For a moment, my life grows complicated. I look at the complication and think I can make this as Byzantine or as straightforward as I want. I can tie the knots tight, or untangle them and let them loose. There is a choice. Life isn’t just what happens to you, it is what you think about what happens to you.
I ring up the Beloved Cousin, my oldest and dearest friend, the one who has been with me in the trenches for thirty years. I can’t tell you how many complications we have been through together. There was one spring where we seemed to do nothing but go to funerals.
I ring her up and she listens to everything and then she gives her words of wisdom. She is all Occam’s Razor now, as she grows older and more and more sage. She slashes through a problem or a sadness or a tangle with wit and brio. Then we talk about Jane Austen and Trollope and shout with laughter about a joke which only we can understand.
I thank her. ‘I could not have got through this year without you,’ I say. This is factually correct and literally true. I try to explain it a bit. I say: ‘It’s having someone you can ring up when you are at your worst and you know that they won’t judge and they will listen and they won’t tell you what to do and they will make a joke at just the right moment. It’s that thing,’ I say, ‘of not having to explain yourself, because you know the person gets it.’
We mull this over. ‘I’m not sure,’ I say, ‘that everyone has someone like that and I don’t take it for granted.’
In the spirit of simplicity, and in homage to the Small Things, I do a very small thing for a very magnificent person. I collect together some photographs of the magnificent person doing a magnificent thing, and I edit them and make them as good as I can get them, and I send them to her. She sends a message at once, of charming thanks. It really was a small thing; it took half an hour of my time. But it ended up having a big effect. ‘I will treasure those pictures and memories for ever,’ she wrote. I felt ridiculously tearful.
The funny thing is that I suddenly realised I was taking my own advice. I don’t do this nearly as often as I would like. In Seventy-Seven Ways, I wrote that when you feel emptied out, finished, beaten, the way to get yourself back is to do something for someone else. I completely made up this theory from some sticky-back plastic and one of Mum’s old Fairy Liquid bottles. (This is a Blue Peter joke that only Britons over forty will understand.) I did do some research for this book and found some nice empirical ideas that have studies and proofs behind them. But in some chapters I let my own flaky notions off the lead. This was one of those chapters. I decided that when you think you’ve got nothing left to give, you should give something. And it reminds you that the human spirit is infinite and that is a very comforting thought indeed.
I’ve had a long week and there are those horrid complications and I’m missing my mother a lot and I feel a bit beaten. And, in a very, very small and humble way, I did give something and the magnificent person gave right back and I’m going into this dark, wet Friday night with a song in my heart instead of a weight on my head. My flaky theory really did work. I’m more pleased and more surprised than I can say.
Ring up your best friend and tell her why you love her. Think about someone else instead of yourself, just for half an hour. Give something when you have nothing left to give. I have to keep writing these things down because I forget them, when the tangles come. My Occam’s Razor is sometimes rusty and blunt instead of shining and bright.
Love does it, in the end. All these small things are about love. Love and trees, my darlings; love and trees. And you’ll be all right.