Author’s note: I got carried away with this one. It is long, baggy and tangential. The point gets lost somewhere in the sixth paragraph, and is never retrieved. But if you are willing to bash on, and dig with a spoon, there are some moments of loveliness.
I was thinking, this morning, about taking the good bits and leaving the rest. I like to pretend I know all about human complexity and the flaws and frailties flesh is heir to. I can get a bit swanky about how I do not put people into boxes. But still, I sometimes get pulled into the quicksand of the single label. This person is good, that one is bad; this one is a dullard, this one is quite coruscating; this one is a melancholic, that one is a sunny optimist.
The fact is that humans can be all these things, on the very same day. We are all on a veering, curving spectrum. (And you know how rarely I use the Universal We. But in this case I think it is called for.)
I was reminded the other day of something a wise person said to me. Or perhaps I mean a wise thing a person said. It was: ‘it is easy to behave well when you are happy.’ Often if someone is mean or unfair or sharp, it has nothing to do with you. I am always in danger of taking things personally, and off goes the three act drama, with me as the operatic star. Usually, in these cases, it is nothing to do with me and everything to do with the other person. They are wrangling with existential angst, or fretting about a beloved, or have suddenly lost their moments of glad grace. They don’t necessarily mean to, but they may take it out on the person nearest to them.
My old dad, whom I miss every day, was a man of labyrinthine complexity. He was adored throughout the racing world. He was the sweetest and funniest and most charming and eccentric gentleman. He could light up a room just by walking into it, even though he did not stride in like a colossus, but shuffled through the door with his shoulders hunched from all the operations he had to stop them falling out of their sockets in a tight finish, and his back slightly bent from the times he broke it. He would twinkle his eyes through his great spectacles and somehow everyone would feel better.
On a horse, he was brave as a lion. But he was also fabulously irresponsible, occasionally unreliable, and very, very naughty. He drank too much and gambled too much and chased far too many women. He loved his children but never particularly felt that he should do anything for us. In way, this was very liberating. There was no burden of expectation. He never told us how to live our lives, or read us lectures. I think I sometimes did wish for a regular, respectable dad, but in the end I realised that what I got was much, much better. He taught me the best lesson I ever learnt, by simple example. That is: to judge people exactly as you find them, not through the prism of class or money or colour or creed or sexuality. If someone could make my dad laugh, he did not give a bugger what car they drove or what school they went to.
Now, as I remember him and carry him with me, I leave the bad parts and contemplate only the good.
I was thinking particularly of him because a rather astounding thing happened a few days ago. A cousin of mine became a colonel. As I do my work with HorseBack, I always think: well, I know horses, but I don’t know the services. That is the new part which I am mapping. I don’t come from a military family, I tell people. Yet, all the time, there was this brave fighting relation, doing tours in Afghan, and now, being promoted to a rank which makes me take my hat off. The first thing I wrote, to the cousin and his sister, when I heard the news, was how much the auld fella would have laughed. It’s true. I am in awe and wonder, incredibly impressed by such dizzy heights. A colonel in the Household Cavalry is a mountain top which I can hardly imagine. But Dad would have roared with laughter. He would have been proud, of course, but he would have found it inexpressibly comical that someone in his family would do such a grown-up job. (He did his own national service in a cavalry regiment, joining the Hussars I am perfectly certain in the expectation that he could pitch up with his horse. I think he got a bit of a shock when he arrived at Salisbury Plain to find only tanks.) The lovely cousin and his proud sister wrote back to say that they were raising a glass to the old man.
So many good parts, I think. Who cares about the less good. Emphasise the positive, I think, and eliminate the negative and latch onto the affirmative and don’t mess with Mr In-Between.
People are always going to behave in ways that one might not choose. They may think thoughts that one would prefer they did not think. They will not always react in the hoped-for manner. They may baffle and confound. But I start to think that if you search for the good parts, the rest won’t matter so much.
The red mare is, in the magical part of my mind, the exception to the rule and perfect in every way. Of course this is not in fact true. She has her grouches and her small moments of stubbornness and her grumpy mornings. There are very few humans I secretly believe close to perfect, but one of them is my friend The World Traveller, who lives up the road and is my relation by marriage. This morning, she came to ride the mare for the first time. She is a tremendous horsewoman, but has been too busy bringing up four small children to think of things equine. I suddenly decided, on a whim: I have this great horse, and the WT is a great rider, and I am going to bring them together.
It was quite frightening, sending Red off into the unknown. What if disaster struck? What if my profound faith in this mighty mare is misplaced?
I need not have worried. Back they both came, after a morning out in the fields, wreathed in smiles. The World Traveller (given her blog name because she once rode across half of Asia on horses and camels) is not, of course, perfect. She has told me of her flaws, although I never quite believe her. But she is one of the sunniest, kindest, most generous-hearted people I know, and being able to put her up on my equally big-hearted mare made me happier than I can say.
This blog did have a serious point when I started it. I think it was about complexity. Now, as I wander towards the end, I realise that I have galloped off on my usual tangents, and I have absolutely no idea what it was that was so important I had to write it down for you.
Perhaps it was a rumination on my daily fight against perfection, against black and white, against false expectations, against cramming people into boxes.
I am galvanised and filled with energy today. After the World Traveller got off the red mare, I got on, and went out riding with a friend who had arrived unexpectedly on his Quarter Horse. Red got rather excited about the arrival of a handsome gelding on the property and flirted with him shamelessly, sticking out her nose and fluttering her eyelashes.
Away in the fields, she suddenly realised she had a fit horse, on its toes, to run against. My dozy old donkey remembered her racing past. I felt the competitive spirit rushing through her. All right, I said, you can go if you want. I gave her her head. And then she recalled that she was a dowager duchess, and settled back to her stately canter as the other fella tore off up the hill, and we rolled along on a loose rein, with me laughing my head off. Red’s loveliness is so intense that a smile is not enough; the joy comes out of me in great whoops of hilarity.
It was another of our greatest rides. There were the hills, open before us; there was the clean Scottish air on our faces. Under me, was a horse who is all kindness and generosity and sweetness. She could have been infected by the high spirits of the new equine who had pitched up in her territory. She could have pulled and pranced and forgotten herself. She could have charged off into the blue horizon. Even the best schooled horse can do this in such a situation. But she chose not to. She had a ball, but her steadiness never left her.
And that is why I am wild with joy and pride, and unable to stop typing, and that is how I ended up with a long, tangled, not-making-much-sense post, because at times like this I want to tell you everything, and I have no editing facility.
But perhaps, if my subject was partly the danger of expecting the perfect, that is just as it should be. I would love to give you tight, finely-honed prose every day. But some days, it is going to be woolly and wandering, and maybe that is the whole point.
Just time for two pictures:
The unexpected visitor, with whom we rode:
And one of my best ever sights – the return of the travellers, beaming with delight. I don’t know which of them looks happier: