The other day someone tweeted me the following question:
“from 2014 to 2015 you turned it round. My 2015 has been your 2014. Any tips old sage? My 2016 needs to be your 2015!”
My reply - off the top of my head was:
Try & be brave. Take the short term hell for some long term heaven (most people live lives the other way round : (
I wrote these words just as I sat down for dinner at Vanessa’s mum and dad’s house in Galway: home made chicken pie, complete with veg, roast potatoes and cornflower cheese, my reply one of those guilty “I’m just replying to someone” that makes you feel like an ignorant phone wanker. It was a fantastic meal, perfect after a long hard - and very wet - day in the hills of Connemara. I expect few have ever heard of Connemara, which is a shame, as it’s a mini Patagonia, and Irish Cuillin, stuck out on the very stormy edge of Europe, a wet and wild range of craggy ridges hanging over the Atlantic. We’d just come back from an epic high traverse along a horseshoe of craggy peaks and ridges, with 1500 metres of climbing, wrapped in mist the whole day and ending in a squelching boggy blackness. Forgetting to take a watch we had trouble working out timings in the clag and so ended up navigating one peak behind where we actually where, which being a horseshoe, meant the compass was off all the way round (it seems I’ve become a bit rusty with the old navigation). I told myself it was broken and just prayed we were on the right ridge. There are few paths beyond sheep tracks on most Irish peaks that don’t feature a cross or church on the summit so all days are full value here. The rain came down in one constant curtain all day long as usuall, soaked up by boots and clothes and hair and sandwiches, leaving us - even with all we had on - not eager to stop for more than a minute before pressing on on our uncertain path. Up and down, up and down we went, that unexpected and steep final up, when we thought that was it, a clue to why the compass had been off all day, leading to the long and boggy down, traipsing through streams back to the car (in Ireland you should always treat any mountain walk as if it was a water sport, keeping a set of dry clothes in the car). And now, a little late, we sat there cutting up our chicken pie, a portion fit for an obese king, Vanessa’s mum fussing over us, a little worried about us all day.
As I ate I thought about that question, it stuck in my mind, my answer not really satisfactory, only OK, after all if I’d not been brave to ask Vanessa out on a date I’d not been sat here happy eating my pie, and others would not be sat elsewhere just as happy. In the space of a year life had somehow gone from as bad as it had ever been to better than I could ever have imagined, a good outcome considering the cost. Bravery and difficult choices were one thing but there was more.
People often ask me about depression, how to deal with it, how to deal with people you love who struggle with it, like I might now. People survive cancer but they only know its symptoms, have no clue or insight about something awry deep within their DNA. I used to be equally at a loss to come to a satisfactory answer to that question, or the one I got this day. Everyone’s reality is different and all lives are relative to the one living that life - what value is there to what I think or believe - just hand me down experiences? You may say something that has some weight for a moment, that blows some wind into dead sails, but you now soon enough they’ll sag again. When asked now I tend to say that the word ‘depression’ should be avoided at all costs, that you can’t succumb to the idea of it, clinical and cold, it makes something bad worse. Instead imagine a more natural approach to such a thing, a pagan idea maybe, that it’s nothing but cyclical process, like a season, a person’s winter or fall, inescapable but also healthy if you just allow the leaves the drop and cover you up till spring. You can’t fight it, it just comes - so best stock up on those nuts. But this question, about how you go from sadness to happiness was more than that, not seasonal, but fundamental. Such an answer, if there was one, would be the meaning of a life, but again Vanessa is one clue to that. I once wrote that “Sympathy won’t save a drowning man - but taking the piss out of his inability 2 swim may just shame him back to shore”.
I looked at Vanessa as she shovelled in her food, cook house fast, her appetite for everything in life an inspiration to me, a woman who squeezes every last drop of living from every day, a woman who never leaves a scrap of her plate for me to greedily gobble up and get fat on. She was the answer to the question I guess, someone so sorted and happy, with a real life force - these words not meant to be soppy or rose tinted or lovey-dovey, but a clinical reflection on what made her a fitting model for what happiness could be. She did not take life’s shit lying down, she fought back, seemed to live life on her terms, and so perhaps life move on to easier targets. She was half my answer - find someone happy and content and just copy what they do.
