On happiness, resilience and storytelling
After our recent break-in my main resentment has not been the annoyance of sorting out card replacements and lending the kids my computer because their tablet was taken – it has been the way my view of the world has been impacted. How when I walked home from work a few days later I noticed men behaving suspiciously, how when I go into the stockroom at work I feel anxious about who might be lurking. I resent this hyper-vigilant state. Yes there is rotten stuff in the world, but I don’t feel I am doing myself – or my family and friends any good by zeroing in on it everyday. In fact I think I am less able to do good in the world if I can’t see the good around me.
We all have a different baseline of how we see the world – some of us are Eeyore, some of us are glass half full folk, sometimes our baseline is steady, sometimes it wobbles, or drops out from under us. I think it helps to take the time to notice our wellbeing temperature – and to take extra care of ourselves when we need to. Now is defiantly one of those times for me.
Author and educator Emma O’connor believes happiness is a habit – that we can grow and cultivate – or not. Her book Everyday Happy is part manual, part journal to help you grow that habit.
Even before the break in my plate felt pretty full – I’ve just gone back to work a few days a week, and in thinking how I would fit in working I was very clear with myself that my happy inducing habits were non-negotiable. One of those is wild swimming. Once a week, for the last two months friends and I have been cycling out to a local river and going swimming. Last week there was frost on the ground, and the water reached new levels of ‘refreshing’. Our swims are crazy to some, but a highlight to us; and have become a happy ‘fixed’ appointment each week.
On the way home from our swim last week, C and I came across a sad wet squirrel on the tow path of the aqueduct . Our bodies still held the chill of the river nearby – we didn’t just sympathise with this creature in distress – we felt the what it felt. Except we swam on purpose and had snacks, dry clothes and hot drinks to aid our recovery. The squirrel had nothing. We kept going over the bridge (because it is not a spot to linger) and as we walked we discussed what it was best to do. We had towels, should we try to pick it up? And then what? Put it in our backpacks? Run down to the Water of Leith visitors center and see if they could help? In the end C found a number for a local animal rescue, described the situation and they said someone would come out.
Probably because of the swirl my brain is in at the moment in the aftermath of discovering the squirrel it became tangled up with the question of happiness and with my short story about a lost pigeon.
In ‘Oh Pigeon’ a group of people try to figure out what to do with a bedraggled pigeon that has come into a shop, and in their responses to the situation we learn about the lenses through which they view the world. When I wrote the pigeon story I was focused on the idea of belonging, being an insider and an outsider.
People sometimes ask me what became of the pigeon.
Because I was thinking about happiness and what not having it does to our brains I saw that there were many possible outcomes – and they are all to do with the reader.
If you are reading from a happy place your pigeon might find the happy forest; if you are reading with worry in your heart the outcome might not be so good; and depending on your wellbeing temperature the outcome today might be different to what it was last week.
I can’t tell you how the squirrel came to be on the aqueduct, and I cant tell you what became of it.
But, harnessing as many happy vibes as I could I thought I would write one scenario:
A bird of prey spots a squirrel, swoops and grips it. The two fly high, the air rushing past as the squirrel twists and turns. At this height death is everywhere; a fall equals death, as does the ripping and tearing the beak is built for. But the squirrel’s instincts are for survival – so it does not lay passive in that grip – it throws its whole being into escape. And somehow the grip is thrown off and the small animal falls… falls… still death is guaranteed… but the fall is shorter than it expects and the landing wetter.
The aqueduct was finished in 1882, and it carries the canal over a river, roads, footpaths and buildings. Alongside the canal is a narrow towpath, just wide enough for people to pass, if one stands still. In pandemic times passing this close by a stranger requires turning away, a moment to pause and look out at views over the city and on a clear day you can see the Forth bridges.
It is onto this narrow cobbled path that the squirrel drags its body, the water level after last week’s rain just high enough to allow it to gain purchase on some near invisible crack, and heft itself out. And here its survival instincts turn only to curling up and shivering. It has no reserves left to flee. The water on this November day in Scotland is icy cold – perhaps a few degrees warmer than the Water of Leith flowing down below, but cold enough to put an animal not used to being submerged into shock. The grey squirrel curls itself into a ball – hoping perhaps that its grey fur will camouflage into the grey of the cobbles and not catch the eye of that hungry bird of prey. Head buried it shivers and waits, distantly conscious of the footfall of oblivious and not so oblivious passers by. There is the rush of bicycle wheels dangerously close as someone rides by, heedless of the signs asking riders to dismount. A shadow falls as someone leans closer, the squirrel shudders hard as cold and panic run through it. Quiet voices murmur concern and then the shadows moves on. The shudders of cold continue.
Time passes. The winter sun shines down on the aqueduct and some blessed heat is absorbed into the cobbles and into the its body. Its fur dries out and still no talons return, no boot clumsily knocks into it, and no bike tyre crushes its fragile body.
Another shadow falls, and this time a gloved hand confidently reaches out and lifts the squirrel into a waiting carrier. The little heart beats hard as once more it is lifted from the ground. This time the journey is short, just to the trees on the edge of the aqueduct and it is released. The sun, time and a little kindness have done their work. The animal is back under the cover of trees, with soft earth underfoot and familiar smells all around. It has survived today.
I’ve told a story of the squirrel with a positive outcome. That was the story I needed today. I needed the safe happy forest.
if everything is coming up squished squirrel for you at the moment is there anything you can do to give yourself a boost? Looking after your own emotional wellbeing wont insulate you from the rough things that come along in this life, but it might just be the thing that stops you from plummeting all the way to the rocky ground.
Just in case you are tempted to read Oh Pigeon, here is the link to purchase it. £1.00 of the purchaser price.