‘The old dog for the long road.’ D. taught me that one when I was much younger, when I had more give in my knees. Back then I got the gist of it, though I can’t say I fully grasped its depth of meaning. It is one of those sayings to which you nod when explained to you, but you can’t told the truth of it until you are older with more rings on your trunk, until your inner-puppy has lost its bounce, and you’re steadier, more watchful. I understand its counter-intuitive message better these days: when we get older we lose energy, but we gain stamina. With age comes an appreciation of the inevitability of change, of things righting themselves in time, and reaching ones goals (if we even know what they are) can take a lifetime. The longer one travels, the more one knows to hold back at an easy pace, to wait from time to time, to stop pushing so hard. The old dog on the long road doesn’t necessarily expect regular directions and signposts along the route, but neither is it a surprise when they appear – quietly, unbidden, from nowhere. Such instructions are unlikely to be presented in a neat formula of A+B=C; they probably won’t be written in a cursive hand from the inky tip of a fountain pen on parchment. These messages live in that murky world of ‘feelings’; a feeling of something settling, a perception, an emotional shift. I sometimes ‘feel’ an answer, and if I try to arrange it, pin it down, box it into a paragraph, I lose it. It is a sense, an experience of clarity, a firefly moment of knowing, and it defies explanation. I realise I am talking in smoke-signals, trying to define the indefinable, net the nebulous. None of which is possible. That’s because the mysterious is hard to describe. I stood at the head of Loch Feochan, just south of Oban, yesterday morning, watching the faint outline of a rainbow intensify, then grow into a double arch. Both arches fell into the smooth film of water, so still that the colours kept flowing to create a broken ring. I couldn’t look away for fear it would disappear as quickly as it had emerged. That’s what I feel like when I get answers without words: like I’m seeing a translucent rainbow, vivid and real and tangible, but also virtual, ephemeral, fleeting. If I move my eyes, it will vanish; if I think too hard, I’ll stop understanding. For me, it is an occasional thing, this stillness and clarity, maybe that is why I struggle to decipher and explain it. I play the fiddle. There is a part of the bow called the grip; the grip is at the bottom of the bow where you hold it. However, despite being called the grip, the last thing you ought to do is to grip the bow; instead, you hold it very lightly. Truth be told, the fiddle should support the bow, not you. The looser the hold, the better the play. This is what I’m getting at. Age loosens us. Age lets us read rainbow messages.
Clive James, Australian author, critic, broadcaster, poet, described it much better in a radio interview last week. He is old, he is dying, he is writing, and, he says, he has never been happier. I lay in bed, still as a felled tree, listening to his weakened vital voice spool out in digital magic. If his voice were a colour it would be the palest blue with a watery white wash over it, making everything bright, but blanched. He spoke about writing poetry at this, his end point; vivid fragments bump into each other in a spaghetti junction of thoughts, then, all tension gone, his mind rearranges itself. “Few people want to read poetry now,” he says, “but I still wish to write its seedlings down if only for the lull of gathering.” He read aloud from his latest epic poem, ‘The River in the Sky’, a celebration of life, people, memories, experiences – reflections on nearing the end of a long road: “I thought that I was vanishing, but instead I was only coming true. Now we knowthis is no journey. A long, aching pause is all the voyage there will ever be.” We don’t need to wait until we are on our deathbeds to be still, to pause, to gather up fragments. We can harvest intangible messages today. Some, like Clive James, might be able to place their fragments on a potter’s wheel and, oh so gently, soften and shape the shards into something to share. Me, I am happy enough to have flashes of light, moments of watching colour pour into still water, as I wait around somewhere halfway along the road.
“I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, for love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith, but the faith and the love are all in the waiting. Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” T.S. Eliot, ‘The Four Quartets’ (excerpt)