It’s been a year of not having much to talk about (apart from ‘that’). I’m talking wider experiences, the type of things the hairdresser wants to hear about when you are in the chair to be shorn. Hardly anyone this year has had tales to recount from holidays taken. There have been few anecdotes from day trips, zero accounts of that concert you’ve been to or that film you’ve seen. No stories from the terraces about the roaring crowd as your rugby or football team won the cup. Anything we have done has been small, local and often solitary, or in twos or threes. Probably, your life, like mine, has been punctuated by the repetitive: the same walk taken; same garden tended; same kitchen in which you’ve chopped onions. ‘Nothing much; same old, same old,’ has often been my answer, this year, to the ‘what have you been up to?’ question. We’re conditioned to think the quotidian events don’t merit telling or even remembering; that they are mundane. Yet, I don’t know about you, but I suspect I have noticed more and will remember more from this year than other glitzier, more event-full years.
I too have had cabin fever (it comes and goes) and a fervour to get up and go, but I have been learning to content myself with a reduced radius of a few miles, figuring out what newness there is to discover therein. Marcel Proust – a genius at noticing the detail, in remembering the particular, itemising things the rest of us might overlook – said, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes”. New eyes come easy to us when we travel to new places, but when we wake up in the same place day after day to follow the same routine, we lose new eyes, they become lazy and stop seeing what Patrick Kavanagh described as “the newness in every stale thing”. And Kavanagh insisted it was there to be found, “wherever life pours ordinary plenty”. These are both lines from his poem, ‘Advent’, about wakening up to what we might otherwise dismiss, shake our heads at, turn away from, wishing we were somewhere else. We will be somewhere else, soon enough, hard as it might be to believe right now, and whilst we wish our lives away wanting to get there, Kavanagh suggests (and Proust too) that we are missing out on a wealth of ordinary splendour each day.
They say most poets and writers are obsessed with memory, but I think all of us have the ability – if we apply a little discipline – to notice new things, especially in times when we think nothing is worth taking notice of. My late husband once talked to me about the importance of creating memories. I didn’t understand what he meant. Lately, I think I do. I think he was talking about noticing and occupying one’s day fully; about observing all of the time, no matter how mundane moments might appear on the surface. Because if life is lived more fully then it can be banked away to be lived again in memory – either in the writing of it, the telling of it, the private thinking about it. Here’s another quote from Proust who, restricted to a room, uses what little he can see and hear to mine old memories and let the past and present fuse in rich and satisfying layers “From the sound of pattering raindrops I recaptured the scent of the lilacs at Combray; from the shifting of the sun’s rays on the balcony the pigeons in the Champs-Elysées; from the muffling of sounds in the heat of the morning hours, the cool taste of cherries.” There you go, take it from Proust, memories can be a vessel for travel, when time travel is the only sort of travel open to us.
I was in town on Thursday night with my niece. It was wet, dark and deserted and we talked through these ideas of how ordinary days can create vivid and important memories, as much, sometimes more so, than the big events. ‘I know that,’ she told me, and, in her unassuming, gentle manner, she got straight to the point with a quote she knew from Winne The Pooh: “We didn’t realise we were making memories, we just knew we were having fun.”
A Sonnet for Kate
It’s the week before Christmas and we’re walking home
Up Princes Street past empty trams, the Scott Monument
At nine at night when normally hoards would jostle, roam
The winter market, except, like everything else, it’s been rent
Asunder, no stalls selling roasted chestnuts, no hot glogg,
No big wheel with views of the city from a height:
Shops lit up, trees sparkling. Instead this is Groundhog
Day, all weeks, months the same, done in by the blight
That has wrapped the whole world, a sinister present
We’re told to recoil from. Yet there’s something appealing
About walking in a deserted city deep into Advent
With my niece, stopping to admire the crib, chatting,
Thinking about how this year pushed us to extremities
And how walks in the dark can make the best memories.