I think I was about fourteen when I first heard Peggy Lee sing that song.
Is That All There Is? she asked and I experienced a profound melancholy. God didn’t visit our house, I was brought up by a lapsed catholic and an agnostic and while there were many lively and thought-provoking conversations, there was no sense of faith or belief. I don’t regret that. I’m a full-blown atheist now. I was then, really. I refused to kneel or close my eyes during prayers at school assemblies or when forced to go to church because I felt the whole idea of religion to be a nonsense. I was a very opinionated child. I was also a very sad child.
Looking at the world around me, I saw life as a long, hard road of endless travail. From the secret alcoholic next door with her bottles of cider hidden in a shopping basket, to the posh, elderly woman around the corner caring for a husband who’d been afflicted in middle age by an illness that left him prone to wandering around the village in his underwear with a dazed and confused expression on his face. No one had it easy. Wherever you were and wherever you were from, the only variable was the degree of difficulty. I knew all this at fourteen and when I heard Peggy lamenting that she might as well just keep dancing, I became depressed. She was confirming my world view and not contradicting it. You are born, you marry, you breed, then you die. I felt trapped. Claustrophobic. Rudderless.
I’m very fond of that song these days. It’s lost none of its meaning for me but I have become more philosophical about life – or have I? Wandering the countryside with my dog, watching the cycle of life and death turn through the seasons, I’m OK with the idea that one day I’ll be dust like the summer-scorched grass or the car-flattened badger. I don’t think my spirit will wander or ascend to some higher realm but my dust will always exist. I once heard Professor Brian Cox say that all our precious metals, here on earth, originated from the heart of a dying star. Everything that is will become something else. That is the miracle of our universe, I believe. But what of life? What about the ordinariness of every day existence? I plod through life, struggling, grafting and getting by. I still have ambition but a lot of time has got behind me, the future is shorter than it was and hope has become tarnished by reality. Am I really more philosophical or simply more inclined to shrug and sing along with Peggy?
Sandwiched as I am between the shiny-faced excitement of my teenage niece and her friends and the watered-down compromises of my age group, I look from one to the other and wish it wasn’t so. With or without a god in your heart, life is bloody hard work. A friend of mine is an evangelist christian whose only topic of conversation is God. She firmly believes that if I accepted the Lord Jesus into my heart, I would be happier. Life would have meaning. My soul would be saved. This comes from, probably, the unhappiest, least fulfilled woman I know. God may move in mysterious ways but, crikey, he’s taken this poor creature all round the houses and back again and she still doesn’t know if she’s coming or going. It will be OK though because she’s going to Heaven. That’s the pay-off isn’t it? Life is a bitch but there’s always the afterlife …
I haven’t written this post with any idea of knocking religion, or sneering at people’s beliefs. I only mention it because I want to preclude anyone from telling me that it would all make sense if I just believed. No it wouldn’t. Life is life is life and it is tough whether you believe that there is a purpose to it and a reward at the end of it, or you don’t. I don’t.
Two days ago, my sister, St Francis and I delivered a small second-hand couch to a friend that St F has known for years. They worked together back in the days when they were both young, free and single. When the light that I see in my niece shone in their faces. Now St F is a single mum and her pal is a weekend dad living in a tiny bedsit in the city. Both are grey-faced with fatigue and clench-jawed with the stress of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Of solving problems for themselves and their kids, of hiding their fear and frustration.
‘I love you, mate,’ St F said as she hugged her friend goodbye.
‘I love you too,’ he replied holding her close.
Standing off to the side, I watched as he put his head on St F’s shoulder and closed his eyes. In that moment I saw the utter misery in his face as he drew strength from my sister’s embrace. Then, they drew apart and he was the kind, funny, decent guy we know and love again.
And in the back of my head, Peggy Lee sang, Is That All There Is? Is That ALL There Is?