the veil is thin

It’s solidly midwinter here in Canberra — the Solstice is next Friday, in fact. The air is crisp and clean, and a few stubborn leaves still cling to the ends of branches, making me think of fall. I remember vividly the smell of leaf mold from when I was a kid, as I tromped around on Hallowe’en, trick-or-treating. It was a smell which meant certain breathing difficulties for me, frequent visits to the emergency room being stuck with syringes of adrenaline, but there’s something comforting about it all the same. Is it just because it’s a familiar whiff of a more secure time of life, when breathing was the most important thing I had to worry about?

This is the time of year when, as a friend of mine likes to put it, “the veil is thin” — the spirits of our ancestors drift among us, and we can almost hear their whispers in our ears. Whatever one may believe about ancestral spirits, the short hours of sun and hours spent staring into flickering flames do turn one’s thoughts inwards.

I remain busy, but not quite at full operating capacity. Part of it, I can tell, is simply mind-body stuff — I haven’t been as active as I’d like, nor eating as many vegetables as I should, and drinking too much coffee. This broken ankle seems to drag behind me with promises of delayed athletic gratification, like an albatross stuck on the end of my leg that I can’t allow to touch the ground. There’s less sunlight than in the summer, and there’s been even less than that over the past week, socked in and raining day after day without much pause. Today is the first day of real sun we’ve had in the last five or six, and the clear blue sky means it’s going to be even colder tonight.

Part of it is bigger than that. There’s a diffuse anxiety that sets in periodically, about whether I have spent each minute I see slip through my fingers as well as I could have. It’s the same diffuse anxiety which periodically reminds us that we are carbon-based beings, that we are our bodies which in turn are frail and disposable, that the whispers of spirits in our ears are a poetic conceit (although they’d never put it that way). It’s as if each moment I go through is my first, and I wonder how I got to where I am, or what happened to the ‘I’ of yesterday. It has an almost dissociative quality. I’m not a sentimental sort, anymore, at least not in public, that is, unless fluffy ducklings are concerned. (Or bunnies. Or kittens. But not puppies or babies.) However, it is easy enough to go through the motions of life without really being present. I’m having that feeling now — as I have many times before — indeed, for which I’m well-known, among people who know me well.

There is much to be satisfied with in my life. I’m not about to quit my awesome job, leave my lovely partner, sell all my belongings and/or move to Tibet to seek meaning, though I know there are plenty out there my age who do just that. But all of us, I believe, could do occasionally with enough space pushed out from beneath the constant pressure of urgent, trivial things, to make sure we’re really there underneath it all and mean what we’re doing. Not getting that space is where mid-life crises come from, not all of which come complete with a 1970 Pontiac Firebird.

I’m headed out now to take a hobble around the duck pond. When I come back, who knows what I’ll do?


About Richard

I'm an American scientist who is building a new life in Australia. This space will contain words about science and math, but also philosophy, policy, literature, my travels, occasional rants, all sorts of things I find strange and awesome. The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my employer at the time (currently University of Sydney), though personally, I think they should.
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