Wednesday, 15 August 2018

The Smallest of the Small Things.

Sometimes, I say to myself: oh, if only it could be easy. 

Is this a thing? Is the modern world so ravelled and inexplicable that millions of humans are out there, longing for simplicity? Is that why Instagram is filled with beautiful pictures of clean, white rooms in the Scandi style? (I have an absurd fantasy that everyone in Denmark is blissfully happy.)

I was thinking about this today as I was riding my grand red mare. People had been shouting at each other on the Today programme about terrorism and Twitter had been filled with angry bigots after the car crash in Parliament Square. Goodness knows what Donald Trump has been up to. It all felt too much, so I rode out along the valley for seven miles to escape the world.

This should be the most simple thing in my life, but it isn’t, quite. The red mare is a very emotional person. She has an astonishing array of strong feelings, and they are all on display at all times, as if she is hanging out more flags. She’s been upset lately because her little bay friend has had to go and stay at the vet. She loathes change, and she has abandonment issues all over the shop. (She is crazily like me.) When she gets unsettled like this, I have to do huge amounts of yogic breathing and get her to let go of all her jangles. We do a kind of Zen mistress dance together. This takes a great deal of time, and I don’t have much time, just now.

So the ride was a challenge. I had to draw on all my emotional and technical intelligence. With a sensitive creature like that, you can’t just kick on and impose your human will. You have to empathise and reassure and be clever and kind. You have to guide and soothe and reassure. I could not simply look at the slumbering hills and admire the wide, glacial valley. I had to concentrate. I had to work to get her to relax. I had to run the line of trust from my heart to hers. 

At one moment, I said to her, laughing, ‘Why didn’t I get an old push-button horse?’

‘I have absolutely no idea,’ she said. ‘But I’d like to have seen you try.’

There is no such thing as a push-button horse. There are some who are more straightforward than others. We have one in our field. She’s only four years old and she’s not long out of racing, but she’s so transparent and relaxed and easy in the world that working with her brings on an astonishing lightness of being. She does not become overwhelmed by her own emotions like my mare can. She thinks life is marvellous and humans are marvellous and every new day is marvellous.

I love working that horse, but she would have taught me nothing. The complex, demanding, fascinating, endlessly enigmatic red mare has taught me everything I know, about horses and about life. She has taught me rigour, and patience, and humility. I have to put my own frets and desires aside for her sake. If she needs to go slowly, I have to go slowly, for all that I yearn to go fast. I have to check her barometer every day, and adjust mine to match it. I have to put away my own needs and meet hers. She banishes ego with one wave of her duchessy hoof. 

And so there we were, out on the trail, and I couldn’t think about the bad news and the shouting people because I had to give my entire self to her. Gradually, she responded and became whole. She put her jangles away. She believed me when I told her that there were no mountain lions in the world. And I let the reins out and she stretched her neck and cantered along in her dear cowgirl lope. I’ve been watching clips of the Mongolian Derby, and I stood in the stirrups like those bold riders out on the plains, and lifted my hand high over her neck, and imagined we were riding, riding, riding, for hundreds of miles.

(I managed this for about five furlongs. I sat down in the saddle with new respect for the horsemen and women who are, as I write this, doing it all day long, on sturdy, determined ponies they have just picked out of a herd.) 

It was a dream canter and it was perfect because I’d had to work for it. When it came, it was simple, but it had not been easy. That’s the point, I thought: she makes me work for it. She makes me strive. She requires that I am better. She reminds me that I can’t tick a box and say my work is done. With her, my work is never done. If I give in to idleness or hubris or carelessness, she will throw her head about and become unhappy. When she rises to her finest, most glorious self, the feeling I get is like nothing else in the world because I had to put all my effort in to it. No push-button would give me that flinging sense of triumph. 

By the end, she and I were one, and I said to her: ‘Take me home.’ I dropped the reins. She knew the way. She turned left and turned right, as if following the north star. We saw two tiny children on the lime avenue, and she stopped to talk to them. They gazed at her in wonder and touched her nose tenderly with their minute hands. 

