Old people often remember a moment or set of moments when they first realized they had grown old. They are struck by a sudden memory that a thing – getting out of the chair or dunking a basketball or carrying the water can – had once been easy and now is hard. Maybe a man is extending his deck and pouring a footing. As he carries a sack of concrete out to the back yard, he remembers vaguely that when he was young he carried them two or three at a time. Maybe it’s a lost memory, a lost skill, a conversation with a young person who doesn’t remember the world as it was.
At 59, I am not old enough yet to have that sort of consciousness of growing old. I do feel myself growing older. The deadlift weight I used to warm up with is 50% heavier than my final work set these days. But that’s as much a matter of laziness as it is age. I suspect that one day, perhaps not so long from now, I will experience that crystalizing moment when I realize that I am getting older or, perhaps, have grown old.
For now, what I really remember is that crystalizing moment when I first realized that I had grown young. I am not sure of the exact date, but the moment – where I was, what I was doing, the feel of the warm, humid air on my skin – is still a strong memory.
Being the youngest of four, I always felt young growing up. I always had a vague feeling that I would be grown up when I got to be as old as my brother, who is seven years older than me. Of course, he kept getting older at the same rate as I did, so the goalposts kept moving. But while I had a consciousness of being a child, not yet mature, not yet fully baked, I did not have a consciousness of the vigor of youth, of being young and strong.
When I was 18, I fell into a deep depression that would worsen over the next few years. I dropped all my classes once during college, because as soon as I sat still long enough to read, I started running through how I would kill myself. I almost dropped out again a couple years later, but the woman at the registrar begged me to wait a week to file the paperwork and in the intervening week managed to pull myself together. While I was actually still quite fit, I sometimes found just getting out of a chair to cross the room took all the energy and motivation I had. “What’s the point?” I would think as I was halfway across the room. While I could still race uphill with a heavy pack if I was in the mood, I also sometimes felt that I wouldn’t make it the half mile home from the library carrying my book bag.
I hit a few more low points before I finally started to come out of it. I remember one pivotal conversation with my father when I told him that nothing that earned money interested me and that I was depressed all the time. My father had grown up poor and become a hard-charging football coach, fighter pilot, wing commander, athletic director whose favorite phrase was, “You gotta be tough.” I had not, therefore, expected much sympathy.
Instead of telling me “You gotta be tough,” he paused and said, “I’m sorry to hear that. That sounds really hard. I’ve always been able to fall back on my faith in the Lord, but I know you don’t have that. I think you should see a professional.” Then he added, “Maybe you should move back in with us. You won’t have any expenses. Try to think of one thing you wish you had had time for in college, but didn’t study, and sign up for a course. Don’t think about career or future or money, just find one thing that interests you. And keep trying new things. If you try something and don’t like it, quit and move on. Eventually you will either find something you like or you’ll be eligible for Social Security. Either way, problem solved.”
Those last two sentences still crack me up.
I did go to a professional who was of almost no help whatsoever, but my father’s plan helped a lot. I took a history course (two actually). Then I took three more. Then I applied to grad school. Then I got a PhD and spent 24 years as a full-time historian or student of history. I published half a dozen books and taught my last graduate workshop in sixteenth-century French paleography in 2021, 35 years after that conversation with my father. It’s fair to say that I never felt as bad after that conversation as I did for most of the five years before that conversation.
A couple years into grad school, things were going well. I had a great girlfriend and we were still in love, though it ultimately did not last. I was climbing a lot and going to the gym a lot. I felt strong. My mind felt sharp. I turned out to be talented in the skills needed to read old French manuscripts and was pretty good at the other aspects of being a historian. I passed my exams, I won a Fulbright and a Chateaubriand, I had the respect of my peers. Most days, I felt happy.
One afternoon, I was riding my bike from my apartment on East Gorham Street to campus in Madison. I was 27. It was late afternoon. I had passed the Capitol and was gliding slowly down State Street. The edge had been taken off the day, but it was still hot and very humid. I had my shirt off to keep it from getting drenched in sweat. I could feel the warm, humid wind on my skin. My muscles felt taut from the workout earlier in the day or possibly the day before. I felt calm and peaceful and in control.
And then, suddenly, for the first time in my life, I felt young and strong.
A Bob Dylan line popped into my head: “Ah but I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.” I had always thought it just a bit of absurdist doggerel, but now I understood. In our bones, in our hearts, in our heads we do not get linearly older. Sometimes it’s as if time runs the other way.
I had finally grown young.
When I think back on those years from 18 to 23, I often think of the Bob Dylan line. Even now at 59, though I am four decades older, I have never since felt that weariness. I have never felt so old and tired as at 23. Ah but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.