Susan wrote to me. Gillian did too. And now their words sway before me, tauntingly close. Like filament, plant fibres perhaps, or loose threads, floating just out of reach, buffeted by my every breath. I know there are parallels to be drawn, lessons to be learned, a connection to be made. If only I weren't suffering so.
It is tempting to blame Gillian. "Your columns," she wrote, "make me think of whether your readers are people who like doing things on the spur of the moment or are they regimented and have every single day and minute organised, even down to only having a cup of tea at 3 o'clock and absolutely not a minute before?" Oh hell, had Gillian been reading between my lines? How did she know I lack for spontaneity? That I am all at sea without my week mapped out? She continued: "If a friend rings to ask me out for coffee or a walk, I drop everything and go, and if a friend rings to say she has made a cottage pie and will we go round for dinner, we put whatever we were going to eat in the fridge and join them. Having a hobby of course is different and something to look forward to every week, but strict regimentation doesn't allow for much fun or freedom, does it?"
No, it doesn't. I say I like change and I do - travel, moving house, these are things that excite me - but in truth once the change is made, I am quick to reinstate routine. Hungry to return to it. To know when I will exercise, when I will change the sheets. My salad days. My writing days. I would hate to be thought of as dull, yet my stomach for fun is usually governed by what I have to do the next day. So it was last Friday night, despite the fact that Saturday morning involved a stretched schedule of overlapping children's sports and Saturday night another social engagement, that I thought about Gillian's free-spirited cottage pie, and decided to throw caution to the wind, to give myself permission to over-indulge. And then, undeterred by the seediness, the requirements of the week ahead, to do it all again the following night, carousing for the second time running, as if there were no tomorrows.
The price was steep. Three days later, and still the synapses are not firing. I think about a thought Susan shared with me. How she once asked an 80-year-old woman when the happiest period of her life had been. "And she said, 'It was all good when I was busy'." "So true," Susan wrote. "I love being busy as long as I don't lose control." Susan struck me as a sensible woman. I do not think she was talking about the loss of control I brought down upon my head after too many margaritas had me seeking the cold mercy of the bathroom tiles. I do, however, think a full life is a good life. That there is a contradiction between the sense of importance and self-worth, popularity even, afforded by an action-packed diary, and our desire to cut loose from all the constraints, the appointments, the meetings, the lists, that we willingly impose upon ourselves. That if we are ever to embrace the unexpected, to allow room for fate to intervene, we need to be able to guiltlessly put aside the dinner we had planned.
I read an American study once that found those who are able to live independently the longest and the most successfully are actively engaged in life outside of themselves. All the study participants were busy, had purpose, and knew the benefits of having pockets of joy booked on your horizon. The research also showed they shared a healthy sense of humour, that they didn't entertain regrets, in wondering at what might have been. It didn't touch on their capacity for spontaneity, but I feel sure those elderly subjects would welcome variety, shy from rigidity. But know, too, when to call it a night.
Do you have a fear? A concern? Write in order that we might wallow together in a warm bath of our woes.