I’m not a huge fan of Raymond Carver, in the sense that I would never read his work for fun or enjoyment. I feel it would be a little bit like stabbing myself in the kidneys for fun or enjoyment. I’m not good with horror, tragedy, or the grotesque. All the same, I have an enormous admiration for what he can achieve with a minimum of words.
Sometimes, when there are less words, the reader has to do more work, interpreting and figuring things out – and there’s value to that sort of writing as well, but it’s not what Carver did. Carver used just enough language to poke at something deep down in a shared cultural awareness. Just enough visual, enough imagery, enough dialogue to arouse suspicion, to stir up the dark things lurking in the depths, rising up into a slow realisation of the horror or tragedy taking place, often without stating it outright – or, if he did state it outright, it was in the most blunt and stark fashion.
I read Short Cuts, an anthology of short stories, in year 12, which was ohdeargod 20 years ago now, and there are images and feelings that will always stay with me, after only a single reading that I have never repeated.
One story was called A Small Good Thing. It devastated me at sixteen years old and, now that my friends have small children, you could not really pay me enough to read it again.
But I won’t ever forget one image in it, the moment when a character – who has been an utter creep until he realises what’s at stake – that when things are really dreadful, really truly horrible, sometimes you need to find the small good thing, the little pieces of warmth and comfort that emerge around you.
I’m not a fan of positive thinking culture. I feel that it serves to demonise people for feeling sad or angry – and people can’t process those feelings if they just try to repress them (“I’m fine! There’s nothing wrong! I FUCKING TOLD YOU I’M FINE, ALRIGHT!”) or, worse, if they beat themselves up about it (“I’m a monster. I’m so selfish. I’m worthless. How can I feel sad about that when there’s so much worse in the world? I should just get over it…”).
There is a real benefit to learning how to process those things without letting it suck you down into a hellish quagmire of nihilism. That particular skill take years to develop: years of reflection, and therapy, and a good deal of hard psychological work. It’s also not foolproof, and it’s certainly not the same as expressing the following: “I should stop being so negative! I need to be upbeat! It could be so much worse, I am incredibly blessed! How self-indulgent to let myself feel bad!”
But if I’m not a fan of positive thinking culture, I am a fan of the Small Good Thing. I am a fan of finding peace in the good moments, and appreciating what I can. When I’m in the worst places mentally, I won’t be able to redirect, but I can see good moments for what they are, and I can hold them close.
I’m not sure what my mental state is right now. Sometimes it’s heavy, in terms of feeling like I’m carrying a crushing weight and just putting one foot in front of the other is appalling. Sometimes I almost feel normal – functional, useful, able to maintain conversations with people – and then I realise that my new normal is… not great.
My new normal only exists because I’m not at work right now (injured hand, long story), so I’m not feeling overwhelmed and inadequate. My new normal is one where trying to open up emotionally in order to relate to someone is like wading hip deep through a swamp. My new normal is one where I sometimes don’t know what to say in response to anything someone tells me about their life, despite caring, despite being interested – I’ve emotionally withdrawn, like a hermit crab curling back into a large shell, just the tips of my claws visible from the outside.
My new normal is one where I can’t make decisions or shift from my routine.
My new normal is pretty low.
Right now, I really need the small good things. When I look out over the back deck, there’s a tranquil sea of green forest to soothe my gaze. The smell of fresh coffee is a joy, and the taste of freshly scrambled eggs with a generous helping of cream and cheese. A good book, well-plotted, with lovable characters and a happy ending – well, that’s just a small piece of happiness on its own. The sense of achievement after going for a run, the feeling of all the parts of my body working together, a functional engine of levers and hydraulics.
The purr of a cat vibrating through one’s skin. A dog letting the full weight of his head rest against your hand as you scratch under his jaw.
The voice of a friend who is happy to see you.
A place where you are welcome.
Arms around you, and lips against your hair.
Bright moments and sensations that stand out when everything is heavy and painful, no matter how trivial or unimportant they might seem. It’s something to hold onto, to dig your fingers into, because you know that one of those moments is coming again soon.
It shouldn’t be too long until the next small good thing. Be ready for it. Keep an eye out. It might be very small indeed.
But it will come. We just wait until then.