In no way do I mean to pick on Maurice Sendak here. It’s what’s being said, not who’s saying it that’s weighing on my mind. I think that what I’m about to quote him as saying could be said and has been said by many eighty year olds contemplating their impending mortality. Many forty year olds too.
I think I'm getting out just in time. Watching the news, everything seems to be in disorder. Everybody seems to be unhappy. We've lost the knack of living in the world with the sensation of safety.
Pick a year, one year out of your whole life, when that wasn’t a reasonable way to look at the world on your way out of it. I can’t think of one. My guess is that if you have, you’re probably no more than twenty-five and all your choice really tells us is that you’re no more than twenty-five.
I wonder how many people on their deathbed after a long life have looked at what they’re about to leave behind and thought, “Damn, just as it was about to get interesting…”
Benjamin Franklin, maybe.
I think one of the first signs that you’re getting old is that you start losing the ability to see life as having order and promising happiness. Some people lose this ability sooner than others, which means that some people get old in their thirties and some people get old when they’re teenagers and children and some people are just born old. Getting past childhood with that ability means that you were born lucky. It means that you were lucky to be born into a place and a time where starvation, disease, and violence weren’t the cultural weather. It means that there’s a good chance you were born an American.
Wherever you were born, it also probably means you were lucky to find yourself in the company of people who were glad to see you and cared deeply that you’d arrived and did their best to make the world around you seem ordered and full of the potential for happiness.
When you’re young, life looks like it has order and the promise of happiness, mainly because life seems to be all about you and you have the energy and optimism to create order and find things to be happy about as you move forward towards a future you who, you are sure, will be even happier in a world that’s been ordered (by you) around you and your happiness.
Happiness, by the way, is just a hopeful euphemism for not miserable.
Life, though, starts getting less and less happy after you’re forty. Partly it’s due to your body starting to wear down and with it your spirit. It’s hard to be an optimist when your joints ache. Mainly, though, it’s due to people who helped make life happy for you starting to disappear at an alarming rate.
What I think---ok, what I hope for myself---is that some people get lucky a second time. They develop a degree of detachment, from themselves and from life, that allows them not to take it all so personally.
Along with that bit of luck might come another bit of luck, the strength and the energy and the ability to make life seem ordered and full of the potential for happiness for others.
If you get down to the end and you can still do that, then maybe that’s what will have you saying, “Damn, just when it was starting to get interesting…”
I hope Sendak was just in a bad mood because he wasn’t feeling well and that he can look around and console himself with the thought, Well, even if I’ve lost the ability to make life seem ordered and full of the potential for happiness, I once had it and I’m leaving behind what I did with that ability.
Recently a mural Sendak painted in 1961 on a Manhattan apartment wall was cut out (1,400-pound wall and all), transported to Philadelphia, and restored. He says he is very sorry he couldn't get to Philadelphia this month to see it unveiled in its new home, the Rosenbach Museum and Library on Delancey Street, where his papers, original art, and ephemera are collected. He had wanted to renew his acquaintance with Rosalyn and Lionel Chertoff's children, for whom he painted it as they "ran in and out of the room."
Sadly, darker thoughts seems to be weighing on his mind, as you can see in this story by Amy S. Rosenberg in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
In this 2005 interview with NPR, Sendak says his favorite subject is “scaring children.”