by Harry Leslie Smith
When I was a lad, a Traveller read my palm at a fairground near our doss in Bradford. From a mouth of broken teeth, she lisped my fate and said I would see the wonders of the world and be showered with good fortune, but that I had to be brave and always accept wherever the winds of fate blew me. Her pronouncement sent shivers of anticipation down my six-year-old spine.
Yet it wasn’t until my retirement that I had the time or the resources to fulfil some of the dreams and ambitions that had fuelled my imagination and kept me sane during my working life. So I was thrilled to read about Doris Long – nicknamed Daring Doris – who at 101 broke her own record for being the world’s oldest abseiler. Her feat of extreme rappelling, descending 94m down the Spinnaker tower in Portsmouth on Sunday, reminded me that the spirit of adventure, of discovery and the need to defy death are innate in all of us regardless of our age.
In my case, I made those new moments of leisure an opportunity to try new things, such as travelling to developing countries in Latin America or trying and failing to use a potter’s wheel. But it wasn’t until my wife died in 1999 that I remembered what I had learned in my youth during the second world war: our existence is finite. I found comfort in the fact that both my wife and I followed a maxim set by wise Romans a long time ago, to seize the day. In grief from her passing, carpe diem became my motto and it compelled me to not only discover new activities like tai chi but also explore my emotional and intellectual life through writing books and essays about my early life.
My approaching mortality was probably also a major factor in why I became an activist against austerity. I didn’t want my experiences or that of so many from my generation to become irrelevant. So like many other people in their golden years throughout history who wanted to make a difference or take a stand, I became a writer, a public speaker and to a certain degree a rebel.
For me it has been both a spiritual odyssey and a physical one because in the last two years I have spoken all across the country and I’m currently on a coast-to-coast speaking tour of Canada. At times my wanderings in pursuit of a more equal society have made me feel like an ancient explorer, because writing these books and essays and giving these talks around the country have tested my physical as well as emotional stamina.
But I have prevailed and it has strengthened my spirit and made me more appreciative of the struggle of others. Last year when I addressed the Labour party conference and spoke about my youth when our country didn’t have an NHS and the poor in Britain died in miserable conditions, I felt liberated for the first time in my life from the burden and responsibility of having survived the Great Depression and the war.
As we move into our senior years, our lives and priorities change. The responsibilities of mid-life dissipate but that shouldn’t mean one withdraws from society. Taking up a cause, whether it is the environment, animal protection, economic concerns or undertaking the adventures of travel or sport will enhance the lives of seniors and also improve our communities. When Paul Freedman undertook and completed the London Marathon at the age of 90, he showed that the human spirit cannot be defeated by time or circumstances.
In many ways my own travels have kept me healthy because I feel I have a purpose – and every one of us regardless of our age needs to feel wanted by our society. But to accomplish that we have to have faith in ourselves and must dismiss the prejudices of this media age that portrays aging and the elderly in a negative light. The road I have taken in old age may not be for everyone but I know that as we age each one of us must set out on our own path of discovery. I know that death will in the next few years catch hold of me but before he comes I want to keep the fires of existence burning bright in my heart. I find it in the company of my family, my friends and also by fighting for social justice for those who will be here on this earth long after I am gone.
All of us have a fixed time on this planet, so we should make the most of it. We must make sure that while we dance to the music of time we are like Ulysses in Tennyson’s poem, and always seek to strive and never to yield and ensure we drink our lives to the lees.
(source: the guardian)