I’ve always been a bit of an all or nothing merchant. I like to rank songs, films, books, activities and friends. I somehow imagine that there is one best song, one best film and one best way to live life. My aim has always been to find that best way and hold fast to it like a limpet.
Of course I never did find the perfect life and the idea now seems amazingly stupid to me. Just as I would rather have a twelve pack of Kellog’s mini-cereals of varying appeal than one giant packet of my favourite cereal that I would then eat every morning for the rest of my life, so if I ever stumbled upon my perfect life which I then lived from that day forth, it would provide so little variety that after a time I would soon get bored.
Contentment is as much about attitude as actual circumstances and I wouldn’t change anything in my life, even the ridiculous things I have done. I suppose this must mean that my attitude to my life is generally positive.
Of course not everything comes down to attitude. I couldn’t be content if I was hanging upside down in a Saudi torture chamber having the soles of my feel beaten with a baseball bat, being skinned alive by a bunch of Manchurian shepherds on the plains of China, about to be decapitated by some Islamic head-hacker, dragged under water by a crocodile that was going to drown and later devour me, nor spend an afternoon talking to either Diane Abbott or Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
On the other hand, as long as I am not being tortured either physically or mentally then my circumstances are not that important to me. I don’t have to be running along a beach in California or looking at a sunset in Bali. I’m actually quite happy here in my room. Once you have crossed the line from ‘torture’ to ‘bearable’, then physical circumstances become less important and attitude becomes more.
My actual daily life goes as follows. On weekdays I get up at 07.20, have breakfast, shave, clean my teeth, have a shower, get dressed, step out of the door, throw away my rubbish, walk to the station while the crows caw, climb the steps to the platform and notice how my knees ache nowadays. It was only a couple of years ago that I could have bounded up the steps two at a time and still not been out of breath at the top. No longer.
I sit down in a corner seat of the practically empty carriage, slightly out-of-breath from walking up the steps. My station is where the trains start, hence the few passengers.
While on the train I think about today’s lesson or look around me at the people in the increasingly crowded carriage. They avoid eye contact with one another, avoid speaking and try to avoid physical contact, though this soon becomes impossible. But for me sitting down things are pleasant unless I give up my seat early on in the journey to an elderly lady.
I get off the train directly opposite the escalator to my exit and I am usually the first one up the first escalator, and the second escalator, but on the long staircase I am overtaken by one or two male students. They seem to go effortlessly up the steps into bright sunlight.
I walk to the university alongside dozens of students, nod good morning to the female guard at the main building, go to my classroom, do my board work, check that all the other teachers are here, send a message to my boss to say no teacher is missing, chat to the students who arrive early, teach, have lunch in the cafeteria, teach again, have a break in which I plan tomorrow’s lesson or stare into space.
At the end of the day I send another text message to my boss to say that all the teachers are leaving and we walk to the station together and talk about school or other things. This continues on the train.
At my station I get off and do some grocery shopping at the tiny shop in the station, walk home, change my clothes, cook and then eat dinner, switch on my computer and spend what’s left of the evening reading articles on the internet, watching Youtube videos, sending emails and writing my blog. Around midnight I climb into bed and am soon asleep.
At weekends I spend the first part of the day in bed just thinking, which is nice, drifting in and out of consciousness. When part of my body moves I become consciousness of myself again and when I lie still long enough I drift off. After an hour of this I get up, make a cup of tea and have breakfast, switch on my computer, open my blog and write down the thoughts I have just been having while lying awake.
The doorbell rings and I tell Jehovah’s Witnesses I’m not interested. I put some washing in the washing machine and hang it up directly it’s finished so that I don’t have to iron my shirts. I return to my computer and answer emails, surf the internet, read articles and watch Youtube videos.
I then decide I should really escape the gravitational pull of my computer and get out of the flat for a while. However, I need a reason to go out and somewhere to go. So I decide to go shopping at the supermarket that is half an hour away from my flat. I come out of my front door, blink at the glare of daylight no longer filtered through net curtains and walk down the tree-lined street that runs parallel to a busy main road that leads to the supermarket.
I get my shopping, saunter back, lock my door and know that I probably won’t go out again that day.
I cook something, eat, mess around on my computer for the rest of the day and for part of the night.
These activities constitute my life. Perhaps the only way it could be better is if more of my leisure time was spent with people I like. Occasionally I have a mild sense of living between events and places rather than in them but that is probably common to everyone. On the whole I am quite content, without being deliriously happy.
Just occasionally I become aware of the pleasure to be had from small things. Then it seems to me that just noticing things is pleasant, as though the default setting of consciousness were set to ‘very mildly enjoyable’. There is something nice about the cool of floorboards on bare feet, the faint far-off drone of a plane on a hot day, the sight and sound of girls cycling and laughing. Every moment throws up something new to notice that is more pleasant than unpleasant.
Taken separately, none of these small moments is really worth mentioning, but when added together the minutes, days and months really aren’t that bad at all and constitute ‘a kind of life’, as Graham Greene would have called it.