Monday, November 24, 2014
Prevented from my customary roaming by a vile cough and an unaccustomed sense of responsibility, I find myself thinking about what happens as I get older. For let's face it, older I am - and it's over nine years since I retired from teaching and I frequently wonder at the person that did all that teaching and extra-curricular work as well as the things I still like to do.
It's not that I'm particularly decrepit, in the normal way of things, no matter how lousy I may feel right now. I can still hike in the mountains all day and survive to enjoy a bibulous meal in the evening - for that's what we do on these walking holidays we've become fond of. I can still enjoy singing in the various ensembles I'm involved in, and though I'm well aware of the need to keep my voice in good working order by proper production and by careful practice, in many ways I sing better than I ever did. My sight-reading hasn't faltered, either of music or of the written word (when I haven't prepared a reading in church, f'rinstance.) So what has changed?
The energy levels, that's sure. Not necessarily the energy that sustains the long hikes, but the energy that allows you to cope with keeping several balls in the air at once - or even to contemplate so doing. And it's not as if I sit fretting about the things left undone - I often find myself saying ( a Psalmist moment coming on) Tush! I'll do it tomorrow ... Take today. I know I have the excuse of a bug, but I seem to have spent the afternoon until now dozing and doing two Sudokus on paper (I usually do them online. There's more scope for changing your mind). It was partly the wonder at this incredible waste of time that led to this post. But I know that the same person who did this was perfectly capable of letting, say, a free period in school slide past in trivia - chatting to a colleague, perhaps, or pottering on a page of the school magazine which the pupil editors could perfectly well have done without me. So in a way, this retired malarkey simply allows me to be the person I always was. Only thing is, I'm more aware now that the reckoning will come, not in the form of a line manager wondering when my marking is going to be done but in the shape of ... well, death, not to put too fine a point on it.
However, I've discovered that it's a mistake to try to line up meaningful activities to tick off as part of these apparently declining years. The mental energy just isn't there. Mental energy, note - not physical. That's less abundant too, of course, though normally, I'd have decent exercise in a day - usually a walk that most people would think long and strenuous. This takes hours out of my life. Is it time wasted? I take photos and share them online, enjoying the photos from friends and family and total strangers that are there when I do so. Time wasted? I spent an age making a card for a grandson with a photo of him in action, but I suspect society would approve of that bit. And they might think it was all right to get round to scanning some extraordinary photos I found in a drawer, of my grandparents at the beginning of last century. (I must do that ...)
But here's a thing. Is it significant that I'm choosing to write this as darkness falls? Ever since I was young, I've known this was a time of day for feeling melancholy in - not necessarily the hour, but the fading of light and the end of the day's possibilities. It comes second only to the grim hour before dawn when you waken and consider Last Things - take a look at Philip Larkin's Aubade for an example of this. There is no denying the fact that it's better to be busy or preoccupied than to moon over the horrors of ageing, though clearly Larkin in this poem feared death more. (He was pretty miserable about ageing as well - read The Old Fools.)
When I was a teenager, stressed under the burdens of homework and my hockey-bag, I used to sit on the bus and look with a degree of envy at some buddy who might have been the age I am now but who would have been dressed in a way I still consider elderly. I would be thinking of all the worries she didn't have - presumably she had a husband, a house, no homework, no exams, no monthly agonies from an erratic menstrual cycle, no tendency to have her gut heave the moment a plateful of food was placed in front of her.
I think I'm not going to comment on that. It's too obvious where the flaws lie. But talking about these moments on the 10 bus to Broomhill has brought these journeys home amazingly close. Life, as I've commented before, is at once timeless and brief, and I keep coming face to face with someone I used to be. I've always been aware of this, I think - these poems I've been referring to were a regular feature in my teaching, and these teenaged pupils loved studying them despite - or maybe because of - the gloom. But ahead of us all - who knows what lies there?
A question to end, brought on by the season of remembrance: Is it any easier to die in a sudden burst of shellfire than slowly, in bed? Among companions who may or may not survive, or alone? I suspect you're always alone inside your head at the end - but wonder.
Ah - Give me your arm, old Toad; help me down Cemetery Road...
Thursday, November 13, 2014
The month of remembering -
the lines of men in the stubble fields
the hideous scramble over a muddy
parapet, the cringing death in the
eye’s blink - this month recalls
wars past and wars still trailing
death and mutilation in their wake.
But not just that.
This month of remembering
lines up before our wavering prayers
the souls of Saints, the souls
of our beloved dead, guttering
like candles in the fitful
illumination of our faith.
The tears come, yes -
but do we weep for them, or do we
shrink at the sudden blinding glimpse
of our too frail mortality?
We who live trudge on to where
our companion dead are waiting
among the red flowers at the years’ end
in that land to which we go.
This owes its conclusion to a fraction of an idea from R.S.Thomas, whose words tend to haunt my subconscious and of whom I will always be in awe.