Not that long ago, I wrote a book called Seventy-Seven Ways to Make Your Life Very Slightly Better. Nobody read it, not even my agent. I published it myself but had no idea how to promote it, so it sank, very graciously, into the vast uncharted sea of the internet.
The funny thing is that I was really proud of that book. It came out of an idea I had in the week of my father’s funeral. I wanted to write a book called What to do When Your Dad and Your Dog Dies. (You can see I am all about the snappy title.) I wanted to write that book because I wanted to read that book and I found out, to my surprise, that nobody had written it. I’ll have to write the fucker myself, I said, furiously.
I didn’t write that book, but after my mother died I wrote the equivalent.
The reason I’m proud of it is not that it is filled with shimmering prose, but that it is filled with some really quite decent ideas. I have to tell you, in a most vulgar way, that I surprised myself with my mid-life wisdom. It turned out that all those books I had read and all those sage friends I had talked to and all those thoughts I had thought had really produced something. I knew some stuff.
I do know some stuff. Here is the lovely thing about being fifty: you accumulate, over the years and years, some excellent stuff. You have learned from experience and mistakes and griefs. You get your priorities straight. (Mine, obviously, are love and trees.) You understand about the power of kindness and the importance of trying to behave well, even if you don’t achieve it all the time. If you are me, you write all that down and you astonish yourself.
Then, if you are me, you get to a point when you start stuttering and you realise, with a rather nasty shock, that there is a yawning gap between theory and practice.
I am shit hot at theory. Ask me anything. Ask me anything and I’ve got a theory for you. I know about cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias and projection and displacement. I really have read some books. I am, I discover, F for Fail at practice. It drives me nuts that I can know so much and still run into the sands when it comes to actual life. I keep thinking that I wish someone had written a manual about how to do life and then I realise I wrote that damn manual and it still isn’t enough.
I’m thinking at the moment about fear. I’m psychologically stuck just now, and I haven’t been able to work out why. I’ve been fooling myself because I can do the simulacrum of the high function. There are a lot of things in my week that I do well, that bring me joy, that give me a sense of achievement. I write about all those things and put them on Facebook. I take pictures of those things and make videos of those things with jaunty little soundtracks over the top and post them into the ether, saying, tacitly: look, look, look at me with my jazz hands.
Those things are good things, and I don’t denigrate them. They mostly take place outside, in the bright Scottish air, because they all have to do with horses. The problem is that I then go back inside and get stuck.
It’s fear, I finally tell myself. It was the second anniversary of my mother’s death this week so I was thinking about grief. I was thinking about the last six years and all those Dear Departeds – my mother, my father, my godfather, my dogs, my little Welsh pony, my friend, my cousin. I was thinking of the more distant relations and the old friends of my father, all of whom fell off their perches one after the other, so that it seemed an entire generation was going gentle into that good night. I thought: there is a lot of fear in grief.
Or, at least, there is a lot of fear in my grief. I hate to admit this but it is true. There is fear of mortality: everyone, including me, is going to die. There is fear of abandonment: everyone is going to die and leave me all alone. There is fear of failure: I shall never write the dazzling book of which I dream and then I shall die.
There is fear as I go down to the field and bask in the glory and might of my red mare, the beat of my heart, the light of my life. Some horrid, creaking voice in the back of my head says: don’t love her too much because she will die and you will be destroyed. The loving her too much ship has sailed, and it fills me with terror.
Another voice fires up. It says: why are you telling them all this? The Why Are You Telling Them voice has been yelling at me a lot lately which is why I’ve been off the blog. My tiny one-trick-pony frets and concerns and daily pleasures are too mundane and boring to make a blog, that voice says. I live a small life and I love that small life but I suddenly decided, as the fear got me, that it was too catastrophically dull to record. (It’s fascinating to me, but I thought it was not really fascinating for anyone else.) That’s why I started making the videos with the jazzy soundtracks.
I address the critical voice. I say, sternly, ‘I’m telling them all this because the only thing to do with fear is admit it.’ Write it down, write it down, says a benign, sing-song voice; that is a kind voice and it knows that everything is better when it is written down.
I have no buggery idea what to do with all these fears. I think they are a part of grief and I think they are a part of the middle of life and I think they are a part of being human. I can’t fix them up and pack them off. I can’t put them in a nice parcel and get lovely Pearl the Postwoman to take them down to the depot. I think I have to look them in the whites of their eyes. I think I have to keep staring at them until I have their measure. I think that I have to confess to myself that I am only human and humans get frightened sometimes. And perhaps then I shall stop being stuck.