Running Reflections

The revelation was not immediate. It did not come to him overnight as it did to the protagonist in Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It came as bits of information. Obscure hints, the odd clue, nagged at the edges of his consciousness for months. Odd scraps that would intrude on his thinking occasionally, often in the small hours of the morning when there was only the dark for company. Pieces that drifted into view when he was occupied with something not requiring conscious thought. Often, when he was running; when he was most alone with himself.

He realized suddenly one evening, as his measured pace carried him into the twilight, that he had become a clich?. That realization, he understood, was the first true sign of aging. That time when you understand that you are redundant. Not that you no longer have anything to contribute. No, not that. It is the realization that more and more of your past begins to creep into your conversations, coloring your idioms. He feared repeating himself and so he began to fall into silence. The ghosts that hovered about him were real only to him, spoke only to him, listened only to him. They spoke of calm water on a fall day reflecting the heavens in the depths of the water. Ghosts that murmured of the thrill of standing on water skies for the first time, a thrill that was to be repeated in skiing down the side of a mountain for the first time. Of holding hands, of whispering I love you in the darkness of the night. These and other ghosts swirled about him as he ran, and he understood. He understood.

Our lives, he understood, become ones of mismatched sets. Dishes, glassware, pots and pans no longer match. Guests seldom see this chaos of glassware and pottery. The matched set is kept for their benefit, as is the good silver. We might cart it out for holidays and birthdays, but even that occurs with less frequency as we get older. Live in a house long enough and you can read its history as archaeologists read the layers of an excavation. Our children may leave to begin lives of their own but they leave behind full closets of books and toys and bicycles. Mostly forgotten, they are perhaps left in order to retain a foothold in the parental home. By leaving some of themselves behind, they remain part of the household. He occasionally looks at this collection of memories with the vague idea of clearing it out, but he has neither the strength nor the will. It goes away when the doors are shut and there could be a time when small hands, ever curious, will look at the collection as found treasure.

He understood the isolation of not being listened to. Of being asked a question and knowing the answer would not be heard. The question was asked out of false politeness, the answer was ignored. Answering to silence brought silence. To be present and not present brought back harsh memories of other times and other places. Now, when it happened, he wanted to stop, to grab the person and turn him toward him and say “look at me!, listen to me!” Empty bravado as he ran from the setting sun.

Straining forward into the lengthening shadows, he felt his isolation particularly keenly. He lived in a world where people, it seemed, no longer had any sense of history. Apologists, quick to explain the ignorance of a generation, explained away the ignorance by reducing old knowledge to irrelevance. Shaking his head, he felt the lack of that excuse. It was true, he did not know the icons of modern culture and dismissed most of what he came across as unimportant. Movie stars and athletes are pale imitations of figures of the past. How can they not know Lincoln, he thought, or Luther, or Aquinas. Each impact of his foot on the pavement brought forth a new name. Quiet Gandhi who brought down an empire.

He understood that no culture remained static. That change was inevitable. All things changed. It is the nature of creation. But this was the first generation that wanted to bring about change without questioning cause and effect, without asking why. Everywhere you turned, self-appointed experts pontificated on what was wrong with society and why we needed to change. Smiling interviewers nod their heads sagely but never ask “on what are you basing your conclusions? How much of what you are advocating is based on personal prejudice?” To ask if change is necessary draws disapproving stares, and so no one does.

We are intimates of change. Seeing it, we take no note of it. Most personally, we change in how we contemplate death, especially our own death. At 30 we know ourselves to be immortal. We are arrogant in our optimism and laugh at the practical fatalism of our elders. Time is on our side at 30. We know that if we take reasonable care, we will live forever. Despite news stories to the contrary, death is a rare visitor in the household of one who is 30. The occasional disappearance of a friend or acquaintance might give us pause, but we usually point out some flaw, a flaw that we ourselves will of course avoid.

When we reach our 60s, it begins to dawn on us that time no longer is or our side. Time now passes with an appalling rapidity and, in the quiet hours, we come to anticipate our own mortality. No longer a question of if, it becomes a question of when. We read the obituaries, not so much because we care about the subject whose life is summarized in a few perfunctory sentences, we read because we are looking for the age. We smile secretly when we read of octogenarians or nonagenerians, a smile which quickly disappears when ages in the 50s are early 60s appear. We instinctively look away from these, searching for the octogenarian. Does the octogenarian search the obituaries for those who have passed their first century? Our ancestors were existentialists. You worked with the hand which was dealt to you and understood that the 8 year old was as mortal as the 80 year old. We have come to view the death of the 8 year old as unfair, as if there was a written guarantee that had been unfairly voided.

The sun had dropped below the horizon as he neared the end of his run and he continued on, into the coming darkness.