One of the things I try not to do is universalise the particular. There was a very famous and very wise feminist whose great weakness was to extrapolate wide truths from her own subjective experience. I get a bit crazy in the head whenever I hear the Universal We. The We can apply to almost anything – women, scientists, Ordinary Decent Britons, the entire human race. I once heard it used on an erudite programme on Radio Four, where the speaker was a doctor. Her use of the universal We was perplexing, since it seemed to veer between the medical profession, women in general, and the entire human race. At any one moment, it was impossible to infer which one she meant. I was very, very cross about that.
I also try not to take things for granted, or to make assumptions.
Sadly, the flesh is weak, and I often fall into the elephant traps I try so hard to avoid.
I lately read about a survey which said that 64% of people were not happy, and believed that happiness was harder to attain now than it has ever been. It was one of those maddening vague snippets – it did not say who these people were, where the survey was done and by whom, how big the study was. It could have been forty-seven people in Portsmouth questioned by a biscuit company, for all I know. I’ve looked on the Google and can’t find anything with that number on it. I also can’t remember where I read it. So the whole thing is entirely unscientific. But the shocking percentage stuck in my mind. Even if it is half true, it’s quite disturbing.
I think about happiness quite a lot. I think about the myriad of different ways it may be described, or felt. Is happiness a cumulative number of joyful moments, or that bone-deep feeling of contentment? Is it wild, flinging excitement, or the gentle sense of being at ease in one’s own skin? Is it, for people who live in free democracies with water coming out of the tap and no religious police knocking on the door, almost a duty? (I quite often feel that it is. How dare I be miserable, when the women of the Congo have to face daily horrors?) Is it something worth striving for, when almost every serious academic study on the subject says that the more you search for it, the more elusive it becomes. The idea of the academy is that it is generally a by-product, a notion that is closely related to the famous idea of flow.
The 64% made me realise that I may not be representative, and that I had slightly assumed I was. I think of myself as an ordinary person of a certain age, and two of my most precious words are ‘me too’. I get quite a lot of me too on this blog, when I write something I fear is a little goofy or absurd, and the Dear Readers rush in and tell me that I am not alone. I believe that there is much more that stitches human hearts together than cleaves them apart.
I am prey to occasional night terrors, moments of catastrophising, some extremely cross internal critics who drink too much gin and tell me I could do better, moments of unguarded perfectionism, and a fairly consistent struggle with mortality. I feel a bit of an idiot about the last one, because everyone is going to die and worrying about it really will not help the thing. I can get cranky and grumpy and disorganised. I wish I could write better and faster and I rue my lack of time management. I still miss my dad. In other words, I live with all the expected slings and arrows that a woman of my age might reasonably face.
But I am quite happy, quite a lot of the time. I do practise at this, like a musician practises scales in the morning. I remind myself to appreciate the present moment and not long for something else. I am acutely wary of the danger of high expectations. I notice the small things. Yesterday, I stood for ten minutes like a loon listening to birdsong. I have developed a good bit of muscle memory for talking myself off the ceiling. I have learned to accept that I can’t control what other people think of me. I don’t compare myself to impossible role models – I do not wish that I were a stick-thin film icon or a literary giant or a storied saver of the world. I accept my limitations, sometimes even with good grace. (Although when I bump up against them, I must admit I do sometimes do the Muttley muttering.) I have enthusiasms.
I think of this in the same way I think of working with my mare. I do a lot of slow steps with her, working on the very basic things until they are just right. Every day, we work quietly and steadily on the foundations. I have, at last, learnt not to run before I can walk, building up slowly, slowly, brick by brick, so that I may find myself in a wide Scottish field as I did this morning, trotting a half-ton thoroughbred with my arms in the air, hands flung into the light, keeping the beautiful, steady rhythm only with my seat. (The independent seat is the holy grail of riding, and the expression always makes me laugh. That seat will not be bamboozled or corralled or fooled into following the herd mind. No, no, it is independent.)
I used to think I could solve the meaning of life by grand gestures, by huge application of the intellect, by reading the highest philosophers, by trying really, really hard. Now I think finding a daily crock of gold lies in the smallest and most humdrum of things, which have nothing to do with book learning or great mental effort. I think they are things of the heart, not the head. I think they lie in steady practice, so that they too can trot on a loose rein.
Oh, dear, I am mixing my metaphors now, which means I should stop. I hope the 64% is wrong, and does not make me a freak. I wanted very much to be extraordinary when I was young and foolish and ambitious. Now, I rather long to be ordinary, at one with my cohort, marching in step. I like finding connections rather than searching for otherness. No man is an island, and no woman, either.
Although I do admit that, apart from my soigné friend in Paris, not everyone is quite as excited as I am about moss.
Are actually from the last two days, since I’ve been too busy to take out the lovely little camera:
Very often, the duchess is so dozy and relaxed that she does her donkey ears for the camera. Which is wonderful in its own way, since it proves to me that all the work is paying off and she is easy in herself. But sometimes I do yearn for the show pony face, and here it is. There are many things I love about this picture, but today the thing I love the most is that her nostrils and her ears are like little apostrophes: