ON REACHING SEVENTY

ON APPROACHING SEVENTY

In December, only a few months away, I will (deo volente) reach the age of 70. I’m quite surprised to have arrived at this point. I don’t understand how I got (quite suddenly it seems to me) to be so ‘dwedfully old’ to quote Dana. It has snuck up on me.

We are mortal; only ever one breath away from death and oblivion, yet we live our lives as though we were immortal.

I’m not someone who habitually watches films more than once but recently John and I watched Quartet for the 5th or 6th tme and I still found it enjoyable. The star studded cast, the humour, the music and the incomparable Billy Connelly make this a very watchable film. This is a good thing because we are not very good at acknowledging the pain and losses that come with old age.

Looking back on my life, I do not think I have recognised how fortunate I was. Although my childhood could be described as ‘difficult’ and certainly was neither standard nor conventional, it was happy. Our parents spent time and energy on educating us. My father was very intelligent and well read, and was knowledgable about many thing – all things natural, the history of Scotland, religion (as proscribed by him), woodwork (I could recognise any tool, no matter how obscure) and so on. He kept bees amd grew most of our food. He was also shrewd and cunning and a master of strategy in which he freely instructed me. He could speak the vernacular, which I never managed but he could also speak the Queen’s English and he was a powerful speaker who could raise a rabble before you could see his intent, He was a dictator of course, but I had inherited his genes sufficiently that when I became a teenager, I could deal with him. He had abandoned all his and my mother’s relatives apart from we three; but we stuck with him to the end.

My mother spoke the Queen’s English and she made sure that we did too and with an acceptable middle class accent. She ensured that I had middle class manners and knew how to entertain, run a house, deal with employees, knew how to seat people according to rank, how to cook and sew. She taught me how to dress well on little money. I had an easy rapport with men, and once I was a wife and mother I got on well with other women.

And in Eugene I had an intelligent companion, one who understood (and still does) where I was coming from. I therefore was rarely what people expected and one or two peope made catastrophic errors of judgement in relation to me (and I have to say that I was never in the least forgiving about these.)

I was fortunate in my husband and children, and I had the luxury of being able to bring up my children myself. I was also rich in friends.

In reaching 70, I feel that I have had a good portion. Life does not owe me anything. I have lived life free, comfortable, relatively healthy (I have no complaints) and. I hope and believe, have been well loved. I have been blessed with son and daughters and with many grandchildren of both sexes. I have travelled and seen many places.

I hope to live a longer portion still, but if the call came for me now, I would go without complaint. God has always been good to me, and it certainly is not because I have deserved it.

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FOR THE GODDESS ATHENE

FOR THE GODDESS ATHENE

I open my curtains.   The garden is misty and cool.   As I turn back to regain the warmth and comfort of my bed, I catch sight of my face in the mirror.   For a change, it is with surprise that I see that some of my former beauty still drifts around me much as the pale mist still lingers around the shadowy garden.   So often in recent times a tired, strained, pain-ravaged face peers back at me.   With its lines and stresses, the grim compression of the mouth, it reminds me of some older relative whom one once stared at as a girl, and felt that one would never reach such a strange and awful age oneself.   Yet age has come upon me stealthily, both slowly day by day, and suddenly and imperceptibly.   I am 63.   I am older now than other women whom in my youth I regarded as ancient.

And yet … and yet …    I would not return to the sunny optimism of former days.   The now, today, is always where you ought to be.

I have never wasted time lamenting my fate, and have on the whole been able to accept the joys and sadnesses of life and count my fortune a goodly portion.    21st century man suffers from the delusion that he is master of his destiny and can control his fate.   How the gods must laugh at our folly!   We can no more control our fate than one could turn back a tsunami and completely unanticipated events bear down on us as swiftly and unexpectedly as a deadly wave.

But there are compensations to growing older.    You have more time to reflect and understand.   You see that you do not have to strive so hard: or perhaps it’s just a gentler kind of striving.   Whereas once you may have directed, now you influence.   You understand the value of a good example.   A quiet word, a gentle touch, some modest encouragement, a small kindness – these tiny gestures can help people out of all proportion to the effort exerted.    You know this because you have received these kindnesses yourself.

My husband, when aged about 40, had a eureka moment, when he said to me, ‘I see I have to stop looking for father figures, and go out and BE one.’    Similarly, there comes a point in your life – and it is a bleak one – when the ladies whose example you have followed, those quiet models of good behaviour, courage, wise counsel, high standards – when they have departed one by one, when you look around you and realise there is hardly anyone on the road in front of you.   Soon there will be  only you and those coming after you.   You understand that you will have to BE that example, or attempt to be it, ill-equipped as you are.

