Monday, July 2, 2012

Redecorating the Head

Constable's "Willy Lott's Cottage"

If only people, including myself, could keep in mind that there is no quick-served happiness, especially when it come to "getting out of here" -- that phrase so commonly uttered by the young on late nights in home towns. Grown-ups do the same, though. I actually used to discuss, with my wife, the idea of opening a "bed-and-breakfast." What was I thinking?

What I was thinking was that changing everything would change everything for the better. What I was thinking was that running a bed and breakfast would be an escape from the unpleasantness of  humdrum life. We'd be in an idyllic place. We'd meet interesting people. We would not have to work "jobs".

This is a flawed and common problem in the thinking patterns typical of the human beast. The only way that running a hotel would be a pleasant life for me would be if I liked pouring coffee, making beds and making small talk with total strangers. I would like none of that.

What I wanted was to live in a cute house in a quiet place and not have to work. That's not what running a business is about. Lunch is never free.

Picasso's bullfight.
I think of a television show called "Mountain Men" on the National Geographic channel. At first glance, you might think that those guys choose to live in the mountains because it is like a perpetual coffee commercial: "Ah [deep breath, cup in hand] look at those trees -- those streams. Listen to the chittering of the forest lovelies..." No. These guys live in the mountains because they love the life in the mountains. They love surviving. They love scraping bloody meat off of a deer pelt. They love passing Hemingway's test on a daily basis. It's not the place, it's what living in the place means that makes it the life for them.

And as far as quaint locales are concerned, they just don't hold up. One just can't expect to move into a Thomas Kincaid (gak!) painting and find unending contentment. It just doesn't work that way. The wonder of the place, however lovely the place, will wear off.

I sometimes visit a blog called The Age of UncertaintyThe blog's author, Steerforth, is a bookseller who has worked for other people's businesses but he has recently decided to open his own. He set up shop in the middle of the gorgeous countryside after having spent years working in London. I'm not implying that he sought a magical and immediate utopia, by the way; it seems, at least to me, that his change of locale and circumstances was quite carefully considered. He's more (metaphorically, of course) the mountain man above than the idiot me considering opening a bed and breakfast. Recently, however, he made this observation:

When I look at the sheep and the outline of the South Downs the background, I always feel slightly frustrated that I don't enjoy it more. It's an idyllic place, with no noise apart from the sound of birdsong and the bleating of sheep. In the days of dark winter afternoons on Clapham Junction, this would have been too good to be true.

Instead of looking for a threshold over which to step into a better life, it seems we need to continually rearrange the furniture and change up the paint colors in the only house we will ever truly live in: our own minds. I'm not necessarily talking about the sort of automatic adaptability to which Steerforth refers, in his post, with a tone of regret, but to a more deliberate plan for decking the halls with ornaments of real contentment. Geographical changes alone just won't cover it. But that's not to say they can't help...


  1. Very well put, Chris. You are no doubt aware of this, but here is Montaigne on this subject: "Ambition, avarice, irresolution, fear, and lust do not leave us when we change our country. . . . Someone said to Socrates that a certain man had grown no better by his travels. 'I should think not,' he said, he took himself along with him.'" ("Of Solitude.") (I wonder if the observation by Socrates is the original source for the old saw: "Wherever you go, there you are.")

    By the way, I claim no exemption from this malady, having spent countless hours in the Never Never Land of the Ideal Place. LIke you say, better to "redecorate the head."

  2. Thanks,Stephen. I have softened a little on this since I wrote it yesterday, though. I do wonder about the possible imperceptible psychological impact of place. For instance, I love snow and grey weather and beach-scapes and I have always theorized that I feel this way because the simplicity of the images -- the muted colors and even the nearly complete obliteration of color in a snow storm -- quiets my particular mind, which is in a constant state of fireworks and chatter. I wonder if living in, say, Grasmere, would bring me ongoing inner peace even after the Wordsworthian trance fades. (I was there once and I agree with the poet: it does feel like the center of the entire world...) That's it -- I'm getting out of here!

  3. Chris, are you familiar with the Cavafy poem "The City"? I think he'd agree with you here. (I have a bit more faith in the power of travel, though. Sometimes we do need to be somewhere else, but we may not know where until we find ourselves there by accident.)

    1. Jeff -- yikes! I just read the poem. I think that is a little darker than I was shooting for... haha. See my response to Stephen above, though. I do believe in travel and changes of atmosphere as good ways to enrich life; I'm just wary of "escapes".

      "Sometimes we do need to be somewhere else, but we may not know where until we find ourselves there by accident." Cool -- go with the flow, externally and do the planning on the inside. I like that.