MYSELF AT SEVENTY

I am celebrating my seventieth birthday next month (November), though I’m wondering if ‘celebrating’ is the right word. It feels more like an exploration: an exploration of the experience of what it means to be seventy. I just returned from a trip home to Ireland that suggested this because many of the experiences there – gatherings of family and friends – were like revelations of the many layers of my life and the self that has emerged.

One particular example was a gathering of extended family that included about 60 people whose ages ranged from 92 to 3. I stood before them to say a few words, having deliberately not prepared. The reason was that I wanted to immerse myself in the experience rather than do what I have usually done, which is to play the role of the first son of my family, the first grandson of my generation, the onetime priest who had married many of them and baptized their kids and buried their parents. So I began with a poem that I have used a lot recently, including some recent blogs:

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among

things that change. But it doesn’t change.

People wonder about what you are pursuing.

You have to explain about the thread.

But it is hard for others to see.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

Tragedies happen; people get hurt

or die; and you suffer and get old.

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

You don’t ever let go of the thread.

                  – William Stafford

I told them that I wanted to reflect on what this thread might be, and that I felt it had something to do with who I am at seventy. The thought led to a sudden, if obvious, realization that who I am at seventy was right there in the room, in all of them. I said, it felt like looking in a mirror. Sometimes these days, I added, when I look in the mirror, I see my father looking back at me, and wonder how he got in there. But this mirror that they presented to me was much fuller than that, for I could see many more pieces of myself in their faces. I knew every one of them, and each one of them held a part of me. The relationships I’d had with them had been integrated into the self that I am now.

But, there was more. For, I could see other people in their faces, people who had died over the years of my life: my parents, their parents, their grandparents, in some cases their brothers and sisters and children. I told them that there is an old tradition that says that, when something important is happening, the ancestors gather to participate and encourage – encourage the continuing unfolding, perhaps. So I began to call out names and invited them to do the same. ‘Tommy, Eileen, Bridget, Jimmy, Marion, John, Billy….’ I could feel the company swelling and the room filling with memories and faces: more energy, more life. More self. ‘This is who I am,’ I said. ‘I am you, all of you.’ And the inverse clearly applied: we are all each other. Moreover, this past is endless, or beginningless. Behind every face is a universe that stretches into infinity.

Then something else happened. For, just at that moment, a child cried out, as if to get my attention, and I realized that this process also moved in the other direction: forward, through the children. Many of those present had been little children to me in the past, but were now parents and grandparents of these children and others who were not there. So, once again, I began to call out names – the names of my own grandchildren back in the U.S. – and others took up the call, inviting this new group of guests into the room, which, by this time, was full to bursting. And it became clear that this process forward too was endless, this future, infinite…

And, of course, all of this was now, in an expanded presence, an ever-widening self, threaded together by the reality of interconnectedness – love indeed – that we all clearly felt. I was reminded of a favorite philosopher’s (Gabriel Marcel) thoughts on self as relationship that generates constant possibility and that gives a richer sense of hope in the face of even impossible odds, a fuller understanding of freedom, and a deeper sense of being.

Shortly after I returned from Ireland I was reading a reflection on Teilhard DeChardin’s (a French priest-scientist who died in 1955) macro-level thoughts on this interconnectedness as it applies to the evolutionary process which, the author emphasized, has not lost its way, despite all evidence to the contrary today. Constant relationship is, in fact, opening up constant new possibilities and new hope in the form of a shift from the over-individuality of our culture to new forms and new levels of interaction. The real illusion of our modern world, which is separation, is breaking down, just as it did for me that afternoon in Ireland. The categories – of politics, nationality, race, roles, even gender – are breaking down, along with the institutions that serve them. There is a fundamental shift happening in our own species from individual to person: from an autonomous self as separate to an authentic self as essentially related; from self as an isolated form to self as an expression of an infinite reality. And with this movement comes hope (Marcel distinguishes between this hope and an optimism that things will turn out fine).

Faith, then, becomes staying – tenaciously, as Marcel would say – with this process. This, he adds, is true freedom. And life ceases to be an impossible problem to be solved and becomes instead an ever-expanding self that is born out of relationship to the ultimately unknowable (not yet?) mystery of life.

On a more immediate level, for me, the shift is from questioning the significance of my existence – something one feels inclined to do at 70 – to exploring how I am related: to my own body/mind, to my brothers/sisters, to my planet, my cosmos, my source. It is engaging – eternally – with the one we call God. The implications for thinking about death – which is another inclination at 70 – are intriguing. But that is something for another blog.

22 thoughts on “MYSELF AT SEVENTY”

  1. Dear Danny, Thanks for this wonderful essay. Funny, after a conversation just yesterday with a dear friend who was my bandmate and travel companion from about 2001 until 2006, I felt that THREAD that you mentioned, that is, the thread of a strong, healthy, creative, vibrant part of my self and of what I share with this friend of mine. I feel it’s true that we are all mosaics of reflections of our connections with others, and something from inside ourselves, too. I’m so thankful that you’re a part of my existance! HAPPY BIRTHDAY, you young man! love, jenifer

  2. wonderful summary of an event I would have loved to have witnessed, yet while reading could picture what it means personally to me and my family. A simplistic way of looking at the question, is also to answer “the number of the anniversary of my birth is just a number…it’s irrelevant other than a marker.” I try to always think about the sentiment of your post here, no matter the number of my birth. Every day is a gift, eh? Thanks Danny. HBD, you young soul.

    1. It seems to me there’s nothing more public than the deeply personal. I mean the deeper you go in the personal the more you hit common ground. I think it’s why we respond to art in whatever form with the ‘yes’ of personal recognition.
      Thanks Michael

  3. Danny, thanks so much for this. I am right in tune with your experience of extended presence from the past and the future that gets us beyond our personality or individuality. We are truly part of something much more interconnected. Thanks for the reminder. I am printing this out to reflect further. I so appreciate your fidelity to the journey!

