Valentine’s Day is one of those many celebratory holiday-style events I have allowed to slip from my memory, along with my birthday, Christmas, Easter and any other time when family and friends are meant to contact you, exchange gifts or just be present in your life. I think this goes right back to my childhood and has been relentlessly carried on through the many decades which followed, not just by me – as a form of self-defence if you like – but by almost everyone that I know, and especially family. A few years ago I happened, not meaning anything whatsoever, to mention to a family member that the only people who had sent me greetings on my birthday were the telephone company. Her reply was along the lines of them not knowing me too well then, and at least someone has a sense of humour. She did, of course, mean it as a joke; my closest family knows of my disinterest in such celebrations and they respect it. Not that many members of my small family – two daughters and a granddaughter – would send me a Valentine’s Day card, but you see where I am going with this.
So the day was an absolutely normal one for me, with some shopping, a letter to write and some reading. I am busy catching up on all those books which I could and should have read as a teenager, or in my twenties, but which managed to either slip through my fingers or, because of very short-sighted and obscure school regulations, were hidden from view. Although: the latter is also not quite right, as many of the so-called school regulations didn’t exist, but the mind of whichever teacher was involved clearly entertained other thoughts than those of an educationalist seeking to promote knowledge and learning. Some teachers are like that, my old school had a surfeit of them. Your card, for which I thank you in all sincerity, is undoubtedly the first one I have received this century, this millennia.
It’s not that contact of this sort, on specific days of the year, is anything I wish to avoid, more that I am disturbed by the changes effected in society as a result of commercialisation and money-grabbing policies. The idea behind these celebrations, these acts of kindness, recognition and love, are all well and good, they have just been exploited by the few so that, today, it is almost impossible to make something out of a day without there being some commercial interest behind you, exhorting a purchase to show your true feelings. True feelings are, to me, very personal and cannot be bought in a chain store or discounter. Sadly a purchase of something which looks and smells good is far easier than settling down, as you did, and making something more personal. Christmas products appear in the stores in August, and Easter products immediately after the remains of the last festive season have been cleared away. I’m sure that, given the chance, Michaelmas and a few other mostly forgotten holidays would quickly be assimilated into the commercial calendar by some, given the chance of a quick and meaningless profit. A good thing that some don’t know every day is a Saint’s Day, as well as being an International, a National or a Local day of something, from Wear Red Day right through to Salted Peanut Day. We’d never have a moment’s peace and quiet if everything possible was celebrated in some way, if we were expected to give a gift each and every time.
Speaking of getting a moment’s peace: you mentioned that you had a lock down in the yard on Wednesday and that another woman, sitting next to you and Zoey on the bench, was chattering away and asking all sorts of inane questions. And then you go on to write that you watched the film and commented on your worksheet that the film had taught you – or suggested to you – never to judge people because you never know what kind of life they’ve lived. I’m often asked why I write to people who are incarcerated, and I am sure you can imagine what my answer is: everyone deserves a certain degree of respect; even prisoners have feelings, interests, desires and can be lonely. For some there is also a heightened level of fear and loss: they do not know what they have fallen in to, how they should react, where they can turn for help. Their own family often rejects or gradually leaves them and the system, well, there I need make no comment. You know as well as I do that people there, in the system, are required to do their jobs efficiently, and friendship is not effective or efficient. And while I do not judge anyone that I do not know, there are certain signs you can pick up along the way which tell you about a person, how they feel, what has happened to them, what they fear most. The greatest fear, of course, is loneliness, especially in your situation.
Loneliness brings out many different reactions according to the character of a person: some people clam up and sit in a corner, watching but not taking part; some people open up too far and seem almost to be clinging to anything which might appear friendly or approachable; some people swing from one mood to another and have little real control over how they speak, act and so on. Loneliness brings a certain level of desperation with it too, because we, as humans, are generally a social animal, keen to fit in and make friendships wherever possible, keen to belong. I suspect that the chatterbox on the bench was one of those hit with loneliness, someone who desperately needed a conversation with absolutely anyone to show they are still part of humankind, not completely cast out, discarded and forgotten. It may seem, to you, that being a chatterbox is a strange way to show it, but few have learned how to come to terms with being alone – or being in the middle of a massive group of people and still lonely – and they grasp at any straw to get out of their predicament.
The movie you watched, The Blind Side, that would be the one with Sandra Bullock, Quinton Aaron and Tim McGraw? I remember seeing it when the film first came out, and hearing the controversy surrounding it: the woman involved, played by Sandra Bullock and based on a true story, was meant to be only interested in herself and performed this act of selflessness for purely selfish reasons and so on and so on. I must admit that I did enjoy the film; now and then a feel-good film comes out which can be watched without feeling that it is overboard or playing too hard on the heart-strings, and Sandra Bullock is a good actress. I’m not sure I’d pick it for a night out today, as my tastes have changed and the choice of seeing it, back then, was someone else’s rather than mine, but still. Nowadays, as I’ve probably mentioned, I’m into the movies which have won prizes at the not quite so major festivals – so, not the Oscars™ – or ballet and opera, even theatre, and concerts live on stage where there is no real feel good feeling, but an immersion into the work, into what you are seeing up there on stage.
