At my age – 80 this week – people are often beguiled into either of two states of mind. They can spend all their time looking back and wondering… Well, wondering what? The temptation is to dwell on how things might have turned out differently. Did I choose the right job? Did I marry the right man? Did I ever get the work/family mix sorted out?
There are the roads not taken: my regrets include not having seen more of the Far East. It was only last year that I visited Japan. I’d still like to make it to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat before I die. Perhaps it would have been good to work abroad for a stretch: a year in France or Italy. Then I wouldn’t be so stuck with only being fluent in English. So the options flicker in the mind bearing the distorting glow of nostalgia and regret.
The other state of mind is one that broods on what you’ll leave behind, how things will turn out when you’re not around to give direction. There’s a sense of pride in leaving to the next generation what you’ve spent a lifetime accumulating. When the Government suggested the old should pay for their care out of the money they might leave behind, it was mocked as “the death tax”.
In fact, it’s quite a sensible idea – why should people demand the state pick up the bill for caring for them in their old age and at the same time expect to leave small fortunes to their children? But people care passionately about their legacy. As they get older, they consider how their worldly goods will be disposed of. They make wills and remake them, juggling bequests according to whom is in or out of favour.
And what of all those trinkets to be disposed of: granddad’s gold clock, grandma’s silver locket. What of the cache of letters you have squirreled away. Current generations don’t write letters much these days. But I have letters from uncles serving in the war; I have poignant letters of teenage love and longing. Who will want any of it and why should I care?
Both of these states of mind provoke anxiety – something I’m trying to avoid. Instead, I’m concentrating on the moment, the “now” of daily life. It’s a trick I learnt from a rather confusing version of yoga… that the “here and now” is all that is real and the rest is an illusion that might not have happened as you remember it or might not come about as you fear.
As I get older, the “now” is increasingly important. It has an oddly calming effect to wake in the morning and enjoy the sunrise rather than worry whether things will go as you planned later in the day. I have a moon calendar on my wall and try to follow its waxing and waning. It’s not easy in our sky-polluted cities but vividly real in the countryside.
William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy used to go for long walks on moonlit nights, choosing to see their landscape bathed in its silvery light. It must have felt very “now” when they did. My own pleasure in the now is growing… it embraces colours, the seasons, music, a warm bath and, of course, radio!
I’ll bother about the past and future later perhaps. For the moment, time is mine to enjoy at my own pace. Being alert to the moment is important at any age, but as the years go by, it becomes more and more precious. After all, we never know when it might run out on us… and the odds are shortening.
Joan Bakewell Evening is on Sunday at 9:00pm on BBC4