Ann Webster-Wright Finalist New Philosopher Writing Award: 2019
When I was young, time had a texture. You moved through it slowly, like walking in the heavy air of a humid day. This longer present stretched out, taking in stories from the past as well as dreams of the future, all intertwined like a sticky veil of cobwebs.
Childhood was a time when the world was ripe for discovery: where possibilities lurked inside every book or behind each tree, where clouds held messages that pressed you flat against the grass with awe. Books blurred the boundaries of everyday life so parallel worlds could collapse into the here and now. As a child, I lived life in books, dipping from a constant well of wonder.
But in adult working life, time thins out, slips away quickly, like water through our cupped hands. Most of us work to the incessant tick-tock of clock and schedules. We hold fast to the Western view of time as a straight arrow that only flies forward, travelling at break-neck speed, anxious to get from the known present to an unknown future.
In older age, many of us develop a different relationship with time yet again. We’re more aware of its passing; are reminded by the death of friends that finitude is the only certainty in human life. The weight of our mortality helps us consider what really matters in the end. Simone de Beauvoir commented on this altered relationship to time and to one’s own past history, in her final treatise on the lived experience of ageing. Age allows us to take a distant view, in contrast to a close focus on the minutia of daily life.
We notice, on reflection, that experience is not linear. Memories present themselves to us in fragmented ways, a chaos and confusion with no coherent order. Paul Ricoeur claimed that life itself begs for a narrative shape – a storyline – upon which we peg our scattered experiences, so they form clumps of meaningful patterns. Our stories are continually reshaped through the tales we tell ourselves and share with each other every day.
Ricouer’s notion of ‘narrative identity’ holds in tension the postmodern idea of the self as multiple, amorphous and fluid, and the realist notion of the self as having some stable core identity. Our narrative identity is in constant flux, changing and contingent, yet it coheres around a thread of lived time, as we turn memories into stories. These constructed stories are partly a factual representation of our past, combined with ‘fictive’ elements, borrowed from books or media, as reality sparks our imagination in interpreting our own lives.
Such theoretical reflections on time, ageing and identity were brought sharply into focus for me during a recent experience of performing in a theatre production. In the interests of clarity, I have to say I’m approaching seventy. As an ageing, knock-kneed academic, I did not envision the turn my life could take after the responsibilities of work and family lessened. Until turning sixty I’d never danced, let alone considered performing, but in a moment of madness, pursuing a childhood dream, I joined a ‘mature age’ dance group called ‘WaW Dance’.
We were invited to play a small part in *‘Everyday Requiem,’ a production where the story of one man’s life is performed by an ensemble of young professional dancers and singers from ‘Expressions Dance Company’ and ‘The Australian Voices’. The opening scene depicts the man at his seventieth birthday, where he sits, jaded and dejected, reflecting on his past. His life, from childhood to older age, through birth and death, love and war, relationships and jealousies, unfolds through the performance in a way that captures the audience, enthralling them. We played the part of his friends in the final party scene.
During the rehearsals leading to the two-week performance season, we were profoundly moved by the emotion held within the narrative’s twists and turns – but were surprised by the reaction of the audience to our participation. Towards the end, we transition in a relatively seamless way with the young dancers and singers, appearing through semi-transparent curtains to slide into their places.
At a point of stillness, we each reveal a framed picture, showing us at a younger age, flushed with the promise of a full life ahead. Later, audience members told us this was the point when the emotion building within them throughout the show overflowed into frank tears.
For a while we couldn’t understand this reaction. Most of us hadn’t looked at early pictures of ourselves for decades; few of us spent time in front of a mirror. We knew our faces and bodies had changed – but inside, we felt essentially the same people. We finally realised that the audience were registering sadness for our obvious lost youth, in a way that then caused us to reflect on our own life stories.
Sociological research suggests that a good strong story may be as important as a good strong body in navigating older age. Despite niggling aches and pains and fears of diminishment, ageing does offer perspective. Viewing the multiple, shifting identities we have assumed through our lives from a distance, allows us to trace how strands of our personal and professional stories interact to scaffold, or obstruct, meaning. There’s potential for past failures to be forgiven, regrets reframed.
As Ricoeur noted in a late-life interview, aged 92, losses, large and small, accumulate through life. Each loss calls to be mourned, thereby being incorporated into who we are – our narrative identity. Creative arts, from song to dance, art to writing, can open a doorway to such a ‘re-stor(y)ing’ of life; offer a way to confront fears about ageing, come to terms with our pasts and future demise, and stay alive to life, despite inevitable losses. New stories may also emerge that attend to the quiet whisperings of the heart that simmered away unnoticed while work and family took centre stage.
Time is not viewed as linear in all cultures. Some consider it to be circular or spiral, so that everything is connected, or multiple and parallel, so we can slip between dimensions. Now in my older age, as in my youth, I’m finding time is becoming layered and textured once again; more like a place than a thought, thick and tangible rather than abstract. Time can be savoured.
The ties that bind me to work schedules have loosened. I’ve slipped my moorings; am intrigued by the slap of random memories as they wash up on the shoreline. Sometimes I have a sense of time travel, finding myself launched onto a journey into the past that has some scenic vistas, but also crosses over dangerous rapids and down wild waterfalls.
Like most people my age, I’ve faced trauma and loss, had close friends die, suffered bodily dysfunction and survive daily disappointments. I have regrets. I’m no saint. But I do have more choices than many women my age. Though I’m not well off, I have a home, family and friends. I’m not suffering constant pain. Of particular value to me, I’ve been blessed with the gifts of education and curiosity.
Literature and philosophy are useful hands to hold as I walk towards the inevitable – but still unseen – dying of the light. As de Beauvoir reminds me, as an older person, ‘One’s life has value as long as one attributes value to the lives of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion’.
I’m also intrigued by Ricouer’s reflections on later life, which he described as ‘magical’ despite the proximity of his death. Having lived through the tumult of twentieth-century Europe, he knew as well as any that life is uncertain and fraught, can be chaotic and painful. He maintained that to cope with the sadness of loss, we need to remain alive to life’s possibilities by ‘continuing to be astonished,’ seeking to see the known anew, by looking with fresh eyes.
Carl Jung’s ‘afternoon’ of life can be a rich time. As shadows lengthen, slanting rays of sun bring hidden features into focus. It’s a time, perhaps, to turn towards the wonderous where we can find it. I know my final destination is death, but not how I’m heading there. The straight path doesn’t appeal. I’m hoping to deviate down rabbit holes of friendships, explore fields of creativity and help young friends climb trees of opportunity.
In taking my time, I’m holding my story open for as long as I can, staying alive to life until the last curtain call. In the final moments of ‘Everyday Requiem,’ the older man blows out a single candle before the stage is plunged into darkness. As he gazes at the audience, mischief and hope shine in his eyes; he has all the time in the world.
*‘Everyday Requiem,’ choreographed by Natalie Weir, starring Brian Lucas, was performed by ‘Expressions Dance Company’ with acapella vocals by ‘The Australian Voices’ at Cremorne Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Theatre, October 2018.