that's what he said, by Frank Wilson

Watching the passing scene

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There is a poem by John Hall Wheelock called “The Part Called Age.” It was first published in the Sewanee Review in 1962, the year Wheelock turned 76 (he lived to be 91). The poem is an account in blank  verse of the thoughts the poet has as he strolls about the property he has inherited from his father (“these were his father’s acres / For so he still thought of them, though now they were his …”).

I could, I suppose, in good New Critical fashion, antiseptically separate the figure described in the poem from the writer of the poem, except that the poem is obviously autobiographical (there’s no good reason why a poem can’t be or shouldn’t be).

The unifying conceit of the poem is stated quite early. It is that life, “like an old legend told over and over, / To each of us throughout the generations / Is told for the first time, to each of us / Told once, once only … and that if you listened / Long enough, you would come to the part called ‘age,’ / And after that came death.”

And that is where the poet finds himself:


He had come to that passage in the old legend so many

Before him had listened to through the centuries

But, oh, the difference, for now it was told to him,

And it wasn’t believable!


I first read Wheelock’s poem in 1970, when it was gathered into By Daylight and in Dream: New and Collected Poems. I was not yet 30. But the poem resonated with me. I wondered how I would feel if I got to “that part of the legend / Time tells us if we live long enough to reach it … .”

Well, I’ve reached it. I’m only a few weeks shy of my 72nd birthday. And I can fairly report that Wheelock was right: A principal characteristic of growing old is how incredible it seems. I am now one of the old fellows sitting on a park bench watching the passing scene — people walking their dogs, young mothers with toddlers, kids playing ball or just chasing one another.

I can vaguely remember being a toddler, and can still call to mind episodes from childhood. But now they seem like rumors I once heard rather than experiences I once had.  Even the time when I came upon Wheelock’s poem, when I was just about to turn 30, seems not at all distinct to me anymore.

I have never been one to dwell upon the past. Every now and then, episodes from it come to mind, because they seem to have some bearing on the present. It is the present that brings them to mind.

Being a veteran of life turns out to be unnerving. When one sees a photo of oneself one is often surprised and dismayed at how it differs from the image of oneself one carries around in one’s head. Growing old is a daily parade of such. It takes a moment, but you do figure out that the reflection of the old guy in the shop window is your own. Morning stiffness is now routine and not simply the consequence of playing too hard the day before.

And it all seems to have happened so quickly. You start to wonder what it’s all added up to, gauging how your dreams and ambitions measure up against what actually happened.

I don’t have much to complain about. I generally knew what I was doing when I did what I did. And things mostly turned out OK. I got pretty much what I wanted — which was nothing extravagant  — pretty much on my own terms. I could have had a different life, but I’m not sure any other would have been better. My life, when I reflect on it, seems to have been well suited to who I am.

I am certainly not dissatisfied. In fact, I’m grateful. I hope that Meister Eckhart was right when he said that it will be enough if the only prayer you utter in your life is “Thank you.” It is, in fact, one of my two commonest prayers. The other is for mercy.

To say that I am not dissatisfied, however, isn’t quite the same as actually being satisfied, and I have been wondering lately what it is that makes things just a little less satisfying than it seems they ought to be. Then, this past weekend, my wife and I drove up to visit a friend who lives in the far northeast of Philadelphia, which is where I lived from the age of eight until I moved to Germantown in 1969 (of course I did a bit of traveling in that time, too). I realized when we were driving there Saturday afternoon that the place as I remember it simply doesn’t exist anymore and hasn’t for quite some time.

Come to think of it, Center City as I first came to know it doesn’t exist anymore, either. I remember when Center City was a good deal seedier than it is now. I remember when there really was a Skid Row. The town had some character then. It’s spiffier now, but so much blander. Even my own neighborhood is transmogrifying before my eyes. When my wife and I moved here nearly 20 years ago, it was still just a mostly working-class neighborhood. By the time I take my leave of life, it will be more nearly like Greenwich Village.

For me, the world is simply less familiar, in somewhat the same way that the face I encounter in the mirror every morning is less familiar. The problem, I think, is that by a certain point in life we arrive at a sense of ourselves and our surroundings that our bodies and our surroundings pay no heed to. I am not sure when this sense coalesces exactly, but I suspect it has by the time we turn 30. That’s when we start settling down, and getting set in our ways. We get so wrapped up in our lives that we stop paying much attention to what’s going on around us. By the time we start paying attention again, what we notice is how things have changed.

Suddenly, you’re back where you were at the start: in the world, but not exactly of it. If it looked inviting and exciting and maybe a bit scary then, now it seems like a song growing fainter. It has taken on valedictory quality, which I suppose is what accounts for the sense of uneasiness one feels upon reaching a certain age. Every day is just another stop on your farewell tour.

Frank Wilson was the book editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer until his retirement in 2008. He blogs at Books, Inq.

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One Response to “Watching the passing scene”

  1. You said:

    “I hope that Meister Eckhart was right when he said that it will be enough if the only prayer you utter in your life is “Thank you.” It is, in fact, one of my two commonest prayers. The other is for mercy.”

    That says everything. Thank you for putting your thoughts and impressions down. A poignant essay on how we pass through this mortal coil – and how this life passes through you.

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