When the end of my thirties loomed my mother play-glared at me on the eve of my birthday and half declared and half prayed as follows: “I don’t have a forty year old son!” She did, though. And the current odometer would gall her still: she has a son who’s all but seventy.

Someone sent me a kind of psychic get well card a while ago. The text inside included the following bit of intolerance: “You don’t stop playing because you get old. You get old because you stop playing.” Honey, listen. It’s more like this: you’ll get old, or you won’t. If you don’t, it’s because you died before the second act came around. Simple. ‘Old’ isn’t ‘just a number’. ‘Old’ is real, the way birth is real. Count on that. ‘Old’ isn’t a failure of the will. It is – if you are standing in life’s way – what stymies and softens and sends your will out for donuts, so you can take up the work of elderhood.

There are at least as many memories of you as there are memories that you have. Probably more. They’re out there, coursing along with no recourse to the official record of you-dom that you resort to to contend with life.

Last night at the post-gig book signing line, a man strode up to the table, shirt/tie/jacket, clearly on a mission of some import. I complimented his dressing for the occasion. “Oh, this old silk thing’, he pshawed. Onto his tie was paperclipped an address, as if he was seeking to be returned to his sender. As many of us will do when a certain time comes. The street name was uncommon enough that I recognized it as coming from the neighbourhood of my high school. “Who am I?”, he asked.

I have a memory more than a half-century old. I’d had a kind of wretched tangle with my mother. She was close to the end of her single motherhood, and I was taken up with the inelegant self absorption of adolescence, and the two didn’t mix well. The unthinkable happened: she told me to leave. I left. I wandered the mean streets of my suburb.

A friend I knew from school approached his parents. They took me in. I entered the strange universe of how another family does its business. They were kind strange. I had a basement room, collected $101/month in student welfare, stayed in school, thanks to them. And that friend was standing in front of me now. He reminded me that his father and I used to discuss Bertram Russell and things philosophical, that he was, wonder of wonders, glad to have me there. I may have siphoned some of the heat from his dealings with his dad, so he was glad, too. He related all kinds of high school reunion stuff, remarkably adroit memories, a few of which included me. He’d carried around bits of me all those years, and wanted me to know. “We’re still alive”, he said, without bravado or vainglory. Without grim humour. He said it like it mattered that we were both upright, and seeming to be firing on most of the original cylinders. His parents had long since fallen away. Now we two carried this bit of their old kindness.

You’ll take up a basement room in the mansion of other people’s’ memories, and there the meaning of your days here in the brief but intense sojourn granted you will be held in escrow, awaiting the time of dispersal and deepening, when you are finally unable to add anything further. You are making memories as you go. Most of them will not be in your keeping. That’s village-making. That’s how you matter.


Stephen Jenkinson

Founder of Orphan Wisdom