Parents’ gifts: into the future

What could be nicer than sitting on the London Underground reading a delightful poem about activist old age?   My Northern Line trip last week felt joyous, rather than a noisy must do, as I read George Square, one in the series Poems on the Underground, by Jackie Kay.

My seventy-seven-year-old father
put his reading glasses on
to help my mother do the buttons
on the back of her dress.
‘What a pair the two of us are!’
my mother said, ‘Me with my sore wrist,
you with your bad eyes, your soft thumbs!’

And off they went, my two parents
to march against the war in Iraq,
him with his plastic hips. Her with her arthritis,
to congregate at George Square, where the banners
waved at each other like old friends, flapping,
where they’d met for so many marches over their years,
for peace on earth, for pity’s sake, for peace, for peace.

My indomitable mother was in that category.  One of my early childhood memories, from about 1958, is she and my father taking the three of us (my sister in her pushchair) on an Aldermaston march for nuclear disarmament. She many times protested at Campsfield, stood in weekly vigils for peace during the Iraq war, was a regular at Levellers Day, in Oxford, and joined the solidarity with refugees march being pushed in her wheelchair.  (See photo above). She spent her long lifetime advocating for social justice in all its manifestations.   

As I read the poem vivid memories of her flashed by.  How at aged 85 she announced she wanted to do a leg of the Tall Ships race, and did.  (One of her childhood dreams was to be a cabin boy – she loved sailing).  How at the age of 90 she gave up riding her beloved bike, but till her death hankered for another one.   How at Christmas, well into her 90s, she would go as a volunteer to serve Christmas lunches ‘to the old people’.  (One of several volunteering roles she had).

My father was of a similar ilk.  Maybe that’s why my parents were initially attracted to each other – though the attraction failed after a few years and they divorced.  He was one of the early activist environmentalists, initiating an ambitious project to build a sustainable city with a fully circular economy, recovering and reusing resources.  That got, not very far, but undaunted he continued to develop his passion for preserving and protecting native wildflowers, which was more successful and gained much support.  He died, in his 80s, before he could complete an academic essay, on wildflowers, that he was writing for publication.  It was open on his computer when we came to find him.

I’m often amused by the way that once I start to think about something, I notice related info streaming toward the thought – rather as a magnet attracts iron filings.  In this instance, Bertrand Russell’s thoughts on aging headed in consciousness, via an email subscription to something I have.  He says:   “Psychologically there are two dangers to be guarded against in old age. One of these is undue absorption in the past. It does not do to live in memories, in regrets for the good old days, or in sadness about friends who are dead. One’s thoughts must be directed to the future, and to things about which there is something to be done.”

I particularly like Russell’s belief that as one ages, ‘One’s thoughts must be directed to the future, and to things about which there is something to be done.’   I’ve got the example of both my parents, and, this week, Russell’s reminder.  So, what am I doing, or going to do, that is directed to the future and which I can do something about?

That’s a challenging question to myself.  Oddly, to me anyway, I’ve picked up some of the horticulture interest my father was so passionate about, having paid almost no attention to it the first 70 years of my life.   In fact, I remember the dread I felt as a child when my father said he was going to take us to Kew Gardens or Wisley.  Kew, I recall as agonising hours in the steaming glasshouses, and Wisley as a bafflingly lessons on botany given at a level which bore no relationship to my level of understanding.  I wonder if he’d be pleased to know that I am now studying permaculture – whose three principles are directed to the future, and have found my copy of his project on resource recovery, with a view to implementing some of his ideas, on a local scale.  

Looking around, there’s no shortage of other things that look to the future that I could do something about.  But, I think, they have to be meaningful, purposeful and actionable in the day to day, and not be just one-off contributions or donations to specific events (though those are necessary and important too).   They also must play to my interests, capacity to act, willingness to commit to the actions on an ongoing basis  and be associated with helping me age healthily. 

On this last, much research suggests that having strong social networks, and supportive communities helps with healthy aging. For example, Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies  found ‘that people with strong social connections tend to have better health behaviors, like eating healthy foods and being physically active.’

So how will I follow Russell’s suggestion to direct myself to the future and do things that serve it well?  My leanings towards social justice are the same as my mother’s, but I’m less vocal.  I have more discretionary time now, (because I’m less driven by paid employment demands) which means I can become more vocal.   My developing interests, and skills, in growing plants and practicing permaculture principles follow in the steps of my father.   Perhaps in helping form my attitudes my parents were future directed – I’ll take that as their legacy to me and invest it further for the betterment of future generations.  

Immediately, I am heading towards community gardening and supporting neighbourhood environmental improvements.  More generally, what I’d like is to take Russell’s next suggestion to ‘make your interests gradually wider and more impersonal, until bit by bit the walls of the ego recede, and your life becomes increasingly merged in the universal life.’  (From his essay How to Grow Old, in Portraits from Memory).

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