Sofamother told me an anecdote about retirees that stuck. The priest at their church in Johannesburg had spent years working with seniors. He would visit his elderly parishioners in a retirement home that was set alongside a primary school: “I realised there were two kinds of retirees, those would say to me – ‘the noise from the school is deafening, we can’t get any rest’, and those who would say: ‘isn’t the sound of the children’s laughter marvellous!'”
No prizes for guessing which group lived longer.
Aging has been on my mind a lot lately. Firstly the changes I see in myself, and secondly the changes I see in my parents and their friends. Particularly in Aunty Mo, a pal of my mother’s who came to stay with us in McG over the holidays. Maureen lost her Ian six months ago and she has been battling to cope. Ian did everything for her, Maureen can’t drive, didn’t pay the bills and had never even used a cash machine. She was bewildered.
Aunty Mo had stayed with us just a few months after Ian’s death and was full of negativity. Understandable, but challenging. So, I was a bit nervous as to how 12 days together would play out. I needn’t have been. A few days before my dad* drove the two ladies home, she came into my room: “You know what I realised this morning, Susan? That I am really independent now. I can do whatever I want to, when I want to, without asking anyone. It’s the first time since I was 17.” She shook her head in wonder, “so I am going to do everything.”
At 80-something years old, she has decided to live wide.
Seneca, a Roman philosopher who knocked around Italy over 2000 years ago, would have been delighted. He was all about living in the moment, writing that it was time for his fellow Italians to stop worrying about the future and start living: “You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
I like to think of this as the birth of ‘dolce fa niente’, the art of doing nothing. Something all good Italians have perfected.
In “On the Shortness of Life” (all of which I have not read, but from which I have pulled these quotes) he’s clear about the role of work: ”You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply — though all the while that very day which you are devoting to somebody or something may be your last.”
Sounded very much like me.
On New Year’s Eve, I watched Maureen put her pledge into action. We were sitting at a party in a local restaurant and the ‘dancing music’ had just started. Maureen’s internal dialogue played across her face for a good few songs, “Shall I, shan’t I, shall I, shan’t I”. Our neighbour, Natasha, got up and started moving, her husband Rob joined her and a few minutes later Aunty Mo stood up too, and tentatively start to boogie. She didn’t sit down for the rest of the evening.
On our way home much later, Tash and I decided to go to the Candlelight Spiral. Temenos, the village’s Spiritual Retreat had created a mini-happening. The idea was to sit in the Well of Reflection, think about what we wanted to leave behind in 2014, and write it down. Resolution in hand, we would walk the spiral (lit beautifully by candles in brown paper bags … simple is always best) to the brazier at the centre and drop it in the fire. The paper would burn to ash and by the time we walked out of the spiral, we would feel emotionally lighter. Maureen, who had been suspicious and dismissive at first, said – “I’m coming too.”
Her face in the lamplight of The Well was serious, contemplative. I watched as she wrote on her paper. She nodded once as she finished. “There,” she said to us as we headed for home, “I’ve left all that negativity behind me now. Good Riddance.”
There is a couple in McG, both in their mid-80s, who have sworn to live each day spontaneously:.“If we wake up and think we want to go and see the sea, we pack our costumes and a towel and we go. Whatever we have planned for the day can wait.” The drive is a four-hour round trip – but that doesn’t deter them: “…we listen to music in the car. We can do the washing or shopping or go to the bank tomorrow. If we want to.”
Seneca would have approved: “So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.”
I realised recently that I have been living a somewhat truncated life for a good while. Made cautious by fears for the future (read of not having enough money) and some experiences (read perceived failures) in the past. But pants to all that. Thank you Seneca. And if you’re looking for me, I’ll be out on the prairies – living wide.
Postscript: * It’s been a year since my Dad dodged the silver bullet that was his aneurysm. Writing a sentence like: “A few days before my dad* drove the two ladies home.” feels miraculous. And is another reminder to live life to the full.