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Life Begins at 90: Many Thanks!

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My 90th birthday is here. Did I make a contribution, have a good time, live wisely, maybe accomplish something? (Would a standing ovation be nice or maybe a tiny medal?) Frankly, I don't know. I didn't find life a big performance as much as a steady marathon race. Mine inevitably involved other people, intimately and unforgettably.

Have I been astonished by life? Yes! Different moments have brought extraordinary kindness and grace that were astonishing. Yet other moments, of course, did exactly the opposite: ushered in pain, betrayal, stony indifference. However, I've learned to differentiate these moments in my life. In fact, I deliberately size them up now. It's a bit like one's movements on a dance floor, a combination of following certain rules and also really letting go. I've dedicated my life to change in place of maintaining an illusion that I am standing still.

For example, Mademoiselle magazine (August 1962) called me a "Disturber of the Peace" as part of a series that included such figures as Norman Mailer, Federico Fellini, James Baldwin and William F. Buckley. I was quoted as saying: "I would question anybody totally in an untroubled spiritual life, in terms of six million Jews being dead and Hiroshima and racial horror at home. I'm sorry. I can't help it."

In my own life civil rights became a major influence and commitment. In 1961 I became a Freedom Rider in a prayer pilgrimage that began in New Orleans and ended in Detroit. This taught me how to participate in community organization rooted in nonviolent action. My life simply turned around and changed direction. Now there was a cause outside myself that mattered more than, say, any kind of personal career. The new reality became a major factor in ensuing years.

A great teacher was Martin Luther King, Jr. His teaching about nonviolence became a huge factor in the ways I looked at life. King opposed the Vietnam war as a major part of his message. This led me one morning in Washington, D.C. to find myself inside the Pentagon in one of its busy corridors. I was part of a nonviolent demonstration under the auspices of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. It seems to me there were 20 or 30 of us, all kinds of people ranging from students to lawyers to professors to clergy. We were there because we were committed to peace. We followed the structure of the mass. So we included a short homily or sermon. I was designated as the preacher. Wearing a colorful stole and chasuble, I had begun my speaking chore. "If the salt has lost its flavor," I began. But now an arresting officer had entered the scene. Exclaiming antiphonally through a bullhorn, he announced, "You are under arrest." So we were. The formal charge was "Disturbing the peace." We were rounded up and driven to a nearby jail.

In following days and years I played a consistent role as a disturber of what seemed a false peace raising lots of related issues. For example, I had always been -- and, of course, remained -- a gay man. Yet there was a long period of persecution when this was treated as not permissible. I suffered, along with many other gay people, during those dark ages. Now the times have changed and there is a broad and deep acceptance of gays within society. I am deeply grateful. My life partner, Mark Thompson, a journalist-activist-author, and I have been together nearly 30 years. Thankfully the day may come when "Disturber of the Peace" changes to "A Peaceful Elder."

Elder is a new word for me at 90. I accept it gratefully, including its challenge. It means, of course, that I'm not through standing for what I believe. I never will.

However, one of these days I'll come face to face with my own personal dying. I witnessed when this happened to both of my parents. Beatrice, my mother, was a marvel of a person. For years she was volunteer teacher at the Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles. She laundered her uniform, pressed it and drove on the freeway to her duties at the hospital. One day a small boy addressed her. "You're old, aren't you," he said. She allowed that she was. "Good," he said. "Then I can talk to you."

I was with Beatrice on a sleepy Friday afternoon in her nursing home when she quietly closed her eyes, relaxed her hands and departed. Her sense of peace was resonant. She was 99. Years earlier, when my father died, I was a recently ordained Episcopal priest. I was asked to preside at his last rites. Melville had had a turbulent earlier life marked by alcoholism, failure and two divorces. However, he turned his life around. He had a highly successful third marriage and didn't take a drink for 30 years.

I am deeply grateful for both my parents. Each of them never gave up trying to help others. They faced huge personal challenges and, in my opinion, were victors. They guided me to see death as a natural, healing and fulfilling part of life.

Did I learn that life can be lived as a wonder?

Yes! I did.