Only When I Laugh
by Elouise Bell
Counting the Milestones
[p.119]What exactly is a decade? Of course we know it’s ten years. But that is a man-made, a woman-made unit of time. Nature does not count in decades. Nature tallies time by the rising and setting of the sun, by the waxing and waning of the moon, by the budding and dropping of leaves. Nature may have larger units on its calendar as well, marked, for all we know, by the filling and draining of Lake Bonneville or by the advancing and retreating of glaciers.
No, it’s not Mother Nature who makes a package of ten years and calls it a decade; it’s we her children, with our ten handy fingers for on-board computing. We’re so attached to counting off by tens we can barely make up a list that falls short. (When was the last time you saw a list of the Nine Best-Dressed Bag Ladies, or Eleven Ways to Use Up Left-over Caviar?) The very years of our lives we tick off in decades—my twenties, your thirties, her forties—even though psychologically, seven is apparently the more relevant number; (major changes seem to come, for many, about every seven years.)
But while we can look back on ten years and think of it as a unit, for most of us it’s hard to look ahead a decade. Even our [p.120] government, even the Russians, think in Five-Year Plans. Personally, we can look at our finances, for instance, and say, “Five years down the road, I want to be out of debt,” or ‘In five years, I want to own my own home.” (Some of us have more modest goals, of course: “In five years I want to have this dog house-broken.”) For a woman whose formal education has been interrupted, five years is a hopeful unit: “In five years I could graduate,” or “Even working full-time, in five years I could get my master’s degree.”
But even though we are the ones who create the concept “decade,” ten years is, for most of us, too much of an hypothesis. We can certainly understand it abstractly, but it has few concrete moorings. Just what is a decade? How can we get our minds around that unit of time in a way as personal as day and night, a month, a season? How can we visualize the reality of ten years in a human life?
A former student drops by the office to say hello. Ten years ago she was a tall, gum- chewing enigma sliding in late to class, slouching in her back-row seat. Today, dressed for success and radiating easy authority, on the faculty at Harvard, she is much in demand around the country as a consultant and lecturer.
Another former student comes by. Ten years ago, he sat in class bedeviled by relentless acne and nervous fingers that twiddled pencils fifty minutes non-stop. Today he is holding a human heart in those now-steady hands, transplanting it, and with it the months, even the years, that it will bring to his patient. In ten years, we now have real reason to believe, we may be able to control the devastation of Alzheimer’s disease. And of AIDS.
In ten years, starting from ground zero, I could learn to play a musical instrument—guitar, cello, flute, piano—with some facility and much pleasure. I really could.
In ten years, if you read a book a month, you could read all the truly great books in the English language; if you read a book a week, you would have inside your head the major masterpieces of Western literature.
Decades do get shorter, of course, as one’s sojourn on the planet gets longer. If you’re thirty, a decade represents one-third of your life, a sizable chunk. Since I’m fifty-plus, to me a decade is one-fifth of my experience. And at first glance, the changes brought by a decade seem less pronounced. Ten years [p.121]ago it was 1980, which doesn’t sound very different from today. But 1970, ah, that was another time altogether, a different country, a different generation, as different from today as it was from the funny time of 1960, which was still farther removed from 1950, a year accessible to me essentially because I remember remembering it, as though it were a movie I had seen many times, but nothing I had experienced first-hand.
No, one way you look at it, 1970-80 doesn’t seem very long ago. To be frank, the seventies as a decade of American history don’t seem to have a very distinct character to me. But as I ask myself why that is so, I realize it is because I have changed so much, because I was so busy charting my own transformations, that I didn’t take much time to observe the transitions the outer world was making. Viewed from that perspective, 1970-80 is for me light years away. (C. S. Lewis once said that there was more difference between the average man in England in 1859 and in 1869 than there was between a man in 1858 and 1558. For Lewis, the year 1859, the year in which Darwin published The Origin of Species, was a major landmark in human experience.) Viewing myself from that perspective, I must honor the new cliché and say, indeed, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
And when I visualize the past ten years, what I see is the image of a road, on which I am traveling, in company with many other women. We are each making an individual journey; we each walk singly down that road, but we are intensely aware of each other. We smile at each other, we raise a hand in salute, we encourage each other over the difficult places. And we cheer together as we pass the milestones. As the milestones go by, it seems to me we are each more individual, more truly ourselves, than before, and at the same time, more truly together.
Hurrah for us! Hurrah for the milestones!