So, I turn 39 tomorrow.
I tend toward the maudlin around my birthday, starting exactly 10 years ago. That transitional boundary between my 20s and 30s left me a little shaken and sad, and the subsequent push toward 40 hasn't been one I've accepted gracefully.
In my professional life, I've always felt a sense of running out of time, of racing the clock, coupled with the omnipresent dread that the stories locked away inside me won't be told in time.
(No, it isn't pleasant, thank you for asking.)
At times like this, I tend to look back, take stock, remember the things that have been lost in my strangely permeable memory. (Wholesale sections of my childhood are just gone, and I've always had difficulty remembering the chronology of events during times I found particularly traumatic. It's all fog and shadows.)
Those memories come back in shards, suddenly and with startling clarity. One such memory:
It was fall, edging into winter, in upstate New York. I was a freshman in high school (late '85, or thereabouts), and it was the beginning of a happier period of my life.
I had been "adopted" by the school librarian -- often I was allowed to remain in the library beyond the allotted permissible number of "study periods" one could spend there. I think Mrs. Gardener -- the librarian -- recognized that I was something of a loner, and I would lose myself for hours in there, reading voraciously.
That particular late-Autumn afternoon, she suggested a book to me: "Deathbird Stories" by Harlan Ellison. I'm not sure why, and I'm honestly a little shocked that our provincial little school library even had it on the shelves. Walking home, through the local "recreational" park (a couple of tennis courts, an unpleasant artificial "lake" for summer swimming, some kids' playground gear), I stopped at a favorite haunt: a particular tree that I used to climb, on a windswept hill.
It was my favorite place to sit and read in the summer. So, despite the gathering gloom, (limned by the oddly golden, thin light that autumn afternoons-moving-on-to-evenings that characterizes the Adirondacks and that chilly season), I adjusted my scarf against the biting wind with, and hauled myself up into the branches.
Settling back against the cold bark of the tree trunk, I cracked the cover of "Deathbird Stories" and read "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs."
A transformative moment, for sure. Blistering, rage-soaked prose, a ghastly tale of inhumanity in a lightly fantastic cloak. Eye opening.
There's something about Ellison's work that always transports me back to that cold day, the coppery Autumn sunshine, the biting wind. It is a melancholy memory but also powerful; that sense, upon reading those words, of the power could be packed into words on the page.
Not a bad moment to look back on.