We’re deep into winter. In Brittany it’s been an incredibly wet autumn into winter after an unseasonal burst of heat in the first part of October. Like many areas we’ve had a succession of storms, with Storm Ciaran doing massive damage across the region. The wreck of woodland just as the trees hunker into winter, shedding leaves to preserve their precious sugars to survive another year, has been particularly moving.
At the same time I’ve been working with a range of people as I complete my herbalist training who are facing challenges in the autumn and winter of life. What always strikes me is how much grace and wisdom people are able to bring to often difficult obstacles along their journey. Whatever stage of life we’re at, there’s an art to ageing that requires us to encounter each change with openness and flexibility rather than with nostalgic longing for a past that won’t return.
Everything’s an offer
Of course our memories are important and we bring our past wisdoms with us but we also need to love who we are now. And that might also involve forgiving the selves we once were, who perhaps led us in a direction we might not choose again. When actors are improvising there’s a saying that there are no mistakes, only information. I’ve also heard this phrased as ‘everything’s an offer’ and I’ve given this line to one of the characters in the novel I’m currently finishing and I think it’s as important for life as for acting and in writing fiction. It asks us how to respond to whatever life brings, how we go on from here. It gives us the opportunity to age with grace, whether that’s moving from our teens into our twenties or from middle age into being the elder.
I’ve recently been reading Nick Cave’s book, Faith, Hope and Carnage and at the age of sixty-five, he says:
We’re often led to believe that getting older is in itself somehow a betrayal of our idealistic younger self, but sometimes I think it might be the other way around. Maybe the younger self finds it difficult to inhabit its true potential because it has no idea what that potential is. It is a kind of unformed thing running scared most of the time, frantically trying to build its sense of self — This is me! Here I am! — in any way that it can. But then time and life come along, and smash that sense of self into a million pieces.
But being shattered isn’t always an ending. The forest around me will recover after the storms. People’s lives can go through extraordinary ordeals and come together again. This can never be a justification of suffering and there are always those that don’t survive the carnage — the individual trees in the forest that were completely uprooted by the storm are a horrible loss. Without their stumps and roots still embedded in the mycelia, the knowledge of these elders is lost to the other trees. In the human world, when we witness genocide, when children die from poverty, when a tortured prisoner is completely broken their is no feel-good redemptive story for those affected. All we can do in such situations is witness and remember, learn what we can as those who persist, do the good that we can in our own spheres.
Reassembling the self
But many do come through all kinds of situations from holocaust camps to life-threatening illness, from the failure of relationships to bereavements… One of the many writers I admire at Cinnamon Press writes deeply empathic stories set in the worlds of opera and theatre. Her characters are people I feel I go on knowing for years and their obstacles are intense, even heart-breaking.
At the heart of the story in her second novel, A Song of Thyme and Willow, is the mystery of Isabel Grey, a successful opera singer who disappeared in the late 1970s and has not been heard of since. Two musicians, facing life-changing crises of their own, decide to look for her. Stephen Bennett’s career as an orchestral bassoonist has been ended by a violent mugging; singer Alice Wade is suffering serious vocal problems and trying to move on from the latest in a long line of failed relationships.
At the launch for A Song of Thyme and Willow back in 2019 Carole was asked about why she chooses characters who are facing such difficult, sometimes apparently intractable problems. She spoke about hearing a radio interview with a sportsman who had gone through terrible challenges and how there are people whose worlds fall apart and never come back together, while others have their lives exploded and yet re-invent themselves.
What is it that makes some people able to do this while others break? As writers we are constantly curious about humanity and beyond, about what makes people who they are, the mysteriousness and complexity of being human. And in addition to exploring this in our writing, we also sometimes live through it in all kinds of ways. Nick Cave, who has lost two of his sons when they were aged 15 and 31, goes on:
Then comes the reassembled self, the self you have to put back together. You no longer have to devote time to finding out what you are, you are just free to be whatever you want to be, unimpeded by the incessant needs of others. You somehow grow into the fullness of your humanity, form your own character, become a proper person — I don’t know, someone who has become a part of things, not someone separated from or at odds with the world.
