23 April 2106

Each of us is born with a solitary task to fulfill and those we meet on our way help or hinder us in its completion; alas for the one who is unable to distinguish between them.

30th April

A branch has broken off the tree. It didn’t slide to the ground straight away. Other branches held it up and kept watch over it for several hours.

From The Eighth Day by Christian Bobin (French writer, born 1951)

Translated by Pauline Matarasso and published by Darton Longman and Tod

(£12.99 – see www.dltbooks.com )


I was ill last week and so never got round to writing a blog: this this week I’ve solved it by choosing another quotation by Christian Bobin for the top of my Daily Mail column, and wrapping the two together here. A few weeks ago, my friend Tessa Strickland (the founder of Barefoot Books) came to stay and brought me a small, neat, beautifully-designed book as a gift – one of those volumes which opens easily and fits the hand so perfectly it feels as if it has been there forever.

She told me she had recently discovered the French writer (that feels an inadequate term…Mystic? Poet?) Christian Bobin and thought I would like his work. The Eight Day is a selection, with an excellent introduction and is a good way to get to know Bobin’s writing. But be  warned, this is intense, poetic, spiritual prose that you can re-read again and again. It has a particular spiritual quality that isn’t for everybody. He writes about nature, encounters with people, being alone, and the beauty of the everyday. I love his strange, luminous prose and his thoughts.

Anyway, to the subject above. I often receive problem letters about people caught within toxic relationships – stuck, and unable to see any way out. On April 23 it was a woman whose stepfather had made the family’s life a misery but who felt unable to cut him out of her life. Other times it is rotten marriages, or a young woman in thrall to a bastard…people incapable of working out any path through the thicket of mutual misunderstanding, exploitation, dislike. But read that first quote above and think about how serious this is. Imagine if you could see your life as having ‘a solitary task to fulfill.’ Many people will reject that as grandiose (even frightening), but think a little harder and it is not. The task may indeed be something important – but it may also be to lead a decent, fulfilled life and to achieve as much of happiness as is given this side of heaven. Now that can be a task for each one of us. But if you are tangled up with toxic people they will get in the way. Supportive friends and relatives will be good for you, of course – and so it is vital to be able to see which are the helpful people in your life and which are the hinderers. Remember the helpers in fairy tale. Sometimes it is the little old lady by the well who asks you to get her a drink……Keep looking for your helpers.

If you were to weigh up everyone you know in this way, it could sound selfish. You know – Which one is good for me, me, me? But those who will help you in your great life quest might be the very ones who take you to task for wasting chances, for drinking too much, for being unfaithful, and so on. And you may not want to hear them. The good helpers may not be comforting; the bad ones may pour lazy, bad counsel in your ears. And as Bobin says, you have to see the difference, you have to realise that the only way to deal with toxic people is to leave them behind. Now, sometimes this is impossible. To give one example, suppose you have a parent who is demanding and selfish and utterly wears you out, leaving you frazzled and tense and far the worse from every meeting. Yet you know you have a sacred duty to that parent. Well, in such a circumstance, the only way to handle it is to step back and place the relationship within strict boundaries. How? Well, meetings limited to a set time (every Saturday tea?) and curtailed at any other time, and Caller ID switched on. That kind of thing perhaps. You have to remain in control. Does that sound harsh? Well, the expense of your spirit in a waste of duty is a hard price to pay for losing your inner light.

The second quotation is a close observation of a natural phenomenon and a wonderful metaphor for friendship, for support. When you are ‘broken’ like that branch, you can still be held up by those beloved souls around you who stay faithful and strong in love. Those are the ones who will help you on your way, who will give, not take, who will hold out a hand to you when yours does not know in which direction to reach. There are few people like that in any life, which makes them all the more precious. That’s why it is vital to know who they are, and not waste time on the others. As I get older I want to see fewer people. I love it when new friends come along and I cherish the old, even though some of them may not be as sustaining as I would like. It probably cuts the other way too! At this point in my life I know who matters to me and why, and try to deal patiently or efficiently with the others. Spiritual stillness matters more and more; some of my nights are full of prayer. I am starting to see my task more clearly too: it is to love and to give and to celebrate beauty – and to write about that trinity.

To close, here is another quote from the quiet Christian Bobin about the great Task of living: ‘When the Japanese painter Hokusai died in 1849 he had, through his drawings, made life ten thousand times more vital than it had been before him. That, no doubt, is the work that each of us should spend a lifetimes doing: rubbing the gold piece put in our hand at birth, so that it shines ten thousand times more brightly when death comes to steal it.’