Digital StillCamera

A friend of mine turns sixty today, and another will in the fall. Both are taking on new projects and generally asking, each in their own way, “What next?” This is the time of life that I’ve come to think of as the “blue hour.”

Conventional wisdom has it that “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” But we don’t seem to notice that it’s often brightest before the night. The blue hour is that point, just before nightfall, when the sky turns electric blue. It doesn’t happen every day, any more than it happens in every life. But it can; the potential is there.

This is another one of those things where it all depends on your point of view. If you believe people live forever, then in middle age we are moving toward our prime, not away. Our culture tells us to grab at youth, or at least the illusion of it, and “not go gentle into that good night” but “rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Not every form of madness in our culture has its own patron poet, but Dylan Thomas speaks eloquently for those who shop, work out, get injected and go under the knife “against the dying of the light.”

I think most of the college students I teach imagine that we doddering old professors would love to change places with them and be in our twenties again. And probably some of us would, which highlights the difference between “smart” and “wise.” I’d rather go before a firing squad than relive my twenties, and I think it’s because as I age, the inner vision is getting better, and I can see the approach of the blue hour.

There are cultures in which this vision is common, even institutionalized, so that elders are sought for their wisdom, not dismissed as irrelevant. But in our culture we have to fight for this kind of clarity, and I believe you get it by staying focused on the goal the way a mountaineer focuses on the summit. This doesn’t mean you never look down to see where you’re putting your feet. It does mean that when the air is thin and your energy is limited, you don’t go off the route and chase after every passing marmot.

What I tell my students is that I can see the summit from here; why would I want to return to base camp and do it all over again? We Seattleites live under the shadow of Mount Rainier, and on a clear day, as the blue hour approaches, The Mountain turns pink as if it’s going up in a gentle flame. It may be the dying of the light, but it is the loveliest part of the day. The alternative here in the Northwest is the “twilight as dimmer switch,” where it just gets greyer and greyer until it’s finally dark. Rage against that.