Inspirations

Bench poems

I’ve been inspired to try a little experiment after a recent visit to a Frank Auerbach retrospective. Auerbach famously revisits the same subject matter time and again in his visual artwork. He draws, sculpts and paints the same models over the course of decades, he paints the same city views dozens, if not hundreds, of times over. In particular, he paints Camden (London). Even more specifically, he paints the view from his Camden studio, looking out over across rooftops of Mornington Crescent and towards what was once a cigar factory, but is now Greater London House.

The repeated return, especially to his studio window view, captured my imagination. It’s partly because it’s a scene I’ve seen from a different angle. I used to work in Greater London House, back in the days when I smoked like a chimney but refused to by fags. Every time I’d managed to nick one from Erica (sorry Rica!) we’d go out and smoke on the very spot Auerbach captures in so many of his works.

Seeing Auerbach’s depiction of colour and space, his interpretation of a place I occupied as part of my daily working life got me thinking about how much I don’t see when I enter the ‘work’ part of my day. But this is also part of Auerbach’s regular working day – he visits this view countless times, over decades, and yet, each time he describes it in paint, it is never the same. The light, the colour, the relationships of shape and space change even if nothing else has. And then, in the practice of revisiting this scene across months, years, decades, his work traces changes that in themselves mean very little but placed in the context of a wider series gain a shimmer of significance. A post box that seems to disappear. A shape that might be an aerial appearing on a rooftop. Small things that suddenly seem important as part of a bigger work.

It’s not something I’ve ever tried, depicting the same place at different moments. Or I thought I hadn’t, but I realised the other day I’ve sort of stumbled into trying it since spring has made it warm enough for me to eat lunch outside. When the weather is nice enough, this is where I go:

Bench

It’s a closed-in garden, surrounded by the building on all sides. It’s pretty wild, and quiet and sitting there, in the sun, listening to the birds, I’ve been inspired to scribble a few poems, all drawn from this spot. So while it’s not quite Auerbach’s repeated depiction of the same scene, I’m telling something that comes from experiencing this place in a particular moment.

I thought I’d turn it into a little experiment, across the next two months. A poem a week, from the bench. Good, bad, ugly, rough and ready, it doesn’t matter. They’re getting written and then I’ll see what I’ve got at the end.

 

 

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The music and the noise

I’ve got music back. I can’t believe I ever let it slip out of my life. But I did, I lost it for years.

How did I lose it in the first place? That is a tricky one, but ultimately I cared too much about what other people thought. It started with not feeling entitled to like certain bands or kinds of music, despite being drawn to them, because I wasn’t as ‘dedicated’ or as fucked up as some of the other people who were into the same stuff. Then at some point in my early twenties, a certain kind of connoisseurship started to creep into the way people talked about music. You had to have such and such an album, you couldn’t possibly claim to like so and so if you’d never heard their more obscure influences. And you definitely could not own, let alone listen to, the dreaded ‘popular’ stuff. Heard it on the radio? Throw it in the bin. Way too commercial.

Moving in with a music nerd did not help. He never set out to make me feel uncomfortable, but I did. He had the ‘right’ CD collection, which was about four times as large as mine. He was the one people talked to music about. He was the one who got to choose the tunes when people were over. I just gave up, bowed to what I presumed was his superior knowledge and taste. I even stopped playing guitar. Which breaks my heart to think about now, because none of this really came explicitly from him. It was just there, this sense that he was entitled to music and I wasn’t.

It got the point where I wouldn’t put music on even when I was asked to. One evening really sticks in my head. I worked up the courage – seriously, courage – to put an album on, only to have him and a friend ask ‘what is this shit?’ This wasn’t a typical response from him, but that pretty much put me off playing tunes for people for years. (It was Ladyhawke, in case you’re interested – I’m not ashamed anymore!)

All of this also coincided with the rise of iTunes and mp3s and Spotify and the decimation of record stores. I’ve always been a browser, be it in shops or through a collection, choosing things on whims rather than knowing precisely what I want to buy or listen to. Two things happened with the emergence of iTunes et al. First, I felt deeply disconnected and disadvantaged when it came to finding and choosing music. Having it all organised for me in a library or online store left me – and still leaves me – at a loss. I need the randomness of the physical, the visual and sensual information to help me make choices. Shuffle does nothing for me either. I cannot explain it, but there’s something clinical, hygienic, cold, about having music neatly arranged on computer that leaves me feeling disempowered. At the same time, people were mocking those of us who were paying for music through official channels rather than digging it out of online crevices. I felt simultaneously overwhelmed, disempowered and like I was being conned.

