Rick Moody, Life Coach: The Record of Your Experiences*
Dear Rick Moody, Life Coach,
When I turned fifty (last summer) it was harder than I expected. For the first time in life I felt like giving up, giving up on being good at what I do, at making new friends, attracting love. A year has softened the panic a bit, but I still feel this underlying “embarrassment” at having arrived here—as if it was a preventable f*ck-up. At the same time, I feel ashamed that I am embarrassed about this. We’ve all known and admired lots of people in their fifties who are self-assured, energetic, powerful, calm … But here am I trying to keep people from knowing how old I am like a middle-school girl stuffing a bra. What do you do with surprise, shock, embarrassment, and shame about something that cannot be changed? How can I shake these feelings let alone celebrate this decade? Suggestions?
September 9, 2021
Dear Xan Palay,
I feel I want to call you my friend, even if it muddies the professional waters here a bit. I have not seen you in many years, but I remember a meal or two and some conversation here and there when we were at an artist’s colony, long ago. Maybe almost twenty years ago. Those are good memories, of a time when it was easy to go to artist’s colonies, which times are rose-tinted, joyous, in the reconsideration from this more mitigated and complicated pandemic present. These memories are also a sign of time passing, which is the theme of this letter.
I write to you, Xan, from the very end of my fifties. I am, it turns out, about to turn sixty, in just a few weeks, and so I am in a perfect position to tell you about your fifties, even though that is not really what I mean to say. I don’t think the human decades behave neatly, in the little compartments that social scientists or magazine columnists might want to argue. Everyone has his or her or their own time, and these times map onto the awe-inspiring arrow of events, true, but not in the way that we are sometimes told, in orderly bundles. All this linearity, but, in our hearts, the roiling of the seas.
Anway, Xan, you of the incredible name, with its most excellent x that seems to say most of what needs to be said (the crossing of things, the incline and the decline, the complexity of x), first I want to say how human is the ache that you feel about growing older, and how unmistakable it is as a lesson for all the humans. No asshole with a fast car and a loud radio who does not wake up one day with congestive heart failure, or who does not need a knee replacement, or whose adult kids don’t like him. No majestic pine that does not topple over, sometimes in the mildest breeze. No child who does not grow into a teenager, no cliff that does not sheer off and fall into the bay, no sun that does not set, no symphony that does not conclude, no beauty who does not contend with the simple humility of aging. It happens to us all, and no one escapes the lesson. (I see it all the time, by the way, with men of my acquaintance, the sense of mitigated relevance, of privilege coming into a sort of a depreciation, prostate complaints, professional decline, male pattern baldness, and so on. Oh, the protests that result!)
What do with it all?
I remember in the late nineties, I pondered getting my eyes fixed with laser surgery. My father gave me a stern talking to. It was kind of expensive, in those days, laser surgery, and it was elective, but it was my money, and I really hated my glasses. My father thought it was a shallow way of spending a lot of money and he said: “Your face is the record of all that you have been through, all your experiences.” You would have to know my dad to know how unlike him it was to say something this directly. His face had certainly been through a lot (he was probably 65 or so on that day, and is now twenty years older). He’d worn glasses his whole adult life.
I ignored his advice, and got my eyes fixed. This was on the long list of moments when I asked my father’s opinion, disregarded his advice, and he kept a record of it: “Why do you ask my advice and not take it?” I think, actually, that I simply have taken an extra long time to take my father’s advice, for now I certainly agree with the idea that my face is the record of all my experiences.
You ask how to shake these feelings, though we know they are natural, that is, and we know that there is the ache associated with them. The word for this feeling is humility, I think. It’s to be of the earth, of the ground, same word origin in Latin as “humus,” resolutely here, without the ability, at the end of the day, to pretend otherwise. From dust are we made. Part of this is magnificent, in the sense that it is true. The humility that is of the earth is the truth of things, and there is not a lot that can be done about it. You can make certain superficial adjustments, get laser surgery, and many people do, and I have no judgment for doing so, but the superficial adjustments do not change what is happening on the inside. On the inside is the truth and also the reconciliation with the truth.
