On Turning Forty, Sgt. Pepper and the Tao

posted July 11, 2007

tao te ching
verse 65
the ancient masters
didn’t try to educate the people
but kindly taught them to not-know

when they think that they know the answers
people are difficult to guide
when they know that they don’t know
people can find their own way

if you want to learn how to govern
avoid being clever or rich
the simplest pattern is the clearest
content with an ordinary life
you can show all people the way
back to their own true nature

(trans. Stephen Mitchell)

I turned forty last month. I share this birthday with my favorite album of all time: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the Summer of Love, 1967, both of us were released in the US on June 2. I didn’t know the Beatles until the spring of 1977, when we were both about to turn ten—my first big round birthday where the odometer flipped the second digit. Though my best friend, Leila Corcoran shared with me every Beatles album in existence, the songs that most appealed to me were the colorful, psychedelic tapestry-like ones from Sgt. Pepper (those, and “Hello, Goodbye,” a single that was released a few months after SPLHCB). As Aimee Mann said in her recent Op Ed piece in the NYTimes, Sgt. Pepper was made particularly for children.

I spent my birthday weekend “working,” if by that participle one means “playing shows.” I never know, before a show, whether it’s going to be a “working” show or a “playing” show. One show was for children and families in Philadelphia at the World Café, and the other a festival in Herndon, VA. On the way home from our weekend of gigs, Katryna swiped a copy of USA Today from the front desk of the Comfort Inn in Newark DE and read a list of “things that have all but vanished” in the last 25 years. These included indoor smoking, typewriters, the rhinoceros, pay phones, Oldsmobiles, the Baltimore Colts, Michael Jackson, videos on MTV, checker cabs and service stations. At our Herndon festival, Carol Welsh, a girl who was a freshman when I was a big senior, showed up; she’d been my “new girl”-an important tradition and designation at my high school. When she mentioned that she is now thirty-seven, I couldn’t believe it. Yes, I knew I was forty; yes, I can do math, but somehow her being thirty-seven was much more indicative of how much time has gone by than my nice round odometric numbers.

I’m kind of in denial about the whole thing. Isn’t forty the new twenty? That’s what my mother said when I came down dressed to go out for dinner on June 2. She said, “You don’t look a day over twenty.” Thank God I’m not twenty, is all I could think. I remember my twentieth birthday. Carol’s older sister Elizabeth, one of my best friends, and fellow Beatles fanatics, gave me a poster of the cover of Sgt Pepper. We were all flipped out because our favorite record was 20 years old (“It was 20 years ago today…”). Meanwhile, I was depressed, lost, 15 pounds overweight, fighting constantly with my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, clueless about what I was going to major in for college, despairing about the Reagan administration, angry at my parents and sad that it was raining. It was truly a low point of my life. I spent the entire 90’s thinking “I hope I never see another 1987 again.”

If I had a list like USA Today’s for just myself and my inner thought parade, here are some of the rhinoceri:
1. Fear of dying in a plane crash
2. Fear of gaining 15 pounds
3. Perms
4. Obsessive thoughts about my ex-boyfriend and the idea that it was his (or anyone’s) job to make me feel good about myself, specifically to answer the question: “Does this make me look fat?”
5. The band Heart (sadly. I really love them, but I cannot listen to them anymore.)
6. Blue jean mini skirts
7. Gigantic bran muffins the size of my current mug of Starbucks coffee
8. TV
9. The belief that it matters where one went to college
10. Fear of being too revealing in my writing.

I used to think there were two kinds of musicians: the kind who were cryptically silent about the meaning of their songs, their processes, their inner lives, their personal lives; they emanated a cool through their dark glasses and silence; they dragged on cigarettes and regarded the reporter (and therefore, you) with a mixture of pity and contempt and mild curiosity. The other kind were completely forthcoming, blabbing about their latest therapist/colonic/girlfriend/boyfriend and of course how each strand of a creative idea came to them. Bob Dylan was the quintessential first kind of musician while John Lennon and Paul McCartney were famous blabbers. (If you don’t believe me, read Jann Wenner’s Lennon Remembers and Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Recording Sessions.) I always aspired to be like Dylan, and for a whole year and a half kept my age top secret by orders of my then manager. (That was from 1996 through about, oh, June 1997 when I turned thirty). Somewhere in my DNA lurks the idea that if I don’t say it in public, the world will not be able to handle the loss of the information.

Lao-Tzu, the great Chinese teacher and sage, says that the wisest among us cultivate don’t know mind. That the older and wiser we get, the more we understand how little we know, and the more we are glad of it. I wrote once “I’d rather live expecting the best though if you gave me the choice I’d like to know the rest/A figure in the distance always running.” I wanted to know the answers. I wanted to know, for instance, that I’d never have to feel as depressed as I did in 1987. I wanted to know FOR SURE that I wouldn’t die in an airplane crash, or of cancer, or that anyone I loved would die of cancer, or that anything bad would happen to anyone I knew. Yes, I knew we all had to die, but I didn’t want any of us to die in any way you could propose to me. I pushed it away.

But we all have to die. We all age. I now have compassion for people who get plastic surgery. Just last month, I noticed that my neck has taken on the cast of tissue-paper; that the bags that were only occasionally under my eyes after all nighters have now, excuse the pun, unpacked, as it were and are here to stay. The aging process is bad enough; the fact that it signifies the actual decrepitude of my dear beloved body is horrifying.

My “new girl,” Carol, has been battling a rare brain tumor, Adult Ependymoma for seven years. She has written bravely about her experiences on her website, and can tell her story better than I (http://home.earthlink.net/~mswelsh/adultependymoma/index.html). I have watched her face the worst with humor and love and courage, and I am amazed at the resilience of some of us humans when confronted with that which we fear most. There is nothing like the very real possibility of death to make one put into perspective one’s complaints about one’s neck, or the numbers of CDs one sells. Standing in the rain together after the festival, Carol told me about the Paul McCartney article in last week’s issue of the New Yorker, and we all marveled at his ability to continue making music, showing up for his fans, his muse, his calling even though he has every reason on earth to retire and spend his old age with his little three year old daughter Bea and his four older children.

Someone recently pointed out to me that we all kill to eat. Even those of us who are vegans are guilty of murdering insects, microbes, animals (by destroying their habitats, which unless you eat completely off the commercial grid, is impossible to avoid) and of course, plants. It’s the nature of life; in order to live, one being sacrifices its life for another. And around and around we go. Death is a part of life; as integral as the yin yang symbol makes it out to be, with the little dot of white amidst the black and the dot of black amidst the white. I hold my gorgeous little 13 month old baby up to the mirror and we put our faces together and grin at ourselves. I am shocked at how much older I am than she is. Next to her brand new face (which people in the know will quickly agree looks remarkably like my own) my every wrinkle and age spot comes forth. And I rejoice at my years, at my aging face, at my surgery-free parts and most of all at all the baggage I’ve long ago left at the terminal. Someone else can claim it if they need it. I’m looking forward to forgetting more and more and achieving less and less and spending my remaining days finding my way back to my own true nature. I just hope that includes the Beatles.

Posted by Nerissa at 6:41 AM 0 comments

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