The first surprise: I like it.
Thoughts of aging – and the less desirable alternative – keep cropping up this week, not least as someone I know has died suddenly, a young healthy man who spent the weekend sailing and cycling, of a heart attack, his partner thinks.
That mystery of ‘ye know not when’ has always intrigued me. How would we live if we knew we had a hundred, seventy or only forty years on the planet? What would we do if we knew we only had today or this year or the next five?
I’ve often led workshops in religious or spiritual contexts and am constantly on the look-out for poems that speak to a variety of traditions and belief systems. There’s a poem by Elaine Feinstein that’s explicitly atheist whilst conveying a sense of the numinous in the present moment. You can read it here and hear it in her voice on the excellent Poetry Archive website. As well as interesting content, it has a lovely subtle music.
Being able to look back an increasingly long way is one of the pleasures of getting older. Elaine Feinstein spoke last year at the University of Kent Reading Series, fascinatingly about her life as a young poet in post-war Britain – if you ever get a chance to hear her speak or read, go.
This poem was echoed by a wonderful piece in the New York Times by neuroscientist and writer Oliver Sacks, celebrating being 80. I love his idea of linking years with the elements and am delighted that being 50 makes me Tin, the metal so associated with Cornwall.
Last night, the neighbourhood bookclub met to discuss The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Jumped Out of a Window and Disappeared by Swedish writer Jonas Jonasson. It’s on one level a hilarious romp which includes encounters with the twentieth century’s most ludicrous and horrifying dictators but more seriously, provokes all kinds of questions about personal agency, politics, aging and acceptance of life’s unpredictability. I shared Oliver Sacks’ article with my neighbours and one, just turned seventy and mother of four, said she guessed he didn’t have children (he doesn’t). I wonder how that makes or doesn’t make a difference?
On a personal note, I related strongly to the idea of ‘jumping out of a window’ – the writer’s metaphor for completely changing one’s life. The protagonist constantly turns his life upside down and back to front, going from country to country, initiating new friendships and ways of life, something I’ve done in a less extreme way. Jonas Jonasson describes how he too has jumped out of various windows in this intervew. The metaphor is a powerful one for me – I have often reflected on the ‘road not taken’ but jumping out of a window has more energy, life and exuberance – as well as the risk of not being able to climb back in and having to go round and knock shame-facedly on the front door.
I jumped out of the window of Cornwall a couple of years ago, and in this radiant weather, find myself thinking constantly about its wild coastline and beautiful beaches. But I’m on my way back this weekend to spend three days teaching poetry therapy and to participate in the Penzance Literary Festival, presenting on poetry from Georgia and reading poems on love and obsession alongside Djazz Celtica and other poets. Can’t wait!
And one day, we’ll all pass through what I’ve noticed appears in my own poems as a one-way gate – but who knows, might be a window, a door or an edge. Meanwhile, pace Elaine Feinstein, the hot coffee on my desk and the rose outside my window, are sharp and delightful.