Tag: midlife

thing 10: ‘time was away and somewhere else’: blue petering

I can still see it now: the hand-made razor-cleaning-brush holder, approx. three inches by half an inch, knitted in uptightly-tense garter stitch in DK wool in variegated tones of blue by my 7-year-old self.

The HMRCBH lived in Dad’s razor box for a long time and I remember my delight in how delighted he was to receive it (or at least, how delighted I felt he was, which was what mattered). But though the giving and receiving of hand-made items remains a very special thing—which I still enjoy, and which Kirstie et al increasingly encourage us to do these days—that’s not actually (read more…)

‘When Death Comes’, Mary Oliver

You can read this poem here.

Whenever I’ve shared poetry in groups, and we’ve explored this poem, it has always had resonances for the participants. Whether the groups are about loss, mortality, love of nature, mindfulness, the search for meaning, ways to live more happily in this bewildering, bruising but also beautiful world… whatever the immediate focus, people find nourishment in this poem. It speaks to them.

The images of death are so simple, but so powerful. That death should ‘[snap] the purse shut’ calls to my mind those old-fashioned purses with the cross-over clasps with spheres on the end of little stalks, which slide across and past each other and shut with such satisfying conviction. I can feel them ‘snap’ home under my fingers as I read those words. Death as a ‘hungry bear in autumn’, feeding urgently, because it must, and willing to take whatever it comes across; death as the dreadful shock of the ‘iceberg between the shoulder blades’—something that dwarfs us and mows us down, without malice or intention, simply because of what it is, and where we happen to be… I find these images unforgettable.

How amazing, though, is where, in Oliver’s hands, these images lead us. Not to lamentation (or not explicitly); but rather, to an honouring of what unites us; to an openness to possibilities; to an acceptance that we all must ‘tend towards silence’; to an honouring of all life as something ‘precious’: and to the determination to live as vividly, intensely, fully as possible. That importance of the distinction between visiting and living isn’t spelled out, but has a quiet profundity which convinces me entirely. This poem gives me a way to think about how I want to live: I don’t want simply to be a visitor here: I want to live here, to belong here, to be a fully-involved citizen of this world, for as long as I am given. And Oliver even suggests how we may do this: by being both bride and bridegroom, ‘married to amazement’, and ‘taking the world in [our] arms’. That might not entirely prevent me being ‘sighing and frightened,/or full of argument’, but it it feels like the very most I can do to minimise that.

Thank you, Mary. I’m so grateful for this poem.

thing 6: ‘the nearest thing to life’: the Caravaggio exhibition

“Going and looking at stuff” wasn’t always that appealing.

I’m sure I was a disappointingly unresponsive child at times, failing to appreciate carefully-orchestrated opportunities and prone to Dinosaur Rubber Syndrome. For me the formative gift shop experience was at Prinknash Abbey, on a family holiday in That Summer of ‘76. I bought a set of 5 collapsible, flower-decorated biros—unusual colours, and in their own dinky see-through case which closed with a satisfying click. (read more…)

new stuff on the bookshelves

Please imagine the inviting smoothness of the unbroken spine, the crisp feel of as-yet-un-turned pages, and that lovely new-book smell as you read this….

Two new items are up on the what the afternoon knows bookshelves. There’s Poem for the Day (1)a great anthology of poems, which is ideal as a present, and/or for encouraging you to read poetry. And there’s a remarkable bit of non-fiction, Jane Shilling’s The Stranger in the Mirror: a memoir of middle age. This is an extraordinary book, honest, moving, and beautifully written.

Would love to hear from anyone else who’s read, or is reading these.

 

The Stranger in the Mirror, Jane Shilling

A few years ago, I worked part-time at Waterstone’s (yes, I’m putting the apostrophe in even though it’s now been dropped from the signs and literature; too alienating and elitist or something), where I was in charge of “MBS”: health, religion, self-help, personal development and various other things. This meant that I Iearned more than I might otherwise have done about what Steven Fry has dismissed as ‘shivering madness[es]’—crystal healing, Angel Cards, Ordering from the Universe and so on. But it also meant that I got to spend quite a lot of time upstairs, where non-fiction, poetry and other splendid things lived. I remember unpacking The Stranger in the Mirror from the tote and thinking ‘What a brilliant title. I’ll read that some day’. I knew it wasn’t time yet—but a few years later, it is time, and I’ve read it. I found it profoundly moving.

