Once upon a time, I had the pleasure of interviewing writer Lionel Shriver at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. I remember how nervous I was when I saw her sat in a rattan chair, luscious tropical background behind her, sending lazy clouds of smoke into the air from an electronic cigarette (one of the first such devices I’d ever seen). She represented everything I wanted to be: a strong woman, a talented and successful writer.
‘What advice would you give your younger self when you first started out as a writer?’ I asked her.
Lionel took a drag of her electronic cigarette and said in her evenly-toned voice: ‘I look back at the years when I wasn’t doing very well and nobody have ever heard of me – which bothered me – and I realise that I was happy and I didn’t know it. And I’m not trying to diminish the disappointments of that time but it was intense and I was alive and I was doing what I wanted to, I was exploring a new city, I fell in love for the first time during those years and I become wholly immersed in my books. What more would I want? Some of the things that I didn’t have then, I have since devalued, one of them being success. It’s a surprisingly mild and quiet experience.’
At the time of the interview, I was neck-deep into The Love Project. I was pursuing personal success with the determination of a hound. I wanted so badly not to be alone and unloved, that almost nothing else mattered. I wanted my happy ending and I was going to get it, no mater what else I sacrificed in the process. But what I didn’t realise at the time was, just like Lionel Shriver didn’t at the beginning of her writing career, how happy I already was.
Meeting my husband during The Love Project was supposed to be my happy ending. From then on, all my struggles would be over. But with every important milestone reached, another one appeared.
Things would get easier once we moved into the new flat, once we got married and put the stress of the wedding behind us, once we finished renovating the new flat, once we sold it, once we moved to France, once we renovated the holiday cottage, once I had time to write again, once the nice weather came back. In the midst of it all, I look back at my years of being single in London when I tormented myself over ending up alone and I wished I had enjoyed it more. The freedom, the youth, the mistakes, the unique and unrepeatable period in my life when it was okay to be reckless and wild.
The more milestones my husband and I achieved together, the more the struggles intensified. Exhausted by swimming upstream against the challenges life threw at us, one day I had a revelation. Maybe there are no happy endings. Maybe every single day, with it good and bad, its highs and lows, is all there is.
My revelation became conviction when I read an article about the actress Jennifer Aniston turning fifty years old on 11th of February. Often pitied by the press for her failed relationships, Jennifer Aniston is, in my humble opinion, an example of how we should approach life. Attacked from all sides for being single and childless at fifty, she hit back by saying:
‘We live in a society that messages women: by this age, you should be married; by this age, you should have children…Why do we want a happy ending? How about just a happy existence? A happy process?’
Maybe life is nothing but change. Maybe our role in this constant dance of change is to always flow with it not against it, ride its current, enjoy the human experience exactly the way it’s being handed over to us.
Here’s my humble advice. Forget the happy ending. Focus on the journey and make it a good one. Because, even though you may not know it, every single day you stay on that road, you’ve arrived.