There’s an odd photo of myself that I see every morning. I see it because it lives in a small, wooden frame on my dresser top, next to the tray that holds my keys and change. It’s odd because it is a rare beardless picture of me. I’ve worn a beard pretty much all my adult life. In this photo I sport a moustache and short hair and look remarkably clean cut.
My best guess is that this was taken around 1980, the middle of my grad school years, on a visit home to Austin, Texas in the summer. I’m around 24 or 25 years old, staring back at my older self.
I’m standing in the shade, backlit by the blazing Texas sun that washes out the street beyond, where a lazy Rhodesian ridgeback dog named Kenya used to sleep soundly in the middle of the street. The poorly lit setting is explained by what sits in the middle ground between me and the sun-washed street. Two enormous century plants (agave Americana) that my parents delighted in had finally bloomed, sending their fierce stalks skyward before dying. They are so named because they are said to bloom just once a century, though the truth is closer to twenty or thirty years. In any case, they are “semelparous” or “monocarpic,” meaning they only bloom once in a lifetime.
As such, they are vivid images for the passing of time. And it is no wonder that my parents wanted to capture the blooming moment on film.
I stand in front of the unfurled century plants, a quarter century in my age; my father takes the picture, a few years short of three-quarters of a century, a milestone he won’t live to celebrate. Of course, when I look into this flattering mirror every morning and see this youthful and trim young man looking back, I try to imagine what must have been in his head, with a whole lifetime awaiting.
Our photographs constitute a museum of aging, a phrase that Geoffrey O’Brien uses to describe movies, but one applicable to still pictures as well. That shadowed figure in front of the century plants seems far away in some respects, very close in others. The secret that older folks walk around with is that the sense of self doesn’t change that much over time, a quality rendered by sentimental expressions about being “young at heart” or “young inside.” But it is scandalously true: having just turned 62, I don’t feel old, nor do my contemporaries.
Perhaps that really means that I don’t feel the way we thought older people must feel when we were young. Perhaps it is that the difference between generations, between me and my parents, is much greater than the difference between younger me and older me. Ageism is the only self-negating prejudice. Or, as some have put it, ageism is prejudice against your self to be.
I remember visiting one of my grad school professors about fifteen years after this photo was taken. He rubbed his hands together and said, “Chris, don’t you find each decade better than the last—saving your health of course?”
I believe I do, because, while that inner self feels so consistent and seamless with my younger self, I also know so much more in terms of lived experience (and book learning, too). One thing I possess that young and beardless Chris does not is the memory of that very time and of the changes wrought since.
Even the landscape shows the passing of time. The century plants, of course, are long gone, and new owners have built an addition on the home. The route I used to bicycle to high school passed acres of woods broken only by one convenience store and a Dairy Queen. That route is now congested with tony strip malls every inch of the way, and the road is hardly safe for a bicycle. The tiny and provincial high school I rode my bike to (that I started when it was in portable buildings) now enrolls almost three thousand students. And the joke I used to tell about how many Austinites does it take to change a light bulb is more applicable than ever (100: one to change it, and 99 to bemoan how fast it changed).
The live oak that shaded the spot is also gone and with it the rope swing I spent so many hours on my father once came out and asked me if I was reliving the rhythms of the womb in my afternoon reveries. Those memories are there if I want them, but the point is not that the edge I have on younger Chris is nostalgia—that would be a disappointing bargain.
Rather, it is that my older self knows more about that most mysterious of things—other people. So much so that it is hard to understand how that young man even functioned. But, of course, I did—and so did we all, galvanized by the confidence of youth, the engine that takes the place of knowledge and wisdom.
I was a student then, an educator now. What does my sense of the value of accumulated years—each decade better than the last—owe to my college education? To put it another way, how does my own experience with life inform what I think is important for today’s students to experience?
As an undergraduate, I knew that literary study was my thing, but I took courses (spurred by requirements) in biology, astronomy, sociology, anthropology, political science, history, philosophy, art and music. I intuited that each discipline was a different language, a different lens for seeing the world and with it a tool for better understanding that mystery of other people. Breadth of learning did not in itself teach me empathy or life survival skills, but it did give me real respect for different perspectives (and for expertise itself). Knowing more sharpened my sense of what I didn’t know and how to continually push that boundary.
My career, like most, has involved learning new technologies and new ways of interacting with people in multiple roles—coworkers, bosses, students, philanthropists, politicians. The habits of mind I had learned prior to that photograph have served me well in moving from there to here, then to now. So much of what teachers do amounts to exemplifying and facilitating genuine and critical intellectual curiosity.
Nowadays, we document every moment with selfies and portraits of our food. (Who knows how many pictures of turkeys traveled the internet on Thanksgiving this past week?). Just a generation ago, pictures were just as important but less ubiquitous. Perhaps they work the same magic from the screen as they do from the frame or the dresser top. Roland Barthes called the photograph “the illogical conjunction of spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority,” present image, past self—like memory but not mediated the same way. He might view the immediacy of the selfie or Snapchat differently, but our encounter with a remembered past moment through a photograph still carries the charge of mortality he expressed.
Taking the photo of the century plant in its moment of simultaneous glory and expiration is one kind of tribute. Planting the cactus itself with a bloom a “century” away is another.