My daughter made the many mile drive to our farm to be with me on Father’s Day, and I rewarded her by at one point talking about how I’m getting older. As is proper, she refused to have the conversation, which deepens my respect and admiration of her. Eventually we will have the conversation, hopefully quite a few times, and we’ll join hands as older parents and older children can do, each of us having made it to a certain ripeness that can come from hanging around long enough, each of us no longer undone by the gentler knowledge that our time together has a certain shine and depth that comes from knowing that those times won’t, can’t, shouldn’t stretch unconditionally and endlessly into a future we once thought ourselves and each other entitled to. They won’t last, in other words.
Things like Father’s Days, birthdays and anniversaries click by with relentless precision, and many of us seem bent on counting them, the ones left and the ones that have come, and this faith we seem to have in being able to calibrate our days I don’t think is particularly admirable, nor does it mean that we are finally ‘getting it’, nor is it a natural thing. It comes more and more from digital clocks, rolling tachometers, hand-held tyrannies and the utterly reliable admen and hucksters of nostalgia who plan our Big Days six months in advance by guaranteeing that a Big Sale accompanies them. There is a card for everything.
The real dilemma with time is the vague theology, the vague notion of Something Bigger Somewhere Else, that this culture clings to. Somewhere along the line each of us ‘learns’ that the past is gone, the best of it maybe perched at the right hand of the Divine. And that leaves the future as everything that hasn’t happened yet, and the present all there is. It is a savage, graceless thing that the elders among us are now obliged to see their lives as mostly ‘gone’, and that the rest of us are obliged to keep jogging, keep eating power bars and topping up our RSP’s so as not to be as ‘gone’ as our parents or grandparents or dead spouses are. This is the poverty that my culture has come to now: we don’t have to die to be gone anymore. We, with all the perishables in the grocery store, have a ‘best before’ date too. We have a peak of freshness. Aging gets us gone, well before most of us thought it would, and almost no one – certainly no one undespairing – wants to get there. I myself refuse all of this.
Leonard Cohen, though he doesn’t likely know it, is the patron saint of my Orphan Wisdom School, and its bard, certainly because of his many human skills, but mostly because, against the odds I guess, he is still with us, still testifying, having more and more faithfully begun to sing the songs of real age. He hasn’t sworn off the desires for which he is rightly well known. Instead he has with considerable labour allowed his age to render the younger desires into a more full bodied kind of longing. You could say that his example is one in which longing has earned its keep. He seems now to be longing for Life, not for more days to be added to his life. His wish seems to be for life to continue, whether his continues or not. This is wisdom, friends, and Mr. Cohen, bless him, isn’t keeping it to himself. His is a faithful witness, an undiminished witnessing to all in our time that would diminish us. I love the man deeply for it all, and would gladly carry his bags if ever given the chance. He is, I would say, more present among us, less gone, than he has ever been, a great gift and a national living treasure. He offers up another way of age, where nothing is shrugged off, abandoned or lost, where time deepens instead of passes.
I write this to you sitting on the shoulder of the summer solstice, another day for many, a time of gardening consequence for some, known far and wide as the longest day of the year. It isn’t the year’s longest day, of course. If you’re measuring, every day has the same number of hours in it. No, it’s the oldest day of the year, the one that carries the most, remembers the most, where the whole of the year is most present and generous. I sat for a few minutes yesterday in one of our fields planning for the new class of our school in August, thinking about the oldest day of the year, looking over the new sheep fencing we’d just strung across a pasture that probably hasn’t seen animals in forty years, to the lines of red pine seedlings we planted two months ago in hopes that we could bring this land that never should have been cleared to some kind of soil feeding health again. I won’t see those seedlings into trees, not likely, though my wife may. My kids, should Life grant them life, could. My grandchildren, should that come to pass, will. None of us, not then and not now, will be gone. I planted those pines with no despair, no futility, only a willingness to proceed as if life will continue. Which requires nothing to be gone. Such as it is, that is my longing.
All blessings on your Longing for Life on this Oldest of Days.