Graying

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It’s a cold day in February and I’m sitting at my desk looking out at a gray world: gray sky, gray snow, gray road, even a couple of gray squirrels frolicking in the faint gray shadows of the trees in the hollow beside the house. (Sorry, they scampered out of the picture above.)

I start thinking about gray…

I’m of an age where almost all of my friends are gray, which reminds me of those great lines by Leonard Cohen: “Well, my friends are gone, and my hair is gray./ I ache in all the places that I used to play.”

Yup. The last time I played ball with my grandson, my shoulder hurt for two days. A good day’s work would kill me.

Googling what people have to say about gray, I find the comments often bleak. There’s a bluegrass song with the haunting refrain: “There’s nothing quite as lonely as the cold gray light of gone.” Besides loneliness, gray is the color of prisons, winter (“The gray dawn slaughters / the promise of Spring / Winter’s desperate last goodbye”: Kurt Philip Behm), boredom and conformity (I recall a novel, later made into a movie, called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, an indictment of 1950’s American values).

People often want to change gray to something more colorful. They look to others—from American writer Jane Bernstein: “You smiled. It was like the sun breaking out on a gray day”—or urge you to do it yourself—motivational speaker Allen Klein: “Your attitude is like a box of crayons that color your world. Constantly color your picture gray, and your picture will always be black.”

Speaking of coloring, 75% of American women over the age of 35 color their hair, and 11% of American men. One reason why, according to one source I found, is that graying hair is often the first sign of aging. People look in the mirror and suddenly they see their parents or grandparents. Judging from what I see on television, gray hair goes along with COPD, arthritis, and Depends.

The thing is, I love my wife’s gray hair. Actually, I like gray hair, period. And interestingly enough—at least to me—is the fact that the percentage of women over 60 who dye their hair shrinks to 55%. Maybe the lesson here is that it’s okay in our culture to begin to age after the age of 60.

As I think about it, I just plain like the color gray. That I’m not alone makes me feel better. Leonardo DaVinci apparently said that a gray day provides the best light for painting because it makes other colors stand out. That’s certainly true in New England in the fall. Nothing brings out the red, orange, and yellow foliage like a gray day, especially if there’s a little gray fog drifting through the trees.

French author and Nobel prize winner Andre Gide takes gray to another level when he writes, “The color of truth is gray.”

I think of how I was raised to see the world in black and white, like the photographs I have of myself as a kid. There was us and them, good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats, red-blooded Americans and cold-blooded Communists… Now, however, I see life as far more often a mix of black and white—i.e. gray.

And it’s how they’re mixed that fascinates me. Despite a rather notorious (I gather; I haven’t read it) book that talks about 50 shades of gray, my on-line research tells me the human eye can distinguish 32 shades of gray. That’s still a lot. If I go to a paint store, I can find some 30 shades of gray, with names like Gainsboro, Spanish, Manatee, Davy’s, Mole, and Regent. Looking out the window at the sky, I can see a blue-gray horizon, turning to smoke gray, then ash-gray, swirled with charcoal. Or maybe the swirls are gun-metal gray… Pewter?

“Most consequential choices involve shades of gray,” wrote former U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. That’s certainly been true in my life. I used to think of divorce as evil—black, a sin—until I had to balance that with my emotional and physical health.

I always thought suicide was wrong, until I read articles about people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or ALS who decided for the sake of their family to go to a place where they could get help with an assisted suicide. Now, I’m not so sure what I’d do if I found myself with a similar disease.

Abortion? Reading the Bible? The death penalty? Shades of Gray.

The former U.S. Treasury Secretary went on to say, “…and some fog is often useful in getting things done.” I’m not sure how that translates into monetary policy, but it’s exploring foggy shades of gray that drives me to write, and whatever creativity I have emerges from that exploration.

When I first started teaching writing in the middle 1960’s, English teachers stressed the Five Paragraph Essay (as a matter of fact, I taught from a text with that title), where students were expected to start with a thesis—a statement summing up the main idea of the essay—put that in a sentence at the end of the first introductory paragraph, then write three paragraphs illustrating why the thesis was valid, followed by a concluding paragraph summing up what they’d already written. The problem was, I found that when I tried to write that way, I lost all my creativity because I was starting with what I knew, not what I didn’t know. Writing to discover changed the way I wrote and way I taught writing.

Maybe it’s because I’ve spent almost all of my life living on the foggy coast of Maine, but I’m uncomfortable without clouds. Without gray. I still remember the merciless sun glaring down in Israel, casting everything in a harsh light, as if it were scalding my bones. I much preferred the hazy, shimmering light on the Scottish island of Iona, which gave the heather, the hills, the stones, the sheep an ethereal glow. Or the thick blanket of fog that crept up the ravine at sunset in Big Sur, California and then turned pink before enveloping my hermitage.

Likewise, I’m really uneasy with certainties. People who proclaim some “Truth”—whether about theology, politics, or education—scare the hell out of me.

After spending much of my life searching for answers, I find that as I’ve grown grayer, I’m happier today with the questions—questions and watching squirrels play in the fir trees under a sky of a blue-gray turning to smoke gray, then ash-gray, striated with charcoal or gun-metal or pewter.  

I’d just as soon have some warmer weather, though.

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