starting over

Write like you’re already dead

I’ve crashed smack into one of writing’s realities. A couple of people I know in the real world have looked at this blog. Which in itself is ok, I guess, although if I’m honest, part of me curls up into a ball and prays for non-existence each time I realise this. But then, even worse, some people have mentioned it to me, in real life, face to face.

I think the only other time I’ve wanted the ground to swallow me up that much was after I got so nervous at a work Christmas do, I got horrendously drunk and threw up in a plant pot in the hotel lobby, before being poured into a cab and sent home. At my boss’s expense.

Going into work the next day was not easy.

Knowing that people I know have read this blog is on a par with that.

But why? Why is it so awful to know you’re being read and being read by people you know? Aren’t I writing to be read? And why the hell else would I link this blog to Twitter if I didn’t want people to see what I’m doing?

These are questions I’m having to really think hard about. Because actually, I’m not sure being read is the main purpose behind my writing. In fact, it’s almost an accidental by-product of what it is I’m doing. I started these posts to help me write regularly, to try and write myself into a new life, and to maybe put something into the world that I wanted there but couldn’t find. For once in my life, it was all about me, not about my audience or what other people wanted.

Writing for myself and keeping it relatively anonymous gave me a freedom that was sorely missing elsewhere. It allowed me to say fuck it, what do you want to say, what do you want read, what do you want to think? And as I did so, I unbuttoned the straight-jacket I’d put on my life. It let me see how dead my world had become because I was letting the word ‘should’ and its evil twin ‘ought’ dictate everything I did. Killing off desire, suffocating even the most meagre dream. What a hygienic empty-headed vessel I aspired to be. What a willing malleable citizen I wanted to become – pristine, sensible, and utterly sane – everything, in fact, that I am not.

So I write what I know, or write what I need to see in the world, to keep writing myself into existence, to give myself legitimacy and a voice and a pulse. Which is fantastic. Until people you know start to read your stuff. Because now they can see my process of falling apart and putting myself together, again and again and again.

But then if that’s how it is for me, then why shouldn’t I write about my reality? And how much do people really read or care anyway?

I want to be honest. Not through bland statement of fact, but by using the lies of fiction to capture truths (that’s not my line by the way, I think I’ve nicked that from Doris Lessing or Iris Murdoch). But it’s so much easier to be honest when you don’t have to live with it, when you can hide behind words and anonymity. When your cover’s blown, it’s so tempting to tidy up your thoughts and your language and tone down your topics, keep things sane and safe and in line with the person you want to be day-to-day, because you know there’s a chance real life is going to throw your words back at you.

But how dead would that be? Patrolling your thoughts, policing your prose, stepping back from the brink because you should, because you ought to, because maybe . . . Before you know it, you’re buttoning up that straight-jacket again, settling in for maddeningly comfortable life without the discomfort of creativity.

Years ago, I came across a quote from Nadine Gordimer, which I’ve probably mentioned before because it’s stuck with me. She was talking about writing in South Africa under apartheid, where she continually caused controversy for exposing the flaws in the anti-apartheid movement alongside her relentless critique of apartheid itself. Just because the anti-apartheid cause was good didn’t make them saints and Gordimer’s commitment to representing what she saw as honestly as possible made her unpopular among the very people she was supporting. But challenging the temptation of sainthood, excoriating the polished surface and hygienic narrative of the ‘good guys’ was just as important for keeping people ‘good’ as crying out against the inhumanity of apartheid.

To write this honestly, Gordimer said that you have to write like you’re already dead, to put yourself beyond embarrassment. You have to pretend that you’ve passed beyond the realm of friends and family, and so forget that you’re capable of embarrassing or bringing shame on them as well as yourself. It’s only by writing like you’ve got nothing to lose that you’ll ever be able to write anything worth a damn.

I’m not Nadine Gordimer. I’m not battling apartheid. I’m just trying not to curl up into silence – or even worse, disappear into pretty prose. So here I am, putting myself out there again, learning to write like I’m already dead.

Step 0

Never seen the waves so high

 

eating at the pebbled shore

sinking salty teeth down

and pulling, heaving

the haplessly loose out and away

 

Gulls mass, those little anarchists

stringless kites in the roar

unflapping in their pursuit

of risky but effortless air

 

and I’m standing here

 

I am standing here

 

planting my feet in sea-licked stones

to become a place

where the wind and the water

and the rattling land meet

 

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.

