More than forty years ago our car pulled into the drive at home after a holiday in north Wales. We couldn’t have been away for more than a couple of weeks, but it seemed an age since we’d been there. Time lasted longer in childhood. It was an ending of sorts, of the holidays, of summer. But I can also recall the sense of possibility that returning created. The chance to start again. Things could be different.
Holidays, if we’re fortunate enough to have them, take us to another place. Not just another location but a different state of being. They suspend us, just for a moment. We press a pause button and take time out. And if we’re lucky we come back refreshed, ready to take on daily life again. These days, despite our best intentions, communication devices intrude so the pause effect can take a while to kick in. Perhaps even the first week of a two-week break.
Such has been the fate of this holiday, a trip first to Denmark and then to the Netherlands. For me, a chance to eat and sleep, run, read, and write. To enjoy being in the here and now with my husband, away from the crisscrossing routines that characterise our usual busy lives together. And after a faltering start and some distraction midway, the trip has mostly lived up to its anticipation.
For the last week, we’ve been pottering around the idyllic town of Bergen, just north of Amsterdam, in a state of middle-aged bliss. Who knew? Not us for sure; we’re here on a house swap. There’s a lot to be said for serendipity. We’ve cycled through the sand dunes and forests nearby, marvelling at the wilderness feel and the coastal light. We’ve ambled around local towns, supping a coffee here, a beer there. I’ve joined a local running group, and, in the evenings, we’ve settled down to catch up on Netflix. Simple pleasures.
The reading has been sublime too. I chose well, most notably Richard Holloway’s reflections on life and death in Waiting For The Last Bus and Robert McCrum’s thoughts on life, death, and the endgame in Every Third Thought. The material might sound morbid, but these are themes I’m no stranger to. I’ve been making friends with death for a while now. And each book has offered a series of lenses through which to muse on a question I realise has been gnawing away. What’s left?
It’s partly numeric. And one number in particular. Sixty. I quite liked turning fifty. My forties had largely been a decade of recovery from a breakdown which took me to the brink of life at forty-two. My fifties suggested something better. And as they unfolded that suggestion gave way to a kind of levelling. Like emerging from woodland into a clearing bathed in sunlight. Looking around and taking it all in; satisfaction, even revelry, in the here and now.
It’s not perfect. The troubling world wards off complacency and provides a constant reminder that my nowness is a place of privilege. And yet I’m still most likely to respond to the question, ‘How are you?’, with a ‘Not bad’, albeit my customary ambivalent response is tempered with an enduring belief that it’s still worth trying to make the world a better place.
There’s just no avoiding that fact that I’m the same person I’ve always been; a glass half empty kind of optimist. But such had been the joy at arriving in this place that when I turned fifty-five a couple of years ago, I was disturbed by the thought that this decade, my best so far, was already half over. Worse still it was speeding by at a seemingly relentless pace.
Why should this bother me? Surely this late-found comfort can survive the turn of another decade? I hope so. But there’s no getting away from the fact that sixty has always seemed well, old. Nearer the end. A time and place where days are numbered in a way that it’s been possible to deny before. That’s what I think now at least. I’m just turned fifty-seven, so I can’t tell you yet if that’s how it really feels.
So, when McCrum remarks that as he turned sixty in 2013, his ‘first reaction was to fudge it’, it touched a nerve. And when he went on to say that for about a year, he pretended he was fifty-nine, or ‘if he could get away with it’, fifty-seven, it struck a chord. Could I, to use Holloway’s analogy, get off the bus now and stay here, if not forever, just a while longer?
Of course, I might, in the words of A.A. Milne multiplied tenfold, feel when I turn sixty that I want to be it ‘for ever and ever.’ But the truth is that in my fifties I feel I’m only ‘just alive’. And it seems a bit much that I should have to leave this place behind so soon. It took long enough to get here.
When I was born in 1961, life expectancy for men was sixty-eight. Based on that statistic, I’ve got just over a decade to go. Improvements in life expectancy seem a good bet so I think I can safely double that. Either way, it’s not long and it’s going by at a rate of knots. As a friend of mine said when he turned 60 a couple of years ago, ‘it just gets quicker and quicker and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.’
The writer, Diana Athill, who recently turned 100, agrees. She warned as her 98th birthday approached, ‘The older you get, the quicker time goes. Odd that.’
Odd it may be, but it’s focusing my mind. Luckily both Holloway and McCrum give wise counsel. McCrum’s comes in a short list: ‘Try to keep fit, Accept your fate/insignificance, Live in the moment.’ Holloway would concur with all of that I’m sure and the last point especially. In the final chapter of his book he says:
‘Looking back, what I regret most about the rush is missing so much of my own life. I don’t mean missing it now. I mean missing it then, missing it while I was in the midst of it.’
Everyday conversations with friends are a little less intense than this, in fact humdrum in comparison. Increasingly they turn to ‘What’s next?’ rather than ‘What’s left?’ When can I stop working? How is your pension looking? Have you managed to pay off the mortgage? A stack of questions that dance around the r-word, the one we’re not even supposed to mention since the default retirement age was abolished in 2011.
‘What’s left?’ might at first hand appear to be more existential than ‘What’s next?’ But in truth, they amount to the same thing. How am I going to get the best out of this next phase of life? A new phase. The last one. Except that the ‘What’s left?’ question is the one that really matters. And it’s not really about doing at all. It’s about being. About being here now.
In part that means letting go of the past. It’s not a place you’re actually going to be able to go to again. So being preoccupied with it in anything other than an occasional sense won’t help much. A touch of wistfulness is inevitable. But more? Nothing good can come of it. But, then, there’s the memoir I’m writing… And in any case, as Eliot reminds us in Burnt Norton, there’s a blurring to all this:
‘Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.’
So, perhaps counter-intuitively, being here now, isn’t just about now. As Eliot reminds us again in East Coker, it’s about ‘a lifetime burning in every moment too.’ Nowness means settling up with the past and embracing the future, not least the unbeing part of it. But these aren’t mere transactions. They are part of a new state of being. We take ourselves with us, right to the end.
The knownness of the past can make it more than a tad tricky at times. Trust me. I spent the best part of ten grand on psychoanalysis twenty years ago. I got the past back but on reflection, I’d rather have had the money. If you can deal with the fear factor, the unknownness of death makes it much the simpler challenge. A surprisingly attractive proposition, even. Just not quite yet.
There’s no avoiding the fact that getting the best out of what’s left means accepting death. And one part of that means giving it due attention in terms of all those niggling practicalities, wills, and the like. But the greater part is simply coming to terms with its inevitability.
All this means suspending disbelief and not just for a week or two. About the past and the inevitable attendant feeling of failure lurking; regrets, I’ve had a few. And about the future, the ultimate failure of not being anymore.
What’s left? is more than a holiday. I certainly hope so. As I approach sixty, I’m counting on a couple of decades. It could even be three or four, but then there’s more than a chance the bonus decades could be beset with the harsh reality of ageing. And unlike a holiday, unless you believe in life after death (and despite my faith I’m more than a sceptic), it doesn’t end with renewal. It just ends. It’s a hearse, not a car, that pulls up in the drive.
So, it’s time to make the most of it. To make the unmissable present last.
What’s left? Quite a bit, I hope. Things could be different. But first I’ve got to go to work on Monday.
First published on 14th April 2018