Sometimes my world feels very small. Sometimes I’m focusing so intently on a minute problem, a tiny fixation, that I forget to look beyond it. Sometimes I close my mind without realising it. And then I’m stuck. I forget all that came before it. I can’t see any way around it and I can’t imagine what could come after it. Do you do that? I don’t suppose for one minute that I’m alone in sweating the small stuff.
When we watch TV or go to the movies or listen to the radio, mostly we see our little corner of the world reflected back at us. We learn to worry about the things that everyone else in our society is worrying about. Just in case that isn’t enough worrying, we also learn to worry about what world superpowers might be doing or not doing. And even if you don’t watch the TV news or read the paper anymore, it’s hard to escape the zeitgeist. Why do we let ourselves be swept along by the doomsayers? Why do we lose our sense of wonder? Why do we get stuck in the mundane?
At high school we studied the poem Ulysses, by Tennyson. Particular lines from that poem struck a chord with me then. I wanted to travel, “to sail beyond the sunset”, so when I was old enough that’s what I did. I wanted new experiences, to “drink life to the lees”, so I sought them out. By the time I was in my mid-thirties, my favourite section of the poem was this:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
There was always more to see, I thought, more to learn, and that was exciting and filled me with anticipation.
Then midlife arrived and somehow the horizon got smaller. The brain filled up with administrivia. Money got tighter. Years got shorter and time got faster. I got so focused on the everyday that I forgot about all the incredible things I’d seen and heard and learned and experienced in the decades before. I began to see only a version of myself. I put myself in a box and labelled it.
I thought wistfully of things I used to be good at. I thought often of things I’d still like to see and experience and learn, but I decided they’d have to wait. I started saying to myself, “When I’ve got money/time/energy I’ll do X. Maybe when I’m retired I’ll be able to do Y.” I found myself listening to the doomsayers. But I wasn’t very happy. I started to think, “Is this all there is?” and gradually, like so many people around me, I began to slide into midlife malaise.
Luckily, a tiny part of my brain was still awake enough to see what was happening and take action. I had to remind myself to look after my health, to make the time to cook proper meals and to exercise. Before bed every night I made myself write down three things from the day that I was thankful for. I was so cynical about doing that at first, but I’m still doing it. Some days it’s hard to find three things because I’ve allowed myself to get stuck in the small stuff again. But on other days I could write pages.
I started saying yes to things I might previously have said no to (because no time, no money, no energy et cetera). And that’s how, last weekend, I ended up at the National Gallery of Australia watching a film that, in just 30 minutes, restored my sense of wonder and excitement and downright amazement at the world we live in and the lives people lead.
Before last weekend, the words “video art” made me roll my eyes. I guess I’ve seen a lot of bad art. But Angelica Mesiti’s film The Calling, which shows different but connected images on three screens at once, was a feast for the eyes, the ears and the soul. In this beautiful film we watched people in the Canary Islands, Turkey and Greece talk to each other across mountainous countryside by whistling. Did you know there are places in the world that use whistling languages—actual languages, made up of syllables? I didn’t.
Sitting with my friend, both of us entranced as we watched this film, I realised I’d done it again: allowed my world to get too small. I’d got too caught up in the problems of the everyday. I’d allowed myself to be influenced by the doomsayers and I’d put limits on myself, on my life, that didn’t need to be there. I’d forgotten about all the wonder that’s out there.
I went home with a renewed sense of possibility, and I went back to Ulysses, to re-read it and see what it said to me at this age. Here’s what I found: “Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”
That doesn’t have to mean changing everything and running off somewhere else, although for some people that might be the answer. To me, it’s a reminder to see everything with fresh eyes, especially the everyday stuff that can weigh you down. And the poem, like the beautiful, inspiring film at the art gallery, reminded me to maintain the wonder, to follow ideas and dreams, no matter the obstacles:
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.