Jim O'Brien: 'Don't let life pass you by on the last few laps'

Members of Graiguenamanagh Men’s Shed choir: Bill Crean, James Murphy, Maurice Foley, Vincent Doran, Paddy Flood and Christy Bolger
Members of Graiguenamanagh Men’s Shed choir: Bill Crean, James Murphy, Maurice Foley, Vincent Doran, Paddy Flood and Christy Bolger
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

No matter how far we are from our school days, our body clocks seem to follow the academic calendar. I think we are more inclined to look at serious changes to our lives in September than we are in January, the time of year associated with resolutions.

Most of us would admit that the promises we make to ourselves in January have far more to do with fads rather than real change. We take on diets that only last till we get the smell of the first fry, and make vows of sobriety that come apart at the first sight of a creamy pint on a polished counter.

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September is that time of year when change is felt most acutely. I met a man during the week and we chatted as he waited at a gap for his cows to make their way to the paddock. "They are moving much more slowly these days," he explained, "getting heavier in calf every day." It's that time.

I met another who had spent the day drying off cows. The year is moving on; even the blackberries are looking tired. The breeze begins to freshen and you can almost hear the earth yawn as it gets ready to give up the last of its fruitfulness and settle down for the winter.

While this part of the planet prepares itself for the long slumber, its human beings begin to look at what they might do with the longer nights.

Traditionally the winter was used for mending and making, for repairing and rejuvenating. Machines that had just about made it through the sowing, saving and harvesting were taken apart, chairs that wobbled their way through the summer were tightened, leaks were plugged, and crooked gates were straightened.

In these days of disposable everything, the long winter evenings are used for the repair and refurbishment of the mind and even the heart.


The modern menu for doing new things can be rich and varied and include night classes, drama, the local choir, the Men's Shed or even a whole new career.

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But then there is a bigger September for all of us. That September comes our way when gardai begin to look like they should be in school uniforms, government ministers look as if they wouldn't get into a nightclub without an age card and the yoga instructor asks you if are comfortable with a contortion that involves getting down on one knee.

Such a September brings a taking-of-stock that is cosmic, and if you allow yourself to ask the deeper questions, the implications could be seismic. Let me explain. When the list of night classes arrives from the local Education and Training Board, the choices seem simple enough and the questions are relatively straightforward: will I do carpentry, advanced embroidery, digital marketing or classical Greek for beginners?

There was a time when you would say, "sure I'll try this or I might have a go at that" because time itself and effort didn't matter that much - there was plenty of both.

However, choices that involve the use of time bring a certain urgency in the September of life.

I am reminded of ice cream sellers at hurling matches of old: before the game they ambled through the crowd shouting "anyone for an ice cream?" but only attracted a trickle of customers.

However, just before the ball was thrown in for the second half they would quick-step through the rows of eager spectators shouting "the last of the choc-ices" to be nearly smothered in the avalanche of late adopters.

As lifespan's September casts its lengthening shadow, the cogitation on whether it will be digital marketing or classical Greek takes on the urgency of the last few choc-ices.

It is the context that matters, a context coloured by chronological pressure. In other words, with about 20 to 25 years left on the planet, is this what I want to be spending a chunk of that precious time at?

You would imagine the urgency of the final decades should make revolutionaries of the grey brigades the people who ask the ultimate questions, for whom substance is vital, style is ephemeral and time is of the essence.

And yet that cohort remains safe and conservative almost afraid of the freedom the September of life brings.

The ticking of the timepiece forces one to prioritise and it brings with it the freedom do so without having to apologise.

A look at the clock and a glance down the short road to the shadows should convince us to use what time is left to embrace what is worth embracing.

In my days as a tour guide in Italy, every Tuesday was spent in Florence. As part of the tour we visited the Accademia, a gallery that houses sculptural work by Michelangelo. The pride of the collection is his original statue of David, standing proud in its youthful nudity.

On one particular trip the party included a small, frail nun in her 80s. During the visit I found her at the foot of David staring up at him while leaning on her stick.

"Isn't he the most gorgeous specimen of a man you ever laid eyes on?" she said, "not too long ago I would have been told to avert my gaze and practice custody of the eyes, but not anymore. In the time that's left to me I'm going to get the full of my eyes of everything that's worth looking at."

Now, there's a woman who embraced her September.

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