It’s the end of the year. For myself, this also means that soon another year of my life will come to a close. In a few weeks, I hope to reach the significant age of twenty-eight years.
It’s the ideal moment for friends and family to tease me with relentless jokes about the increase of my life-span. As though ageing were avertible, and I simply failed in staying young.
Every year, they congratulate me sincerely, but secretly can’t wait to start bullying innocently; ‘Ha, almost thirty, grandpa!’, ‘Say, are those grey hairs?’ But some take it to an earnest level and still expect a sensible answer; ‘So how does it feel to be kind of old?’
As a consequence, the cheerfulness connected to birthdays might now be circumscribed with a rather cheerless edge. Just another year older. A year further away from my highly praised youth.
Fundamental to these rather arbitrary jokes, lies the more serious implication that ageing after roughly the age of twenty-five is equal to downright regression. Although birthdays are genuinely a celebration, they are inasmuch as likely to become shrouded under a layer of sadness. With each consecutive year onwards, the birthday celebration is experienced more and more as a burden. An unwanted formality to be avoided when possible.
Over the years, birthday parties consist majorly out of mocking and teasing the defenceless birthday boy or girl. Adherents sharply point out the unpleasant aspects of ageing, using a dark sense of humour. Which may though, on itself, be quite harmless and even disarming; ‘How’s the retirement home application going?’
But amidst all the comicality, people forget to celebrate something valuable: the survival of another year of existence. Surrounded by true hazards, a life full of realistic dangers, which uninterruptedly threaten our vulnerable and humble human existence. Misfortune is lurking around every corner.
There are plenty of reminders that disaster can strike at will. Frequently, we are confronted with news reports saying that a contagious epidemic had nearly wiped out an entire village. That a merciless tsunami had taken the lives of hundreds or perhaps thousands of people. Or, that an unlucky young fellow died, after a brook fell on his head while cycling. And way too often, news travels to us about the incurable illness of someone we know.
Considering these gritty statistics, I perceive it to be rather miraculous to soon have survived almost three decades on this planet. Twenty-eight years. Many of us weren’t that fortunate.
We had walked half the city to ultimately arrive at one of Sofia’s most prominent buildings; a grand orthodox church. Upon witnessing the mighty structure, my respiration stifled slightly. Its tremendous golden roof caught our attention at once. The surroundings consisted of a newly asphalted large parking lot, so we needed to criss cross through an abundance of cars before finally reaching the entrance.
Shortly after entering, we sat down on a wooden bench and sighed. For some time, we witnessed the ongoing rituals until I got drawn into some sort of reverie. Of a sudden and without being fully aware of it, the following phrase escaped my mouth;
“I’m feeling nostalgia for times in which I never lived.”
The comment awoke a curious look in my girlfriend’s eyes. She instantly nodded in an understanding way, confirming the recognizability of my remark. Somehow or another, it made sense. I desperately wanted to be, even for just a day, living in the times that this church reflects.
Untraceably, this thought surfaced somewhere in my consciousness, coming from the unknown depths of my psyche. Precisely at the moment when the main priest went around the hall to spread around incense smoke, I felt an abundance of unexplainable melancholy, hence the need to inform my girlfriend. I suspect it was the scent which triggered it.
Either way, it was just a matter of time before such melancholy would strike me, as lately I find myself drawn more and more towards ancient places. In particular old churches and cathedrals, regardless of the religious stream they might embody. Whenever the door is ajar, I aim to slip inside and enjoy its tranquility and order. For me as being not officially religious, such places are beginning to fulfill a more transcending role against modern difficulties. It’s most certain that the value of old churches is not restricted to merely tourists or the religious.
Imposing environments like these feel growingly like a safe haven, a sanctuary as it were. A place with a low pace. The origin of this feeling seemed disguised and hidden deeply in an ancestral past. It presented itself in a fierce longing for the centuries far before I was introduced to this world. As if I were accidentally born in the wrong times.
From the wooden bench, we observe the authentic, magnificent columns and impressively decorated ceilings. We witness the simplicity of a priest taking his time to light candles for the remembered and the forgotten, while the low soothing voices of a male chorus echo gently throughout the hall. Visitors, on the other hand, remain silent. Distracting gadgets are seen only sporadically. Every visitor, tourist or local, appears to be well aware of the unspoken commandment in such places and respect them.
Altogether, the patient and attentive atmosphere infatuated a strong desire for an unknown but desirable past. One beyond the recordings of my memories. It all reminds me of a life I would probably never live. Anyway, it would be sheer impossible during my brief but already stressful and competitive existence. Surely it’s something I (and maybe others) lack of nowadays.
The serene ambience of these places exposes painfully precise what we have been neglecting in modern societies. Retreats in this form have become a rarity, but are ironically needed more than ever. Over the years, spirituality, calmness and moralism became increasingly replaced by overconsumption and demoralisation.
