Now that’s a promising subject to research, or – less pompously – to ponder: the phenomenon of shrinking, both individually and collectively. Consider how old ladies are automatically qualified as “little”, yet that’s not how they’ve always been. Blame the shrinking of their intervertebral discs (“a layer of cartilage separating adjacent vertebrae in the spine”) which starts some time around fifty, with wide individual variations. It’s a quiet, insidious process, leading to major changes. For women, their midi skirts gradually become maxis, and the opening and shutting of windows and cupboard doors above a certain height grow more strenuous. Men don’t escape, either: “I grow old…I grow old…I shall wear the bottom of my trousers rolled,” laments J. Alfred Prufrock in T.S.Eliot’s great poem in which the discs, although not mentioned, play a role in the sad hero’s “Love Song”.
One’s area of mobility also shrinks. I’m full of admiration for intrepid people of advanced age who undertake highly uncomfortable journeys for no commanding reason, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Looking up at an airliner flying over my garden where I am sweeping up leaves, I recall the many occasions when I went off at short notice to Sri Lanka, the Yang-Tse or Reykjavik, just so, because I felt like it; yes, it was fun, and cheap air travel has certainly shrunk the world, but now I’m happy to spend time sitting on a riverside bench and watching the Thames flow by. What with gulls, moorhens, acrobatic gulls and the occasional haughty swan, there’s plenty to see.
Less pleasurably, one’s circle of friends also shrinks. Some die, others move to the country and become rare visitors. To make up for these losses, e-mail and Skype bring closer some far-flung friends and acquaintances, although not with the closeness of a real face-to-face meeting. Ah, but “that was then. this is now”, I remind myself, applying this irrefutable antidote to fruitless nostalgia.
Yet it’s not all shrinkage and loss. Far from it. What expands is one’s ability to sort the wheat from the chaff, one’s true values from some trendy rubbish; to laugh at one’s own idiocies and accept those of others with a friendly shrug. To become flexible rather than rigid and not start sentences with “I always…” or “I never…”Quite a lesson to learn rather late in life, but – what’s the hurry, anyway? One’s individual future may seem rather brief, but it can be full of goodies.
One more thing that is expanding very slowly and gently is the distance between my front door and the corner shop.