Do men and women grow old differently? Of course they do, in a superficial sense. Biology, society, politics and culture make it so. But not where it counts. We all must face ageing and Death.
Western culture was pretty much under various forms of patriarchal control for centuries. Women, supposedly, lacked the capacity to Reason, to manage their own property or to vote, for example. That has changed, of course, and yet when I look around at the internet and television and Western media generally I marvel at how little change there has been, in terms of how women are perceived and portrayed, since the 1970s. In some respects we seem to have travelled backwards. But perhaps the media doesn’t really count. Perhaps real lives are different. They generally are.
The great thing about getting older is that as time passes you – I – become aware of a multiplicity of selves, and you – I - might even find at some point that you – I – can become friends with some of them; or more intriguingly, from the point of view of my own writing, frenemies.
As a writer you – I – can draw on these patterns of light and shade, and on an evolving appreciation of process, growth, decay, loss, and the ultimate poignancy of love in the knowledge of mortality.
So much for the positive side. But what does it mean? And what are the wider implications? It means that you become aware that you are subject to yet another of these well-known, invidious, pseudo-ironical, and rather offensively-flavoured ‘laws’, such as ‘Murphy’s’, and ‘Sod’s’. For reasons that will become apparent, I’ll now provide an example of the latter (and also of the former, because, who’d have guessed it? they are one and the same): I dropped my toast this morning, and it landed butter side down. Butter is too expensive and nourishing to fling willy-nilly and without so much as a by-your-leave straight in the bin, but who would choose to eat toast with cat hairs, carrot scrapings and dust on it? Someone with very strange tastes, that’s who, and I wouldn’t want them living next door. Perhaps your floor is cleaner than mine; perhaps I’m being presumptuous. If I’m not, you are, like me, thusly (yes, unlikely though it sounds, ‘thusly’ is a Real Word) thrust into a ghastly dilemma-style vortex of, quite frankly, horrific and unimaginable proportions. You think I exaggerate? I do not. Please Read On. To remove the butter and save the bread, perhaps re-toasting it under the grill, as the toaster would be ruined by the inevitably residual butter, thereby turning it into shoe-leather, which might come in handy at some point but which is really likely to be quite inedible, or to start from scratch and make fresh, only (imagine!) the post-person is hammering relentlessly at the door with an Amazon parcel for the dreadful shouty woman three doors up, and you are in a hurry to get your washing out before the rain comes on and you don’t want to miss the Jeremy Kyle Show because your disabled cousin’s dentally-challenged adult children are on it with their…oh who cares. This is a prime example of how Time gets Wasted as Life Goes By. And as we get older we have no time to spare.
The ‘law’ to which I refer, by the way, is a strange law for which no name has yet been invented (I might give it some thought) the essence of which is that the more years that go by, the more quickly they seem to pass, and the more aware you become of every wasted second.
There is an urgency to life as one ages. You have only just adjusted to the shock of looking in the mirror and seeing one’s mother, when friends, family and acquaintances start succumbing to the various ghastly diseases that inevitably occur in later life, and one wonders how long one’s own luck will hold out. It was Alexander Pope who said, rather stating the obvious, that terminal illness in the young was like a premature old age. And Bette Davis said that ageing isn’t for ‘sissies’. We cannot afford to be ‘sissies’. We must press on, making the most of every minute, before the Grim Reaper steps on our coat tails and yanks us down to the Nether World.
However, it’s all an awful lot of Hard Work and sometimes one just wants to sit by the fire in one’s velour slippers and winceyette jammies and ‘veg out’, and, if you’re lucky, have someone congenial bring you a mug of cocoa with a hefty slug of brandy in. It must be understood that time spent ‘relaxing’ like this is never wasted. It is at times like this that worthwhile ideas tend to swim up from the unconscious, and puzzles are solved.
It must be acknowledged, equally, that sometimes it is simply too late. Once you get past a certain age (and I am unsure of what that age is, because it varies from one individual to the next) you have to recognise that there are many things that you will never do again and that much early ambition will be left unfulfilled. The sense of promise and possibility at a new day dawning, diminishes. That is for sure.
You – I – must come to terms with all of this, because it is the essence of How Things Are. We must travel to a point within ourselves where it is somehow all, all right. And if it is not all right, we must somehow learn to tolerate and accept it. This is my journey, now.
We as writers bear witness to our lives and to the times in which we live. Even if we write about the past, we are writing it through a prism, which is our own present perception. We cannot recapture a moment, ever. We can only describe it as we think it was, or would like it to have been.
What keeps me writing as I age? Because I have never stopped wondering ‘why’? Why are we here, and why is life so poignant and short and filled with apparent loss? I don’t expect ever to find an answer, but my ambition is to keep on wondering, and seeking, and learning, and I thank God, or Fortune, or whichever, for my faculties and my remaining health and the ability to do so.
This is a revised version of a piece I wrote for Shortbread Stories blog a couple of years ago.