The most recent version of ourselves is not the true version – it’s good to remember that
We are multiplicities of self – there is not one kind of beauty, or accomplishment or contentment
Thirty is a good age to pause and take stock
My mother was, for some reason, singularly taken with a particular line from WB Yeats’s Sailing to Byzantium. This makes her sound, rather pompously, like a very learned person. She was not, really. She looked after children during the day, to feed my brother and me. In the evenings and on weekends, she worked as a study supervisor at a local private school, where she sometimes but not often had time, between shushing and eyeballing fenced-in young people roiling with hormones and a sense of their own irresistible invincibility, to read. On contemplating aging, or seeing a particularly elderly person – one of those people so ancient that, all hard edges, they resemble an anorak hanging limply from a coat rack, come to life and shuffling judderingly but with painstaking slowness down the street with a small, lonely bag of meagre groceries, she would murmur the line to herself. ‘An aged man is but a paltry thing, / A tattered coat upon a stick . . .’
She wasn’t being unkind, though I suppose it is in some respects an unkind line, or an unkind image. It was more a commentary, as Yeats no doubt intended it, on the inevitability of death, the tender vulnerability of life, and the nature of mortality. All of these things came to mind when I was at a friend’s 30th birthday party recently. Perhaps I’ve lost you now. Perhaps you are scoffing with woeful disdain. Perhaps 30 seems like a distant and enviable memory, like no age at all, like a time before the s**t hit the fan, and the economy fell apart, and the world with it.
Thirty, however, is a good age to pause and take stock. In fact, doing this is a necessity, because, as an older person advised me when I was 18, “your twenties are a long corridor”. For a while, you stumble through it blindly, and experiences have the electrifying excitement or searing pain of the previously unencountered. Until, that is, patterns begin to emerge, experiences begin to repeat, and you gain a foothold in at least some respects – the corridor is both longer and wider than you had anticipated. Coming out the other end of it, and sitting among a group of people whose paths I have crossed since my late teens, this becomes evident. We have all aged; some better than others. Lithe, slender young bodies have thickened a little from office jobs. Still young faces feature gentle lines from worrying about mortgages, or the inability to secure them. Hairlines, in the less genetically fortunate, have begun to recede. We are all aging. At events like these, it becomes noticeable.
My mother never got old. She died at 58 from pancreatic cancer, and for a while, a sense of my own mortality pulsated inside me, and I was fearless. Then, as it does, that complacency of the mundane seeped back in through the cracks, and I took my health, life and (now relative) youth for granted. Sometimes, some moment will shatter that complacency, and the tender magic beneath, beseeching as the custard of a crème brulée, will be exposed.
Ursula K Le Guin, the celebrated fantasy and science fiction writer, gifted me such a moment recently, when I took her book of essays The Wave in the Mind with me on a bus journey. She wrote of her mother – “My mother died at 83, of cancer, in pain, her spleen enlarged so that her body was misshapen. Is that the person I see when I think of her? Sometimes. I wish it were not. It is a true image, yet it blurs, it clouds, a truer image. It is one memory among 50 years of memories of my mother. It is the last in time. Beneath it, behind it is a deeper, complex, ever-changing image, made from imagination, hearsay, photographs, memories . . . I see, for a moment, all that at once, I glimpse what no mirror can reflect, the spirit flashing out across the years, beautiful.”
Le Guin understood that the latest version of ourselves – the last in time – is not the only version, or even the most true. We are multiplicities of self. There is not one kind of beauty, or accomplishment or contentment.