education

I was bored of chats about house prices and polyamory – but I had a secret plan for happiness


It took me a long time to admit that I was bored. I had left London and moved to a small town on the coast, drawn by the light and the landscape and the freedom, and by the promise of joining a new creative community. There were gigs and art shows and pop-up restaurants; festivals and funfairs and parties on the beach. Having spent many years feeling perpetually in transit, I wanted deeply to belong – to someone and to somewhere.

But the appeal quickly waned. Even in the summer, the days felt flat and bleak. Soon I realised that I did not want to be part of a scene. I did not think any of it was cool. I was weary of conversations that revolved around ketamine and house prices, and which of the town’s polyamorous relationships had recently hit the rocks. I had nothing to contribute. I fell quiet and retreated inward.

Meanwhile, my boyfriend was in his element. Sometimes, I thought back to our first date and remembered how I had talked – drunkenly, happily, readily – about the inventor of barbed wire, and the bullfrogs of the Mississippi, and the symbiotic relationship between jackdaws and deer. I wondered where that woman had gone.

Some of Laura Barton's many reference books
‘Facts have reminded me that life is rich and wild and variegated.’ Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

It was January when I decided that salvation might lie in facts. I was in the Mojave desert, watching the sun rise over Seven Magic Mountains – Ugo Rondinone’s much-Instagrammed neon-rock sculpture in the Ivanpah Valley. I remember a huge desire to talk to someone about it all: about the effects of colour and light on the human eye; about the fact that honeybees can see ultraviolet and rattlesnakes have infrared detectors; about how, at night here in the desert, cold air slopes off the mountains to lie on the valley floor. And that this is the land of the Chemehuevi, whose name means either “those who play with fish” or “nose in the air like a roadrunner”, depending on whom you believe.

I wanted to talk about how, the evening before, I had learned that, in the Southern Paiute language, the word “pah” means water, and to see it suffixed on a placename such as “Ivanpah” meant the promise of hydration. How, once you know this, the “pah” names dotted across a map of the desert come to resemble a path, a way to lead yourself through a dry land. But I realised, standing there in the early light, that I did not know whom to talk to about any of it.

What I decided then was that I would simply talk to myself about it. That, if I were bored, I had a responsibility to interest myself. So, each day I would find a new fact to enjoy – prompted by something I saw, or by a line in a newspaper article, or by a passing mention on a radio programme, or sometimes just by a thought that drifted through my head. I would read about it, online or in books, understand it and then squirrel it away in my brain.

The facts I have rejoiced in over the past 18 months or so have been many and various: the origins of the Becket controversy; the etymology of “currach”; how temperature affects sound; the Highway Serial Killings Initiative; and how to identify the song of the mistle thrush. I have studied brief histories of Webster, Iowa, and the narcissus ‘Passionale’ and enjoyed loose refreshers in Macrobius and dream theory, the hundred years’ war, and the House of Plantagenet.

I have also learned that ketamine was originally pronounced “keetamine”, due to the presence of a ketone group in its chemical structure, and trialled on prisoners in Michigan in 1964. I have learned that house prices in Thanet have risen 13% in the past three years. And that the word “polyamorous” first appeared in the spring of 1990 in an article by the neopagan priestess Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, titled A Bouquet of Lovers.

An accumulation of facts does not make you an interesting person. It can make you the bar-room bore, or the pub-quiz king, or a rum sort of dinner-party guest. In my case, fact-learning was a private matter; I chose not to share these facts with anybody, nor, until now, to share that I was doing this at all.

Rather, their purpose was to re-engage me with the world, to rekindle a sense of wonder I was in danger of losing. They have reminded me that life is rich and wild and variegated, that the days are filled with knowledge worth exploring. As I have pressed on through the months of this peculiar mission, each fact has become like a water-point on the map; a way to lead me back through a dry land to myself.



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