In a recent novel, Anita Brookner tells the story of a seventy-something widow named Dorothea May. Dorothea lives by herself in a comfortable flat in London. Materially she wants for little, but emotionally her life is not so rich. As she ages, her circle of friends and influence grows ever smaller. She copes by relying on the familiar, on comfortable routine: She buys a newspaper at the same newsstand each day, eats her lunch in the same restaurant, has her coffee on her terrace at a regular time each day, makes and receives the same phone calls each Sunday, and takes the same walks each week. These rituals, all that regularity, steady her and keep her growing old gracefully, peacefully, and comfortably.
Things change, however, when one summer, to accommodate her sister-in-law who is receiving a number of visitors, Dorothea reluctantly agrees to lodge a young man in her flat for a couple of weeks. The young man, Steve, is bright, gay, and irreverent. Most everything about him is an affront to her and his presence upsets her routine, yet she likes him and he admires her. No real friendship develops, but his presence stirs something in her, making her realize that she has been too long out of the sun.
One night she has a dream that she has died and gone to heaven, but heaven is not exactly what she expected. It is dull, orderly, and seems perpetually overcast, sunless. People are walking around in a large garden, mostly silently, one of them wearing a tweed cap. They are all friendly, non-threatening, and have impeccably good manners.
The whole scene, in her mind, is very English, not unlike Hyde Park on a Sunday afternoon – “It was an English Heaven, framed precisely to satisfy the expectations of those who had grown up in a Welfare state, sparse decent people who wore hats and took healthy walks.” There is no judgement, no punishment, no fear. Everything is comfortable, except in dull light. Heaven is an extension of her present life.
The dream stays with her and haunts her for several days, not with any threat of death, but with the fear of eternity as an extension of her present sunless life. This prospect appears pretty depressing to Dorothea. However the dream also stirs a fire inside her. She senses that this kind of heaven (Heaven as a comfortable, friendly stroll in Hyde Park on a sunless Sunday) is not inevitable. She realizes that heaven need not be an extension of our present lives and it is not in our best interests to let it be.
So she begins to reflect upon certain women, widows, her own age, who, at a certain age, threw convention and comfort to the wind to live different kind of lives, to find the sun again.
Moreover, it wasn’t that these women were endowed with great material riches or opportunities for travel. The opposite: “These people too lived modestly, making do with small rooms, with pensions, having happily divested themselves of most of their worldly goods. They were returning to nature, which was perhaps a lesson worth learning. The revelation – for it was nothing less – was that one did not have to sit down and wait to be transformed. One could, and should, go out to meet nature half way.” (Visitors, Toronto, Doubleday, 1997, p.211)
I am not sure how accurate it is to depict heaven as a Sunday stroll in Hyde Park (though the part about the tweed hat certainly does offer some reassurances about taste and character in the next life) but what is important here is Brookner’s insight about meeting nature half way. What exactly does that mean?
Brookner herself answers this: Dorothea remembers an old woman she had met years ago in Paris. This woman wore shapeless clothes and kept her legs bare. She hung around the same restaurant every day, drinking black coffee and declaring to whoever would listen that she lived in a small cheap apartment, with too many stairs, and that she nearly died of exhaustion each day just climbing those stairs. However, once in her little room, “she had the same view as Diderot had once had.”
Dorothea now remembers that woman in envy, wishing she might somehow be taken under her wing, admitted to the company of such an astute and self-sufficient elder – for whom heaven would obviously not be some sunless extension of aging.
This woman had gone out to meet nature half way. She had given up pretensions, accumulation, possession, seizing things and hoarding them, so as to live again like a child, delighting in the immediate, unashamed to be naked, in a shapeless dress.
Naked we have come into this world and naked we will go out of it. The task of the second-half of life is to begin meet nature half way, namely, to begin to shed things, especially those upon which we have built our security, so as to forsake a certain sunless comfort for a great view from our windows.