Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Right. Today, it’s life.
Only joking. Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could actually do the whole of life in one post? What I really mean is: today, it’s – This much I know. The lovely Lou at Lou, Boos and Shoes did a life lessons blog today, and it inspired me so much that I started scratching my mind to see what I did know. As I spoke to my dear old friend The Expat the day before yesterday, her voice glimmering down a thin line from the west coast of California, I said: ‘My number one sentence at the moment is: I don’t know.’
‘I know nothing,’ she said, with a dying fall.
‘I know nothing,’ I shouted.
I thought for a minute. ‘One of those old Chinese fellows, possibly Confucius, said that the wise man is the man who admits he knows nothing.’ I paused. ‘Probably applies to the ladies too.’
‘Well,’ said The Expat. ‘That must mean we are damn wise.’
It’s the paradox of middle age. You get to the stage when you are supposed to know something, because you’ve had experience, you’ve lived some life, you have lost and loved and failed and won; you have grieved and triumphed; you have counted them in and counted them out. You are staring down the barrel at forty-five (four days to go), and you look up, into the singing blue sky, and you think: I know nothing. Don’t ask me what it’s all about, Alfie, because I do not know. And that’s the truth.
Yet, I do know something. I’m not nearly as sure of the things I do know as I was when I was in my twenties and I was armoured in sureness. I wore certainty like a Dolce coat. I swished about town in it, as if I would live forever. I actually apologised to someone the other day, who knew me well in those days. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I really must have been maddening, with all that pontificating.’
He smiled, with grace. ‘That’s quite all right,’ he said. He is a countryman; he can do more things with a young horse than anyone I ever met. He knows all about the follies of youth. (Also, he has been known to pontificate a bit himself.)
The difference is that the things I know are quite small things now. I no longer think I may change the world. The known things are hesitant things. They are subject to amendment. I use the words perhaps and maybe more than I used to.
My old dad used to smile a lot about the certain people; he would describe them as going about ‘making statements’. He had a special way of phrasing it which sounded ironical and slightly indulgent and a little bit surprised. Every time he talked about someone making statements we would all laugh.
You see that even now, when I have decided to do a little life lesson post, I have had to do a great deal of what my friend The Man of Letters calls throat-clearing first. Even now, I lack sureness.
But, for what it is worth, here is what I know:
1. Love and trees. Those are the most important things. When I say this, The Younger Brother roars with laughter, since he is the one who is supposed to be a hippie, not me. I do think, though, you can’t go far wrong with love and trees.
2. I have been saying this ever since I read it in A Passage to India (which I actually did read on a train in India, from Bombay to Cochin): kindness, kindness and yet more kindness. That EM Forster, with his two cheers for democracy and his choice of friend over country, he did know a thing or two.
3. Related to kindness, a lovely annexe to it, and something I think more and more important as I get older, are good manners. I know this sounds hysterically old-fashioned. But the social contract is a fragile thing; it must be stitched together daily. Please and thank you are tiny matters, when the world is so crazed and unpredictable, but I do think they make a disproportionate difference.
4. In this matter, Lou and I are as one: get a dog. Get a dog, get a dog. Most specifically, get a dog which knows how to retrieve. This morning, on our walk, The Pigeon and I had ten minutes of sheer, raging pleasure, which just involved her, me, and an old stick. It cost nothing. You don’t need fancy toys from the pet shop. If your dog knows how to chase something and bring it back, you can be made happy by a stick covered in lichen. This feels profoundly symbolic, in a rushing consumer age.
Of course, not everyone will want a dog. It is not practical for every person. So I add: or equivalent. By which I mean: something which you can love without hindrance or condition or restraint, and will love you right back.
Humans are marvellous, but they are complicated. They have moods. You can’t just hurl yourself on them and kiss their noses; they sometimes do not like that. A domestic animal, on the other hand, will take all the physical affection you can give it, at any moment of day or night.
5. Cooking is an act of love. I know sometimes it feels like a chore, a relentless daily challenge to get all the food groups represented. But feeding those you love, with love, is an act of the heart. Although there are nights when you just have to say: bugger the love, I’m sending out for Chinese.
6. And talking of love: I think the definition sometimes gets blurred. I think love is action, not just feeling. Any old person can get the sentimental swoon in the heart, the twist in the stomach. Any fool can buy roses. Love is doing. It is when you hear a tearful voice on the end of the telephone, and you don’t ask any questions, you just get in the car and go. Its test is in the hard times. It’s easy to be fond and lovely when everything is going well, when you are in the low, even ground. It is what you do when the road is rocky that counts.
7. I like that line at the beginning of The Great Gatsby, which goes something like: when you are tempted to criticise anyone, remember that all the people in the world have not had the advantages you have had. I should go and look it up, to get it exact, but there is no time. It is an excellent sentiment, though.
8. A rider to that one is: the importance of empathy. Empathy has rather a soppy, blah sound now, it has been so over-used by the therapeutic community. In its true meaning, it has a muscular, human quality: the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It can be hard, a stretch of the imagination. It goes back to love and manners: it is an act of humanity and politeness.
9. Read books.
10. Be specific. I always say this to my writing students in the workshop I give each summer. It’s a fine rule for writing; I suspect it is not a bad one for life.
11. Do not forget the power of song. I missed my father so much this morning I could hardly breathe. Then I found myself in the kitchen singing at the top of my voice. (It is very, very lucky that I live alone.) The louder I sang, the better I felt, as if all the demons were coming out. Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke, I thought, as I tried and failed to hit the top note.
I think there is some actual scientific, peer-reviewed evidence about the psychological and physiological advantage of belting out a show tune. In my subjective, anecdotal experience, it just helps, especially on a dark day.
The song to which I was singing, in case you are interested, was Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen. Len has been with me since I was seven years old, and The Brother made me listen to Songs of Love and Hate. He’s been with me through every single heartbreak since. If I were only slightly more flaky than I actually am, I might put, in my rules for life: take a Leonard Cohen album with you wherever you go. You are never alone with Len.
I’m sure there are a few more, but the other thing I know is that one should try not to bang on. I have a fatal tendency for prolixity. So I am going to stop now. I’m not sure if any of this has made any sense, but I liked thinking about it. I think: now over to the Dear Readers. They will have some life wisdom. Then we can pool the lot and it will turn out we did know something after all.
Pictures of the day.
It was very misty when I went out this morning, and I watched the day turn from white to blue. It was quite magical.
Grass heads in the mist:
Hedge and mist:
Pigeon bravely goes off into the mist:
First shaft of sun:
More brave Pigeon:
Then the light made an extraordinary golden diffusion, as the sun was fighting with the mist:
And suddenly, in the west, there was blue:
Special Pigeon and stick photo essay now. Non-dog people may move swiftly on. After the actual throwing and catching of the stick, she likes to demolish the thing, just to show it who is boss:
Despite the blue in the west, when I got back to my front door, the place where the hill usually is was just whiteness, with the merest trace of tree:
I just went back to Lou's blog, to get the link, and read it again. I thought: oh, hers is all lovely and short and true and like a haiku. It has a poetry to it. And mine is all rambly and filled with tangent. I must must must return to pith.
Then I thought: but no, that's the point. That's why one goes to different blogs, to find different voices. Imagine if everyone approached a thing in the same way. The dullness. And that really is my story, and I really am sticking to it.