This is it, the day I've been dreading, the day I turn 74 years of age. I ponder the fact with an astonishment unmitigated by the fact that I recently filled five blog entries with self-pitying plaints about my advancing years. It seemed to me earlier this month that I stood precariously teetering on the verge of complete obscurity, if not of my grave. Yet today, thanks to so many kind e-mails from consoling friends, even while I inwardly cringe remembering how I so gruesomely vomited up my fears in public, I'm content in a way I haven't felt in a very long time.
Next to a loyal and supportive spouse like my beloved Ruth, friends are prizes beyond valuation. And over the last several days I've re-learned a lesson I had allowed myself temporarily to forget--that I have a great many very good friends. It isn't that I necessarily deserve them--who does? But still, friends come to your aid when they learn you are hurting; acquaintances who may have thought themselves your friends tend to turn away in silent disapproval, as if they've caught you committing an unspeakable act on a street corner in broad daylight.
Many of us, I suspect, live from day to day holding up to the world an image of ourselves which we hope convincingly shows a certain combination of traits--strength if we are secretly weak, virtue to obscure our inner evils, humor if we are depressed, impassioned rage when we are afraid, swaggering pride to conceal our self-loathing; some or all of these at one time or another. Few indeed are those who can actually be who they pretend to be.
I am no less a fraud than those I've mentioned, but in the act of confessing my feelings of fraudulence I seem to have shrugged off a load of pretense I didn't realize I'd been carrying. That load had been accumulating over all the years since I began to strive toward my lifelong desire to become a published writer. I achieved my goal; I received a degree of recognition; yet I felt I couldn't possibly deserve it. I wanted to be like my then-hero, Norman Mailer, who believed from the start that he was one of the greatest writers who had ever lived and deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature. Well, turns out I was like Mailer, in a sort of inverse way. He and I probably embarrassed ourselves in public more often than we achieved the honors we coveted; the difference was that I knew it and he often didn't. Please don't mistake me here; in no way do I compare myself to Norman Mailer as a writer. But I do feel paired with him in a certain sense. My flaw was to cease believing in myself; his was never to doubt himself at all.
In my case, the great gift given me over these past days has been the message good friends delivered again and again, that Charles, you're all right as who you are, and that who you are is not what you've accomplished or failed to accomplish as a writer but that you've put forth an honest effort to do what was in you to do. I am who I am and I do what I can do. It's that simple. Nothing else really matters.
So here I am at 74 with memories that go back as far as the middle of World War Two, when my friends and I built miniature airfields guarded by antiaircraft batteries made of sticks and camouflaged by netting made of my mother's old stockings; or V-J day in Asheville when a flight of B-25's buzzed Pack Square dropping victory leaflets; or watching the Army-McCarthy hearings on a black-and-white TV; or the Cuban Missile Crisis when the whole world seemed poised on the brink of extinction; or serving active duty in the Army Reserve at Fort Jackson, SC, crawling on hands and belly through coarse sand with live bullets whizzing overhead, now and then a tracer round glowing among them; or my first job in 1961 as a newspaper reporter, covering the Civil Rights movement and hating myself for writing about it instead of marching with Dr. King; or receiving my Army discharge in 1967 just as the nightmare in Vietnam began and feeling both relief and shame for not putting myself in harm's way; or witnessing the 1968 Democratic National Convention, this time in living color, as the nation seemed to be dissolving about us. Not a life as challenging or productive or changemaking as it might've been, but still, a life that encompassed the second half of the twentieth century and the milennium and the now of Now. Seventy-four years a witness to history if not a maker of it. To see what I've seen, to have lived the life I've lived--the good with the bad, the triumphs with the failures. To glance out my living-room window at the splendor of an autumn day.
Not so little after all.