I looked at their beaming faces. It’s not easy, I thought. Nothing is easy. Perhaps that’s the point. But oh, there are rewards, if you throw your heart into something and refuse to give up. That gentle horse with those delighted small humans - that was my reward. I’m writing it down so I don’t forget. Sometimes, it is the smallest of the small moments that means the most.

Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Sheltering from the Storm.

I suddenly realised why I stopped writing the blog. It’s because of the bloody, buggery menopause.

As I write that sentence I feel fear. I want at once to go into my head. If I can run away into my intellect, I shall be safe. I was going to do a whole tangent on the word ‘menopause’ and all its cultural associations. (Which would, of course, be so fucking fascinating that you would all fall off your chairs in delight.)

I’m not going to do that. I’m going to stay with the emotion, which is so big it makes the Titanic look like a rowing boat. It’s vast, roiling, boiling rage. It’s anger so great I don’t know what to call it. There is no good word in the English language. It’s in every atom of my body and it’s all around me, as if the whole world is made up of red fury. It’s pushing at me and pulling at me and punching me and kicking me. It’s at everything: life, death, betrayal, muddle, unfairness, stupidity, selfishness. It’s at all human failings, most especially my own.

It came out of nowhere. Although I think perhaps it has been cooking for some time. It felt like it came out of nowhere, but I know it comes from somewhere. It started to grumble when yet another fucking doorknob fell off yet another door yesterday, and I had to make a ghastly telephone call I did not want to make, and my huge, brilliant idea that was going to change the world started to reveal itself as a very small idea that would need the kind of work that Sisyphus knew, as he pushed his stupid boulder up his stupid hill. 

It got grumbling because someone did something hurtful, a hurt that came on top of a whole lot of other hurts. It started stretching and sniffing the air because I am being, as always, absolutely useless with logistics and any kind of organisation and I’m fifty-one years old and when will I ever learn to make schedules and manage time and not be in a goofy mess? 

It received a voltage jolt when I spilt some water on my precious computer and the poor machine began wailing at me with agonised siren noises and even though I managed to rescue it, one of the shift keys now produces weird, hieroglyphic symbols instead of capital letters. (The other shift key, amazingly, still works, so I’m teaching myself to use my right hand for upper case, which means that instead of typing at ninety words a minute I’m having to stop and think and hobble along like a lame carthorse.) 

What the menopause does is take all the daily darts and stings and makes them into something huge. There is no perspective. A careless word, a tiny slight, a fleeting act of unkindness - all become the End of Everything. I want to tell everyone and everything to fuck off. Then I start behaving badly, and so, along with the undifferentiated rage, there is shame. Shame is the worst fucking party crasher in the world. It barges in, changes the music, eats all the food, spills drink on the carpet, and gets off with your boyfriend. 

I run around the internet, being all bluebirds and butterflies, because I’m trying to dedicate myself to positive thinking and gratitude and all the rest of the bollocks. I write little lines of inspiration and post adorable dog pictures and tell stories about the red mare. I scatter the pictures and posts of others with hearts and compliments, because the world is so dark and the news is so bad and I want to try and spread the love. And inside, I feel like the stupidest, angriest, crappiest person in the world because my hormones have gone bonkers and I can’t seem to go to bed at reasonable hour. 

I miss my mother so much it feels like someone is stabbing me with knives.

So that’s why I stopped the blog, because I did not want to be that person. I did not want to be the wailing person. I admire stoicism, and perseverance, and that grand, British, self-deprecating sense of humour. I like people who get on with it and don’t make a fuss. I loathe drama. (I adored drama when I was younger, and indulged in it often. Now I hate it with a deep disdain.) I wanted to be a ray of sunshine and I couldn’t be a ray of sunshine any more. That was not fair on the poor Dear Readers, who have enough troubles of their own.

I wanted to share beauty and truth, not fury and confusion.

The hormones don’t storm every day. There are mornings when the waters are calm and limpid and a light breeze gentles the land and it is clear sailing. It’s not so bad, I think, as I gaze at the horizon. And then the typhoon hits and the black clouds blot out the sun and waves as big as houses hurl me about a lost ocean. 

