Time-hingeing and the end of summer


We are having a bad day, the cat and I.  There are several reasons for this: the state of the world – Syrian children and the lunacy of politics (me); foxes in the garden (him); the blight on the runner beans and the infuriating speed of pigeons. Also, we’re both coming down off steroids. That may be a thing.

Today’s one of those time-hinge days. Summer’s at the wane.  Sunflowers nod to a listless breeze of dust and memory. In the bathroom, I’m humming that Joni Mitchell song. I do not like the slide into winter – the rain, the dark, the colds and asthma. They are not the worst things in the world to suffer but somehow a time-hinge day like today -fleeting sun, bronze light and shadows – fills me with dread and longing. To have summer over again, just this once.

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Yesterday I read about the world’s oldest man who lives in Indonesia and is 145. 145!! Apparently he just wants to die. All of his children are dead as well as his 10 siblings and he now has great-great grandchildren. He’s had his own grave ready since he was a spring chicken,  of 121. Imagine having gone to all that effort and to still be here 24 years later. You could have travelled the world, studied for a degree or two, read the complete works of William Shakespeare and still have a few years left to put your feet up and do the crossword. (Note to self: Do not waste money on a grave until you know you’re dead.) He attributed his long life to one thing alone – patience. Imagine seeing 145 winters, 145 Christmasses, 145 New Year’s sales – you’d need patience…

We went to the coast to squeeze the juice out of the last day of summer.

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The beach was half empty. The sun was steady, the water glistened. We sat above a tide mark of salt-crust seaweed, determined to store up gold for winter. Lying down, we literally sucked sunshine from the sky until we were plump and gasping. Then we had a cup of tea.

What is it about ‘the big, blue wet thing’? Why are we compelled to sit by it, stare at it, bathe in it, walk by it for hours on end? Watching the people around me, sleepy in that late afternoon echo-beach way, I decide it’s because it satisfies all of our senses. We love its colour, its texture, its smell and the curious rhythm of the waves. Of course we don’t taste it, but there’s a range of man-made add-ons here – chips, cups of tea, ice cream. wp-1472575870436.jpg

But there’s something else, something infinitely appealing about standing on the edge of an island looking out. Behind is land,  safety. Ahead is water, then a new place. When you get to the end of the land, you’ve come as far as you can without being somewhere else. And you can’t just drift into that. You have to get on a boat, or a plane or a train through a tunnel. You have to move.  I look out across the strip of water and I remember the old excitement I used to feel in my teens, hitching round Europe – the scent of adventure, the pull of the new. I hope I still have that when I’m 145.

Joni Mitchell is still singing*. The cat and I ignore her. We give one last sigh at the state of the world, and look down the moment at our lives. We say a polite goodbye to summer. Because when you get to the end, you’ve come as far as you can without being somewhere else.

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*And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look
Behind from where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

 

The Most Thankless Month of the Year


January’s a bleak sort of month. We’re all saying it, (we do every year, but it’s okay, we’re British and atmospherically unstable), bemoaning the dark get-ups, the rain, the bedraggled garden (if we’ve still got a garden. The photos of flooded homes along the Thames fill me with horror.) But even those of us who haven’t faced storm, flood and other nightmares – and some of my dear friends are in this category, – January’s just not a great month. The festive season has stripped us of energy, money and hope for a new shed/dining suite/fence, and the papers tell us everyone’s fighting the Back to Work Blues. There’s just not much pleasure in January, though when we get desperate, we always mention The Bulbs. Let’s face it, bulbs are not going to annihilate your S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder) but the sight of those green blades knifing palely through quiet earth, all bright eyed and hopeful, do bring a certain something to the day.

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And it is getting lighter in the evenings – 7 minutes a week according to my mother-in-law, who knows. And it’s been sunny two days on the trot (Okay, so I’m getting desperate. More bulb photos…

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I’ve read so many books and blog posts about gratitude being good for me that I feel guilty having the tiniest moan. After all, I’m not flooded out, I’m solvent and have full use of my limbs and other body parts (eyes and ears bit dodgy). I know that thankfulness raises serotonin levels, reduces stress and improves the immune system.  Grateful people are more likely to look after themselves, get regular exercise and have higher levels of mental alertness. This last reason is my favourite as I currently feel about as alert as a slug.

So I decided to write down some stuff to help with the gratitude thing. How to choose? I just wrote down things I noticed, and like.

Things I Like

  1. Bowls of salad
  2. Cut wood
  3. Sun on the fence 

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4. The cat

5. Parades of shop

6. Alleyways

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7. Old gates

8. Post-boxes

9. Tiny terraces with plants on

10. Trees

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And graveyards, I like graveyards. Sorry to be strange but they are incredibly peaceful places.  The one near me has a wide walkway, gated at each end and immense trees shielding the graves like watchmen. It’s right in the middle of the town, surrounded by houses, cars and other bits of life. I like that. As if God, who knows we have short memories, planned it that way.

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What struck me most about the winter floods was the incredible optimism and resilience of the people whose houses were ruined. You had a tearful person or two, of course, but generally most people were positive. And there’s one phrase that struck me again and again: It’s just a house. People were standing in water-logged kitchens, or knee deep by front doors, smiling and shrugging and looking at their soaked and ruined possessions and saying, “We’re lucky it’s not worse. It’s just a house!” It made me think, of the all the effort we put into our homes – the building and painting and choosing and agonising. When it comes to it, when we’re up against the wall, none of it matters that much…It’s just a house. In spite of what they’d been through many of those people were grateful, for health, life, the stuff of everyday. In the place of despair, there was gratitude. You can’t fake that. You have to practise.

Photo by Julian Miles

Photo by Julian Miles

Photo by Julian Miles

Photo by Julian Miles

Meanwhile the days unroll, and Monday comes round and we rise and tunnel through darkness to work. like stiff moles. We’re not flooded out or homeless. It’s just another day this side of the graveyard. We journey through winter towards light. Which we will so appreciate when it finally comes – warmth, sunshine, long evenings.  Another chance really, for the thank-yous.

As if God, who knows we have short memories, planned it that way…

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Thanks

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow for the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water looking out
in different directions.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
looking up from tables we are saying thank you
in a culture up to its chin in shame
living in the stench it has chosen we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the back door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks that use us we are saying thank you
with the crooks in office with the rich and fashionable
unchanged we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us like the earth
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

W S Merwin