A short way up the road from my parents’ cottage, a couple recently moved into a house they had built from scratch. Returning from a morning walk, I saw that a man was outside the house working on building a beautiful dry stone wall along the front boundary of the garden.
Depending on what sort of frame of mind I’m in, I experience varying degrees of awkward anticipation about how to greet people I come across on my walks. At what point should one begin looking over in their direction? I hate to seem that I’m staring inappropriately for an excessively long period of time, yet nor do I want to appear cold and unfriendly.
My usual tactic is to lower my eyes to the floor until I come into close proximity and then raise my eyes, make brief eye contact, say ‘hiya’ and then lower my eyes again and move swiftly on. It’s not that I dislike meeting people, per se. In fact, the smiles and hellos I receive on my walks are often quite a warm and uplifting comfort. But I do wonder whether other people experience quite so much internal trouble over how to go about these greetings.
As I was saying, I saw that a man was there building this lovely wall and so as I came parallel to him I called over, “It looks so nice.” He looked a little embarrassed and replied, “Really? I was paranoid it wasn’t any good.” “Oh no!” I said. “It’s amazing!”
One would think that given my love of words I might have found something rather better to say to him than his wall was ‘nice’ and ‘amazing’. In my defence, I truly am a writer, not a talker, and where I might be eloquent with the written word, I am often not with the spoken. Not at all.
But to get back to the man and his wall, I was quite taken aback by what he said. Though I am a terrible judge of age, I would perhaps place him in his late thirties or early forties. He had long hair, a weathered, outdoorsy look and was wearing a baseball cap. Now you will see my preconceived judgements in perfect action. These visual elements taken together had immediately given me the idea that he must be a confident and self-assured man who could never doubt his wall-building gifts. Clearly, I was wrong.
How strange that we can doubt the gifts that are so clearly ours. How strange that our gifts can be so obvious to others and so difficult to recognise for ourselves. How strange that even whilst carrying out the very thing we feel most at home doing, we can be filled with doubt that we have any right to be doing it at all.
And yet. And yet does it matter? He still built his wall. Even if every stone he lifted and placed was filled with doubt, he built the wall and the work was done. Isn’t this what all artists are doing every day? Quietly working, quietly doubting, wondering if it is any good at all?