Then my iTunes flipped out and deleted my entire library – purchased tunes and my entire CD collection which I’d diligently uploaded. All gone. For no apparent reason. Nowhere to be found.

I gave up. By this point, it was such a struggle to get to music that I’d forgotten why I liked it in the first place. I even stopped listening to my CDs. It either felt like music was a money-making scheme or something that I was not capable of appreciating because I had neither the knowledge nor taste to equip me for it.

I played classical piano for 8 years. I taught myself guitar. I’d been avidly into all kinds of music since I was eleven. And by twenty-eight, I felt like I wasn’t entitled to even listen to music. How did it get to this? Because I stopped listening to the music and instead listened to all the chatter about it. The harder it became for me to access my music, the louder the chatter got. Until I only heard the chatter and nothing else.

But when my world turned upside down, when I realised the damage I’d done to my entire life by listening to the chatter of others rather than to my own instincts, music was there to catch me.

In the darkest weeks after my eleven year relationship ended, I kept the lights and radio on when I went to bed. I couldn’t face the dark or the silence, not least because sleep was pretty elusive. One morning, I woke up 4am, already sobbing, just as ‘Pacifier’ by Catfish and the Bottlemen came on. And it caught me. ‘You know I try to fail, but you just don’t know how it feels to lose something you never had and never will.’ It caught me when I was falling into another pit. Because someone else knew what that pit looked like.

I got my ears back after that. Suddenly I could hear what I was experiencing in lyrics and tunes everywhere. I wasn’t listening to it theoretically anymore. I got it. I wasn’t worrying about taste or expertise or the latest release. I got it. And suddenly I remembered why I loved music before opinions and technology got in the way. Or more accurately, I remembered how to love music.

It feels like finding a forgotten piece of myself.

Fuck the chatter. And fuck the constantly updating, buggy technology that interferes with me getting to my collection. The grin on my face as I dance alone like a lunatic with my headphones on. The goosebumps I get when my writing and the music I’m listening to come together. The peace that comes after improvising on guitar or piano. That’s what it’s about. Everything else is just noise.

The Knot

I suppose this is a reformulation of my previous post, but I’ve been digging around inside my struggle and think I’ve turned up ways of giving shape to what I’m pushing against.

In the simplest terms, it’s nothing revolutionary. It’s that hackneyed trope of mental health versus creative impulse, in that the two don’t always sit comfortably together. That in itself is nothing new to anyone, and not new to me personally – I started writing poetry at one of life’s low points, and watched my ideas dry up as my world got sunnier again. Which also says something about the kind of work I was producing: stream-of-conscious, self-involved, very profound for me but maybe not so much fun for others to read. And there’s an element of that to this blog as well; my mission was – is – to get myself writing and to write my way into a new place. If other people find what I say interesting or useful, that’s encouraging and starting to show me where I’m doing things right – so thank you! But really, it’s been for me. My space to write, to think, to become something else.

And it’s been working. I’m starting to turn my attention outward again, shifting my focus from writing for me to thinking about the fact that other eyes might be absorbing these words. Or that I might want other eyes to glance over my scribblings. This is the beginnings of one strand leading into the knot that I’m trying to untangle. One of the revelations I’ve had from getting into a writing habit after all these years of procrastinating is that my refusal to draw on my own experiences was actually stopping my writing. I kept fishing around for that perfect idea for a piece of fiction, waiting for the inspiration fairy to sprinkle the start of an astonishing poem or novel over me.

But fishing and fairies didn’t work, partly because I have a very low tolerance for clumsy fiction. McGuffins, forced plot lines, cheesy motives and morals, anything that shows the scaffolding propping up the scenery (unless it’s done deliberately – interesting . . .) exasperates me. So my own ideas for fiction have been exasperating me for years, to the point of preventing my pen reaching the page. Then, boom, revelation came – not from the inspiration fairy, but from making myself writing on a regular basis. Of course my attempts at fiction were frustratingly poor! How could I think they were anything but hollow, heartless efforts at ego-massage when real life had thrown much weirder, darker and more interesting things at me? How can anything I make up have blood in it when life’s given me experiences you couldn’t make up if you tried?

That has been a watershed, but it’s also left me the problem of translation, of transition. How do I turn real life into a fiction that means something to people who aren’t me? Or even more concisely, how do I turn life into fiction?

Which leads me to another strand feeding into the knot. How to be honest.

