Today is my birthday. I am a day older than I was yesterday, that’s all, certainly not a whole year older. So it’s odd that we worry so much about the increasing numbers that pop up every birthday to remind us of time passing. I never wanted to be older than I was – when I was nine, I was appalled at the idea of being ten – but it wasn’t as bad as all that when it happened, and now I can hardly imagine being so young.
Being born in February, my birthday is near the start of the year, so it catches up with me quickly, with little respite. I always liked being born in February, bizarrely enough, perhaps because January came too close on the tails of Christmas, and March is a harsh word, reminiscent of winds and flailing daffodils (almost certainly from my much-read and loved Hilda Boswell poetry book). No, I liked my rainy February, and my early date – it was always February the Fourth, all in capitals. Had I been born on the 24th, it would just have been the 24th of February, not nearly so good. And perhaps it was because my date of birth was all even numbers that, to me at least, it seemed special, especially because my brother was born on an odd number of an odd month in an odd year.
But I was the older sibling, which always seemed to me to be a disadvantage, and still does, even though we were born only a year apart. I reach all those unfortunate milestones first. I will always be older, as I was born first, no matter which of us dies first. One could view it differently, that death keeps you forever at that same age, but I don’t believe it. You will always be born at a certain moment in time, and, if you are lucky, you will grow up and then become older, but time won’t stop when you die. And what happens beyond death is still unknown, even to those who believe they know.
Back to the more mundane, it’s odd that we live in an ageing society, yet seem so obsessed with youth. We want to live longer, to age, yet at the same time we are calling back to our youth in a way that is most peculiar. My own youth – my twenties and thirties – encompassed some of the hardest times of my life. Obviously I made choices, such as career and family, that contributed to this, and I don’t necessarily regret these. But while I may have had lovely hair and blooming skin, what did these matter? And how much less does it matter now, in my gentler middle age, when I no longer have them?
Perhaps it’s perspective. All through life one’s view of others is from where we are now. So if I see a twenty year old, my reaction is very different from when I was twenty myself. I might, for a moment, wish I was twenty again, but it’s only a wish. I can never be twenty again, and I will never again view others from the body and mind of a twenty year old. It’s also easy to criticise young people, especially one’s own children, but it’s not fair. I’ve often heard the expression – ‘Youth is wasted on the young’ – and it never ceases to strike me as ridiculous. What would we, the older ones, do with youth? Preserve it, sell it, linger over it? We think we know more, but we don’t, or what we know is different. Youth is fleeting, and belongs to those who cannot appreciate it because they can’t see it, they’re just not old enough. That is the whole point of youth.
So, throw away youth when it’s gone, stop chasing it. I don’t mean let yourself go, far from it, but look good for where you’ve got to. Be age appropriate! It’s curious how we want to live longer, but not get older, and that notion is what we must change, largely because it’s impossible. I don’t deny that age is frightening, and many of us will remember glimpsing the very old with horror and fascination when we were very young. Age is the path to the end, and will likely be littered with illness, personal suffering and, above all, loss. All these are more likely as we age, yet can occur at any time, and are part of being human. Fearing them will not stop them happening and will have its own repercussions.
I am a naturally fearful person, who wastes a lot of time worrying about what will and won’t happen next. But I’m also a naturally happy person, much of the time. I like to think of my youth with nostalgia, because it helps me to remember things differently than when they were bright and immediate. It helps me to make sense of things, and think of new things. I am at a stage of life where I consider myself neither young nor old, but I want to look forward to each birthday that takes me further towards old age. There’s no stopping time, and there are many of us past our first youth. Life should not be a brief moment in our twenties, which we race towards then look back at with regret.
Like any time in life, we should enjoy what we can, and live the rest. I can’t say what others should do, and I don’t know what lies ahead for me, but I consider myself very lucky to have got this far. I’d like to have a lot more birthdays, but time will go on whatever I do, and there’s nothing I can do to change that. Or the slightly annoying fact that my brother will always be a year younger than me. In the meantime, I shall enjoy my birthday.