It dawned on me the other day that I spend far too much time surrounded by ghosts. The films I love to watch are predominantly full of actors no longer with us. The authors whose books populate my shelves no longer breathe. The people who created the music I listen to are now eternally silent. The hands that made the art I adore are forever still. Even the house I live in is a constant reminder of other, happier days, when everyone I loved lived and their laughter filled the rooms. Slowly melancholia takes over until it fills my soul with its soft incessant murmuring. Time is going by, time is over, time is moving on. And am I? I don’t know.
The prompt for this latest bout of sadness was, funnily enough, the nicest feel-good musical known to mankind, Singin’ in the Rain. I saw the stage show in London's west end recently, and it was so fantastic it tipped me straight back into the film. Although I always delighted in watching Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor dance across the floors (and chairs, tables, off walls), it’s only now, as I have practised more dance myself, that I am thinking all kinds of holy wow at their talent. So I have been dipping into YouTube, watching clips from distant television specials and black and white films, and it’s so un-nerving to go from seeing Donald O’Connor aged ten tap-dancing with his brothers for an audition to – one click! – his last ever performance as an elderly man. One click – he was born! Next click – his obituary. A whole life – boom, bang-a-lang – and then that’s it, folks. Show’s over, and no amount of applause will coax an encore, not this time. Not in this life.
This sort of thing gets me every time – from well-known actors to people glimpsed in social history, from documented famous lives to unknown faces fading in second-hand photographs. I find myself looking at people coming to the end of their twilight years and thinking ‘how was it for you?’, hoping that the answer is good, as our journeys through living time are so relatively quick. One tick, here. Next tick, gone. And the meter keeps running no matter what. Who pays the bill at the end? I guess that stays a secret.
When melancholy gets too heavy I have to step out of the past and surround myself by my contemporaries, by people who breathe. And so I make a point to watch films with actors who see the same sunset as I do, and read books by authors who wake each morning to tackle a new page. I add new tunes to my playlists by musicians currently recording, and go to exhibitions by artists who are alive. Remind myself to look around every so often and see the world as it actually is – right here, right now – not a sepia reproduction but a living place with possibility.
Sometimes I spend so much time looking backwards that I forget about looking forwards. I have to surprise myself, take future-thinking unawares. I’ll make a sneaky plan and then jump ahead a little, and am almost surprised at getting a step closer to my goal. Deep down I really want to look ahead, but layered on top are years of conditioning that tells me to be wary, that unpredictable things are always bad, that if you do that you will fall, that if you take risks you will sink. But I’ve been working very hard to make this conditioning diminish – even if it doesn’t totally leave me, I can make it lesson, take its power away. And keep facing forward.