I’ve been to the depths these past couple of years. Both in terms of my mental health, but also in terms of losing the structures and faith that keep most of us going through the day. I know I’m not the only one. And I know a lot of this is now behind me. But it is a precious knowledge you gain from swirling around in the chaos beneath the day-to-day, precious knowledge that starts to dissolve or recede as ‘normal’ life washes in again. It alters you, yes. I’m just not the same person I was this time two years ago. But that alteration doesn’t necessarily preserve the knowledge, the wisdom you get from being in the dust-bowl beneath it all.

I can feel knowledge fading and I don’t want it to dissipate. I’m having mad urges to tattoo my entire body with symbols and slogans, snippets from the chaos, so that I can always keep it close; but I know it’s going and without it, those tattoos will be just ordinary ink. So I want to use this other ink to capture it, to pass on some of that precious knowledge. But it’s wordless, it’s chaos. It inherently lacks narrative and structure. And how the hell do you avoid stream-of-consciousness, self-involved, wallowing-in-my-own-agonies writing when it comes to trying to describe something like this? This is another part of my knot.

I have to push and pull myself through these questions, because I don’t have a choice anymore. I have to be honest. In a world full of bullshit, fiction has to be honest.

And then it comes back to my mental health. Trying to look at things honestly takes its toll. It doesn’t leave you much room for solace or self-compassion. And lurking with your darker experiences is perhaps best done under supervision. But then the thought of writing anything that is less than excoriatingly honest makes me drop the pen again. Another strand in this big fuck-off knot.

Peace and writing

I haven’t been writing. Or to be precise, I’ve been producing scraps, disconnected fragments that work on their own but that won’t lead anywhere. There’s a quality of concentration that’s left me recently, about the same time that the irrepressible urge to get things out of me once and for all faded into something fainter and more manageable. At the same time, the spits and flecks of ink I get on to the page are lingering on moments that rapidly become too unbearable to tarry with: I can only consider these aching instances for so long before I feel like I am sadistically unpicking my own peace of mind. I keep coming back to the question ‘What is the good of poking this memory with a pointed stick?’

It’s frustrating, because writing brings with it a calmness that has been getting me through and it’s a form of calm that I haven’t found anywhere else. I get a clarity of concentration, a focus that can’t be replicated even if you’re trying – meditation, yoga, prayer, they can’t offer me the immersive solace that a good writing session can for me. I can turn over terrible, horrific events, images, ideas and feel their impact deeply, fully, to the point that I cannot bear it (an idea which I am increasingly fascinated by – bearing the unbearable) and at the same time, let these thoughts and emotions flow through me to create something. Creating out of pain, producing something from the void, sculpting the darkness.

It’s a method of acceptance, I suppose, but it’s not like any other form I’ve tried. Partly because it’s not about making a peace or a pact with the darkness. It’s more like I’m mobilising it in a different way, deliberately stirring it so that I can mould it to fit a purpose that’s half way between its agenda and my own. Because it does have an agenda; to eat away at my wellbeing, to creep around the edges of my life and then gently squeeze until I wake up one day to realise my world has once again become a tiny sliver of what it once was. Acceptance, or recognising that shadows are part of my day to day are key for starting to push back and open up my world again – but I struggle with the notion of acceptance as making peace.

Peace is an incredibly appealing idea. Being entirely at rest with yourself. Being completely alive to this moment now and not letting the moments before or to come press in on the pleasure of this instant. Being able to sleep and eat and be spontaneous without guilt or fear. And I know this, because I’ve had and have moments of peace, perhaps more recently that I’ve ever had before. But this is where I hit a paradox.

I get these moments dotted across my week, usually unexpected, vivid and often illuminating. But the greatest peace I experience comes when I am writing, and in the immediate aftermath of writing. It’s almost like fantastic sex, except the quality of the adrenalin is different. It’s not peace like any other; it’s absorption rather than acceptance, it’s giving yourself over entirely to what is passing through you rather than embracing and pulling things towards you. And I need that pointed stick to crack the crust of acceptance and stir things into motion in order to let things pass through me and beyond me onto the page. Which means my favourite form of peace comes from my pain.

Which can make things pretty unbearable, and the unbearable can leave you voiceless, silent, spitting fragments as your larynx splinters under the pressure.

I’ve got to figure out a way to live with this, because I’m not going to give up my pointed stick.

Survival techniques: a little survey so far . . .

I’ve tried a variety of recommended, rumoured and personal strategies for rethinking my life over the past few weeks and I just thought I’d do a little survey about what has and hasn’t worked so far.

