“Oh to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the coloured balloons.
You can’t be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you’re thinking that
You’re leaving there too soon.”
Neil Young, from Sugar Mountain
There is a time in your life when all opportunities seem available to you, a time when, whether it’s school, travel, love or work, any number of options are still to come. If any particular relationship, living situation or job doesn’t work out, well, there are always more chances ahead.
And then one day, approximately two and half heartbeats later, you wake up to the reality that this wide open future no longer awaits you.
Kids do it to you more than anything else. You can always change jobs, move to another city, or leave a lover, but a child is forever. No changing your mind, after the fact. As Neil Young has written in another song (Already One), once that charming little creature of yours enters into the world, he or she “won’t let [you] forget.”
The arc of a life affair is like a splendid strand of fireworks, trailing sparks as it rockets up into a starry sky, only to “too soon” begin the downward turn, moments away from extinguishment. To draw upon another pop culture reference, Anthony Hopkins, in the critically-maligned-but-actually-rather-decent Meet Joe Black, stands addressing the crowd assembled for his 65th birthday, knowing Death awaits him at the edge of the party: “Sixty-five years. Didn’t they go by in a blink?”
I’m not quite there yet, but I’m acutely aware that opportunities are now diminishing for me, not expanding. My father will turn 91 this year. We got him out to Galiano over the summer for what may well be his last visit to a place where he spent many warm days noodling around on various “projects”—a septic pipe for his trailer which emptied into two separate, submerged plastic garbage barrels (I kid you not), a wooden tower for a golden-coloured metal weather vane that weighs roughly 400 pounds, and has never once moved.
Dad and three of his brothers went off to war while all still in either their teens or twenties (Dad was 18). Only two of them came back. They didn’t cause the war, not in the slightest possible way, but it impacted their lives in a way I can only imagine. On my mother’s side, my uncle’s entire graduating class walked from the Olds Agricultural College up to Edmonton, enlisting en masse. Such were the times, and the excitement in the air for young people, eager for experience.
Sugar Mountain is about the transition from childhood to adolescence, marked by things like (for Young’s generation) a furtive first cigarette beneath the stairs, or a secret, world-exploding note from that girl “down the aisle.” We all leave the magic of childhood “too soon,” but then the other transitions of life seem to pile on pretty rapidly too. The end of school, perhaps marriage, the death of our parents, children leaving home. It all comes at you like rolling breakers at the beach, just as irresistible.
Oddly enough, the passage of time does not slow as we age. In fact it accelerates, causing whole chapters of our lives to blur into a kind of muted cacophony of sounds and pictures, like a tape set to fast forward. (I’ve commented here on this blog on the blur of the child-rearing years.) That year’s time, say grade four, which seemed to drag on forever for me as a child now seems to hurtle by in an instant, like an approaching pedestrian whom I don’t recognize until he’s passed me by. Too late to even smile.
Most of us will live ordinary lives. We won’t be rich, or famous, extraordinarily powerful, or especially attractive. But if we’re lucky, and if we make just enough good choices, we will live long and well. It won’t be a perfect record, not even close, and there will be a fair number of regrets, but if tragedy, disease, natural catastrophes and the sordid affairs of nation states leave you largely untouched, you will live long, and you will find meaning. It will come with children, and those others whom you love. If you are so lucky, it will come whether you like it or not. No need to hurry.