As one who has spent the occasional bit of mirror-time, of late, lifting one side of my face and looking glumly at the resulting lopsided young/middle-aged reflection, I found the book’s inspired title encapsulated a feeling which is about so much more than looks (though coming to terms with the changes in looks is a thing to do in itself). I recognised, instantly and deeply, that sense of the defamiliarisation of ourselves which time brings about. Shilling describes herself as being ‘taken by surprise’ by middle-age. I get that, and suspect that others may, too.

Quoting Julian Barnes on what he terms ‘le reveil mortel‘—that is, the moment of apprehending the reality of one’s own mortality—Shilling notes that it wasn’t so much that this was news, but that she saw her life as a failure,

nothing behind me but mistakes and disappointments, and nothing ahead but the prospect of a series of small and large betrayals by the body that I had inhabited so insouciantly until now, until the moment of final, catastrophic betrayal.

Phew. I’m not resorting to cliche here when I say I found this book piercingly honest. I simply mean that Shilling’s realness, her willingness to say things that others might dismiss as “feeling sorry for herself” (how I LOATHE that phrase), instantly, painfully found their way to the heart of me, and to some of the sorrows and terrors I have about midlife, ageing and dying. Never having laboured under the burdens of great beauty and stylishness, I don’t relate so immediately to the the chapters about dress and style. But the stuff about middle-age as a reckoning point, a place where we review, reflect, acknowledge, lament, grieve…? Yes. I wept many times as I read this book, but am glad to have done so. They were the howls and keenings which denote irrevocable loss and, as such, were necessary and important.

I loved the directness and honesty of The Stranger, manifest from the Preface—’At 47 I thought that  steady nerve, a good haircut and an enquiring mind would be sufficient protection against most of the outrages that middle age might inflict. By 50 I knew better’—and throughout.  Without being Eeyore, or denying what there is to be celebrated about ageing, Shilling refuses to have the realities of middle-age elided or given some misleading gloss. Commenting on Gloria Steinem’s description of later life as a ‘”go[ing] back to that clear-eyed, shit-free”‘ way of being that childhood enjoys, but with the welcome addition of the kinds of power and agency children rarely have, Shilling notes:

Although there are good reasons to be upbeat about growing old, it is a mistake to think that life’s journey is circular. Getting old does not involve a return to anywhere. It is an onward passage to an unknown destination.

And the unknown is often frightening. The Stranger in the Mirror honours the intensities to be experienced in middle-age. It has much about being lost—from oneself, in the world; familiar waymarkers and trig points shift or vanish in middle-age—and about the fear which comes with being lost, and loss. It celebrates life’s richness and owns the anguish of things passing. Shilling seems wonderfully qualm-free about sharing her emotions, and I love that. We read to know we are not alone.

It is refreshing that Shilling offers us no consolatory rom-com narrative of Salvation-through-Relationship (though the importance of relationship, or relatedness-with-others, is never denied). I was rejoicing in feeling so accompanied, right until the final two sentences of the acknowledgements: ‘My dear son Alexander tolerates with patience and generosity the trials of having a writing mother. He is the point of it all’. At the time of first reading those closing words, they plunged me into despair: I felt abandoned and—for some time at least, while gasping with pain—betrayed. Now, more than 2 years (and a lot of grieving) since I first read those words, I can deal with them, see them for what they are: her truth. Not the truth.

As you will have gathered, The Stranger in the Mirror is not chirpy self-help, hot-flushes-and-the-highway-to-happiness style! Nonetheless, I found it very helpful indeed; an absorbing, moving read which made me at home in Shilling’s world and more so in my own. I’d be very interested to hear what you think.