Another year is turning: Time is drawing attention to itself again, bragging about how fast it’s passing. Some days I let it swing by, grateful; but I ought to catch hold of its coat.
In a few months I’ll be forty-five. My teenaged daughter watched me getting dressed the other day and commented, pointedly: “You look like my teacher in that top. She’s one of those middle-aged ladies.” Middle-aged! “You mean she’s my age?” I enquired, drily. “No, younger than you,” she answered, guilelessly, accurately.
“Why do you like old things so much?” my son asked me once, which might have been a reference to one of my vintage shirts, or a favoured old plate, or a cracked but beloved pot, or possibly his father. I explained how beautiful it was to me, that old things carry so many stories with them: the beauty lies in the wear, the tear, the proof. I see that holding onto old things is just my way to love humanity; my way to see myself as a red stitch in the fabric of things.
This year I hung a work of art on my bedroom wall: a photograph of a naked woman. Her skin is wrinkled and sun-browned; there is a white watch strap mark on her wrist; her dark roots are showing at the scalp; we can see all the days gone by; and my goodness she’s beautiful. When I bought the photograph, I did so in an act of self-love, in many ways, and admiring her ageing body is just one of them.
I didn’t expect to embrace growing older so gratefully. When I was young, I thought my youth had incomparable value; also that I could enhance its value with hard work. I imagined too that I could invest my youth; and that I would receive something in exchange for it – mostly success and to some degree happiness. Like many young people, I was in a terrible hurry to make this investment, because I thought that my life was a currency with diminishing value, as though my power to succeed would dim over time, rather than grow, which when you think about it is the most absurd illogic.
When I was in my late twenties, and had been taking clients on as an agent for a few years, and selling projects, but not really making any money, I started to think success might not happen for me, and that perhaps I was investing my youth unwisely. Maybe I should try something else. I toyed with converting to law. Maybe I’d be a media lawyer. “Why would you want to do that?” my then boss Ed Victor asked me, appalled. “That’s like the job you have now, but with every single enjoyable aspect of it removed.” I analysed his remarks and found them to be true. But still I agitated. I wanted to get on, progress.
One day, I went to lunch with a senior publisher. She must have picked up on my impatience. I’m too embarrassed to try to remember how it revealed itself in my conversation: I’m sure I was insufferable. “Well, I was X’s assistant for twelve years,” she told me. (X having been arguably the most successful publisher of his generation.) I must have looked horrified. “But what’s your hurry?” she asked me, not too kindly now. “Are you planning another career after this one?” “No,” I answered, stupidly, my legal aspirations having been recently shelved. “How old are you?” “Twenty-nine,” I told her, inordinately depressed. “Well then, you have at least thirty-six years in which to become a successful agent,” she answered. “That should be just about long enough.”
This short conversation changed my perspective on things entirely. She was right: what on earth was my rush? I just needed to keep on keeping on. I was building something: it needed to have solid foundations. I am much less ignorant now than I was then, but I still expect her words to comfort me for at least another twenty years, and now they might comfort you too.
If our youth is the opportunity that mustn’t be wasted, then we are always young, because every day offers new opportunity. We are in a process of change, so our view changes, and our view of opportunity changes, as does our access to it, and our ambition for ourselves: we are always unfolding. “I still feel young,” most older people say, as long as their body isn’t creaking too loudly. Maybe what they are feeling – have always felt – isn’t youth at all, but anticipation of more, hope of success: the spark! It’s just we were stupid and full of pride, when we were young, and so we labelled this feeling Youth.
This spark, this hope, this building of things: is this what we call creativity? It will light us next year, just as it illuminated us last year. So many artists suffer from melancholy in all its shades, it is possible to forget that writing, like all creative acts, is essentially optimistic. This year if you write, it is because you hope to be read. However you express yourself, it will be because you feel instinctively that your expression has value. This hope, this expression, it sometimes burns hot in our youth, but it’s uncommon, actually, to master any kind of heat before middle age. This opportunity, this coming year, it is yours – ours! We are forever young, so let us flame on, gloriously.
N.B. The illustration is of a painting by Carmen Herrera, whose first major solo exhibition is on now at the Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC. She is 101 years old.