Cast your eye over any charity shop bookshelf and there will be an inevitable stack of self-help titles. Paperbacks full of hyperbole and proclaimed potential. Some wrinkled with age and others retaining never-been-touched pages, they are indicative of the ongoing obsession with happiness.
I’m uneasy with the word 'happy', particularly when used to describe aspiration: "Oh if only I did this or that, or stopped that and this, then, just then, I would definitely be happy." It becomes an unattainable benchmark. Happiness is a wonderful, sometimes deliriously lovely state. But it is transitory. We are happy and we are unhappy. Both are natural. We experience peaks and troughs, with neutral bits in between. One cannot be in a constant state of uplifted jubilation. Plus, we wouldn't be able to appreciate it if it were the norm.
For me, that’s where the term 'content' comes in. To be contented feels like a more realistic aim. It acknowledges both rough and smooth. It suggests a certain stability or satisfaction. It admits that bits of life can be crap and really challenging, but that much of it has been unbelievably fortunate. I am so grateful for the family I landed in and friends I’ve found. 'Counting your blessings' is another one of those concepts that sounds more self-help-yoga-and-low-fat-yoghurt than it actually is. But sometimes in the whirl and twist of each day, it’s easy to lose sight of how privileged certain aspects really are.
Contentedness is also the feeling that washes over me when I’m out walking by myself. The pace of feet and breath, the space around me, the sounds of trees creaking and the far-off hum of an occasional car. Whether the route takes in lakes or long roads, there’s a kind of sustained absorption in it – a rhythm that takes me not just over the landscape but right through it; “really with it, and in it” as Cathy cries in Wuthering Heights. Sometimes my head is busy, the outdoors air not only smarting my cheeks but sparking ideas too. One runs into another and solutions emerge, plots unfold, projects spring up out of the dark. At other times the thoughts rise and fall again without properly registering. They are as light as dried leaves, lifted this way and that by the breeze. Often it is just enough to stand watching dusk beckon light away, the odd bird beating past.
It’s a grounding sensation. During my first month at Oxford, the orange and copper lined paths of Christchurch Meadows weren’t an escape, but a return – a half hour snatch of something substantial, almost serene. Both mind-clearing and mind-replenishing, an echo of the countryside in the middle of an ever-busy city.
I think that beautiful Lucy Feng- in my photos above - has a quality of serenity about her that proved fitting to illustrate these observations. The story behind my styling and photography here was to contradict the rule that 'blue and green should never be seen' by placing the two in close proximity. An array of velvets, satin and sixties shoes were duly lugged on and off a train to reach her house. This took place on the same summery day as the fantastical series of photos she took of me.