Simultaneously, the warmth and inclusiveness that might have existed in the centuries prior to ours, had vanished over the years. Caught up in the obsession of economic development, we have left behind a valuable past and have forgotten some of its advantages along the way. We have simply thrown away the baby with the bathwater. Luckily, some old churches and cathedrals have withstood the test of time, to show us it wasn’t always like this. In the weakly lit halls of ancient churches, the neverending fixation on work and consumption is outweighed by human kindness and patience.
In this sense, priests and clerics fulfil an essential role. They demonstrate to us the necessary attitude when it comes to downshifting from a fast and chaotic towards calm and orderly mindset. For instance, taking the time to light two-hundred candles in remembrance of the dead, is a lengthy ritual. Nonetheless it is likely to be one out of few daily tasks to be fulfilled by this holy man. The devotion given to merely one task simply doesn’t merge with the contemporary lifestyle anymore. In contrast to these disciplined priests, our daily tasks have multiplied endlessly, but the devotion (or possibility) to finish them has weakened.
Today, numerous social contacts are expected to be maintained, next to functioning flexibly and eagerly at work. Essential life aspects have been transferred to the online world. But this is a world without clear limits and borders. And most of all, an unstoppable world that constrains time and pushes it far beyond the limits of our mental and physical abilities. Eventually, this unframed way of living is often halted by what we call a burn out. Likewise, spirituality and devotion have lessened, as they became subject to the hastiness of our time consuming society.
It might, from this perspective, be pleasant to daydream of the times we have missed out on. Even if the picture is not quite accurate in our fantasies. Old buildings like a cathedral appeared the ideal practising grounds to do so. To deprive yourself from technological gadgets and step into a hall of calmness, dreamily depicting the lives of people before highly developed technology. When spirituality was more apparent. Times when sorrows were diminished by prayers and philosophy instead of prescribing pills. When the world’s population was far under a billion, while borders and bureaucracy were absent for the most part. Things were yet a little more undetermined.
Amidst the chaotic and unorderly world of today, old and dusty churches can make you feel serene, and offer solace. Yet, castles or other ancient places might provoke similar mental refreshment. I hope that these sanctuaries of existential guidance will withhold far into our doubtful future. For everyone. Not as a beacon of religious divide, but as a modest hideaway from our evermore accelerating society.
Babushka Lidia is a woman of extraordinary strength. At the imposing age of eighty-two, she lives a physically intense life in a wooden cottage, some twenty kilometers away from the closest city. Apart from the occasional resupply by family, she is largely self sufficient. Whenever I’m residing temporarily in Russia, a visit to this admirable woman guarantees to become a highlight. This piece of writing is a devotion to her and many other brave elderly.
With three delicate kisses on the cheeks and a tight yet gentle hug, Babushka Lidia ensured me a pleasant farewell. It meant saying an indefinite goodbye to a very remarkable person. After reassuring her of our return, I tumbled down the small stairs and found myself in the characteristic living room. Its low ceiling (confirmed by a fierce headache) and squeaking floor supplied me with a last warm, cozy embrace.
As we walked across the yard towards the adjoining dirt road, Lidia peeked out of the window once more, with a soothing smile. A glance of reconciliation. Upon embarking the car, we waved back and set off. Within moments, Lidia was out of view. And so was her tiny, two floor cottage. Or, as it is called in Russia; her Datcha. The weakly illuminated window of it, reduced swiftly into a modest dot in the darkness.
Just a stroll away from this fairy tale place, lies a dense forest full of tall pine trees. Pointy treetops outline the horizon. This captivating panorama reaches out far into the distance. The house is encircled by a stretch of cultivated land, wherein Lidia grows potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, paprika, cucumbers, zucchini and so on. Often, her skillful and persistent way of farming leads to a surplus of food. She then calls out for family to pick up some of her harvest. For us back in the city, her insurmountable production levels generally lead to another week of zucchini and potatoes for dinner.
Every summer, Lidia can be found here, shovelling land and practicing other kinds of complicated agricultural labour (of which I don’t possess the slightest knowledge). All the desperate attempts of family to re-establish her into her city apartment were unsuccessful. Only in the relentless Russian winter, when snow and ice begin to obstruct the farming, she relocates reluctantly to the city, just to return the very next spring.
Lidia was a child during WWII. And in her turbulent youth, she fell into the hands of the Germans and was banished to a labour camp. And so were her sisters and parents. She had told us that at times, there were not much more than a few crumbs of bread to eat. This bitter epoch of scarcity lasted until far after wartime. Oftentimes, she was expected to overcome about twenty kilometers on foot towards the nearest settlement, in order to obtain a negligible amount of groceries. If any groceries at all.