Exercise – such a simple one, but done right, it does make a difference. I know recent studies have poo-pooed the idea that exercise can counteract depression, but as far as I can see, those studies focused on the notion that exercise alone can cure a troubled soul. Arguments about serotonin levels aside, exercise is just a great way of changing the pace of your day, breaking up the monotony of working at a desk, getting outside and spending time with people. Those aspects of exercise, as well as spending time really focusing on being in your body, experiencing what it can do and feeling yourself improving a little more each time, can change your day. I think the crucial thing is to keep it guilt-free and flexible, so you exercise in a way that responds to your day rather than try to enforce a regime that leaves you feeling inadequate or guilty. So have it in your head that you’re going to do some form of exercise 3 times a week, but don’t get up tight about when and how – see how you feel. From my experience, deciding to go swimming every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning works for a week, then turns into a chore. Spontaneously deciding to go after work as a way of winding down works much better.

Eating well – I’m starting to think there’s an important distinction between eating food that is good for you and eating well. You can eat the healthiest diet in the world, but if you’re anxious and obsessive about it, having a healthy diet is not contributing to your overall well-being. Eating well involves being healthy as a whole, not just in your intake – so not imbuing diet with a range of complex negative emotions. Learn about what you eat, yes. Know what is good and not so good for, yes. And then use that knowledge to enjoy food rather than obsess.

Reading around – I’ve been delving into the wealth of material out there about living better, brighter lives, looking for inspiration and ideas about what I can try. I’ve been surprised by how quickly looking for inspiration leads you to the self-help section – and been taken aback by how dubious some of the books in that section are. First off, I’m not entirely sure why wanting to change your life qualifies you for self-help, particularly when a lot of these materials are focusing on addressing your sense of inadequacy. Wanting change and feeling inadequate aren’t innately connected. Secondly, and I say this as someone who has used good self-help books in the past, there’s something about the self-help category, something in the promises the titles make or in the prose the authors use that leaves the reader in a passive position. It’s almost as if the books are reinforcing your helplessness so you’ll have to keep coming back. This isn’t by any means true of all the material, but the bigger the promises (and normally the title on the cover) the more passive the position you’re in a as reader – because the book is promising to give you the answers, rather than help you figure things out for yourself, including setting out who you should be and what you should want.

Actually, it’s been much more useful to read fiction, biographies, poetry and philosophical stuff. And to read people’s personal experience on blogs and interviews. There’s a lot out there about well-being and happiness at the moment and some of it is really thought-provoking. When you’re rethinking your life, that is in fact what you need – thoughts being provoked, new avenues being opened up to you, not someone setting out a definite path for you. Maybe we need a new category.

Paying close attention – I picked this up from Susan Cain’s brilliant book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Won’t Stop Talking (2012). In it, she discusses how she came to think about envy as a positive experience. Until recently, envy has been something I’ve really struggled with, as I suffered from serious pangs of ‘grass is greener’ and used my envy of other people as a means of doing myself down. Cain argues that actually paying attention to your envy and listening to what it’s telling you about your life can turn it into a productive rather destructive experience. So if you find yourself consistently envying people who have cats, maybe that’s a sign that you should organise your life in such a way that you too can have a cat. It’s not always going to be possible, and what you find yourself envying might genuinely be beyond your capability, but it can still help you recognise what’s important in your life.

I’ve found this particularly interesting in my current ‘should I pursue this career or try something new’ predicament, especially when it comes to thinking about what I don’t envy and what tells me. And then I’ve expanded this kind of idea to think about some of the other emotions and responses that come so naturally in day to day life that I barely notice them happening. What do I respond well to or what really gets under my skin? How can recognising that particular patterns or instances produce particular responses in me help me manage those responses and think about how to arrange my life so that I can maximise the good and minimise the bad? It all sounds really grand, but it comes down to little things that have a big impact. For instance, I now know not to check my work emails after 3pm on a Friday, because one oddly worded email can disturb my whole weekend when the author didn’t intend it to. Or I know I need to avoid caffeine when I’m going to look at my finances, because the combination of the two leaves me a nervous wreck. Little things, but they add up to leaving you feeling better.

Leaving Facebook – This has been a big one for me, which in itself is scary, because when I signed up to it all those years ago, it was no bigger a committment than getting an email account. And yet, somehow over the years, something in my relationship to it has changed. I’ve developed some form of dependance on it that made it difficult to leave, even though I’ve long been disturbed or angered by some of the things the company has been doing. But I finally reached a point when I realised that rather than staying in touch with people, I was watching their lives, and watching people’s lives, especially the polished, edited versions we like to present on social media, is isolating and depressing. So I left six weeks ago. It is disconcerting, but god, I feel better for it. I’ve been talking to people more, writing letters no less, and generally feeling more present in my own and other people’s lives. This might be a blip, I might go back and have a perfectly healthy relationship with it in the future, but it scared me that something commercial was that hard to walk away from. And it scared me how much the format of FB was effecting my perception of my actual flesh-and-blood friends and friendships. Forcing myself back into active friendship rather than passive contact has been amazing.

