essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Don’t you think we spend too much time on big issues? I know I do. Pollution, honest politicians, health and diet, saving money, weight? They are big issues, important, but along the way as we consider them don’t we get a little obsessed? Big issues promote anxiety, because all too often we can do little about them. But while we worry about big issues we can forget the other things that make life worthwhile. Just because they’re little.
The other night I received a call from an old friend of mine in Italy. As we talked she mentioned things she had been doing. One of them was painting a ladder. She had painted it green. And it filled her with joy. It was an apple green; round, crisp and juicy. “But do you know Phillip, I looked at it and it was green. Green, green. GREEN!” Another excitement she had was to acquire a ladder. It was an old ladder she’d put in a storeroom, had it for years, dilapidated and dusty. Then it was a green ladder. A green LADDER! Now she keeps it in the living room in pride of place. And climbs it to retrieve books from the bookshelf’s top shelf. She has not just a ladder. She has delight.
It started me thinking. Big issue joys are often mixed ones. The promotion at work means more time away from home, the new baby means extra expense and less sleep, the new car is wonderful but uses too much petrol.
It is in the little issues we find happiness unalloyed. And it is the little issues we all too often forget.
For some reason we carry around our cares. It would be irresponsible not to, we learn as we grow up.
But a lot of the time it’s the little joys that get us through the day. Why do we forget them? Guilt? Aren’t we allowed to remember happiness? Are little scraps of happiness too silly to recall later?
I look at the sky and think how absurd that the cumulus clouds look exactly like wads of cotton wool. Cotton wool in the sky. What could he have been thinking of, the person who planned that! It gives me a lift. I walk down the street and a beautiful girl gives me a smile. She might not have even seen me, yet I share her moment of happiness and feel elated. I find just the book I’m searching for at the bookshop, or get a two for one offer at the supermarket, and feel blessed. Somebody up there likes me. All little things, all over in a moment, all usually forgotten.
Singing along to the radio, a song that, dammit, I can’t get out of my head. Singing in the shower, pretending to be Pavarotti when I know I really sing like Bob Dylan with a head cold. Everyone has their own, private, little issues. They’re different to everyone else’s. Little joys, little scraps of happiness. And all of us forget them. It’s one thing we have in common.
What we tend to carry around are a different kind of little issue. Petty resentments. We hang on to those, tenaciously. The neighbour who slams his front door when he leaves for work every morning, and makes our pictures hang crookedly. The lady in the supermarket queue who haggles over the special she thought she didn’t get with the checkout operator, or the one who can’t operate the self serve machine. The pest who puts his bags on the bus seat when there is standing room only. Life is full of these petty annoyances. And we collect them. At the end of the day we need a stiff drink to unwind. And we are all too prone to shift the tension on to someone else. Some innocent who didn’t understand what we said, and we yell at them. We tell our spouse exactly what character flaws they have in unnecessary detail. We’re excessively strict with the children.
From now on I propose to try and forget about petty annoyances. You can’t win. Say nothing and feel aggrieved. Complain, and feel like a graceless grump. Instead, I’m going to collect my little moments of happiness, and remember them. As for the nuisances and the pests, they are just carrying around their own personal irks and troubles and feeling oppressed by them. I wish I could tell them, “Let them go! Collect the fun things of the day, not the irritating ones!” But I’m too shy.
The time a friend gave me a kimono table. It was made of polished teak and was in 30 separate pieces, and fitted together without nails or glue. I have the reputation of being an unpractical fellow, and I looked at this pile of wooden parts with some considerable doubt. But I persevered. I was proud of myself when I put all the pieces together. But I forgot about it. The table was just there. Now I look at it and feel pleased. I built that!
Little issues need to be collected together and treasured. They are often our purest moments of happiness in life. There are literally millions of them. The sweet smell of plums. Moonset on the water (that’s one I really love). A friend who says something unconsidered and ridiculous and then starts to giggle. They look so absurd I can’t help but laugh with them. The way when I write I labour for a while, then something clicks, and the words flow with such rapidity: they seem to come from somewhere else outside me, and I feel a moment of awe.
Thousands of little things, and none of them costs a cent. We just have to see them. As it says somewhere in the gospels, look and you shall be delighted (or something like that). Walking down my front path to the street I once saw a little weed growing between the pavement stones. I must pull that out, I thought to myself. And forgot to do so. The next day I saw it again, and again forgot to pull it out. Then one day I stopped in surprise. This miniscule little weed with its deep green serrated leaves like latticework had unfurled a long stem, and bursting with a vivid purple blue at the end was a tiny flower. It was a very emphatic blue. “Stand on me if you want” the flower seemed to be saying. “I don’t care. I am alive, and life is worth living”. Well, you mightn’t think much of that idea, coming from someone who imagines flowers talking to him. I leave it with you.
Then I wondered. Would I recognise happiness, little joys? They are a little like complacencies, self satisfactions. My kimono table for instances. I don’t want to feel proud about assembling the table. I want to feel delight that I assembled it against the odds of my ineptitude. I want to savour how unlikely an event that was.
So I invented a standard. I went back in memory to the age of six, to Christmas Eve, to the decorated tree in the living room. And my parents told me that while I slept that night Father Christmas would visit and leave me something under the tree. I was up at six the next morning, and ran to the living room, and there was a present for me under the tree. I want to recapture, not the excitement that Father Christmas might come, not the pleasure of tearing off the wrappings to see what the present was. I want to find again the joy of standing in the room and seeing, yes, yes, there really is a present for me under the tree. It lasted a minute or less, and was forgotten straight away. But it was pure happiness.
Another memory. When I was little I read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (first part only of course). I found out later it was one of the most influential books I ever read. The summary idea, when Crusoe overcomes despondency by listing all the things that have happened in two columns, good and bad, stayed with me, and has become a regular habit. Another bit I remember is when Crusoe finds the footprint of a man in the sand on his island. It is of course his man Friday’s, discovered on a Friday. The phrase Defoe uses has also stayed with me. He says, “I was surprised by joy”.
That’s what I’m looking for. I want to be surprised by joy.
©2014 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.