Of Age

We call that only a natural death; as if it were contrary to nature to see a man break his neck with a fall.
MONTAIGNE, “OF AGE”

I was teaching for a month in San Miguel de Allende, a colonial city of steep cobblestone streets and florid gates in the state of Guanajuato, central Mexico. My students, who ranged in age from just out of college to retirees, were enrolled in a low-residency program that offered, in addition to instruction in writing, day trips to local attractions. For the most part these outings were benign fare, though not always—perhaps because it was Mexico, the country, as André Breton is reported to have said, le plus surréaliste in the world. Climbing the hill back to our charter bus after a visit to therapeutic hot springs, the husband of one of the students suffered a heart attack, dropped on his path, and died.

One of these scheduled day trips was an opportunity for horseback riding at a rancho outside San Miguel. This was an unofficial event, for after an unfortunate incident the year before—rumor was that the Americans got drunk and reckless—our sponsoring institution had deemed the undertaking too unsafe to insure. Stepping into the breach, one of the veterans of that prior ride took it upon himself to organize this year’s freelance venture on a Saturday.

Before committing myself, I assayed a bit of informal research to find out who was going. At a banquet in our hotel courtyard I asked a group of veteran faculty, “Who’s game for an unscripted experience?”

Their reluctant silence suggested they knew something that I did not. A poet whom time had denied his flashing eyes and floating hair, who shuffled at a precarious angle whenever he crossed the courtyard to refill his wine glass, said, “At our age it isn’t prudent to undertake the ride.”

I was taken aback. What did he mean, at our age? I hadn’t lost my hair, my face hadn’t fallen onto my chest, and I didn’t shuffle. My best days were not behind me!

The next morning I asked my students if anyone was riding, and every head around the oblong table shook a vehement no. There was a general air of trepidation. I was incensed by such defeatism—middle-aged people, even the young, galloping toward retirement, gathering it into their open arms as if it were a precious cargo! Now I was determined to go. Students in some of the other classes were also bold, and nine of us signed up, paying our $75. I was the only faculty member….

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