Every so often you read a book and it feels like catching your breath.
Everything slows; the big picture comes back into focus and the details are beautiful again. Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet is one of those books. Honest, relevant, accessible, and different, Notes reminds you of the things that matter. And the things that really (really) don’t.
I bought this on impulse after some good news (and a long, deep breath). It was perfect timing. I had space in my head to refocus, to re-‘see’ the world, and Notes is all about that. Matt Haig is a master of the beautiful art of breaking things down to their simplest forms, of revealing the parts that make up this whole, mad, often overwhelming existence. Understanding how the pieces fit somehow makes life feel more do-able. More live-able.
I fell so completely in love with this book that I took it to school to share with the 5/6 class I was substitute-teaching a couple of weeks ago. The structure of Notes makes it perfect for reading with kids (although I was careful with some of the content). Short, titled chapters in all kinds of styles – dialogue, poetry, lists, anecdotes. And though the sections connect, they can also be read as stand-alone texts, little seed-packets full of advice, full of the potential for good things to grow. These are the lessons kids need to be learning. They are lessons I’m still learning, and will probably keep revisiting for the rest of my life. But for kids in the middle of that moment just before they become teens, when they are not quite kids and not quite adults, books like this are incredibly important. To help navigate the world and be ready to embrace its complexity and uncertainty. To feel okay about things being hard and not always working out. To be calm and to breathe and to realise you really are okay, no matter what that kid who sits behind you or social media or NAPLAN says1.
There is so much in this book, and I’m sure different sections will resonate at different times in my life, but for now these are some of the things that stand out: Reminders to slow down and not take things so seriously. Acknowledging the good things about the internet as well as the things that aren’t so good. Ideas about managing anxiety. Quotes from Kurt Vonnegut and Emily Dickinson. The way Haig connects these notes to his own life, and the way he breaks things down to their fundamental parts, in order to really get at what’s important. In order to live our lives well. I love the humour and the honesty, and the way it made me feel calmer, more focused, and more aware of the wonder of the world.
Things to remember (some notes – from Notes – of my own):
1. Don’t do things you know make you feel bad (duh).
–The thing with mental turmoil is that so many things that make you feel better in the short term make you feel worse in the long term.
Like too much caffeine and then not being able to sleep. Like too much alcohol and not being able to sleep. Like sleeping in instead of going to yoga and feeling lethargic for the rest of the day. Like spending an hour scrolling through Twitter and fueling the anger and frustration and helplessness. Do things that you know will make you feel good, in the long run. Practice resisting those short-term temptations (she writes, as she sips her second coffee of the morning).
2. You (most likely) already have everything you need.
-The whole of consumerism is based on us wanting the next thing rather than the present thing we already have. This is an almost perfect recipe for unhappiness.
Stop wanting. To be happier, to have done more (written more, cleaned more, blogged more, slept more), to have more (money, books published, friends, health), to be more. Society is set up to make us feel this way – to make us feel we are never enough, so we will keep consuming. Fuck that. Pay less attention to advertising, and more attention to art. The first makes us want what we don’t need, the second makes us appreciate what we already have.
3. Use technology, don’t let it use you.
-The internet can be what we want it to be. The internet can lead us anywhere we choose.
Oh the internet. Specifically, the way it has radically changed how we exist in the world. Not that it is intrinsically a bad thing, but that it can be used in ways that make us less happy. Less human. It has the potential to addict us, and to steal from us one of our most precious resources – time. As Annie Dillard wrote, ‘how we spend our days is how we spend our lives’. And I don’t want to spend my life on Twitter. I want to limit my social media use. Turn off notifications. Find something else mindless to do when my blood sugar is low. And remove devices from my bed time.
4. Go to sleep.
-Without sleep we don’t function properly.
Not rocket science, but sometimes feels like it. Like everything else, the secret is to simplify. Have a routine. Drink less coffee and alcohol. Go to bed earlier and get up earlier. Remove blue-screen-light. Read. Yeah, not complicated. And yet I’ll still find it so hard to say no to that late afternoon coffee.
5. Learn for learning’s sake.
-To see the act of learning as something not for its own sake but because of what it will get you reduces the wonder of humanity.
Learning. Is an act that is important in the present, not the future. Learning shouldn’t be about where a certificate or a NAPLAN score can take you, but about the joy of discovering things in the moment. The joy of finding out how something works, how to create something. Learning is an end in itself, ‘it is a way to love living right now.’
6. You don’t always need to know.
-[W]atching news can feel like watching a continuous metaphor for generalised anxiety disorder … all sensation and no information.
The News (with a capital ‘N’). Is not as important as people think. There is no shame in not reading/watching/Twitter-drip-feeding the news. Most of it is presented in ways designed to keep us fearful, which also keeps us malleable, which makes us easy to sell to and manipulate. Know what you need to know to be in the world, and to improve what you can. Leave the rest.
7. Slow. The fuck. Down.
-Feeling you have no time doesn’t mean you have no time.
I’m so bad at this. Even writing this blog post I’ve been rushing, thinking ‘I’ve got to get this done’. Why? The only real deadline is the final one. Stop. Go and make some cookies. Come back later. The words will wait.
8. You can’t be everything.
-[Enjoy] the world within our boundaries … live on a human scale.
There is so much I could be doing right now. I could be reading one of the books from the towering pile on my shelf. I could be watching that TV show my friend recommended. I could be working on my novel. Cleaning. Cooking. Emailing friends overseas. Playing guitar. Learning a language. Listening to a podcast. Searching for art ideas. But just because I could, doesn’t mean I should. I’m trying – lately – to choose quality over quantity. I’m buying the more expensive chocolate, but I’m eating less of it. I’m spending more time doing less things. I’m taking less breaths, but they’re deeper.
9. Suffering is natural.
-Don’t beat yourself up for being a mess. It’s fine. The universe is a mess. Galaxies are drifting all over the place. You’re just in tune with the cosmos.
Often the real problem is not our sadness or anger or despair but the belief that we shouldn’t be feeling sadness or anger or despair. But all these things are natural. All these things happen – inevitably – to everyone. And just because someone looks like they’re not sad or angry or despairing (especially if what you’re looking at is the Facebook version of that person) doesn’t mean they’re not actually a mess in some way, too.
10. Be that voice that says, ‘No.’ Be human.
-When normality becomes madness, the only way to find sanity is by daring to be different.
If checking your emails every five minutes is making you feel stressed and divided, stop checking your emails. If people expect you to reply to said emails every five minutes, let them. You don’t have to be available twenty-four hours a day. Be unreachable, sometimes. You are not on call. You are not a robot. You are human. And you are the same sort of human that existed 50,000 years ago, before smartphones and watches and electric lights. Biologically, you are not ready for smartphones or watches or electric lights. So go easy on yourself. Take some time out. This planet might be nervous, but you don’t have to be.
Matt Haig is a UK author. His book Reasons to Stay Alive (which I haven’t read yet, but it’s definitely on my list) was a number one bestseller. He also writes novels for adults, and for children. I have just ordered his latest book, The Truth Pixie. I’m sure it will give me another amazing lesson for the kids at school!
1. Don’t get me started on standardised testing in Australian schools – I’ve recently read Teacher by Gabbie Stroud and would have written a very ranty post about how much I loved it and how much it fed my frustration by now if I hadn’t been lending it out to as many people as possible in an effort to foster revolution in my own small way.