Last August , I traveled to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts where many of the great thought leaders of the nineteenth century are buried. Literally, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Louise May Alcott rest in bones and stones just yards, or feet from one another on a natural mont in the cemetery known as Authors’ Ridge.
There in the middle of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, I found myself crying again. This crying thing happened a lot since I hit sixty and it wasn’t only about getting older, or facing my own mortality. I hope I am not that much of a cliché. I simply found myself weeping at the drop of a hat, for no rational reason. It wasn’t about anything sad or sorrowful. It was not reckless or jagged crying . It was spontaneous, almost calm, without edges. But it was habitual. I had the empty Kleenex boxes in the recycle bag to confirm this constancy.
This time the crying happened when I bent down to measure and snap a picture of Henry David Thoreau’s gravestone. The stone was simply marked “Henry”. The tablet was no more than a pencil wide for the great man. While observing his small stone no larger than an infant’s grave, it started. I mean, I was really bawling atop Authors’ Ridge. But I did not need to be quiet. I was no longer working for a public company :-). Besides, there was not a single living human being in those one hundred and sixty acres but for myself.
A STONE , A LEAF , AN UNFOUND DOOR
So I let loose with grief or joy … I didn’t really know from what it was. I thought about Thomas Wolfe’s prologue to Look Homeward, Angel:
A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces. Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone? O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.
I recalled James’ Agee magnificent Prologue to A Death In The Family:
We are talking now of summer evenings …in the time I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child…After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
I was a proverbial 20th century American English hound, the special moments of my sentimental American education came tumbling forward.
In recent months, I found myself weeping at anything that was remotely beautiful: simple kindnesses from a cashier at the grocery counter, funny stories, a flock of pheasants scrambling over the lawn, a letter found from a friend lost for decades. These days, I found my walks in nature more entertaining than Game of Thrones. I discovered the little things mightier than grand gestures. I drove to see my younger brother. We had a sandwich and drank beers on a Saturday. I slept over at his house in New Hampshire. That was no big deal but in all my life, I had never done that.
It was not my fight with mortality. I was not confronting the shadow, or my ego, or my earthly ambitions; I had won those battles long ago. Despite Ray Kurzweill’s predictions of the new future, I had already resigned myself to the inevitable. I had found a certain peace in living. Yet, as I let go of certain worldly desires, I found my appreciation for them increasing.
JANE FONDA CRIES, TOO
Last week all this crying nonsense came into focus when I read Jane Fonda’s blog entitled Crying.
For all my time in the movie business, I had never met Jane Fonda. I have tremendous respect for her. She is now seventy-six years old (not seventy-six years young, seventy-six years old).
Yet, for a whole summer many moons ago, I watched her from the next porch. We waved at one another from time to time from our respective porches, would that be considered, knowing someone? Probably not.
My college film school pal, David and his wife, Susan lived next door to Jane and her then husband, social activist, Tom Hayden , on Wadsworth Avenue in Santa Monica.
“If you want to see an Academy Award winner sweep her porch, come by at 7 am for coffee,” my friend, David, said.
The experience was mesmeria. There was Jane with her long Katherine Ross-hair (like from The Graduate ) But this wasn’t Katherine Ross. This was Jane Fonda, daughter of Hollywood royalty. Jane was in a white robe covered with little pink rosebuds. The earth goddess held a standard broom as she walked out onto the open white porch and began sweeping. Sweeping porches in the morning on Wadsworth was common practice, as evening winds had whipped up the sand from the Pacific, only a stone’s throw away.
Inevitably, Jane would walk into the house and retrieve a dustpan for the sand. After gathering it, she would walk down the steps and gently place the sand in the flower bed . There, the flowers seemed to bloom in perpetual prime all summer long without wilt or wither, no doubt nurtured by her goddess touch.
While I grew up Catholic and contemplated becoming a priest, I ended up in Hollywood, a loyal sycophant of pop culture, worshipping the golden calf of popularity as a Hollywood studio guy. Even when I became close to movie stars, getting drunk with them, smoking pot with them in their perfectly fiberglass “peyote indian teepees” , they were never, ever really human. They were other. They were movie stars.
And so, I found that summer of watching Jane Fonda in my early days like reciting a koan. I ran the images in my mind again and again as if I would find the answer to what was the meaning of life , or, at the very least, what truly was the sound of one hand clapping.
Pretty much every day of that summer I drank my coffee from my special mug on David and Susan’s porch. Almost everyday I was left satisfied by the constant arrival of the goddess gracing ordinary things.
I write all this into this specific narrative to bring focus to a point. There was ardor and magic in my youth, watching simple things. But more importantly, the woman in my observation, truly seemed to have delight in what she was doing.
