I always thought that middle age would be a bit embarrassing, like getting fat around the middle. While this true, it’s also proved to be completely unimportant. Being middle-aged means what it says on the tin: being in the middle of other age groups, not in the middle of my own lifespan (inshallah). ‘I’ am really just a bit of a larger social animal. Just a bump on the great cosmic caterpillar, chewing its way through space and time and, yes, getting a little fat around the middle.
The Cosmic Caterpillar
What is the cosmic caterpillar? I read this somewhere and will retell it, badly. Imagine alien observers who perceive time differently, like all at once. Whereas we see our bodies in the here and now, they perceive each body we inhabit (the toddler, the adolescent, the adult) as part of one linked whole, weaving through time and space. The great cosmic caterpillar, if you will.
It’s all one cosmic conga line, between your various selves and the selves that came before and after as well. This line was connected to your ancestors and your descendants, and where an individual ‘cuts’ the line is a matter of personal preference, it has no philosophical import at all (as the Buddha et al have said). Individualism is simply an illusion in the way we perceive time and these higher dimensional beings don’t see it that way at all. With the doors of perception cleansed, as Aldous Huxley said, they see everything as it is, infinite. I always thought that was a more accurate way of looking at life. Not as a fixed point in space/time but as a continuous process of living.
Viewed, then, as merely one bump on a caterpillar conga line, it is more clear where I am as a middle-aged man. Not a man in the middle of his life (who knows? who cares?) but a man in the middle of other living beings. Which is the much more relevant part of the experience. I am literally between my parents and my children. Between dying and birth. Not my own birth (which I can’t remember) and my own death (which I definitely won’t), but between other creatures’ deaths and births, which is how I actually experience my life. Through the living.
The bitter-sweetness of middle age is that you can see the whole process, because it’s all happening right in front of you. I am surrounded by both mewling and puking babies and the second childishness of parents and grandparents. As Shakespeare said, all the world’s a stage, and middle age is a seat literally in the middle.
This is what nobody tells you when you’re young, or maybe they did, I wasn’t paying attention. When I was young I was pre-occupied with reproducing and didn’t think much about what I was reproducing. Now that I’ve done that and I’m biologically superfluous I have more inclination for introspection. This navel-gazing is actually quite useful because it reminds me that I’m connected to my mother and my children are connected to me; the very evidence of the cosmic caterpillar is contained in that phrase we use so dismissively. When I was young I didn’t think about any of this because it was frankly irrelevant, but now that I’m irrelevant, it bears thinking.
When I was young, mashallah, my parents were in good health, my grandparents were either around or long gone, and I lived in a period of relative stability. Like a bird in a nest. What does a bird know about the nest until it leaves it? What does a bird understand about the nest until it builds one? We think birds are so free because they’re flying, but they’re really just going in circles, like all of us are, god willing.
I didn’t realize my parents were holding together the illusion of me until I had to hold together my own little illusions, who are constantly leaking fluids. Now I’m where my parents were and I realize, they were just as young as me. You don’t know you’re going in circles until you spot something familiar, like your parents, in your own reflection. So now I’m here, trying to hold it all together for some new babies with their mouths out, squalling. I don’t know how to tell them, you’re not birds, you’re caterpillars. And what happens to caterpillars? They get eaten.
I remember seeing my daughter caterpillar out of my wife and now I’m seeing my grandmother caterpillar out of this life and they’re both terrifying experiences. One is terrifyingly cool and the other is literally bone-chilling. And they’re inexorably connected. Daughter and grandmother are the same lifeform really, they’re only separated by my crude perception. I can see it from the middle but I can’t communicate this information to either one of them. One is just emerging out of the fog and the other is descending into it. Anyways, neither is particularly interested.
Gods know my children have seen enough death already, but they don’t feel it the same as us middle people. And my Achchi, after 99 years, welcomes it. She keeps telling me she’s going to die in a few days and I keep telling her to wait for this or that occasion. She repeats the same mundane questions, none of them metaphysical. When my children have to talk about death, they always ask the same question. Will you and Mama die? I realize this is the correct way to look at it. They instinctively understand the social organism (because they’re fresh off the mammary) and that it’s not your own death that really hurts, it’s your Mama’s. Death is unknown to the dead. Death is really experienced in other bodies, by the living.
We see the end of the line long before we get there, and it hurts for a long time before we finally stop feeling. They say a coward dies many times before his death but we all cower in front of death. We all die many times, through our grandparents, parents, friends, and even our children if we’re unlucky. This is what’s so traumatic about middle age. Half the people you know are statistically dying, and you live in terror of losing the younger half prematurely. Being a middle-ager means being in the middle of the cosmic Slinky, as it tumbles down the stairs, over and over. Or as Shakespeare called it, ‘this mortal coil’, shuffling. Life is just picking yourself up to fall down the stairs some more, passing your energy to your children (in whatever form) as they repeat the process, over and over. That’s all reproduction is. We keep re:producing and the gods keep destroying and neither of us wants to give up the ghost. I’ve seen the process portrayed our own small drama, on the East Coast.
Years ago, my kids were standing in the great big ocean with their grandfather. Suddenly a big wave came and bowled them all out. The grandfather grabbed my daughter and held her aloft, as the wave took him under. That’s all life is, in a microcosm. We can’t do anything about the great ocean, but we can hold a baby over our heads as we go down. In this case, the baby didn’t know what’s going on and neither did the old man going under, but the middle-aged man standing there could see it all (it was hilarious). And so I can see it in my mind’s eye now. Life has been this way since we popped out of the ocean billions of years ago. Creatures keep dying and holding their babies aloft. While the depths eventually get every one of us, they never get n+1. And so life goes on.
You can’t really see it when you’re up, and you can’t see much when you’re down, but when you’re in the middle it’s obvious. Your life is not your own. You’re connected to both the living and the dead in a long cosmic caterpillar, going back to the first cell that split for some one else to have a go. In middle age you're near both the entrances and the exits and you can see how “one man in his time plays many parts,” as the Bard said. Or as the Buddha said, “having known that this body is comparable to foam and understanding that it is of the nature of a mirage, let him go beyond the sight of death, having broken off the flowery arrows of Māra.”
The Buddha died around ‘middle-age’ or, more specifically, ceased to be reborn. Even though I know about his middle path out of dukkha, I don’t want to take it. It’s just too hard. Maybe next time around. In this life I like to stop and smell the flowers, even though they’re mostly on graves now. That’s what nobody tells you about middle age. Half the people you know are on the way out, including yourself if we’re being honest. And the other half are trying to kill themselves through sheer curiosity. As we speak, my loud children are crawling all over and preventing me from finishing this thing, which is a metaphor for life if I’ve ever experienced one. So I’ll just let my son type something and then I’ll be gone. lili is the best a st. There we are.