The Pursuit of the Contented Life

I sit here in my lounge, cats preening themselves before me, on a wonderfully melancholic rainy day, feeling at once utterly contented  and confuddled by it, if only a smidge. It is a nice feeling to make my acquaintance. I feared I had lost it for a spell. But it has returned to me, quite irrepressably.

Glad to say.

It was misplaced, you see, in a mad dash to pay back my dear grandmother and mother, too, a rather handsome pair of sums accumulated in car troubles by the end of last year, not to mention, a bag of cat food here, or a tin of tuna there. To survive. And I was adamant. I would prove once and for all, that I could make a mint (well, of relative sorts) from my art, from my craft (for hard-earned craft it is too), to settle my debts once and for all.

It proved a most foolish decision indeed, given my history of bipolar, flying yet again precariously too close to that sun on my hubris, my wings of wax. And since, I have plummeted. But I am glad to say, dearest readers, I am gathering in strength again. And funnily, with strange peace of mind that feels at once at home, but also altogether new.

I had been devastated at first, worsened further by the depression, by the fruits of my labours. I had written, and written, and written still, stealing hours when I was not moonlighting at the second hand bookshop in peak holidaymaker season wherever I could, furiously typing away, from one submission to the next. Half-heartedly eating at midnight, settling my mind only in the early hours of the next morning.

And for what…in the end… of it all?

First, the short list for a publication, first prize for which could cancel all debts in one deft move. Elation. But since, no word. No grand prize. For all I knew it was a long shot. Then, a week or so later, a rejection, with of course the kindness to beg I submit again one day, and all the more heartbreaking of a piece that felt like a piece of me in a way that no other has before. I sit with it now, and return to read it like an old friend, wondering where its place in the world will be. Even, if it will be.

And with this, and my mounting depression, the angst set in.



And worst of all, black sheep.

And with this last utterance of my depressed soul, I longed for my grandfather, my papa. I spoke to him in prayer. Every feather in my path I treasured and carried home with me after my solitary walks as a sign that he had in fact heard my pleas, and was indeed with me in spirit. For you see, dearest readers, my papa, lost to me as it goes but always too soon, was the only one I felt who could understand, nay, appreciate, the sensitive oddball that I am, in a family that boasts one success story after the next, a family of high esteem in any esteem.

And I wept and I wept and I wept not to have my Papa by my side, to marvel with me at a flower, or a bird, or even to smile or to nod in approval at a stray earthworm returned to the garden and my best of all, to wink at me, when he noticed me feeling swept up by the maddening crowds that family can sometimes be.

Oh I wept.

And kept watching for feathers.

And wondered one day, if the idea of spirit is simply a consolation prize for those of us left behind.

Of course, make no mistake, my family is a loving one. And in my longstanding history of bipolar, now going on almost a decade since my diagnosis, generous and supportive to a fault. And in this, I truly cannot fault them. And I call them mine. Happy to. But still, I yearned to measure up. To be a Success. Capital S. To profit at least comfortably from my art enough to justify it.

But then, an inner transfiguration began to slowly brew within, and like a river, I could not know its exact source, and from which corners of my soul it had gathered. It smacked me in the face most, and abruptly so, in a moment of clarity, and perhaps even, of dignity, upon seeing my aunt recently with my trip into the neighbouring ‘Big City’ where I have a standing appointment with my psychiatrist every three months.

My beloved matriarchal glue of a grandmother and I made the trip into town, and errands out of the way, met up with my rather uh, always elegantly turned out aunt and godmother (adding fairy godmother to that list!). And there we sat gabbing in a charming Italian eatery, me, feeling somewhat dejected, more the listener mostly. But when the subject of her daughter came up, I recalled, aloud, to them or myself and in no way of any real relevance to any point gone before it, a memory, of my cousin, but a wee thing, emerging onto the stage of a school play as a majestic bird and her body being so captivating in expression and motion, it stole the show.

These days, the occasional film casting aside, my cousin is slowly building an empire out of energy saving or rechargable but of course, impeccably svelt lamps, not a bad niche in a country of rolling black outs and ever mounting electricity bills. Yes, my aunt mused, she does love her acting, her dancing, but she’d just looked around at a scene of 40 year olds, frankly, not really making it. And it wasn’t the life for her.

The comment passed, resonating with me only a little at a glance askew, until I gazed out at open fields as my grandmother drove us steadily homeward bound.

Two years shy at 38, I am that forty year old, not quite making it, depending soon on a modest room in my father’s cottage, and my aunt’s wardrobe purges, and the combined efforts of my uncles to ensure I have the best medical aid for my bipolar, and beyond a small state stipend for disability, and so it goes… And when all else truly fails, the bank of gran and mom… Starving for my art. The furthest thing from a success, for all in my life, I had excelled at school, and I had excelled at university, and excelled in the field of commercial writing…

Now, nowhere near a success.

