hope

The fallows

I’ve been floundering. It’s taken me a while to notice what’s going on, and I’ve still not managed to get my head above the waves far enough to see for certain where I am, but at least now I’ve noticed the waves. The reason it’s taken me a while to notice is because I’ve kept writing. Pretty much every day, I leave some kind of stain across a page, be it ink, tears or sweat. Something gets put down and recorded.

So it didn’t immediately sink in that I’m treading water, occasionally going under before bobbing up again. Previously, trouble has come raging in, a cavalry of panic and anxiety storming in under a banner of blank pages and sleeplessness. The trickle of words I’ve been leaving in my wake, the calm, steady practice of writing a little every day – this doesn’t look or feel like trouble. But I have been treading water rather than swimming, diving, moving through the ups and downs of writing. And now I’m getting tired.

There were some tell-tale signs. I’ve been doing a lot of ‘writing up’ rather than writing on recently, focusing on getting my scrawls typed up so I can share. Except now they’re all typed up and I still haven’t shared. Then the small part of the day I carve out for sitting at my desk and just getting words down has gradually become shorter and shorter. Somehow unloading the dishwasher or doing my (very short) hair expand into tasks that chisel away at those few minutes I try to keep for writing. And then there’s my blog, perched on my shoulder, singing out that I haven’t posted anything.

I admit, I started to panic last week when the truth finally reached me. Things had been unfolding at such a fluid pace that discovering I’d lost forward momentum was a shock. My first response, of course, was guilt. It’s because I’m not dedicated enough, because I’m not sacrificing enough to the writing gods – or worse, it’s because I’ve committed the sin of thinking that I had anything worthwhile to write in the first place.

Then comes the Voice of Truth, which tells me in loud ringing tones that real writers don’t have these problems, so just give the fuck up, because you are clearly not a writer. Chalk this one up as another one of your misadventures, your failed enthusiasm. Go back to the day job and embrace that as all you can possibly be.

Luckily, I’ve had it up to here with that fucking noise. That Voice of Truth, with its shoulds and don’ts has had all the attention from me it’s ever going to get. It took me to some very boring places. These days, I’d always take actually being in the water – albeit floundering – over standing on a barren shore looking longingly at the waves.

I can’t stop the Voice having its say, but I can try and get some other voices to do battle with it. Reading other writers talk about their writing cycles has been hugely helpful. Seems that what I’m experiencing at the moment is a fallow, a time of rest after a time of plenty. It’s a time to take stock, read and think, perhaps edit and plot, perhaps work on something else before returning to the main project.

Hence there’s no panic, no anxiety – I’m recuperating, pooling my resources to take them in the next direction. It makes perfect sense. I’ve reached something close to 30,000 words of what will hopefully turn into my first novel. That’s a lot of work and words and ideas. Of course I need to pause, take a breath and survey the horizons I’m creating before I move on. And actually, the words that I’ve eeked out in the fallows are full of potential, my pen seems to be discovering a new aesthetic for me all by itself.

So I’m going to rest in the fallows for a while, get my strength again, let the ideas break over me and refresh these hard-working senses. No panic, no guilt, and definitely no bloody shoulds.

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.

Shoreline

(for my father)

 

We saw the first wave coming,

standing together on the shore of my changing life,

and knew you would have to leave me soon.

 

As the wave’s shadow lengthened,

You said ‘I wish I could save you from all this’

before we even knew what all this would be.

 

Well, I’m in it now and the waves keep coming.

 

But as you keep watch from the distance of your life,

know that in the brief moments between surges,

your words are anchors in a tsunamic world,

 

Saving me from all that lies beyond the stability of land

even as my fragile world is swept away.

I will meet you again, but on an altered shore.

5am Grief

I am reliably informed that what I’m experiencing now is grief. A totally expected and necessary response to everything that’s happened. And looking over this blog, I guess you can read it as tracking the course of grieving.

What I hadn’t realised was that it’s not just the loss of a living presence that you need to grieve. You can mourn the loss of your own life, the one you had and thought you were going to have. When things, huge things, drastic things, things beyond your control happen to you that bring about irrevocable changes in your life, you need to let what was move into the past. That full realisation of what you’ve lost because of what’s happened so you can start to rebuild and letting what was move into the past, that’s what grief is for. At least that is what I’m hoping it is for.

As I say, I’m looking at this blog now and seeing gestures of grief; moments where I’m trying to understand the bleakness and pointlessness of some of the huge changes that crashed over my life, peppered with efforts to think myself into the next moment, the space beyond the aching, the bit where life starts again. But I didn’t recognise it as this until now. It’s only now, when the absolute last remnant of the life I was hoping to lead has gone that I can see the loops of hope and despondency, creativity and stagnation for what they are – the cycle of grief.

