Isn’t it marvellous when good stuff happens to other people? No, seriously, isn’t it? Good for you, we cry, stifling an eye roll and forcing our mouths into a smile. It’s often hard to do, but what if we started to practise freudenfreude? This new word is the opposite of schadenfreude, its more famous (and darker) sister. It allows us to feel happy when someone else succeeds. And apparently, if we get really good at it, we can feel that sense of bliss even when we’re not involved with the person. Something good happens to a complete stranger and we get all happy? I don’t think I’m there yet. To be honest I find schadenfreude far too delicious and enjoyable. It just tastes so good.
So the past couple of weeks I’ve been experiencing freudenfreude first hand with close friends and, I have to admit, it’s starting to feel good. First up, my bestie, Katy, only went and won a BBC competition to appear on Strictly and then The One Show. I dropped my phone when the message came through. And when I saw her dance with (insert name of the famous Strictly person here, I want to say George?) I got all teary-eyed and proud. Katy was confident in front of the camera, funny and warm and talented. If the BBC has any sense it will snap her up immediately.
Then I was invited to the launch of an art exhibition featuring my new chum Nina and her amazing paintings. Sipping the wine and hob-nobbing with artsy types and looking more closely at her talent, I had that feeling again. It was lovely.
It might be trickier to celebrate when the person isn’t known to me, or if they get something I wanted (hey, that’s not fair!) or if I’m in a bit of a slump and my inner critic is making snarky comments, but I’m working on the empathy muscle that allows me to find joy in someone else’s success. The more practice I get in, the easier it’ll be. And that can only be a good thing.
I lost my favourite scarf last month. I’d spent days looking everywhere for it: under the bed, in the campervan, in the shed, but it had just vanished. And as the days grew colder I missed it even more. It’s just the right size (one size does not fit all, not really) and the colours always cheer me up. It’s also been all around the world with me in our Big Year Out in the van so I’m emotionally attached to the thing. I was just getting to the point of letting it go when, you’ve guessed it, there it was. I visited an old family cottage in the north coast as a birthday treat and it was languishing (attractively) on the chaise longue by the window. I found it when I wasn’t even looking for it.
And then to top it all off I wandered into a secondhand bookshop and there on a shelf was a literature book I recognised from my university days. Smiling, I picked it up and opened the front flap, thinking I’d jog my memory about what was inside. Reader, it was my VERY OWN COPY. There in teenaged handwriting was my name. I last opened those pages in 1994. It had obviously been upset to be given away and had relentlessly tracked me down ever since. I held it to my chest and whispered sorry. Needless to say I bought it and have added it to my library once more. Another lost item that I found without even trying.
I think I try too hard for all sorts of things. Trying to make a success of writing, trying to find a healthy life balance, trying to foster good friendships. But so often life just falls into place when you least expect it. Some things flourish when they’re left alone a bit (plants do this too, for some reason I still cannot fathom, I definitely try too hard to keep the damn things alive) so I’m trying to hold life more gently. After all, if I grasp onto it too hard, there’s a chance I’ll choke it, so I’m letting life breathe around me. I’ll walk among trees, I’ll notice more, I’ll stroke my cat’s soft face and not seek anything else in that moment. Oh and I’ll wrap my scarf around me and hold onto my books, knowing that even if I lose them again, they’ll find their way back to me in the end.
It’s said that memories fade. As we grow older our capacity to make new memories lessens and we start to focus instead on times long ago – Mrs Smith down the road who would swing her stick at kids who passed by, the odd young man at the bus stop who’d talk to himself, the teacher who’d smile when you got the answer right.
Life’s timeline stretches in a strange way depending on where we stand within it. It shrinks and expands and even stops. That long night in hospital, the day you stood on top of a mountain and felt the wind in your hair, the moment you said a final farewell. Images flash by and the heart struggles to keep up. Did you remember that right? Was it raining or not? Memories can be unreliable too, that’s the thing. Our brains are clever. They protect us all day long from things that can hurt and I think that’s marvellous.
But it’s important to pause on the timeline now and again and take stock. Particular dates are the perfect opportunity to do so. Tomorrow is the anniversary of my brother’s death. I’ve spoken about it before and yet every year, when the leaves change colour and the nights draw in, my body tells my mind to remember. I get lethargic, snappy and down. And soon enough I nod and realise what’s happening. Grief speaks to us and it’s worth listening. You can place it in a drawer for a while, if the time isn’t right, but soon enough it rattles around in there until you open up and take a look. It’s dark inside but the light gets in too.