For all my hours upon hours, all those endless submissions to so very idealistically and faithfully trust that they would prove of me an assured woman of the world who could bust balls and make it in this life, nothing except one small victory, and one rejection letter. At first, a bitter pill to swallow, in the face of the deafening silence for all the other pieces of myself I had sent out in the world wide web, at the mercy of editors.

But suddenly, in light of my aunt’s comment, and the realisation that I was indeed that struggling near 40 year old, I was struck by a wave of relief, almost a smirk on my face as I shook my head at the passing cows grazing.

Why? I wondered inwardly.

If anything, I should feel even more utterly awful than I already had. And yet, something in the seat of my soul had settled. So I pondered this settling, this overwhelming contentment, with at first, I have to admit, growing doubt. Why should I feel so completely at peace with a life without any success? And well, I arrived at last at the only conclusion that seemed remotely plausible: it simply sits well with me. To write. From the heart. To write honestly. To tell a story. To scribble down in one of my many notebooks with an ever blunted pencil, ideas and memories and curious incidents to weave in and out of my pages perhaps one day, perhaps never.

And as I daily devour booklists of authors old and emerging, and famous writer’s daily habits, marvelling for instance, how John Irving (but of course, reading John Irving it makes total sense!), well, he won’t even begin a novel, until he has his final sentence fully formed and crafted to perfection… I have to say, reading all this as I do almost without fail every morning with my first cup of coffee, it dawns on me, I may not ever be a particularly profound or exciting writer either.

Some of my ideas a little more ambitious, those I am nervous still to attempt, others explorations by turn of the most mundane, with little in the way of transformations in characters or plot, but I hope still, in their own way, honest all the same. I am always hopeful.

And for once, smirking as I did recollecting my aunt’s remark like a rough pebble I was enjoying on my tongue, I was just, content.

Is it important for me still to gain a sense of autonomy, of self sufficiency in my life? But of course. In fact, right now, Virginia Woolf’s polemical insistence upon such mocks me by my bedside table. Yes, Woolf. I hear you. But the thought of being, I guess, mediocre at best, it just doesn’t terrify me. And all this has me mulling on the very nature of contentment itself in this modern world of ours.

I found just the other day in the charity shop at the retirement village where my gran abodes, the loveliest floral silk nightie. For a steal. Low on sleep wear, I weighed up the practical stakes of the purchase and decided, what the hell, live a little, sleep in something pretty.

Later that night, sipping on a little glass of the cheapest red wine I began to find all around the hem, and just above, one cigarette hole after the other. And I chuckled inwardly to myself, imagining its past life, a dotty old bird flagrantly blowing smoke rings in the face of her aging body, constantly burning holes in her clothing, to the disapproving tut tutting of concerned grandchildren, or carer, perhaps with a heavy glass of only the finest cognac in her other hand, fag defying all odds.

And with this, I realised again, how very contented I am with the charms of a simple life, one without grand ambition or success, and to delight in the smallest of bargain finds.

But yes, truly, I was left mulling, as I still am on this pitter patter of a day, as to the status these days of contentment.

With the onslaught of social media, is it an insult to ego to be at peace with the mediocre life? To feel grateful and humbled just by what is, in any given moment, and within one’s self? No marathon to run… No mountain to climb… No hip sushi joint to frequent… No hot new threads to show off… No great success, of any kind at all, to parade…?

Perhaps, in this world’s pandemic, the scales have shifted. Life, with a note of normalcy returned, a thing of beauty in itself. I’d like to think so. For in me, I remind you readers, hope has always been a constant. But it feels to me all the same, that contentment is highly underrated. With nowhere near the credit it deserves.

And make no mistake, I’m not glamourising the plight of the starving artist or penniless writer either, as some bohemian fantasy with a side order of absinthe and a ukulele.

I don’t want to cripple my mother in debt either. Surely, never. If anything, I’d like to whittle away at my pennies, as sagely as possible, so as to one day afford my single working mother the comfort she deserves in years to come. No, I am not without a sense of duty, or responsibility, and of course, there is always a sting in the tail when I feel I cannot even provide for the most basic of amenities some months. Many months in fact.

But this life for me, of the average writer, I hope yet again, yes yet again, and again, hopeful as I always am, that to love something so very much, and to work at it doggedly but with joy too, surely, one can eke out a small existence with just enough patience and steadfastness in the face of all those rejection letters to come.

But right now, I have to say, and for absolutely no reason at all, I am just content.


Featured image: Cat sleeping on an armchair bySei Koyanagui

2 thoughts on “The Pursuit of the Contented Life

  • Dear Jocelyn,
    It has been a wonderful read. Beautifully worded and oh so relatable. I am a 34 year old woman who has bipolar and worked so hard to prove to myself and my family I am not a failure. Currently I very much am, but reading your words brings me comfort and ignites a cinder of hope that my current depression will pass and allow me to do what I love.

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