I step back and think about my life at least twice each year. 1 January—New Year’s Day and 1 June—my birthday. This year that stepping back has been more interesting than most because a) obviously you know why and b) it’s the year I turn fifty, so I was particularly introspective in January.
Around the New Year, I mapped out not only the year but the decade. I looked for patterns in the way my work had changed, in the way my life had changed. In those ten years I had cancer twice, I moved houses five times in two countries, I saw my children double in age, I watched my business grow tenfold. And still, the most amazing paragraph I wrote in January was this:
“The year ahead is always a blank slate. Some look more blank than others. This one, unusually, looks less blank.… There isn’t currently a move or a shift in any way that we’re planning…. Of course, life brings questions outside the bounds of New Years. My mother’s stroke wasn’t on the horizon at all obviously, and then it was. Mid-year can bring serious and unsettling (and perhaps delightful!) surprises.…So there might be hidden miseries in 2020, but it is surprising how few of the big questions linger here at New Year’s Day. How do I think about a year with so many of the last year’s questions answered?”
Ultimately, I decided that 2020 was the year I wanted to “cultivate space.” I spent pages writing about this and how impossible it was given a diary that was full until December. I took each month and dissected it, reshuffling to add more moments of my other core New Year’s desires: laughter, nature, connection. I left the New Year’s journaling satisfied with the upcoming year and planning on enjoying a rare year without too much change.
As I sit in my little study and look out at my tiny back garden, I am struck by the ways we do this, I do this. It is as if in my mind there are two different sorts of time: the time that changes and the time that is constant. There are the years I torture myself with questions about what will happen next (what will chemotherapy be like? What will it be like to move to London? What will it be like when Naomi goes to university?). Then I’m surprised at how things end up—nothing like what I imagined. There are years I look ahead at New Years, and I imagine I have it all figured out. Then I am surprised at how things end up—nothing like what I imagined. The future is nothing at all like I imagine it will be. It is always made of change.
I think we are fooled into this belief of change and constancy in part by the time scale of nature. The seasons look constant. The cherry blossoms come in late March in DC. Roses bloom from May until September in London. And then we are surprised when the trees blossom in April or the roses are still blooming in November. It’s close enough, though, to anticipate, and long enough cycles to forget how often unexpected things happen.
We are also fooled by the particular way our nervous systems evolved. As creatures on high alert, we were always anticipating the next thing, always living a few seconds ahead. And somehow our brains evolved to make a habit of that that has me planning the whole year ahead on 1 January, on 1 June. But that reflex is no more trustworthy than the one that makes your leg kick out when the doctor hits your knee. And yet still I am caught by it. You’d think I could anticipate that!
This year for my birthday I am trying to make a little haven in the tiny back garden, trying to bring some of the natural world in to my little world, since I am not allowed to fly off to see Big Nature for a while. But because we are only renting this lovely central London flat, I will keep my nature in the lovely big handmade pots I have asked for as a birthday present. As I plant, I will continue to plan and predict. I will expect the roses to bloom between May and September. I will expect the hydrangeas to be blue. But their roots will reach down into the soil and they will reach up into the sky, planless. They will blossom in their time; they will flower the colour they flower.
And as I look ahead on 1 June, on 1 January, I will try to remember that there are two kinds of time. There’s artificial time, time that seeds in our imagination, blossoms in emails and takes root in diaries. And there’s real time, that is made up of expected and unexpected happenings, tumbled together like a litter of corona puppies. In January I asked myself, “How do I think about a year with so many of the last year’s questions answered?” Here as we approach June I ask, How can I think about a life that is woven through with questions? I return to Rilke’s writing, which has comforted me since I was 17 years old. I must love the questions themselves as he taught me, as he begged…
I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
At 17, I believed that “living into the answer” was a possibility, a thing that happened to mature people, that would happen to me. In a week I’ll be fifty. And perhaps the thing I am just starting to learn as I enter this new chapter, is that the answer is that there are questions all the way through.