Your Monday blessing: “The Back Nine”

I am approaching one of those infamous years with a nothing at the end – the big-four-oh, in my case.

There are many metaphors out there for ageing. Ecclesiastes, whose neighbours Leviticus and Judges disparage as being “a bit on the glum side”, has this to say on the matter: “the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain…the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly, when…one rises up at the sound of a bird…and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.”

So I’ve got THAT to look forward to, which is nice.

The modern metaphor I hear most when it comes to ageing is “it’s all downhill from here.” That gives me great hope. I’m a downhill kind of guy, and always have been. I understand that achievement and increasing vigour are both associated with going the other way, but I’ll gladly cede those spoils to the hearty people who frequent running shops and watch motivational videos. Good on ’em – they can report on the view from the top, and I’ll give them a thumbs-up from base camp. For me, at forty – at last – it’s all downhill from here. Finally, my age and my personality are in perfect sync.

But my favourite metaphor for aging right now comes from a game I play once in a great while and badly, the game of golf. “The back nine” is a common description of the second half of life. It’s more commonly applied at fifty – golfers are generally an optimistic bunch, and base their lifespans upon a century, just as they base their handicaps upon a helpful lie. I may turn to it again at fifty, but I’m enjoying the metaphor plenty now with a decade to go.

I googled “the back nine” and aging, and most of the hits talked about seizing the day, about how we age quickly and we don’t know when our last hour might be, how the back nine creeps up on us so we should make the most of life when we have the chance. All very good advice. I’ve even preached it. Often. But I don’t know what any of this has to do with golf. Personally, I’m not in a very carpe diem kind of mood on the tenth and the eleventh tee. In fact, it’s hard to think of anything that is LESS carpe diem than expending the full four hours to drop balls in holes spread over twenty acres. So, for me, the folks who use the back nine as a reminder to squeeze every drop of meaning from every lost second haven’t quite gotten the full loveliness that the metaphor affords. If you’ll indulge me, let me have a whack at it:

On the back nine, a welcome tiredness begins to greet my joints and muscles, a kind of warm ache that says, “hey, look at you, you’ve actually done something today!” I amble around a bit slower than the first tees, when the world, and par, were mine for the taking. There’s still enough adrenaline in the general midst to swing a club, but I’m not antsy to murder the ball as I may have been in the early going. There’s an Italian word, “sprezzatura”, meaning a kind of effortless grace, nonchalance, doing things easily, almost carelessly – but after much practice. Truth be told, I don’t have an ounce of sprezzatura in me. But after an hour or two of walking around a golf course, I’m convinced that I can fake it.

My best shots, it’s true, are behind me by the tenth. And if not, they’re certainly behind me by the fifteenth. Oh sure, I may hit a green, more or less by accident, on the last few holes, but I just don’t have the concentration or the fire for prolonged excellence. Were I eleven years old, and playing mini-golf again, I would greet this fact with a temper tantrum. I’m not sure how often I made it to the loop-de-loop in the eighteenth back then, I was usually fuming in the back of the station wagon by the time my siblings finished, after trying to dismember a windmill. But I’m not eleven any more. Nowadays, I can appreciate my past glories, savour in my mind that chip shot on the seventh that did exactly what I imagined, while exploring a sand trap in seven strokes. The latter holes are suffused with a kind of lovely timelessness, a sense that the game is not about plodding from one thing to the next, but an ongoing flow of grace, backwards in memory, forward in expectation. There’s a calm, a knowledge that all games lead to the clubhouse, where there’s an Arnold Palmer waiting. It’s all downhill form here.

(And yes, I did use a refreshing lemonade-iced tea mixture, named after a golfing legend, as a symbol of death. Or, alternatively, immortality. I believe I may be the first to make the comparison?)

And so I affably struggle on, from the never-ending par 5s to the hope-crushing par 3s. If I’m with others – which is often, thank God – I take more interest in the conversation than my own game. This is a better strategy for enjoying a game of golf, I have learned, but in the first few holes I’m too damn focussed on not embarrassing myself. If I’m alone – which I don’t mind at all, thank God – I notice the woods around me, breathe the air, and listen to the birds, who have learned they have nothing to fear from me, the dust returns to earth as it was.

The back nine is the same game, but a different pace. I’ll still do my best to clout a little white ball in the right direction. But it’s no longer the fourth, when time and the fairways stretched on forever. Everything will end, nothing matters all that much, and everything is inestimably precious. And then there’s that clubhouse waiting, and soon, with a refreshing drink at the bar, no more trudging in the hot sun, when what’s done will be done, and I’ll look back and think, “good round, Janis-Dillon, good round.”

About bobjanisdillon

Unitarian Universalist minister, poet, husband, father, three-chord guitar wonder.
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