Relationships

The rook and the pigeon

They both knew it was wrong

but in the warm kiss

of a coming summer

it had to happen

 

The garden was empty

their clans briefly absent

only magpies kept sentinel

and pride dazzled them heedless

 

Two notes of

incongruent tongues

and it was decided

Now is the moment

 

The rook and the pigeon

left the garden

flew over basking roof-tiles

and went out into the world

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Some thoughts on an anniversary

Last weekend marked a year since we lost our home, which in turn marked the start of the gradual disintegration of ‘we’ back into ‘I’.

It’s been the longest year of my life and at the same time, it still feels as if everything happened last weekend. So much has happened, changed and not happened, not changed. There’s no reason a year should yield up particular wisdom, why a year after closing the front door on my old life that I should have any remarkable insights or life-changing advice. But it’s an anniversary and there are some thoughts in my head, so here we go:

1) The storm is part of me. It does not need to pass.

2) Thinking about writing is way more painful that writing.

3) Getting fitter made me feel better. Getting thinner made me feel worse.

4) Happy endings, just deserts and karma are fairy tales. If you turn to these ideas for comfort, if you offer those who are in the darkest moments of their lives these fairy tales as wisdom, you are denying the rawness and madness of suffering. Pain does not happen for a reason; to give it one by tying the pretty bow of narrative around it is to leave those in pain alone, silent and scared.

5) Time alone won’t make things better; it’s what you do with the time that starts to create the distance between you and what happened. New memories start to cushion you from the old.

6) Things do get better, but never in the way you expect and if you’re too wrapped up in fairy tales, you won’t notice.

7) Silence is the worst thing you can do to someone in pain. ‘Giving someone space’ when they haven’t asked you for it is the excuse we make when we are too afraid to face the vastness of suffering. If you don’t know what to say, find the person, phone the person, write to the person and tell them that you don’t know what to say. There is nothing to say in the face of trauma, grief, sorrow. But being there, being a presence, recognising the unspeakableness of what someone is facing, that is how you help people start to find their way back from the formless mess that’s swallowed their lives. Your presence and words alone are enough to start anchoring someone’s world again. Silence is the worst thing you can do, because you leave them at sea. Don’t give people space. Give them your speechlessness.

8) People are awesome, in the proper sense of the word. People will find ways to let you down, to twist a knife, to destroy the most basic foundations that let you exist in this world which are so beyond the horizons of what you can image that before the rage and pain can kick in, you are left winded and opened-mouthed in awe. People will find ways to reach into your darkest hour and hold your hand, will pull you into the safety of their lives when you’re spiralling off into danger, will make the smallest gesture that somehow captures what it means to be cared for and to care. It’s a quieter, gentler awe, but it’s equally breath-taking. What a fucking spectrum.

9) Leaving Facebook has done my mental health and my friendships a world of good.

10) Anniversaries mean fuck all.

Being well and well-being – aka grief and flu

I’ve been ill for the past few days, horribly glandy-achey-headachey stuff, which has been rumbling on for a while but actually only properly wiped me out two days ago. And really, I’m not fit to be writing this now, but I have to in order to stay vaguely sane – because it turns out that being physically unwell quite rapidly equates to taking a mental swan dive when it comes to grieving.

The week before last was probably the first time in a long time when I started to have flashes of feeling ‘normal’, seeing a bit of colour in the world again, actually fully enjoying the odd moment and starting to get a sense of my own strength returning. Then something resembling a cold started to make itself felt last week. At the same time, I found myself repeating cycles of thought and dwelling on ideas that just a few days before had been slipping into the past.

It didn’t immediately strike me that the two states were a consequence of one another. But then the moment I started to feel too physically unwell to do the things that are the makings of my new life, the ghosts of my old life and the grief I’ve been grappling with suddenly seemed overwhelming once again.

It’s partly because you can’t get on with the things that have been filling your days and helping you move on. Partly it’s because you’re tired and bored. Partly, it’s because there’s an intense loneliness to being ill which is made worse by remembering just how recently there was someone there to take care of you when you’re unable to take care of yourself. But underpinning all this is the sense that being physically vulnerable means you’re more vulnerable to your emotions.