Starting to start over

I’ve officially started over. I’m in a new city, in a new house, with two new jobs and a bundle of freelance work. It is terrifying and exhilarating and also very, very ordinary.

Having lost a home and had an awful experience with my last job, it feels incredibly good to be working again and being out of my parents’ home, able to support myself again. The moment I moved in to my new teeny-tiny room in a beautiful, welcoming shared home, a huge weight of anxiety lifted and a level of self-respect that I hadn’t realised I had lost returned in a rush. Starting my new jobs felt positive – challenging but rewarding having responsibility again and great to have some structure to my time again. And both in my new place and in my new jobs, I’ve been really lucky to meet interesting and supportive people.

The initial rush of starting over was quickly tempered by the daunting reality I’m facing. I’ve moved to a city I know slightly, and I’ve been lucky enough to move in with a friend of a friend, so things are a little familiar rather than completely strange and new. I also know several people in the city already, although I’ve never simply ‘hung out’ with them because my life was somewhere else. So I have a little head start in making a life here. But once the boxes are unpacked and the madness of moving fades, you realise you actually have to build a life in this place, for yourself, by yourself. You have to make things happen, otherwise all you’re going to do is shuffle between home and work. You have to go out there and make a world for yourself.

That’s a huge task to face alone. Even with friends around you, you still have to do it alone. I literally don’t really know how to start and have kind of had to get comfortable with the idea that I just need to put myself in certain places and then let life go from there. Joining classes and a sports club have been my initial forays, and actually talking to people when I’m there rather than just shuffling in and out. It’s been a push, but each time I’ve felt better.

My housemate has been amazing; we’ve been out a couple of times and she’s invited me out to various parties to meet her friends. It’s intense meeting so many new people in such a short time – it can simultaneously feel like you’ve come so far that you’re creating a whole new life and that you’ve isolated yourself so much that you’re surrounded by strangers.

I’ve also been trying to figure out how to develop the friendships I have already in this city, turning occasional socialising into hanging out. It’s really hard, because on the one hand, you’re potentially asking a lot of people – just because you want to spend more time with people, it doesn’t mean they want to spend more time with you! And I’m also conscious I’m currently learning to be alone after eleven years of always having someone there by my side – and that can mean I am asking too much of people, as I look for ways to not be alone at moments when in fact I should be.

It’s an intense learning process; how to build a life, where the boundaries are between you and others, how to live life alone rather than always thinking for two. And it’s peppered with moments of very cruel lucidity, where you see your current life with your old eyes. For instance, thinking about the fact I’ve crammed the remnants of what was a loving household into a tiny room in a shared home leaves me feeling winded with shock. But the key thing is that it’s shock at the scale of the change, rather than regret. I wasn’t happy in my old life. It wasn’t working. It fell apart. As huge as starting over is, it is better than the alternative.

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.

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

Mistakes

I had the oddest moment yesterday, one of those moments that should only happen in films. Someone asked me what was my biggest mistake?

A little context. We were discussing questions that come up in interviews, in particular academic interviews. And specifically, we were thinking about the unexpected questions – or as it turned out, the increasingly common questions, which seem to follow some kind of corporate psychometric logic. One of which was, ‘What would you say was your biggest mistake?’

Obviously, the context of the original question and our conversation implied that it was perhaps a question intended to get the interviewee to reflect on their professional practice. And yet, its parameters are deliberately vague. It’s allowing you to stray into any area of your life if you so wish. If you want to lay your heart bare before the interview committee, here is your chance. If you’ve had a burning desire to confess a haunting error, now is your moment. Nothing is ruled out of bounds by this question. It’s as open as you want it to be.

Of course, we all have a sense of what the ‘right’ answer is. We practiced self-satisfied responses such as ‘My biggest mistake is that I’m always early/ I try too hard/ I’m a perfectionist’ blah blah blah. But amongst friends, we were also curious as to what the genuine answer would be, albeit in terms of our careers.

