Tag: mortality

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.

‘To His Coy Mistress’, Andrew Marvell

Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found;
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust;
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapped power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

This poem is so well-known, and rightly loved, that I feel slightly silly commenting on it, so I shall try to restrain myself. But I have to rejoice in the perfection of its form: how the regularity of the 4-iamb lines—an iamb is a ‘di-dum‘, with the stress on the dum—and the use, almost always, of perfect rhyme, combine to mimic the relentlessness of time—throughout, but particularly in the first three lines of stanza two. (In line 4 of that stanza, ‘deserts of’ breaks that rhythm, but for me has always had feeling of “galloping” in it which, I guess, is what Time’s horses would be doing.)

I also have to note the way he makes reference to a very C17th literary conceit, the blazon, which is where the poet lists the beloved’s attributes and praises them in turn, usually extravagantly—the formal trick Shakespeare was sending up in ‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’. Here Marvell gives both the literary convention, and the beloved’s beauties, a mere nod, as it were in passing. ‘Yes, darling: nice eyes, great boobs… I’ve got all the moves— but hey, we’re on a clock here’.

Unlike ‘Water’, our last poem, this poem is constructing an argument, which pivots neatly—and inevitably—around the ‘But’ which opens stanza two, and which we’ve anticipated all the way from ‘Had we’, the first words of stanza one. So rhetorically brilliant, the way that all the reasons to go slowly thus somehow end up seeming to strengthen the case for going quickly! Would this deftness, or the agony of being mortal, or the sheer chutzpah win me over, I wonder, or would I have the presence of mind to point out that there are other ways of making time run, too?  But just imagine the twinkle in his eye as he says those last lines, the anticipatory relish…

‘Water’, Philip Larkin

You can read this poem here.

This poem has a unsentimental but quietly beautiful sense of longing in it, which may come as a pleasant surprise to those more familiar with the angrier, more bitter bits of himself which Larkin often shares. I love the idea of him getting ‘called in’ as a religion construction engineer (“Hello, Phil…? We’ve got a job in your area—are you available?”); but who better, perhaps, than him, as someone who, in the absence of faith, finds the contemplation of death so desperately terrifying? It doesn’t seem surprising, either, that he should see religion as as something ‘construct[ed]’. In ‘Aubade’ he refers to it as ‘That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die’. A man-made construct: intricate, ornate, dense, beautiful perhaps, but ultimately something fabricated to soften and conceal something starker; something ‘motheaten’, too, which is wearing out; and not something concerned with how we might live, but only with how we might face dying. Eeeek. As so often with Larkin, I move between deep and relieved empathy with configurations of him as glimpsed through the poetry (“we read to know we are not alone…”), and an equal sense of relief that I don’t always feel as he does. I’m interested, too, that in both ‘Aubade’ and ‘Water’ he seems to conflate religion and faith. Surely, Philip, they are different things?

It’s as though this poem is haunted by the ghost of belief, echoing as it is with the significance of water in many spiritual traditions. Stanza two, for instance, evokes Christian’s crossing of the river in The Pilgrim’s Progress; and there are obvious recollections of baptism in the ‘furious devout drench’. I love it that it’s a ‘furious devout drench’: that suggests such passion, such intensity, such need and desperation. And ‘dry, different clothes’ is so economical: ‘dry’ evokes a restoration of comfort, a relief, while ‘different’ acknowledges the absoluteness of the change belief would bring about. He/we would not be the same after this ‘sousing’— could never experience the world, and life, in the same way again.

But these are all conditional verbs: ‘If I were called in…I should… Would entail… would employ…I should raise’. ‘Water’ offers a vision of something beautiful, certainly: ‘any-angled light’ is a dazzling phrase, simple, mysterious and coruscating, like the thing it describes. But though Larkin can conjure this vision so vividly, he cannot, in the end, see it with his heart—cannot give felt assent to it. A teetering thing built on ‘If’ as the opening word, ‘Water’ captures a longing, an impulse which, though powerful, can find nowhere to go. It’s not one of those poems which constructs an argument. It leads nowhere. And in this its form enacts something of its content (which I think much great poetry does). Larkin is articulating something in himself which finds no real issue—a spiritual sense without form to embody it or trust to allow it to flow. There’s an inability to resolve which leaves us hanging, ‘endlessly’. Such yearning, such an absence of what to do with it. Oh, the hole where faith might once have been…

Pass the biscuits, would you? I need my post-Larkin carb-fix…

 

 

thing 3: ‘here are the dogs’: my birthday

A few days before my birthday I was checking out the times for Adult Swimming (less interesting than it sounds!) at the leisure centre and found myself scrolling past a timetable entry which said ‘50+ swim’.

Then scrolling back again. Bloody hell, I thought, this time next week I can go to that. I could feel the flesh starting to dangle (more) from my upper arms even as I looked. (read more…)