Underneath the Years that Make You

I turned eleven yesterday for the fifth time.

It was a hectic day filled with my glorious duties as a caregiver for my granddaughter intermixed with teaching an afternoon seminar for eight wonderful pre-service college seniors. I forced myself to ride the bicycle trainer an hour late in the day, despite a lingering headache and being very hungry.

I also forced myself to meet good friends at a local tap house for a few beers and tacos—but immediately regretted that decision when I discovered the place was packed because of a formal event being held there. Despite my great urge to flee, I found a bit of solitude in a side room, where two friends were also avoiding the crowd. The wait staff kindly served me without my having to fight through the crowd.

Mostly, I was distracted throughout the day by the hectic, but also the incredible kindness of friends virtual and real. Distracted from my urge to wallow in my aging, the decrepitude that is growing older.

Yesterday morning, however, I thought of Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven,” a bittersweet and powerful story of Rachel’s really awful day at school on her eleventh birthday.

The opening paragraph, I think, can be applied to any birthday, at any age:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.

I turned eleven yesterday for the fifth time. But nothing special came with that arbitrary counting off of our brief and precious time on this mortal coil.

“What they never tell you” still haunts me.

The years that make you still “rattle inside [you] like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box.”

At fifty-five, I feel the increasing tension between my diminishing physical self and my (for now) ever increasing intellectual self. Yes, I have more in my brain than ever—more books, more poems, more songs, more films, more art, more people, more conversations, more questions, and much more desire.

There was a time in the first couple elevens when my body was dragging my mind, but that has flipped because my softening and spreading middle, my aching back, my leaden legs are conspiring against my mind and what some people would call my soul.

My soul still soars, and my heart still races with joy because I can recognize the wonderful better than ever.

However, my soaring heart is always temporary because I have yet been able to slay the anxiety that denies me the moment again and again.

Like Rachel in “Eleven,” I find myself always in the hostile classroom and seemingly constantly under the gaze of Mrs. Price.

Like Rachel, I too burst into tears often—in anger, yes, but very often when my soul and heart soar. I cry listening to songs and thinking of the ones I love, I cry watching films, I cry reading books.

As hard as the world is, I consider myself lucky for feeling that world so vividly (although in those moments, I may claim something entirely different).

Unlike Rachel, I am not idealizing being older:

I’m eleven today. I’m eleven, ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one, but I wish I was one hundred and two. I wish I was anything but eleven, because I want today to be far away already, far away like a runaway balloon, like a tiny o in the sky, so tiny tiny you have to close your eyes to see it.

But I can no longer idealize being young either because being young is so goddam hard as well, so unfair. Being young is the relentless tyranny of “[b]ecause she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

And I sure as hell do not want to return to that.

Just as I am bound and determined not to be the agent of that tyranny.

I am a father, a grandfather, and a teacher—gifted the lives of young people.

Young people have for many of my eleven years made me want to be a better person, have distracted me from my own demons. The young laugh quickly and become far too excited about things older people find trivial.

Isn’t that wonderful? I think so.

I turned eleven yesterday for the fifth time. I am not happy about that, and I am frightened by the inevitable diminishing of body and mind.

I am there, underneath the years that make me.

I am a zombie.

I am a vampire.

I am all the me‘s that have come before today and none of the me‘s yet to come.

See Also

52 (hurtling)

55 in third person: a space odyssey

7 comments

  1. Dawn Mitchell

    This is my favorite blog post you’ve written because it rings with a transparent sincerity that is the same as the Cisneros poem, “Eleven” that you used to anchor your piece. That poem aches with truth and even though it’s hard, it is beautiful because it is hard, because we ache with the girl with the red sweater hanging over her desk. This post makes me happy and sad, celebratory and weepy simultaneously today, because it is true what Cisneros says about aging, we carry those birthdays, those people we were, and are, with us. We can be five, and fifteen, and fifty all in the same day.
    So, thanks for making me cry on your birthday! I am glad that you keep having them!

  2. Marci Bowen

    I can now embrace 40! Thanks for reminding us that along with age comes great joy and wisdom. You’re an excellent teacher. You shaped me then, and continue to teach me today. Here’s to your next eleven years.

  3. jonathanlovell

    A lovely post, Paul. Nicely yoked to the equally memorable Cisneros piece. And just for a bit of avuncular perspective, one does get more comfortable with the mind over body balance as the years progress (I’ve 15 years on you at this point, and most likely at pretty much any future point you can name) and one learns to seek out those milder physical challenges that can often be mind challenges as well. My favorite at present is Scottish Country Dancing, but that’s just my preference. I’m certain you’ll find your own post-biking activity that will turn out to be a perfect fit for you.

  4. Three the Hard Way

    Happy birthday. This is such inspiring writing. I hope that you enjoy many more elevens in the future. Your expanding mind will make up for however your body dimishes. On Jan 27, 2016 5:29 PM, “the becoming radical” wrote:

    > plthomasedd posted: “I turned eleven yesterday for the fifth time. It was > a hectic day filled with my glorious duties as a caregiver for my > granddaughter intermixed with teaching an afternoon seminar for eight > wonderful pre-service college seniors. I forced myself to ride th” >

  5. Nancy Reichert

    I am also 55 and a teacher. What I sometimes claim is that I know what it is to be 86–my mother’s age. Because I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis 16 years ago, I listen to her concerns of aging (not being able to pull up a word when she wants to do so, the slowing down of mental processing, the balance problems, the not wanting to take a shower because even this act saps energy) with recognition for I have already dealt with this and more in the last sixteen years. Yet, I too, am all my previous ages. My body still remembers a time when it ran 10ks, served tennis balls, and whacked softballs. My brain remembers pulling in concepts easily and sharing them with others. Age and time are so fascinating.

  6. ejuc8or

    “‘What they never tell you’ still haunts me.” And, “The years that make you still ‘rattle inside [you] like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box.'”

    This was the most soul-stirring post you’ve written. Moved me to tears!

  7. Kate Bowles

    I feel so fortunate to have read this. I have been thinking for a couple of years of the meaning of this time in our lives, the increasing preoccupations of the body that carries us about, the leaden legs (oh my), the soul’s difficult harbour. To live fully in the knowledge that this body is it, no other one is coming along in a more pristine condition to pick us up, is quite a challenge. And the other day I found myself thinking: this body, that is presently under my care and somewhat at the mercy of rushed everyday choices that I make, is the body that will be left for others to deal with. What shape it is, what weight it carries in the world, will be a literal thing for others to have to sort out. I don’t think I could possibly have understood this future handing over in my twenties. So you know, this time of life is good. We have what it takes to be ourselves.

    Thank you for this beautiful writing.

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