Reading the news of May 4th, I happened across an article by David Rust, a man who was a college student and ROTC member at Kent State at the time of the shootings 40 years ago. Along with the memoir was a series of pictures, including these two:
The first is Rust as a young man. He is sullen and no doubt trying to look tough and martial for his ROTC photo. The second is a more current picture of the man in his capacity as camera man for CNN. I found myself drawn to the second one. The eyes are much the same, though more tired, softer…a gaze that had seen much and remembered most of it, for better and worse.
Two days before, I’d seen the news about the death of actress Lynn Redgrave, and it was still in the news. I had an image in my head of her, but had come upon a picture of her as a young woman, and she reminded me of her niece, Natasha Richardson, who died last year. I looked up additional pictures of her as a young woman, and while the resemblance wasn’t as obvious in other pictures, I found myself appreciating the recent photos of her more.
I have already arrived at the point in my life where I can see the beauty of youth itself. There is beauty in the brand-new, unscarred, unsullied, innocent, and for much the same reason we love new-car smell, we love to see buildings, products, and people that are fresh and new, because within them there is the possibility, if not promise, of some ineffable thing that will make all the difference to our lives, or maybe just our day. They are a blank slate, nothing but potential, and in potential lie the answers to our most fervent prayers and the fulfillment of our most secret desires. Potential is hope in its purest, most expansive form.
But in looking at the older versions of David Rust, Lynn Redgrave, or even myself in the mirror, and comparing those views to pictures of past versions, I am struck by a couple of things. First of all, I lament the harsh assessments I subjected myself (and no doubt others) to in my younger days. I remember reading a memoir by Eric Idle, and in an interview someone asked him what he thinks when he watches the old Monty Python sketches, now some 40 years old. Unexpectedly (at least by me), he commented about being surprised at how cute they all were back then, and how they had no idea. That really stuck with me as truth. We spend so many of our teen years thinking we’re hideous, pocked, and marked for a life of certain loneliness and involuntary celibacy, and that insecurity can dog us well into our twenties, (and beyond, I suppose). I look at pictures of myself from when Scott and I were dating, though, and wonder why I was so hard on myself. I was cute; he was cute; everybody I knew was cute. And everyone I know now is, too. And I wonder how our lives, then and now, would be different if we’d realized it and been able to by-pass all that self-doubt and self-loathing. How much more could we be and give if we hadn’t been pouring so much energy into that bottomless hole?
But although I can look back at my younger self with more generous eyes now, I have to say that despite the gray hair, the lines around my eyes, and the middle-aged spread, I appreciate what I see in the mirror now more than ever before. Maybe because I earned it all. Maybe because there is a depth, a history, a real person who’s lived rather than a young proto-person there. In the eyes of those who have lived long, there are stories, all the stories that gave us the much-praised and inevitably hard-earned “character” that we claim to cherish.
Recently I learned of the Japanese aesthetic of “wabi-sabi,” a concept somewhat antithetical to the beauty of youth and newness. It’s the idea that the way things age and the transitory nature of all things are a part of their essential beauty and should be celebrated instead of hidden or replaced. If nothing else, I appreciate those who’ve made it far enough through this life to be lined, scarred, and are still walking despite the slings and arrows of fortune, outrageous and otherwise; life isn’t for wimps, and it can take even the strongest of us down. It is in those faces, though, that we see the resilience and tenacity of the human soul. And that, my friends, is beautiful.