Vanessa’s mum Shelia sat at the top of the table, a tiny woman who walks so fast I often have trouble keeping up with her, perhaps another clue to happiness, her days always full, no time to show her age, her main focus being her children, all grown up but her children. Love plays a big part our happiness - deep down happiness - the bedrock, the most important love poured into you by your parents onto which all other love will one day stand. A lot of people I know, even those intensely loved, but who struggle, struggle because circumstance has left them half full deep down, unstable, uncertain, damaged. Someone once told me I had to wait to feel their love, that it would only be given freely when I learnt to love myself, a lazy idea often believed, but one that betrays someone who does not understand love at all, the love of self, or love to be given. Love cannot be damed like a river. It flows where it needs to flow. Vanessa’s mum was proof of this, that if you let out love - if you’re brave enough to - you get it back, that river returning to its source. Vanessa’s mum, a woman with so much love is also a woman who could be more broken than many, given away at the age of two to childless relatives sixty eight years ago, locked out from her real parents and family - a strange and tragic story, but not that out of place in Ireland, a land that can often seem so out of time, its stories sounding like fiction. “I was loved by the man I called my father” says Vanessa’s mum when I asked her why she’s not damaged, not an alcoholic or angry or mean or raging, how instead she has so much love to give. “It was only when Vanessa was two that I really found it upsetting - if someone had wanted to take her from me I’d have killed them”.
So is the answer love? Find love? Two words so simple. But love is also the reason for so much pain, lost love, unrequited love, bitter love, never love. There are those who declare themselves free if its siren call, but these are people that blind would declare they had no wish to see. No - love is where it has to start, if you’re going to make a life, or rebuild a life, but what is it? I don’t know. There is so much written about the subject of love, but so little on the subject of just what it is that fires that feeling inside you, in your head and heart and soul. If I was to be asked all I could say - whether it is the love of another, or the love of oneself - that love is simply the absence of that empty longing for that thing, a trick that once conjured by some fate or brave or foolish act performs the magic of its own disappearance.
Just like when you’re on a plane and you’re told that if those oxygen masks fall you need to put yours on before your children, you can’t get on with turning a life around until you’re living yourself, you feel whole - what you could call self love I guess. To get there, when starting from scratch, you need to clear the decks, to forgive - forgive everything, to not become entrapped by the past - ‘moving on’ for some, but for me more about forgiveness. People do terrible things, but that does not make then terrible people, especially once you used to love and were so certain about. People don’t change either, but they do become ill or damaged, and the pain they inflict on others - in so many ways I hear about, pain by money, by lawyers, through houses and children - it’s poison to them as well. A while ago I saw a news article about a woman whose face was burnt off by acid by her ex husband, leaving her blind and faceless until she had a face transplant. When asked if she could ever forgive her husband, locked away for life in prison, she said she had to forgive him as this was the only way to leave her room to grow, to move on with her life and be free to meet someone and trust them. Reading this I thought if she could find the strength to move on and not become entangled by her past how could anyone not find the strength to do the same?
So what is the meaning of happiness, what meaning could I conjure up before our pudding of apple crumble and ice-cream, knocked together by Vanessa’s mum to celebrate our hard day. For a while I’d been thinking that life - a happy life - was about having lots of ingredients, that in the past I just had work, or I just had going away or make money, and lost sight for a long time about what meant most to me. This is what Vanessa had taught me, that a little joy, found her and there, a run to the sea front at 6:30am, a solid day of work - but no more - going to the climbing wall, Dorky quarry on the summer evening, eating out, going to the cinema, watching Home and Away, cooking simple food together, always fun stuff planned, holidays away where the aim was fun not ‘not dying’, all this added up, each a little drop of joy, shared and savoured, but each drop making up a life full of the stuff. If you have no joy, just find one drop and begin there.
So yes, to have a good life you need the ingredients, the spice, the salt and the pepper, the veg and the meat, the gravy, the stuff you love plus your Brussel sprouts. Each alone would OK for a while, but only complete when combined with the rest, to have a full plate, a plate of movement, of laughter, of thought, of fear, of enlightenment, of work, of giving, of taking. If you could keep adding ingredients, piling up your plate, surely that was the answer - but was that true, could it be so simple, after all I know many unhappy people who have all these things, and over abundance of what others would define as joy?
“Shelia” I asked, thinking she may have the answer, that maybe the answer was, maybe something easy like following a recipe, or using only the great ingredients, or some secret or alchemy of pots and pans and spoons, “what’s the secret of making a great meal?”
“Oh that’s easy, you just have to love cooking.”