Letting go of possibilities, leaving the hopes you held for one particular future behind altogether, leaving the lives you dreamed of sharing with people behind – I’m trying to figure out how to do that. Because grieving alerts you to the fact that those hazy, warm hopes will become daggers in your new world, ideas that will tear a hole in anything you try to do and lacerate your new efforts with the failures of the past. You can’t ever leave them behind totally, as much as you might feel you want to at moments, but for me, grieving is a process of blunting these newly- formed blades. Finding the hidden daggers that used to be your hopes and blunting the blades. That takes time.

It’s the rollercoaster nature of grief that makes it almost unbearable at times. Each peace you make will be punctured by something – a stray thought, a seemingly unrelated comment from a friend, a trace of your old life interrupting the new. And then you’re back in there, in the midst of anger at the injustice of it all, despair that anything is worthwhile anyway, horror at the enormity of what is happening to you and just pain. Throat-blocking, thought-blocking pain.

You work your way back up to some kind of peace again, although you know it’s fragile. I’m told that the spaces between peace and turmoil get larger, but it’s early days for me still. But even this early on, I guess the depths are getting less deep. The fact I can write this is telling me something.

The worst part about this process for me is that it’s something you have to do alone. And when part of what is causing you pain is getting used to being alone, it’s even harder to accept. Yes, you must talk to people about it, you can’t bottle it up. But talking to people is one thing. They can’t share your pain, even if they’re suffering the loss too, because the shape of that loss is so different for everyone. And no one can do the work of blunting the daggers but you, because no one else knows where they are. But you don’t want to be alone and you want people to understand and tell you the answers, and when they can’t, it hurts all over again. It’s amazing how angry and frustrated grief leaves you at the very moment when everyone is actually doing all they can for you.

And no one can do anything about the 5am grief (5am if you’re lucky – when it starts at 2am, you’ve got a long night ahead of you). You can’t call anyone because the world is resting, but even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to say anything that comes close to the enormity of it. It’s wordless, directionless, thoughtless. This morning, a single thought woke me up at 5am, especially to ensure that I got my daily dose of horror and hopelessness before the rest of the world began its day. A single thought. Oh my god, how has this happened to my life? Then, thoughtless, chest-heaving pain.

No one else can get you through these moments. You literally just have to live them out. I guess it’s the last gasps of my old life breaking in when I’m at my most relaxed and leaving me gasping instead. But if I just keep breathing, I’ll get to the next moment. And the next. And then the next.

Unravelling and re-threading

I’m not a fan of similes and forced metaphors. Things get very cheesy very quickly. But the ones that occur in daily life are pretty startling. I don’t if it means you can learn something profound from them, or whether the only similes and metaphors that work are the ones that give you pause for thought. The ones that snap you out of the flow of daily life and make you aware of something bigger going on behind your day, behind your thoughts.

I’ve made a lot of claims about going through difficult times on this relatively young blog. So I apologise for the blatant moaning. But I guess it’s not surprising that things continue to be difficult – and even get worse – because once certain events happen in your life, they set off a chain that has to play itself out for a while. That said, in the shit-storm that seems to have been my world for the past couple of years, the last two weeks were an extra-special low. The last vestiges of the life I had finally unravelled. And I unravelled with them.

I’m not entirely sure how I’ve gotten from then to now. It’s hazy. But between now and then, somehow (I really don’t know how), I’ve managed to produce two of the most beautiful tapestries I’ve done in my short career as a stitcher. I actually don’t know how I did them, but they’re there. They exist and they sparkle with light, the very thing that has been almost completely absent from the past two weeks.

It struck me today, the first day I could say I’ve been properly present for a while, that this is one of those metaphors that happens in life but would be awful in fiction. I unravelled and got through it by stitching. And I made two of the best tapestries I’ve done so far. Can’t take more from this than what it is, but it made me stop and think.

DSCF2797

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.

Door Theory

I have become someone

who leaves doors open

 

Cupboards’ sharp corners

reaching into head-space

 

Bathrooms intimacies

ajar and exposed

 

Keys lodged in a front door

offering everyone a home

 

I thought I detected

a moral flaw

in such raw abandon

 

But now each draught and threshold

speaks of immersion

in an uncontainable place.

Fresh Cherries

One day I took a moment

to ask myself

If I am the kind of person

who would stop and buy

shining fresh cherries

wrapped in crackling brown paper

from a red-checker-clothed stall

outside of Brighton station

in the middle of my drizzle-coated commuter dash?

 

My answer was

No.

But I want to be.

 

So I stopped.

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?