A few years ago, I followed the advice of the Simple Abundance Day-book and kept a Gratitude Journal. The idea was that, instead of lying in the dark chewing over the bitterness of things America’s national debt, the lives of Jamie Oliver’s families in Rotherham, the war in Iraq, the farm overdraft I’d write down five things that happened during the day for which I felt grateful. A friend’s annual check-up after cancer gave her the all-clear. Otis, son of Bofus, is house-trained. My Clive Davies bowl of apples from the orchard on the kitchen table. Earrings lost for two years found in the pocket of an old coat. Murray Perahia playing Bach on Radio 3.
Like F.Scott Fitzgerald making his lists in The Crack-up, I began to feel better. And, as soon as I heard the news, I stopped writing. Don’t believe those psychologists who tell you that if you do something for six weeks or 11 days it becomes a lifelong habit. I have enough of those nice blank books that are one-third full to prove that notion to be false. In the past I have given up sugar for months on end, ditto alcohol/white flour/The Archers/caffeine, only to fall back like a fish into the waters of my natural sloth and greed. As the news gets worse more people losing their jobs and houses, banker killed in Norwich (what if the papers had said ‘peacemaker’ instead of ‘banker’?), farmers’ markets under threat, Pakistan imploding, Arctic ice melting ever faster, AIDs I’ve been thinking that I should begin again with the Gratitude Journal.
One reason I gave it up was because it seemed so hokey, somewhere between collecting Peter Rabbit figures and wearing lavender water. Another reason, I confess, was that my entries were banal, repetitive and flat. This was not Virginia Woolf writing in her journal at the end of the day. However, along the lines that ‘the only thing which is bourgeois is a fear of being bourgeois’, I need to get over my fear of schmaltz because the simple truth is this: there isn’t going to be good news for a while. I reckon the message in these apocalyptic times is that we have to do a personal inventory and understand our own good news. In fact, as soon as I wrote that last sentence I hit a lull. Every thought had a kick-back.
I was about to begin with ‘a wonderful husband’, but I’ve got three good friends whose husbands have dumped them after long marriages. I wanted to write about the climate in England that, despite the long rainy season called summer, is better than the deadly droughts… until I remembered the floods. Good news, like happiness, has to be nurtured. Bad news is so much easier to believe. Bad news has a kind of nobility; good news and its housekeeper, Gratitude, sound slightly simple-minded. That’s why I’ll try harder with my second attempt at my journal, and, instead of writing about my own good fortune, I’ll take an Emersonian look at the larger events of the day. A good place to begin is with the Presidential debate. Not because it signaled that the end is nigh for George Bush’s disastrous presidency (Good News, indeed), but because of the setting.
The University of Mississippi is located in a town I call ‘the other Oxford,’ home-town of William Faulkner and the place where I was conceived when my parents were young, married students and my father was studying medicine on the GI bill. It is also where, 46 years ago this month, James Meredith was the first black man to try to enrol. The campus became a battlefield, with the state government and the students in battle against Meredith and the federal government. The riots and the deaths that followed shocked the US. Those were dark days, and no one would have believed that, four decades later, a black American would be welcomed on to the campus, a man seeking to enrol as the next President of the United States.