I’m reading Nathalie Goldberg’s book on writing memoir, which goes under the wonderful title of Old Friend from Far Away. As you might expect with Goldberg, it’s full of practical writing exercises, and when I came to this one, I was briefly stalled: When was the last time you felt really, really happy?
I’ve done the exercise before – I can’t remember now what prompted it – and it was really easy. Having fresh blueberries on my morning muesli – that had made me happy. Watching an old episode of Frasier while I was eating it – happy, happy, happy. My normal approach to life is celebratory and thankful, so happiness always feels close to the surface.
But today I found myself having to cast my mind back, across the numb times of these past few weeks, during which my mother was given a diagnosis of leukaemia, developed pneumonia and died, all within ten days. She approached the end of her life the way she approached every part of it, with stoicism, taking care of the practicalities and being clear about her preferences and decisions.
She was 90 years old, and had been ready to go for several years, as her physical condition deteriorated; she was not at all afraid of dying. She died in her own home, having steadfastly refused all life-extending treatments, with her family at her bedside, on her wedding anniversary, so in many ways it felt like a blessed death.
In this interval between my mother dying and her funeral, I’ve been mostly sleeping, walking and reading – books like the Nathalie Goldberg.
When was the last time I felt really, really happy? I suddenly remembered my book launch, at my friend Gill’s art gallery in Devon. My younger daughter was staying with me, and she raised the toast for one of the books I was launching. One of my oldest friends raised the second toast. I did some readings.
It was a stunning, beautiful evening, a full moon over Dartmoor, and a happy throng inside the bright gallery, among the paintings and artefacts. Everything flowed.
Afterwards, my daughter stayed on for a few days. The weather was hot, as it often is in Cornwall in the last days of September, and we walked the coastal path together.
So that’s what I’ve just written about, and now the last time I felt really happy was half an hour ago.
Such is the transforming magic of writing. When you use all your senses to immerse yourself in the creative experience and allow your body to feel the emotions, you are creating or re-creating real experience for the self.
Right now, I can’t manage to push forward into new worlds with fiction and my current work-in-progress, but writing into the more familiar territory of my own life feels easy and affirming.
I’m looking forward to offering a new course in memoir writing in 2016