In two days I will celebrate my fiftieth birthday: a half-century spent clinging to the surface of this rolling planet, a half-century spent sleeping and waking and crawling and walking, a half-century spent--and still spent--as the little child of my parents. This last may be the oddest thought. In two days I will celebrate my fiftieth birthday, and my parents, as they do every year, will telephone me, and call me "Bunny," and reminisce about the day I was born. In two days I will celebrate my fiftieth birthday, but I am still an innocent because I am not yet an orphan.
When I was ten years old, I cringed at the thought of age. "How could such a thing happen to me?" I scoffed. Today, on the cusp of fifty, I look back at my small protoplasmic self with affection but not envy.
The short answer is: I love being alive.
In two days I will celebrate my fiftieth birthday, and I have so much to celebrate: the human connections, of course--my family, my lovers past and present; the dear friends of my heart; an open book under lamplight and music under my fingers. And the land and the animals, of course--a yellowing plum tree glowing in the drizzled morning light; the blue-eyed cat asleep in a wooden box on the windowsill.
But the world is not only beauty, not even mostly beauty; and celebrate is the wrong word for what I want to describe here, which is nothing that my ten-year-old self would have understood in any conscious way: that is, the power of being awake to ugliness and despair and grief; of attending to them, both as internal definition of the self and as trenchant conditions of life on earth.
I read somewhere, I forget where, that it's not a poet's job to fix the world. It's a poet's job to see the world and then use her artisan skills to reveal it sharply, poignantly, personally, universally. This is the bardic impulse, a way of reading Shelley's claim that poets are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world." At the same time, we swim in our own cramped and cluttered seas. We look out of our own windows, and see our own plum trees. We weep over our own losses.
I love being alive. But being alive means losing everything, slowly or suddenly, violently or peacefully. It exacts a terrible price, this gift of existence.
"Poetry has a vested interest in sorrow," wrote Robert Frost, yet that vested interest is, in its own way, a version of celebration. We seize sorrow; we examine, imitate, replicate, exaggerate it. We do not let it go.
In two days I will turn fifty. The sun will rise. A barred owl will float silently across the clearing. I will wake in a small bed, next to a warm and breathing body. "One day," as Jane Kenyon wrote, "I know it will be otherwise."
Otherwise arrives, and will arrive, on tender infant feet, and on the cloven hooves of the devil. It arrives, and will arrive.
In two days I will turn fifty, and I am lonely for the loves I have already lost. But I celebrate them too, because I miss them, because I cast and recast their shadows in my heart. The faucet drips in the kitchen. A car swishes by on the wet road. I am here. My eyes and ears have not yet stopped sponging up the busy, petty, present tense. Words flow from my fingers; a clumsy song searches for its shape.
The short answer is: I am alive.