Monday, March 19, 2012


At my age (sixty-two on Saturday), I find myself drawn to snippets in the media that consider the lives of seniors.  I note with some comfort that it's been decided that older folks' reaction times aren't really slower:  we simply choose to reflect for a moment before firing across the bow.  Even more comforting is the fact that older people are happier than their younger counterparts--this in spite of the fact that I have three seriously dedicated curmudgeons in my neighbourhood who provide daily examples of dissatisfaction, frustration, and even anger.  Apparently there are two reasons for our optimism and cheerfulness.  One is that we have more fully-developed coping mechanisms.  The second is perhaps (the scientists don't say this in so many words) that our apprehension of our mortality and our sense of history have conspired to teach us what's important. 

I'm finding that my sabbatical, in giving me time out of the fray of institutional and personal politics, battles for power and recognition (some very covert, but pervasive and poisonous nevertheless), time out from the necessity of multi-tasking and being constantly interrupted, has honed my sense of and whetted my appetite for what's important.  For the most part, this lies in simple, solitary things:  Sheba settling down next to my computer to purr while my thoughts about Woolf come with a richness and ease I couldn't have imagined.  (Believe me, this doesn't happen every day.  Right now, I'm avoiding writing the introduction to the Dalloway chapter by writing this blog post instead.)  Hearing my first robin on Saturday, kneading bread, knitting complicated lace or piecing quilts, reading Anna Akhmatove's poetry, arguing with Bill about the way movies reflect and influence our sense of what the world is like--these things are important. 

Reading Woolf, galloping ecstatically through Mrs Dalloway has had no small part in this hunger, for what she manages to do with her beautiful language and trenchant use of form is to remind us that experience is what matters, not money or power.  At the beginning of her eponymous novel, Mrs Dalloway thinks "In people's eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June" (4).  Lily Briscoe, toward the end of To the Lighthouse, as she works on her painting, observes that "One must keep on looking without for a second relaxing the intensity of emotion, the determination not to be put off, not to be bamboozled.  One must hold the scene--so--in a vice and let nothing come in and spoil it.  One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that's a chair, that's a table, and yet at the same time, It's a miracle, it's an ecstasy" (272).  Certainly Woolf gives us a kind of Buddhist advice to be in the moment, but with her language, the ecstasy of her sentence structure, the varieties of unique and everyday experience--brass bands and utilitarian chairs, she harnesses and directs our attention imaginatively.  It's all very well to be in the moment; what's important and life-saving is to recognize how complex, contradictory, chaotic, and miraculous the facets of that moment can be. 

Mrs Dalloway realizes how important it is to be grateful for all those people who make her magical life possible; in the same vein, let me thank all of you who sent birthday greetings, some of these coming from former students who are now far away, and whose words create the web of connections that is at the centre of Mrs Dalloway.  But it was Bill, Veronica, the weather, Golden Willow and the BBC's "Through the Night" radio program that gives you six hours of surprising music that made my day rich and peaceful. 

I've said that seniors have been taught by history and mortality to realize what's important.  I think our expectations change as well.  As we pack up for the various renovations to our house, I'm finding myself throwing out (or sending to Value Village) quite a few things I feel I no longer need, and putting things back in rooms slowly. I don't want to simply recreate the old living room and dining room, except for a beautiferous floor.  I want to put up the artwork that still moves or fascinates me, to put out the ceramics that seem to me to question what pottery can be.  I want a simplicity that lets me see each thing fully.  In the same vein, I have come to love simple birthdays.  Bill's gift (besides a wonderful meal at the Creek Bistro) was, as requested, a donation to BecauseIamagirl, a U.K. charity that focuses on girls' health, education, and well-being.  Veronica made me a pair of socks.

A pair of socks?  How underwhelming for a sixty-second birthday, you say?  Absolutely not.  These are "Crazy Samurai Zaubersocks."  I can see her choosing the Zauberball that leads off my post, thinking that these are her mother's colours.  Then she found the perfect pattern for them (which you can't really see in her photograph) from a book of Japanese knitting.  Then she improved on the pattern, which stopped at the ankle, with a lovely little cable which goes all the way down the foot.  Then serendipity loaned its delight.  Zauberballs have stripes of colour, but they seem not to repeat in a predictable way, so you can't make two identical socks.  Off-kilter socks for her off-kilter mother!  Perfect.

Simplicity, whether in your mind or your interior decoration, gives you time to think about what goes into your conversations with your husband or your daughter's planning (not to mention three weeks of knitting) of the perfect pair of socks.  Such simplicity needs time, however.  I'm worried that I will lose these quiet moments of knitting and music and reflection that deepen experience when I get back from sabbatical.  But maybe my off-kilter socks will remind me to be off-kilter and to take advantage of the disguise of a curmudgeon  to decline serving on some committees and to break off a mean-spirited or gossipy conversation, to spend time with the people and animals and thoughts that I love. 

1 comment:

  1. I'm chiming in late with the happy birthday wishes, Kathleen, but am glad to see you were celebrated in such satisfying ways -- love those socks! -- and that you are figuring out the advantages of getting older. It's not all downhill by a long shot, is it! I like to think that instead of getting set in my ways, I'm learning to identify and value what is important to me, what I like, and who I am, and to make time for what matters instead of every other little thing someone (usually my own self) wants to saddle me with so that I will be a "good enough" woman or person. I am very much working on my focus on the present, and on not pressuring myself to hurry all the time so that I can get onto the next thing I want to get done. I want to enjoy what I do, and not rush through it all. That often means doing much less than I thought I ought. And that is becoming fine with me.