk over the other; greater powers lead us to those ultimate ends. But now is the time to start walking, to head in the direction of a more certain ambition, even if our paths face an unexpected demise.
Toward the end of her writing life, Stone, like Hall, describes age as a galaxy, a distant entity bright and unanticipated. In the Next Galaxy, Stone writes of a world where “certain planets will have true/blue skies and drinking water.” Those certain planets will be beyond us and the life that we have created here on earth. At eighty or ninety we will be pulled toward those unanticipated galaxies, but at thirty we may not. It becomes the responsibility of the trentaginarian to forge a path toward restoring the blue skies and drinking water of this planet, to write the words that will make the changes we want to see before we too, cease to be.