Symphony at Seventy   —  Alfred de Zayas – 31 May 2017

  1. Andante moderato

Heureux qui comme Ulysse…[1]

They tell me I am seventy.  Can I myself believe it?

Feel more like sixty, forty, twenty… live my life in continuity,

oblivious of my wrinkles, reading glasses, slower pace.

The child is father of the man[2] and still would play,

explore the light and shade of all these years,

mysterious alchemy of my subconscious.

Consciousness it is I crave, more Light not less!

I hear the echoes of my childhood melodies,

intrigued by the archaic torso of my memories,

recalling snows of yesteryear, mercurial moods,

the adolescent fantasy of catching in the rye[3],

my Angst replaced by the Beatitude of learning empathy.

Today my shadows feel more palpable,

as I advance to no conclusion, in the midst of amber ambiguities,

the timeless time just slipping through my fingers to infinity….

A bitter-sweet and awesome feeling of melancholy

evokes the innocence of younger seasons, high school,

college, law school and post-graduate experiences,

the hallowed memory of serving Mass in seven countries,

singing in the glee club, concerts out of town, blind dates, blind instincts,

Fulbright fellowship to fence at Corps Rhenania. Sweet nomadic joys!

Remember passing bar examinations in New York and Florida,

surviving Wall Street litigation, thinking more of money than of justice.

Henceforth teaching lawyers suits me better, as I fondly think

of students in three continents, to whom I tried to teach some logic,

and from whom I learned as much, attesting that docendo discimus[4].

At times I bit much more than I could chew, audacious as Ikarus,

often searched in vain what I already had:  zoek mijn paard, maar zit erop![5]

I loved my many contradictions, as I moved from paradox to paradox,

acknowledging that chaos metamorphizes to reason,

every crisis opening an opportunity to learn.

I tested out Horatius’ maxims, erring with the courage of conviction,

challenging most mainstream views and musty orthodoxies – at a price —

expressing candidly my solidarity with non-conformists,

keen to roll with Sisyphus the stone beyond the crest.

Today I smile at critics who thumbed down my books,

laugh last with those who did believe in me: sapere aude[6]!

Humbly I confess my mea culpas[7] to the Earth

seek absolution in the virtuous songs of wind and water,

cosmic reconciliation with all living things.

Fifty plus has brought composure, seventy seems well over the hill.

For now I practice gritty optimism, determined still

to plant my apple tree ahead of the Apocalypse[8],

and re-enact the seven works of mercy[9].

  1. Scherzo affabile

Felix sua sorte contentus[10].

Behind me lies a long career.  A modicum of prudence helped me prosper.

Now I can be free, direct, less diplomatic,

covet neither honour nor promotion, only otium cum dignitate[11].

Slowly have I grasped that there’s no happy end, just happy moments,

better to accept that “no” means “no”, let go of obstinate opinions,

lest the curse of fiat iustitia et pereat mundus[12] spell disaster.

More congenial is festina lente[13], better constancy than haste.

I plot to cycle on, to swim, to hike and downhill ski.

No longer shall I scuba, skate, wind-surf or water-ski:

Too old for that.  Yet energy remains enough to watch the pretty girls go by,

to follow with my eyes a swan that glides on Lake Geneva,

listen to the organist rehearsing in an empty church,

convinced that Bach and Beethoven will outlast all,

that Strauss’ celestial Four last Songs will spread their wings and soar with us.

Perhaps the time has come for wrapping up and making bucket lists,

for slowing down, discarding “indispensables”.

I navigate serenely, grin at many musts I failed to reach,

must set my new priorities, recalibrate, accepting lower expectations,

trying to negotiate the myriad pending things, aware that thanks are due

to genial friends and family — some sort of armistice with former rivals too.

I do believe in closure urbi et orbi[14]: all forgiven, grudges too!

The road from sixty to this splendid seventy transcended mountains,

valleys, oceans, lakes!  Two serious illnesses, two operations.

