Usual end-of-the-day summing up – and the usual question, which I can remember stretching back over many years, where is the coherent thread? What does a lifetime amount to? Is it a series of activities, is it one huge objective (which I certainly can’t claim), is it the timbre of one’s living? I used to set a benchmark: what will I feel looking back at age 60? Which seemed an impossible age, something other people, grizzled in the attempt, finally achieved. Now I have passed it, with a feeling of incredulous surprise, I am glad of the direction that question gave me.
But what is the answer? Certainly not stuff! Or activities – the sum of a life cannot be a series of sky dives through sensation, or acquisitions acreting in the basement. It has to be “being through doing”, that is, a continuity of small actions, eventually building a larger picture, which is NOT self-admiration or personal ambition, but an ambiance around one’s life of warmth and kindness.
Most of the time when we do bucket list things we are looking for a feeling. Sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge gives me a feeling of being stopped in time, like taking a still shot out of a movie. The buzz of petty action stops and I am suspended in time, bathed in grace. Surely, the art of living is to be able to access this state without the need to travel miles, belching out fuel. We can get it at a nearby lake – if we stop the clock of everyday life and, using every sense, simply look.
As I pondered, a thought whispered through my head: it’s so simple, all you have to do is “be love”. Whoa! Back up and examine! Not dogsbody, enabling love, not the being-walked-all-over, schmaltzy warm fuzzy. But just to live within one’s boundaries, whole and loving, so that each act is clean and kind. Shades of my beloved Brother Lawrence, joyfully pottering in his C16 kitchen to the glory of God. (See Practicing the Presence – 12 January)
We were at a 95th birthday party last weekend and I, on the spur of the moment, toasted our friend’s dead husband. It was a small group, just 6 of us, including two grandchildren, which led to conversation on personal legacies. I said that the greatest, to me, was example. Frank had been upright and enduring. I often think of his personal standards along with his wry sense of humour. It seems the biggest gift you can leave your grandchildren – a beacon for when they hit rough times.
I often think of my parents braving the Blitz, my mother phoning my grandmother each morning to see if she was still alive. When I lay in hospital years ago, having been told we were unlikely ever to have children, I reached out to my dead grandmother. She had been there, in my shoes, before going on to have four kids. I felt her close to me as, defiant in the face of fate, I said, “See you in 9 months!” The doctors looked at me pityingly, but 10 months later I was back, a baby in my arms. Thanks, Granny.
My husband is rereading Lewin of Greenwich: the authorized biography of Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Lewin. He served under him in HMS Hermes back in the ’60s and always speaks of him with respect, affection and awe. How he took a carrier with 5 deaths in the first 2 weeks at sea, pulled up morale and commanded a mixed bag of 2,500 pilots, seamen and engineers, the average age being 20, never raising his voice. And how 28 years later, when my husband wrote to him, Lewin remembered him and our baby daughter by name. Here, par excellence, is someone who blended doing and being with grace. And he will be remembered by us, not so much for his achievements as for the person he was.
So my answer to myself, I cannot speak to anyone else, must be that the ambiance, the general tone to a life, built up as best one can through countless small acts, is what counts, not scaling Everest. And for the big push to achievement, the life ambition, then it has to be to leave a step hewn in humanity’s long climb. The one small step for a human in one great staircase for mankind.