Monday, 31 October 2011

Eat the strawberries

It certainly isn’t an overstatement to say I’m melodramatic. If I read something in a book that I find particularly inspiring, I’m likely to respond to it in quite a spectacular way. Say, for example, wanting it tattooed upon my person (by which I mean myself, of course, I don’t actually own a person just so I have somewhere to put inspirational quotes).

Bearing in mind my tendency for melodrama, there have been two particular passages in two wonderful books that changed me.

The first is in American Gods by Neil Gaiman. I have always been a careful person, sometimes at the expense of trying new things. I still firmly hold the belief that I would find the one corner that existed in the Trebor Softmints universe and, with the dexterity of a wardrobe trying to cartwheel down a flight of stairs, proceed to bounce off it using only my eyeball. However, there is a part in American Gods where the main character, Shadow, seizes the moment, with no thought for the future and because he can, and because he should. He recalls a fable and suddenly the meaning of this tale clicks with him. Something clicked in me too, and I had an instant of clarity where I realized that not every little thing in life requires a thorough worrying over, or even needs to have more meaning beyond the act itself. This doesn’t mean I’m not concerned about impaling myself while walking down the street, but I do, just occasionally, stop to eat the strawberries (though I might wash them first).

Still, there was a tale he had read once, long ago, as a small boy: the story of a traveler who had slipped down a cliff, with man-eating tigers above him and a lethal fall below him, who managed to stop his fall halfway down the side of the cliff, holding on for dear life. There was a clump of strawberries beside him, and certain death above him and below.
What should he do? went the question. And the reply was, Eat the strawberries.

My response to the next passage was, if possible, even more self-indulgent. I was going through a breakup. It was tragic. The universe became gaping void. Diet Coke lost its taste. It was, in short, pretty bad. Then I ordered the latest Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. It was White Night. I booked the day off work. I wandered into a café. It sucked. I felt too raw to sit in the sunshine reading. I went inside. I read to distract myself from myself, and as joylessly and painfully as possible. I thought that Butcher would be a frivolous tonic. And then I read this.

We still hadn't learned, though, that growing up is all about getting hurt. And then getting over it. You hurt. You recover. You move on. Odds are pretty good you're just going to get hurt again. But each time, you learn something.

Each time, you come out of it a little stronger, and at some point you realize that there are more flavors of pain than coffee. There's the little empty pain of leaving something behind - graduating, taking the next step forward, walking out of something familiar and safe into the unknown. There's the big, whirling pain of life upending all of your plans and expectations. There’s the sharp little pains of failure, and the more obscure aches of successes that didn't give you what you thought they would. There are the vicious, stabbing pains of hopes being torn up. The sweet little pains of finding others, giving them your love, and taking joy in their life they grow and learn. There's the steady pain of empathy that you shrug off so you can stand beside a wounded friend and help them bear their burdens.

And if you're very, very lucky, there are a very few blazing hot little pains you feel when you realize that you are standing in a moment of utter perfection, an instant of triumph, or happiness, or mirth, which at the same time cannot possibly last - and yet will remain with you for life.

Everyone is down on pain, because they forget something important about it: Pain is for the living. Only the dead don't feel it.

Pain is a part of life. Sometimes it's a big part, and sometimes it isn't, but either way, it's a part of the big puzzle, the deep music, the great game. Pain does two things: It teaches you, tells you that you're alive. Then it passes away and leaves you changed. It leaves you wiser, sometimes. Sometimes it leaves you stronger. Either way, pain leaves its mark, and everything important that will ever happen to you in life is going to involve it in one degree or another.’

That’s right, Butcher and Gaiman? They’re all about me.

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