That’s Sealyham Terrier in the photo. She’s one of the lights of my life. She’s adored by the bipeds around her ― and with good reason! ― but I guess she has her down days. Sometimes it’s because I put sardines in her breakfast instead of tuna, and sometimes it’s because I forget to put her “lily pad” back under the bed when she wants to turn in for the night. Whatever the cause, she goes a bit quiet and seems to have a bit of a think about things. But I’ve never caught her logging on to WordPress and looking for a “golden rule” to the Perfect Doggy Life. She looks to herself for answers, instead.
I’m pretty new to WordPress, but I’m slowly getting the hang of some of the ways in which people tend to use it. Shrine to Self is a common option. Not many of us can be inducted (great verb!) into one of the various Halls of Fame that exist, but with a little effort it’s possible to create a website that houses all our small moments of glory, as well as our burning wish for bigger ones. Another prevalent model is the Guru’s Lecture Hall, in which bloggers with astonishing clarity manage to present tips and rules and insights into how you can save your life from your own shocking self-neglect.
Of course, there’s nothing completely wrong with this (I may be succumbing to the impulse myself right here!). One of my favourite characters from literature, Anthony Trollope’s cello-playing Reverend Harding, says at one point that life is a mystery that none of us will ever understand, and yet it is important to make an effort. So let’s think about life problems by all means, but always with a grain, many grains, of salt. After all, one striking lesson brought home to us by the WordPress experience is that each life is so different, and takes so many different forms. Each of us is such an unprecedented combination of circumstances that our apparently “golden rules” can only be crude guidelines at best ― and at worse downright misleading . . .
My cat Poost likes to go for a walk every afternoon around the garden, and she’s in the habit of not letting me forget it. We have a big, fenced-off area to wander in ― the fence is there partly to keep out deadly poisonous snakes in Summer, and partly to discourage the kangaroos that, while not being lethal, are great wreckers of trees, which kangaroos regularly use for boxing practice. Today as we wandered about, I did have a bit of a Moment in which I felt in a very slight and trivial way that there are just so many intersecting lives in this world, lives that escape all our attempts to generalize and categorize them. That’s one of the great (and dangerous) things about language: we can grasp overriding principles with it, but in the process lose sight of what is irreducibly and spontaneously unique to each creature. It’s awesome and marvellous and it may mean that essentially we are all beyond the help of others.
Confucius was, I guess, keen on rules, but he also has an admirable habit of trying to learn something from everyone. In some ways, I prefer his outlook to that of our WordPress gurus. You might see someone do something with poise and competence, and try and learn something from that. Or you might taste someone’s cooking and try and work out how they made it taste so good. Or you hear someone phrase things in a particularly pleasant or memorable way. How did they do it? Instead of maxims and secrets and golden rules, we can learn about living from concrete instances, drawn directly from the living that surrounds us, haphazardly, painstakingly, piecemeal. It’s a slow but intriguing process.
Life is unpleasant at times. If the World came and knocked on your door one day, and asked you, as a special favour, to shoulder some of the pain of the universe, what would you say? Would it be too much to ask? Maybe that’s what we’re called on to do when we’re unhappy and life seems to have gone awry, at least in some cases. Perhaps misery is, sometimes, bearing part of the load that has to be borne. Sometimes too the dark moments seem to lie right up against the blindingly bright ones in our make-up: we’re all impossible jumbles of such contradictory strands, and yet out of it, through it, kindness, beauty, intelligence all get a chance to make their presences felt. Maybe that’s why it’s so hard to make any real, lasting sense.
Four months into being 56, I’m not sure where I’m headed. I’ve been listening to gurus for a long time now, but I’m just starting to feel a tiny urge to turn resolutely away. Leave yourself, I hear something whisper, to your own devices. If there is such a thing as a Golden Rule for me, perhaps I’m the only one who can find it. And not by looking for it but by letting it find me, in its own way, at its own pace. My truth isn’t yours, and yours isn’t remotely like anybody else’s. No preconception you can possibly form will ever prepare you for this absolutely staggering singularity. Any idea you have of what it will be is DEFINITELY NOT how it will be! It’s maddening, but at the same time, heartening. No one has done “you” before, and no one will do “you” again. Let’s try leaving ourselves, just as an experiment, to our own devices. And if they experiment doesn’t work, there’ll always be WordPress gurus to come back to, with delight sometimes, and maybe too with a twinge of despair at that terrible human weakness for the quick and snappy answer.