Saturday, November 22, 2008


I read somewhere, years ago, that John Milton was a terror to live with when he went blind. Early in the morning, hours before dawn, he would sit up in bed, screaming "Milk me! ... I must be milked!" No matter the hour, Milton's entourage -- wife, servants, daughters -- scurried in with lamps and candles, bleary-eyed. Milton moaned, practically mooing. "Milk me!"

And so they would -- furiously scribbling down ten new lines of Paradise Regained, or some other such verse that had stormed John Milton's frontal lobe and bottlenecked there, throbbing.


Early this morning, hours before dawn, I stood dumbly in a pitch-dark kitchen, opting against the artificial light. As I stared out toward the back window, the fridge made a half-dozen lunges at the coast, and then was silent again.

Or maybe I mistook the sound. Maybe what I heard were REM cycles, murmurs from the fridge's own deep-set secret dreams. And not only dreams -- aspirations. Dreams of making gourmet ice. Cubing. Crushing. Sculpting.


I've heard that sound that Milton made. For three months, when I was 22, I worked as a dairy farmer in the Swiss Alps, perched thousands of meters up on Alp Inner Urden, ringed with flowers and snow. Every morning I'd wake before dawn, stuff some cheese and salami in my coat, and trudge out to herd forty big-horned cattle that had scattered all over the alp. When I came out too early, they all grumbled like teenagers and scarcely budged from their beds. But when I came too late, half of them had already herded themselves. They moaned with fertile fury at the milking station gate, their kuhglocken clanging.

Milk me!


I turn thirty in 22 days. It's a fact that means little to an ancient Alp, a puttering fridge, a dead genius. But for me, for more than half my life, "thirty" was the precipice I was loath to approach. How else could I see the big Three-Oh but as a personal apocalypse, certain as I was that I would die at 29?

And yet here I stand in spite of myself, seven years after leaving the alp: a cowbell clanging at the edge of an afterlife. I knew these last few weeks would come, but at 22 I never expected this: I'm calm. I'm not afraid. Not of death. Not even of adulthood.

In fact, I'm downright hopeful. This morning, beside the fridge, staring out our dark kitchen window, I saw broad stretches of sorrow and joy. Turning thirty, and forty, and sixty were no longer scarier than death. They're not death. They're afterlife. Gift. Full of milk and honey.

I'm buzzing, and so is the fridge. Someday I'll take it to see the ocean and the Ice Capades.


Two Dishes said...

I didn't notice any milestone after 12. That was a great bursting into adult capabilities it seemed.

From one who is 43 (first of several to comment here, prolly), my advice is that everything is pliable, plastic, forgiving. I don't regret my poverty or relationships or vocational zig-zagging.

I do regret that between the ages of 41 and 43 I let two years slip in without exercise. And about 5 years of no upper body exercise. And when I tried to resume, I had lost something and the less-pliable body strained a few things. If you let your body go too many years, it will be like a rusty nut: you can hope to unseize it with a WD-40 miracle but more likely you will end up cracking or stripping it due to rust and impatiently twisting it.

So keep those parts in use!

I'm blown away by your anecdote of shepherdom -- that's a cooler than average overseas experience. Also, the imagery of predawn kitchen with the light off is very evocative. Besides the fridge I'm imagining the sound and light of a flame on a kettle in the dark.

Nathan First said...

Amen. Here's to WD-40! And thanks for the reminder "that everything is pliable, plastic, forgiving." I'm certainly learning that myself. Slowly.

And I meant what I said -- I'm really not so bothered by the "growing up" phobia anymore. But boy, I had my paranoia a few years ago. Then, my fear wasn't that was life was rigid, but that I was -- that everything BUT ME would be plastic and pliable, so that when I "turned Thirty" and still hadn't achieved my Great Big Amorphous and Epically Unattainable Goals, the world would stretch, ply and forgive all it wanted to, but I'd crack like some old wineskin.

On that note, here's to exercise.

followluckycharm said...

You know, I think I have had almost the opposite experience. I never cared about being thirty until I turned it, then I got scared. I suppose it's partly because the question of marriage is crying out to me for milking and I think that has made me fear life a little. Do you think getting married affected your perspective on getting older at all?

Nathan First said...

John: Good to hear from you!

Before being married, Marriage-as-concept was one of the scariest things I could imagine. It was a major part of my fear of crossing that threshold: Marriage and Mortgage and Day Job -- Oh my! Former Self would be surprised to see, though, that you're right: marrying Jen has helped me; marriage is less abstract now, and so is Adult Life. I think what I feared most was loss of purpose, a loss which I had woven inextricably with my ideas of adulthood. Purpose, vague and changing as it still is, is what makes living less scary now, and relationship - certainly marriage - is a part of that.

That said, the whole "I'm no longer afraid" schtick in this post was a little ... theatrical ... to say the least. I still find myself scared shitless sometimes. I guess the Scary Horizon has just receded a bit.

Priscilla said...

I hope your posting silence isn't because something hard is going down in your life-world. If writing just isn't happening I could provide a little begging from an eager reader—if that would help.

Nathan First said...

Priscilla -- right kind of you as always. Nah, nothing hard going down. In fact, it's been a solid, healthy, whole couple of months. Found out we've got a little one on the way, in fact (due Sept)!

No real excuses for not writing here lately --- in fact, I only noticed in hindsight that I had taken a hiatus. Meanwhile, I have been writing a bit on -- a blog I started a few weeks ago. I think it might just finally be that pesky eco-blog I couldn't shake loose of all those months.

OK, off I go to Heaven in My Foot -- it's been weeks since i got a dose of your genius...

Peter said...

Great writing. Just loved it.