I never really know what to say at these times so I’ll leave it to John O’Donohue. Read or listen, and thank you for joining me in the shed throughout 2023. I wish you all good things as another year arrives on the horizon.
At The End of the Year As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them.
The days when the veil lifted
And the soul could see delight;
When a quiver caressed the heart
In the sheer exuberance of being here.
Surprises that came awake
In forgotten corners of old fields
Where expectation seemed to have quenched.
The slow, brooding times
When all was awkward
And the wave in the mind
Pierced every sore with salt.
The darkened days that stopped
The confidence of the dawn.
Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.
We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.
John O'Donohue from Benedictus, To Bless the Space Between Us
Is it just me or is life speeding up? I’ll put the bins out and five minutes later have to do it again. I know this odd sensation comes with age, but who’d have thought that a big birthday would send me hurtling down the ramp of life at such high speed?
So yes, I am now fifty years old. Fifty. Some days it makes sense (sore knees, grey hair) but some days, I think of that number and shake my head in disbelief. Youth really is wasted on the young. And some odd behaviours are creeping in too: grumbling about loud noises, enjoying a wee nip of sherry, annoyance about self-service tills.
My local superstore (I won’t name names) has taken away most of the manned checkouts and installed these self-service tills. Even for trolleys. I suppose this is the future – robots are taking over and I just have to get used to it – but still, I feel a bit sad and frustrated. As I was beeping items through the other day, and trying to set them down and yet avoid the loud announcement about an unexpected item in bagging area (another one? Really? But I just bought the thing!) I couldn’t help but notice lots of staff members jumping to attention every time the red light of doom lit up. Customers cannot really do this alone, can they? Is an avocado a fruit? Where’s the barcode on this thingy? Oh hang on, that’s my toilet roll toppling off the edge and rolling down the aisle.
It’s all a bit fraught now. I thanked the helpful staff member who came to my rescue (again) and realised that it’s not really the technology and clumsiness that I’m struggling with, it’s the lack of human interaction. Every time I did some shopping here over the last few years I would chat with a lovely lady on the till who had admired my handbag (you’ll not be surprised to hear that it’s covered in pictures of books) and we soon got to talking about all things literary and bookish. Her daughter is a writer too. We would joke about holding a launch in the store if my book came out soon, and making sure I brought a signed copy in just for her. Before I knew it, I was looking forward to catching up and sharing news. It meant a lot, in the end, to have someone ask me how things are going with the writing and wish me luck with it all.
I spotted my book friend that day and waved sadly in her direction as I fought with all my groceries. She waved back and smiled. The machine told me to check I hadn’t forgotten my receipt and thanked me for coming. But of course, it wasn’t the same. No smile, no laugh at my handbag, no wishing me well. The self-service world is removing something precious from our human lives. Loneliness and anxiety will surely be the end result.
I’ve just returned from an amazing campervan trip to the wilds of Scotland. It was stormy, windy, wet, sometimes sunny, and utterly gorgeous. ‘Summer’ holidays are best taken in September, I reckon.
The NC500 tourist route around the tip of Scotland is one of the world’s must-drive roads and it’s easy to see why – misty mountains, bracing winds and wild seas. There’s not much in the way of mobile phone data (a relief in many ways) and most of the roads are single track with frequent passing places and, for the most part, obliging drivers. Terrifying nights on a cliff in gale force winds notwithstanding, I think it was one of the best van trips we’ve ever had. There were even Northern Lights on the Orkney Islands.
I lost count of the breathless social media stories of those dancing green lights in the night sky. I looked in wonder at the national news items that outlined, with absolute certainty, the dates and times and venues for The Lights to appear. So informed, I spent several nights endlessly scanning the night skies, opening and closing the van’s blinds, arranged into a standing position in the direction of the North Star. But it wasn’t to be. They were not in the mood to dance on the nights I watched.
Instead, I saw the brightest stars sitting atop the Ring of Brodgar stone circle. I saw the Milky Way as a starry smudge streaked across the sky. I saw constellations that looked as if they’d been drawn on by the gods; firm and clear. Neolithic people stood on this same spot and looked into this very sky, seeing pinpricks of light that are still shining. It was a haunting reminder that I am very small indeed.
I took the lesson and used it to shake off the self-righteous indignation that other people (just down the road!) got the see the Northern Lights and I didn’t. Mother Nature owes me nothing. In fact, it’s the other way around. So I thanked her for the gift of neolithic stars and stones, the gift of fearful gusts of wind, the gift of Highland wildness.
And when I wasn’t even looking, we met a wonderful couple from Cornwall who’d just got the exact same van as ours. Cue much chat and laughter and sharing of stories. This was another gift. These unexpected treasures happen when we least expect them. And they’re all the better for it.
Who needs magical dancing green lights? My Scottish lesson: don’t try so hard.
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.
We’re still in the middle of things aren’t we? There’s not a school around with a full capacity of pupils in class; so many family and friends are unwell at the minute; rules keep changing.
Funny enough, this Mary Oliver poem is speaking to me these days. I’d love to say I share her ability to shake it off (the end of this piece is gorgeous) but I’ll certainly use this wisdom to keep trying. Worry doesn’t achieve anything after all.