It seems as though just about everyone I know nowadays has an October or November birthday, which means both that what my mother always joked about cold winter months wasn’t entirely a joke and that I’ve had many a discussion over the past few weeks about this whole Getting Old business.
Most Getting Old discussions center around the same set of familiar complaints: gray hairs that grow back double when you pull them, limbs that sound like Monster Truck rallies when you stretch in the morning, and students who no longer catch your awesome jokes about Saved by the Bell, Micromachines commercials, or modems. And most Getting Old discussions are lighthearted — we talk about those parts of it because, I think, they’re easy to talk about, because they’re easy to joke about — but it’s all sent me to thinking more deeply about what, exactly, it means to get older.
As much as I might try to deny it, it’s true that the years do something. It’s true that I feel very differently now than I did ten years ago. It’s true that some things mean much less and some things mean much, much more — though perhaps the difference isn’t one of degrees but of meaning. Things mean differently now, and I face life differently: that part’s easy, and undeniable. The part that’s not so easy is the how: how I face life differently, how and why things have different meanings, and what that means.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and this morning, I had a revelation that led me a little closer to the how. I’ve been listening to the same series of songs over and over for a long time now, almost a year — every time I plug in my iPod, I find myself scrolling down to Lana Del Rey and pushing play. There’s something about her voice and the songs she sings with it that’s indefinably haunting, a kind of bare sadness that sinks to the bone.
I’m particularly drawn to recordings of her live performances, which, though usually not as disastrous as her much-maligned appearance on Saturday Night Live, are far from perfect, and far from the processed, often-over-produced songs on her debut album. There’s a live performance of “Born to Die” — recorded, appropriately, poolside at the Chateau Marmont — that I listen to nearly every day exactly because it’s imperfect, and because in its imperfection I can hear something I feel deeply and undeniably, but cannot express myself.
There’s something in her performance, something in the fact of her standing alone with a pianist in front of a crowd, something of her voice, deepened and scratchy and smoky, begging her feet not to fail her, begging herself to keep walking, to keep hoping, to keep loving. There’s something about it all that defines the term “raw,” something that tells the story I find so impossible to tell: how things change, and quickly, and how when you get older, there’s no way to stop knowing that, and so each step forward gets a little more serious, a little slower, and even every happiness is different, because you know exactly how very quickly it can be gone. All of it. A moment, a second, a breath, a gust of wind — it’s gone.
And it’s that, I think, that defines getting older: the fact of loss is just that. A fact. An undeniable, unmoving, unwavering fact. Getting older means days and years and decades of trying, of succeeding, of failing, of gaining, of losing and losing and losing. Getting older means knowing this. Having to know it. It means knowing this as deeply as you know the sounds of your own bones, the lines etching your skin. It means that every time you try or step forward or move on, you do so with this knowledge, permanent as a birthmark, a tattoo. Loss becomes a map and you must walk your life with it.
I don’t mean for this to sound entirely depressing, though I realize it very much does. There’s a flip-side to this, I think, which is every bit as important: it’s knowing this, and losing enough to know what losing means, that makes you appreciate everything you have and hold, if even for a moment. It’s the knowledge — the real, rooted, deep knowledge — that at any moment the thing you love may leave that makes it really meaningful. And it’s knowing this that makes me appreciate all the years behind me, and that makes each step forward a little easier: I may well lose, but I’ll know well that I tried, and I’ll know well how to love well what I gain.