In the last few months, I’ve gone through swinging emotional arcs. At the bottom of the arc, there is the treacherous Swamp of Overwhelm. The Swamp of Overwelm is an absolute bugger. It’s a bugger because it doesn’t have any signposts or keep out signs and there are no fences. I flail about in it, not quite knowing how I got here.
It’s that thing when there has been no specific event or action or heartbreak. Nobody has called up and said something cruel. Nobody has died for at least a year. Nothing catastrophic has happened. There’s just that sudden, amorphous moment when it’s all a bit too much.
It’s that time when you can’t really cope with the small things. The small things – not my beloved small things, like moss and trees and the low whicker of the red mare, but the horrid, messy, muddly, niggly small things – take on a towering aspect. There is a lot of ‘I can’t’. I can’t make that telephone call, answer that email, deal with the fact that the dog has been sick. It’s all too buggery much and I want to slam that door and tell the world to fuck off.
When these times come, as they have in the last couple of days, I try various techniques. I literally wrote the book about this so I should be able to crack it. I try to take pleasure in the tiny things. I try to call in the Perspective Police. I try to perform random acts of kindness. I remember how much I love stoicism, and I attempt to be as stoical as hell. I list all the things for which I am grateful. I tell myself not to be a wimpy weed and to butch up. I shout in the field.
Usually all these things really do work. I’m quite proud of how these things work. This time, these things did not work. I was in the swamp and there was no way out. Sod it, I thought; is this what the fifties are going to be like? I’ve only been fifty for a couple of months and I’m already exhausted.
This morning, I had to get my act together. I had to ride down the valley to my jumping lesson. My mare and I have signed up for a charity challenge to do a one-day-event to raise money for bone cancer research, so I have to have those jumping lessons. I was so mired in the Swamp of Overwhelm that I nearly rang up to cancel, but I thought that was really too tragically weedy for words, so I got on my fine thoroughbred and rode down the Deeside way.
I have to concentrate when I ride that grand creature. She’s half a ton of flight animal, bred over three hundred years for speed and strength, so I can’t be arsing about and feeling sorry for myself. I have to give her the right stuff or she becomes fretful and then it all goes to pot and I am likely to fall off.
Along we went, and there were a few glitches in the machinery so I worked hard to smooth those out and to get the lovely cogs running smoothly. I started to feel a small flicker of achievement. At least here was something I actually could do. On the way home, I decided to throw caution to the winds. Let’s go, I said to the mare. It’s a three mile stretch and for about a mile and a half of that I stood up in my stirrups and crouched over her dear withers and let her roll. Run your race, I told her. And there she went, into her fast hunting canter, every part of her great, athletic body working in time, every inch of her in harmony with every inch of me. She was straight and true and brave and bold. She was not afraid. She was like that bit at the end of Secretariat, the original Big Red: ‘he laughs at fear, afraid of nothing; he does not shy away from the sword’.
And there, suddenly, just like that, I was out of the swamp. I was so overjoyed, with the brilliance of the good, genuine horse, with the glimpsing of the light at last, that I rang up The Beloved Cousin. She and I have known some griefs, in the thirty years of our friendship, and we’ve been through a lot of them together. I told her about the ride, and I told her about the swamp. ‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘I’ve had that exact thing in the last two days.’ I was so relieved and happy that I practically fell over. We discussed our swampy days; we laid them out on the table and picked over them and tried to make sense of them. We did not have any definitive answers but we had a whole boatload of empathy. ‘Yes, yes,’ we shouted at each other. ‘That’s it.’
Simply hearing her kind, clever, sympathetic voice was enough to banish shadows. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘this last one was so stupid and blah and pointless that I very nearly did not ring you up to tell you about it. I thought the whole thing was so boring.’
The swinging emotional arcs, we decided, are simply what life is, at this point of middle age. There may perhaps be the shiny, swaggery people who can roll on through, who don’t get stupidly upset over trifles, who always know what to do, who do not find themselves overwhelmed. We are not of their number. We rather wish we were, but we’re working with what we’ve got. We are, at this point in the road, having to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off, over and over again.
I think of that good friend and that good horse. Between them, in their very different ways, they brought me back onto sure ground. The sun is shining and the birds are singing. When I went into the shed to make the red mare her breakfast, there was a little robin on the feed bin. He’s been with us all winter and he’s looking pretty pleased with himself just now, because I think he’s made his nest and his wife is sitting on it. I’ve been trimming the mare’s mane and all the little bits of hair have gone from the ground and I hope it was my robin who took them. I imagine his very splendid nest entwined with elegant chestnut hairs.
When the swamp has me, I can’t see the robin. He’s just some dumb old bird. When I’m back on the high ground, because I rode my race, because I talked to my oldest friend, the robin is everything: a ravishing thing of beauty, a symbol of hope, an amulet against despair.