I am not waving, but drowning.

The irrational voices are the only ones that can shout loud enough to be heard over the tumult. They yell that I am a failure and a fraud, that nobody else gets this, that I don’t have the right stuff. And then, for a moment, the wind drops and I can hear the quiet, rational voices. They say I am a flawed human being, trying like everybody is trying; that everyone gets this, at one time or another; that maybe the right stuff is there, if I can dig hard enough for it. They say: you are not alone. They say: all humans have to sail a stormy sea, from time to time. They say: keep paddling, and you will stay afloat. 

They say: this too shall pass. They say, because they have been reading the magnificent Brené Brown: it’s good to be vulnerable, to show your true self in all its incarnations. They say: sunlight is the best disinfectant.

And then the dear old universe took a hand. Just as I wrote that last paragraph, the telephone rang. The steady voice of a writing friend came down the line.

‘Ah,’ I cried, before I even said hello. ‘The voice of sanity.’

The Voice of Sanity sounded slightly surprised, but he went with it. And he utterly was that voice: funny, understanding, wise, generous, empathetic and, at the end, suddenly and violently fascinating. 

The rage and shame could not stand up to that much human warmth. They slunk away into the shadows, vanquished by something as simple as a kind man. 

Shall I publish them anyway? I’ve got them off my chest by writing them down. I don’t have to tell you about them. You know them well enough for yourselves. I could press the delete button.

I think I shall publish and be damned. Because life can’t be all bluebirds and butterflies and I believe it’s somehow important to write the crappy parts from time to time. Not all day or every day, but sometimes. So that I can say I am not alone and you can say you are not alone. The storms blow into every human life, but the lovely thing is that they do blow out again. And the ship goes sailing on.

Monday, 13 August 2018

The Big Think

I call a friend in Wales. She is a horse person and we talk about our mighty mares.

It is 1pm. We discuss biomechanics for horse and rider. This is the Mary Wanless school. For anyone who wants to get better at riding, it's a riveting subject.

At 2pm, we are talking about creation myths, the collective unconscious, Jung, and the nature of molecules.

'Fuck,' I yell down the telephone, 'we've gone from Mary Wanless to Jung in an hour.'

I love stretching my mind around big ideas, even though I can feel my brain snapping and twanging with the effort. This friend makes me grasp for the big. I'm crap at small talk. I like trying to think higher, even though it makes me swear. 'Bugger,' I bawl. 'Sod it,' I shout. 'I'm bloody well going to look that up the moment I put the telephone down,' I cry.

Everyone should have a friend like that. Mortality is slinking around my heels, like a mangy dog. I'm motoring into the second half of life and my hormones are all over the shop and everyone is bloody dying. My defence against the stupid shortness of human life is to know stuff. I want to learn things and read things and discuss things. So, I have a friend who makes me strive and makes me stretch and makes me think.

At the end of the conversation, we laugh at ourselves. We are British, after all. We are not allowed, by law, to get too serious. We retreat into our safe space of the ironical and the self-deprecating. She goes back to putting out hay for the livestock; I return to my computer. My cognitive function feels as if it has been dancing round the ring like Mohammed Ali.

I should start every week with a big think, I tell myself. Even if it all goes to hell by Friday, I've aimed high. I don't want to fall into the dangerous complacency of middle age, where I believe that I know what I know and I think what I think. When I'm with my grand mare I keep challenging myself, because that's what she deserves. She loathes smugness and hubris. I can do it for her. Now I need to do it in human life as well as horse life. Open up that old mind, and gallop into the unknown spaces. Even if it does make me shout and swear.

Friday, 10 August 2018

Everyone has Been so Kind.

It is the dazed end of the hottest summer anyone can remember. Not far away, a good old man is dying.

Does it make a difference that he is good? Does that make it sadder?

Does it make a difference that he is old? Does that make it easier?

Does it make it more poignant that the hills and fields where he lives are dressed in their dramatic August livery of gold and blue?

