Thursday, 26 January 2012

This much I know; or, oh no, this is much too long.

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.


25 Jan 1 26-01-2012 11-11-59

Grass heads in the mist:

25 Jan 2 26-01-2012 11-12-59

Hedge and mist:

25 Jan 3 26-01-2012 11-15-11

More dew:

25 Jan 4 26-01-2012 11-17-03

Pigeon bravely goes off into the mist:

25 Jan 5 26-01-2012 11-18-28

First shaft of sun:

25 Jan 6 26-01-2012 11-18-45

More brave Pigeon:

25 Jan 7 26-01-2012 11-20-01

Then the light made an extraordinary golden diffusion, as the sun was fighting with the mist:

25 Jan 9 26-01-2012 11-26-50

25 Jan 11 26-01-2012 11-23-57

25 Jan 9 26-01-2012 11-27-38

25 Jan 9 26-01-2012 11-30-20

And suddenly, in the west, there was blue:

25 Jan 9 26-01-2012 11-27-44

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:

25 Jan 10 26-01-2012 11-21-52

25 Jan 11 26-01-2012 11-21-55

25 Jan 12 26-01-2012 11-21-57

25 Jan 13 26-01-2012 11-21-59

25 Jan 14 26-01-2012 11-22-03

25 Jan 15 26-01-2012 11-22-05

25 Jan 16 26-01-2012 11-22-12

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:

25 Jan 18 26-01-2012 11-32-38

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.


  1. So you DO know something after all. Quite a lot actually, and all of it wise and beautifully put. Thank you.

  2. Have not commented before, for the annoying reason of using Chrome which won't let me comment when they are embedded. But this post was so good and so dead on, I had to open IE just so I could tell you. Love, LOVE the part about your Dad and the people "making statements", oh, do I know people like that. And all the rest, just exactly what I feel, but you express it so well. Especially number 4, someday I will again.

    Your photos are always beautiful, but today they are just magical. And I never get tired of the Pigeon photos, they remind me of my Denny, who also loved to chase a stick, but we had to change to a tennis ball after the incident of the stick landing in the snow and jabbing my poor girl in the mouth. Poor thing sat in the house and shivered for hours.

    Sorry, have gone on long enough...

  3. Particularly beautiful photographs today.
    And as for life ... I would add.. do your best... whatever your best is.

    1. Ereiem - oh, YES. I so agree. The doing of one's best is vital.

  4. Jerry - what an absolutely lovely thing to say. Thank you.

    Nancy - So sorry about the comment problem, but SO glad you persevered. I do sometimes worry about the sticks, but we are lucky here to have lots of very, very soft ones, which are almost like sponge, so they are kind on the dear Pigeon's gentle mouth. Do know about the shivering; mine does that too when something is sore. It absolutely kills me.

  5. Pigeon in the mist--the first one--could be the subject of several novels. A wistful, magical, surreal, lost and lonely looking figure.

  6. I never say thank you for your wonderful posts, I am almost in too much admiration for your eloquence to comment. It`s a safe place to come to - the post on introverts was fantastic. I feel sure there are thousands of us out here feeling the same thing. Thank you thank you.

    1. Helen - what a lovely thing to say. Thank YOU.

  7. Another beautiful post - thank you. I so agree, too - I can't have a dog in my small rented flat with my full-time job, but how I long for one for the exact reasons you mention. That's why I do love to read about the Pigeon - I do hope you don't mind but I rather like to think we all share a little of her.

    As for what I know about life, after 20 years of working full-time and listening to more management BS than is good for my human rights, I've worked out one thing. Everything you really need to know about work, you should have learned by the time you're four years old. Please and thank you, not telling tales, treating others the way you'd like to be treated yourself - the list goes on.

    That and the fact there's not much that ever goes wrong in life that chips can't put right. ;-)

    1. Samantha - love the idea of the four years old rule. And am v touched by the idea of the Pigeon share. Perfect.

  8. You've made my day Tania! There is a risk I will gush and fawn but suffice to say I was so chuffed with your post in response that I smiled all evening. The dog thinks I am mad. But even the husband understands as I explained to him that my 'writer blog friend' had done a lovely post in answer to mine. Mucho smiles :-))) Lou x

    1. Lou - HUGE smiles this end too. So glad the husband understands. And I really did love your post. :)

  9. As usual, extremely well put. It is difficult not to 'gush and fawn,' as LouBoo says. And damn year impossible to come up with an addition to the list. You hit the important ones.