Memories, Xan, can be a bit painful to regard, from this remove, and sometimes it’s hard to know which ones they are going to be, rewarding or anguished. Sometimes the distance from a long-ago day, for example, when I first noticed there were tiger swallowtail butterflies dancing around the butterfly bush in our house in Darien, CT (where I lived as a boy), that realization, and the sense of common beauty of things right there at hand—the recollection this memory is overwhelming. Not only will I probably never be in that place and have that vivid sensation again, but it’s probably decades since there was any revisiting to do in Darien, CT. Is that house even there? In the same condition? Is there anyone besides me who has this particular memory, or who would even care? Did I make the whole thing up? Recently, for reasons that are obscure to me, I have had occasion to fixate on a day at summer camp (circa 1972) when Rob, my counselor, was badly injured playing soccer with the other counselors. I think he tore his ACL or some other ligament, and had to be carried off the field and taken to the hospital. Why do I keep remembering this? Because it was an example of someone older, a sort of admired older person, who was revealed as all too resolutely composed of simple flesh and blood, in ways I didn’t know about before? Is there anyone besides me who remembers this moment? Anyone who thinks it was important? What does all of this remembering say of my insides?
This humility, for all the beneficial qualities that I associate with it, the qualities that I associate with right size, being where you are, not expecting more than is legitimate to expect, is a kind of grief, I think. I think what we’re talking about is: grief.
And maybe there are two kinds of grief that are being processed here. One kind has simply to do with the passing out of the period in which one is culturally central, plugged in, part of the prevailing way of things, of the zeitgeist. You know all about this, how the young kids (our children, or the other young people of our acquaintance, the kids of our neighborhood) begin to explain to us the things we no longer naturally have at hand. My son and daughter gave me lectures, recently, on two words I did not know before, derpy, and yeet. This is funny, learning new colloquial language is really funny, when I, the elder, become the student to their tutelage. But also, do I have to like auto-tune? Is it essential that I think of Demi Lovato as an auteur? Is it okay if I never go on TikTok? And these are the obvious cases, but even here there is that sense of slipping out of the conversation, or the heart of the conversation.
And then there’s the other kind of grief that has simply has to do with the frank assessment of how much time one may have left. I have a lot of friends in their seventies and eighties now, and this kind of grief is very palpable for them. A writer friend of mine in his eighties said to me not long ago: “How many more books am I likely to finish?”
There it is: the non-being up ahead, and the sense, on the round-numbered birthdays, of that being a thing that cannot be neglected. One could stay up all night fretting about it, one could make it into the only thing that thinks about, but more accurately, and here’s the upside, what comes of all this grief is that one organically comes to treat time as precious. I think it’s the thing that goes with the grief, with aging, with cultural irrelevance, with the gale force memories. The sense of preciousness. The sense of time as a freight-carrier of preciousness.
You ask how to shake it off, and I suggest that you follow the grief to the inevitable sense of the preciousness of our time. I know you can and do exactly this.
I keep wanting to make a list of just tiny things that I think are important. For example, Xan, do you think oaks and maples make different sounds when the wind is blowing through those leaves? Is one better than another? Right now I’m in MA, overlooking the a town square with some trees in it, a town square that is not a square but a triangle, and it’s pretty windy, and I’m looking at those trees, trying to figure out which they are. There’s definitely a maple or two out there, but I think there are also oaks. And I think the oaks are better, preferable, with respect to the wind in the trees, sound thereof. Maybe that is a prejudice, but it is worth testing. Also, which days have the bluest blues in the sky? I usually think it’s February, at least in the Northeast. But there was a day recently, in later August, after the hurricane blew through, and the blue of the sky was electrifying. Was it exactly the Yves Klein blue? My son always calls it Yves Klein blue, even though he doesn’t really know.
This is the intense poignancy of getting older, which seems to carry with it a better and clearer sense of who we are. My suggestion is to embrace it as the transition into which one trades certain superficial concerns for an undiluted experience of meaning, feeling, presence. My exhortation is: to notice things. If the humility is that you are now the dust, the very material of the earth, a thing that is, then why not pay close attention to all else that is. The miracle, really, is that we ever got to be here at all. Here is the time for a record of Xan Palay and the great preciousness of the Xan Palay experience, a painting, a sculpture, a sonnet, the design for a garden. You are here. The more the time moves in its arrow, the more will be the humility, the falling down toward the earth, and thus the posture in which one understands the earth best, for being right up close to it, on one’s knees. Thus who we are and what we will be as we get older. Not in a time of self, but in a time of transcending self. Not in a time of our own concerns, but in a time of setting aside our own concerns. There’s a liberation here.
It’s painful to me, in a way, that you and I knew each other long ago now, and that I have not seen you in person since then, but this letter gives me the chance to remember, in that galloping away of twenty years, and to remember what’s more important, what you have to give up ahead, and what I’m trying to give, too, a path forward in making and noticing, in preciousness and joy. I hope this helps.
Rick Moody, Life Coach