Out of the blue, from the other side of the world, a kind gentleman sends me a message. I’ve been missing my little bay mare fiercely lately, and I’ve been writing about that on the internet, and the kind gent read my words and sent me some of his own.
He too had a heart horse, that kind of horse who is once-in-a-lifetime, the kind of horse you never replace and never forget, that kind of horse you dream of. The horse’s name was Noble and the kind gentleman tells me a little of him and of how he still misses him.
I sometimes think that two of the most powerful words in the language are ‘me too’. You are not alone, say those two humble words; you are not the only one with a bruised heart. I know how it feels, those words say.
There is something astonishingly potent when that sentiment comes from a stranger, someone who lives across oceans and continents, a person who only knows you because they have read something you have written.
When I write, I don’t think about an audience. I sometimes have one ideal Dear Reader in my mind, but essentially I write straight from the heart. Like Hemingway said, I try to write the truest thing I know. Afterwards, when I’ve sent those words out into the ether, I do sometimes wonder whom they reach and whom they touch and where they land. I hope that they might bring a smile to someone’s face: I wish that they will bring pleasure. But once they are out there, they are not mine any more. They’ve gone, on their own winding journey.
And then, every so often, I get a message like the one that arrived today. An unknown person in a different place, with a different life, with different thoughts and hopes and imaginings, takes the time to write back. I’m not expressing it very well, because when something moves me this deeply I do struggle for the exact sentence. It’s as if that one person is the world entire, as if they are giving me the passport to humanity, as if the whole human family in which I believe really does exist.
I am not alone. I am part of those midnight battalions, the ones who are missing someone, who are grieving someone, who are putting themselves back together, brick by brick.
The kind gentleman does not just do all this for me. He sends me something else as well. He sends me a song.
He wrote it for his great horse, and it’s got all the love and the loss in it, and it comes into my quiet Scottish room like a blessing or a prayer. There’s a beautiful, gentle, clear acoustic guitar, and a soulful country voice, and a shining authenticity.
Someone sent me that, I think, in awe. Someone wrote that and recorded that and sent me that. It is one small thing, three minutes of song, something so quiet and true that it would get lost in all the mad news and bad news and crazed internet shouting. Yet for me, in this moment, it is as huge as the universe itself.
I listen to it and I cry and then I think: write it down. Write down the beauty and the kindness and the good heart and the generosity of spirit and the humming sense of communion. Write it down, so you won’t forget. Write it down, as an emblem of how very wonderful human beings are. Write it down, so that it is marked.
For some reason, I think of the ravishing lines in Middlemarch, some of my favourites in all of literature.
‘But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.’
So much of life now is not hidden. We moderns live in the age of celebrity, and you don’t have to be a film icon or a rock star to get your fifteen minutes of fame. The Tik-Tokkers and the Instagrammers and the Twitterers are all out there, inhabiting their own spotlights. Yet the faithful hidden lives still exist: millions of ordinary humans, going about their ordinary business, unheralded, unseen, far away from the headlines and the dramas and the fame games. I think it is those people who will get us all through this pandemic, with their daily acts of kindness, with their smiles in the face of trouble and their resolution and their resilience and their jokes.
It is because of those people that things, as Eliot says, are not so ill with you and me.
I have been feeling battered and flattened lately, as everything goes on in the same gaudy carnival of uncertainty and constant fret. The feeling has been with me for a while, and I read somewhere that this is what happens, about six months in to a crisis. There was the hope, at the beginning, that this thing might be finite. It might have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There would be a last line, a definitive stopping point, so that we could all look back and sigh and say, ‘Well, I don’t quite know how we got through that.’ People would smile and swap absurdities – remember the time we all thought we were going to run out of loo paper? – and welcome each other back to the normal daily routine.
And then there is the dawning realisation that this is not a novel. There is no great last line. There are no boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past. Nobody quite knows where the end is, or even if there will be an end. I think that is hard, even for the most sturdy souls.
So I feel worn thin, and then I miss my mare, and I miss my stepfather, and I think of my mum, as the anniversary of her death looms ahead of me. I have stern talks with myself about gratitude and going a day at a time and summoning up the good old Blitz spirit. And some days I can do that pretty well, and some days I can’t.
That’s when the kindness of strangers comes like a balm, like a lifebelt bobbing across a stormy sea. There is something so light and bright in it, but there is also something as strong as steel hawsers. That kindness is what holds all of us together and keeps us going and makes us remember what is important.
Someone you will never meet sends you a song, and the world steadies on its axis, and everything, for a moment, makes sense again. Your heart expands and your shoulders come down and you breathe; you remember what is good, and fine, and true. And that is all it takes, for you to find the spirit to fight another day.