Homer Alaska - Opinion

Story last updated at 9:47 PM on Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Marking milestone of 55; reflecting on past, future


Michael Armstrong

Six years ago while doing an artist's residency at Seaside, Fla., in January, one of my fellow resident artists turned 55. We had a big party, we rowdy crew of artists with the Escape to Create program. Another writer, Eric, designed a cake for Leslie, and we got a local baker to custom print his sketch. The sketch had a road sign that said "55."

All of 48 then, I remember thinking, "Wow, that's a milestone."

And here I am, 55 and two days old.

I got through 50 just fine, thanks to a getaway to Scotland. If you want to avoid surprise parties from friends with lots of black balloons, run away overseas. My sister tracked me down through our hosts at a B & B in Newton Stewart, but other than that, it was a quiet celebration with my wife Jenny and a nice thick Galloway steak at the Robert the Bruce Hotel.

Turning 40 worked out OK. Three of us born in 1956 who had birthdays in the spring had a party together. Turning 30 — now 30 was a blast. Twenty-five years ago I finished my first novel, got my master of fine arts in writing and sold that novel. I also had been in love for two years with the woman I had figured out by then would be The One (she was and is).

Fifty five, though, just feels weird. When my dad turned 55, he'd seen all his kids leave home. Three years later Dad died at 58, far too young for someone to pass away. When my mom turned 55, three of her children were married and she had three grandchildren. Mom, bless her heart, is still with us. I know it has to be a bit of a shock for her little boy and youngest child to be 55.

At 55 I can go on elder hostel trips. At 55 I can join Homer Senior Citizens. I've already joined AARP.

The thing is, I don't feel 55. Oh, I feel the years but not the miles. I don't feel old, but that's because I haven't figured out what "old" means. Our culture keeps shifting the bar. "Fifty is the new 30," they say. Maybe it's a Baby Boomer thing, denial of aging, so when we're 90 we'll say, "90 is the new 60."

True, I have all sorts of aches and creaks in my body. My hair isn't as thick. (On the other hand, I'm less bald than many of my peers.) My beard has turned quite gray. I forget things. I have interesting wrinkles. I sometimes have trouble falling asleep and then I wake up at odd hours of the night.

Recently I dug up an old novel, "Bridge Over Hell," that I wrote in 1988, became orphaned by a shady publisher, and a small press now wants to publish. In converting the manuscript from an archaic word processing file to Word, I've been re-reading it for the first time in 23 years. While I think I have learned a lot more about writing, in that old novel I hear the same voice of my present writing. In that respect, there's an essence to my character that feels ageless.

I don't see my life as "young" and "old." I don't see a clear demarcation in my life where I had been young and now I'm something else. I see all the years I've lived as one long assemblage of memory and experience, like rolling a snowball down a hill that gets bigger and bigger. I haven't left the years behind but have added to the years.

Some people wear age like an honor. Some people wear age like a burden. Some people don't wear age at all. I meet elders with full heads of white hair, bodies that have fallen apart and I don't think of them as old. I don't see age in them. I don't see them as a species apart, but as scouts probing time ahead. It's not that they're full of life, because for some of them life clearly hangs on by clever modern medicine. It's more that they exist as human beings for whom age is a fact and not a defining characteristic.

As I slouched toward this milestone, I questioned what I haven't done in my life. I didn't expect to be working at a job I love but that pays me what I made (adjusting for inflation) at 26. At 30 I had hoped at 55 to have a distinguished career in writing — you know, writing a novel a year and making the New York Times best seller list.

Then something happened. I realized I shouldn't look at what I haven't done so much as what I have done. If you've lived your life well, the years will fill up with amazing wonders, new experiences, new visions and new things you've learned. And I've done that. I am writing a novel a year, but it's a novel worth of nonfiction written in weekly chapters called "The Story of My Town."

My years have been filled with amazing wonders, new experiences, new visions, new things I've learned, and most important, new people I have met. I forgot that part, and it's the most essential.

Our lives should be like sharks. A shark has to keep moving or it dies. We should keep moving, even if our bodies slow down to a snail's crawl. Our minds should keep moving, and that is the key. I am not young at heart. I am ageless in soul. I am all my years from a babbling infant experiencing daily new wonders to this odd middle-aged man still trying to puzzle it out.

I am 55. It's not so bad. I'll keep the pedal to the metal and keep forging ahead.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael. armstrong@homernews.com.