These days I am attempting to practise meditation.   No practitioner of any discipline can ever have started with less aptitude, grace or facility at the art than the reluctant incompetence with which I attempt this.    You would think, being a cerebral type, that I would find this easy, but I do not.

Yet already I see some benefits.  I am calmer.   My face looks less stressed.   Actually my pain levels are reduced, though I am afraid to count this in case I lose it.    I think  it is fair to say that I have always been generous and just if well treated, but dangerous  if opposed.    The leopard does not change his spots, but still, I am able to make more allowances for people.   I do not get out my sword quite so quickly.

When I look back on my life, I have few regrets;  but I could have been kinder and more patient.   I never went looking for a fight;   I issued two warnings;  but once these preliminaries were over, I slew them.   As I hefted my sword, I used to think, couldn’t they see I held it?   Well , clearly they couldn’t.      There’s none of these people whom I regret in the sense that I think they didn’t deserve what came to them – and besides of course no-one was literally injured, so in theory they could live and learn.   But I was not particularly merciful.   I ask myself now, what was the rush to judgement?   The sword was mine.   I could always have used it later.

Sometimes (rarely) in the period of meditation, a physical image will arise unexpectedly and surprise you with its beauty or strangeness:  or an insight will occur to you.   While you are practising the discipline you set it aside, but you reflect on it later.

I realise I am content.   In some ways one gets older and weaker;  in other ways one gets (hopefully) wiser and stronger.   I’m still for the goddess Athene.    Even though I am an old woman, the girl I was still runs beside me.

If you believe, as I do, that the events which befall one are uniquely intended for one, then you can go out and meet your destiny, secure in the knowledge that however unwelcome are the circumstances which overtake you, never the less they are to be embraced for they are a gift of some description.

We do not control our  destiny, but how we rise to the challenges that face us can make all the difference from being swept away on the great wave of events, or surfing on it to a safer shore.

We should not fear old age, but be glad we have survived to enjoy it.

ON GROWING OLD

On GROWING OLD

I’ve been thinking about old age, and that we should be
trained in how to do it.   So much
training is given in how to do practically everything, yet it seems to me we
still arrive at the great changes in life more or less unprepared.

Few people, embarking on marriage, full of hope and good
intentions and anxious to enter into matrimony (even though they are warned in
the marriage service that it is an estate not to be entered into lightly),
actually have any idea of what is involved.
A good marriage is a bulwark
against misfortune, and a great source of strength and happiness, yet it nearly
always has to be paid for by some costly sacrifice somewhere along the way.    The participants have in our culture
generally chosen of their own free will, but they do not know why they have
made that choice.    The general bargain
(society’s expectations of marriage) is made;
a private bargain is agreed (eg one will work, one will raise the
children), but often a secret bargain is also struck, and what that is may not
be apparent in the beginning even to the bride and groom.

Few couples, gazing with delight into the cradle holding
their first born, and anticipating the joy that a child does indeed bring, have
a realistic grasp of the enormous cost that will be incurred.    The father may have to work for years of
unremitting toil to keep it warm, fed and educated.   The mother may spend her best years of
strength and beauty in the drudgery of its physical care.    In the end, the better the job is done, the
more carelessly the child leaves you without a backwards glance, and suddenly,
in your parental role, you are redundant.
You have to give up being the hand that rocks the cradle, or guides the
tiller, and watch from the rocky shoreline as your child launches their frail
craft on the dangerous waters of life alone;
and probably you have to provision the boat, and wave it off cheerfully,
stifling your anxieties.   Did you listen
to your parents’ advice?   No, you
didn’t.   You made your own mistakes and
if you are ever to be mature it is necessary that you do so.

Once your children have offspring of their own, they
become slightly more   sympathetic as they realise the enormity of
the undertaking, and that the best you can hope for is to be a good enough
parent.

As for old age, it snakes up on you stealthily.   I watched a recent programme on Prince
Phillip at 90 and had great sympathy for him.
Even though inhabiting a frail, 90 years old body, he still seemed the
same vital and exciting man the Queen had fallen in love with;  and certainly you could still see that in his
day he must have been one of the handsomest men to walk the planet.

Recently I chanced across a poem entitled, Beautiful Old
Age, by D H Lawrence (though one must point out that he himself died at 45 and
therefore had no personal experience).
I leave you with  the last few
lines.

And a girl should say

It must be wonderful to live and grow old.

Look at my mother, how rich and still she is.

And a young man should think, By Jove,

My father has faced all weathers, but it’s been a life!