On the worst of days, she returned home empty handed. Besides, the journey was not without hazards, as it crossed dense forests covered in snow, inhabited by bears and wolves. And if that is not enough, the temperatures during those risky ventures dropped regularly to far below zero. Additionally it’s worth mentioning that her shoes, if you could call them so, were made of plain cardboard.
In the subsequent decades of her life, she worked, as many women did during soviet times, in an enormous plant. As chief of the factory kitchen, she had thousands of hungry labourer’s mouths to feed. Perhaps it’s a plausible explanation for her superb farming productivity nowadays. Over ten years ago, she lost her beloved husband. They had been married for over fifty years. Lidia has been grieving ever since.
To this day, she misses him undiminished. In speech and ritually, she pays homage to him. More recently, Lidia had suffered from a variety of cardiovascular problems, for which she underwent multiple surgeries. And the list of alike intriguing life events continues endlessly. Nevertheless, it couldn’t withhold her from residing in the cottage once again, irrigating plants and shovelling land with a fulfilled smile on her face.
When trying to understand her life’s narrative, the significance of it becomes evident. She overcame miseries, nearly incomprehensible for youngsters like me. During a pleasantly melancholic conversation with her, it struck me that, as I looked into her dark green eyes, I was looking into a bittersweet past. Lidia had felt and seen anything that induces anyone with loads of anxiety.
During the lengthy talk with her, I promptly realized something peculiar. The curious eyes I was making contact with, stood once face to face with German camp wardens. Next to this, intense surgeries, grieving over the dead, thirty years of working in a factory, starvation and numerous other sorts of dismay bashed upon her life. To the same extent however, she had felt affection and tenderness. Either from a loving family, children or a good husband. Henceforth, her family’s astonishing solicitude still keeps her warm in times of distress, like a thick blanket during the harshest Russian winters.
Considering this, I reckon that being in Lidia’s proximity offered me some sort of immunity against any problem, even though I’m nearly twice as tall and still have my teeth. Her carefree expression made me feel safe from harm. Her impregnable wisdom and persistence instilled me with loads of consolation. Without a doubt, I felt protected by this eighty-two-year-old woman.
It felt as if her eventful past reduces the anxiety about the uncertainties of my future. There will be difficulties, tragedies, grief and the occasional headache. But to a similar extent, moments of beauty, growth and love will present themselves. What matters is that you perceive life’s inevitable stages with gratitude. And later on, like Lidia, with a healthy dose of melancholy. Preferably when harvesting potatoes from the meadows, accompanied by an unconcerned but wise smile on your face.
Lidia’s contentment contradicts profoundly with the busy lives some contemporary people chase. Millennials, for example, need to do skydiving, visit the Bahamas, do an Arctic expedition, climb the career ladder before there’s no more time. Or visit all the countries in the world, and simultaneously maintain a glorious love life. All before the interlude of life’s final phase. It’s likely that these ambitions are born out of pure fear for mortality, rather than unfolding from a genuine, congruent desire to accomplish them.
Some want to complete this list of accomplishments before it’s all over. ‘You only live once’ is a popular philosophy, which is, of course, undeniably true. You do live only once. Nonetheless it contains a counterproductive element. Its definition emphasizes unwittingly the things we haven’t done or experienced in our brief existence, rather than cherishing and gratifying life’s tests we’ve gone through already.
In an ironical way, it’s chiefly the elderly people like Lidia, who appear the most serene with the idea of our imminent mortality. For they are already soberly familiar with life’s misfortune and its sorrows. Lidia and many other elderly prove that it’s important to grow old solving life’s phases in an accepting way. Not full of envy or regret about the things we haven’t done or achieved, but content with the suffering and grateful for any granted moments of sublimity.
There is another, more mind-broadening aspect to be learned from Lidia’s story. It’s quite often discussed theoretically by existentialists such as Viktor Frankl and Irvin Yalom. And more fundamentally by philosophers like Søren Kierkegaard, whose ideas are now anything but outdated. In the finely inverted words of Kierkegaard:
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards
These thinkers underline the correlation between depression and the fear of getting older. This is undoubtedly connected to nowadays obsessive emphasis on youthfulness in Western countries. But also to the aforementioned ‘you only live once’ construction, which actually implies ‘you’re only young once’. Our juvenile time is seen as the worthiest part of life, wherein people are at their best, only to thereafter descend into a long, boring epoch of old age. This alleged long stretch of regression, leaves no room for further development.
In spite of this, talking to Lidia made me envy her calmness and wisdom. Though ambiguously, it denuded my abundance of fear for the unpredictable future too. She has the advantage of being familiar with life’s unavoidable difficulties, while I as a young adult, still need to find ways to transcend them. Harsh lessons are awaiting me. But Lidia’s glance from the small window and her bittersweet stories all instilled me with resilience towards the unforeseeable future.