The View From 56

     It took me decades to learn three simple things – because I read them instead of learning them myself.
     “Decades” is too easy to say – it took me years and years and years to understand this, though I knew what the words meant all along.
     When he was an old man, Mark Twain wrote that he had no regrets except for a few good deeds he had done. He said that he didn’t think anyone younger than 50 would understand what he meant, but that anyone older than 50 would. I had no idea what he meant until I was around 50.
     Gertrude Stein advised writers that when you go over something you have written, if you find a sentence you particularly like, strike it out.
     This is the only thing I ever heard Gertrude Stein say that made any sense. But it didn’t make sense to me for more than 20 years.
     The third thing was written by Malcolm Cowley, in a book called “The View From 80.” This is the sort of book I would like to write some day – not a book about being 80, and not a book such as Malcolm Cowley would write – a book where a publisher says, “Would you like to write a book for us? We will pay you now, and then you can write what you like.” I would say, “Oh, I suppose.” That’s the sort of book I’d like to write.
     Cowley wrote that people had asked him if there was anything he enjoyed more at 80 than he did when he was a young man. Cowley said yes, there was. He enjoyed sitting on a chair in the sun. He said that just sitting there, his legs feeling good, not feeling bad anywhere, not particularly wanting to get up and do anything, was a fine thing, which he could not appreciate until he was 80.
     I did not see that as anything to look forward to.
     It was a pretty rough winter in Vermont. We came within a few inches of setting a record for snowfall. Then when the cold rain melted the snow, it never warmed up. The sun wouldn’t come out. It was so cold and overcast well into spring that the weatherman on Vermont Public Radio started predicting “a few sun breaks, maybe, in the afternoon.”
     A few sun breaks.
     A nice week in April was followed by more cold and gloom. Frost right up until Memorial Day. It didn’t rain much – Vermonters called it a dry spell – but even into June it stayed cloudy, chilly and dreary. Then last weekend the temperature went up to 101. It stayed there for four days, and it was humid. It was too hot to think, too hot to move, too hot to sleep. Our two mama cats abandoned their week-old kittens so they could lie and pant on a wood floor. I took abbreviated bike rides, so I would be tired enough to sleep through the unbearable, stuffy nights. The only useful thing I did was to stick a bowl of buttermilk in the sun for three days, to curdle it for sourdough bread.
     Tuesday night the storm came. It lightninged and thundered and rained like hell from 10 until midnight. In the morning, wisps of clouds hung to the mountainsides; they boiled off the forest when the sun rose. It turned into a perfect day – cool and hot – breezy but not windy. I took a ride up a mountain in Massachusetts and then walked the dogs up the steep hill behind our house. Every direction is shades of green. The hills and forests go on and on so far into the distance they become blue.
     Our local organic farmer had mowed the grass during the hot days and then baled it up, so our cat Moneypenny joined me and the dogs on the hike. She likes to walk with the dogs, lagging behind, chasing insects, investigating things, then sprinting up or down the hill until she catches us. Then she lies down and pants like a dog and falls behind again. When Moneypenny runs after us, her feet pound like a little buffalo’s. If the fog comes in on cat feet like Moneypenny’s, it’ll scare the hell out of everyone.
     Home again, the sun is setting and I sit in a chair on the back porch eating sourdough rye bread. As evening falls, it is neither cold nor hot; it feels like there is no temperature at all. The breeze feels good when it starts and good when it stops. Cats loll about the yard and the dogs watch. We are surrounded by trees – white pines, maples, dogwoods, spruce, apples, birches, Japanese maples with their feathery leaves, other trees with whom I am unacquainted. The leaves quiver as the sun strikes the topmost branches.
     If I could choose anything in the world to do right now – New York, Rome, baseball games, music, museums, bars, parties, younameit – I believe I would choose to just sit here.

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