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The Comfort Book(6)
Author: Matt Haig

   On Christmas Eve 1971, aged seventeen, somewhere over Peru, Koepcke fell through the sky strapped to her seat after lightning struck her plane. All 91 of the other people on board died, including her own mother, but she survived the fall and managed to get out of her seat once it had fallen through the jungle canopy.

   Koepcke was in pain. She was in shock. She had a broken collar bone and deep cuts on her legs. She was also in a state of fear for her own life. At the sight of other dead bodies she felt “paralyzed by panic.” She grabbed some provisions she found amid the debris and tried to find her way to civilization.

   Koepcke knew a lot about the rain forest. Her parents were both zoologists. Before the crash, she had spent over a year living with them in a research station within the Peruvian rain forest. In her own words she knew that, armed with knowledge, it didn’t have to be the “green hell” people imagined.

   So, for instance, she knew that snakes could be camouflaged to look like dried leaves. She knew the sounds of various bird calls. She knew which signs to look for in order to find water and she ended up finding a creek. Her dad had also once told her that if you followed the flow of running water you would eventually find civilization.

   As described in her book When I Fell from the Sky, she passed vultures feeding on corpses. Snakes, mosquitoes, and deadly spiders were a continual threat. One of her wounds became infested with maggots. She suffered from the heat of the sun. But all the time she was aided by knowledge.

   She decided to walk as much as possible in the water of the stream, in order to avoid snakes, spiders, and the poisonous plants of the jungle floor. She stayed in the middle of the stream in order to avoid piranhas, which she knew mainly swam in shallow water. She knew this would mean she would probably encounter alligators, but she also knew that, unlike snakes, alligators rarely attacked humans.

   On and on she walked, as her infested wound grew ever more painful. She had no food now. She felt weary and in a dream-like state. Yet she had a determination she believed was passed down from her father: “ ‘When we have really resolved to achieve something,’ my father once said, ‘we succeed. We only have to want it, Juliane.’ ”

   She stayed on the lookout for jungle paths, found one, and then followed it. It led her to a deserted hut that had a liter of petrol outside. She had also been taught that in an emergency petrol can be a (painful) remedy for severely infected wounds, so she used it to dress her own injury.

   Eventually, on the eleventh day, she heard human voices and the jungle-dwelling men who found her took her on a long boat trip back to civilization. The day after her rescue she was reunited with her father.

   Koepcke’s story would eventually be the subject of the Werner Herzog–directed documentary Wings of Hope, Herzog himself having originally been an intended passenger on the ill-fated plane. Juliane graduated in biology and kept the family tradition of zoology alive, as she is currently the librarian at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich.

   Of course, it is unlikely we will find ourselves in the middle of the Amazon stranded after a plane crash. But when we find ourselves lost and stranded in the tangled forests of our own lives we can still get to know the territory. And face up to our wounds and be aware of the metaphorical snakes in the undergrowth, not hindered by ignorance or denial, but armed with self-awareness.

 

 

Minds and windows


   Self-awareness can be hard. Your mind is not always to be trusted. It sometimes lies, or plays tricks, or doesn’t give you the full picture. It can convince you that you are terrible.

   A mind is real as a mind in the same way a window is real as a window. But that doesn’t mean the view you see through the window is the full view. Sometimes the glass is dirty, or clouded, or rain-specked, and sometimes the view is obscured by a big lorry that has parked right in front of it. The window could also be entirely misleading. For instance, if your only view was through a red stained-glass window you might perceive the world to be as red and forbidding as a Martian desert. Even if there was nothing out there but lush green fields.

 

 

A paradox


   A therapist once told me that the most common complaint he heard from his patients was the feeling that they didn’t belong. The feeling of being an imposter, or of being outside things, of not fitting in. Of failing to connect easily with people. I found this as reassuring as it was paradoxical. That one of the most common feelings among people was the feeling of not fitting in among people. The comfort, then, is the weird truth that in one sense we have most in common with others when we feel awkward and alone. Isolation is as universal as it gets.

 

 

Crossroads


   Sometimes when we have a decision to make, we feel we need to be fast. Indeed, the word “decisive” is often used as a synonym of fast. But when we find ourselves at a crossroads it is often better to stop, wait a while at the lights and check the map. After all, movement isn’t progress if we are heading in the wrong direction.

 

 

Happiness


   Happiness occurs when you forget who you’re expected to be. And what you’re expected to do. Happiness is an accident of self-acceptance. It’s the warm breeze you feel when you open the door to who you are.

 

 

When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.

    Helen Keller, We Bereaved

 

 

One beautiful thing


   Experience one beautiful thing a day. However small. However trivial. Read a poem. Play a favorite song. Laugh with a friend. Gaze at the sky just before the sun’s final tumble toward night. Watch a classic movie. Eat a slice of lemon drizzle cake. Whatever. Just give yourself one simple reminder that the world is full of wonders. Even if we are at a point in life where we can’t appreciate things, it sometimes helps to remember there are things in this world to enjoy, when we are ready.

 

 

Growth


   We grow through hard times. Growth is change. And when everything is easy, we have no reason to change. The most painful moments in life expand us. And when the pain leaves, space remains. Space we can fill with life itself.

 

 

Pasta


   No physical appearance is worth not eating pasta for.

 

 

How to be random


   When I am in search of some evidence of the freak randomness of my existence, I think of the generations directly above me. I think of my grandmother, on my father’s side, who studied art at Central Saint Martins in the 1930s. As part of her course she had a year’s placement at an art college in Vienna. While there she witnessed Hitler’s annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938. My grandmother was Jewish. And almost immediately after the annexation—the Anschluss—Jewish people were targeted. Paraded in the street, made to clean graffiti, publicly humiliated. My grandmother got out. She caught the very last train to France she could find, and according to family legend was allowed on board only after flirting with the Nazi guard at the station. She was barely more than a teenager. Then, directly because of this proximity to the terrors of Nazism, when war broke out she decided to become a volunteer nurse and fell in love with my grandfather after he suffered burn injuries during the Blitz.

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