I grew up listening to “Keep On the Sunny Side” as I helped to milk cows morning and night. It was the intro to the local radio station’s country and gospel music program.
I never saw the Carter Family in person, but here is Mother Maybelle and her famous guitar and famous daughters.
Look at her face when she starts out singing about the “dark and troubled side of life.” Even though she sings about the sunny side, we can hear the dark and troubled side in her voice.
I instinctively seek “the sunny side.”
That’s why I love the name “Jubilación” for the “third act” of life, the one we enter at about age 55.
That’s why I love late July and early August when our family celebrates so many good things.
Last Saturday July 30, I turned 68 years old. It was a perfect day. Stuart and I started early and ended late, moving from one simple pleasure to another:
Good coffee and free breakfast sandwich, garden produce lunch, huge bouquets of roses, winning numbers at the sidewalk sale, finding half-off petunias to replace the dead flowers in the planter,
Driving to Charlottesville for dinner and a movie, holding hands as we walked the mall, listening to the happy birthday song from loved ones in faraway places: Lancaster, Pittsburgh, and New Jersey.
If you no longer have a living mother to sing your song, you can listen to mine, and claim this message from yours.
It’s so easy to feel grateful when so much joy, love, and beauty abounds.
Yet under all the joy, the “dark and troubled side” of life still lurks.
I spent an hour on my knees replanting the petunias into this pathetic planter in the backyard.
I vowed to take better care of the petunias. I gave them organic plant food full of little beneficial bacteria.
I watered them carefully and placed them in the sunshine.
Then I tackled the violets growing in the back yard. Violets are wonderful, beautiful flowers that send out the most amazing roots, making them great ground cover — until they overflow their boundaries and take over other plants.
Rooting out violets growing in the wrong places is like discovering the “dark and troubled” sides of ourselves. Egotism, racism, all the cardinal and ordinal sins. They are hard to extract.
You have to pull out the whole root, or it comes back.
How satisfying it is to extract one flower attached to a three-inch root!
I was so engrossed in finding new roots that I forgot how long I was bending over.
When I tried to stand up, I couldn’t. At least not without pain.
I probably have the same condition, spinal stenosis, my mother has. At 68, I can avoid pain by resting and by being careful about movement. At 88, that little trick may no longer work.
Which is the shadow side of birthdays.
The more birthdays we have, the more likely we are to experience losses or to be reminded of losses in the past.
I don’t plan to stop celebrating. I can’t keep aging and death at bay forever no matter how much care I take, and I can’t extract all my deep-rooted dark places.
Ironically, the more I feel my finitude, the more precious is every day, whether birthday or not, and the more willing I am to relax into the great, infinite, love of God.
John Updike started writing poems about his birthdays at the age of 70. He continued writing them until weeks before his death at age 76. They are collected in his last book Endpoint and Other Poems.
His very last one is a combination of the dark and sunny in his life. You can read it here in the New Yorker.
It starts with surliness and mocking the religion of his youth and ends with these words:
Surely — magnificent that “surely” —
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life, my life, forever.
John Updike was not instinctively drawn to the sunny side. Quite the contrary. He was drawn to irony sometimes to the point of cynicism. Yet he didn’t stop going to church and he found comfort in the end in the “papyrus pleas” that he had heard over and over again from the great book of both Jews and Christians. His roots were deep.
I will be reading Endpoint as I think of Jubilación this fall. I’d like to celebrate this birthday all through the year. The sunny and the dark are attached to each other in my life. They can’t be completely separate.
Perhaps I’ll write a poem about it.
How about you? How have birthdays changed for you after, say, the age of 55? If you are younger, what do you hope for as you continue to add numbers to your age?