An Old Man in a Garden Musing on Enjoyment in Life
I am sitting in a quiet, beautiful garden on the Eastern end of Long island. It is an ideal July day with cloudless blue skies and balmy, cooling breezes caressing me. There is a sweet smell of freshly cut clover. Birds are chirping some kind of love song to each other. An occasional single engine prop plane drones overhead with a strangely relaxing sound. A white sea gull periodically swoops gracefully down near the trees as its beady eyes seek some kind of prey.
I am enclosed in my garden by closely packed lines of shaggy hemlock trees which remind my Rorschach oriented eye of the ogres from the Grimm Brothers fairy tales of my childhood. But these trees stand tall, silent and protective, obtruding the gaze of any “outsider” from my reverie.
I am content. I am enjoying the charm of the Present Moment of my existence. And I am 83! But almost involuntarily I begin to abandon this existentialism and I begin the bittersweet process of looking “ back.” And it is with pre-articulate gratitude that I recall the graciousness of God Who placed such peaks of joy in my life and Who at the same times placed in me my apparently endless capacity to “ enjoy.” Where does the enjoyment capacity come from? Environment? Example? Glands? Education? Infused gift? Wherever it comes from, it has a huge part to play in anyone’s life. And I do look back and it still gives me some experience of past joy! It is part of the enjoyment capacity or gift.
I see a skinny 12 year old kid ( myself) in a tenement street on Manhattan’s west side, euphorically playing stickball, using a broomstick handle to propel a “spaldeen” (Spalding/Spaulding) hurtling “ two sewers.” The street, then unencumbered by automobiles, was our playground where we exulted in exotic games like Johnny-Ride-the- Pony and Kick the can. I recall the fun I had when my Dad taught me how to box - - - with big, 16 ounce gloves. He taught me the jab and the right cross and the weave and the duck and the clinch! I could never hit him but what fun I had trying! How different that level and type of enjoyment from my present! But it suited the enjoyment level of a 12 year old.
I see a leggy, adenoidal 16 year old (myself) at the Paulist parish dances doing the Lindy Hop and the Shag, thinking that he was wowing the pretty girls in the saddle shoes and the flouncy dresses. In my own fantasy, I was a replica of Gary Cooper or Van Johnson. My jacket even had padded shoulders of which I was very proud. I enjoyed those narcissistic moments, even if so blatantly immature and self absorbed. Such interior behavior would make me nauseous today - - nevertheless I, and countless other undeveloped teens, report that we SO much enjoyed those temporarily insane years. What does this signify about different levels of enjoyment at different stages?
I recall my unbelievable élan at 18 when I ice skated on the frozen lake at 59th street and 5th avenue under the watchful eyes of the NYPD. This was long before public rinks and civic spirited Donald Trump types. The joy clearly belongs to another life phase. Not for me today when I can hardly bend over to tie my shoe laces.
I muse, I think, about the truism of “Stage Specific” and “Age Specific” wherein certain behaviors and capacities are appropriate and possible. I recall entering College as a self conscious freshman. Instantly, I adopted the pose of the intellectual with the fake hauteur of the snob. I even tried to speak through the fashionably clenched teeth of the “upper class.” I worked furiously to say sixty FIRST rather than my native pronunciation of sixty FOIST street (on which I was born). Such behavior would make me nauseous today but it was a highly prized life approach when I was 18. I must have enjoyed being the phony! But how highly inappropriate and depressing it would be at 83.
When I preached the Gospel with sky high enthusiasm (and indeed enjoyment) to the blacks and whites and browns and yellows of South Africa, I was deliriously enthralled with my own impassioned, superficial presentations which were so respectfully received by people twice my age, experience and virtue. It would be neither possible nor enjoyable for me to try to replicate that style today even for reasons other than age specificity. Yet, that kind of enjoyment was alive and well (for me) - - - - 50 years ago.
I found great enjoyment on a 9,000 ton freighter, the Greece Victory, as we sailed 17 straight days across the Atlantic to Capetown. I, hanging over the rail, lazily watched the horizon, fascinated by the flying fish who popped up every so often. I let the warm sun on the South Atlantic welcome me to the land of the Southern Cross. I said Mass each morning for three French Canadian Brothers en route to Rhodesia (Zambia). They spoke only French while I owned some very primitive high school language skills. Yet we enjoyed each other as we shared the Gun Crew quarters over the stern, prayed and ate together. I ate much, slept much and read mind muddying novels. Such flexibility and enthusiasm belong to young people, not to dinosaurs like me. So, as I muse, I know I had a kind of “fun” utterly out of the question for me today. My age, my life phase will not allow it. What do I make of this?
I recall my entrance into the world of television on WNBC when I met the famous and the powerful. Such meetings were usually before a television camera, and broadcast throughout the country: Cardinal O’Connor, Bill Buckley Jr, Mother Teresa, the Dali Lama, Jackie Gleason, Cardinal Mindzendsky (who, at 80,vigorouosly poked my chest as he made a point, leaving me to pity those dopey Communists who attempted to tame this Lion when he was 50), Malcolm Muggeridge and some of the brightest and the best.. They and myriads of fascinating people made up my world. Talk about euphoria and delight! I was “in.” I received invitations to deliver talks all over the country. Did I enjoy my life? That is a rhetorical question. I was floating on air! But that is all in the long ago past. What am I today? I am bald and arthritic and slightly Alzheimic. Age specific? Phase specific? My call at that stage from the Lord was to be in the TV world. Not now, when I stagger along not just with my physical gait but with my speech and my lessened mental agility. My call is something else. Isn’t it that young men see visions and old men dream dreams?
