Last December Peggy, my auntie’s cavoodle, was biting the overgrown branches off one of our trees in the backyard. Branches being the choking hazards they are, I chased her around the yard to get the sticks out of her mouth. And then she went back to the tree and bit some more. So I put her inside, got the garden trimmers from under the kitchen sink and snipped away the branches. And then, with the tree looking more and more tidy, something took me by surprise – relief.
Thanks to COVID I, like so many others, lost my job and by necessity had to step back into the benefits system and the job hunt I so dread. By that point in the backyard with Peggy it had been another unfruitful week and I was so wound up chasing jobs and hearing nothing back, once I finally did something that gave me an immediate result the tension I didn’t realise I was holding dropped away.
In the burst of free associations that followed I remembered Marie Kondo and her “Konmari Method” for tidying and decluttering one’s house. I never jumped on the “spark joy” bandwagon. Maybe it’s because I dislike it when something that’s originally free like folding one’s shirts is turned into a commodity as part of a personal brand. Still, in a capitalist society we all need to make money somehow.
But pruning trees remains free of charge and far more giving.
The late poet Mary Oliver once said “The idea must drive the words. When the words drive the idea, it’s all floss and gloss, elaboration, air bubbles, dross, pomp, frump, strumpeting.”
When I think of words driving absent ideas, when I think of dishonesty and pretence, politicians come to mind. Not all politicians are dishonest but there are times when those in power conceal information from the media and, by extension, us. Everything a politician says is scrutinised by the media because it’s the media’s job in a free country to hold those who govern us accountable (although no newspaper is without political bias) so politicians take care not to say anything that might jeopardise their careers. Instead we get the party lines we can all see through and any credibility they had goes out the window.
We like people to mean what they say and say what they mean.
One day last summer I drove with my parents to Windermere in the Lake District for our holidays. After the first lockdown we were more than eager to get away from the city and the bad news. Our sat-nav took us the scenic route and we ended up stuck on the western shore of the lake waiting for a ferry to take us across. We stretched our legs in the sunshine and stood by the water admiring the immensity and magnificence of the place. I wished I brought my swimming trunks and a towel so I could jump in.
In cities our eyes aren’t accustomed to seeing so far away with buildings surrounding us in every direction so in those times when we can see for miles upon miles without our eyes striking a bus or an advert telling us to buy something we don’t need the scale by which we see ourselves changes. There are things that are literally bigger than us.
Once we were across the lake and found a parking space we ate ice cream and chips; we drank coke and beer; we rode a cruise ship around the lake for an hour while cool breezes blew through the deck. Families and teenagers swam offshore close to a few dotted islands. The staff onboard the ship warned us to keep our face masks on despite the heat. It was a glorious day.
During the first lockdown in the spring my auntie and her wife bought a three month old cavoodle puppy who they named Peggy Sue after my auntie’s nan. We looked after Peggy while my auntie shopped for her elderly father who was confined to his house on government advice. Over the months we watched Peggy grow in size and confidence. Where once she was too small to climb the stairs or leap on the couch she now does with ease. She lifts us out of our pandemic concerns if only for short moments when she paws our legs for attention; when she bites our beards or demands we play fetch with her in the night.
The word that comes up when I read other people’s end of year appraisals of 2020 is “strange”. 2020 has indeed been strange. Covid-19 sent us to our rooms, crippled our economies and killed (and is still killing) lots of people day by day. I remember the panic over bird flu and swine flu but those diseases never spread worldwide. I think the strangeness of Covid-19 for myself is thankfully neither I nor anyone in my family has caught it and yet I see statistics of infections and deaths in the news everyday. I’m pretty sure some bias is at play there. Tell a lie – one of my other aunties caught it a month ago but I think because I only briefly saw her talking to my mother on Zoom even that didn’t feel real. Something about being isolated from other 3-D humans and instead talking to a screen for months on end. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t for one second underestimate the disease.
Still, there were other small celebrations: my uncle turned sixty; my nan turned eighty and Trump is on his way out.
Lewis Hyde writes in The Gift that “the artist in the modern world must suffer a constant tension between the gift sphere to which his work pertains and the market society which is his context.” Hyde also writes of a “disquieting sense of triviality” that haunts artists in societies like ours. You know the feeling. Every so often we’re neck deep in doubt and ask ourselves “why bother writing, painting, etc. if I’m not going to be paid for it?”
Even the questions we ask ourselves are framed in terms of their market value. But John McPhee thinks different. The author Tim Ferris studied under McPhee at Princeton and in his class notes he wrote “McPhee never has suggested that the point of writing is to make money, or that the merit of your writing is determined by its market value. ‘A great paragraph is a great paragraph wherever it resides’ he’d say. ‘It could be in your diary.’”
But I think so long as the market exists there will always be a temptation to cater to its demands and become what Seth Godin cautions us not to become in The Practice, a hack.
But what about worth? Again Hyde says “I mean ‘worth’ to refer to those things we prize and yet say ‘you can’t put a price on it.’ We derive value, on the other hand, from the comparison of one thing with another.” When we live in a society where almost everything has a price and we’re bombarded day and night by adverts it’s hard to recognise worth apart from value, especially the worth of one’s art when we also believe time is money.