Books, Endings, Beginnings.
How many actual books do people read these days? My study wall, which is my backdrop for Zoom calls, is lined with them, but lately I read on my laptop and on my phone more often than I pull a hardback or paperback off the shelf.
Still, I remember that when I was a child, my mother would remind my siblings and me that “Books are our friends” (particularly when we were maltreating them!), and in my adulthood I know that they are.
T.S. Eliot is one of my bookshelf companions, in an edition I bought in 1976, when I was in college. And while I can read Eliot online, it’s the words on the paper pages of this volume that I remember best. Thinking about time, Eliot speculated that
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
He also wrote,
In my beginning is my end.
As I enter what is by any reasonable calculation the final third of my life, I find myself thinking both about my beginning and about my ending, and I am discovering a tightening connection between the two. I am leaving a long-held job and ten years of living in Asia, planning to return to the city of my birth. Ending this life means beginning a new one, full of unknowns; but it will also be full of familiar things, places, and people; echoes of the past. Some are still there; others have gone, but nevertheless still linger. I walk down one street and see my grandmother waving from her window; I walk down another and see myself on the bus, heading to first grade. Home has layers and depth and complexity, memories and possibilities. That is why it’s home.
What will the future look like? “Que será será,” Doris Day used to sing: “The future’s not ours to see.” But we can’t help wondering, imagining, worrying - especially when we are young.
As we grow older, time takes on new meanings. Some of us have more of it, if we leave careers and take on new pursuits, or retire. Yet we also have less of it.
But at my back, I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near,
wrote another poet on my bookshelf, Andrew Marvell. There is less ahead than there is behind. In some ways this is comforting: I know that I’ve gotten through all the transitions of my life so far, so surely I’ll manage this one. In other ways it’s sad, since with fewer days ahead the possibilities are numbered. Fewer seasons, fewer travels, fewer friends and relatives remain. And I wonder what losses are to come, and when, where, and how my own journey will end.
And yet Eliot also wrote, “In my end is my beginning.” As we look ahead, surely there will be much that is new and fresh - insights, friendships, unexpected adventures. And beyond them, I wonder: What lies beyond that door at the end of life?
“The life of a human is like the brief flight of a sparrow through a banqueting hall,” wrote the Venerable Bede, an eighth-century historian and theologian. Sitting inside the hall, we see only the moment when the bird crosses our field of view. We don’t know what its existence was like before it entered, nor what will happen to the bird when it departs - but that doesn’t mean that there is nothing at all.
Steve Jobs’s last words, his sister reported, were “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”
When we leave the banqueting hall, we may enter a limitless void, or an afterlife, or another kind of life here on earth. Or we may merge with the vastness of the universe and sparkle eternally through the continuum of time and space. Whichever it is, something happens next - a new beginning.
Like Jobs, I am so curious to know what comes next - but like St. Augustine, I am not in a hurry to find out. (Augustine famously prayed, “God, give me chastity and continence. But not just yet.”) Will that new existence - or non-existence - be like time past, time present, or time future? Or will the linear chronology that seems to govern our current lives simply evaporate, become meaningless, as we see all of time spread out around us, like a map, delineating the scenes that layer the streets?
No matter how old we are, there are adventures in front of us. We can try to look ahead. We can worry, or not. “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” wrote Dame Julian of Norwich, the fourteenth-century mystic who chose to live most of her life alone in a monastic cell. As we look back and look forward, let’s remember that time as we know it is simply one way of understanding the universe, surely not the only one - and that we have nothing to fear.
Peter Lewis Allen (www.allenstrategies.com) is a business consultant and writer based in Singapore and New York; previous writings include The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present.