Let me introduce his majesty. He is large and shining black with white paws and white chest, and if he doesn’t choose to acknowledge you, you can whistle Dixie. He is the personification of the Cat Who Walks By Himself, waving his tail and walking by his wild lone. He lives with (I wouldn’t say is owned by) a worker bee, a quiet little woman who goes out early and comes in late. She talks to him as they progress the street, so they clearly have an understanding. So far, he has disdained my acknowledgement of him. Doesn’t need it. Though when it rained last week and he took refuge on the window sill of the flat next door, he considered my greeting. He is truly beautiful in a storybook kind of way and last night he was sitting on the wall next to the front door, so I said good evening. He considered me. I put my rubbish in the bin and continued talking to him, respectfully, gently, admiringly. He understood a courtier’s voice. He moved his head to watch my return to the door, and his human watched. I touched his head, his chest, he extended his neck and gave me the Royal Sniff, Maori style, nose to nose. Then I went back inside and he followed his human home to their flat down the road. It’s taken ages for me to find a balance of sound he can accept.
When Breath Becomes Air is about balance. It is the memoir of a young talented and immensely industrious medical specialist, his cancer and his journey to his death. It is written by someone who loves language and late last night I found this: “the defining characteristic of the (human) organism is striving.” This really struck me because for years I worked (as did Paul Kalanithi) in industries where you worked till you fell over. You were kind of expected to. His experience is more pressured than mine ever was, but striving is such a particular word, unique in one sense, but with endless numbers of similar ideas attached to it. So as with many words, there is a good sense of striving, of reaching out and flying high and trying, trying and trying again. And a bad sense of striving when reaching out becomes all that you do, over the heads of those who need you, past them, beyond them and trampling on them if you have to, as if that grasping hand grew feet.
As the perception of age changed and we began to be told that 60 was the new 40, that 70 wasn’t “old” (as if old were a bad thing), that you could do “anything”, that you should do more – youth or relative youth became the brand, the hallmark, the necessity and led us down some very peculiar paths. Many of us lost any sense of balance. (I have to write this in respectful general terms because the personal is always particular).
Because I had been ill as a child (lung shadow), because my health was relatively fragile though I usually recovered well and swiftly, because my parents were visibly older than those of my peers – I absorbed the idea of balance very early. Brought up by two rugged individualists, I wasn’t very worried about what anybody else did. And 30 years ago I saw a French film called La Balance , the central theme of which impressed upon me that what we call the balance leads to the choice. And we all make choices whether by actively opting for this or that, or failing to, so we get landed with what happens in consequence. And you have to live with the choice that you make, however you came to it.
I have the greatest respect for people who decide to do something completely new late in life, who – if you like – strive again though I can’t help wondering, when some can only strive. They must be doing. Contemplative quiet frightens the hell out of them. Somewhere long ago I seem to remember a hymn we sang at school which mentioned “oh still small voice of calm” and how that spoke to me – I wondered if I would ever hear it, I who couldn’t be still, who couldn’t spell calm and had a personality like a fire. And I strove, you could say mightily, the best I could, until I learned to balance and be still – and listen if you like to the small sounds and the silence.