One of Jane Smiley's shorter, less known, books is entitled The Age of Grief. Though I read it in my late 20's, I sensed even then that her insight into "middle age" - our 40's and 50's essentially - was probably profound. The story, a novella, centers on a professional couple with children, who live a seemingly enviable life until the husband stumbles upon the discovery that his wife is having an affair.
That the tale does not spin out predictably probably surprises no one who has read Smiley. But, story-craft aside, the real relevance of the book is its exploration of what happens when we grow into whom we become but we can no longer recognize who that is. She coins the phrase the Age of Grief because we are caught recalling the people we thought we would become and slowly we realize that one by one doors have been quietly shutting behind us. One morning it dawns on us that, no, we never are going to white-water raft down the Colorado. Or join the Peace Corps. Or invent the next big thing. That part of us isn't just napping while we're busy with Life. It's dead.
At some point, you cannot revisit ballet as a viable career choice. Nor are you likely to return to grad school and begin a PhD in bio-engineering. Our lives, our options, narrow day by day.
In my world, today, I think I hear doors slamming and houses shaking. Cancer and other diseases swirl all around our relatively young selves. Mark has conquered two cancers before nearing his half-century birthday. Many - honestly, many - friends have battled breast cancer or are fighting it now. Depression drags us down. We're losing our jobs and holding close our children against an encroaching adulthood threatening unbidden burdens.
Some marriages dissolve. Others develop elaborate roles and rituals that keep their inhabitants sane but constrained. As time marches on, a droplet of wisdom teaches us that every marriage, every friendship, every relationship is ultimately a black box to those uninvolved in it.
And inside, I fear we all are quaking like those houses as our doors rattle against their hinges. It feels like the future is too narrow too soon. Should we really be this sick and this tired and this vulnerable already? Should we really be this afraid?
The Age of Grief is in many ways the time in our lives when self doubt finds us for real and takes up residence in our gut. It clouds our decisions and complicates our goals. We are finally old enough to understand that we don't have all the answers and it paralyzes us. Self doubt gets between us and the people we love and holds us hostage before the future.
Every one of us knows within ourselves that January 2009 is a time of hope. We feel it. This both buoys and throws us. We stand at a precipice. We can fall, individually or collectively, into an abyss that has been a generation, or more, in the making. Or. Or we can sprout wings and learn how to fly. Together.
We can recall our younger selves and the possibility that lived within us once more. We can stand together and come together and create a future, together, that does not send icy chills down our spines. A future that lifts us up and takes us far. A future that starts now.
There's a lot of talk about what today and tomorrow mean for our children. But if me and mine are any indication? We need some 911 for ourselves, and fast. Please: work to create that future, but don't forget to create some Now while you're at it.