Sunday, November 2, 2008

Four (Or More) Legs Good, Two Legs Bad

My little trip to friends was the final piece in a puzzle I've been, well, puzzling over for many years - what is the vital ingredient in a happy life?

I had always been a town girl and reasonably happy to be so, I thought. So when we came here ten years ago and found ourselves living in the country it was quite a change - no pub or Indian carry-out within walking distance for a start! I found it very hard. The Golfer was away on business a lot and the neighbours completely ignored us - avoided us in fact. I found, during that first winter, my bubbly personality fizzling out and I was bitterly unhappy. But at the same time, I was entranced by my surroundings. Deer would appear at dusk and we would rush to the window and watch them till they moved on. An occasional hare would melt into view and then magically melt away again. Every time I heard a buzzard cry overhead I would dash out to watch it wheel far above. I began to feel truly in touch with, and not just sympathetic to, nature.

I began to pity people who had to live in town. True, we had new worries - the constant dread of a huge tree falling, a septic tank to grapple with, and the isolation - but every time I stepped outside I felt nourished. The Golfer, after a doubtful start, began to relax too. He loved coming back here after a long and tiring business trip and would feel his bones relax as he drew near the peace of home. It was a bit like being on holiday.

After he died, it was the land that kept me going. No matter how bad I felt, a walk round the wood would refresh me, even if it made me feel all the lonelier. Living here, there wasn't anything else to cheer me up, with neighbours who avoided me and the nearest Starbucks ten miles away. I felt completely alone but at peace, if that makes sense. I began to despair of ever being part of a community of any kind again. I tried new things but it never seemed to last beyond the event itself. No matter how adventurous I was, I still landed up back at home alone in the dark at the end of it. But my garden was always there for me to remind me that even if humanity didn't want me, I was part of nature. In those early dark days of widowhood I didn't much care if humanity didn't want me anyway. I felt more like 87 than 47 and tried to be brave in the face of the certainty that the best of my life was over.

A few months ago I was surprised to find that I ached when it was time to leave a friend's house, leaving behind all that normality. I had thought that I had toughened myself sufficiently not to need other people - like them of course, and meet friends but not need them - couldn't afford to need them, they might leave me or let me down and I didn't want to feel that bad again.

At the same time I was finding that my two and a half acres wasn't giving me quite the pleasure it had before. I'd see a new flower and think - "that's all very well but you can't talk to me, or share a joke, or tell me I exist". This was new. Home, which had been a haven for me in the first months, now felt like a prison. I wanted to be out there amongst humanity. But who would choose to leave this place of tranquillity and head back to town, where you have to fight for a parking space, and it's noisy and polluted, and you don't have deer gambolling past your window as you type on your computer? As I've written here before, I was caught in a dilemma that seemed to have no solution - too lonely to stay, too scared to leave. Part of that was the fear of losing that very special daily connection to nature that I've had for ten years.

But this visit to my friends has decided me. Friendship, love and human company come first. If I ever find myself at the heart of a family again, then I might be lucky enough to live once again amongst the rest of nature. But living alone in the country, especially in this unfriendly place, deprives me of the most vital thing that surely all humans require - contact with our own species. I think it's all very Darwinian - the need to be amongst other people; the herd instinct which brings mutual protection and support is, I have found, very deep within me and is even more fundamental than the desire to be amongst the natural world. So I will head back to civilization. I just wish I could go right now.

Moving On?

I'm just back from spending a few days with old friends. I had a great time and now I feel like crap. Being alone in this house has become unbearable and I am on the verge of deciding to move away from this unfriendly and unhappy place.

I've been widowed, and therefore living alone, for three years now, and a change has been working in me this last year. For the first couple of years I still felt linked to the Golfer and so, although I missed him and felt lonely without him, I also still felt like part of something - he might not be around any more but I was still his wife. At least, that's what kept me going through those awful months. But actually I lost more than my husband when he died. I lost the connection to the exciting world he inhabited, all the vicarious thrills of his international travel - the crises, the late-night phone calls and emails, the hastily arranged travel plans. My life might have been pretty dull and quiet but I was only a step away from a busy and exciting life, populated by hundreds of people that I never met but that I felt as if I knew.

When he died, inevitably all that disappeared too. I was concentrating so hard on being brave those first two years after his death that I didn't have time to notice how very different, how sparse, my life was now. Part of it was of our own doing - we had always been a pretty private couple - he didn't like to mix business and home life, home was the place he came to recuperate - so we didn't have many friends, only colleagues. Luckily, I had a couple of friends of my own, otherwise I wouldn't have got this far but, as almost all my family and his too, were dead, when he died I was left practically alone in the world. Just me and my son and my little dog. The son had, by a cruel coincidence, gone off to University the same month that the Golfer died so, when I woke up from my stupor of grief a year ago, I was appalled at what my life was now. I went from living in a house with a family and two businesses being run from it, to living alone with just an old dog for company, almost overnight.

So this last year has felt worse than anything that preceded it. I will even admit that I have felt almost suicidal at times. I can now at least bear to be around married friends, I can go to their houses and see their normal lives without wanting to stab myself in the eyes. But I want to live it again, desperately. I might never marry again - who'd put up with a book-collecting aspiring intellectual who never wants to cook another meal but loves playing WOrld of Warcraft? Not an enticing prospect to your average middle-aged guy, you'll agree. But I can at least live amongst friends, and in a neighbourhood where people talk to you and aren't afraid to offer a helping hand.

The friends I was visiting last week live in the town I used to live in before we came to the wild and woolly Highlands. I love going back. People look you in the eye and they love to talk. It's partly nosiness of course, but oh! how I long for that nosiness after ten years of being blanked by the people here.

When I was staying there, at one point we had two new mums, a new dad, and two babies in the house as well as the three of us and my little dog. It was bliss and I wanted it never to stop. I could hardly bear to drag myself back here. But I checked out a house for sale while I was there, and I loved it, and I think, I really think that I am going to do it. I just need to talk to my son and then I think I'm actually going to put my house on the market (and stuff the credit crunch) and that means I could soon be living amongst normal people again, with a social life, and company, and a new life. I cannot wait!