Barb wire fence choking a sapling at the edge of the royal gardens in Takao City, Japan.
It seems that a lot of people around me these days are talking about getting old or getting older. I’m quite sure that this is not a new phenomenon, so it must be that I am just more aware of it than I used to be. Certainly when I glance in the mirror every morning the white hair seems to have proliferated like wild grass in the lawn; I turn my head for a moment and when I look back the shadow seems to have transformed into a ghost of itself. I keep wondering, “Why white?”. Surely it would make more of a fashion statement if our hair aged the way leaves do: turning bright red or yellow with the coming of autumn. Just imagine all that fiery passion in the afternoon of life, and so dazzling in the evening sunlight!
Every morning I continue to shave. In fact, now I have hair growing along the rims and sprouting within my ears, gathering-rosebuds-while-ye-may within my nostrils, and, with overtures to lycanthropy, the fur hath anointed me backsides, yes indeedy. My elders have long indicated this path of degradation with the coming of age, but I never suspected it would mean bushwhacking through ever wilder forests of hair. And that seems to be just it: the opposite of youth is hair!
A friend of mine lamented to me not long ago that until she had turned 41 last year she had never fretted about getting older. She had even derided me for my preoccupation with the future and what it held for me, saying that Japanese weathered age better than foreigners because they accepted it. I wasn’t sure if that was entirely correct, seeing as so many Japanese constantly bring up their age at social gatherings… young women are often called “getting old” when they turn 23… but I thought maybe my friend had a point. Then she turned 41 and she said, “This is the first time I feel I am tipping over toward the other side.”
The dreaded Other Side. I guess most people, like me, cannonball their way from the womb toward the zenith of biological flight, before suddenly feeling that jump in their gut telling them that the elevator is going down. What makes it so holy-moly shocking is that the 40 years suddenly seems like no time at all… we were just getting started!… and all we have left is perhaps another forty. A puny, if you’re lucky, eighty years. Just enough time to awaken to the grand visage of the world, wonder at it, get hurt by it, discover that you can mumble at it and get some responses, find another like you who desires to spend some of that time with you, learn how to manipulate objects within that world so as to gather more objects from that world, perhaps glimpse for moment welcoming yet another like you into this world, look back and wonder what all the awakening was about, run down, and disappear.
And you think, “That’s it? All that anguish and confusion and taxing my resources, for this?” You see all the other creatures in the world following the same endless entering and exiting, doing it in the literal billions, teeming the world with their presences, and then literally dropping away like flies. Fighting for scraps of meat. It just doesn’t make sense. Why would individual lives struggle to preserve themselves at all, if, in the end, they are going to die anyway? Why not start with a single, undying life form and stay that way for all eternity?
Perhaps birth and death have something to do with versatility. As my white hairs remind me every day, this is a dynamic household. Things change all the time. Perhaps in its very essence the world is a nation of subatomic belly dancers. To hold shape and create meaning from the choreography of particle square dancing… “round-and round-and-doeceedoe!”… the communities and associations and companies and non-governmental organizations that result from cell citizenship need constant readjustment to make up for the ravages of change. If you can give birth and then die away to make room for the renewed leaves that follow, the scintillating, vibrating, eye-opening amoeba of life on Earth can weather the meteors and sun flares and oxygen attacks and cataclysmic earthquakes and floods and volcanic eruptions and wildfires.
Diversity means resilience with spare parts.
Perhaps then I should thank my lucky stars. As creatures go, 80 years is an eternity. And my white hair? Why albedo, of course. No, not albino! Albedo! I’ve got to do my part in reflecting all that ultraviolet light back out through the ozone layer. Just think, if we were all to join heads after reaching our forties and beyond, what a perfectly reflective surface we would represent! And you thought that the old fogies played no part in the balance of the universe!