More than just two roads dividing in the forest,[15]

many options, paths that subdivided once and yet again…

Millennia down the line the winds will blow, the surf will foam,

Mount Everest, Kilimanjaro, Chimborazo, Matterhorn will rise as ever,

while the Rhine will flow through Holland to the Sea,

the Danube too will greet Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest…

  • Adagio penoso

Wahn, Wahn! Überall Wahn! So sings Hans Sachs in Meistersinger[16],

arms race, false flags, killing fields, perpetual wars, conspiracy theories.

Vast cemeteries, profits built on exploitation, speculation, asymmetrical relations,

artificial trickle-down philosophies, graffiti politics, casino economics, endless rip-offs,

Panem et circensis[17], spectator sports, hollow hedonism, virtual reality.

Banalities invade our lives, deprive us of the stimulus to immanence,

disrupt our link to mother Earth, the vital intimacy with our identity.

Our politicians utter bogus promises, deploy a colourful kaleidoscope of lies,

seduce us with eccentric newspeak, leaving us to choose the “lesser evil”,

Scylla and Charybdis balloting: democracy in masquerade.

The toxic Zeitgeist is a form of mental indolence that numbs our intellect,

a fast-track to dystopia, fatuous culture of n’importe quoi, or worse – just nihilism.

An industry of human rights arose to give lip service to humanity,

spin doctors of the media, merchants of political correctness,

opportunists, mercenaries, “flavour of the month” careerists,

full of empty rhetoric, selective indignation serving but themselves,

corrupting language to subvert both human rights and dignity,

inventing phoney side-shows to distract from real issues.

Well-heeled lobbies blur the paradigm, disdain the human right to peace.

Most UN social resolutions never see implementation,

plans of action and reports are unenforced – and unenforceable.

So too encyclicals of Popes: Rerum novarum, Pacem in terris,

Humanae Vitae, Amoris Laetitia – rich in content, lacking follow-up.

No wonder that a deep sense of futility pervades our daily lives.

We try to caution like Cassandra — no one listens, no one cares —

hypocrisy engulfs us, as we tolerate injustice and frivolity,

most victims still unsung, ignored by à la carte establishments.

A sunset poem by von Eichendorff would leave us with an open question:

“Wie sind wir wandermüde– Ist dies etwa der Tod?»[18]

We all will know the answer in good time,

the metaphor applies when we are wearied of the journey.

Upper generations are departed, parents and grandparents gone.

We are the senior orphans now, and soon will leave new orphans.

Younger folk pretend to take us as role models…  Frightful!

Now I mourn for friends who went before me…

Never understood why youngsters have to die.

Grateful to my loving parents, sister, brother, nephews,

generous God-children plentiful and fun.

I thank the Lord for giving me much more than just a fine companion,

but my alter ego, perfect union:  wife and raison d’être.

Yes, monogamy has worked for us.

God gave us Stefan, soon took him away: The nadir of our lives.

We’ll join him at St. George someday….  We know not when.

Our faith prepares us for the threshold, faith that gives us hope and meaning.

Sursum corda:  always carpe diem, carpe noctem, carpe fidem!

  1. Allegro risoluto

Seventy… Gaudeamus igitur! 

Time for senior discounts, cheaper skiing on the slopes,

skiing down those blacks while singing Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus.

Ten more years, twenty even! Much to see and yet to learn,

Enough adrenalin, enthusiasm for the wild Australian outback,

Iceland’s many waterfalls, volcanoes, Eyjafjallajökull,

humour to observe a thousand butterflies, blue dragon flies,

invertebrates, marsupials, reptiles, funny cats and dogs.

