Yesterday there were two Calendar anniversaries on my phone and my tablet. They came up automatically, as they always do. And they will do so next year, and every year, as they will if one uses an electronic calendar. The odd thing is that these are not anniversaries that have anything directly to do with myself, and certainly not my life as Lucy Melford.
One reminds me that on 12 September 1994 - twenty years ago - M---'s husband died in hospital. He was only fifty-two. I got to know him in the last two years of his life, as he battled with emphysema, when the oxygen bottle was his constant companion. I thought him astonishingly brave and philosophical in the face of encroaching death. A model of patience and fortitude in fact, when lesser men would have fallen to pieces. He did not. He struggled into work, on oxygen, until he could do it no longer. He struggled to build up the minimum number of days necessary to give his widow-to-be a sufficient pension (he had switched from teaching to a less demanding career late in life). He didn't quite achieve his aim. But in every way he commanded respect, and my Calendar entry is, if you like, a small salute to a fine man's memory.
M--- did more than just remember the day he died. This is the other annual event recorded still in my Calendar. At noon on every 12th September, wherever we happened to be, she would choose a quiet place where she could read out passages from her own religious and philosophical books as an annual act of remembrance, dedicated to her late husband. Sometimes this would actually be at his graveside. But we were often away on holiday, and so she would then read for him at some spot away from passers-by, into the wind. Just her and her husband, for I would retire to a distance, and probably go for an hour's walk. In 1996, for instance, she stood way out on the beach at The Mumbles, near Swansea. In 2008, the last time I witnessed her engaged in these readings, it was at his graveside in Crawley. I feel sure (even though I can't possibly know) that yesterday she would have read to him, wherever she was.
M--- had long ago embraced the Baha'i faith, and took it seriously. For a summary of its origins and principles, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bah%C3%A1'%C3%AD_Faith. She was drawn to it because it seemed to her eminently reasonable and direct, and capable of evolving with humanity's progressive growth towards fuller enlightenment. It seemed to her full of wisdom. But although appreciative of M---'s faith, which enjoined her to live an exemplary life, her husband was not a Baha'i.
And nor was I. I'm not the kind of person who ever adopts any official system of belief, and I've become ever more resistant to living by someone else's rules. I think beauty, wisdom and good actions are possible without adherence to any creed. I can't dismiss the possibility of something beyond and above human consciousness and understanding, but my gut feeling is against the idea of an entity, power or force that has a distinct personality. So the individual that Christians and others (Baha'is also) call God is in my view unlikely to exist.
In my only exposition on such matters (in a post in September 2010) I said this:
I used to say I was an atheist. But nowadays I'm not happy with that. It seems too dogmatic. How can I claim to be so certain that there is no supernatural agency at all? On the other hand, the notion of entities like humans but of godlike stature, understanding and capability seems mistaken. It seems like the kind of limited thing a human being would imagine. If a supernatural agency exists, then my personal belief is that it would have no physical form and be quite unrecognisable. And it would be non-personal: this entity would not be a person like ourselves, and would not be 'aware' of individual human beings. We could not speak to it in English or whatever. So prayers, incantations and spells would be utterly ineffective. We could not invoke it, nor would it intervene. But it would influence our lives. Not our fortunes, though: it wouldn't make us richer or save us from harm. It would shape our development and growth, like breathing the right gas would, or being subject to the right gravity. Yes, it would drive evolution. I don't think that calling it 'the collective forces of Nature' really describes what I'm getting at, but such a phrase seems to mean something, and allows some mental grip on this vague and slippery notion.
Nothing has occurred since 2010 to make me change this 'collective forces of Nature' idea.
There's no formal system of belief in my world-view, no principles to keep to. I actually like not having to follow pre-determined lines of action. I like to think for myself what's best, what's just, what will lead to the happiest consequence. By not being bound, I'm free to do the thing that most suits the requirements of the moment. And I can still do the noble, quixotic or irrational thing. Indeed, no matter what I do, no divine praise or punishment will come.
But if I consciously do the wrong thing, the mean thing, the thing that shames me as a human being, then I do know it. Everything is on my personal responsibility. I can't plead that 'God (or the Devil) made me do it'. The act was my own; the result all of my own making and mine to deal with. Something badly done requires sincere confession and apology. Something done well justifies self-congratulation. In either case, there is a lesson to be learned, so that bit by bit one improves.
And I do think I have improved as a person in recent years, when I have been able to live my life as seems most natural to me. I regard this as at least some evidence that high personal standards of personal behaviour, and the showing of kindness, empathy and consideration towards other people, can come simply from personal resolutions and inclinations, unsupported by religion in any form.
You can probably see that M---'s spiritual ideas and my own were a very long way apart. One was formal, with definite guidelines; the other was undefined, without rules of any sort. That didn't prevent us both having, in our different ways, the capacity to be decent persons.
And I did not think that M--- was wasting her time when standing on some headland, or out on a beach, and reading from her books of Baha'i prayers and the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh. It seemed to me that she was reaching out to her dead husband, taken so early by a cruel disease, and offering his spirit, wherever it was, the reassurance that he was cherished and not forgotten. How could one not encourage and support such a thing?
I have to say also that whatever the Baha'i teachings were on partners that discover they are transsexual, they did not give M--- the right answer, nor even the ability to cope. That does not invalidate the religion, but it failed M--- when stormy seas were washing her world away and she needed a rock to cling to. I hope she did not suffer a double loss - not merely me, but her faith as well.