A few weeks, it seems, since the last one, a new birthday has come along – the 81st no less, hardly believable when one thinks how not so long ago one could joyfully spring up stairs three at a time if the occasion demanded it or party until dawn (very possibly celebrating another West Indies victory as No. 1 in the world) and still go faithfully to work on time.
This birthday finds me still poised, as I have been for quite some time, between two opposing inclinations. One is to relax, withdraw from the hustle and the hurly-burly and the frustrating daily effort to get things done and sink into reclusive peace and quiet. The other inclination is to go on working as hard as one can to clear as wide a patch of efficiency, goodwill, cultural contribution and constructive endeavour as possible in the hope of making the world a slightly better place. In considering these options, Sheila Wingfield’s poem about the Emperor Hsuang-Tsung, long a favourite of mine, reflects a belief that guides me still:
Hsuang-Tsung, great emperor,
Giddy and ill and old, carried in a litter,
Saw the stars sway.
His conquests and his arrangements
and his powers, falling into fever with himself,
pulsed their lives away.
Bow to his shade. To be at rest
is but a dog that sighs and settles:
Better the unrelenting day.
I do not think I would do very much in life, except retreat from it in despair, if I had become absolutely cynical and had lost all belief in the brotherhood of man. But Archibald MacLeish’s poem of the pioneer astronauts seeing the world whole and entire for the first time in human history is a vision I continue to respect:
To see the earth as it truly is,
small and blue and beautiful
in that eternal silence where it floats,
is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together
brothers on that bright loveliness in that eternal cold,
brothers who know now that they are truly brothers.
I know there is a tremendous amount of evidence to prove that the brotherhood of man is an idle dream and, of course, in a universal sense it may never be accomplished. But at the level of neighbourhood, community, country and region surely it is a valid belief to hold. In this not very large household of ours, prejudice against anyone because of class, creed, colour, gender or location really is despicable.
As the number of years lengthen, and the purpose of all work and life becomes increasingly obscure, one truth remains as strong and clear as it has always been to me: the all-importance of loving and being loved. The unbearable lack of love is the worst thing in the world. Not to have someone to say always “I will not let go of your hand ever.” Among the last writings of Raymond Carver, the American writer who died young of cancer, there was found this late fragment of a poem.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
And, finally, as my 82nd year begins, my thoughts sadly turn to old friends gone forever. Each year the numbers progressively escalate. This is in the nature of things. However, that stoical reflection does not make the loss any lighter. The lines of regret and love written by Callimachus, Greek poet and scholar, more than two thousand year ago, reminds me of the departure of old friends:
Someone spoke of your death, Heraclitus.
It brought me tears
And I remembered how often together
we ran the sun down with talk.