The pursuit of happiness
Plan for your one wild and precious life
Carla Carlisle plans for her one wild and precious life
IAM stockpiling antibiotics for the apocalypse, even as I await the blossoming of paperwhites on the windowsill in the kitchen.’
I’d say that’s a pretty good first line. Not so much a sign of our times, but a line of our times. I could have written it myself, but, in fact, it’s the opening line of Anne Lamott’s new book, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope. I bought it in Ann Patchett’s book store in Nashville in November, but didn’t get around to reading it until the dreamy lull between Christmas and New Year.
I feel kinship to the writer’s anxiety for many reasons. For a start, I have those bridal narcissus called paperwhites in my kitchen window, also the dining room, the hall and all the unheated spaces in between.
And, like Miss Lamott, I have a private stockpile. Not antibiotics—although that’s a thought—but an anti-viral called Tamiflu.
I acquired it in 2006, when we were warned that the bird-flu pandemic circling in the skies above us would kill up to 750,000 people in Britain. We were also told that Tamiflu, expensive and in short supply, was the most effective treatment. I was about to buy three packages and save my small family, but my Christian conscience kicked in: I ordered enough to save everyone who worked on the farm, putting more than £1,000 on my Mastercard. But what the heck—it gave me peace of mind, which, as the ad says, is ‘priceless’.
That the Tamiflu, bought online from a Canadian company and made in Malaysia, expired in 2007 and that bird flu and its pestilential sequel, swine flu, have not wiped out half the world’s population might make you question my expenditure—especially as numerous reports since have indicated that Tamiflu is no better than paracetamol, doesn’t prevent the spread of flu and side effects include ‘serious psychiatric and metabolic events’. The community I sought to save could now be fat and crazy.
Meanwhile, my ungrateful family snorts whenever they come across my out-of-date stockpile. In my defence, I point out that the Government spent £473 million on Tamiflu.
I can defend my investment. Bad news is easier to believe than good. The prophets of doom have better grammar and sound far more serious than the optimists, who, with the exception of Matt Ridley and Steven Pinker, sound slightly simple-minded.
If you wake up to Farming Today, have your first cup of coffee with Today and have enough stamina to read a morning newspaper, you will have been threatened with climate warming, Trump lunacy, Brexit gridlock, NHS waiting lists, China, Russia, Facebook, Saudi Arabia, wildfires, Amazon, moped gangs, knife crime, gambling addiction, homelessness and plastic (oh God, plastic) all before you’ve let out the chickens. You have to be a fool to be light-hearted.
All the more reason to surround yourself with paperwhites, symbols of patience and hope. It matters not that they grace us with their beauty and glorious scent but briefly, then wither and smell of cat pee. Watching them peek out of their mossy grave, witnessing their diminutive flowers emerge from their slender green stems, then swooning with each whiff of their heady perfume, it’s like the happiest blessing of all: a reminder that, despite the news of the world, some things still work.
It’s this little patch of euphoria, the white hope that graces the wintry sills as one year closes and a new one begins, that always reminds me of the poem by Mary Oliver that ends: ‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?’
My plans for 2019 are modest. I’ll try to sleep more. No news after 10pm, because listening to the World Service in the dark is like sleeping with one eye open. I’m consigning all towels that have my husband’s name tags from his schooldays to the dog pile in the boot room and buying luxurious new ones. I’ll use the good china and silver every day and put it in the dishwasher because my beloved heirs do not wash by hand.
This is the year of less radio, more CDS: Nina Simone, Keith Jarrett and Bach. I’m sticking with Michael Berkeley’s Private Passions on Radio 3, but defecting from Desert Island Discs. Ditto The Archers, which has become even gloomier than Woman’s Hour. Enough is enough.
I’ll book in advance the showings of live performances at the little Abbeygate cinema in Bury St Edmunds. It is pure happiness for us country folk. I’ll write my Christmas cards before Epiphany (I hope) and take my boxes of Tamiflu to the surgery for disposal, leaving before the pharmacist looks inside the paper sack.
The prophets of doom have better grammar and sound far more serious The bridal narcissus paperwhites remind us that, despite the news of the world, some things still work
One more thing. The late Anne Wright was my first sub-editor at COUNTRY LIFE. Warm and fastidious, Anne was also wise. In his eulogy, Michael Hall described an editorial meeting at which a member of staff brought up the need for the magazine to appeal to younger readers. ‘Why should we do that?’ asked Anne. ‘Older readers are so much more interesting.’
Much happiness depends on the Anne Wright Principle. In her honour, this is the year that I’ll get around to writing to the National Trust, Radio 4, Tate Britain, the Bbc—the list goes on—and wage a private war against the creeping infantilisation of our cultural universe.
I’m not saying that the apocalypse isn’t around the corner. I’m not even saying that I won’t be tempted to stash antibiotics, although I believe that nothing enhances our immunity like difficult, ordinary happiness. But happiness requires tending; even paperwhites need staking with twigs and twine to stay upright. We only have one wild and precious life. We should strive to make it happy.