My New Old Age
Wherein Paul Simon reminds me of something my mother said.
I’m listening to Miracles and Wonder, Malcolm Gladwell’s audio profile of Paul Simon and his music. Gladwell’s interviews with Paul Simon and his long-time engineer Roy Hallee and his brief for the music’s importance lasts a little over five hours. As an interviewer, Gladwell is, as usual, annoying. He’s pretentious, star-struck, and over-eggs the analysis. Nevertheless, it’s worth listening to, for Simon’s thoughts on his own music and the history of his songs’ origins.
In the chapter devoted to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” Simon explains how he composed the music, what thoughts informed the lyrics, and how it came to be recorded in the way it was recorded. He bundles into the song a regret that has nothing to do with its lyrics and only a little to do with the music. He regrets was he wrote a song that he wasn’t best suited to sing, because its pitch was higher than his own voice could easily accommodate. As a result, Garfunkel and Aretha Franklin, both singing solo, made hits of “Bridge.” He said his regret resembles the feeling of a parent who gives a child up for adoption. This comment of his reminded me of the impression I’ve had for years that from that album on Simon wanted, needed to be and to be seen to be the sole creator and interpreter of his art. I remember an TV interview with him probably 25 or so years ago, in the course of which he said, when he heard accolades for Garfunkel’s voice on the recording of his song, all he heard in his head was “Author! Author!” Or words very close to that effect. At the time, when I was in my 30s, Simon’s expression of regret struck me as petulant, ungenerous even.
Then, Simon recalled to Gladwell a comment his mother once made to him, when he was just starting out with Garfunkel. His mother told her son that his voice was ok but “Arthur’s voice was fine.” To Gladwell, he did not explain the significance of the anecdote. Instead, he let it hang in the air for a moment or two. He seemed to think the significance of his mother’s comment was self-evident. Or, perhaps Simon wasn’t willing to commit orally to a stranger how his mother’s words affected him. In any case, the silence surrounding the words as he spoke them suggests that he has still resents for the remark half a century later. He seems to ask, how could a mother say something like that to her own child, whom she knew was striving to become a successful musician? Now 80 years old, he may have forgiven her long ago, but the injury itself became chronic.
Listening to this part of Miracle and Wonder, I remembered a chronic injury of my own that made me feel more generous toward Paul Simon than I was in my 30s. My mother made a similar comment to me at some point between the ages of twelve and fourteen, when I was writing stories and keeping a journal. I gave my stories to my mother to read. I needed her approval, because I knew my mother read literature and non-fiction with societal themes. I remember thinking of her a cultured woman, although I’m not sure I had a clear idea of what that meant. Up until then, she encouraged me to read and, secondarily, to write. I don’t remember reading or writing before she remarried her third husband, Gordon, but from the time we moved into his house, I always had bookcases in my bedroom. During these early years, in which my mother and this new husband were most physically and vocally combative, I spent a lot of time in my bedroom reading or hanging out at friends’ houses. Even after my mother and stepfather achieved a truce, I continued to read in my room and not engage with them or my sisters. But I stopped writing stories, because of my mother.
Around the time I turned twelve, I developed two interests: British royalty and old movies. I grew interested in the history of the British monarchy. The stories of their lives, including the present queen’s, became my hobby and obsession. It gave me ample scope for memorizing birthdays, family trees, significant dates. I became a royal geek. I devoted the same mental energy to the arcana of old Hollywood. What was the name of actor who played the hood Cary Grant’s Walter Burns relied on to thwart Hildy Johnson’s marriage? Abner Biberman. That sort of detail.
Elements of both obsessions began to show up in my stories at an early stage of my fledgling daily writing practice. I gave my mother a story that, I think, involved a princess. After she read it, she said in a harsh, dismissive way, “This isn’t writing. It’s fantasy. I don’t want to read this. Write something serious.” I stopped writing.
I also never forgot what she said, although I had to move to the other side of the country before I could admit to myself that I felt squashed when she dismissed my story as trivial. At that point in my life, writing, I subsequently came to understand, was the rope that held together the raft that was carrying me away from my turbulent childhood to a safe shore. When the raft came apart, I was forced to swim, which was much harder. Eventually, I swam all the way to California in 1974, when I was 18 and never moved back into my mother’s proximity.
The wound my mother’s rejection inflicted and the much greater damage she and my mostly absent father, in their utter incapacity to parent, brought down on my and my sisters’ heads eventually healed on the surface. I overcame my mother’s discouragement to the extent that I fell into academia in my early 30s and learned how to write in a properly academic way. But I never forgot what she said to me.
I’m now 66 years old. It continues to astonish me that the wounds we suffer as children still hurt in this late stage of life. Maturing has more to do with shrugging and getting on with life than it does with resolution, healing, or closure. Paul Simon’s creative success has reminded me that it’s my responsibility that I acceded to my mother’s judgment. It’s not the past I want to change. It’s the future.
Here lies the challenge of the next decade or two, however many years I have left in life. Where is my next field of action? The so-called New Old Age will be meaningless to me if I cannot begin this new phase of life with as much anticipation and expectation as I felt each time I moved to a new city, a new coast, or a new country. I will not accede to artificial limits imposed on me by others’ expectations of how I should live. I will write what I want.