Last night, there was a crazy storm. I woke at regular intervals, as the gales battered the house and the rain lashed the windows. I stared into the anxious face of Stanley the Dog, and felt the night demons swarm about me.
F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that in the dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning. That three o’clock is the undefended, paranoid, terrifying time, when the horrid imaginings come. I found myself scolding my inner layabout for not achieving enough. I was almost fifty, and what had I done with my life? I did not work hard enough, I was not rigorous enough, I was a stupid dilettante, who let time slide by with nothing to show for it.
Then I started worrying about what would happen if I went blind. (This is how nuts the bleak night hours can make me.) How would I cook, dress, shop for food, get around, write? I live alone. Who would look after me? I have no spare cash for a care person. What did people do if they suddenly could not see? How do they know what is in the fridge?
I have several familiar fears, which suddenly attack like angry hornets. One is that I shall go mad in the night, and wake up thinking I am Queen Marie of Roumania. One is that I shall suddenly be struck blind. One is that I shall be paralysed. All of them involve loss of agency. Independence is my most cherished possession.
Then I woke up and the rain had gone and I told myself, in my stoical voice, well, if the worst happens, I shall manage. The stoical voice is very British. It does not say I shall conquer, or I shall overcome, or I shall serve as an inspiration. It just says, I shall manage.
Then I made breakfast for my mother, schooled my horse, did my HorseBack UK work, and, as if galvanised by those nasty, sneering night voices, wrote 3775 words of book.
3775 words is really too much. Graham Green used to do a strict 500 a day. Once you get into the thousands, you can guarantee that many of them will be no good. A lot of them will die in the second draft. But I needed a sense of achievement, and my fingers were bash bash bashing over the keyboard, so I let them run.
I don’t know what the answer to any of this is, but my default position is: if in doubt, try harder.
Except, sometimes, when you must give up trying at all. I am dealing at the moment with a couple of people who don’t like me very much. I used to find this almost unbearable. I cravenly craved like and admiration and approval. I would turn myself inside out and do jazz hands in idiotic and futile attempts to make the dislikers change their minds. I would get hurt and bent out of shape. I would plot strategies to be more lovable, more charming, more magnetic.
Now I think that for some people, I shall always be like fingernails on the blackboard. I think: if people want not to like me, I must let them. They are free agents, and I believe in liberty. They absolutely must think what they want. There are some minds which cannot be changed, and that is all right. It is one of the few areas in life where I think that it is correct to be a non-trier.
I find this thought astonishingly liberating. It’s not just a coping mechanism. It’s not just: I can deal with this. It is much more generous and wide and encompassing than that. It is recognising another human’s full agency and complexity. There is no mitigation in it. It is saying: go on, here is the wide prairie, gallop all over it. I will, with respect and civility, watch you go.
A very sweet thing happened when I stopped writing this. I was going to say I had no time for pictures today, and here was the usual red mare/Stan the Man shot from the archive. Then I opened my memory card and found these, from the weekend, which I had completely forgotten about.
They are the Sister with the red mare, the whole family going for a walk, and me with the youngest of the great-nephews. Isn’t he heaven? Look how strong his tiny hand is. We could not love him more.