by Larry Hamilton
My 70th birthday recently came and went without incident or fanfare. I preferred it that way as I had mixed feelings about its arrival. It was a milestone I could not fathom as a younger man, and I find it unsettling to be honest. Turning older imposes limits on me which I resist and resent, but I carry on. For those of you who find yourself in this later stage of life, I think you will relate to some of the things I am about to write. For those who have yet to reach this point in your life, two things. It takes some luck and good fortune to make it here safely and sanely…well sanity is optional. Second, do not think yourselves immune to what eventually comes to us all. I too, thought myself immortal when I was very young. Bad things always happen to someone else was what I chose to believe. It’s jarring when you discover you are not bulletproof, and that realization comes at a different time and in different ways for everyone. It took broken bones and multiple surgeries to shatter my false sense of invulnerability. Life comes at you fast sometimes.
Today, I listened to the song Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd for the 1,000th time, at least. It has always spoken to me in different ways. It is an ethereal, otherworldly song, full of thought-provoking lyrics and mental imagery. The live version of this song found on the Pulse DVD Set, is the most stunning and unforgettable single performance I have ever witnessed, even on a screen. You can watch it on YouTube if you want to use the free and easy route, but make sure you watch the Pulse version at Royal Albert Hall in London.
But, that is not what this is about. This is about what happens to us over time. Who and what we become as the years whittle us down into less robust versions of our younger selves. What is left? Is it more? Is it less? Was it worth it? Did we learn anything along the way? Did we gradually become comfortably numb in order to survive life’s slings and arrows? Young people, pay attention. Your class began the day you were born.
There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship’s smoke on the horizon
Relevance. I desperately try to avoid becoming a distant ship’s smoke on the horizon. I still want to matter and make a difference, otherwise, what am I doing here? I want to do something important while I remain among the living. Something worthwhile enough to survive my own mortality. In my case, I started writing novels, something I surprised myself with, considering how late in life I have taken up this madness. It is one of the most difficult things I have ever attempted and I wouldn’t recommend it unless you enjoy being tortured on a daily basis, but it fed something inside of me and made me feel alive. Like I still have something to contribute. Like I could still slay a dragon here and there. It gave me another shot at relevance, even if I’m only relevant to a small but growing number of readers and followers who are important to me.
Do you struggle with relevance? Perhaps you are no longer in the workplace after years of accomplishments and being an integral part of an organization and team. Or perhaps you’re afraid you are not the main cog in the family machinery anymore. Feeling like you are orbiting the family and not being the center of it as much as in the past. Do you wonder if you will be missed and remembered after you are no longer here? I do. We all do. It’s our human condition.
Your lips move…but I can’t hear what you’re saying
Sometimes the memories I created along my long and winding road come back to envelop me, absorb me, buffet me and comfort me, becoming more real and important than what is transpiring around me. So much of me was invested in the making of those memories. I know…I should stay in the moment. But, I’ve had so many moments, both joyful and gut-wrenching, I choose not to ignore their worth. I feel a need to break them down to see what it was all about. What’s it all about, Alfie? (old song and movie reference ). Why did I do what I did and why did others do what they did? I stand in amazement at what incredible roles we play in each other’s stories. I wonder if I gained anything from it all or just made a series of questionable decisions creating a different ending than I ever imagined or aspired to. What if I had chosen differently? An unexamined life is not worth living, some say. So, I examine mine, even when it hurts. And it often does. But, at other times it makes me smile and pump my fist in exultation.
I can’t explain, you would not understand
This is not how I am
I have become…comfortably numb.
I have occasionally been at odd junctions in my life and thought…this is not who I am, is it? But now, I wonder. Maybe this is who I am, and I do not want to acknowledge it. The jury remains deadlocked. I may never know the reasons behind it all, at least not in this life. I don’t know whether to eagerly look forward to my life review on the other side, or fear it. They tell me my inbox will be full when I die, no matter how hard I try to empty it. As the answers continue to elude me, I resort to becoming numb to these questions so I am able to move on.
When I was a child, I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
This particular set of lyrics never fails to bring tears to my eyes. They seem innocent enough and I don’t expect others to understand their impact on me…unless they do. I didn’t always understand why either, but as the years marched by, I finally got it. My childhood was difficult, just as many of yours were, and I grew up with a thought, a glimpse, an idea of who I could become, no matter my outer circumstances. At times, I could see the images of my future self out of the corner of my eye, and I eagerly waited for the moment they would materialize and show me to be who I was really meant to be. The images were very real, and they sustained me through many dark days and nights. I held them before me as a torch guiding me through the shadows. I just knew it would all be worth it someday if I stood strong and held my ground until the right time came. A time when I controlled my life and destiny. Countless times, I reached out and squeezed those dreams in my fist and held on tightly to make sure I would not forget who I really was to become. But…well…life happened.
I turned to look, and it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
As I often stumbled, got back up, dusted myself off, and continued on through all the crossroads and choices I encountered in my life, it became increasingly difficult for me to hang on to the visions that had sustained me for so long. Jobs, family issues, broken relationships, injuries, disappointments. So many distractions and detractions. So, I began to look away from those things I glimpsed out of the corner of my eye. They mocked me. Sometimes, I didn’t even care about them anymore and I ignored them.
The child is grown
The dream is gone
I have become comfortably numb
These three lines of the song trouble me the most. I still see those dreams and visions and I don’t want that child to grow and become numb. These images are visceral, real, tangible, ever-speaking to me and they continue to dance teasingly at the corner of my vision. They also haunt me, make me miserable and unsettled, yet keep something valuable alive inside of me. The desire to grow and remain connected to my essence. I don’t want them to fade away, even though they bring pain and discontent. But, the pain helps me know I’m yet alive. I remember feeling the most alive during some of my most terrifying moments. The dead and the living dead feel nothing.
A friend of mine recently shared an old yearbook photo of me when I was in 8th grade. It shook me to my very core and I am still dealing with it. I feel as if I unexpectedly encountered a hauntingly familiar ghost. In many ways, I did. In that picture, I was the class president, and it also showed the vice-president and secretary of our class, all good friends of mine at the time. I was very poor, but up to that moment in my life, I had never lost sight of the idea of who I really was and who I was going to be, so I didn’t experience myself as poor. A bright future was right there at the corner of my eye if I looked for it. So, I always acted as if I was already that future person I envisioned rather than allowing my challenging circumstances to dictate differently. It worked for me…until. Until we moved out of state, suddenly, over the summer and I left behind many valued relationships and the sense of identity I had so relentlessly built and protected. Things were never quite the same for me after that. My path was altered and my life took an entirely different direction.
As a result of that move, I suffered discrimination on many levels, a new experience for me. The poverty in our home remained but now we lived around people who were well to do, so I felt my poverty keenly for the first time. Coming from the hills of eastern Kentucky, people automatically viewed me as ignorant and dumb and they delighted in making fun of my accent and my clean but well-worn clothes. I fought back with everything I had, sometimes using my fists, sometimes my intellect. I struggled to keep hold of those dreams floating just off to the side, even though they were growing dimmer. So, the child was forced to grow up prematurely and the dreams seemed much more distant than before, threatening to disappear altogether. I became comfortably numb as a means of survival in this new world in which I found myself. It was now about surviving, not thriving. The rest of my life was irrevocably altered as a result of that life-changing move. I see it so clearly when I look at that boy in the 8th grade picture. Sometimes, I shed silent tears for him and wonder what may have been. I loved him and his dreams, I still do. He was a survivor. Everybody said he was a good kid back then and was headed for good things in his life. And many good things did happen in his life, but they happened differently.
Okay, just a little pinprick
There’ll be no more (pain) ahhh! But you may feel a little sick
Can you stand up? I do believe it’s working…good
That’ll keep you going through the show
Come on, it’s time to go
I guess we all have our own ways of dealing with things as we mature and reflect on our past. The show goes on and we still have to play our individual parts. We do what we have to do in order to find relevance and meaning for ourselves. We cling a little tighter to our loved ones in ways they do not fully understand, especially the younger ones. Perhaps we pick up a new hobby or make a late charge at one of those dreams hanging around the periphery of our vision, like I did with my writing. I consider Don Quixote my hero as I tilt at windmills.
You see, later in years, we learn how fragile and short life really is. We have to adjust to seeing dear friends and relatives getting off the train of life while leaving enormous holes in our hearts and lives. We begin to distill our daily existence into the things we value most, while other things that used to seem so important…fade into the background. Sometimes, I look deeply into my own eyes in the mirror to see if I still recognize the person staring back at me. It’s a little unsettling, to be honest. A little too real. I can’t do it for long. They say it is hard because you are looking at your soul. Maybe so. This stage of life seems as surreal to me as the soaring, eerie, haunting final guitar work on Comfortably Numb. It is my all-time favorite guitar solo and David Gilmour is channeling divinity when he picks up his Stratocaster. It is a masterpiece that compels you to feel the message of the song deep in your being as the notes paint the words onto an invisible canvas.
Hello, hello, hello…Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me, is there anyone at home?
Come on now, I hear you’re feeling down
Well, I can ease your pain
Get you on your feet again…
Forgive me…I have to go now before this turns into another full-length novel. I have no answers other than my own. We have to find those for ourselves. Just keep doing your show as best you can and hold onto the vision of who you are and always wanted to be, even if you can only get a glimpse of it now and then. It’s been nice talking to you, but oh, I see something…out of the corner of my eye.