When someone is sure of his or herself, they can be humorously self-deprecating about their imperfections whilst remaining quietly rooted and secure, still believing in their abilities and talents. Take the unlikely example of Bing Crosby’s prominent ears, which he said made him look, ‘like a taxi cab with its doors wide open.’ Or consider W.H. Auden, with his deeply grooved face, wrinkles like cracked earth at a watering hole in drought, which he poetically described as, ‘a face like a wedding cake that has been left out in the rain’. Neither sought physical perfection in order to be able to sing or to write poetry, and they happily poked fun at themselves, not doubting for a second their respective musical or literary abilities. Or am I supposing these two had limitless faith in themselves because of the legacy they left behind, because of the esteem in which they are now held? Maybe there were days when Auden not only looked in the mirror to see a crumpled paper bag of a face looking back at him, but perhaps he was also, at times, taunted by the demon of a blank page. Did he ever toil over his latest verses for hours only to tear up his labours in disgust? Maybe Bing had down days too, when the wind almost lifted him by the ears, à-la-Dumbo, days when he couldn’t quite hit the high notes and his yodels sounded more like dying warbles. Surely there were times when both of them didn’t love their professions, days when they simply had to dig in and not give up?
I took a stroll with M. yesterday evening, just a short amble around the back lanes of her village. We picked a few blackberries (a couple of which I ate), sniffed at the last of the honeysuckle, and examined small, wild black cherries that I was afraid to eat. ‘Sometimes, if I’m feeling unhappy about life,’ M. told me, ‘I just think about putting one foot in front of the other and I remind myself that someday, when I’m old, I might not be fit to take a walk, even a short one like this – it makes me feel better about the now. It cheers me up.’
In that moment I focussed on my step: how my heel stuck the pavement, how I rolled onto the ball of my foot, body effortlessly propelled forward as my back leg swung in an onward motion to walk me home. She’s onto it, is M. She understands that when setbacks frustrate us, leave us fearful that we might never sing like Bing, write like Auden, or be far from the condition we might wish, that we’d do well to pull right back to the simple things. One step, two steps, three steps: mind your thoughts and keep moving, you never know where you’ll end up.
Everyone Knows This, by Hugo Williams
How am I feeling this morning?
Or is it too early to say?
I check by swallowing
to see if my throat’s still sore.
I check my thinking
to see if my brain still hurts.
I’m walking along out of doors,
not feeling anything much
when it suddenly comes to me:
I don’t feel so bad any more.
I think to myself,
‘I’ll soon put a stop to that!’