  4. Beautiful Danny. Each of us at a certain age should resonate deeply with your story. With eyes wide open, we get richer each day.

    Blessings and peace upon thee as you carry on, not so much fighting the good fight as relaxing into our cosmic origins.

    Jimmy

    1. I believe you’re right Jimmy about ‘getting richer everyday’ if we can keep our eyes wide open. And I love your description of ‘not so much fighting the good fight (it does sound rather tiresome and even violent) as relaxing into our cosmic origins.’ Like finally realizing that the only way I can swim on the vast ocean is to relax and let it hold me…
      Thanks Jimmy

    1. The thought your comment elicits is God and I are one and that the weaving is about awareness in our case.

      I live my life in ever widening circles,
      each superseding all the previous ones.
      Perhaps I never shall succeed in reaching
      the final circle, but attempt I will.

      I circle around God, the ancient tower,
      and have been circling for a thousand years,
      and still I do not know: am I a falcon,
      a storm, or a continuing great song?
      Rilke

  5. Cousin Danny,
    so happy to have been able to be with you that Sunday afternoon and now to read about the part of the day I regrettably had missed – nevertheless the energy was still very much in the room when I arrived. Thank you for these reflections – i will continue to hold unto that thread and feel blessed to be part of such a rich tapestry.
    Have a wonderfilled 70th birthday! Love
    Cousin Bridget R x

  6. Ah – numinous & wondrous as always, Danny…Many thanks!!! 7 decades – or epochs as I’ve come to think about them – can you believe it?? Having crossed that marker a few years ago myself, I distinctly remember feeling that thread of connection with all the generations that I have known just in my own family – from great grandparents and now to grandchildren, and then thinking about the whole huge tapestry of humanity’s threads/families. Somewhere I read or heard about the concept that our task at this point in life is “Eldering into Wisdom” – continuing to make meaning out of this part of the human experience in this time. You bless us with your presence, reflections, and inspiration along our way.

    1. ‘Eldering into wisdom’ is a good way to describe it, Sue. Both have to do, it seems, with letting go: time, on the one had, knowledge – or certainly assumptions – on the other.
      Blessings
      Danny

  7. Danny. This is a voice from the African strand of the thread of your memories and reflections at seventy. You have been an inspiring presence in my life for over forty years. A sense of interconnection is one of the great gifts that come to us as we grow older. I see myself as insignificant now unless I am connected with everything. Surely death could be a letting go of the little possessive self to enter into the great cosmic connection. That feels like something to look forward to. Celebrate the wisdom of the fullness of years.

    1. Thanks Mick.
      For any of you who are continuing this conversation, Mick leads retreats and pilgrimages in Glendalough, an ancient Celtic-Christian site in County Wicklow, Ireland. He shared with me a poem written some years ago by one of those pilgrims that echoes the theme of the Blog.

      Annunciation

      Eternal moments
      When past and future become present
      In this sacred place:
      Voices of ages past speak,
      Touching a depth of timelessness;

      Echoes of monks chanting matins
      In the early morning birdsong;
      Noonday prayer
      In the waters tumbling down the mountainside;
      And the gentle whisper of the dying breeze
      For vespers.

      The ever-present mist speaks
      Of Mystery
      Which enfolds all things,
      Lifts to allow tantalising glimpses
      And falls again;

      Waters spilling in glorious plenty speak
      Of the extravagance of this Mystery
      And every stone and plant and blade of grass
      Becomes a burning bush;

      No longer
      ‘Listen Lord, Your servant is speaking’ but
      ‘Speak Lord,
      Your servant
      Is barefoot’
      Pauline Corcoran.
      Glendalough 25/3/98

  8. Thanks for sharing Danny, so insightful of you as always. I can appreciate the reflection at every age and what seems to be stages of life. I think we all become reflective as we pass through a phase of change from where we have been to where we are going or what is to come next and as we grow older especially in questioning the significance of our existence. As my children grow older and become independent adults I find myself doing this very same thing more and more. This constant reflection creates an awareness entrenched in gratitude and hope and sometimes even fear. But I especially like the part you quoted from Marcel – “Faith, then, becomes staying – tenaciously, with this process. This, is true freedom. And life ceases to be an impossible problem to be solved and becomes instead an ever-expanding self that is born out of relationship to the ultimately unknowable (not yet?) mystery of life. It is always about the relationship – with ourselves, others and life. 🙂
    Happy Birthday!!

    1. How good to hear from you Sara. Remember the distinction we used to make between change – what happens – and transition – responding to it. Certainly the getting older form of change prompts a response. I’m delighted that your response is an enhanced awareness that brings gratitude and hope. You added ‘fear’ but perhaps gratitude and fear are two sides of the same experience: gratitude for what is there and fear because you realize like all things that it is also passing.
      Thanks for the birthday wishes
      Danny

  9. Though Inhsd left a reply but must have not done the right technolgy musts- like hit submit!:). I Loved this and will read it many times. It reminds me how life is so happy and sad and beautiful all at the same time. Your essay made me feel like the first few lines from Tennyson’s poem “Tears idle Tears” makes me feel . Thanks for sharing … lucky to call tou neighbor!

    1. Hi Helen. Yes, ‘happy and sad and beautiful all at the same time…’
      As I suggested in response to the previous comment, they seem to be all parts of the same experience. An Irish poet called Padraig Pearse (one of the leaders of the Irish Uprising in 1916) wrote:
      ‘The beauty of this world has made me sad
      This beauty that will pass…’
      Danny

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