As the world turns

By Chuck Sigars | Dec 26, 2012

I wouldn’t be surprised if you missed it. If you’re at all like me, December is a time for slipping out of the loop, focusing on tasks that the calendar forces us toward and maybe paying less attention to headlines that aren’t screaming.

And to be fair, this may not be that big of a deal. Mariam Amash died on Dec. 22 in the town of Jisr az-Zarqa in northern Israel. She was an Arab citizen of Israel, of Bedouin descent, and as far as I can tell lived the sort of unremarkable life that most of us do, not making waves or headlines.

What makes her life interesting, at least for now, is that when applying for an identity card, Mariam Amash used a birth certificate issued by the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman Empire was a big deal, historically speaking. Stretching over a large chunk of the planet for a time, this was where the Eastern and Western worlds met, in a sense.

That’s not what’s so interesting, though. The date on Amash’s birth certificate was 1888, making her age at the time of her passing a respectable 124 years.

More than respectable. If this document is verified, it will mean that Marian Amash had achieved, up until last week, the longest human lifespan ever recorded.

I thought about this for a while the other day, trying to imagine. In 1888, Jack the Ripper was on the loose, terrorizing London. George Eastman registered the trademark “Kodak” that year.

Vincent van Gogh did a little personal surgery on his left ear. Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland, who won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College, and became president. Susan B. Anthony was raising a ruckus.

You know who else was born that year? Jim Thorpe, considered by some to be history’s greatest athlete. Joseph Kennedy, patriarch of an American political dynasty. Eugene O’Neill, Harpo Marx, T.S. Eliot, Maurice Chevalier, Raymond Chandler, Irving Berlin. Lawrence of Arabia.

These are dim names now, relics of another time, and yet they were contemporaries of this woman, apparently, who outlived them all by decades, along with several of her children.

It’s not as uncommon as it once was for a person to reach the age of 100, although the numbers drop drastically after that. Whatever our potential lifespan is, it seems to top out at around 120 years.

Those extra two decades seem almost trivial compared to a long lifetime, and I began to think about this. After being alive for a century, and then living into the statistical stratosphere for another 20 years, how important is that extra time?

The answer, of course, is easy: Ask a 20-year-old.

This is the relative nature of time in all its complexity. I passed 2012 in pretty much the same way I did 2011, not changing (or improving) much.

I earned some money, ate some ice cream, walked some miles, slept some hours away. I wrote 52 of these columns. I made three trips out of Washington, a rarity for my usual years, and celebrated a couple of big events, but otherwise it seemed a fairly average year in my life.

A child born in January 2012, on the other hand, has transformed over the past 12 months into an entirely different type of human being. There’s food for thought, there.

My daughter was in town for a visit a couple of weeks ago, coinciding with her 28th birthday. A quick arrangement was made for her to spend her birthday evening with three high school friends, the four of them forming a string quartet in their teenage years.

As they came over to pick her up for the big night, these familiar faces, it reminded me of something.

And there they were, in pictures from Beth’s 18th birthday, held in this very same house.

I remember that night. I wrote a column about it, actually. A fun birthday, lots of friends, a big day, and now as I look at the photos I can see a decade clearly.

These young people haven’t aged much but grown, transformed into responsible, accomplished adults, all in a span of 10 years that seem momentary to me.

This is what I wish for myself, then, and for you. I wish a new year with less pain and grief, less political posturing, fewer natural disasters, more joy; and yes, good luck with that, but I can still wish.

Mostly, though, I’m hoping to appreciate the gift we’ve all been given of another day. I find plenty of comfort in sameness and normalcy, in knowing the same neighbors, in recognizing the same walls, in doing the same things, but a static life is an illusion.

Things will change, and if I have any resolutions for the new year (and I can think of a couple, actually) they mostly involve paying attention.

It may turn out that Mariam Amash was actually born in 1898, or 1908; it was a long life in any case. And a reminder to me that lifespans are only tweaked by us, not determined.

A gift, as I said, already unwrapped, and waiting. Happy New Year.

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