Six months ago I decided to take a break from A Few Kind Words. It was a spur of the moment decision, though one that had been brewing for a while. One Thursday afternoon I sat down at the usual hour to write something and what came out was a farewell note, albeit a temporary one.
I don’t know what brought me to that point on that particular day, but it was the culmination of what had felt like a tough stretch, with a lot of energy going out in different directions, and not enough coming back to keep the batteries charged. I’m wary of ascribing general characteristics to individual years but it seems that, with one or two notable exceptions, many people including me found 2016 difficult. It was certainly a year for confounding expectations.
But my reluctance to dismiss any year as a wholly ‘bad year’ reflects my belief that this is seldom the human experience. We live in a constant state of flux. A chart of our emotional and mental trajectory would show huge fluctuations from moment to moment, let alone year to year; and being conscious of those peaks and troughs is what it means not merely to be alive, but to be alive to the marvel, the gift of our existence.
So there were low points in 2016, troughs of anxiety and uncertainty, exhaustion and frustration on all fronts – personal, professional and in response to greater events about which much continues to be written. But there were peaks too: a week exploring Seville, for example; a family holiday in the rainswept West Highlands; a weekend with old friends in Brittany; an evening at Pitlochry Festival Theatre making music for a roomful of enthusiastic strangers; witnessing moments of revelation on courses, both Dark Angels, in the Highlands, and The Stories We Tell, in Andalucia and Sardinia; and as I write more keep coming to mind, too many to mention here.
Then there were the moments that were both peak and trough at the same time; and my thoughts turn at once to two autumn deaths, both unexpected. The first, my friend Angus Grant, wild-haired, free-spirited fiddler and frontman for the Celtic fusion band, Shooglenifty, with whom I spent five years playing in a pub session every Monday night and ended up touring Australia in the Funky String Band.
Angus died of cancer aged only 49. His funeral, in Fort William, was attended by practically every traditional musician of note in Scotland, and culminated in a nine-hour session in the bar of the Glenfinnan Hotel. In two weeks’ time his life and music is to be celebrated in a special concert at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, in which I’m privileged to be playing a very small part.
Just a few weeks later my stepmother died, also of cancer. Only a few years older than me, we had known she was unwell for a couple of years, but her death came very suddenly and she met it with enormous courage. In the final days Sarah and I were closely involved in her care. It meant a great deal to us.
It was an extraordinary ten-day period. Five days before her death, our second grandchild had been born, little Marlow Davy, a healthy and enchanting affirmation that the cycle of life continues in that uncanny way it has. Five days after her death, our daughter Anna left for Canada with an open ticket, a guitar and a two-year working visa.
We have a choice in the filters through which we view the world, in the stories we tell ourselves about our lives; and what seems most important is that in choosing one we do not exclude another. It is not a true reflection of the world we live in to dwell exclusively on what casts us down or what lifts us up, because our lives, moment to moment, tell us that we exist in a very broad spectrum of thought and feeling.
To function most fully and authentically as a human being of any kind, it’s necessary to acknowledge all shades of our experience. As a writer, it’s essential – and in the year ahead it may be more essential than ever.