We should have been galloping on horses, their hoof prints
Splashes of light, divots kicked out of the darkness,
Or hauling up lobster pots in a wake of sparks. Where
Were the otters and seals? Were the dolphins on fire?
Yes, we should have been doing more with our lives.
That is a poem by Michael Longley. I found it in a book called Staying Alive : real poems for unreal lives which is edited by the poet Neil Astley. It's handily divided into sections that loosely cover life stages or the type of life hurdles we may come across, a bit like a bible for the secular age. This particular poem is in the section entitled Disappearing acts.
I turned to that section because on Monday I attended the funeral of my uncle Ian. He died suddenly a fortnight ago. I didn't see him very often, at the odd family event, and the last time was over a year ago at my cousin Glenn's party. He was married to my aunt T, my mother's sister and was a regular part of my life as I was growing up. My mother's family were all very close and were apt to throw parties and organise 'dances' at the drop of a hat. Uncle Ian was a musician, he played in several bands as a young man, and was the DJ at my wedding. I won't miss him every day but I will notice his absence at family get togethers for years to come. And, of course, I grieve for my aunt and three cousins who will really miss him. He and my aunt were married for forty five years, that's a long time to get used to having someone around.
The reason I chose the poem is that it totally does not apply to uncle Ian. He is not a man who could have done any more with his life. He was Burmese and campaigned tirelessly for Burma, raising money and awareness. He played badminton several times a week and continued to play guitar and DJ at charity events. He also picked his ten year old grandson up from school several times a week, taking him home and giving him his supper so his mother could work as mothers need to these days. Whenever I saw him I was amazed at his energy.
It's easy to be convinced by images in the media that we don't do enough. That we should be growing all our own organic vegetables; exploring foreign cultures whilst at the same time keeping our carbon footprints low; swimming with dolphins; fishing for marlin off the Caribbean; climbing mountains; camping with friends whilst dressed in Cath Kidston; turning our attics into beautiful live-work spaces; becoming familiar with the works of Fellini and Jean Luc Goddard, or Shakespeare, Keats, Yates, Donne... And then feel inadequate. Not uncle Ian, he knew what to do and did it. He didn't let snobby 'oughts' distract him. At least that's what I like to believe. So this poem seemed appropriate. Uncle Ian didn't need to haul up lobster pots while being photographed by the latest digital technology for validation. Which isn't to say he wouldn't have been interested in your efforts and would happily have sat through a showing of anyone's holiday snaps. And at family parties he was often to be seen with a camera hanging from his neck.
I used to love going to uncle Ian and aunty T's house. They were such cheery hosts and the food was always plentiful and fantastic. And there was always music. My mother played slide guitar and uncle Ian played all sorts of instruments, several aunts sang my mother included, and there would always be an impromptu jamming session. And dancing. At some point the dancing would begin and become more and more raucous. They were definitely movement people, always moving, always doing. I have grown up to be a quiet, stationery sort. I sit and think and write and, occasionally, talk. But I love to dance and I'm sure I inherited that from my mother's family. A family that uncle Ian embraced and became a major part of. His house always open to all of us.
Here's another poem from the same section of the same book. It's called Inside Our Dreams and is by Jeanne Willis:
Where do people go to when they die?
Somewhere down below or in the sky?
'I can't be sure,' said Grandad, 'but it seems
They simply set up home inside our dreams.'