A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Sunday, 31 January 2016

What I Did Today

Normally I sleep well and am alert as soon as I wake. I like getting up early, so it was dark when I went downstairs. I like this time of day: it's quiet and peaceful, with no one about. Every morning I do some exercises and every other morning I go for a brisk walk-run. Today I just did my exercises, which are like old friends: bending, stretching, skipping, running on the spot, cycling with my legs in the air. Then I made some Lavazza arabica coffee and wholemeal toast, which I ate watching the TV news.

After I could stand hearing about death, destruction and dispossession no longer, I read a chapter from one of my current library books, Rob Cowen's Common Ground. This is a thrilling, poetic book about our links with the landscape, about those forgotten edge-land places on the border of town and country which are steeped in history and teem with flora and fauna and are full of magic — if we had but the eyes to see. I'm using Amazon less and less (which I'm happy with: look how they treat their staff, look how they avoid paying tax) and borrowing library books more and more. I belong to two county libraries — Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire — and you can reserve and renew books online. It's very convenient. Nottinghamshire lets you have 24 books at a time and charges 25p for reservations; in Lincolnshire there's no limit to the number of books and reservations are free. Britain's public library system is one of the best things we have, along with the National Health Service, and it must be fought for and protected. Sadly the long-term health of both is far from certain.

Later in the morning I drove to Waitrose where, if you spend £10 or more, you can get a free newspaper. I came back with bread, milk, cheese, yoghurt, ice cream, frozen berries, fresh tomatoes, cans of tomatoes, cans of soup, sausages, coffee and the Saturday Guardian. After a simple lunch of muesli and an apple, I did the quick crossword on the last page of the Guardian Review, then leafed backwards through the section. After reading about the art of Joseph Beuys and the childhood of Alfred Brendel, the 100th birthday of Vogue magazine and the sleaziness of the London rock 'n' roll scene in the 1960s, I arrived at the lead article — a posthumous piece by the Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and died last autumn, aged 67. That's only six years older than I am. 

This made me think of all the recent deaths of people in their 60s and early 70s. There seem to have been so many of them lately: David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Lemmy from Motörhead, Cilla Black — and, just this second, I see that Terry Wogan has gone. Not to mention all the thousands of unknown, uncelebrated, ordinary people like you or me. (Not that I think any one of us is ordinary in the least — no, not at all.) I considered my own mortality, as I do quite frequently. I thought about how common cancer is, particularly among the older population. I reviewed the lifestyle factors which may contribute to causing cancer in later life. And I resolved to continue to live as healthily as I could, to maintain an exercise programme and a balanced diet. But do past destructive lifestyle choices still take their toll on the body despite current healthy regimes? 

I became aware with a sudden blinding clarity how essential it was to live each moment as fully, as deeply and as productively as possible — as if each moment was one's last. We have only one life, a life of great tragedy and suffering, yet also one of great joy and beauty. Both polarities are necessary to life, are inescapable parts of the complete picture. You can't have joy without sorrow, beauty without ugliness. Therefore we should try to embrace both, the all, the whole. Like children do unconsciously, to some extent. As Dan Chelotti writes in his poem, Compost: There is magic in decay. Later in the poem his young daughter, Selma, on seeing a dead snake on the path, guts spewing out, Belly up and still nerve-twitching / The ghost of some passing / Bicycle or horse, reacts like this: Pretty!

In his article, Henning Mankell writes how consoling books (especially familiar ones), music and art are to him. Each day he reads, listens to a piece of music and contemplates a picture. I turn to my Spotify list and select Mahler's First Symphony. I must play more classical music, concentrate on it rather than just use it as background wallpaper. I must listen to more Mahler, make my way through all the symphonies. Mahler believed that a symphony could contain the whole world. This first symphony is a delight — fairly traditional, yes, and influenced strongly, I think, by Beethoven. The first movement recalls Beethoven's Pastoral and evokes spring's awakening, complete with bird calls. The whole work is saturated with folk song; the third movement, a funeral march, is a take on the Frère Jacques tune.

Then I turn to a painting. Mankell says that two of his favourite artists are Daumier and Caravaggio. Daumier I know little about, but Caravaggio is one of my favourites too. I bring up on the computer screen one of his most famous pictures, Supper at Emmaus, which is in London's National Gallery.

