I think about you often, not as a continuum, not as a timeline, but as something whole, rounded, and intact, a ready-made container within which is everything I require for my life. I think of you as an old-fashioned trunk, one that might have accompanied someone on a passage to India a hundred years ago. This trunk was packed for me upon birth, deposited for collection at the left luggage, my name pasted onto it, and inside is a vast range of clothes to wear throughout my life. I’ve begun to feel like Mr. Benn – from the old 1970s cartoon – entering the emporium, trying on different combinations of clothes, each costume whisking me off into a new slice of life.
‘If I could live more than one life…’ this was my husband’s dream, and I would interrupt, snatch the end of the sentence from him. ‘Ah, but you are living more than one life,’ was my assertion. ‘You are living at least three in parallel, hats hanging everywhere.’ And I believed it, still do, which means he lived until he was 162 years old – pretty good, in anyone’s book.
I, on the other hand, have lived my life, on occasion, as if it were rationed. Small helpings of a Lenten life seemed sufficient for me, not in the hope that life would last longer (although I’m still apt to wonder if it works that way), but probably because some parsimonious great aunt lived her life that way, and her bloomers were packed in my case so that, unbeknownst to me, I took on aspects of her character. Or perhaps the cardigan of some ancient bachelor-uncle of mine was packed in the trunk, bestowing upon me his solitary propensity, his ability to sit alone in the dark late at night, his willingness to enjoy the companionship of an empty house. That said, I have found plenty of party clothes in the trunk too (thank goodness for that ancestor), boas for flicking and Mary-Janes for high-kicking.
Life, you have not aged me in a linear way. I don’t pay attention to what the mirror says, I pay attention to what my mind says. A little while back, I became very old and very sad. I wore layers of grey and black, washed-out underwear, worn old things stuffed down the sides of the trunk. I knelt on the earth and weeded flowerbeds, planted vegetables, counted worms. I liked sinking into the soil, being close to growth and decomposition. But I’ve become younger again, dressing up in dungarees, sneakers, and playing with a three-year-old. Last weekend: we played Dusty Bluebells through washing lines of sheets and pillowcases; blew, chased, popped bubbles; spied the first bats of the year at twilight; followed the pink contrails of high jets as the sun disappeared; listened to blackbirds sing the sun down and the moon up; fed the fire with wood from the old ash blown down in December; toasted giant marshmallows, burnt our tongues, felt sick halfway through eating them, but finished them all the same.
They say life comes in four consecutive seasons, but I have learned these seasons don’t always arrive in the order we expect. Last month, in March, I slathered sun cream on my nose in case it might burn that day I washed the car so hot was the sun. This month, April, I’ve been caught out in a snowstorm. As winter can arrive at the spring of our life, so too can spring creep unexpectedly into winter. If only we had a manual, brief directions as to how to best use the contents of this trunk. But I’ve yet to find a manual. We make life up as we go along, and life trips us up as we go along. So far, I have learned that sadness is part of a happy life and that’s why there are dark woolen blankets in the trunk alongside fine silk scarves.
The Northumbria Community has created two beautiful books called, Celtic Daily Prayer in which there are daily meditations. At the end of March, I read this one. It seems to fit here.
Our lives are long enough to learn what we need to learn, but not long enough to change anything. That is our flaw. Each age must learn everything afresh. Such waste! Such waste – making all the mistakes once and again, each generation making the same mistakes, fumbling in ignorance and darkness. This oak was already old when I was born. Now I am old and soon to die, and this tree grows strong still. We are small creatures. Our lives are not long, but long enough to learn. (Stephen Lawhead, Celtic Daily Prayer II)