Over the years as Jane moved on, becoming an even more accomplished actress, mother, exercise guru and the wife of a cable impressario, I held my private times with Jane close. Time may take many things away from us, but only certain frailties can take away our memory.
Even now, Jane could articulate more succinctly the wonderings about this new kind of crying. She writes:
How come pretty things, kind deeds, sad stories, acts of courage, good news, someone’s flax of insight, all get me crying or, at least, tearing up? The Fondas have always been cryers. My father once said, ‘Fondas cry at a good steak.’ My son and daughter are the same. But I find my emotions are way more accessible than they were when I was younger and I’ve come to feel it has to do with age. I have become so wonderfully, terribly aware of time, of how little of it I have left; how much of it is behind me, and everything becomes so precious.
With age, I am able to appreciate the beauty in small things more than when I was younger perhaps because I pay attention more. I feel myself becoming part of everything, as if I bleed into other people’s joy and pain. Maybe, without my being conscious of it, there’s the reality that in a few decades (if I’m lucky) I will be in the earth, fertilizing some of the very things I look at now and tear up over.
Acts of violence become extremely difficult as she writes:
I can no longer watch news stories or look at photos that show the killing of animals for greed. There was a TV story about the Japanese rounding up dolphins and killing them for food. I got ill. Can’t stomach it–literally.
ROBERT BLY’S TAKE
National Book Award winner and poet, Robert Bly spoke of this phenomenon in his many writings about myth and men, specifically. He even gave it a name. He called it “swallowing the shadow”. It was the process in maturity when you consume your ego, your ambition, your worldly self and become other. It was finding a new kind of balance.
Some maturing people found a kind of emotional stirring that was mythic, even mystical. Others, turned to being sages, growing into teachers and not just at the front of a classroom. This phenomenon did not always result in crying….sometimes, it was humor.
He cited Abraham Lincoln , for instance, for developing an even more acute sense of wit. Here is a version of Bly’s retelling of a Lincoln incident. And here I am paraphrasing, not quoting directly:
A mother once broke into the White House and woke up Lincoln at five in the morning, saying that her son had been sent by train to Washington a few days before. Her son had no sleep, had been assigned to guard duty upon arriving, had fallen asleep on the job, and now was going to be shot at eight that morning for his indiscretion.
If Lincoln had been in the “red stage”(adolescence and prep-manhood) of his life, he would have shouted at the guards, “Who let this woman in here?!”
If he had been in the “white stage – the time of full engagement), he might have said, “ Madam, we all have to obey the rules. Your son didn’t obey the rules and I feel as bad as you do about it as you do, but I can’t intervene.”
He didn’t say either of these things. He said, “Well, I guess shooting him wouldn’t help him much,” and he signed the piece of paper, pardoning her son.
In story after story in the last dark days of his life, Lincoln demonstrates both humor and forgiveness. He was also did not cast blame. This particular stage is not defined by age alone; but there is a certain understanding, according to psychologist, Carl Jung, that death is imminent, even if the participant in the stage is still a young man or woman.
IN THE YEARS OF LIVING MYSTICALLY
Something happens. There is also something that changes within. Your mind becomes more alive as your body fades away, Joseph Campbell said in one of his last interviews at 81.
In my time of engagement, I lifted the big weights. I carried the big jobs, and too often, thought myself master of the universe. In today’s world , I stay clear of people who want to create drama and crisis to confirm they are alive. I speak to college students so that they may learn from the hard knocks of my own follies.
I vote for the achievements of my fellow Academy members, but I no longer feel compelled to watch the awards. There is something about growing older, that if you can maintain your health, something happens that is truly mesmerizing, perhaps even more then the summer porches of our youth. As Jane Fonda writes, ”Maybe because I’m older my heart is wider open, like a net that wants to catch all the things that matter.” You may have ambitions, but they are different. For instance, I would like to meet Jane Fonda one day , not to cast her into a movie (Believe me, we tried many times with official offers from the studios in which I worked) but rather to share a story which might just allow us the opportunity to , perhaps, not just cry, but even laugh together:-)
Little gravestones the size of pencils, the memory of summer porches by the sea can break our hearts . By such breaking, we are able to experience the precious sweet taste of life. In the time of old age (which can be anywhere from 50 to 110) , a new life develops. These are not the years of living dangerously but the years of living mystically.
There is no shame in embracing age for with it, comes another kind of beauty. I am not 62 years young. I am 62 years old.
David Paul Kirkpatrick is the author of the upcoming The Barefoot Stories, about the magus, Merlin Ambrosius, who lives for centuries and never dies.