Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Thursday, May 30, 2013

"This body that does me grievous wrong ..."

Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In 1828, Coleridge published the first version of his poem "Youth and Age" (in 1834 he added some more lines to complete the poem we have today), a work in which the speaker talks with some nostalgia, some bitterness, about the ways that age has transformed his youth.  A few years ago, I memorized a section of the full poem--and here's the part I've learned:

When I was young? – Ah, woeful When!
Ah! for the change ’twixt Now and Then!
This breathing house not built with hands,
This body that does me grievous wrong,
O’er aery cliffs and glittering sands
How lightly then it flashed along,
Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore,
On winding lakes and rivers wide,
That ask no aid of sail or oar,
That fear no spite of wind or tide!
Nought cared this body for wind or weather
When Youth and I lived in’t together.

By the way--two signs of my own aging emerged while I was finding this poem on the Internet (so I could cut-and-paste here):
  • I typed "when I was you-" into Google's search window, and that's as far as I got before Google (oh, speedy, youthful Google) started making suggestions that I visit sites (YouTube among them) where I could hear/see/read about Bruno Mars and his "When I Was Your Age."  Here's a link to that, if you're interested!
  • I realized, reading over the text of the passage, that I'd "mis-memorized" some of it--well, a single word, actually.  A little over halfway down ... see the line that says Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore? ... well, for some reason, I'd memorized that as trip skiffs.  (I checked a number of other sources: It is, indeed, trim, not trip.) I always thought trip was kind of weird there, but, you know, Coleridge knew what he was doing ...  I've done that before, mis-memorize. Probably the earliest time was in elementary school when many of us chanted every morning in our classrooms: I pledge of allegiance to the flag .... Hell, none of us knew what allegiance was, though I'm sure our teachers explained. Just didn't stick.
Anyway, Coleridge ...  He had been a vigorous, energetic young man, walking many miles many times. But he couldn't walk fast enough. Illness and age caught him. He slowed, put on weight, and his opium addiction made him suffer from severe constipation (I know: TMI). Later on, pretty much all he could do was sit. That sad future awaits many of us as we proceed through life's cycles. We begin our lives lying down; we sit; we crawl; we stand; we walk; we run; we slow; we try a cane; we use a walker; we sit; we lie again. (Shakespeare is smiling: He knew.  Remember his "seven ages of man" speech in As You Like It? Here's a YouTube link to Morgan Freeman delivering the speech.)  Coleridge was only 56 when he wrote those lines--not old in our time, not for most of us. But in his? He was already well past the average life expectancy (about 40 for men).

In most of my own life, I was fortunate. I never had a serious injury. I never had a serious illness. I always had enormous energy.  And then--about the time I turned 50--things started to happen. Bell's palsy (mostly recovered). Skin cancer. Prostate cancer. Still--even with those problems, I recovered quickly.

But my overall strength and energy began a slow decline. Weight came on more easily, departed more reluctantly. I was ready for bed early in the evening. It was harder to get up in the morning. 

And exercise? Most of my adulthood I've exercised regularly. I used to run 4-6 miles a day--rain or shine, hot or cold, day or night. (I did a few ten-milers, too.) I ran in 10K races, broke 40 minutes a couple of times. For some years I played tennis before school every morning at 5:30 at the Western Reserve Raquet Club.  Then ... ankles, knees, shoulders, elbows declared they'd had enough. No more running.  No more tennis.

I took up cycling. I rode (and still ride) a bike around town for short trips. In good weather, I rode back and forth to my classes at Western Reserve Academy (only about three blocks away--but still). I also ride an exercise bike (a Schwinn Airdyne--with handles that move in synch with the pedals--so I get a little upper-body work, too) out at the local health club for a hard thirty minutes every day, trying to burn at least 500 calories in that time, cover 10-11 miles.

But here's the problem--here's what occasioned this post today. On that Airdyne I used to ride thirty minutes, hard, no stopping to rest (except on very rare days when I didn't feel 100%).  And now?  Most days I go twenty minutes; rest three minutes; finish the final ten.  Some days I have to stop twice. Some days I have to ride two or three extra minutes to reach the 500-calorie mark. I haven't been able to do the full non-stop thirty in months. And I cursed my body for doing me grievous wrong ...

But the other day, I realized: This is not going to get better. For the first time in your life, things are not going to improve.  It's probable--likely--that I am not suddenly going to pedal hard for thirty consecutive minutes. Ever again. I will be 69 this fall. And cancer is in me.

Those are dark thoughts, I know. But realistic ones, too. We will not forever be able to do the things we love--or be with the people we love. As Coleridge knew, it's always chilling--whenever it comes--to feel mortality's breath.

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