Suddenly I am 85 years old. I find that ridiculous but chronologically it is a fact. I recall with distaste old Sam Beckett’s pessimistic shout: “We breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom, our ideas!” Surely all those years have not come and gone with such headlong quickness. Doris Lessing in her autobiography Under My Skin describes how perception of time passing changes utterly as one gets older. She describes her experience as a child:
“How far away it was, the condition of being grown up and free, for I was still in the state when the end of the day could hardly be glimpsed from its start…there is no way of conveying in words the difference between child-time and grown-up time…in the story of a life, if it is being told true to time as outwardly experienced, then I’d say 70% of the book would take you to age 10. At 80% you would have reached 15. At 95% you get to about 30. The rest is a rush towards eternity.”
That is perfectly true. As one gets older life becomes an ever increasing blur of days, weeks, months, years. If one keeps a journal and looks back on the year past the days are packed enough with incidents and people and events, joys and fears and a hundred small triumphs and tribulations – as the days have always been. But it is living through it all that gets quicker and quicker. Someone has pushed the fast-forward button.
There is no time left for great achievements. Nobody gets a return match between himself and his destiny. The main tasks of life are already undertaken. The hectic concerns that ate up the hours are no longer insistent and seem not one tenth so important. What is called getting on in the world has long seemed a fool’s pastime.
The quiet pleasures, the private delights, matter much more now. Going out in society, to parties and receptions, to any gathering except a meeting between close friends, becomes increasingly a burdensome chore to be avoided at all costs. More and more I see the truth of the 17th Century Japanese poet Tachibana Akemi’s Poem of Solitary Delights which I first read in my twenties and which in those days puzzled me. Here are two stanzas:
What a delight it is
When, reading of wild exploits,
I hear about me daily
The well-loved sounds
Of a settled home.
What a delight it is
When after a hundred days
Of racking my brains
That verse that would’t come
Suddenly turns out well.
I have noticed a surprising development. The beauty of ordinary things has once again become sharply focused. When I was very young every day revealed fresh miracles of a shining world. Then there was a long period spent in the press of strenuous ambition when one lived without revelations. But now they have come again. I think even Samuel Beckett, the eternal fatalist, felt it in his aging bones: “What sky! What light! Ah, in spite of all it is a blessed thing to be alive in such weather, and out of hospital.”
I read a poem by Franz Wright and its lines echo in my mind.
We speak of Heaven who have not yet accomplished
even this, the holiness of things
precisely as they are, and never will!
Before death was I saw the shining wind.
To disappear, today’s as good a time as any.
To surrender at last
to the vast current-
And look, even now there’s still time.
Time for the glacial, cloud-paced
soundless music to unfold once more.
Time, inexhaustible wound, for
your unwitnessed and destitute coronation.
This heightened perception I feel renewed in me as I enter my eighty-sixth year I think must first come in childhood and then with age: in childhood because it is happening for the first time, in age because you may soon have to say goodbye. As the birthdays inexorably quicken, one can only be thankful for this unexpected blessing.