May 28, 2010

AUSTRALIA: The warm heart in winter

SYDNEY, NSW / The Sydney Morning Herald / Society & Culture / May 28, 2010


The warm heart in winter


More and more lonely, your path struggles on through incomprehensible mankind. Rilke (Lament)

Winter arrives and the face looks suddenly more blotchy. Summer's healthy glow has gone from the brow and a mean pallor is asserting itself like sickly moonlight from the darkness within. Under the strain of countless bygone disappointments the flesh has drooped into irregular, irredeemable saggings that now wither into an insipid glare from the mirror. It is you. It is winter.

To save the day, a cheery mirror smile is attempted, but this is instantly recognised as a mistake. Joyless desperation never works. There is something utterly implausible and futile about this forcing of the lips, this clumsy disturbance of the cheeks; something so failed and frightening that the traumatised inner portrait takes another turn for the worse.

Yes, it's the descent into old age and winter — two journeys barely discernible from each other and rolled into one. What a well-suited couple, hand in hand as the darkness gathers and the cold rain comes down. All of us are getting older of course, but some of us are getting old — me included, and as the beloved Rilke has plainly declared: "Who has no house now, will never build one. Whoever is alone now, will long remain so . . ."

Yet it's not all over. There is a promise about old age, something to do with the soul that still needs to flourish. There is surely the chance of ripening into sweetness — not sickly sweetness, but the sweetness of a well-ripened plum. Maturing into fullness is the idea — yet fullness with a lightness of being. The prune is another idea but we won't go into that just yet.

There appears to be a fork in the road in one's "late middle age" where the plum of self can either develop according to one's lovelier aspect or else go down the path of a personality's more dismal and heartbreaking qualities. The light touch of loveliness is a very inviting prospect, since there has been enough bitterness, heaviness and conflict in the rat race already.

Of course there is the old curmudgeon stage that all eager pilgrims must go through on the difficult road to wisdom and this is a healthy growth phase necessary for shaking off the world's angering oppressive nonsense in order to become a happy hermit, a grinning grandpa or a rapturous philosopher-painter in the shed.

The trick of good ripening is to keep the heart warm. This appears to be the great task of old age and rather than closing the doors as we do in winter to keep the house warm, we must open the heart as wide as possible. That's what keeps it warm. Perhaps this is a lifetime's work and it's better to start earlier than later.

It is said that some faculties start to fail or not work so well as we get old. This is obviously so but it may also be discovered that some things start working better than ever. Oldness may compromise eyesight, and usually does, but it can also produce an astonishing capacity for X-ray vision whereby certain funny old folk can see through things very easily.

Seeing through things can bring a certain measure of despair, yet it brings humour, relief and a measure of forgiveness also. Smiling old X-ray visionaries can see through such well-defended things as corporate systems, celebrities, appalling individuals, cultural ways and the juggernauts of ruthless power — and quickly discern the pathos and fear within these entities, and recognise the complex tragedies that created such mad fraudulence. X-ray vision begins by seeing through yourself. Historian Manning Clark may have been referring to this when he asked us to "look with the eye of pity".

It's not a case of old faculties that don't work any more; it's the ways of the world that don't work and don't wash in the old liberated mind. The prestigious earthly power of politics, commerce, art and entertainment becomes an ineffectual transparency. Prime ministers and opposition leaders who are younger than oneself become objects of dismay, pity or amused fascination.

Yet that which is valuable and true remains, and without the obfuscating detritus of cultural claptrap, authenticity shines more clearly than ever.

It's not that cynicism has taken hold; it's more to do with the emergence of a quality we might call "mature innocence". The innocent child sees that the emperor is not wearing clothes but mature innocence sees that this naked person is not even an emperor — and that deep down, nobody is an emperor.

There may be less and less of the temporal world we can subscribe to or take part in as we age — not because of physical incapability, but because we become discerning and spiritually disinclined. Nationalism, religious categories, mass fixations, popular pastimes or collective certitudes: these things may seem like hubris and piffle to an old soul who's had enough of all that and is developing the wings of mature intelligence.

There's a sense in which the wiser of the elders are a sort of dispossessed indigenous people. They have their stories, their own spirituality, their peculiar dignity and ways, which are not greatly valued in the booming imperial world. Material progress has overtaken them, yet there they always are — confronting and in varying degrees of pain, but connected to something sacred and ineffable, and somehow prophetic and disturbing to humanity's remnant conscience.

In preparation for an eagerly awaited concert recently, I decided to refresh my hearing by granting the long-suffering ears some respite from any radio broadcast or recorded sounds for about a week, in the belief that the music from the forthcoming concert would fall like seed on this fallow ground and germinate more joyfully. This may have been a flawed theory derived mostly from childhood and my father's insistence that potatoes could have grown in my ears, but I did it and went about my business in a solitude and silence that grew richer and more delicious as the days passed. A comforting spaciousness gradually opened up and grew around me; an ethereal emptiness alive with an atmosphere of freedom and creativity — not because I got hold of something, but because I got rid of something.

Ripening age probably means, more or less, you've had much of many things, so it's hardly surprising that the joys of solitude and "not having" should present themselves.

Not-having is a skilfulness of being, acquired slowly over a lifetime that has included episodes in the crucible of suffering and sin. This ability naturally helps when it comes eventually to the not-having of life, but while we still live and breathe in a madly overstimulated world of material orgy, it can be such a sumptuous rapture if you can bear it; this peace and freedom you always wanted — that was lying at your feet the whole while.

In spite of having attained some measure of equanimity and spaciousness of mind, the mean wintry face in the mirror still mocks me cruelly. Not quite a bitter prune but a bit too angrily wasted and pinched for my liking.

Who can do it well? Who can ripen like a plum and drop off the twig without too much fuss? It's a work in progress. A nurse I knew came home late one night after her shift at the country hospital. I found her alone in the kitchen making a cup of tea. She was crying.

"Dear old Mr Davison died tonight," she said, smiling at the kettle through her tears. There was a deep faraway silence for a moment and then her simple benediction: "It's OK. It was good." A few more tears. "There are only two ways to die," she said. "The good way and the terrible way." And perhaps there are only two ways to go through winter or grow old.

Copyright © 2010 Fairfax Media

Illustrative Photo courtesy: The View in Winter