I love Margaret Renkl. She’s so good, so decent – reading her essays in the New York Times, I feel like a higher version of myself. Even in the often poison NYT comments’ section, the discourse her writing inspires is for the most part touching and polite – people stay in their lane, feel free to nod along; thank her for her writing (kind of like readers do on my writing right here, only on a much larger scale). In a recent piece, she talks about the disconnect between how she feels and what she sees when she catches sight of herself in a window or mirror. Margaret Renkl feels 22 but is 60.
She’s grateful, as always. Is kind to others and herself.
I’m 62. Waiting for that self-acceptance to kick in.
My best times, I feel somewhere between age 8 and 12. Before puberty.
Yesterday I gravitated to the swings at our nearby elementary school. “I don’t know how this will work,” I thought. “Will I even fit on the strap part?” (Growing up they hadn’t yet figured out that hard rubber or worse, wood or metal seats, would inevitably find their way to the side, back or front of a kid’s head – now things are so much more benign, in the playground world at least).
It felt so natural once I started. I sat on the swing, and like magic I was eight, nine or twelve. I started pumping, toes pointing forward as I dipped and rose into the air, dangling my head back. Then, knees together, I made a semicircle with my calves as I swept backwards. Higher and higher. There was no difference between me now and fifty years ago. I still wanted to swing as high as possible. I still wanted to get all the way up and-
“How do you stop?” Eric asked.
“You jump,” I said, remembering. That moment, up in the air, when you just say to hell with it and fling yourself out into space. I got as high as I could and it felt possible, like I could push out and fly for a second.
“You’re not going to-“ Eric looked alarmed.
I scraped my feet in the wood shavings. I dragged until my swing slowed down.
But I could’ve jumped.
Yesterday I was in pain. Not a physical pain. I’m lucky I don’t suffer those, like people say one might when you reach a certain age.
No this was a psychic pain: the show I have coming up this Thursday that has been rescheduled twice already due to Covid, that was finally going to happen and be my last show of this difficult year – one I even enlisted other musicians for, as a treat – I got a call from the venue asking if I’d move my show earlier, so they could switch Saturday’s sold out show to later that night, as someone in the band of the sold out artist was sick and felt sure they’d be better by then.
I looked them up – a New Yorker profile from a little while back. A young marvel needing me to gracefully step aside and – because honestly who cares that much about my little show?
All my self-doubt and insecurity came crowding in, yelling in my ears. I wanted to puke, to scream, rage and cry. Hey I was in the New Yorker once, twice, a few times. Never that life-changing profile. Critics’ picks and even a cute drawing one issue that didn’t really look like me but felt like a massive compliment, a vote of confidence. Now that potential profile moment has probably passed. Has it? Has it? That’s what I get from turning older, not so much the physical waning but the waning of possiblity. It’s not looking in the mirror and going “How did I get this age?” but looking behind me, in front of me and trying to maintain a positive spirit while I carry on doing the thing I’ve done for decades; the thing I still love and know how to do. You can’t be promising anymore, when you’re sixty two. You’re a known quantity, if you’re known at all. How do other artists and writers and musicians deal with it – accept reality but keep hope, that necessary element of magic, alive?
Going back to ages 8 to 12 again, I’m reminded of this famous ride I couldn’t wait to try at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh. I think it was called the Rotor. A big circular room you stood against the wall in. The room began spinning and spun faster and faster, pressing everyone against the wall and then-
The floor would drop out. The centrifugal force held you against the wall. Some people (me) screamed. Some were bold and actually climbed up the wall, turned themselves sideways or upside down. It was giddy terrifying fun but the scariest thing you realized was – you needed the spinning to carry on. The very thing that made you scream, that drove you crazy, that spinning force – was essential to stay stuck to the wall until the floor rose back into place.
Nearly two years without regular gigs – how do I continue? What keeps me from dropping out? With a good promoter, like Alec in Columbus Ohio the other week, I can fill a room. I can pump and pump myself up on that swing and jump, taking everyone with me.
There’s comfort in reading Margaret Renkl because she tends to stay in the physical world, writing about nature in a lyrical way. She is humble, and thoughtful.
She’s not in show business. Am I in show business? I express myself, and am compelled to share that with others. When I feel something, I want to know if somebody else feels it too. Maybe getting up on stage isn’t the healthiest way to work with that.
But just getting up on stage isn’t enough. I want to have an audience there. The other day I joked that Bob Dylan at 80 going out on tour means twenty more years of “doing this” for me. By “doing this” you might think I meant performing but if that’s all it was, I’d feel pretty darn lucky and happy to do it. It’s really the sharing Facebook events, posting on social media as required and putting up posters, feeling not popular enough, measuring myself against other people that feels hard to sustain sometimes. Bob just has to be brilliant and show up and play – he doesn’t have to erect the tent, be the town barker, the cigar-chomping hard guy wringing an extra twenty dollars out of a club for dinner. He doesn’t have to hear a ticket count and die a little. But continue to dust himself off no matter what and get up there, to bring what he does to the good people.
I don’t know how I came around to talking about Bob Dylan. Maybe he’s like a spot on the doorframe I touch to tell myself “it’s okay…you’re okay.” I wanted to talk about Margaret Renkl and her elegant, gentle spirit.
It’s a week and a half later. I played the show and I felt so good while I was playing, and when it was all over. Up until I strummed the first chord onstage, I felt an unhealthy amount of angst. At sixty two I wish I could accept comfy pants and my place in the world – feel grateful for it all. But I still aspire. I brush on the eyeliner, zip into something tight. I keep on pressing myself against the wall while the damned world spins, knowing the floor will drop out but it’s the magic bit that catches me by surprise every time and looks like I’ll never be too old for that.