Hilary Fannin: I’m not sure what wisdom is but sometimes I recognise its shadow
My default setting is beleaguered, not wise
‘In the words of Lou Reed, I’m beginning to see the light.’ Photograph: Miguel Vidal/Reuters
In the words of Lou Reed, “I’m beginning to see the light, a little wine for my breakfast, a little breakfast at night”.
The email from my editor asked if I would like to write about wisdom, and if I had any thoughts I could cobble together around the notion of living the best lives we can. Any mantras or codes, she asked, any ratty-eared dogmas or forgotten boxes of fossilised failsafes I could unearth as we gather at the face of another new year, take stock and begin our precipitous ascent.
Wisdom, I thought: isn’t that the preserve of a handful of goat-loving mystics. Wisdom? It’s not a youthful word, is it? It feels mildewed, antiquated almost.
Wisdom is probably not what sweet young things aspire to, or even talk about, on and on into the frosted January night, their bony knees folded under their faultless chins.
And where does wisdom sit in the lexicon of our lives, the rest of us that is, those of us whose existences are a bit tarnished and scuffed around the edges? My default setting is beleaguered, not wise. How often, in the course of a draining week, when we’ve delivered the cat to the school gate and left the children asleep in the airing cupboard, when we’re juggling deadlines, night-stalking bin tags and reminding ourselves to wash our black tights and to breathe, do we ask ourselves are we living wisely, or the best lives we can?
Moved and uplifted
A couple of months ago I found myself writing, in this column, about a funeral I had attended of a family friend, a woman who had, right up to the last, remained politically, socially and spiritually engaged. It was a service that left me feeling moved and uplifted.
One particular eulogy, told that day over her wicker coffin, has stayed with me. It was a story of how, although no longer able to walk with ease, my friend had pushed her walker through the narrow, muddy alleyways of a local market in the high Atlas mountains, way, way off the tourist trail. Pausing to rest, she found herself politely declining a marriage proposal from a local man, a passing stranger who may just have recognised her ageless, unassailable spirit.
She is – was – not alone among women and men whose worlds expand with a lessening of domestic responsibilities. People whose propensity for change and thirst for engagement is sharpened with maturity, people who are not defined by some stale notion of ageing, people who recognise the potential in every day. Is that wisdom? I don’t know.
I attended another funeral recently (yep, my life is a barrel of laughs), of a man steeped in social and political activism. Months before his death, and in need of heavier painkillers, he had asked his oncologist to hold off on upping his medication so that he would have the energy to represent a vulnerable person in an unfair dismissal tribunal. I felt privileged that day to be bidding farewell to a man who had lived his life with humour and passion and commitment. Is that wisdom? I don’t know.
I don’t have a mantra, or a daily practice. Holy cow, I can barely find the kettle. But I take heart from people who remain open to the possibilities. People who recognise that potential is not the plaything of the graduate or the gorgeous; it exists in all of us.
A couple of Sunday mornings ago, I sat around with a bunch of teenage playwrights I’m involved with. They read each other’s work aloud while I listened, throwing in whatever bits of advice I could, based on experience I’d garnered over the years of being an occasional playwright. Mainly, though, I just listened.
I struggled that morning to keep my composure. I didn’t want to be a lachrymose old bat, sitting weeping in my plastic chair while they read, so I dug my fingers into my palms and kept listening.
Their work was beautiful, delicate, funny and trusting, and I felt a little overwhelmed by its hopefulness. I was grateful to be part of their world at this embryonic point in their writing lives. It didn’t exist for me, probably not for you either: a place and time where your potential was recognised, and held, and understood, however fleetingly.
I don’t know what wisdom is. I know it doesn’t reside in new shoes or fast cars or a room with a view. It’s somewhere though, and occasionally, just occasionally, if you’re lucky, you recognise its shadow.