    I do so wish I could have a dog, but it wouldn't be fair to the dog, as I live in town in a busy area. However, had a cat once who loved fetching q-tips. There is definitely some truth in the quote 'All of the animals excepting man know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it.'

    Today's photos are unusually breathtaking.

    Thanks again.


    1. Bird - love the animals quote, and the thought of the q-tip cat.

  10. Should have added ~ the greatest thing about getting older is that when you find out you really didn't know as much as you thought you did, you realize there will always be something new to learn. Or in other words, you don't ever have to be bored unless you want to be. ;-)


  11. the leonard cohen proved i was in the right place...

    1. Anon - so glad to find another L Cohen lover.

  12. I haven't read the post yet. Scrolled down to the photographs and had to immediately comment on how wonderful they are. You do live in a very magical place.

    1. Connie - so glad you like the pictures. I do feel very lucky with this place.

  13. There is one thing I know for sure and that is that I always like your photos.

    1. Wrath of Dawn - that is a lovely thing to say; thank you.

  14. Yes to all of the above. I may be more partial to cats in my own home (see "or equivalent"), but I'm still a great fan of The Pigeon. :)

    12. Sometimes, take time to do...nothing, whether you make a point of it, or just allow it. Like a child on a summer day, lying back and looking up at the sky, twiddling a blade of grass, or maybe belly down, with fingers trailing in the water or doodling around in the sand...

    1. Razinah - love the doing nothing idea, esp since you bring in all the elements. I feel better just reading it.

  15. What a lovely post!! And not at all too long - just perfect in fact.
    I would like to add to the list, and this is a lesson that I have had drummed in to me over and over and over again in the past three years:

    Do it yourself, and don't expect anyone else to do it for you... ever forward under your own steam.

    The "It" that I am referring to can literally be applied in any way, and to anything. In my case, it is raising a child on the other side of the world from my family, with no support from anyone that is on the same side of the pond as me. I have learnt that I have to rely on myself and myself only - I take care of what I need to - I do it myself. When I do get help, it is a lovely surprise and not an expectation. I have found that my backbone is much stronger for this, which I don't think is a bad thing at all!!

  16. Justine - very kind comment. And love the do it yourself idea. It's brilliant psychology, because, as you say, instead of blaming people for not helping, you are just delighted if they should choose to do so. Perfect.

  17. Yes. I belive in working hard and being kind. I don't want to reach the top by pulling others down.

    I still don't know what I know. But I do know that kindness is so important - including being kind to yourself.

    Something that sticks with me from confirmation classes is "You can't start loving your neighbour as you love yourself if you don't love yourself". I'm not always good at living it though.

    A new one I have though is - stop thinking about how you will do it. Just do it. A very Nike sentiment but one that is getting me through - my version of "say the thing" and "do the thing".

    1. Siobhan - I think the just do it thing is exactly right. :)

  18. I LOVE LOVE LOVE Leonard Cohen! (Got to see him in October, 2008, in concert in Brussels. Nearly three hours, almost non-stop and he skipped off the stage.) "Hallelujah" is one of my favorites.
    Right now I'm singing -- er, shouting along with the Foo Fighters lovely Dave Grohl on "Walk" (..."I'm learning to walk again..."). My current anthem.

    PS If you scroll down quickly enough, the Pigeon sequence is almost like an animation. Fun!

    1. Pat - so envious you saw L Cohen live. He does not appear to come to Scotland. :( But so pleased about the animated Pigeon. So sweet.

  19. Pavlov's Cat27 January 2012 at 18:32

    "I no longer think I may change the world."

    I think you probably already have in a few ways. And every time I read your blog my world changes a little bit in a positive way.

  20. Pavlov - what an incredibly lovely thing to say. Thank you.

  21. Yes, yes and yes! The older I get, the more I think that kindness is one of the most important things. I also find myself increasingly obsessed with good manners and a favourite expression of outrage is "HOW RUDE!" which can be used both seriously and in half-jest to make a point; it's very versatile :-)

    I think the thing I've come to know over the past year is "You are braver than you think". For all the times that I am really, utterly sure that I can't do something, or won't get over something, mostly I somehow just... do. And that is very comforting in and of itself.

    And of course when it really IS all too much, there are the lovely pictures of Pigeon and hill.


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