This morning I walked to a local grocery store to buy the daily paper and a lottery ticket. Susan, the woman from the service desk at the grocery store, took my dollar fifty and handed me a lottery ticket. “Everything rolled over again,” Susan said. “The small lottery is five hundred thousand and the big one is two hundred and sixteen million.”
“Wow,” I said, “if I win one of those I can retire to Evanston.” I was making a little joke. Evanston, Illinois, is not normally thought of as a retirement destination.
But it wasn’t much of a joke, even for a little joke, and Susan asked me if I was talking about the big lottery or the small one.
Walking home, I wondered to myself why I’d picked Evanston as an ‘ironic’ retirement destination. Actually, I think I’d enjoy retiring to Evanston. It’s a college town. Lots of young people. Northwestern isn’t exactly a party school—there isn’t a lot of that kind of energy—but there are midnight movies and clubs and people with enough energy to stay up all night to watch the sun rising above Lake Michigan.
I’m not terrified of growing old. I’m not terrified of age per se. Everyone gets old. I’m not even afraid of dying. Everyone dies. I am terrified, however—terrified beyond words—of becoming out-of-touch and irrelevant. (Even as I type that I’m correcting myself in my mind to say I terrified of becoming more out-of-touch and more irrelevant.)
But, then, even as I think that I remember the case of Henry Darger.
It’s difficult to imagine anybody more out-of-touch and irrelevant that Henry Darger. Yet the images and writings Darger created are a kind of magic that now inspires millions of people all around the world. And, in fact, if Darger had been more in-touch and relevant the things he created might have been bogged down by reality—transformed into things not magical but, well, crazy in a bad sort of way.
So, maybe I shouldn’t be terrified of becoming out-of-touch and irrelevant. (Or more out-of-touch and more irrelevant.) I think the only real danger in life is letting anything—the presence of the world or its absence—mess up your work.
That having been said, however, of course it’s much easier being afraid of aging badly. You can see that happening. It’s much harder to look at stuff you create and try to figure out if it’s good or bad, idiosyncratic or pedestrian, magically weird or just sadly insane . . .