I’m nine years old, in bed, in the dark. The detail in the room is perfectly clear. I am lying on my back. I have a greeny-gold quilted eiderdown covering me. I have just calculated that I will be 50 years old in 1997. ‘Fifty’ and ‘1997’ don’t mean a thing to me, aside from being an answer to an arithmetic question I set myself. I try it differently. ‘I will be 50 in 1997.’ 1997 doesn’t matter. ‘I will be 50.’ The statement is absurd. I am nine. ‘I will be ten’ makes sense. ‘I will be 13’ has a dreamlike maturity about it. ‘I will be 50’ is simply a paraphrase for another senseless statement I make to myself at night: ‘I will be dead one day.’ ‘One day I won’t be.’ I have a great determination to feel the sentence as a reality. But it always escapes me. ‘I will be dead’ comes with a picture of a dead body on a bed. But it’s mine, a nine-year-old body. When I make it old, it becomes someone else. I can’t imagine myself dead. I can’t imagine myself dying. Either the effort or the failure to do so makes me feel panicky.
Being 50 is not being dead, but it is being old, inconceivably old, for me, that is. I know other people are old, other people are 50, and I will be 50 if I don’t die beforehand. But the best I can do is to imagine someone who is not me, though not someone I know, being 50. She looks like an old lady; the way old ladies currently look. She looks like someone else. I can’t connect me thinking about her with the fact that I will be her in 41 years’ time. She has lived through and known 41 years to which I have no access. I can’t believe I will become her, though I know, factually, that I must. I can’t dress myself in her clothes and her flesh and know what it feels like being her. This is immensely frustrating. I do the next best thing. I send a message out into the future, etch into my brain cells a memo to the other person, who will be me grown to be 50, to remember this moment, this very moment, this actual second when I am nine, in bed, in the dark, trying to imagine being 50.
I was 50 in the summer of 1997 and for the past year I have been recalling the nine-year-old who tried to imagine me. I mean, I have been recalling her trying to imagine me, at that moment, in bed, in the dark, some 41 years ago. I have finally received the memo. It is easier for me to acknowledge her than the other way round, for all that I have learned about the unreliability of memory, because I have lived the missing 41 years she could know nothing about. There is a track back. The vividness of her making a note to remember the moment when she is 50 is startling. But it’s not a simple, direct link. I have the moment, but the person I connect with is someone whose future I know. I do not know the nine-year-old as she was then, at all; the one who had not yet experienced the life I led between her and me. I can’t imagine her as a reality, in her striving to understand what kind of 50-year-old woman she would be, because she doesn’t exist anymore except as a pinpoint in time. She now has an indelible relation to me back through time, that I could not have for her aiming forward. There is a sense of vertigo, something quite dizzying about having arrived at the unimaginable point she reached out towards, at recalling her message and being in a position – but not able – to answer it: here I am, it’s like this.
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[*] Welcome to Middle Age! (And Other Cultural Fictions), edited by Richard Shweder (Chicago, 302 pp., £12.75, 14 July, 0 226 75607 6).