My mind is now cascading with memories of joys and pleasures and fun! How I enjoyed living. My sadnesses, my crosses, my disappointments, my monotonies, my envies and my temptations to the self destructive world of self pity are somehow pushed aside, significantly diminished, even annihilated, as I use the phenomenon of the half filled glass. I see Rome, the Eternal, with its overwhelming Basilica of St. Peter. I am overcome by the magnificence of it, the Pieta, the proportions, the Cupola. I gasp as I enter the Sistine chapel and do not believe my eyes. I am speechless before the Final Judgment of Michelangelo.
I am excited as I explore the Scavi, the burial place of Peter, himself, the first Pope and Vicar of Christ. My breathing quickens as I gaze upon the Moses in the ancient church of Peter in Chains and I wait for the Prophet to speak - - -so real is he! I almost float when I see Pope John Paul II go past me - -exuding the Holy Spirit and the real world of the mystical - - - blessing us, he, the very Vicar of the Lord!!!!!
I see myself with beloved friends sipping cappuccinos in the Piazza Navone admiring the church of St. Agnes and watching the chic world go prancing by.
I see myself in Florence rapt with the Doors of Paradise in the Baptistery of the Duomo, the David, the Ponte Vecchio over the river Sarno, the Medici museum, Can I forget the Chiesa del Sante Cruce and its tombs of Michelango and Dante and Petrarch and the square just outside where we had the great Lunch? Or Siena with its gorgeous cathedral and its utterly unique square?
And there is Venice with its canals and gondolas and St. Mark’s square. The fun I had with the Italian police as I showed them my detective shield from the NYPD and how they viewed me with such respect!
I am flooded with pleasure as I recall Paris with its incomparable Notre Dame, the Seine, La Sainte Chappelle, the Bateau Mouche, the streets and the little restaurants. I recall with utter pleasure the windows of Chartres cathedral and my trip to Lisieux where I prayed to the Little Flower and saw the snips of her hair preserved in a little museum. I saw the very chalice she prepared for Holy Mass each day and which I contemplated in photographs when I was a toddler.
Never did I dream that I would stand before it and almost hold it in my own hands.
With a strange mixture of reverence and excitement I visit the beaches of Normandy and I see the enormity of the achievement of landing thousands of young men under terrifying conditions, many of whom died right here on the beach. I wander to the cemetery which has the profound quiet of the Holy Spirit and I pray for those kids who would be my age had they lived through that horror.
Not enjoyment surely but I experienced some kind of satisfaction that I could enter ex post facto that world from which God spared me.
Never again would I see these things, never again for they belong to another phase of my own existence. Oh yes, I have multitudes of these memories of my relatively happy life. I was overcome by seeing the great Gloss Glockner in southern Austria. I was astounded by the Victoria Falls in Africa which the Africans call “the smoke that thunders.” I was delighted to view the Zulu war dances, somewhat modified by the work of French missionaries. I was pleasured beyond words when, at sundown, I went horse back riding over the Great Karoo with my 77 year old English friend, Major Joe Pringle. I recall one African night sitting with a young Spanish priest on a Church porch overlooking the great Zambezi river. There was a huge Full Moon which is somehow, by a strange geographical alchemy, different in Africa. We, two comparatively young clerics, smoking black Russian cigarettes and with total confidence in our own insights, were discussing what life is all about. As most old timers can say: I wish I knew as little about it now as I did then. But it was incredibly enjoyable - - - obviously, not possible for me now, so roughed up am I by the realities of life. But it WAS enjoyable, then!
How I enjoyed the Islas Balearicas and swimming in the warm, loving waters of the Mediterranean.How charming it was to have evening Mass, go with good friends for late and long dinners, chatting, telling jokes and drinking enthralling Spanish wines. But I can no longer physically endure the long trip to Spain as formerly. Yet that is part of some kind of eternal plan.
How does one analyze all this? What does one do to enhance one’s own meaning and purpose? Clearly, the enjoyment levels are different as one moves through life. Clearly, an oldster like me finds the opportunities of the past diminishing or gone. What does this mean to me?
Tevye in the classic Fiddler on the Roof speaks to God about how he would run his life were the Lord to allow him to be a “rich man.” The sweetest thing of all he says, would be to sit in the synagogue all day long and speak of the things of God. Getting older does allow one that very option. While some doors close and options narrow, by a strange paradox, things open on the other side of the life “stenosis” and reveal that there are ways for enjoyment other than the ones we knew. Is it God’s plan so to work? I think that the Gospel parable of the Talent is applicable. I have a talent in my old age for age specific enjoyment which I must use. It must not be kept buried in the sand of my life. It is my task to find it and USE it.
Can I believe that without any botany expertise I can enjoy looking at a rose and enthuse at its sweet scent? Can I understand that without any notion of counterpoint and clef, I can delight (at 83) in the great symphonies of Bach and Mozart and Shastakovich(?) and thrill to the fluidity of the strings and the proclamations of the horns and the great BOOMS of the bass drums and tympani? Where the limits to this kind of present time enjoyment? My sense of the Great Eternal Now?
So, as the shadows of my life fall and my final evening comes, I am back to my garden. Aristotle said that the perfect mathematical figure is the circle because it ends where it began. The peace of this garden is all about God, I think. The enjoyment specific to old age cuts through the joys of the past to allow me to see something of the Great Now.. Something so very basic to solving the puzzle.
Augustine of Hippo said it: Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”
Let those who have ears, hear…….