My Beautiful 54

March 9, 2001

i am running into a new year
and the old years blow back
like a wind
that i catch in my hair
like strong fingers like
all my old promises and
it will be hard to let go
of what i said to myself

about myself
when i was sixteen and
twentysix and thirtysix
even thirtysix but
i am running into a new year
and i beg what i love and
what i leave to forgive me.
                       — Lucille Clifton, American poet, b. 1936

My grandmother, who was born in 1878 and completed her formal education before the nineteenth century was over, was fond of sentimental poetry that reflected the activities of her girlhood such as school fairs with spelling bees and declamation contests.* One such poem recounted the difficulties one youngster had with the multiplication tables, particularly an inability to remember what six times nine equals. It was called “My Beautiful 54.”

Today is my birthday and I am 54 years old. I’ve written before of my tendency to allow myself way too many beginnings, seasonal or cyclical markers such as Ash Wednesday or the first day of the school calendar’s summer recess, dates where I draw a line and say from now on things will be different. Yesterday I reviewed large portions of my private journal for 1996 as well as the pieces I wrote in here on or near this date in 1999 and 2000.** I was left feeling most disappointed in myself for continuing to go in circles, for failing to achieve goals which appear to be well within my grasp, for not becoming, a charge I often leveled against my mother.

So here I am, 54, still planning, still striving. I’ve made some decisions about images of myself which have to be let go, some goals which must be abandoned, some habits and attitudes which have to be changed. I’ve drawn another line and, with the same pen, begin to write again.


*Declamation is the art of vehement and expressive oratory. A declamation contest is one in which individuals recite a famous speech, perhaps Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, and are judged on their skills of oral interpretation and physical presentation. Such contests were still part of interscholastic speech and debate activities when I was in school. I’ll be interested to see if I ever get any hits off a search for “declamation contests,” as I do from time to time for “cholestriol.”

** In last year’s piece I wrote about never getting a pony or a two-wheel bicycle, a memory I attached to the time around my birthday. That same story, almost verbatim, became part of the memoir I wrote and published as a gift for my party guests at Christmas, attached to December instead of March. I was unaware at the time that I had done this. The truth is that although the memory is authentic, I don’t really remember which season it belongs with. I ascribe this to the creative process, especially that involved in memoir composition, and offer it here as a preemptive strike against any future critic who might make the connection and conclude that I am a fraud.

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