Here a partial list of brave ambitions for my older age:

Read every book in my own library: Cervantes, Rilke, Hesse,

Marcus Tullius Cicero, Vergilius and Ovidius,

Reread Тургенев’s touching Месяц в деревне[19]

learn to paint with water colours symphonies of spring and autumn hues,

yearn to sing Panis Angelicus – Cesar Frank’s uplifting tune,

which long ago I sang as tenor in school choirs,

ache to play again the hunting horn, the cor des alpes, the piano,

pause for Schubert’s sage Impromptus, No. 2 in A flat major — distilled beauty —

listen to the songs of birds, the chirping of cicadas, drumming of wood peckers,

chanting flowers, joie de vivre, cheerful hours,

watch the squirrels chase each other, jump from branch to branch,

watch my turtles feast on dandelions, clover and my fingers.

I want to cycle hand in hand with my beloved, dance a final Waltz.

We still must hike from Belalp to the Overaletsch Hütte,

stroll through the Burgundian Côte d’Or vineyards,

drink red Vosne-Romanée and Gevrey-Chambertin,

ramble through the Keukenhof, where flowers dance their reverie,

where daffodil and tulip fields caress immense horizons,

time to breathe again the heady perfume of the hyacinths,

eat Dutch asparagus in alabaster white, pink apricots from the Valais,

marvel at Vermeer’s Het Meisje met de Parel[20],

stand in awe before the Chartres stained-glass panels,

pray in silence in the Church of Giornico, hear distant chapel bells.

Once more I want to swim in Playa de Kawama,

snorkel over Red Sea corals, fly my happy kites on Noordwijk beaches,

Yes, just park me on the North Sea shore and let me watch the surf,

my eyes will follow every wave in limitless imagination,

sail to blissful Hesperides[21] for a golden apéro!

Fancy I may once approach my Γνῶθι σεαυτόν[22],

withdraw from noise and tinsel, keep my old Etruscan secrets,

and embrace with equanimity the tender grace of anonymity[23].


Life is worth living.  Love, the leitmotif of Being!

Ethereal and ephemeral:  Thus all the more sublime.

I sing for vivat crescat floreat![24]

Not wearied by the journey:  ready for renewed baptisms and epiphanies.

So many sunrises and sunsets to admire!

Gaudeo quoniam vivo[25]. Here a toast to life!

I love this very instant, sense anew the old  frissons d’amour et du désir!

Fe y adelante!       AdeZ

[1] Joachim Du Bellay, Les Regrets

[2] William Wordsworth, My heart leaps up

[3]J.D.  Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

[4] Seneca, we learn by teaching, Letters to Lucillus, Book I, letter 7, section 8: Homines dum docent discunt

[5] Looking for my horse while sitting on it (from the Dutch)

[6] “Dare to know”, Horatius. First Book of Letters, also Immanuel Kant in What is Enlightenment? (1784)

[7] My faults – from the Confiteor of the Catholic liturgy

[8] Idea attributed to Martin Luther

[9] Matthew XXV. The Works of Mercy, by the Master of Alkmaar (1504) at the Church of St. Laurence in Alkmaar, Holland, consists of seven wooden panels showing the corporal works of mercy: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, bury the dead, shelter the traveller, comfort the sick, and ransom the captive.

[10] Lucky he who is happy with his fate.  Horatius, Satires 1,1,1

[11] Leisure with dignity.  Marcus Tullius Cicero, Pro Sestio §98

[12] Let justice be done, even if the world perishes.  Better fiat iustitia, ne pereat mundus.  (lest the world perish!)

[13] Make haste slowly.

[14] In the city and the world.

[15] Robert Frost, The Road not Taken

[16] Madness, madness, everywhere madness!  III. Act.

[17] Bread and circus games.  Juvenalis, Satires

[18] How very tired of wandering we are, could this be death? – Im Abendrot

[19] Ivan Turgenev’s A Month in the Country

[20] The girl with the pearl earring.  Mauritshuis, The Hague

[21] In Greek mythology the three nymphs of the golden light of sunset, daughters of the evening.

[22] Know thyself, inscription at the oracle of Delphi

[23] Ovidius, Tristia : “bene qui latuit bene vixit“.  He lives well who keeps his anonymity.

[24] Live, grow, flower – motto of fencing fraternities in Germany.

[25] I rejoice just because I am alive!