Hard to believe that The Blind Side is based on a true story, especially when you see Big Mike and the family he comes in to, but this is also not just about judging, it is about taking a chance, seeing a need and reacting, helping someone else regardless of who they are. Sandra Bullock, with her blonde hair, really does look like the woman in real life, so can you imagine someone like that – and the character is right too, as she plays it – taking in a massive coloured man? Can you imagine such a family feeling that Big Mike was the one thing missing from their lives which made the family complete? This is also what the film is about: loneliness, need, and the fact that you can find what you are looking for in the most unusual places, including those which you would normally never give a second thought to. In fact, that should be quite clear, after all, where have I found friends? Not that this will inspire other families to go out and find themselves a football player to adopt, but perhaps it brought something good in other areas of need.
I won’t say that I love the cold, but I find it preferable to heat unless it is very dry heat and I am in the tropics somewhere. Lying on a beach in the Caribbean, perhaps, then it would be fine. Otherwise I enjoy the fresh biting wind which greets me most mornings when I get up: the draught caused by my having the window open, and the door too – so that the cat doesn’t wake me up at all hours of the day and night just to go out and sit at the top of the stairs and clean itself. I’ve lived in pretty much all climates so far in my life: from cold, through wet, right up to jungle hot and humid and the cold, dry weather is preferable to my way of thinking. That’s not to say I’d like to live in a cold climate again, it is enough having winter cold here in Germany, but continually hot is also not my thing. I’d have to wear a hat, again, to prevent my bare head from getting burned to a crisp. Although, I am told, I look quite good in a hat, if it’s the right sort of hat, coupled with the right clothing. Clothes maketh the man or, as Shakespeare wrote in the original:
Apparel oft proclaims the man
Although Mark Twain put it much better when he wrote:
Clothes make a man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.
Even if, when you think about it, a naked politician is probably going to get more attention on the hustings at election time – briefly – than one who lies fully clothed. Anyone can tell lies with all their clothes on. And I am sure that anyone parading through town with nothing on, unless they happen to be Lady Godiva in Coventry and the locals are ordered to stay indoors with their windows firmly closed, is going to make something of an impression on society.
When I say, as I do right at the start of this letter, that I am trying to catch up on some of the books I missed out in my youth, you can take that by its literal meaning: I am presently reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath which was an English literature examination text while I was at school, but not for my year. I have also just finished reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and have Atlas Shrugged on my To Read List, having picked it up from my bookseller this morning. Then, really going back a long way, I have James A. Michener’s The Source, which I did read in school, was never on any literature course book list and which I enjoyed a good deal at the time. I am thinking that perhaps I will appreciate it even more now that I have added a few years experience to my life, although it was one of the most influencing books I read as a teenager, along with Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. One of the great benefits of having so much time on my hands now that I am effectively retired – well, almost – and can sit down at home without a care, and without anyone asking me what the blazes I think I’m doing when there’s work to be done.
Then, of course, there are also all the new books being published each week which I would love to be able to keep up with, but I have to be selective not only because of the cost, but because there are so many other things to do with all this leisure time I have managed to claim: museums, art galleries, concerts, ballet and, of course, walks in the park. I’m not quite at the slow walks along the beach under the stars and moon stage, an absolute favourite for people who write profiles on dating sites; I think a walk in the park, or along the river banks, is about as close as I want to get to that idea. I even noticed that there is a special concert coming up in Bremen which is dedicated to all the songs sung at one time or another by Robert Mitchum and, believe me, that is a concert I will definitely be noting down, not to go and see, but as a laughing point. Why dedicate the concert to him and not to those who wrote and first performed the songs? Aside from the fact that his name might still be more recognisable to the public, older generations, than those of the original writers and artists. One of the advantages of living within a triangle of three major cities – Bremen, Hamburg and Hannover – whilst not actually in any of them: an excellent choice of places to go and things to see, but coupled with the peace and quiet of a country town.
And having whet my appetite for the world of literature once more, I shall brew myself a fresh pot of tea, and settle down for the evening with my Steinbeck and the exploits of those hit by the Great Depression in the USA, nearly ninety years ago. Or was it the Depression of 1937 – 1938. Regardless: the family Joad is just preparing to move from Oklahoma to California – where they will be able to just reach out and pluck an orange from a tree at any time, and the grapes are so abundant that grandpa can take a handful and squash them across his face at will – and the great adventure awaits them.