Letter from An Unnamed English Village

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

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“A dear friend of mine, a Southern woman long expatriated to England, sent me the following letter, and I would like to share it, anonymously, with a larger readership . . . for its poignancy and precision. For its perfection in this time of woe. My friend would cast a wan eye on those alliterative descriptors, by the way.”—Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

By Way of Being

By Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

Thatched Cottage, Aynho, Northamptonshire. (Photo: AJTooth.)

Thatched Cottage, Aynho, Northamptonshire.
(Photo: AJTooth.)

2019 Boleman-Herring Weekly Hubris

Editor’s Note: A dear friend of mine, a woman from the Deep South long expatriated to England, sent me the following letter, and I would like to share it, anonymously, with a larger readership . . . for its poignancy and precision. For its perfection, in this time of woe. (My friend would cast a wan eye on those alliterative descriptors, by the way.)

SOMEWHERE IN RURAL ENGLAND—(Weekly Hubris)—1 May 2020—Dear Elizabeth,

I’ve titled this piece “Shored Against My Ruins,” and I would prefer that you not publish it under my name. This is not going to be about the virus. It’s not going to be about death or sickness or economic collapse or poverty or plague or social apocalypse. I’m tired of reading about all this, sick of hearing about it, and I have nothing to add to what every journalist and real or would-be writer has already said. Instead, it’s a letter from middle age, which just happens to coincide with all those things. 

Limbo. Dante saw it as the first circle of Hell, where good guys who’d had the misfortune of dying before Jesus, or not realizing the error of their ways, hung out for eternity. Cicero, Orpheus, Averroes. Or the Buddhist bardo, where you wait for your next incarnation. Yes, that’s it—a bardo. A place where your image of yourself and other people’s perceptions of you don’t coincide. Limbo.  

I don’t believe people age in any regular, year-by-year way. Rather, they age in leaps that are prompted by some quotidian or cataclysmic event. I arrived in the UK when I was 32 and, for years after, I was 32 in my own mind. It never occurred to me as the years passed that people around me were seeing a 38-year-old, or a 42-year-old. Then, when I was 44, I spent my first summer digging at Pompeii, supervising a group of students. I realized at some point during that season that I could be those teenagers’ parents—and suddenly I aged. One night I fell asleep in my tent a 32-year-old, and woke up a 44-year-old. It took some getting used to, an extended period of feeling neither one thing nor the other. Limbo. I stayed 44 for a long time. Despite turning 60 and suddenly not having to pay for London tube travel or prescriptions anymore, deep inside I was still 44.  

The last couple of months have aged me. I’m suddenly aware that I’m not 44 anymore. To those I meet, I’m 62. It will take me a while to get used to this, I know from experience. And then I’ll be 62 until something happens in my 70s or 80s to catapult me into real old age.

Maybe the problem is being locked down here in a village, rather than in London. Three months ago, I was going into an office every day like the responsible taxpayer I was, spending my days doing a stressful job, surrounded by colleagues I knew could be my children or even grandchildren, but feeling like 44. Here, apart from the life I built in London and a bit like the emperor’s new clothes, I’m suddenly aware that others have been seeing a me that I didn’t realize I was revealing. 

A friend wrote, in reference to the Netflix series “The Crown,” 

Princess Alice says, “One of the few joys of being as old as we both are is that it’s not our problem. There came a moment . . . when it dawned on me I was no longer a participant, rather a spectator . . . then it’s just a matter of waiting and not getting in the way.’

I’ve gone from being a participant to a spectator, and I don’t like it. I’m suddenly aware that people look at me and see someone on the downward slope of life, whereas I’d been full of new plans, full of goals and experiments, with all the time in the world. You see? In my mind, I’m still 44. But, over the last month or so, I’ve become aware of the limitations of my age. I’m still convinced I’m dressed in imperial finery, but I’m also aware that my spectators are seeing something else. 

Limbo. That’s what it’s like when you undergo a shift in age, and to be classified as middle-aged at this moment is deadly—at least in the eyes of others. Does any of this sound familiar? It takes a while to resolve itself. It’s not about getting older. It’s about the disconnect between how I perceive myself and how I’m perceived. 

The other thing that’s been occupying my thoughts over the last two months is perspective. I’ve been reading books that take the long view, including Transcendence, by Gaia Vince, and Origins, by Lewis Dartnell. The subtitle of the first is How Humans Evolved through Fire, Language, Beauty and Time; and, of the second, How the Earth Shaped Human History. In both books, the authors—a science journalist and a geologist—describe eons in which events occurred that were, for the most part, imperceptible to people except in the long term, looking back, and yet had profound effects on who we are.

Vince explains that “In primates, mutual grooming releases endorphins, natural opiates, so encouraging more social behavior because it feels good. A neural circuitry in which social contact is ‘rewarded’ with an oxytocin or dopamine hit means that we evolved to seek out group activities. And social rejection physically hurts—it elicits the same responses in the brain as physical pain.”