Childish or aware?

I’ve recently being experiencing one of those strange confluences life seems to throw up at particularly poignant moments. Rethinking my life, trying to figure out what constitutes a good life, and navigating my way through feeling like a ‘failure’ according to the yardsticks we’re given to measure success, it’s not surprising that you start to wonder whether you’re just struggling to be an adult. Have you simply failed to grow-up? Are you somehow still living in a childish fantasy, refusing to embrace the realities of this world?

At the same time, I’ve been revisiting and rediscovering some of the pleasures and influences of my childhood, both because I’ve been teaching children’s literature to undergraduates at a summer school, and because I’ve moved back to the place where I grew up. So at a time when I’m asking myself whether what I’m trying to do is foolish, insane, some kind of childish refusal to accept the way things are, I’m simultaneously rediscovering what exactly it means to be ‘childish’ – and what it means to be an ‘adult’.

It’s hard to see yourself as an adult sometimes if you don’t embrace some of the rites of passage your culture values. Marriage, owning property, becoming parents yourselves, careers, are all essential for marking the difference between adulthood and childhood, because without these ‘rites’ or means of measuring status, it’s hard to distinguish the point at which we no longer feel like children. Arguably, we reach a certain age when we realise that it’s only our bodies that are going to feel older – emotionally, psychologically, we are never going to magically ‘feel’ like grown-ups. Priorities, interests, desires and tastes change, but we won’t somehow ‘click’ into being an adult. It’s always going to you, making your way through the world the best you can.

Yet we do move away from childhood leanings and desires, even the ones that aren’t simply ‘childish’ urges and demands. Yes, age and experience change and even transform who we are, but does this necessarily equate to the need to give up everything associated with our youngest selves? Are we giving up certain parts of ourselves because we want to or because we feel that we should in our move to become adults? Or does our move to adulthood mean forget to pay attention to some of the smallest things that bring us pleasure?

Reading children’s books as an adult has been a revelation to me. For the past 200 years, we’ve been using stories as a way of educating children and one of the recurring themes in English-language children’s literature is just how foolish and child-like adults are, not least of all because they believe in things that aren’t there or aren’t important. Again and again, the classics of children’s literature in English return to the idea that grown-ups have forgotten how to live, or have forgotten some very important parts of life, that mean children are more alive to the world than adults.

I was in a café, thinking that a happy four year old could prove this idea to you inside of minute, when an elderly man and his carer sat at the table behind me, and started chatting loudly. Initially, I thought he was complaining about his food, but in fact, he was taking great pleasure in it, noticing the flavours, textures, complimenting the good, critiquing the sub-standard. As I listened, it struck me that we often conceptualise the oldest years of life as a form of regression, a return to childhood, not simply in terms of physical dependence, but also in terms of tastes, urges, temperament. At the same time, the people who have lived the longest in our culture continue to tell us we waste our lives worrying about things that don’t matter, working towards things that don’t mean as much as we think they do.

There are distinct parallels between how we treat the youngest and eldest people in our society. And there are distinct parallels between how they see us. Is there a way in which these parallels suggest that there’s something in the intervening stages of life that are the ‘aberration’ or the ‘confused’ stage of life? Can the way the youngest and those who’ve lived the longest see the years between teenaged turmoil and retirement teach us about the way we live and the way we could live?

So what do the middle years look like to people on either side, who have to live with us and under our regime? Children and people who’ve lived here much longer than us can see what a hash we all make of the middle years, as individuals and as a society. They can see that we don’t know what we’re doing, and more importantly, they can see that we constantly try to hide our ignorance, incompetence and lack of direction in convention and seriousness, cloaking our shortcomings by investing meaning into things that hold very little value at either end of life. In other words, they can see that we are human and lost – and so we will always be ridiculous to them in some way or another.

For either end of life, the middle years look like a gradual giving over of freedom and independence in order to pass for a competent adult. But does taking on responsibility automatically necessitate the given over of all that once meant something important to you? Is this what we have to do, or are we letting too much of ourselves be given over to the task of appearing to be a competent adult, of being a successful grown up?
More questions than answers. But I think there may be something to taking seriously the idea that some desires and pleasures are there in childhood and in later life. Maybe they are in fact there all along – we just forget to pay attention to them in the middle years.