“She was an object lesson on the essential luck, whatever hardships may come their way, of those born able to make things.”
― Diana Athill, Somewhere Towards the End
I was going to write a post today about my history with cars, but then I sat down to eat lunch and began reading a book that was recommended to me by my friend Susan. Eight pages in, I came across that line about the luck of people who can make things, and I had to drop everything to share it and respond to it. Isn’t that just what books should do?
This book is a memoir of aging, written in the author’s 91st year, and the “object lesson” was an encounter Athill had with an elderly painter, about whom she could detect “no feeling of emptiness.”
I’m so interested in what keeps people vital and positive as they grow old. As my own mother ages, I’m aware of how much loss she has to deal with among friends and family members of her generation. I observe that some people seem to move through those years with less wear and tear on their souls than others, and I’m curious what enables them to do so. What keeps their lives full, as lifelong careers, activities and relationships fall away? Is it inherent temperament or is it an intentional outlook?
I think all people are born with the “luck” to make things, whether or not they’ve realized it. But I take Athill’s meaning: we need passion and purpose that fulfills us beyond the roles that hinge on the all-too-mortal people we love. There must be something in us that abides for its own sake. The painter had her art. Athill has writing. Someone else might find it in faith, or a love of nature, or charity. Whatever endures.
When you are in the middle of family life, it’s so easy to lose sight of that constant. My children feel like my passion and my purpose, but their childhood will pass, and is passing, like all things. My husband is the love of my life, but our eventual parting is written into our marriage vows. What will one or the other of us live for, then?
Patrick’s parents were one of the most devoted couples I’ve ever met, but when my mother-in-law died, it left Patrick’s father a hollow man. It seemed as if he spent his last few years just waiting to die. I’ve seen women fall completely apart as their children become independent, men who wander lost in the rubble of divorce because their marriage was the only intimate relationship they bothered to cultivate as adults. It sounds noble to say we sacrificed all in the name of family, but is it really?
Whenever I hear someone proclaim that their family is their art/creation/vocation, I wince. For one thing, it’s a sure sign that person is blocked creatively, and that’s a deeply painful condition. For another, it’s a terrible psychic burden to place on the people you love. I consider it a kind of spiritual hijacking. A life is a creation, and it belongs wholly to the person living it and the green force that drives it.
There’s truth and wisdom in the refrigerator magnet maxim that what might be remembered 100 years from now is making a difference today in the life of the child. But I think it sometimes gets misused as a license to bury our gifts. To keep from making something that is truly our own. Maybe the difference we make in the life of a child is one made by example and inspiration as well as a nurturing presence. Perhaps our own lives can be object lessons in how to stay full, whatever hardships may–and will–come our way.