And did you know that if plate tectonics hadn’t produced a magma plume beneath East Africa, over millennia drying it out and turning lush forest into arid savannah, we might never have needed to migrate out of Africa or adapt to the different conditions that spurred the development of tool use, language, and social cooperation, and made us susceptible to easy contagion? 

It’s comforting to see one’s nanosecond of a life in the context of geological time, or even in the shorter period of hominid evolution. It makes every second precious, while putting the things of one’s life into perspective. My desperate need to get a man with a hedge trimmer out here to deal with an overgrown yew, or to have a semi-functioning oven replaced, have become simultaneously exquisite experiences and completely, utterly meaningless. I don’t mean to belittle anyone’s situation, you know that—but when you put a hiatus in the rebuilding of a garage or the cancellation of a trip to Denver in the context of an entire life, their importance is immediately reduced. Put them in the context of half a million years of human evolution, or half a billion years of geological transformation, and they become even less important. And yet at the same time the experience, every second of it, is precious. 

You may snort and say, That’s all very well, but I’m living in this moment and I can’t get coffee, and you’d be justifiably annoyed. But taking the long view, you can experience this extraordinary time for all its frustrating, frightening, priceless moments, and still see that it’s less than an instant, and it will pass, and change will continue. 

That’s what I’ve been thinking about for the last few weeks, as I care for tomato seedlings and water potatoes and onions that will produce fruit, tubers and bulbs to feed us over next winter. I go for long walks and see not just the planted fields, but the glaciers that scraped back the land during the Younger Dryas, and, before that, the shallow seas that deposited the trilobite fossils in our garden. And I don’t worry so much about whether we’ll make it to Bhutan in September, nor do I dwell on what life will be like once these days are past. Every precious moment. 

To order Elizabeth Boleman-Herring’s memoir and/or her erotic novel, click on the book covers below:

Elizabeth Boleman, Greek Unorthdox: Bande a Part & a Farewell to Ikaros

Elizabeth Boleman Herring, The Visitors’ Book (or Silva Rerum): An Erotic Fable

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

About Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, Publishing-Editor of Weekly Hubris, considers herself an Outsider Artist (of Ink). The most recent of her 15-odd books is The Visitors’ Book (or Silva Rerum): An Erotic Fable, now available in a smoking third edition, on Kindle. Thirty years an academic, she has also worked steadily as a founding-editor of journals, magazines, and newspapers in her two homelands, Greece and America. Three other hats Boleman-Herring has at times worn are those of a Traditional Usui Reiki Master, an Iyengar-Style Yoga teacher, a HuffPost columnist and, as “Bebe Herring,” a jazz lyricist for the likes of Thelonious Monk, Kenny Dorham, and Bill Evans. (Her online Greek travel guide is still accessible at www.GreeceTraveler.com, and her memoir, Greek Unorthodox: Bande a Part & A Farewell To Ikaros, is available through www.GreeceInPrint.com.) Boleman-Herring makes her home (along with jazz trumpeter, Dean Pratt, leader of the eponymous Dean Pratt Big Band), in her beloved Up-Country South Carolina, the state Pat Conroy opined was “too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.” (Author Photos by Robin White.)
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4 Responses to Letter from An Unnamed English Village

  1. Avatar Will says:

    “Anonymous” – this is a remarkably perceptive and clarifying reflection, one immediately understood by many of us, and timely, too, as great numbers of us find reflection part of daily routine now. Seclusion provides the time for reflection, age, the perspective for ascribing significance to one’s thoughts. These are both gifts, as you point out, however astonished we may be to receive them. Thank you for this lovely missive.

  2. Avatar Jerry Zimmerman says:

    Dear Unnamed Author…Yes, I know from whence you speak! And you speak beautifully and with wisdom, the wisdom that comes from, well, age!
    I have been teaching a martial art for over thirty years and have a very close connection with my adult students and the adult parents of our kid and teen students. Sharing the love of this art and teaching and training with everyone, I have enjoyed the deep pleasure of being in a real peer community. It was only fairly recently that I had the astounding realization that many of these people were younger than my children! One’s biological age suddenly shows up in one’s consciousness as an exclamation point to an era. As far as aging, the shock of my apparent age has been more than balanced by the gift of peace that the longer view affords us suddenly older people.

  3. Elizabeth Boleman-Herring Elizabeth Boleman-Herring says:

    Dear Will and Jerry, I’ve forwarded your love and admiration on to the north of England, and my friend, who really IS “in seclusion.” But she’s gratified. Touched. And I shall persist in my efforts to have her write under her own banner.

  4. Avatar Diana says:

    What a beautiful letter. Besides the consolations you yourself have already discovered and told us about, I offer two more superficial ideas. One, 30 or 40 years ago, 62 would have been considered old not middle aged, and two, read Diana Athill, Somewhere near the End, which she wrote at 89 and still had eleven years to live. In it she describes all sorts of pleasures in being older, things one can actually look forward to. As always, providing one is healthy. Meanwhile, enjoy the garden.

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