Recognising that I’m feeling emotionally shit because I’m feeling physically shit does help. It takes some of the disappointment out of finding yourself back in a hole that you thought you’d clambered out of. And it does help you take it a bit easier on yourself, realising you’re not really back in the hole; you’re just ill and when you’re back on your feet, you’ll probably be able to see the same horizons you could before.

But still, grief adds a whole other level pain to being ill. The loneliness of being stuck in bed all day multiples infinitely when it serves to remind you that there is no one coming home at the end of the day to make things a little better. Your sense of life being out of control grows exponentially when you’re not in a fit state to do anything productive or proactive. And you’ve got time on your hands in which you can do little but feel rough and think badly-formed thoughts.

Tears and flu are not a good combination. I’m pretty sure that one makes the other worse. So along with the various medicines I’m taking for my body, I’m writing this as medicine for my mind. I’m fuzzy headed, feverish and aching all over – i.e. in no fit state to write – but getting some of the thoughts out of my head and onto the page feels like it’s just as important as sleep, medicine and lemon tea.

I don’t want to

The truth had been haunting your tongue

for so long, it silenced you.

Your shifting perspective cotton-woolled your mouth,

padding you out into muteness.

 

All our talk of the future

were my words, echoing off a room

you’d already left.

 

Your lyrics to our love

were all written

in the past tense.

 

You stood and listened

until I couldn’t breathe for trying,

so could you leave

with the fewest words possible.

 

I wish I’d noticed the slips.

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.

Perilous narratives

One of the major signs that you’re creeping into depression is the narrative you’re telling yourself. If you’re managing to piece together random misfortunes and turn everyday slights into reflections on your worthiness to be alive, you rapidly start to construct a story in which the world is telling you that you don’t deserve to be here. Being able to disentangle these arbitrary connections is key to clambering out of the depressive pit, opening up life’s possibilities again and helping you recognise discrete moments in life for what they are: random, unconnected, survivable.

Weaving a narrative around certain aspects of your experience is perhaps unavoidable. As many many others have argued, there’s something about the way we experience time, moving from one hour to the next, passing from this day to the next day to the next, that invites us to think of our lives as following some kind of progression, or some kind of causal logic. Narrative, be it linear or not, is a way of thinking about motives, experiences and our present moment that helps us make some sense of where and how we are in the world. Just try and imagine explaining who you are now without relying on these things and you realise that things start to feel hideously chaotic pretty quickly when you peel back the narratives.

The danger comes when we forget that these narratives are fundamentally arbitrary, that they are created by us as a means of organising the vast array of stimuli that life throws our way. In order to work, this organising process is incredibly selective, constructing a story out of the most salient details and consigning the rest to silence. Again, as people like Hayden White have discussed in detail, narrative is as much constituted by what it excludes as what it includes – a story can only be told by choosing not to all possible others.

When the depressed mind stitches together fragments from everyday life into a self-loathing narrative, it does so by choosing to ignore all the equally present and equally random information that speaks of how you are loved, of your belonging, and the overwhelming evidence that none of us is exceptionally welcome or unwelcome in this universe. All the while, the depressed mind disavows its role in creating this bleak narrative and presents this story as fact, an undeniable, indelible truth. You can see how rediscovering the arbitrary nature of narrative works to open horizons up again as you come through depression.

But what’s struck me in recent months is just how perilous positive narrative can be. Putting ideologies and grand narratives to one side, it’s been the impact of the positive nature of the day-to-day stories that we tell ourselves that have unveiled to me the power and the dangers of our need for narrative.

The caring assurance that it will be alright in the end, that this will make you stronger. The positive assertion that you’ve worked so hard that you deserve this, so just hang in there. The knowledge that you are good, kind, have done all the ‘right’ things and hence good things will come. The certainty that there is something to be learnt, understood, or somehow taken from even the bleakest moment or most horrific event.

Why is a willingness to try and find a positive in the midst of the awful a problem? It isn’t necessarily. The problem comes when this is our default setting, our immediate reaction. The rush to narrative, the immediate impulse to insert the painful, tragic, traumatic into a larger story of strength, the need to find the positive angle straight away – making these arbitrary connections between present suffering and some unrealised future is actually a way of avoiding addressing that suffering. These narratives are not responses to the present; they’re a decision not to talk about the details of the present in order to construct the ‘other’ story, the positive one, the one that progresses towards a happier time.

