from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: older

June 30.

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees,
—Those dying generations—at their son
g*,

I have aged beyond the normal passage of time during these last 4 months. Way beyond.  No question in my mind. I did not preface that statement with, ‘I feel I have aged …’. I find it hard to work out exactly why this is so. After all, living in South Australia we have been extremely fortunate. Our busy lives have been curtailed, but not drastically. There was an early panic evident in the rush to hoard food supplies and we learnt the Australians were particularly active in stocking up their larders. During those early days, the dread for me related to the fact that we did not know how bad the virus would be for us, what nature it would take. Stories abounded. The collapse in our stock market in February emphasised the approaching storm: health and wealth threatened!

But the issue has more to do with the nature of our lives as retired people. Maybe before 2020 we were living in a fool’s paradise, ignoring old age and the waning of our abilities. But now we are labelled as a group as vulnerable, many with ‘comorbidities‘ The percentages are widely discussed – an ultra-high death rate is assured for our age group. A retired friend was told by his doctor son that he must be serious about isolation because if he ended up in hospital it was unlikely that a ventilator would be assigned to him. Triage would be in operation.

So, the story is out: we are at the end of our lives and nothing new, nothing amazing, nothing significant remains for us. Together, my husband and I had planned travel to Indonesia – an interesting bird-watching trip through remote islands and I had organised a visit to Seattle to see our daughter and to travel with her to Yellowstone National Park. We have always been travellers and being able to pursue our hobbies of birding and photography in new places has enriched our lives. In December 2019, we felt that we still had the energy and enthusiasm to do this. I am not so sure anymore.

But my premature aging cannot be just this! It has more to do with optimism, or the lack thereof. I looked up the synonyms for ‘optimism’. They are: hope, confidence, sanguinity, buoyancy, cheerfulness. And those words hit home. I don’t think they describe my world at the moment. It’s closing down. Being so in touch with the persistent bad news, watching the numbers, does not make me happier. Maybe the way forward is to deliberately NOT immerse myself in the news. Ignore it all.

‘Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
’ as Dylan Thomas wrote.

That’s a bit dramatic for me and my angst.

I came across this article from the HBR. ‘That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief.’

https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief?fbclid=IwAR2D8HMqDiAvBpfX_ksJNUZUZbwxzr1Fs-XJViFbMNpOzVI-jih2LVRp1w4

Is this the word for this sense? Grief? Perhaps that is closer to my aging idea. Grief – looking backwards at my life and at the confusion of our present times. And maybe I just have to deal with this. I have never been a person with depressive tendencies. If you survive boarding school you develop a certain resilience! And I can look to my father’s example, how he conducted himself in his old age: never sorry for himself, never without kindness, always interested in the world, always generous.

When he died, my father left a letter for my brother and me; it contained this poem. An ancient Sanskrit poem.

‘Look to this day
for it is life
the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all
the realities and truths of existence:
the joy of growth
the splendour of action
the glory of power.
For yesterday is but a memory
And tomorrow is only a vision.
But today well lived
makes every yesterday a memory of happiness
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day.’

A gift. Surely, that is enough.

*WB. Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: a pattern of days – a second retirement

14 May. We both retired. 18 years ago. I found retirement was a process of adaptation. There were at least two years of adjustment as we settled into working out what to do. And we did get going, we got the message that this was a gift – time – valuable FREE time. So we… moved house; studied; travelled; planted trees; travelled some more with our local museum; bought a holiday home at the seaside; got a dog; planted more trees from our own seed; I wrote a short biography of my grandmother as requested by my 90-year-old father when he emigrated from South Africa to Chester, UK ; I wrote a longer biography of my father published after his death at the age of 97, and I wrote two novels about Africa.

And now, it’s as if a second retirement is before us, with a further consideration of what we should do. However, there are fewer options and in the background is the possibility of being stricken with Covid-19. Times have changed. We constantly hear that our age group bears the highest risk for hospitalisation and death. Especially so if you have a ‘comorbidity’. (Comorbidity is a word I have never used before. It ‘refers to the presence of more than one disorder in the same person’. I am assuming that old age is now regarded as a disorder, a ‘morbidity’.)

In Adelaide, South Australia, we have not been as constrained as many other major cities but still the flow of disturbing news has been a constant since early March … that’s two months for us to adapt to a second retirement from our first retirement.

And how has our life changed? For a start, each day is much the same as the previous day. Small, hardly noteworthy differences: driving to walk the dog in the park and fetch the mail; sometimes a big supermarket shop in the early morning … etc.

So, most of the time is spent in the house or our garden. And somehow the day goes by very fast. We have ordered three vegetarian meals a week from a service called HelloFresh. The box is delivered to the door on Monday and consists of the ingredients for the meals plus a comprehensive guide to the process of cooking. This is entertainment as much as anything else, for these are meals I would not normally cook: roasted sweet potato risotto … pesto, roast pumpkin and fetta risoni …

My husband complains about the lack of MEAT. Since I am verging on becoming a vegetarian, this is not what I want to hear. During the week, there are 4 other dinners that can feature meat. The trouble is that the meals from HelloFresh are generous and we have leftovers. There is a definite greater interest in food and home cooking during this new retirement. We used to eat out 2-3 times a week.

