In Poetry Month, surrounded by the likes of Stevens, Greville, Winters, Zbigniew Herbert and Keats, I’m fated to share the date of my birth – Oct. 26, 1952 -- with Andrew Motion. Not a bad sort, drab and harmless, the author of – sorry, I can’t remember. Of course, I’m no poet and compared to some of my other birthmates – Trotsky, Hillary Clinton, Pat Sajak – Motion is excellent company. Another birthday is always cause for gratitude if not celebration, and it certainly beats the alternative.
Last summer I read Emerson’s Society and Solitude, a collection of lectures-turned-essays published in 1870, the year he turned sixty-seven. Chapter XII is titled “Old Age.” In it, Emerson quotes a lengthy passage from an “old note-book” he kept at age twenty-two. It describes a visit he and his brother made to John Adams soon after the former president’s son, John Quincy Adams, was elected president. He quotes Adams on the significance of attaining age fifty-eight:
“When Mr. J. Q. Adams's age was mentioned, he said, `He is now fifty-eight, or will be in July ;’ and remarked that `all the Presidents were of the same age: General Washington was about fifty-eight, and I was about fifty-eight, and Mr. Jefferson, and Mr. Madison, and Mr. Monroe.’”
Some of President Adams’ calculations are a little off but how reassuring is the drift of his argument. It’s probably worth pointing out that the median age at which our presidents took office is fifty-four years and eleven months. The Constitution, fortunately, mandates a minimum age of thirty-five for presidential eligibility. I finally appreciated this wisdom two months before my thirty-fifth birthday, when I became a father for the first time. Aging and its demands are not for children.
Part of the pleasure of getting older is finding fewer battles to fight. One has less energy and uses it more economically, a default reality sometimes mistaken for wisdom. Emerson writes in the same essay:
“What to the youth is only a guess or a hope, is in the veteran a digested statute. He beholds the feats of the juniors with complacency, but as one who having long ago known these games, has refined them into results and morals.”