For Cave, the reassembled self is the connected self. There is the paradox (something at the heart of so many truths) that this self is both more individually and uniquely who we are and yet also someone embedded in all of life, an indvidual without become a rampant ‘individualist’ who falsely believes they are ‘self-made’. There is a beauty in this that comes with ageing, something that Ursula K Le Guin also wrote about:
For old people beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young… It has to do with who the person is.
Taking your heart in your hands
Who the person is — this is what we explore as writers, but also what we explore as humans who are becoming a different story. We never stop exploring this, in life or in our art, and winter is a particularly good season for such an exploration. We don’t shed our leaves or hibernate, but it’s a slower time, a more contracted and inwards time to think about the mystery of what makes the child you once were and the person you are now the same person across a lifetime of change.
At the age of sixty-seven, Grace Paley wrote about exactly this with wit and precision in ‘Upstaging Time’, an essay in the book, Just As I Thought.
A couple of years ago a small boy yelled out as he threw a ball to a smaller boy standing near me, “Hey, dummy, tell that old lady to watch out.”
What? What lady? Old? I’m not vain or unrealistic. For the last twenty years my mirror seems to have reflected — correctly — a woman getting older, not a woman old. Therefore, I took a couple of the hops, kips, and jumps my head is accustomed to making and began to write what would probably become a story. The first sentence is: “That year all the boys on my block were sixty-seven.”
Then I was busy and my disposition, which tends to crude optimism anyway, changed the subject. Also, my sister would call, and from time to time she’d say, “Can you believe it? I’m almost seventy-eight. And Vic is going on eighty. Can you believe it?” No, I couldn’t believe it, and neither could anyone who talked to them or saw them. They’ve always been about fifteen years older than I, and still were. With such a sister and brother preceding me, it would seem bad manners to become old. My aging (the aging of the youngest) must seem awfully pushy to them.
[…] I returned to my work and was able to write the next sentence of what may still become a story: “Two years later, two of the boys had died and my husband said, ‘Well, I’d better take this old-age business a little more seriously.’”
Taking age more seriously occurred for Paley again at eighty, when she wrote a piece remembering how her father had taught her about agiing for the New Yorker (later published in Here and Somewhere Else, a collection of short stories and poems by Paley and Robert Nichols.)
My father had decided to teach me how to grow old. I said O.K. My children didn’t think it was such a great idea. If I knew how, they thought, I might do so too easily. No, no, I said, it’s for later, years from now. And besides, if I get it right it might be helpful to you kids in time to come.
They said, Really?
My father wanted to begin as soon as possible.
Please sit down, he said. Be patient. The main thing is this — when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.
That’s a metaphor, right?
Metaphor? No, no, you can do this. In the morning, do a few little exercises for the joints, not too much. Then put your hands like a cup over and under the heart. Under the breast. He said tactfully. It’s probably easier for a man. Then talk softly, don’t yell. Under your ribs, push a little. When you wake up, you must do this massage. I mean pat, stroke a little, don’t be ashamed. Very likely no one will be watching. Then you must talk to your heart.
Say anything, but be respectful. Say — maybe say, Heart, little heart, beat softly but never forget your job, the blood. You can whisper also, Remember, remember.
What is essential
Taking our heart in our hands. Surely this is good preparation for ageing even if we are only 12. The combination of memory and physically getting the blood around our bodies is wonderful. The heart is so much more than a pump. In fact, the heart isn’t a strong enough pump to get the blood around the body without the help of the whole cardiovascular system — the contractions of arteries and veins send blood spiralling through the body. But the heart, where the vital life force of blood flows from and returns to, is also full of neurones. Its a seat of memory and emotions, it processes intuition and passes information to the head brain.
Writing the seasons of life, in our poetry, in our fiction, in our essays and in how we live begins from the heart. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s Fox says in his novel The Little Prince:
Here is my secret. It is very simple: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.
This winter, lets take our hearts in our hands and speak with respect. Drink teas that include heart herbs — hawthorn, yarrow, motherwort, rose … And as you drink the tea, take time to remember and time to embrace the change.
Here’s to the next cycle of our stories.