I’ve suddenly realised a slightly weird thing. Every day, before I sit down to write this, I check on Twitter first. I look at what is trending, in case some terrible disaster has happened or some unfathomable tragedy has struck. I am conscious of the jarring note. I don’t want to be writing about some whimsical ride I had on my red mare whilst something catastrophic and shocking is happening in the world.
The other thing I realised is that, sometimes, one thing is enough.
I don’t really know why I started this diary. I think I felt we humans were all going through momentous and historic times, and the history geek in me wanted to record it. Then I decided that it was my job to put some tiny rays of sunshine into a dark world, so I wanted to write about the good things, the lovely things, the things that lifted the heart. Then I wanted to write every bit of news, as if I were sending despatches. Dateline: Scotland. That kind of affair.
That was when I found that too much news was driving me demented. I had to put myself on a strict news ration, or my amygdala would go bonkers. This means that I sometimes find I am uncharacteristically uninformed. I had to ask a very obvious question on Twitter yesterday about the different coronavirus rates in different countries. I felt slightly foolish, asking it, but it turned out that there were kind and exceptionally well-informed people out there who generously gave me the answers.
I swing back and forth between thinking that, as a responsible citizen, I should gather as much information as possible, and knowing that if I spend too much time chasing the facts I shall lose my reason. Humans, said T.S. Eliot, can’t bear too much reality.
And then yesterday, I came to my one thing. Rather a lot happened yesterday, but I chose one true thing and wrote about that. There was a rightness to it, and a loveliness too, because the story was all about human warmth and connection and gladness, and I think everyone needs all of those, just now.
Today, there were two things. One was very sad, and one was very happy.
This morning, I heard a modest, thoughtful, articulate woman talking on the radio. She was in her nineties and she was in a care home. She had been in Bletchley Park during the war.
I am in awe of those women. Not just because of their vital service, but because for years and years afterwards, they never spoke of it. I can’t quite remember, but I think there was a huge Official Secrets Act blackout. It was as if Bletchley had never existed, as if the powers that be wanted to wipe it off the record. (Again, I can’t quite remember, and I should know, but I have a suspicion that it was something to do with the Russians and the Cold War.) So these extraordinary women had to go back to their ordinary lives and pretend, even to their closest beloveds, that they had been bog-standard stenographers or secretaries or some such thing. I’m perfectly certain that they did not do it for credit, but I wish they had been given more credit, all the same.
This woman spoke in a very measured way of what was going on in her care home. She spoke of life and death with a calm that made me think of how brilliant she must have been in the war. And then she said something which broke my heart. She was talking about the dementia patients. They did not really know what was going on, she said, but what they did know was that their relations did not come to see them any more. They think, she said, that they have been abandoned by their families.
I thought that was one of the most hauntingly sad things I had ever heard.
And here is my second thing.
I was carrying that sorrow with me down to the field as I went to do the horses. I felt the weight of it, and I wasn’t quite sure where to put it. I was so preoccupied that I had almost decided to do nothing with the mares, just check them and see to their basic needs and give them a bit of love and leave. But they were so merry when I got there, so absolutely themselves, so at home in their peaceful world, that I determined to put the sadness away and go into their realm, where everything is all right.
I saddled up the red mare and haltered the little bay mare and we set off into the big meadow that leads to the burn and the woods.
When I’m riding my big, strong, bonny thoroughbred and ponying her little friend by her side, I feel that we are a true team, an unstoppable force, a brave crew of pioneer women who can do anything. I am a mere, puny human, but when I’m up on half a ton of horse, who has been bred for three hundred years for speed and strength, I feel as if I am being lent all the extraordinary qualities that I lack.
I can’t run like the wind, but my horse can. I don’t have a massive, purring, Rolls Royce engine, but she does. I don’t have the beautiful capacity to live in the moment and focus on essentials, but both these thoroughbreds do. For a moment, they give me their own strength, they offer me their own peace, they infect me with their own beautiful sense of what is truly important.
We’ve known each other for a long time. We know each other’s little quirks and loves and hates. We trust each other. Most importantly, we are on each other’s side. I think everyone needs someone on their side.
That was the feeling I had, out in the big meadow, as the birds sang and the gentle grey clouds hovered over the hills. I felt that I had two tremendous creatures, much greater and grander than I, on my side. And I was on theirs, in return. It was the exact opposite of the abandonment I had been so saddened by earlier.
It was as if they were saying: whatever happens, in this moment, you have us. We are together, and together we can fly.
They give me so many gifts, these beautiful, clever, funny horses. But this was one of the most wonderful of all. I’m glad I wrote it down. I always think of that line in Yeats – take down this book and slowly read. One day, when all this is over, I shall take down this book and slowly read, and I shall remember, and I shall be grateful.