Keeping things simple

My oldest friend Tracy is walking through Albania at the moment. She’s with a group and I’m not entirely sure where they’re headed or when they’ll get there, and I’m not even sure I could identify Albania on a map.

I’m following her on Instagram. She’s a good photographer, she posts frequently and it’s really fascinating to see what Albania looks like.

What strikes me in the photos is how beautiful the countryside is, and how old-world the life is. She has lots of photos of donkeys carting loads of hay, women and men looking like every peasant photo you’ve ever seen, horses and carts in the roads, and tiny stalls on the side of the road selling a handful of cucumbers, some grapes and a few tomatoes. It’s very picturesque, but it’s also real life for Albanian villagers.

I live about 10 minutes’ walk from the central city. I walked into town this morning to meet a friend for coffee, then decided to go shopping.

While walking home carrying my branded shopping bags, I got to thinking about the Albanians in Tracy’s photographs and about the purpose of life (as you do).

Something in those photos made me reflect on what life consists of, the myriad activities that constitute daily life for each of us. It’s not the economics of it that got me pondering (although I don’t know how you make enough to live on when your daily income derives from the sale of three cucumbers and a kilo of tomatoes, and your customers are whoever walks past your gate on a given day). It’s more to do with an engagement with the business of life.

What I saw when I looked at those photos was a life driven by ambitions different from mine. So much of my world is implicitly or explicitly about “getting ahead”, going up in the world, making it, keeping up with the Joneses and every other cliché you can think of. There’s not much room for simply enjoying life.

I’m not trying to romanticise the life of an Albanian peasant here. I’m pretty sure it’s hard work, uncertain and at times grim and depressing. Nor am I suggesting they enjoy their lives, struggling in the aftermath of communist rule. This is about me, not them.

But they are immersed in the activities of their daily life. I haven’t learnt how to be that immersed. I am always living in the future (or the past, when I get in those moods). It’s always about the next thing, what I need to do, to achieve, the goal to reach or the plan to make. I’ve read, and believed, too many productivity blogs and books.

I suspect this sense of frustration at feeling dissociated from one’s own life and therefore finding little joy in it is what drives people to embark on “Eat, Pray, Love” adventures. The Italians, the French, maybe the Albanians, all seem to know how to enjoy the day to day of life: meals, a glass of wine, dancing, talking, being with friends and family.

What if I’ve been doing it wrong all this time? I’ve got a house, my land, retirement savings, a good job, new shoes. What if all of that is beside the point?

Well, I’m quite sure it IS all beside the point. It’s nice, it’s comfortable, and it provides me the luxury of sitting round pondering the meaning of life. But it’s not the point of life. It’s a means to an end, and the point is surely happiness.

And the way to happiness? Not sure. But it’s not buying new shoes, nice though they are.

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