Monday, 11 April 2011

Lessons from the bus stop

By Aurora @ IslandDreaming

One of the joys of public transport is that you regularly end up in conversation with interesting folk you wouldn’t otherwise meet. Waiting at the bus stop yesterday, an elderly lady struck up a conversation with me. I think that she had noticed the gardening magazine in my handbag and the conversation quickly progressed from small talk about the weather to the joys of gardening and growing food.

She and her husband had maintained an allotment at my own allotment site for most of their adult lives, only giving it up when they turned 80 and the journey to and fro was getting a bit much. She spoke enthusiastically about all the benefits she had got from maintaining it and how she had passed that on to her daughter and grandchildren. She still involved herself in the community, regularly attending the jumble sale near the allotments where everyone went to sell off their excess plants and have a chat over a cup of tea. She still maintained her home garden, took the dog for long walks every day and socialised regularly.

The lady had been visiting her husband at the hospital where I work. He is 86, deaf and almost blind. She sighed and confessed that she was annoyed that whilst he was elderly in years, he was also now turning into an ‘old man’ in front of her eyes – he was becoming obstinate and curmudgeonly – and he had absolutely no excuse for it in her eyes. I reflected that she was lucky to have made it through 64 years of marriage before this happened - I have a 29 year old curmudgeon at home after just 7 years together. It turned out the allotment had played an important part in keeping her marriage fresh – ‘you do need somewhere to go to escape from each other every so often’.

My own darling 29 year old curmudgeon was dragged in for humorous effect only I must stress. However, the contentment expressed by this lady during our conversation is something I have rarely come across in my own age group. Success has been judged in our culture by how much money you have, how many degrees you have, how big your home is and how many expensive shiny toys you own (and how often you replace them). In short, just how much of the planet's resources do you consume on your way through life? The end result of this thinking for many is worry, restlessness and ever increasing debts - and it is very hard in the midst of misery to change tack and find a happier direction. 

This lady was friendly, good humoured and active, still interested in the world around her and obviously had a family and community that she had built and involved herself in. No doubt she had made many wrong turns in life, but at some point in the preceding years it seemed she had struck upon the formula for a contented life and ran with it. For all I know she may have had a big house, degrees and lots of shiny toys, but they weren't important enough for her to mention them during our meandering chat. Based upon what she had told me, she had led a good life. 

One day I would like to look back on a long life and wax lyrical about the contentment I had experienced and the lessons I had learnt (and my gardening successes and failures).  I would like my success to one day be measured by the good feeling I had engendered, the wisdom I had accrued and the damage I had repaired, or at least the damage I hadn't caused. But what if I don’t make it to such a vintage? There is no guarantee that I have all the time in the world to build friendships, potter about the garden, look after my health and well being, smell the flowers and find meaningful work to do – and share the fruits of it.

How will you know if you have lived a good life? What changes are you going to make to get there? When are you going to start?