On a snowy Saturday seventeen years ago, in a Scandinavian Modern A-frame church, I married the love of my life, Aina Arro. We’re celebrating that now with a long weekend out of town.
Seventeen may not seem like a significant number, not like 20 or 50 or whatever, but it seems to show up suspiciously often in my life – or at least I notice it in significant connections. My birthday isn’t on the 17th of its month, but my brother’s is, and so is my niece’s, and so is my sister-in-law’s, and so are the birthdays of some of my longstanding friends. And there are pairs of birthdays in my family that are separated by 17 days. I turned 17 when I was in my first year of university (and twice 17 – i.e., 34 – when I was in my first year of marriage). The longest I have ever worked anywhere is 17 years (and some months).
I could find significant things about other numbers, of course, but 17 cuts a figure. It has a presence in our culture too: it’s the last year before technical adulthood. It’s peak youth, epitomized by the magazine Seventeen. It shows up as such in quite a few songs and movies, too. You may think right away of the first words of “I Saw Her Standing There” by the Beatles: “Well, she was just seventeen.”
I think more directly of one of my favourite songs of all time, “Edge of Seventeen” by Stevie Nicks. A great song with a driving beat, steaming with the angst of late adolescence.
Seventeen is a prime number, and it’s tempting to say that at 17 you’re in your prime. But you’re not. You’re only beginning to enter your prime; you’re at the edge of adulthood, commencing maturity, with a long way to go. Consider the poem “To Critics” by Walter Learned:
When I was seventeen I heard
From each censorious tongue,
“I’d not do that if I were you;
You see you’re rather young.”
Now that I number forty years,
I’m quite as often told
Of this or that I shouldn’t do
Because I’m quite too old.
O carping world! If there’s an age
Where youth and manhood keep
An equal poise, alas! I must
Have passed it in my sleep.
Perhaps that poised age is 34, when you’re old enough not to be treated like a kid but young enough still to be youthful (in the eyes of everyone but naïve youths). Seventeen more years, at 51, you’re undeniably mature – in years, at least. You should be in full flush of your career. At 68, you may have wound it down; at 85, you may be winding yourself down. Few people make it to 102.
Seventeen is an interesting number in other ways too. It’s made of the number of completion or top quality (10) and the “lucky” number (7). It’s the longest of the teen numbers to say and the longest to spell out, but arguably the easiest to write as a figure. Like eleven and twelve but unlike any other teen numbers, it uses only one vowel letter, e (though it uses it four times, like two sets of side-eyes). Note that all three – and all other numbers involving 7 – are also the only ones containing v. Like eleven it includes the word even, though of course neither of them is even. Like every number from seventy to seventy-nine, it includes the word event. Like all the teen numbers, you say and spell its two parts in reverse of how you write the figure (since the 1 is the teen because it’s stands for ten).
And the quirky, questioning letter Q is the 17th letter of the alphabet. So seventeen seems like a number for wanting to know more.
I must say I’m looking forward to getting to know Aina even more over the next seventeen years.