Viktor Frankl , the Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned in Auschwitz, said there were two races of men, the decent and the indecent, and he observed both races among the German concentration camp guards and the Jewish prisoners.
Well, when my children were younger, they were convinced that there were two races of men, Mathiases and non-Mathiases. Mathiases and “normal people.”
Normal people were allowed to watch television; they were allowed to play computer games; their parents rationed sweets and desserts; they had early bedtimes; their homes were tidy; their mothers cooked dinner at a sensible hour rather than lolling with them on the couch, reading them books. Mathiases, however, went with the flow, and, oh well… On the whole, I think, apart from the first two, my kids were rather glad that they were Mathiases. As for me, apart from the first two, I rather wish we had been “normal”.
Well, like my kids, I often find myself thinking in binary terms, of the two “races.” There is me, and there are normal people. Normal people who have learnt how to cook instead of leaving it to their husbands, and who run a tidy home without thinking about it, and manage their weight without thinking about it, and walk fast for miles, who tirelessly work in their perfect gardens, normal people whose domestic lives are worthy of Instagram and Pinterest and Facebook.
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In these October days when the afternoon light is golden, I work in my garden with a will. I cut back the buddleia and the roses, tug ivy from the old stone walls, and there I go snipping, heaping the wheelbarrow, trundling it off to the compost, amazed at the strength of my body, and I feel entirely normal.
This is, of course, delusional. Any “normal person” watching me would not consider me strong, I imagine, but strong is what I feel.
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Milton describes his Samson Agonistes reaching “calm of mind, all passion spent,” and that is what I feel in these first October days.
I feel mellow. I have lived long, I have suffered, I have made mistakes, oh, so many mistakes, and I have learned wisdom from my folly, perhaps the wisdom was worth the sorrow. My kids learned to walk by stumbling and getting up, stumbling and getting up, with the biggest smiles of triumph on their faces. That is not just the best way to learn to walk. It is the only way. We learn from our mistakes. The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom as Blake wrote.
I look at the stones in my garden, river and beach stones we have gathered from our holidays on each of which I have painted one important word. Pray. Love. Laugh. Forgive. Give. Breathe. Read. Sleep. Little garden stones with all we need to know. Remember All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? All we really need to know we learned in Sunday School. And now the challenge of life is living it.
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I look at the garden stones, and for an instant, in the glory of this golden light, I feel as if I know everything.
I laugh; this is entirely delusional, I know, as delusional as my sense that I am strong as I tug the ivy from the old stone walls around my garden.
But that is what it feels like in these magical moments of calm of mind, all passion spent, in these autumn days when the golden light shines through my garden where I sit at peace with life.
Do you know the feeling? The fleeting sense that you have attained wisdom, that you know everything, everything you need to know to live life happily, and perhaps we do, perhaps we all do, in the secret places of the heart. Perhaps all of us really know all we need to be happy, and if we could live in our gardens, in warm October days when the light is golden, perhaps we would indeed all live happily ever after.
For one doesn’t need to know very much to be wise, to be holy, to be happy. The evangelist Evan Roberts who spearheaded the astonishing Welsh Revival burnt out physically and mentally. At the depths of his burnout, he was urged to preach in church, “even one word.” He stood up, thought and said one word which contained all wisdom: Christ.