The limits of your longing

Caroline's Flowers blog

Caroline’s Bouquet (21 cms x 29.7 cms pastel on Rembrandt pastel paper 2017)

Last week I heard and read two contrasting attitudes to growing older.

First was an interview with the late Roger Moore’s publisher, Michael O’Mara, talking about a book that the actor had delivered shortly before his death. It was a “humorous meditation on old age”, O’Mara explained, and he read a passage in which Moore goes into a coffee shop and works himself up into a lather because all he wants is a simple black coffee.

Secondly, on the Quaker educationalist and writer’s Facebook page, Parker J Palmer reproduced a poem by Rilke which “urges us to live life to the fullest, fearing no danger and ‘flaring up like flame’.”

“Go to the limits of your longing,” Rilke writes, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror./ Just keep going. No feeling is final…Nearby is the country they call life…Give me your hand.”

There’s so much going on in those lines. Essentially, though, the poem urges an engagement, as Palmer says, “to take life-giving risks as opportunity arises”.

For those of us in middle age engaged in creative activity – this is a blog about drawing and painting so I’m afraid all trains will stop at this station – the lessons here are clear. Let’s look again at the Japanese master, Hokusai: both his wives and two of his children predeceased him, he was struck by lightning, suffered a stroke in his 60s which required him to relearn his art, he had scarcely any food when he produced his masterwork Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, and five years before his death a studio fire destroyed all his work. Hokusai lived until he was 89. His last words were “If heaven will afford me five more years of life then I’ll manage to become a true artist.”

So what’s it to be? Pushing on to the “limits of your longing”, feeling your life crackling with “beauty and terror”, forever striving to become “a true artist”, or standing in your beige slacks in Cafe Nero ranting about the names of the coffee?

This week’s image celebrates my dear friend and colleague, Caroline Palmer (no relation to Parker J), who, after 25 years as an editor of medieval history and literature books, is having her achievement honoured by some of the academics she’s published over this time. One sent her a lavish bouquet of flowers of irresistable colour combinations and tonal qualities, which she kindly allowed me to babysit over this holiday weekend. As a woman and an editor very much in her prime, no doubt she’ll continue to publish young scholars and established academics for many years to come. I wish her more beauty than terror along the way.

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33 thoughts on “The limits of your longing

  1. A very thoughtful post and a lovely drawing as usual. I’m already ranting about the names of coffee but haven’t resorted to wearing beige yet. I will try and follow Rilke from now on.

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  2. Fantastic meditation, Michael. I particular like “If heaven will afford me five more years of life then I’ll manage to become a true artist.” That speaks so soundly about keeping moving. Thanks for this.

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  3. I think I’ll do alternate days between Moore and Rilke, live life to its fullest and narrowest. There’s a teenager down our road called ‘Beige’, have we missed something?

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    • Well that’s an challenging idea but it might be like having two minds in one body! Interesting name, Beige. It somehow reminds me of the lines from the song Appetite by Prefab Sprout: ‘She wishes she could call him “heartache”/ But it’s not a boy’s name.’

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  4. I think we just become more of what we already are. In my mind I’m 25, even if my body hasn’t taken the hint. And I definitely contain both the complainer and the maker. (K)

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  5. Thank you for the quotes and anecdotes on aging. I too have complained about the difficulty of ordering just a plain cup of coffee, and I’ve also lived my life reaching toward the “limits of my longing” in trying to live life to the fullest. Hokusai’s life story is an inspiration for us all. We never reach our limits, we only reach toward them, and keep on doing so for as long as life allows.

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  6. Wonderful post Michael, thank you. I like Rilke’s idea of embracing it all including the terror. We’d all like to just experience the good times, but having had a recent brush with a lethal disease continues to teach me that all of life is worth living to the hilt. All of it. I also really liked the Hokusai story. Great post, and lovely pastel with that grain of the pastel paper giving texture.

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    • Thank you so much, Sarah. I’m so pleased that you’ve weathered your own particular storm. I’ve experienced two deaths and a parting of the ways and can still see the joy in life, largely through the love of friends and the thrill of creativity. I’m pleased you like the pastel – I’m slowly moving towards a more abstract approach!

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  7. Beautiful drawings and beautiful words Michael , I need to remind myself of those words
    Every morning before I start my day, it’s so easy to get dragged down by the mundanities of the daily grind, maybe tattoo them on the inside of my eyelids!

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  8. Lovely image! And such a great post, Michael! I definitely think I end up with a bit of crackling terror the way I jump into things. But I really do love that idea of “life-giving risks” … it’s so incredibly true. No better way to live!

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  9. What a gorgeous pastel. I can see so much of the development you have been working on in this. Your abstractions are really becoming increasingly authentic. This post is so hopeful and uplifting to me (I’m clearly not arguing about coffee) and such a lovely tribute to your friend.

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  10. Food for both thought and for the eyes – thank you Michael. Have you been down to the new Brit Mus Hokusai exhibition? I went last weekend and thought it was fantastic… πŸ™‚

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      • Actually, we went on a Friday, and it was fine. Although we had to queue initially outside the BM, we bought tickets in person first thing in the morning, so when we returned to the BM later in the day, we jumped to the front of the bag-check, as they fast-track pre-purchased tickets. We booked for 5.30pm and although the exhibition was busy, I thought they were managing the influx pretty well. There was definitely no feeling of being rushed through. Just a note: they don’t release same-day tickets online, so if you haven’t pre-booked you need to do so when you arrive at the BM (which is what we did). I hope you do manage to get to see it. πŸ™‚

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  11. This is such a lovely post, Michael. The painting as well as the tribute to your friend and the background notes. I read Parker Palmer almost every week and Rilke is a favorite of this poet. At 61 I try to embrace the reality of my impermanence but I am also so grateful to have been able to retire early and practice my art, both linguistic and visual. I always look forward to your posts.

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    • Thank you so much, LuAnne. The painting was something of a small breakthrough for me because I was creating it for someone, rather than just as an exercise. You certainly are lucky to be able to make your time your own, but I suspect you created that “luck” yourself! You certainly seem, to me, to embody what PJP and Rilke are saying here.

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  12. I like in particular the lower background and the shape of the vase.
    Lovely drawing! I really do love that idea of β€œ…can still see the joy in life, largely through … the thrill of creativity.” … it’s so true.

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