Does it make it better or worse that he had a life well lived, that he was always joking and laughing, that he was brilliantly clever, that everybody who met him loved him? The memories will be richer; the loss will be greater.

It makes no difference and it makes all the difference.

I took soup. I made soup, last night, thinking of the dying, thinking of the living, thinking of the grieving. Today, I drove it up the hill.

Before I left, I talked to my dear friend. We've all known this family for twenty years. I don't know them intimately, but they are stitched in to the community. I see them at Christmas and at the Highland games and in the village; at dinners and lunches on high days and holidays. We smile and smile and talk of ordinary things.

'I'm making soup,' I said to my friend, 'because you can't be cooking and grieving at the same time. And,' I said, 'I'm making soup because it's easy. The speaking is hard. Because what do you say?'

She looked at me in surprise.

'But you,' she said, 'surely you know what to say?'

I knew that she meant: because your father died and your mother died and it's not that long ago. I knew she meant: surely you have the language of death?

I shook my head. 'Just afterwards,' I said, 'I was brilliant. Just after someone has died you are stripped of everything. You have no defences. You've lost a layer of skin. You are all authenticity. You can say anything then.'

I looked at the sky. I looked at the trees.

'You are in the zone,' I said. 'In the death zone. Then, if you meet someone who has suffered a loss, you know exactly what to say because it's all you can say. Death and grief and pain are your only language.'

'And then,' I said, 'you grow your skin back. You put yourself back together. You put on your defences again. After maybe a year, you are back to the very British thing of feeling embarrassed because you don't know what to say.'

The dear friend looked interested and relieved. I think she was relieved to find that she was not the only one. Because what do you say?

We parted with extra fondness, because proximity to death reminds you of how much you love the ones who are still alive. And I drove up the hill.

The long, low house, with Scotland draped around it in all her glory, was silent and wide open. I walked through the front door and through the empty hall and through the hushed drawing room. I saw, with gladness and sadness, the family photographs on every surface. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was young. Everyone was vividly living.

I had a horrible feeling that the good old man had died in the night and that I was crashing in on the moment of farewell.

Suddenly, a small, beaming figure appeared at my elbow. She was perhaps eight years old, and vibrating with life.

'Hello,' she said, in delight, as if all she ever wanted was a middle-aged woman in a hat to appear with a huge silver pot of soup.

Her cousin, older, upright, gracefully composed, walked down the corridor, taking over the situation.

I remembered her. She had been a little girl when I last saw her. Now she was on the edge of teendom, half child, half young woman.

Her grandmother, she said, was on an important call. I remembered the calls. There are so many people you have to speak to on the telephone when someone is dying.

'Don't disturb her,' I said. 'I just wanted you to have the soup. Heat it up gently,' I said.

She nodded gravely. She took the huge pot. She regarded me from eyes which were so clear and direct that I almost had to look away.

She said, with the politesse and poise of an ambassadress, 'Everyone has been so kind.'

I looked at her in awe. I wondered whether I would ever achieve that kind of graceful ease. Was she born with it, or had she learnt it somewhere?

I said goodbye and walked out of the silent house.

At the back, an ancient, stumpy apple tree was bending under the weight of its fruit. The apples were heavy and dense, as if they were about to burst their green skins. I wondered, with a fall in my stomach: will anyone have time to pick those apples this year?

To the north, there was a sudden call of geese. I could not see them, but they were shouting across the valley. It's too early for the geese, I thought. They don't usually come until the autumn, when they fly above us in great gangs, heading for their winter feeding grounds.

I looked at the view and thought of the good old man looking at the view every day of his life. He had something to gladden his eyes, I thought.

As I drove home, life and death singing in me so strongly that I could almost feel the atoms of my body moving and shifting, a pair of swallows swooped low across the road. They soared and rose, flinging themselves from one golden field to another.

They are making their goodbyes too, I thought. It is nearly time for them to make their great trek to Africa.

Write it down, write it down, said the voices in my head. Don't forget this day. Don't forget the gold fields and the green apples and the swooping birds and the blue hills.

Don't forget the young girl with her astonishing grace.

'Everyone has been so kind.'


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