And I’m noticing that eight years on from that awful day the snapshots in the drawer are brighter – Stephen’s giggle, his adoring smile at his young daughter, his unbeatable sarcasm. He was kind and funny and gentle. He was here for a time and he was loved.
For those of us left behind, remembering is hard. But in many ways it’s easy too. And soon enough it folds itself within what is left and becomes part of who we are. And we find we can breathe again.
Apparently there’s a phase in publishing right now for ‘up-lit’ with gentle tension and happy endings. No more sustained peril and yet another beautiful young woman lying dead somewhere. Movie makers are also getting in on the act and are looking for the next big Rom Com (remember those?). Given the state of the world right now it stands to reason that we’re looking for light in our imagined worlds. Art can speak and these days we simply want it to say “It’s all going to be okay in the end.”
But I’ve come to realise that in books and movies I lean more towards darkness than light. A close friend pointed this out a while back and I laughed it off but it got me thinking. I’ve tried reading books that fall into the ‘cheer up’ category and I can’t finish them. I even struggle to write about happy things, choosing instead in a recent short story to bring a scary group of crows onto the scene who ended up chasing a pet dog. What’s going on?
It’s no surprise that children’s fairy tales are so dark. The brothers Grimm certainly knew how to teach young minds about danger, fear, identity and all things in between. I may have spent too many childhood hours within the pages of my ladybird books to emerge as an adult with any inkling of lightheartedness. I found a cloud and sat happily under it.
For a piece of art to speak to us, we need to connect with it. It might result in confusion or boredom or even transcendence (if you’re lucky) but something happens. Maybe for each of us this connection looks different. Laughing at comedy? Crying at romance? Shivering at horror? All good. The trick is to find your zone and embrace it. Seek it out even, because the feelings of catharsis and closure that happen within fictional or artistic worlds are truly special. There’s really nothing like it when you close the last page of a good book or watch the credits roll after an engrossing TV show. We’ve disappeared for a while, lived vicariously with dragons or monsters or friends or foes, and lived to tell the tale.
Life is not so clean. It’s messy: worries trundle on, uncertainty continues, bad people don’t get their comeuppance. So the tragi-comic land is one we need right now. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end. Light or dark, bring it on. Art is speaking and even if just for a while, we are listening.
I made a new friend recently. And I’m middle-aged! For some reason it’s so much harder as a grown up to form new relationships like this. We’re too busy, mainly, but probably also a bit too lazy and stuck in our ways. And there’s the potential for humiliating rejections that feel so much worse than simply being left to last during the school sports team selection, or left leaning against the wall at a disco while everyone else pairs up (although let’s be honest, those things did hurt our tiny addled hearts).
This new buddy came along all thanks to our new yellow door. Regular readers may remember that last year we wanted to freshen up our old white (or not-so-white) PVC front door and took the plunge and painted it yellow. I say yellow but I mean, really, really yellow. “It’s different,” according to our neighbour, Elaine, from down the road. And since our little terraced house opens onto the pavement this means that many passersby get to admire it as they go about their day (it is, after all, impossible to ignore).
You can’t miss itIt didn’t look this bright in the tin
So one fine August day I happened to be sorting out the recycling (as you do) and someone said hello. Usually the conversation ends here (or doesn’t even start, we’re not all that friendly around here) but this time the smiling new neighbour, just moved in around the corner, said how much she loved the yellow door, that it always cheered her up and she had always wondered if someone creative lived here. There followed a great blather about art, writing and the amusing nuances of our local community. It was great. There was a moment when things clicked – aren’t those moments precious? And I’m happy to say that we’ve since met up for coffee, talked and talked (and discovered even more similarities). Nina has even become one of our trusted cat-sitters. And all because of a yellow door.
But it’s also because of Nina’s courage to suggest we meet and find out more about each other. It so easily could have become just a one-off fun interaction. But when you find a member of your tribe – you know the ones, they make you laugh, they share your world views, they like what you like – you want to be around them. There’s that ‘click’ again.
So if you connect with someone, be brave and arrange to see them and foster that relationship. It may not work out (hence the bravery) but it’s so worth stepping forward and asking ‘do you fancy a coffee some time?’ In other words, ‘will you be my friend?’ Life can be lonely and isolating, but there are others out there who can be your fellow travellers through life. You might even find you’re peas in a pod. And who wouldn’t want to be that?