One of the few books I brought with me is The World of Charmian Clift. How did I choose my small box of books? I have no real idea, but so far, they have brought great rewards.
Like the other night, in the essay ‘The Time of Your Life’, I read this:
‘…one of the things that experience teaches is that happiness is not a permanent human condition, nor is the single-minded pursuit of it ultimately rewarding. It occurs, but occasionally, and often quite incidentally to some other purpose or endeavour. But if I am not a consistently happy person, I think I am an optimistic one, in that I belive in the possibility of happiness and my own ability to recognize it’.
I like that paragraph. It’s helped me to work something out.
Because at the moment, I am sad. Deeply sad. I miss my Dad. We were very close. We spent a great deal of time together. We talked on the phone. He was, as the mister once said, my Go-To man.
I know, however, because experience has taught, that this particular state of sadness passes. I know that days will come when I no longer sit up too late trying to stave off ghosts. That I will stop seeing things and reaching for my phone, because I know my Dad would love to hear them. The sight of his handwriting will not always make me cry. I know that those days will come.
And so, I am not seeking a way to lose that particular sadness just yet. I am not actively looking for a way to ‘get over/on with it’ or to ‘move on’ with life. I am not finished with that sadness yet. It still has a job to do.
At the same time, I want to live a not-unhappy life. In a few months, my youngest boy will be seven, my eldest nine. There are not so many years that they will want me in their classrooms, that they will ask me for a cuddle before they go to bed, that they will be turning to me to say, ‘Mum, were you looking, did you see that?’ We are in the midst of an adventure, in a city that is growing (yes, literally) before our eyes, in a culture and a state of being that I do not understand. I am about to live the dream I’ve had for a decade when I take my boys to Spain.
I need to be sad, but I want to be happy too.
I’ve been feeling quite guilty about that. Almost as if it’s disrespectful to Dad, as if I haven’t loved him enough, as if moments of happiness mean that I haven’t been sad enough.
I’m not a fan of guilt. I realise it’s got it’s place, and for other people it’s fine, but for me it’s generally related to self-indulgence. An ugly kind of self-indulgence, not like a new book or scrubbing the bath or wherever good self-indulgences take you. So I want to lose the guilt. And one way to do that is to remind myself that life is not lived in static states of being. Memories might make life look that, but of course it isn’t. Charmian Clift again:
‘Time has a particular trick, and a very clever one, of threshing and winnowing experience. As years pass the inconclusiveness of events in actual formulation is husked off and blown away like chaff on the wind. All that memory retains is a hoard of spearate grain. Oh, I was happy then, one says. Or, that was the greatest time. Forgetting that the happiness was inextricably mixed with all sorts of vexatious problems and irritations and interruptions. Jobs still had to be done. People knocked on doors at the wrong moment. One waited and waited interminably. And the greatest time ever was probably husked in boredom, doubt, and even fear.’
For the past few years, since Dad’s diagnosis, I’ve survived by living on two different layers. The top, coping layer, from the top of my head, down to my chest just lived moment by moment. Get out of bed, have a shower, make the lunches, take the children to school, buy the paper, come home, have breakfast…and so on. Underneath that, was the space from the ground to my chest, a heaving layer of uncertainty and stress, always threatening to break through the top layer, often succeeding.
One of the most difficult things to reconcile during this time, was whether to be hopeful or realistic. Where there is life, there is hope, (and what’s the point if you don’t believe in the hope), but the reality of his prognosis was always fairly grim. It seemed very strange to me that hope, deeply felt, utterly believed-in hope could live side-by-side with realistic pragtamism. Surely one of them must be right and one of them must be wrong.
But maybe not. Of course not. Emotions are a seething mass of dichotomies and inconsistencies. Having one emotion does not exclude the possibility of having another.
Certainly, there are some dichotomies which, for me, are difficult to manage. But even stress and uncertainty have not been entirely incompatible with happiness. All of us meeting Dad at the market for breakfast, for example, they were happy times. Not forced, we-may-never-do-this-again happy times. Just simple happy times of sitting together and comparing the weeks we’d had.
I have been trying to tell myself that I should not label emotions as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. That I should just let them all be. I mean, it’s true that I am sad, but I am also angry and bitter and cross, because despite the time we had between his diagnosis and his death, there is so much unresolved. Dad said that time was too short to be angry and then he got too tired anyway and so did I, and so there are things we did not address and now I’ve got a few emotional messes that I have to sort out for myself. But if I’ve got no problems letting my brain be sad and angry at the same time, so why not occasional happiness too?
There are still more sad than happy moments. When horrible things happen – as they have over the past few weeks – I fall back onto the couch, a fragile, unspeaking wreck. There are still days when I just could not give a shit. I am exhausted still. I’m not quite ready to stop being sad and I don’t expect that when I look back over these days I will think, They were happy times.
But I am glad I brought this book in my small box and tonight I’m going to read the essay on page 27. Is There a Hypochondriac in the House? And after that, youngest boy, you’d better watch out.
PS This is nothing at all what I expected to be writing when I first read this essay.