Caravaggio was a difficult character and led a colourful life. He was driven, argumentative, swaggering, self-destructive. He was constantly involved in fights and once killed a young man in a brawl. He died under mysterious circumstances in Porto Ercole in Tuscany. He was not in his 60s or 70s, but only 38 years of age.

Saturday 30 January 2016


Friko said...

What I did today?
If that is just this morning then you have already done more to justify being alive than many do in a week. Or ever.

Wise man, dear Solitary Walker.

I am listening to a tribute to Terry Wogan at the moment. Not that I have listened to his show for years. Maybe I should have done and not felt embarrassed.

How stupid some of us are.

I am glad that I came here this morning, you have helped me shed a few hairs of the black dog.

The Solitary Walker said...

I am glad you enjoyed this, Friko, and pleased your black dog is kenneled for the morning.

Anonymous said...

wonderful post Robert - thank you.
I'm in amongst a bit too much death and bereavement at the moment,
and this is just write to read and ponder.
And a link to a very good poem I did not know


donna baker said...

Love the picture on your header. Even in the description of your simple morning, you seem to be an extraordinary man. You have found something rare as hen's teeth; purpose in the small things, an awareness of living we all possess, I think, but rarely follow through. My hat is off to you.

Susan Scheid said...

I am glad to come here, too, to start my morning in such good company. I turned 67 today, so of course your post has special meaning. Not long ago, I also decided I must make my way through all the Mahler symphonies, and, as you say, not just as wallpaper. I've made a good start, and it has certainly been worthwhile. Among other things, I bought every available DVD of Abbado conducting the Lucerne in Mahler. They are magnificent, and many are on YouTube for free, too. This month, I bought a ticket to the Berlin Philharmonic Digital Concert Hall, and many afternoons, when it has been too cold to be outside, I've watched and listened to splendid performances, including of the two Bach Passions. Reading great prose and poetry, listening to great music, having conversation with thoughtful friends, whether in person or online, these are among life's wonderful things. Reading the news, not so much, though one must do it from time to time.

Sabine said...

After I had read the text by Henning Mankell in yersterday's Guardian, the day that had started out as any old day, had changed and reduced my thoughts to whispers and sighs. And I started counting the years again, of my age, the age of the ones I love and the ones who have died and I tried to find my place in it.

And all along in my mind this sentence from Mankell kept repeating:

"Fear is natural and based on the simple truth that what distinguishes us humans from other species is that we know we are going to die."

It is good to know that you read that as well and how you incorporate his routine.

Laura said...

What a full and rich day. Your post is a timely reminder. My kids' dad is losing his battle with cancer, at 54, and he did everything "right." Chance and a stray cell during his development in the womb. I watch him trying to fit in all he never did, in the months he has left, and am reminded to live and be present each day, however simple or extravagant it is.

Bouncing Bertie said...

That does read like a day well spent. I have yesterday's Guardian, and hesitated to tackle the Mankell piece, but am encouraged to do so now. And to spend more time with Mahler (My late father's favourite composer, so I have inherited all his symphonies on CD).
Cheers, Gail.

am said...

Thank you for your heartening post with so many paths to follow. I especially like "Pretty!"

It's been 2 weeks since I posted anything on my blog because being self-employed as a medical transcription editor is an excellent challenge for me at age 66. Today, my only true day off each week, I'm planning to work on the mandala I started some time ago after looking at the blogs I follow.

Here's a favorite of mine, "The Uprising," by Daumier:


Anonymous said...

A lovely post, and what a good way to spend the day.This January has been an incessant drum of reminders of our mortality - especially those, like you and me, who are now in our 60s. My Saturday Guradian lies more or less unread but I will now seek out the Mankell piece you mention.
Best, Laurence.

Amanda Summer said...

Thank you for this thought - and heart - provoking post. It reminds me of a poem by Mary Oliver, The Summer Day, and its final stanza: Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

dritanje said...

"I became aware with a sudden blinding clarity how essential it was to live each moment as fully, as deeply and as productively as possible — as if each moment was one's last."
Ah yes it is good to feel that so clearly (rather than it just running through one's mind like a greyhound thought, to be replaced by something else - I am of course referring to myself!)
Many lovely things here, the art and the music and the importance of libraries, yes indeed. And yes I will see if my library has Rob Cowan's book - they usually have all the good ones you and others have recommended.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for all these excellent comments, everyone — sorry I'm not replying individually this time!

The Solitary Walker said...

And welcome Eastofelveden (Laurence) to my blog.