The speed with which we look to the positive at the cost of tarrying with the actual experience of sorrow, despair, pain, leaves us utterly incapable of telling a narrative that really responds to the nature of that experience. Instead of slowly allowing a narrative to emerge that is shaped by what we’ve been through, we turn to the readymade, the stereotype, the way it should be. The cancer patient has a valiant, brave and touching fight for life. The addict reaches the lowest point and has a revelation that turns their life around. The dedicated artist suffers and struggles for decades before eventually receiving the fame and recognition they deserve. Insert own version of the positive narrative here.

All of these narratives only work by silencing the other stories: the horror and disintegration of living and dying with cancer, the absolute abject nature of an addict’s existence, the misery and boredom of sacrificing a life for a dream. As well as the stories of the people who don’t make it, because we can’t all have made it. It is physically impossible for the happy ending to come to all of us. And sometimes, something is just shit. It is so appalling or so banal in its ugliness that to try and take something profound from it is to outright lie.

If recognising the arbitrary nature of the negative narrative is vital to bring the depressed mind back to life’s possibilities, could we not say the same about the inanely positive? If we can’t recognise and respond to life’s challenges according to what they are, aren’t we just living half of the story? And in leaving the other half untold, aren’t we condemning the ones we love to suffer in silence?

Survival Techniques: Creating Sanity

So the big move has happened. Our little household is now officially dispersed across a small portion of the south of England. Half our stuff is in storage, half of it is stacked up in two rooms at my parents’ house and the random detritus we need to get through everyday life is following us around in wheelie suitcases.

Perhaps more significantly, half of ‘us’ is sleeping on an airbed in Haggerston while the other half is adjusting to life at said parents’ house. All the stuff that’s gravitated to us over the years could be a million miles away and we’d still have that sense of having a home in the world just by sharing the same space – home really is something you weave between you and those close to you. So yes, it’s the fact that we’re in different places that means ‘home’ has become a nebulous idea at the moment.

Combine that with a) facing the world without a plan for the first time in over a decade and b) the unavoidable horrors of moving back in with your parents in your mid-thirties and you’ve got a recipe for a pretty gloomy outlook, no matter how short-term your sojourn is set to be. The highs of having no rent, no bills and a chance to start again from scratch are almost always rapidly followed by crushing lows which turn freedom into loss, conscious, careful decisions into stupid mistakes and hope for the future into failures and fairy-dust. The next few weeks are going to be bumpy to say the least.

I saw that coming. These emotional tsunamis are not a surprise – not that this makes them any easier to ride out. But what this expectation has allowed me to do is to come up with a survival strategy to help me get through the next few weeks and months, a sort of emergency raft to stop me sinking into a paralysing despair.

It’s simple really. It’s giving myself space and time to be creative. That’s it. Simply dedicating some proper time to pursue my creative interests seriously, rather always leaving them as the last thing on a never-ending To Do list. I’m not talking about becoming a ‘serious’ artist, or about making money from what I do – I’m not kidding myself about my abilities! I’m talking about staying sane, staying calm, being happy, by creating something you would like to see in the world. I’ve spent years putting work first and squeezing all the other things I do into the life left over – and that hasn’t paid off or made for something that feels like a good life. So now I’m going to try and swing the scales the other way – put what I love to do at the centre of everything and work around the edges to support that centre.

This is easier said than done right now, but it feels like the only sure way to get through the trauma of changing everything all at once and still preserving the parts of who you are that you love. So to get things going even though my world is here, there and everywhere, I’m starting off with some structured creative space.

First, there’s this blog – which is still an embryonic creature to me, no idea what it will grow into. Then, I’m making my way through codecademy.com courses, so I can start getting stuff out there in interesting ways. And I’ve just started an online course at The Poetry School, ten weeks of writing and sharing poems with other people, something I haven’t done in years. A bit of structured space to let my mind run riot – with any luck, these things will keep me sane at an insane moment.