The last time I did the big birthday speech was 10 years ago. I chose the theme of taking stock then, what I had achieved, and what I had failed – a double entry accounting of a life. In the revenue column there was getting married to Kate (who I loved then and have continued to love furiously since) and submitting to the selfish will of my genes, and having children (who remain at the centre of my life and continue to surprise and delight me daily). In the expense column was a long and sorry list of poor choices and hubris over decades. But having gone done the accounting, I felt as though I was comfortably in the black. Back when I stood here with a more aggressive hairline and straighter spine.
Turning 60 exposes an entirely different set of imperatives.
It strikes me that one can, with discipline and genetic good fortune, be a youthful and energetic 60 year-old, and an active 70 year-old, but at 80, you can simply be 80, and so by those descriptions aging is a matter of diminishing adjectives. I do not want my my adjectives to diminish. But in any event one should look differently at the world and what it holds for someone turning 3 score, and apprehensively glancing at the proverbial remaining 20. Or so.
And here is is we get torn. I am mindful of the imminent departure of children, both physically and emotionally, into the powerful embrace of peers and partners and distant ports. I am mindful of some of the creeping failings of the body. I am mindful other tangential dictates of ageing (like not having a clue what music my children listen to). All of this begins to paint a new narrative as this runway of life grows shorter.
If we are fortunate, we reach a time of life were have all that we need, perhaps not all that we want, but certainly all that we need, in a Maslovian sense. A secure place to live, means of transport, enough money for food and prudent entertainment, health insurance, our kid’s education, an annual holiday or two. More than that is a game of diminishing returns, needs satisfied, and wants forever unsatiated, and I wish not to climb on that treadmill.
And so, having gotten to this point of satisfied needs, half of me wishes to spend the remaining time that I have lying on the sofa and reading the thousands of books which clamour loudly for my attention. This would be an inexhaustible pleasure for me. I imagine lying there in the lounge getting up only for biological necessities and House of Cards. The other half screams – time is short, my kids will be gone soon, what can this family do together, what adventures can be conjured up – travel, education, community? Kate is clear on this – it is the latter that should be mined. I am not, and find myself in a state of tension, trying to balance the dictates of outward and the inward.
A friend of mine from Wits, who is also turning 60 this year, and who lives in the States, and who has made enough money not to worry too much, talked about the pleasure he gets in long beach walks with his dog, and working out in the gym, and sunsets on his verandah with a class of chardonnay, quiet contemplation . He says he wants for nothing. He feels complete. I was horrified. I don’t want completeness. I demand dissatisfaction, disappointment, even the low background drone of panic. I want to live in a state of tragic and hopeless optimism, like I did for 40 years when I woke up every morning and said earnestly and sadly, one day I will write a novel. Because you never know, you just never know. To live with meaning you must be incomplete. You must say, I am not done.
So the theme of this, my 60th is simple. What can I pack in, what can we pack in, as a couple and a family and simply a man, somewhat desperate and bewildered, in the time left. A few more books written and read, perhaps. More travel – perhaps. Make more music. Make a film. A Phd. A co-write of a play with Kate. Learn a new language. Woodworking, for god’s sake.
I dont know. But what I do know is this. Time is shortening. We, you, need to fill it wisely. Fill it recklessly, fill it without regard, but at least fill it with intent.
Fill it with intent.