Most of my blog posts here are about writing or books. This one isn’t. For the simple reason that ‘life’ has interrupted my writing and reading over the last week. And this has prompted me to reflect on what happened.
Many of you know that I had a fall at home last week. No I wasn’t riding a dangerous horse this time. Or skiing off piste. Nor was I drunk (as if). I was getting off the sofa. Who knew the lounge was such a dangerous place? My foot had gone numb, and pins and needle-y, and it collapsed underneath me, resulting in my ankle twisting over on my fit-flop, and me crashing down hard and at a strange angle on my other knee. The pain was excruciating. Fast forward 24 hours, a trip to A&E and a very unattractive knee support (I really want to say ‘Hello Mummy’ in a Hugh-Grant-in-Bridget-Jones voice) and a multi-coloured puffball of an ankle. It could have been a lot worse of course. I could easily have broken any number of bones and didn’t. However, as I was annoyed about what happened, and as my mind tends to be analytical, I found myself wondering why this had happened. Then I remembered that something similar had happened on previous occasions, just before I was about to head off into the unknown and go to an event which was important to me.
A couple of days before the London Book Fair this year, I went to the hairdresser (new hairdresser, new town). Disaster. I came out with yellow hair. Very yellow hair. A hasty colour correction thankfully resulted in a massive improvement. This might not seem like a big deal but to a lot of women it is. It might seem vain and shallow to worry about your hair when people are dying, starving and being killed around the world. And perhaps it was shallow of me. But I knew that it would seriously affect my confidence when talking to new people if I felt self-conscious about my hair.
Just before CrimeFest this year, something went wrong again. I had to re-tax my car. Yes, yes, I know that you have to do it. But as I’d been living in temporary rented accommodation in Whitstable, and only been popping backwards and forwards to my house in Coulsdon, I had paperwork in both places. And I couldn’t find my MOT certificate. I’d timed it so that I would swing by Coulsdon en route to Bristol, pick up my documentation, tax the car and then head down to the South West. I did manage it, but it was pretty tight. And I did curse. A bit.
My question isn’t ‘Why do things go wrong in life?’ We all know that shit happens. It’s ‘Why do they so often go wrong just before something important?’
I’ve mentioned my naturally quite analytical brain. Well, it’s also been influenced by all the psychology it’s been exposed to. Psychoanlaytic theory (and, no, Freud’s ideas were not all about sex, nor all rubbish) would say that there is meaning in these events. In things going wrong. Spiritual theory (in the interests of brevity I am rolling the vast array of spiritual theories into one) would tend to argue the same, although worse: it would want me to consider how I may have contributed to these events. What? You’re kidding? I made myself fall over and my hair go yellow? Thankfully, some cognitive theories in psychology comment on the biases involved in the way that we attribute events. That we often claim that something has meaning when in actual fact it is a completely random happening. And that when two events co-occur, they are often just a coincidence. Hurrah. Something sensible. And palatable. The pragmatic, non-neurotic part of my brain opts for cognitive explanations in this sort of situation. Partly because they are well supported by rigorous research. But the neurotic part of me wonders whether there is something I need to consider.
With York Festival of Writing looming, I have naturally been extremely anxious about how I am going to get there. ‘Wait and see how your ankle and leg heal’ didn’t work for me. Way too anxious for that. Especially since train fares go up in price the closer to the departure date. So I decided to hire an automatic car. Great. Problem solved. ‘We’ll need your driving licence, Madam,’ the nice man on the phone said. ‘Of course,’ I replied, followed by an under the breath, ‘Shit. Where is it?’ Having moved again since CrimeFest, yes, that means three houses in three months, my heart sank. I ransacked the new house three times, and I couldn’t find my driving licence anywhere. At the back of my mind I had a niggling memory that I’d had it in Whitstable. Turns out that the solicitor had requested it and . . . guess what? It’s been lost somewhere. I couldn’t believe that another thing could go wrong. The neurotic side kicked in. Was I a bad person? Was I being punished? Was it a test of my character? Was it a sign that I shouldn’t go to York? I was able to dismiss the first three, but, the fourth? Hmmm. I sincerely hope that it isn’t true. Fortunately I have a couple of really good friends, who’ve known me for years. Coincidence, they said. No, not a sign. And, Dhammavijaya, who I haven’t known for years but hope I will, thanks for the Buddhist input. I owe you a pint, sorry, I mean a coffee.
What to make of it all, eh? When I was at school I was always being told off for asking ‘Why?’ Some of the teachers liked it, some found it irritating. I assumed that I just had a naturally curious mind. Twenty years later, and some hard knocks, I’ve learnt that asking ‘Why?’ isn’t always productive. When I say ‘learnt’ I mean that intellectually I know that it’s not helpful but still can’t stop myself from doing it. But so often there is no reason. Or we don’t know what it is yet. Or it’s a combination of things whose precise inter-relationships are impossible to fathom. Or sometimes the answers are simple. Why did I fall over? Because my foot had gone numb. Why couldn’t I find my driving licence? Because the solicitors had not returned it safely. Why did my hair go yellow? Because the hairdresser used the wrong colour dye. Why couldn’t I find my MOT certificate? Er … ’cause I need to get better at filing my paperwork. Damn. That one was my fault.
As for the timing thing, I’m not sure. Why do things go wrong just before something important? The quotation from Robert Burns, ‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley’ is at the back of my mind. Maybe just as it’s a potential thought bias to associate two events, perhaps my wondering whether there is any relationship between said events and the fact that I have a long journey ahead of me on Thursday is also one? Perhaps it is simply: shit happens. Before important events and not. If there is a ‘message’, maybe it’s just that. That it’s no different from (although more serious) the fact that the printer so often busts when you need to print something urgent. In other words, sod’s law. We can only do so much to plan and prepare, but ultimately we are not in control of a lot of what happens in life. Sod, apparently has plans of his own.
I would love to know what other people think about this. Has something similar ever happened to you before you were about to go off on holiday or leave for a trip? How did you explain what happened? Did you just accept whatever it was and not analyse it? And were there any silver linings to those clouds?
For me, the silver lining is that I at least got to eat my very yummy piece of salted caramel pecan cheesecake before I fell over and dropped the plate. Yes. Always joking. Seriously, I guess it’s that the outcome of my fall really could have been much, much worse . . .
However, to be frank, I think that Sod should just blimmin’ well sod right off and stop interfering. Y’know?
Vicky Newham © 2013