One of my favourite places in the world used to be an underwater cave in Jackfish Alley (near Sharm, Egypt). It’s an open-cavern SCUBA dive in shallow waters, nestled into a coral reef cliff, which you can enter from below to peer up at the cathedral ceiling way above. Shards of light pierce the cave roof, catching a rainbow of colours on the cave walls, all muted by an otherworldly blue. As the sea moves, great columns of light dance and sparkle mid-water, catching flickering fish scales, and throwing spotlights on the blue spotted rays scattered across the sandy floor. There’s only room for one or two humans at a time, hovering in a delicate world that we mustn’t touch. It’s easy to imagine magic.
My first sight of Jackfish Alley held no deeper significance than a pretty place enjoyed on holiday — but I celebrated it anyway; I’d learned to dive, fallen in love, and we’d seen the caves. I took the moment back to the London pubs, told my friends about it, and we raised glasses of Winter Warmer in the cold, British air and toasted good times had and yet to come.
There were good times: three beautiful babies and a wedding, trips and parties, but as the years passed, more and more I forgot to celebrate my own things. My children’s birthdays were met with eruptions of tiny people, music and cake, but not my own birthdays. The kids’ school reports were praised, but my work was “work stuff”. It felt good to concentrate on my children.
It didn’t matter if I wore old clothes provided my children were warm and safe. It didn’t matter if I caught the latest film, as long as I’d snuggled up with my babies and read stories. Losing myself was, in many ways, a comfort and a relief (one less thing) and the joy I received from my kids far outweighed lonelier pleasures. But as the years passed, I forgot to celebrate anything of my own, or even to acknowledge my work (which my family needed me to continue).
When I’d worked as a freelancer for 20 years, I didn’t notice the anniversary until I filed a tax return, months later. When we completed a successful scientific project, I left the client celebrating (lovely clients did invite me) while I moved on. When a volunteer project stalled, I saved money for two years to rescue it, fulfilled my promise and left, with no glasses raised.
Gradually, I found myself becoming irritated by LinkedIn messages asking me to celebrate colleagues’ anniversaries (they worked, don’t we all, so what?), announcements of friends’ successes (they succeeded, don’t we all, so what?) or newsletters thanking people for trivial help (they helped, don’t we all, so what?) — and on the rare occasions when I thought about it, I figured perhaps I was turning into a grumpy old woman, or maybe just tired? (I got grumpy and tired, don’t we all, so what?)
Then today I sat in my car and had a happy moment. An unvalidated, unwitnessed, non-specific nice moment: my elder children were together with friends, I was about to pick up my youngest, and we were all going on holiday with my parents. The sky was bright, I was full of latte, and for the first time in years, I didn’t need an operation (touch wood, all being well, fingers crossed, etc) and so, in theory, I could… enjoy the moment?
It reminded me of being in my twenties; of a time when I celebrated the little joys in life: moments when things are OK. Not perfect, but NICE. Not groundbreaking, just good times in an otherwise tiring weekly gallop.
I saw a tweet this week, by someone who was hesitating to share their writing success, for fear perhaps of boasting or being anything less than completely modest, and I wanted to shout,
Although we mock the authors who do nothing but promote their own work, it’s right and natural to be excited about a publication or review or a launch, and it would be a shame, and ridiculous, if we didn’t enjoy these moments.
The author must be allowed to take pleasure in their work reaching readers, other writers must be allowed to latch onto the hope that it’s possible and enjoyable, the support teams of family, friends, readers and editors must see their work validated, and our children need to witness the satisfaction and celebration of work well done. This is hard-earned success, that usually belongs to more than just one person, and it mustn’t be wasted.
Don’t be like me – don’t go through years of effort but miss the bucket of champagne that should go with 20 years of hard work, the meal to conclude the successful project, or shared tea and cakes as the team relives the bumps and hurdles of a rescued challenge.
These are the successes we envisioned during the tough times, and the perfect opportunity to celebrate the friendships forged. Send out that tweet, raise the pints in the pub, pop the cork, shout and laugh and put your arms around the people who made the journey with you!
Too much modesty is boring
and benefits no one.
Too much modesty denigrates our own work and also fails to acknowledge those who help us. (How many projects do we really achieve alone? Really?)
Reach out: make the announcement, and also the personal phone call to say, “We did it!” Invite the people who helped to walk around the project, to see how their part fitted into the whole. Thank them. Shake their hands or nudge their shoulder. Look into their eyes and smile because if they wanted you to succeed, this is their pleasure as well. Pour the wine, tea, juice, whatever – and drink it together.
We all like happiness, and we experience it at different times, so we should enjoy every bit we can, even if it’s just because it’s a sunny day, and the kids are laughing, and nothing hurts, and it’s a nice Monday afternoon of no great or special importance other than life, for a moment, feeling great.
Pop. The. Cork.