In my mind I carry with me the voices of all the women I have known, loved and listened to. It’s like having a little box of friends in my head that I can tap into anytime life gets a little wobbly or I just need a guiding hand. I’ve carefully curated this little box and only allow the wisest of souls to enter my cushioned inner sanctuary.
Lean in as I whisper my greatest secret – my mind friends give me the confidence, the love and the grit to face life head on, to keep dreaming big and to ensure that my inner world is filled with wise graceful beauty and compassion.
I so recommend living this way.
My Mother, my Grand Mother (who were right about everything all along – listen up youngsters you’ll find this out in time) and my therapist are there and so too are a very carefully handpicked group of girlfriends who I’ve had the enormous pleasure of being close to over the years.
“I like to have a martini, Two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host.”Dorothy Parker
But central to the cast are the group of female writers who have sustained me over the most turbulent of years. Among them Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Strout, Nora Ephron (so hilarious and life affirming about middle age) and Dorothy Parker (famous for my favourite quote of all time “I like to have a martini, Two at the very most. After three I’m under the table, after four I’m under my host”. )
And those magical country singers who are really the best of all poets Patty Griffin (“I went up to the mountain because you asked me to” – one of my favourite all time lines about selfless love”), Emmylou Harris (Red Dirt Girl makes me weep time and again “could have been the whisky, could have been the pills, could have been the dreams she was trying to kill” 😭 and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Stones in The Road – the experience of the outsider a constant companion in my 30s.
As the magnificent Charlie Mackesy (The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse) points out why ever do people keep comparing their inner self to everybody else’s outer self – we really have no idea what is going on behind the eyes. And many people are really good actors.
My advice, for what it’s worth, is ditch the outer stuff fast and keep going in – deeper and deeper. It’s where all the richness of life abides – and it’s possible in all of us.
So this week one of my best of all voices left this mortal world and left, I’m quite sure of this, millions of us fans completely bereft. I cannot summon the words to justify how the great, great, great writer Joan Didion (5/12/1934 – 23/12/2021) held me up at my darkest times. Her book The Year of Magical Thinking – a classic book about how to mourn – lies tearstained by my bed. And always will. It really is the only book you need to read when you’ve lost somebody you’ve loved -her line about not wanting to throw away her husband’s shoes after he died of a heart attack because “he may need them” speaks so entirely to the experience of the widowed.
Thank the Lord I have a catalogue of her words on my shelf and in my mind. Death has no power against the words and ideas that are given to us.
And at Christmas, where loss seems to weigh heavily on the expectations of merriment, I recall her words time and again “We have kind of evolved into a society where grieving is totally hidden. it doesn’t take place in our family. It takes place not at all”.
I so agree with this and wonder where we all really put our sadness as we sit around tables – or not. How strange a day that tells us that there is only room for happy faces, presents, food and drink – of giving, giving, giving to so many who have already got so much. That we close our doors, and sometimes our hearts, to others who are not as fortunate as us. To others who may dampen the mood with their tears of the sadness that is so much part of the tapestry of life.
The result, me thinks, is a whole bunch of lonely disconnected people who feel that they aren’t welcome because they are finding life really hard. So when any of us chance upon difficult times, as we will, we are banished to the lonely step and encouraged to “turn that frown upside down”. Hence the Samaritans line rings off the hook and psychologists rooms are full and getting fuller.
And I think there is a huge warning here for all of our mental health. The stoics knew this better than anybody – but then religion, philosophy, psychology and the arts know this too. We cannot really truly be free, joyful and happy without embracing the darker sides of life. Repress the sadness and you repress the joy – all mental health practitioners know this. Instagram life hacks may be quick and free but they are like sticking plasters – that’s why they don’t work and they don’t last.
This Christmas I took time out to be really sad and it released something positive in me. I lit candles for my dead and sat in a church (at the back as not really ready for church going yet). And at least I felt some kind of connection. I certainly felt lighter and I looked around at the faces of people who were stepping out and into their communities and thought – good on you all.
I think this stuff is so important especially in a world where so many are polarising around a specific belief. Cutting ties with people who don’t agree with them and narrowing down the number of people they associate with. We should all be throwing stones through windows to stop this happening – such disconnection fosters mistrust, hatred and ultimately heavens knows what. Listen to what the social economists are warning about this. The Financial Times weekly podcast is the one to tune into here …
So here is the hugest hug 🥰 to you if you are hurting in any way. It will pass, even the worst of pains eventually change and fade to some extent, but my advice would be to shout your hurt from the rooftops! and keep shouting until you find somebody worthy enough to listen to you. Talking about our pain helps others and makes others feel less lonely – believe me my inboxes are full up of people telling me how my words have helped them. There is the best of all lightness, humour and connection in pain. And the best we can all do with each other is to walk alongside each other – and of course laugh a lot at the madness of our funny, precious little world.