Is it though, really? And what does that even mean?
I’m not going to lie, it feels really strange to be writing under this title at a time when so much is falling apart. The news from Israel and Palestine is horrifying, the war continues in Ukraine, the government of my own country remains hostile to people who have come here from other troubled places looking for peace and shelter, a relative has passed away this morning and in a few moments I will watch the live stream of the funeral of a friend and inspiration to many, Pip Wilson. So what do we do at times like this? I guess my answer, or at least the start of it, is to try and be aware of the things I have to be grateful for. There are many this morning, including shelter and a degree of security, the love of friends and family, work to do and room to play, the space and beauty offered by the landscape around me here on the South Coast. What are yours? Let me know, if you like. I would like this to be a conversation.
But it’s true, I do want to let you know that I have a new book out and the title is Everything is Extraordinary. It comes from something that was said about the Australian writer and broadcaster Clive James and the attitude he had to life just before his premature death from cancer. I met Clive at that time and he was, of course, in pain and grieving for the years he would miss. He raged against the dying of the light, as you would expect from a man who had punched out prose like a prizefighter all his life; yet Clive was also full of a new grace and gratitude for being allowed to stay in that light for a while longer. He saw resonant beauty in even the smallest things. Every moment was potentially precious, because there were so few left. Clive’s experience became even more intense towards the end, as his daughter Claerwen later told a friend: “His world had shrunk to this room, and that terrace. He never went anywhere, he saw almost nobody, he could eat almost nothing – and yet, every aspect of his life was filled with meaning. The fact that there was an apple on that tree; whether it was rainy or sunny. Everything was extraordinary.”
Those words ring true with me. Everything is Extraordinary. What if we could find a way to live like that without having to endure what he was going through? I have chosen the words as my title as a way to suggest some of the things I’m trying to explore in these stories, including the power of connection and the possibility that we might see how extraordinary the ordinary really is. Every story stands alone, but together I hope they also add up to a reflection on life as learned from these encounters, a meditation on what it means to be human and how we might do it well. How to live, love and pay attention. How to connect with each other, with ourselves, with the world around us and the divine, if we believe in that.
Not that this is a self-help book. I can barely help myself sometimes.
I just go around asking questions, watching reactions, listening to the answers and telling stories, as a professional interviewer and in life because I do believe we are at our best when we open up to each other. That’s when the unexpected happens, things are revealed and we get a few clues to what life might be all about. Sometimes there are glimpses of glory in the smile of a friend or the sight of a bird on the wing, as described in the chapter called Kes. Sometimes we have nothing to go on but rumours, passed on by people like Clive who are further ahead down the road than us and willing to share, if we are willing to listen. And that’s really what the book is about. Sharing. Listening. Seeing and being seen. Learning from each other. Daring to open up, daring to hold each other’s gaze. Daring to care.
The stories feature men and women who are wealthy beyond all dreams and others who have almost nothing in material terms but are rich in other ways. Some of them are really famous – like Scarlett Johansson, Tiger Woods, Nelson Mandela and Her Majesty The Queen – and some are really not, like a remarkable young woman called Zahra who made a seven-thousand-mile journey that sounds like something out of an epic folk tale. She landed on the shores of England in an overladen rubber dinghy at dawn one Christmas morning. Each person has something valuable to pass on, whether by accident or design and whether they know it or not. We all do. We are all human, all broken, all hurting, all precious. Every one of us, even those we see through the filter of fame. Even the ones we have been told see as alien or other. They are us.
Each encounter we have with another person is potentially meaningful, because our very humanity depends on being connected with others. As Desmond Tutu says: ‘I couldn’t be a human being on my lonesome, I wouldn’t know what to do.’
I don’t have any answers to the things that are happening in the world today but I do feel the way forward has to be in recognising our common humanity and acting on it. What do you think? Where do you find consolation? What inspires you to act? What can we do together, right now? Get in touch, I’d love to know.
As Pip Wilson would say to all he met, wherever they were from, whatever they had done or however much they were in trouble, you are a beautiful human.
Thank you for reading this, it’s much appreciated.