First published by The Pool on 28 December 2016
In one sense, “Live in the moment!” is the kind of wisdom that you can buy on a beach towel, share in an Instagram meme or unwrap in a fortune cookie – so banal and overused that we barely register the phrase. At the other, more earnest end of the spectrum, it morphs into the idea of mindfulness – paying painstaking attention to every sensation and emotion as we experience it. But, this year, living in the moment has come to mean something else to me: it’s been practical, it’s been necessary and it’s been something of a relief.
This has felt like a significant year in my life – one that’s encompassed important changes and some very happy occasions. At the same time, it’s been hard. It was the year that my best friend moved out after over a decade of us living together; I’ve since become a real landlady, renting my spare room out to lodgers. There have been periods when I’ve been living alone – a self-employed writer on an income that fluctuates from month to month – and nervous about how I would pay the mortgage. It’s also been the year that I’ve met, and started a relationship with, someone who I like very much – but that has come with its own anxieties, too. He’s not British or likely to stay here long-term, so what kind of path are we on? It’s murky and uncertain at best.
From a broader perspective, this has been a mad year for all of us: first Brexit, which felt so monumentally shocking to me that I couldn’t imagine it being topped; then, to prove me wrong, came the election of Donald Trump. When I think about the causes and implications of these events, I feel so overwhelmed that I cannot bear it.
Most recently, 2016 has become the year that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. To our relief, it’s early and treatable and, by the time this article runs, I hope it will have been successfully removed. But I can’t yet start considering her follow-up appointments, the possibility of radiotherapy or anything after the surgery date. What I am doing, when it comes to the future, is the grown-up equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and singing, “I’m not listening!” Right now, I am only focusing on right now.
I have always been a worrier – one of those people who is often told, “You think too much.” (I disagree.) But, this year, I have learnt, by necessity, to stop thinking ahead. When I allow myself to dwell on the future, the worst-case scenarios seem to engulf me like an avalanche, from fascism to illness to heartbreak to career failure. When I shut the door on them, everything becomes infinitely more manageable.
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve read the bible on this topic, Eckhart Tolle’s bestseller, The Power Of Now – I gave up somewhere in the first chapter, put off by the new-age vibes. What I did read, all the way back in 2010, was an article by the journalist Oliver Burkeman. He paraphrased Tolle: “the point isn't to try to be in the present, so much as to realise that you always, unavoidably, are.” Regrets about the past and worries about the future, he explained, are projected by our present imagination; they hurt like real events, but they’re not real. “Almost all stress and anxiety comes from these mental projections: as spiritual writers like to point out, if you think about it deeply, you rarely have any problems right now,” he wrote. This philosophy has stuck with me ever since, but it’s only in 2016 that I’ve really had to put it into action.
It’s the boyfriend who has forced me to make that shift, I suppose. When I ask him on Thursday morning what he’d like to do on Saturday night, he shrugs in a Mediterranean way and says, “Hattie, let’s see. It is two days away.” I find this infuriating – I already have social plans for two months from now – but it’s put me in a position where I’ve had to make peace with not knowing, and that’s a good thing. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be living in the same country as each other, or what will happen when we’re not; I don’t know how much money I will earn next month; I don’t know how many of Trump’s horrific campaign promises will be realised; and I don’t know how my mum will feel after the surgery to remove the unimaginable matter that is hidden in her breast.
But, looked at from this more immediate perspective, my life is charmed – today, in all practical ways, my mum is well. I’m spending time with someone who makes me laugh and I’m on track to pay my mortgage. Today, the USA is not a dictatorship and Britain is still part of Europe. Tomorrow? I don’t know. Let’s leave that for 2017.