A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Saturday, June 11, 2022

One for the Ages


Fun math fact: if you give birth to all of your children – twin daughters -- in the same month that you turn 34, you will turn 50 in the same month that they reach 16. 

I’ve been watching as, one by one, my age-cohort reaches the half-century mark – and as a cohort of our kids morphs into adults. Reactions have been mixed: trepidation, celebration, resignation, disinterest.  Is age purely continuous, a linear function?  Or do we reach discrete, transformative landmarks? And if there are waypoints, are they like Rivendell?  Hogsmeade? The Cliffs of Insanity?  I’m fascinated by the math and the mythos of aging. 

In old-school fairytales – the creepy ones that Disney revamped to be still creepy but in a different way – at age 16 girls become fair maidens, and at age 50 women become crones.  Neither transition seems advantageous.  The maiden is defined by her beauty, and not much else.  She  is perpetually at risk of being imprisoned, married off, or bewitched.  The crone is defined by her lack of beauty – and possible lack of morals.  She may be wise and powerful, but she  tends to lose her mind and start talking to mirrors and doing weird things with breadcrumbs and apples and spindles. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, if your skin-deep charms are usurped by the next generation, then you are nothing – or a witch. I'll choose witch, thanks. 

Luckily, in our animated movies and our reality, the options seem to be expanding.

Teenagers, I’d argue, are all the archetypes rolled into one: the sweet innocence of the maiden, the loveliness of the prince,  the awkwardness of the beast, and the fierce power of the warrior. They are adorable, brilliant, loving, and fearsome.  They always have been.  But this generation, I think, is better poised than mine was to embrace that oxymoronic complexity.  Roles and transformations can be chosen. Anyone can be the hero of the story.  He, she, or they might slay the dragon – or tame it, or befriend it – with or without magical kisses.  With or without frogs.

Meanwhile, those of us born in Gen X are teaching ourselves – and learning from the bravest of those who came before us – to be less reticent and coy about aging. We’re also learning from our children; every generation does so, and every generation is grouchy and graceless about it. These days, fifty-year olds have thriving careers and fascinating hobbies.  They are donning running shorts or snorkels or tap shoes.  They’re letting their hair turn gray, or they’re dying it purple and green, or shaving off one side of it.  We are not hiding or lying – about ourselves, or our ages. Those who are stepmothers are not presumed evil. The crone can also be a tested warrior or a respected sage. 

If my newly fledged sixteen-year-olds and I are bewitched, it’s less mythological than it is mathematical.  One of them remarked recently that “The geometry of calculus is just so beautiful.” The volume of a sphere, she reminded me, can be calculated as a continuous sum of vanishingly thin surface layers.  The other twin finds beauty in the precision of pencil lines, molded forms, seams, structures, lyrics.  Chords are constructed of sound waves with precisely intersecting frequencies and peaks – least common denominators of harmony amidst dissonance.

If math lets us celebrate the precision of harmonious intervals as well as the fluidity of continuous sums, perhaps we can recognize both in our lives, too.  We grow and transform.  We cross thresholds – sometimes imperceptibly, sometimes in a rush of music.  Each moment in time creates its own distinct resonances.  And yet, there is no discrete time in which we are wholly maiden, prince, warrior, hero, crone, or sage. Who we are at any ephemeral moment – our surface – is always the derivative of our solid reality, our lifelong volume, our whole. 

We change, and the passage of time is beyond our control.. But if we’re turning into witches, at the very least we can choose to be good witches.


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