One of my best beloveds once told me this story. I must allow for human misremembering and natural tendency to embellish, but I think it is true.
The Dalai Lama travels everywhere with two scribes. Presumably they are there to make sure no pearl of Lama wisdom is dropped. The great words may all be recorded, and codified, and made available to the world. One day, in skittish mood, the Dalai Lama made a rather frivolous joke. (It may even have been a slightly risqué joke. I can’t remember.) The scribes’ pens hovered over their paper, uncertainly. The Dalai Lama saw the hesitation, and said, with a mock imperative in his light, sing-song voice: ‘Write it down, write it down.’ Then he burst into peals of laughter.
That story has always stuck in my head. I love that story. I hear the words ‘write it down’ in the Dalai Lama’s voice all the time, and they make me laugh.
My own write it down is less a words of wisdom thing, and more an obsessive-compulsive thing. Life does not quite exist, until it is written on the page. It certainly makes no sense until it is mapped in words. Writing brings order, and reason, and sense. I think that is why humans love fiction. Fiction has a shape, which life does not. A good narrative has foreshadowings, and Chekhov’s gun, loaded in the first act. In life, the shot just rings out.
There was no foreshadowing to the bringing down of a commercial airliner by unruly Ukrainian separatists, using a surface-to-air missile almost certainly supplied by the Russians. There was no presentiment, as those three hundred humans boarded their flight to go on holiday, or visit family, or attend a conference about AIDS. Everything must have seemed very ordinary and usual. In the quiet Ukrainian field where the wreckage now lies, there would have been no portents.
Everyone will write that down. The pundits will write of the geo-political ramifications, and the experts will write of the ramping up of the conflict, and the armchair psychologists will attempt to get into the mind of Mr Putin. People will try to give it a shape, try to make sense of it. It has no sense. It is one of those events that is so shocking and unexpected and tragic that it goes into the realm of the meaningless. It is where words fail.
In my quiet, ordinary life, a world away from havoc and mayhem, the red mare and I have a trot in the hayfields of such lightness and grace that it makes me shout out loud. The swifts fly with us, over the green grass. As this shining moment happens, at once I think: write it down. Then I think: no, you don’t have to start making sentences in your head. Just live it. Just let it happen. Not everything has to go into paragraphs.
I get back to my desk, galvanised for a big day of work. A letter sits waiting for me. It is from an old friend. She had been going through her photograph boxes, and she had found a picture of my dad. Her mother and my father were friends from childhood, and knew each other in their dancing youth. ‘Very funny and very naughty,’ was how her mother described him, with the remembering, indulgent smile that people always use for my dear old dad.
There he was, vivid and alive, making a face, as he would have said, all the funniness and naughtiness there in the twinkle of his eyes.
‘Oh,’ I said, out loud.
I burst into tears.
Even as I wiped away the tears, the voice came back. Write it down, write it down.
There were so many things to say – the sweet thoughtfulness of the friend who sent the picture, the sudden resuscitation of the dear departed, how much I still think of my father, even three years after his death. I thought of the curious act of alchemy: when someone dies, they leave their best self behind. It is the glory days that I carry with me, in my heart, all my father’s better angels. That is the paradoxical gift of death. I remember him at his most mighty, before age and care wore him down to a shadow of his fine self. I remember the laughter and the courage.
Then, again, the other voice said: don’t start putting it into words, not yet. Let it lie. Sit with it. Let it go into your body and feel it. The writing can come later.
I think, quite often, of how easy it is to miss your life. One is so busy thinking of what must be done tomorrow, or worrying over the mistakes of yesterday, or fretting about the possible pitfalls of next month, that the present moment is entirely lost. But that moment is your life, and each one must be cherished.
I was riding a few days ago, down past the burn, with the blue hills lazing in the light. As usual, I was thinking of twenty different things. Quite often, when I ride, I am writing my book in my head, getting ready for going to the machine and typing. If I am not doing that, I am thinking of different training techniques, or what I want to do with the mare tomorrow, or what possible errors I am making. I suddenly stopped, and paid attention. The birds were singing. They were singing their dear heads off, a perfect orchestra of nature; I was in the front row of the stalls, and it was all for free. I realised I had not even heard them until that still moment, because there was so much noise in my head. Listen to the birds, I thought; don’t miss the birds.
I used to think that writing it down would capture life and mean that none of it was wasted. It was an armour against forgetting. The thing would be preserved. Now I see that if you are always writing it, shaping it, whipping it into the euphony of perfect prose, then you are in danger of letting the thing shoot past your ears. Sometimes, one just has to live it. It astonishes me that something so simple can be so hard. It should come naturally, but the antic mind is oddly afraid of letting itself go slack. Thinking can be a diversion and a defence.
I love thinking. I love words. I love thinkers, and people who can make language dance. But sometimes, sometimes, life must simply be lived.
Are all about the best beloveds:
The dear old pot table, a bit scruffy this year, but still with its own loveliness:
This is the picture I saw as I opened that envelope. My kind friend is in the middle. My dad is on the left. You see what I mean about the twinkly eyes: