As I write this column, the world has never seemed to me more precarious. The news is all impending nuclear armageddon; devastating climate change; war and famine and pestilence everywhere you look. The world seems to be run in all quarters by terrible people doing terrible things. The world seems to be full of terrible things, these days.
And yet as we go into this new year, I feel something baffling: a small and entirely new sense of optimism. I can’t exactly tell you why I feel like this; I can only tell you that I don’t seem alone.
Everyone I talk to seems braced for the world to be as terrible as it was last year, but maybe that’s the difference: this year, we’re braced for it. We know the world is hard. We know the world is fragile and broken and unbearable in places. We know that life is always, always short. We know, and you can’t take us by surprise again.
Last year was the hardest year of my life. Nothing changed on January 1; nothing is different, except – maybe – that I want it to be. I want it to be better, this hard bad strange world. I want to find the better things in it; and I want to live in it while I can. And that, I think, is what this poem is about. It’s called Relax, by Ellen Bass, and you can read it here.
I first heard the story in this poem probably 20 years ago. It’s based on a story by the Buddha, about a person chased by tigers, who stops and eats a strawberry. (It’s a man in the story I heard first; a woman in this poem.)
We had an enlightened headteacher, who read to us every morning in assembly from a book of 101 World Stories. This was one of them. It didn’t make much sense to me then: I used to think that the person could have scared off the mice, or ridden the tigers, or tamed the beasts. I thought that I probably could. You’re never more invincible than when you’re five years old. I thought I would be able to do everything. I thought I would solve everything.
And I thought that for a long time. Longer than I should have, perhaps.
There is nobody who is immune; you are not immune, and nobody can be your rock. Nobody can save you
I thought for a long time that I could solve everything by thinking about it hard enough; by trying really hard, by staying up all night, by working double time, by never stopping for a second. It worked for a while. These things do: adrenaline goes further than you’d think. And fear is a wonderful motivator. I had to keep going; outrunning the tigers and scaring off the mice.
But then, of course, I ran up against problems I couldn’t solve. Things that made no sense no matter how I looked at them. I started to get tired, and the problems did not stop. I started to wonder how long I could keep running. I started to wonder whether it might not be easier to be eaten by the tigers. I don’t know if I ever saw the strawberry at all.
I want, in 2018, to see the strawberry. More than that: I want to eat the strawberry. I want to notice the smallest good things, and enjoy them absolutely. I know now that everything is fragile; that everything can fall. Someone. Your husband. Your wife. Your parents. Your daughter. Your son. There is nobody who is immune; you are not immune, and nobody can be your rock. Nobody can save you. The world is wild and strange and delicate, and – yes, the poet is right – Bad things are going to happen.
She lists so many bad things: some very specific, some universal. You’ll lose your keys, / your hair and your memory. I wrote, last year, about learning to lose things. This poem doesn’t care to teach you to lose things. You know how to lose things now. You get it. We will all lose things; lose love, lose hope, lose keys and hair and continents.
What can we do, in this world of loss, but eat the strawberry?
I’m resolving, I think, that 2018 will be a year of strawberries. And that resolve is where the hope comes in: the world is strange and dangerous, but there will always be strawberries – something sweet, and tart, and tiny.