|No Time to Spare - the blogs of Ursula K. Le Guin
Last week I happened to overhear the online funeral of a local resident - his hundredth birthday had been but a few months previous. I didn't know him, but the more I listened to the story of his life the more my admiration grew. He'd moved to our town when nearly ninety years old, had joined the bridge circle, the civic society the conversational french group... nine clubs and societies in all; he played the piano every day, had driven until he was ninety five, enjoyed companionship, exercised regularly ... all this and he'd once had a pilot's licence, served in the war, danced... what a rich and full life!
The writer Ursula K. Le Guin died in 2018 aged 88 - I've been reading a posthumously published collection of her blogs, No Time to Spare. They start from around 2010 which would have made her 80 years old when she began. By then she'd published dozens of books, won a string of international awards and was widely regarded as one of the greatest science fiction novelists of all time. She also penned essays, short stories, poems, the best book on how to write that I know (Steering the Craft) and of course - took up blogging.
This year I turn sixty, and still I often find myself saying 'when I get old...' Which of course is ironic, because sixty is old - not in quite the way it used to be, but certainly the third stage of life, and a time when wisdom and reflection tends to takes precedence over physical prowess. All my working life I'd expected to be retired by this age - and after making prudent allowance there's no reason why I shouldn't be - but I find, now that it's possible, I approach the prospect with dread.
In the opening blog of Le Guin's collection she ponders a question in a residential survey - what do you like to do in your spare time? The tick boxes start with golf, and continue through shopping, TV, creative activities... 27 options in all. Le Guin reflects not so much on these, as the idea of having 'spare time', and what that means to those who're notionally retired. She concludes that she hasn't any, that all hers is taken: 'It always has been and it is now.' she writes, 'Occupied by living.'
And in Le Guin's case that was a full and rich endeavour too - creative, caring, campaigning to the end. I first discovered her work from a podcast interview - another communication form she embraced. And reading her blogs, there seems few limits to the scope of her enquiring mind. Last night, writing to a friend I said that if - by some suspending of time and reality - I could host one of those imaginary dinner parties where you invite half a dozen people from history, Le Guin would be high on my guest list.
Because as I get older (note the change in emphasis there) the more determined I am to remain as curious as she was, to embrace change, not to be curmudgeonly - to be the very antithesis of the 'grumpy old man'. I've learned there are many virtues that come with age (Le Guin writes eloquently on this too) and that it's folly to chase rainbows by wishing ourselves younger - by looking backwards rather than ahead.
Nowadays, it's commonplace to see older folk cycling in lycra, running marathons, skiing down whatever... and in many ways this is truly excellent. I want to say fit; I want to travel; I have a very full bucket list of sorts.. But I worry a little about the trend. Are we oldies, by filling our time with tick lists, by obsessing over fitness, by pursuing pleasure in whatever ways we can ... finding truly positive purpose? Or are we staring into the pool of our lives only to see our reflection through eyes that ought to put on glasses?
For all I say 'we' I really mean 'me'. These worries are not meant as any criticism of others - rather, they are a deeper, more personal concern about how to find - and maintain - a purpose as I age. For some, playing golf or tennis may be the answer - and good for them - for others, it might be the daily practice of humility and grace - good for them too.
I'm not religious, and am not even sure that personal salvation gives any more meaning to life than the possibility of oblivion. But as I get older, I do feel keenly that we are part of one continuum - that the time we are gifted is but a moment at the end of a life-line that stretches back at least four billion years. And in that context, I'm conscious that the contribution we make, is ultimately more satisfying - and meaningful - than any pleasure we take.
As for how to do that best, I'm still working... and thinking it through. This year I have a book to publish (big reveal coming soon!) and should this pandemic ever end, perhaps - just perhaps - a PhD to begin. I'm yearning also to return to the mountains - to scale those heights that will only get harder with age, even if there's technology to help me. On the subject of which, one of my deepest determinations is never to sigh at its progress; to see it (and computing especially) as a map to explore, not a maze to be feared.
Most of all I'm determined to keep on learning.
For if I stopped I'm sure I'd atrophy - and more quickly than from any lessening in my heart rate or weakening of my grip. I'm not sure I want - or have the spare time - to join nine clubs and societies; I'd hope that doing fewer things well might be just as rewarding. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in one of her very last blogs '... how rich we are in knowledge and in all that lies around us yet to learn. Billionaires all of us.'
Amen to that.