As the contraction years draw up on you, do you feel less inclined to engage in meaningless everyday gossip, the stuff that many still apparently find absorbing and deserving of repetition such as: the weather, the latest shopping victories, a recent tv soap disaster or new tv quiz?

Or do you feel a growing mellowness, content now to withhold spontaneous, social repartee with an inner world-weary acknowledgement that it matters little any more (if it ever did), or indeed, all of what you used to take for granted as being a 'normal' part of everyday life is no longer so?

Do you find yourself observing more than you did in the past, as though you are growing a new consciousness that involves unlearning most of that which is generally accepted as social 'knowing'?

I was well down that track, much further down... when Sophia came to stay one summer. But, then Sophia was sharper than most, truthful too, and still untainted by too much 'learning'. 


It will come as no great surprise to you that the older you get, the more time you seem to have. The rush of the growth years is replaced in the contraction years by the wisdom that rushing gets you nowhere. In the contraction years you deliberately take more time over doing things, not merely because you can, rather because it is more enjoyable and rewarding, even if it is all the more a result of aching bones. Aches and pains notwithstanding, you know that if a job is worth doing, then it’s worth doing well. And if you don’t want to do it well then you shouldn’t do it at all. I’m not saying that you should just avoid the things you dislike – and there are some that you can - but you can put them off until you feel less disinclined to do them. In the contraction years, you do – largely – at least have an element of choice and should have learned how to do things better than when you were younger. If you are close to, or are already in the descending years and you find what I have described above is not your case, then you’ve got something wrong and you should read on. If you find it is the case, then read on anyway – it may be bring the odd wry smile as you undertake this little journey.

Because you have the time, the contraction years are also a period of reflection. In one such reflective musing one day I asked myself the question: would I live my life in the same way if I had my time over again? My musing did not take me down the route of fantasy choices such as intrepid explorer, pioneering astronaut or multinational business tycoon. It wasn’t that sort of reflection. Instead I lingered on those personal foibles or prejudices that have always been at the back of my mind, but now, in the slowing down years, they have come strongly to the fore. Let me give a few examples:

  • I always wondered why very few people listen to what others say, as though they hear with ears tuned into a different wavelength. Different, or just their own?
  • I questioned why people needed to know what I did for a living. Of course they needed to label me, so that I could be classified away, never bothering nor wishing to find out if there was anything deeper than the temporary superficiality that seemed to satisfy them. Another example is the question: What do you do for a living? I’m retired. Retirement is a condition. It doesn’t address what you do or who you are.
  • I stumbled back to Descartes’ I think therefore I am, and wondered if that was all there was to it, is that all we are – a bundle of disparate, borrowed and fleeting thoughts? Let’s face it, it’s our thoughts that drive most of us half-crazy. How about I don’t think therefore I’m not? I suppose there could be some truth in that. Perhaps a modern alternative to Descartes’ dictum should be: I shop therefore I am.
  • I reflected on a buzzword of my earlier years: multi-tasking. My own definition: setting yourself up for as many mistakes as possible in the shortest possible time.
  • Most of the people I had known were consumed with the hope that tomorrow would be better than today, and, of course, tomorrow never comes. Others were more concerned with changing the past to remove their worries or guilt.
  • As you grow older you do get more out of being in the present, knowing you can’t change the past and the future will be what you make it, or let it be.
  • It was always a mysterious imponderable to understand how some learning turned into belief and other learning turned to disbelief. During my later years, a lot of my earlier learning fell by the wayside to be replaced by my own truth.

And then I was keen to know what was happening at the other end of the spectrum. How do children deal with these questions? They certainly were not on any discussion agenda when I was young but they were all too present in my confusion.

I had been wondering how I was going to entertain my 11-year-old granddaughter, Sophia, during the summer holidays. She has startling blue eyes that look straight into you and an easy calmness about her which is unusual in one so young. She is sharp in her intellect, has a remarkable intelligence for her age, shows no fear, just respect, and yet bears none of the conceit that the young can so easily adopt. She has a genuine and ingenuous smile, especially when the freckles all over her elfin face seem to come alive with joy. She has long curly, mahogany hair and she listens to my stories. She calls me papa Bob – her name for me which she made up for herself. And I love it.

The day she arrived I asked her if she would help with my memoirs – the term I had decided to call these musings or reflections. Well, perhaps it amounted to more than just a little help. But her infectious grin gave me all the response I wanted. And so the dialogues began, Sophia an interested and willing participant. When I was telling Sophia what was on my mind, she asked me what I was going to call these memoirs. I had to think. What were they about? They were about what people did or didn’t do, about what they thought or didn’t think, about the way they behaved or didn’t behave; in fact they were about the way people are, or are not. All that seemed a bit complicated so then I just decided to call them the Sophia Dialogues.

As I waited for Sophia to arrive, a number of reflections passed through my mind. I marvelled at her maturity and her lack of pretence and subterfuge while not adopting an ounce of arrogance that so many of the young used to portray. I recalled her ability to entertain the subtleties of nuance, her use of vocabulary while undertaking complex conversations. Most of all I hoped she would always retain her wonderful ability to give of herself without a trace of knowing that she was giving. And then I wondered if she would be up to the project that I had planned for us, or was it a step too far for one so able but still so young? Don’t hold back, I said to myself; better to have tried and failed - and easy to backtrack – than not to have tried at all.

I finally convinced myself that, all in all, the moment was more right than wrong when I heard a knock on the door.