It has been a rugged couple of weeks and I learned long ago to shut up about such things. Every time I haul out an old diary, I think Oh my Gahd I've spent my whole life being miserable, and only then do I remember that one (well, this one) is prone to diarise mainly when unhappy. What this looks like on the cumulative pages, decades later, is a lifetime of unhappiness, whereas in fact I think that on the whole I've been a bit luckier/happier than most. (Felicitous may be the word, and how satisfying for a cat lover that felix should be the word for a hybrid of happiness and luck.)
Anyway, over the last few months I've had more than my fair share of reminders that eventually we'll all get old, get sick and die, and that somewhere in there there could be quite a lot of dependence and debility. With winter well in force, this began to get to me big-time as the cold seeped into damage done twenty years ago, but I was jolted out of it yesterday by a one-sitting read of Philip Roth's new novella Everyman, which I found both technically brilliant and morally appalling. Its burden is pretty much what I just said up there (old, sick, die etc) but I got so annoyed with the character to whom this happens and his whole attitude to it that I felt my own lifting like a windborne kite, simply by virtue of the contrast.
It's not that I don't have my own share of rage about what happens to us all. Roth said in an interview about this book -- and the man is 73 years old -- that what inspired it was a wake-up call when his friends started to die, to which I can only reply that his friends must be a particularly well-preserved bunch. I lost a friend to suicide when I was 40 and another to cancer when I was 45, seven months after the death of my mother when she was still younger than Roth is now. It's bloody late in the day for him to start being surprised by death.
Being surprised by death, in fact, is the wellspring of this book, as Roth pointed out himself in an interview, quoting the 15th century morality play for which the novella is named. The allegorical character Everyman meets Death coming towards him on the road: 'Oh Death, thou comest when I had thee least in mind.'
Those of us who have had close calls remember having said this, or something very like it, at the time.
Not being any kind of religious person, I'd expect the prospect of death to be a grim one but in fact I don't find it so. Maybe growing up on a farm has something to do with this, a sense of the cyclical, the seasonal, and the properness of birth and death. Because if the Roth book hadn't snapped me out of it, the solstice would have. A week and a bit from now, the shortest day will come and go and the sun will start rising a fraction earlier, and setting a fraction later, every day. And the older I get the more clearly I feel the seasons turning, a bodily feeling, in the bones.