Sunday, January 03, 2016

The Departure Lounge

By Penelope Lively

Penelope Lively
 You may not yearn for a Caribbean cruise – I don't – but certain comforts have become essential, the accustomed perks that make daily existence a bit more than just that. I can't start the day without a bowl of the right kind of muesli topped with some fruit and sheep's milk yoghurt; I can't end it without a glass (or two) of wine. I need the diversions of radio and television. I want flowers in the house and something tempting to eat – these are greeds, I think, rather than needs. 

And – high priority – there is reading, the daily fix, the time of immersion in whatever is top of my book pile right now. As demands, requirements, all of this is relatively modest. Much of it – the reading, the flowers – goes back to prelapsarian days before old age. The difference, though, is that then there were further needs and greeds, and those seem to have melted away, to have tactfully absented themselves as though to make things a bit easier because they would indeed be an encumbrance now.

Out with acquisition, excitement, and aspiration except in tempered mode. And, on another front, I don't in the least lament certain emotions. I can remember falling in love, being in love; life would have been incomplete without that particular exaltation, but I wouldn't want to go back there. I still love – there is a swath of people whom I love – but I am glad indeed to be done with that consuming, tormenting form of the emotion.

So this is old age. If you are not yet in it, you may be shuddering. If you are, you will perhaps disagree, in which case I can only say: this is how it is for me. And if it sounds – to anyone – a pretty pallid sort of place, I can refute that. It is not. Certain desires and drives have gone. But what remains is response. I am as alive to the world as I have ever been – alive to everything I see and hear and feel. I revel in the spring sunshine, and the cream and purple hellebore in the garden; I listen to a radio discussion about the ethics of selective abortion, and chip in at points; the sound of a beloved voice on the phone brings a surge of pleasure. I think there is a sea-change, in old age – a metamorphosis of the sensibilities. With those old consuming vigours now muted, something else comes into its own – an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in. 

Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold. People are of abiding interest – observed in the street, overheard on a bus. The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. It is almost like some kind of end-game salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new. It is an old accustomed world now, but invested with fresh significance; I've seen all this before, done all this, but am somehow able to find new and sharpened pleasure.

Those of us not yet in the departure lounge and still able to take a good look at what has made them – us – like this can find some solace in doing so. What has happened is such an eccentric mixture of immediate and long-drawn-out, the arrival of a condition that has been decades in the making but seems to have turned up this morning. The succession of people that we have been – Sir Thomas Browne's "varieties of himself" – are suddenly elided into this (final?) version, disturbingly alien when we catch sight of a mirror, but also evocative of a whole range of known personae. 

What we have been still lurks – and even more so within. This old age self is just a top dressing, it seems; early selves are still mutinously present, getting a word in now and then. And all this is interesting – hence the solace. I never imagined that old age would be quite like this – possibly because, like most, I never much bothered to imagine it

Penelope Lively is a highly respected Briish Author of primarily children's books.