The City Magazine Since 1975

Age of Enlightenment

Age of Enlightenment
December 2016
In the cool clarity of winter, one writer contemplates the advantages of approaching his “Golden Years”

Age has its benefits,” I once heard an old man say rather happily. Then he caught my eye and added, “It needs them,” raising his brows in emphasis.

I didn’t think much of it at the time; surely it had nothing to do with me. But now as I approach what AARP calls my “Golden Years,” I understand what he was getting at—more and more with each passing day.  I suppose mine are the typical complaints of aging: slowing down, gaining weight, and becoming a too-successful example of the effects of gravity. Even though I still have a couple of years till I qualify for the senior discount (and a long way to go before I can get the sales tax break for octogenarians), I nevertheless am constantly addressed as “sir” by those I’d like to consider my peers. I work at the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library (in Special Collections, where they keep the “old stuff”), and when I tell students or younger staff that they can call me by my first name, they look as if I’ve suggested a gross impropriety.    

Being older around young folk does grant me certain perks, however. No one looks for my thinning hair to be neatly groomed, and untucked shirts seem natural with a face all wrinkled and seamed. And when it comes to technology, they don’t expect me to be at all adept; I get a pass at my lack of expertise, and they often walk me through steps online as if carefully guiding me across the street. 

And now, here comes December and the approach of yet another year’s end to confront me with my seniority. Even though this month in Charleston can be amazingly mild (I went swimming on a very warm Christmas last year), the season also can be intellectually chilling—what with the loss of light, the encroaching dark, and the leafless trees. You don’t need to be a Mensa member to see the link between growing older and the calendar year itself expiring. 

I used to not like December for all those reasons; in fact, it scared me. But lately, despite the lengthening shadows, I’ve come to appreciate it more. The lava-like season of summer has cooled, and with the passing of passion and fever and heat has come a solemnity and solidity. And, besides, who needs the froth of flowers and the frivolity of leaves? What with all the tinsel and lights and cute gewgaws on Christmas trees, it’s a relief to see a skeletal outline of what a tree really is under all those a-tad-too-cheerful trimmings. 

Maybe it’s the lack of humidity and the literal clarity of the air that allows one to see things sharper, in a more focused way. What’s possible now is a type of precision you’re not liable to get in the garish seduction of spring, in the roseate haze of summer, or in the fog of autumn. In the stillness of December, I can hear the silence and be free of the white noise of the daily grind. And I can get in touch with the still, small voice inside me, the voice that really is me. It gives me a sense of release to think about who I am, the space I occupy in the universe, and what I am doing here. The weight of the world is loosened from my shoulders with the knowledge that one day, like it or not, the world is going to go on without me. 

In this way, the winter solstice, the longest night of the year, can be perversely enlightening, affording the opportunity to ponder what true darkness and stasis and a stage swept clean of all props really means. I suppose whatever comes after the long, dark night of the soul will be made clear to me one day, though I may not be writing about it in magazines.  

And so, this year, I welcome December. I’ve seen enough of them by now to realize that the resolutions we make on its last night are as likely to melt and evaporate as any icicle or snowflake that could appear in January or February. New Year’s Eve is not going to find me with a crowd shouting with hilarity and wearing a silly hat or doing things I’ll regret come morning. (That has its perks, too: unlike a lot of younger people, I’ll not be saddled with a hangover the very first day of 2017.) No, I’ll be home with my partner, Jonathan, and our little dog, Zoe, grateful for whatever January and all other months of the calendar may bring. Perhaps I actually have grown a bit wiser—and not just wider—with the years.