Seen on a book flap this week: “Hailed as the most prominent lyrical poet of his time, [Dylan Thomas] made four trips to the United States and died in New York in 1953 at the age of 39.”
New Yorker cartoon recounted to me by a friend: An obituary page with captions under the pictures that said, “A little older than you,” “A little younger than you,” and then in the middle “Your age exactly.” Thirty-nine is my age exactly.
I generally hate hypothetical questions because they pit things against each other needlessly, but this book flap made me wonder whether I’d rather be a really successful writer, as Thomas was a poet, or likely to be alive at 40. I would rather, of course, be both, but unlike choosing between your parents being run over by a mac truck or your sister being eaten by sharks, this decision was easy—I’d rather be alive. Because there’s a lot more to life than writing.
Which I’m not sure I could have said without feeling guilty ten years ago. Not that I didn’t value the other parts of my life, but in my head, I earned my existence through my accomplishments.
I’m more and more certain that existence isn’t available to be earned—it’s a gift. People don’t bring you more gifts on your seventh birthday than your sixth because you learned multiplication in second grade and that’s a bigger accomplishment than addition and subtraction. We can receive or reject gifts but can’t do anything about the giving of them. (OK, you can invite more people to your birthday party, but you can’t control whether they give you the stupid brush and comb set or the cool Batman action figure.)
Entering mid-life reduced the urgency of accomplishment for me. I still sometimes think that just means I’ve failed—a possible explanation but not a good one. A better one may be that aging allows us to recognize the wonder of existence, pay attention to it, and enjoy it.