A Florida man’s home was flooded and destroyed last year after Hurricane Ian passed through his town. NPR reports, “He doesn’t have insurance or the means to hire help. But, he says, he’s a retired builder and can use his tools and skills to do the work himself.”
“The bad part is I’m 70 – I’m old,” says Robert Walker. “When I was young, this was no big deal. Well, now, I work 20 minutes, sit 5. It’s a big difference.” 1
I hear you, Robert. I’m still processing turning 70 last year and moving rapidly on. The last time my age threw me for a loop was when I hit 64, and that was because of the Beatles. Will you still love me? Will you still need me? Anyone? I was 15 when that song came out. It’s said McCartney wrote it when he was only 14. Now, me 70 and him 80, we know the answer, more or less.
My wife, BethAnn, and I had to move last year and it wasn’t easy. One payoff was an office for me, something I hadn’t had in seven years. I put up shelves and unpacked my boxes of books over several weeks, like Robert, working 20 minutes and sitting five. Or more. I can get out of breath just thinking about doing something.
Afib, hiatal hernia, tarsal tunnel in both feet, and on and on go the ailments. The mortal body is not our friend as we age. And then there was that freak accident with a drill that delayed my shelf building. But that’s another story.
I often think back to when I was just out of college, freshly married (the first time), and working with my then brother-in-law building houses. I could take full 4 x 8 sheets of half-inch plywood and toss them up onto the rafters of a framed roof. One after another. And then climb a shaky ladder to nail them in place. No big deal. I was king of the rafters.
Now I can barely lift a box of books. Or lift a stack of books out of the box.
I’ll turn 71 this year whether I want to or not. Not! I would prefer to dial it back 20 or so years, at least as far as my body and health are concerned.
Knowledge? I’d like to keep that so I could truly appear wise beyond my years. At least for a time.
One thing I definitely wouldn’t want to change is who I’m married to now. It took a few remedial courses in the school of hard knocks to find BethAnn. She’s pure gold. Man oh man! God’s grace is a real thing and embodied in her. We’ve been together since 2009, married in 2010. I’d really like some more years with her.
In the meantime, I’m doing some rebuilding of my own. Not because of storm damage, but merely moving on to what’s next as I navigate this thing people call retirement.
Like Walker, I’ve got tools and skills, too. Now that I’ve got the time, I’m working to move back into more freelance writing. (You may ask, haven’t you been freelancing? Yes and no, but mostly no. Since I entered the “real” workforce in the 80s, most of what I’ve written has been for the companies and organizations I’ve worked for.)
The writer’s market, as we freelancers call it, has changed a lot since I published my very first freelance piece way back in the 70s. It was in a now defunct Assemblies of God publication for teens. Some 50-plus years later, the freelance landscape is vastly different. A little alien to tell the truth.
One thing apparently has not changed. Rejection. It’s still as common as ever. You pour your heart and soul out on the page, email it off to an editor. And pray. Hoping it doesn’t come flying back — hours or weeks or months later — with a thanks-but-no thanks message. Or, worse, some “tip” from a green, barely-out-of-college editor for improving it. What do kids know?
As Bruce Springsteen said, “I’m old. I take a lot of things in stride. [But y]ou don’t like to be criticized.” 2 He’s 73. He gets me.
In the 80s I knew a different Robert Walker. Bob was my boss for a few years and taught me a lot of good stuff about writing, editing, and Christian journalism. I was the editor of a monthly magazine for Christian booksellers*. Every time copies of a new issue landed, he called me into his office. Page by page, he flipped through a marked up copy, pointing out various problems and goof ups. Fun times.
As my tenure extended I spent less and less time in his office. I guess you could say I paid attention and applied the lessons he taught. It was capped off one day when he walked into my office, tossed a letter on my desk, and said, “This is really for you.” It was from Ken Taylor — of The Living Bible fame — praising the changes and improvements I’d made to the magazine. I was stunned.
I’d show you the letter but it got lost somewhere along the way. Aging brings a fair amount of unwanted and unforeseen losses. Things and people vanish, places are left behind. Donald Hall heading into his eighties wrote in an essay, “I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses….” 3 Later, approaching 90, a birthday he just missed, Hall referred to aging as a “carnival of losses.” 4 Perhaps the older one gets the more entertaining it is? It seems to be for those watching you age.
The losses do add up. Although there were some far earlier that still sit high in my memory. Like the friend from college who didn’t return one fall. He drowned over the summer, his presence erased just like that. And a grandfather who passed on the day my son was born. And the ongoing loss of my son, who is alive but has chosen to be incommunicado for decades, who has a wife and kids I’ve never met. A sustained loss, yet I still hope.
Lately, favorite musicians, actors, actresses, authors — the array of public people one kind of grows up with providing a sort of cultural context to our lives — have been dropping, as one friend lamented, like flies. It’s always a little shocking since their music and presence on screen or in print persists so it seems like they are ageless, still with us. But they are not. They are as mortal as we are.
Losses are inevitable in life. Every year we age forward we lose something of what and who we were. Judith Viorst wrote an excellent book, Necessary Losses, published in 1986, that explains this clearly. The subtitle says it all: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, and Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow. (I would’ve added the word Up at the end.)
With animated Elsa I say, let it go! Let it go! And move into what’s next. The model for this is found in faith. Paul lays it out clearly when he quips “old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” We are new creatures always becoming.
Yet, as things change, some sameness remains. There is continuity. Once a writer, always a writer! It must be so since the urge, the necessity, the irrevocable need to write presses steadily on my heart and mind. I am a writer whatever else has fallen away.
And so, along with Robert Walker of Florida (who, admittedly, has a far more daunting task than I), I am rebuilding, in a sense. Researching what’s out there where writing is needed and wanted, where I can send my jotted musings, learning who might benefit from the talent I’ve accrued over the years, sending out “feelers” and spreading the word. I have the skills and tools to do the work, and the Holy Spirit to sustain me in the endeavor.
With the Psalmist I can say, “I have been young, and now am old, yet” I’m still here. I know how to write.
If you’re an editor, email me. 😉
- Donald Hall, Essays After Eighty (2014, Mariner Books).
- Donald Hall, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety (2018, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
*Postscript:3/10/23. My friend, Randy Petersen, shared with me that his dad, William, “invented Christian Bookseller magazine.” Randy explained, ” In the 1950s he was working for Christian Life mag in Chicago and taking journalism classes at Northwestern. For a school project, he had to create a new magazine. With the Christian bookstore market booming, he decided to do a magazine for that industry as his project. He showed it to Bob Walker, the CL publisher, who loved it and made it happen.” You can learn more about William here: Obituary: William J. Petersen (Publishers Weekly).