Back in the summer, I hauled 10 boxes of books down to the bull pen where coffee and bagels are now served in the farmer’s market. The books were part of my mission to clear my clutter, and at least two boxes were stuffed with tomes acquired in the belief that I could read my way to an uncluttered/better/thinner/happier life.
There were books that told you how to boost your brain power with diet, get a flat stomach through exercise and clear your clutter with feng shui. One volume had been marked throughout with a blue highlighter pen. Called Organising for the Creative Person, it claimed to be ‘the first book on organisation and time management to draw on startling discoveries made about right-brain and left-brain dominance’.
I’m ashamed to admit that I read it on the plane to America when my mother was dying. She had been dying for years and even suggested I check with British Airways about ‘Frequent Dyer’ miles, so she forgave me for not sticking to Khalil Gibran and John Donne on that flight. She even admitted she was pleased, because she worried that my right-brained behaviour (a tendency to procrastinate,
to create chaos in the kitchen, to lose keys/track of time/my way when driving) would some day end in disaster.
Pleased, but unconvinced. My mother believed that 40 was the cut-off date and nobody changed after that age unless medicated into dopey submission. She never made a single resolution on New Year’s Day, never went on a diet, never bought a book on self-improvement, never made breakfast for her daughters-she considered that my father’s job and she never felt guilty about it. When all the members of her bridge club started taking Evelyn Wood’s speed-reading course, she was appalled. ‘Reading is like a lasagne. It’s a subtle and complex dish. If you gobble it up, you’ll get full, but you won’t taste the flavours.’
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I’ve been on this mamathon because, this year, I’ve decided not to make any resolutions. I’d love to lose a stone, clear out the closets, answer the letters that are three years overdue, keep track of the dog’s tick treatment, tackle the attic and cellar. I’d also like to walk two miles a day, drink less coffee, read more fiction, stop making lists, spend less time at my computer (and less money-the midnight ‘instant click’ on www.abebooks.co.uk is as disgraceful and addictive as crack cocaine), go to bed earlier, read Flaubert’s letters in French, and, in general, be more humane, rational, optimistic, moral and democratic. Did I also say drink less wine, talk less and listen more?
My mother was far from perfect, but she thought there came a time in your life when self-improvement and the pursuit of happiness was a waste of valuable time. ‘There’s no such thing as a lifetime guarantee,’ she used to say. If I asked for advice, she’d nod her head. ‘There’re no magi-cal solutions, honey.’ Her mantra was Edith Wharton’s passage in The Last Asset: ‘There are lots of ways of being miserable but only one way of being comfortable, and that is to stop running round after happiness. If you make up your mind not to be happy, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have a fairly good time.’
In the bull pen, the books were laid out in the window. Most were priced at 50p. Each Saturday, novels by Jilly Cooper and Paul Theroux, slim volumes of poetry by unknown poets, political memoirs and fat cookbooks joined Phil’s bunches of sorrel and Stewart’s sourdough bread in sturdy bags for life. And the books that promised peace of mind, a thinner, happier life? They languished, forlorn, unwanted.
When winter came, it got too damp to leave the unsold books in the bull pen. I thought of taking them to Oxfam, but decided to consign them to the recycling instead. It’s a new year. It looks like it will be a tough one, but if we go easy on ourselves, we just might have a fairly good time.