This is not a young man's face.
"There's a simple explanation for it," said the hand doctor, "and you're not going to like it."
I didn't brace myself, because I knew what he was going to say next. I've been hearing it a lot lately, in fact.
"You're getting old."
Yup. Exactly what I was expecting.
This chapter in the "getting old" volume of my memoir began a year ago. That's when I noticed an odd growth on the first knuckle of my right middle finger. It resembled a blister, though I'd done nothing to cause one. My first thought was that perhaps I'd been bitten by a spider or some other insect, and developed some kind of infection. I had a doctor look at it. She inserted a needle into it, drew out some fluid (this was not a pleasant experience), and concluded I had a ganglion cyst: fluid was leaking out of the joint, causing this strange growth. She told me to keep an eye on it, and come in if it appeared to be infected, but otherwise, to just live with it. It might go away on its own.
A year later, it has shrunken and grown, at times becoming so tender I couldn't put my hand in my pocket without causing pain. While I was in Ghana, the moist climate appeared to agree with it: it shrank down to the point I thought it might be reabsorbed into my body, as with an old wart. The arid climate of my 36-hour flight home seems to have reversed that. Two days after landing, I saw the hand doctor for an appointment I'd set up months earlier. I also asked about my left ring finger, the first knuckle of which had become stiff and painful. He ordered x-rays of both fingers, then presented me with the unpleasant conclusions:
The right, cyst-bearing knuckle showed moderate cartilage lost. The right knuckle was now devoid of cartilage. Diagnosis: age-induced arthritis.
There were other things to think about: the cyst could be surgically removed, but the result could very well be loss of movement in that knuckle. It would likely go away on its own in time, perhaps as the leaky cartilage disappeared once and for all. The painful finger could be rendered less painful by fusing the knuckles together. As a musician, I did not care for either of those surgical alternatives, so I opted instead for routine daily doses of ibuprofen.
As I intimated earlier, these are not the only signs I've had lately that I'm getting old. It's becoming more and more difficult for me to read without glasses: LASIK does nothing for presbyopia (literally, "elder eyes," also known as far-sightedness). I've become more reliant on my hearing aids for deciphering speech, yet still often have to ask people to repeat themselves if there's any other noise in the room. My fifteen-year-old skiing-injured right shoulder has become a daily frustration, as I avoid more and more activities lest they trigger joint pain. I struggle with carpal-tunnel numbness in my left hand, making sustained guitar-playing a challenge.
My legs, I'm happy to say, are holding up well, even my frequently-scraped knees, though my old foot enemy, plantar fasciitis, frequently rears its ugly head. Somehow, I'm still able to get in two to three runs a week. That's not, unfortunately, enough to stave off the arrival of my granddad bod: it seems unlikely I will ever shed the full forty pounds of middle age weight gain that keep me from being in full running trim.
And then there's my sleep schedule: I just can't sleep through the night, and I'm always awake earlier than I need to be or, often, even want to be. Sure, it's great to be able to get things done while the rest of the family sleeps, but the price is often collapsing into unconscious just as the evening gets going.
Other signs of age have been with me for a very long time: my hairline began to recede when I was in my mid-30s. Somehow, I managed not to have much of a bald spot until recently, when it's become hard to ignore whenever I catch it shining in the security monitor at a convenience store. The grayness of my hair and beard also came on slowly, and I'm pleased to say there's still some red in there, though it can be hard to find.
Life transitions also remind me I'm moving into the autumn of my life: our youngest just graduated from high school. Our oldest is now a mother. I'm eight years away from retirement. Our household income is finally adequate to enable us to take dream vacations. This year's add-on trip to Ghana was entirely self-supported. The professional development I seek out now is more for self-enrichment than to meet certification requirements. And in some restaurants, I now qualify for the senior menu.
The question I have yet to answer in this essay is: how do I feel about all this?
Not bad, to be honest.
Oh, there's plenty to complain about: aches, pains, limitations, frustrations. And yet somehow, I just don't feel the need to complain. Four years ago, I didn't shrink from a single dance step my Ghanaian teachers were showing me. Two weeks ago, I took one look at the dance my fellow IBMF attendees (many of whom were, I must admit, professional dancers), and chose instead to watch from the sidelines. "I'm worried about my knees and shoulder," I'd reply if asked why I wasn't joining in, and left it at that. No need to explain that one dance step I attempted caused my shoulder to throb for the next day. I just accept that this is my life now: I need to be careful about doing things that could cause my old joints to hurt.
Given these limitations on my up-to-recently far more active lifestyle, you might wonder, "why not complain?" The answer is simple: for every youthful ability I've had to give up, there are a wealth of compensating factors that more than make up for the loss.
Take the decision not to learn a vigorous Ghanaian warrior dance: I've never been much of a dancer, and I know it. In recent years, thanks to my Orff training, I've become far less shy about moving to music, but I have no illusions about the grace with which I traverse the space I'm in. As a musician, though, I'm more in command of my abilities than I've ever been. I can play more instruments with more skill and artistry than I ever could as a young man. My abilities as a teacher have also matured and deepened. I don't need to show off any of these skills and talents, but I do enjoy putting them to use, whether it's improvising a musical number with the cast of BABE or teaching a simple children's song I wrote to the body musicians at the IBMF open mic.
I've finally learned the wisdom of Yogi Berra's most famous proverb: "Wherever you go, there you are." This is surprisingly hard for Americans to understand; witness the fact that most, upon hearing it, think it's a joke. In fact, though, Americans, of all human beings, are the least able to simply be where and when they are. Sowa Mensa, the Ghanaian ethnomusicologist who's presenting at the World Music Drumming training I'm attending this week, made this observation today as he was trying to teach us a simple song from his ethnic group. "African musicians," he noted, "are patient people. They know not to start playing until they are told, and they don't think ahead to what comes next. They just stay in the pattern they're playing. Western musicians are always living in the future, looking ahead to see what comes next. You have to get out of the future and be in the now to make this music."
Listening to him, I was reminded of Yoda's observation upon meeting young Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back: "All his life has he looked away... to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was." That's a brilliant summary of how Americans approach life--and why so many of them are always so afraid.
I've spent a lot of my life in fear of the future: what will become of a relationship I'm in, the job I have, my parents' health, my grown children's well-being. Fretting about tomorrow is, as many great philosophers and theologians have observed over the centuries, pointless. Worry does nothing to prevent a feared outcome, and may even increase its likelihood. Letting go of outcomes, living fully in the present, is essential to enjoying life.
When I'm at my best, this is how I live life now. Rather than pine for the exotic places I dream of traveling to, I enjoy the sights, smells, and sounds of a walk in the park just a block from my house. Rather than worry about whether I'll be able to, in the next school year, finally leave probationary status behind and finish my career as a contract teacher, I'm simply gathering skills and ideas for the fall. When I'm home, I immerse myself in being present for my family. When I'm at school, I'll be completely in the moment with whichever students are in my classroom at that time.
My creed as an elder American is simply this: to experience and value every moment for what it is. Living this way, I know I am a better musician, educator, father, husband, grandfather, citizen, human being than I could ever be if I was anxiously awaiting whatever came next.
So then, in response to my hand doctor telling me I wasn't going to like his diagnosis: you're wrong. I'm fine with these little aches, pains, and growths being signs of my age, because with it has come more depth and breadth of knowledge and understanding than I've ever had before. And as much as I believe (as most people my age do) that youth is wasted on the young: if getting back my youth meant giving up the man I've become, I'd turn it down without batting an eye.
Because for all the aches, pains, and limitations that come with age--it's good to be older.