Ordinarily, my days aren’t fast paced, and even though I think I live a slow life, I can feel the benefit of slowing down even further while I am on holiday. I’m still in Canada, now on Crosby Lake in Lanark County. I’m mesmerised by the woodpeckers I see from my early morning writing spot; I roll into the water like a lazy turtle when it gets too hot; I watch beavers swim at dusk, seeing how they slap their tails to warn each other that human’s are nearby. By day, I’m mostly on the dock. A dragonfly alights on K.’s back as she dries out after our swim. Although large (its wings are as long as my widespread palm) she doesn’t feel it, or at least she doesn’t move. This place exudes peace. On the flat arm of my Muskoka chair is my unopened book and by K.’s head is another book, but neither of us read. Instead, we have opted to be with our thoughts – slow thoughts (mine anyway) that are so much less jostling than those of everyday life. My next thought comes: this is everyday life; why am I boxing up these days as separate, and how can I (or any of us) maintain that holiday feeling long after the holidays ends? What it is about being on holiday that makes one feel so relaxed? I am the same me, and all of life’s circumstances ought to weigh the same, even on holiday – for they haven’t changed. Yet something is different. Is it distance? Perspective? A tapping into the stillness of who I really am? Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of brining back treasures and mementoes from ones travels, we could bottle the calm that has filtered into our soul and bring it back to our ‘real’ lives. Perhaps therein lines the problem: that we compartmentalise this short life we are given and we don’t see holiday time as real time; we label it as an escape, a break, a rest, a staging post in the sprint relay of life.
K. stirs from her prone position on the dock, and we begin to talk. She tells me she’s quit her job; it was time for a career change. Young and wise and quick to recognise what many of us don’t, she explained: “I didn’t like what it was doing to me.” She’s right, each of us are different people at different times of the day, the month, the year: the holiday person, the work person, the family person, the social self, and the inner/reflective self – and when one of those versions of you becomes someone you don’t recognise or like much, then it might be time to make a change. I don’t suppose there is any way around playing those different roles, but perhaps we could work to smooth out the edges between them, to allow each of our ‘selves’ to unravel into the other a bit more fluidly. Ah! Unravelling – a word not normally used in complementary terms. “She’s unravelling! He’s come undone!” For ‘real’ life we use expressions like ‘holding it together’, ‘buttoning up’, ‘gritting your teeth’, ‘putting your shoulder to the wheel’ (and there are so many more) – a series of descriptions actively encouraging rigidity and squarely discouraging any unravelling until it’s time for the next break. But how do we create more balance in a life? How do we live a life we really want and not just stagger from holiday to holiday and finally to retirement? How can I hold onto this feeling of having gently unfurled by the lakeside and bring it back to my everyday life. In short: how on earth do I lead a good life?
It seems to me that people are beginning to ask themselves this question earlier in their lives. It used to be a mid-life crisis question, answered by a new motorbike, or a fast car, but not anymore. Just like K., I think people are asking questions, and finding answers, at a younger age. I found it really useful when S. wrote to me recently and, instead of asking the question: ‘how do I lead a good life?’ she was asking herself how she could lead a good day. And her list was simple, but essential and life-affirming: to cook, walk the dog, spend time with her son, cut the grass, play music, talk to friends, earn enough money to support a good life, which – it turns out – doesn’t need to be a complicated life. I think she’s onto something. After all, a life is made up of a succession of days, and if each day is lived well then you’ve cracked the life question.
For the first time I notice what K. is reading: ‘Man’s Search For Meaning’, by Viktor E. Frankl. “What’s that about?” I asked her, wondering if answer on how to live a good life might have been lying at my feet all this time. It’s an old text. He was an Auschwitz survivor – the only one of three generations of his family to live, yet he came out of the Holocaust with a positive life outlook. The book presents his philosophy that life is not a quest for pleasure but rather a quest for meaning. Frankl suggests there are three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant that helps others); in love (caring for another person); in courage during difficult times. Sounds like I’ve got some more thinking to do.