It’s good to be back and I would like you to know that I have been missing you. I don’t just mean that I have been missing writing this column, although that is also true. But it is you (the readers) that I have missed most and especially the sense that we are thinking together about issues that make a difference to the life we share – as well as to our own individual lives in all their marvellous variety.In quite powerful ways, this (usually fortnightly) column in Good Weekend is with me a good deal of the time. I think about it – and you – when I am walking in the early mornings, when I am out and about listening to stories from friends or family, or in quiet times at home. The time I spend at my desk is just a small part of it. What takes most time and is most rewarding are the processes of observation, enquiry and reflection that lie behind the actual writing. And that’s where I feel so fortunate. Who could ask for more fascinating subject matter than the drama of being human, or the emotions, experiences and insights of everyday life?
It is often the tough situations that pre-occupy me: the ethical dilemmas, the emotional or behavioural choices, the ways that people limit or discount themselves, or find themselves confused at a crossroads. Those are the situations where we might quite routinely turn to one another and ask, “What do you think?” hoping to gain some relief or even a new sense of direction from someone else’s hard-won insights. But the rewards of life are also part of my brief. I am just as concerned with the difference it makes to appreciate life fully while we have it, paying at least as much attention to what is going well or what might heal or inspire us as to what is worrying, disappointing or disastrous.
In all of that, you are present. If I am thinking about how simultaneously dazzling and terrifying it is to be a brand new parent (I see many new parents on my walks, prompting such thoughts), or how tragic it is to lose your best friend in a car accident, or how necessary it is to be less anxious, reactive or angry especially in stressful times, or how brutally some people are delivering the recent rash of bad news about job or home losses, or how desolating it can be to have too little to do in a world of frantic activity, then it’s you who is pushing my thinking.
For many years I have been convinced that writing and reading are essential to how our lives interconnect. They are particularly part of the tentative, questing conversations that touch on or open up our deepest connections: the relationships, dreams, yearnings, desires, losses and sorrows that matter most. That’s why the quality of what we read matters. Reading can help us think about life more confidently. It lets us benefit from the experiences of people who are otherwise strangers. It brings people together around issues that matter.
With that sense of conversation very much in mind, I observe, listen, watch, reflect – and then I write. But if writing is the “talking” part of that dialogue, there is also “listening”. Each of you will read and reflect in your own characteristic way. As a passionate reader myself, I know that reading lacks the immediacy and sensuality of a real-life encounter, but it does give something else. At its best, it gives you the distilled rather than the superficial thoughts of the person who is writing. Just as valuably, it gives you the chance to “listen” at your own pace, to question, reflect and add your own thoughts and inner commentary, engaging more actively not just with what someone else has said or written, but with what you yourself now think, believe or want.