How to be happy even if you're English

what is happiness and how to get it


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For Grandma

I’m choosing some flowers for my Grandma’s funeral.  I’m thinking of Grandma, and looking at photos of arrangements on a website.  None fit.  None are quite….Grandma.

Grandma loved flowers.  She loved vigorous colours; jubilant, tenacious, glorious, audacious.  The bolder the better.  She tolerated sophisticated subtlety, bowing to good taste, but a canary burst of daffodil would really do it for her, or a splurge of violet iris on a dim spring day.  These formulaic wreaths try their best – all good intention – but even the more colourful versions; carnations, iris, yellow roses, don’t have it.  They don’t push through with the sheer joy that pulled Grandma’s heart.  They don’t scream ‘I’m alive, just for a short while, and I’m glorious’, which is what she loved.

My Grandma loved life.  Loved people.  Not just with interest, but with care.  She knew the fragility of their souls and conditions.  She recognised dreams, and wrong turns.  She knew disappointment.  She witnessed mistakes.  Everyone she met, she would soon know.  Asking questions, being interested, caring.  My Grandma was special.

She saw her own failings more than most, and would sigh – just a little, and shake her head.  But she would laugh too.  Such a great laugh.  And brush the sadness away with the candour and the knowing and the sheer power of it all.  Until you were left with ‘these things happen, even though we try so hard.  It just is’.  All of us together, trying and noticing.  Being alive.  Being colourful.

I don’t believe you get to be 97 without loving life.  And she did.  She should have made 100.  At least.  And she would have, if she hadn’t done the ‘stupid thing’ and not waited for help getting to the bathroom, and lost her footing.  Because she was proud, and independent.  And not stupid at all, but just wanting to live her life.

So what wreath, what flowers, for the lady who wanted her funeral to be full of them?  Grandma, I looked at them all, and I picked one that had a hint of show, a touch of sobriety, a hint of natural colour and a generosity of spirit.  I chose one that I liked, genuinely, because I felt that was the best I could do for you.  To choose the one that felt right, even if it wasn’t quite you, and not quite exuberant enough. Because in the end you knew as I do, that we do the best we can.  And it doesn’t matter if it’s not exactly right.  We just try our best, and enjoy the colours.  All of them.

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A beautiful story about love, time, and spoons

In Africa I learnt how ancestors live on until their name is forgotten, which resonated with me.  This story is by Philippa Perry, with a similar theme.  I’ve lifted it word for word from her gorgeous book ‘How to Stay Sane’ published as part of a series by the School of Life.  It’s my kind of story, now shared 🙂 I hope you like it.

My Wooden Spoon

I sometimes look at a busy street and think: in a hundred years, we will all be dead.  On this same street a hundred years ago, perhaps another woman thought the same thing.  Perhaps, however, like me, she consoled herself with the thought that love is generative and lives on in the next generation, passed on in the habits of love we inculcate in our pupils, children and friends.  I have my late aunt’s paintings around me, my late mother’s ring on my finger and her words inside me still urging me to tell my daughter to ‘be careful’ every time she leaves the house.  My grandfather’s gruff sarcasm lives on in my father and in me, so he is not really dead.  When my daughter lays out a sewing pattern, my fondness for needlework lives on in her.

This deeply moving process, that connects human to human in a cascade of memory passing through generations, can be symbolised by particular objects that are passed down along with the knowledge of our ancestors.  I am the proud owner of a wooden spoon that is worn into an un-spoonlike stump.  In the pre-electric whisk days of the 1960s, my aunt taught me to cream the butter and sugar for a cake mixture; we always used the same spoon.  Even then the spoon was worn out.  My aunt had, in her turn, used it as a child.  I use a whisk now; but the sight of that spoon in the drawer brings tears to my eyes if it catches me unawares on an hormonal day.  My aunt will be forgotten eventually; my daughter will teach her own children to make cakes.  Along with cake recipes she will pass down the love I received first from my aunt.  Oh yes, my aunt will live on, even if her name gets mentioned less and less and her spoon is thrown away.

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