The phone: we are spending more time talking on our mobiles (we don’t have a landline). We catch up with family and friends and since two daughters live in the USA, another daughter lives in Sydney and a son settled in South Africa, these calls go on throughout the day.

The computer is a huge resource and gobbler of time: for emails; Zoom meetings of my writing group and my husband’s geology club; for bridge games and lessons; for watching movies on ‘demand’. We are indeed lucky to have such a marvellous array of entertainment.

the Serengeti National Park

Every night, on YouTube, I watch the ‘Serengeti Show Live’ show for 30 odd minutes where Carel Verhoef and Sally Grierson show us their camp in the Serengeti and take us on a game drive. In 2018, we spent a week with their company, Great Migration Camps, on the shores of the Mara River. Watching these episodes, I can immerse myself in the landscape of Africa. And soon Serengeti Show Live will take us up Mt Kilimanjaro and then to Zanzibar. (Once upon a time in Africa, I lived in the shadow of Mt Kilimanjaro and then moved to live in Zanzibar).

I belong to the Adelaide Lyceum Club, a women’s club that was begun in London in 1903. (‘Clubs for women interested in arts, sciences, social concerns and the pursuit of lifelong learning’). We gather in interest groups called ‘circles’ and one of the circles I joined was the film circle. Our members have joined the Zoom brigade and meet to discuss certain films which are available online. Our SBS on Demand and ABC iView channels provide hundreds of films and TV shows free. Quite distracting in fact.

Don’t forget the dog! Roy, aged 11 has his own program, more insistent now that we are around almost 24/7. He wakes at dawn at 6.45am and goes out to check if any koalas or kangaroos are around. Whether they are or not, he wakes the neighbourhood with a morning bark. I am growing accustomed (as winter comes for us) to spend more reading in bed before a short program of yoga. This laziness delays breakfast as well as Roy’s walk up the long drive or in the local park.

Home maintenance and gardening fill in the holes in the day. April and May are planting months in South Australia as the rains arrive. I have paid more attention to edible plants this year – there’s nothing quite like picking your own herbs, lettuce and spinach for an evening meal. I have given up on actively growing potatoes but remnants are doing well. We have planted 20 trees that will give joy one day. I am reading City of Trees by Sonia Cunningham, a series of absorbing essays about our urban landscapes and how we are losing forests. Sonia Cunningham was a speaker at our Adelaide Festival’s Writers’ Week in March this year.

So, our new retirement is OK; we have lots to do, lots to entertain us. Soon we will be able to travel within the borders of South Australia and in July they might open up to other states … and one day maybe New Zealand will be included.

Second retirement is not so bad, so far.

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: digital visitors

May 11.  This morning the President of a European university was talking to me in my sitting room.  Later in the day he returned with two of his senior colleagues. The conversations were joined by a Greek Cypriot, a Frenchwoman, a Croat and a Catalan, all of whom, given the lazy privilege of the British, talked in fluent English.

Last year, before the flood, I agreed to be part of a team organised by the Institutional Evaluation Programme of the European University Association.  IEP maintains a list of international auditors and is commissioned by universities, or sometimes complete university systems, to review their organisation and strategies.  The standard practice is for the team to make two site visits of three or four days and then submit a written report.

The first visit to the current institution should have taken place just as the European lockdowns were imposed.  Instead it was agreed to undertake the exercise remotely, which permits some estimation for the future of conducting international business in such a way.  So far, the gains are:

  • No real loss in the focus of the interviews.
  • No loss in organising the programme, in timing meetings.  Ease of adding new meetings.
  • No problems with the platform, in this case Microsoft Team, which works transnationally, and also enables documents, such as rapidly revised agendas, to be shared between the team members.  Vision better than sound.
  • No time wasted in travel.  In this case it would have taken half a day in each direction, door to door.  So, for the two visits, that’s two days of my life free for reading books, digging the garden etc.
  • No costs to the EUA, and ultimately to the reviewed university, of such travel, plus accommodation and meals during the visit.

And losses:

  • Opportunities for informal discussions amongst the team members as they spend long days together, from breakfast to dinner.  It’s these discussions which inform the next interviews, and frequently frame the final report.
  • Opportunities for intervening in group discussion.  Difficult to catch the eye of the chair, to know when it is, and is not, the moment to make a contribution.
  • Opportunities for spending quality time with interesting academics from the four corners of Europe.
  • Opportunities for travel.  I am one of those odd people who actually enjoy the abstracted solitude of airports and planes, and however tight the schedule, there is always some chance to see faraway cities, and perhaps sample their food [except in Macedonia where every night we were handed a menu in a different restaurant, then served exactly the same pre-ordered meal as before].
  • Opportunities for getting a physical feel for the institutions you are visiting.  Turning up at the Macedonian university and being shown the bullet holes from the last civil war did help the team to understand the institution’s strategic priorities.
  • Opportunities for my wife to move about our house freely while I am working.  It was built in around 1450, before it seemed necessary to soundproof one room from another. 

Days of online conversations in front of me.  I rather fear that the opportunities in terms of efficiency, if not pleasure [except Macedonia], are going to outweigh the losses.  This project will be completed in terms of its purpose, but with no larger gain.  Would I do it again, given that I am free not to?   No.