“In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.” Isn’t that a lovely line? It’s from The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. It makes me think about reframing awful things in a different way. Maybe this (insert whatever your trouble is) isn’t so bad after all. And if to reframe the terrible is an impossible task (and usually it is), then Kundera reminds us that given time, with the distance of gazing back at one’s predicament from many years hence, at the time of the metaphorical sun set of one’s life, it will all be fine, so fine that we might actually miss that period of time we once thought of as terrible. I don’t know that it is true, but I feel that it might be. Not that I believe I’m ever likely to miss the incidents and events that once caused me distress, but perhaps – probably – it is possible to miss the days around them, for even the worst days that I look back on, I can find something sweet about them. It is odd to sometimes find myself thinking back over horrible times with a sense of wistfulness. There are moments when I know this, mostly when I am alone in the evening with the sun dropping.
Last year, during the lockdown I would meet R. in town with his dogs and we would walk Calton Hill in the eerie quietude, worry about the state of the world, discuss what we thought was going to happen. We would try to work through the implications of it all, the longer-lasting repercussions, willing it all to come to an end whilst knowing, at the same time, that we were becoming addicted to the poignancy of it all, and that when it was all over there were aspects of this strange time that we would miss. Which came to pass, as the last few times we have met, he has been late because traffic is back with a vengeance, and we both lament the congestion-free streets of this time last year.
Yet, I also love getting back out there after the quietude, into busy streets filled with people, some happy with their back-top-normal lives, some edgy, others nervous and de-socialised. And I can understand both, the need to roll into a ball and weep in the belief that it is all ruined for ever, or the need to get out and live while we still can, full tilt to the point of dissolution. Why not if it seems we are all doomed? Or that we were all doomed and have just about escaped it. Maybe we’ll go back to the roaring twenties of the last century when people were so relieved to see the back of the great war that there were years of parties and licentiousness. I could go either way. I suspect every generation thinks they live in the most tumultuous of times. Our calamitous crow is pandemic, climate change, culture wars, price hikes, goods shortages. And everyone has their own take on it. I have one friend whose (rather wearying) refrain is, “everything is just sh**e.” One of my wise sisters says she has become so bewildered by all the noise of arguing that she shrugs her shoulders and gets on with what it is she has to do, opinionless. If I were an enlightened mystic (far from it) then I might remind myself that these are the best of times, and I will one day look back on pandemic, climate change, culture wars, price hikes, goods shortages with fondness. And I might borrow from Thomas Merton and his famous moment of enlightenment when wandering Louisville one day in 1958 when it came to him how great everything was, how wonderful we all are, if only we knew it. “There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”