One of us had an answer immediately, a clear regret that was a missed opportunity. One of us somehow managed to escape quizzing. As for me, I was appalled by my response – not least of all because it was utterly genuine.

Some more context. In the past eight months, I have lost my home, I have moved back in with my parents and most recently, my eleven year relationship seems to have come to an end. In fact, I spent the weekend with the man with whom I’ve had the best times of my life, working through all our possessions, helping him pack what has now become his into a van and watching him drive potentially out of my life. The only way to explain how that leaves you feeling is by telling you that when my sister asked me what I wanted to eat on Sunday night, my response was to cry.

There are just no words for this feeling.

And here we arrive at the filmic moment. I mean, seriously, who gets asked this kind of question two days after the love of their life has gone? Well, I did. And my response, which in fact I didn’t say out loud, was shocking. In my most private thoughts, in my secret self, I had nothing.

I know I have made mistakes, huge ones, painful ones for me and for people I love. But faced with this question, I realised none of them have stayed mistakes.

Mistakes are momentary. They’re mistakes for as long as you don’t respond to them in some way. I won’t say learn, because they’re not all lessons, and learning alone isn’t enough. But if you’ve responded to mistake, then their moment has passed. They’re not mistakes anymore. They become part of who you are. After all, it’s your mistakes as much as your successes that bring you to where you are now, and in fact, your mistakes make you the person you are more than your triumphs, as they help you find the lines you don’t want to cross, the limits of who you want to be.

I have no home. I’m facing life alone for the first time in eleven years. But right now, I can’t say I’ve made a mistake that’s stayed a mistake. So pat, so corporate, so appalling good for an interview answer. But in this moment, which is all we ever have, it’s true.

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.

Changing baskets

I had a plan. ‘The plan’ no less. A plan that I’ve pursued pretty much all of my adult life. My passion for the plan and my belief in what I was doing saw me through the huge financial, emotional and social sacrifices I made in order to fulfil it. I worked insane hours and juggled a variety of odd and often unappealing jobs to support myself while I completed the PhD I needed to achieve the plan. I finished my PhD with an achievement-studded CV and a healthy clutch of publications that all bode well for the dazzling completion of my plan. In fact, there’s every reason for me to think that if I just stuck at it for a year or two more, I’d realise the ambitions that have been shaping my life for the past 15 years.

But just at the point where it seemed that all my hard work was about to bear fruit, life happened. Relentlessly. Brutally. Repeatedly.

I can’t tell you what’s happened here and do justice to what me, my partner and others have been through. But to give you a sense of it, when I turned to therapy because I thought I wasn’t coping because I was depressed, after a few weeks, my therapist said there wasn’t an awful lot he or I could do because mentally, I was healthy – appalling things just kept happening around me in a way that was entirely out of my control.

The latest such event happened three weeks ago, when the company my partner was working folded at the exact moment that my temporary teaching job finished. The end result is that we’re moving out of our little rented flat in London and shipping our stuff to my parents’ house for a while.

Believe me, this was never part of the plan. Moving back in with your parents at the age of 34 because you’re technically homeless is an intensely guilt-laden and shame-riddled experience. Can we seriously not support ourselves at this age? Have we done things so badly that its landed us in a state of teenaged dependency? Is this what happens when you idiotically pursue a (mildly) alternative plan rather than following the more established or traditional paths through life? (Seriously, the plan involved a stable job, pension, nice house – it wasn’t wild!).

Tangled up in this menagerie of self-loathing has been the overwhelming sense of failing, of falling short of the plan, of not being dedicated enough to the plan to push all the ‘life’ stuff aside and achieve it anyway. Even as we’ve been packing up our home, figuring out how and where we’re going to live, trying to get work in order to feed ourselves, I’ve still been beating myself up for not dedicating enough time to the plan. The mantra’s been that I’ve failed at the plan because I haven’t sacrificed enough. The fact that pursuing the plan has contributed to the fact that we couldn’t weather one more financial upheaval doesn’t factor in my mental noise. Somehow not achieving the plan has felt worse than not having a roof over our heads.

But on the flip side of this is the knowledge that in the past, I’d carried on with the plan through thick and thin, through relationship ups and downs, through house moves and dwindling bank balances, through a whole array of personal crises and wrenching sacrifices. This time, or more accurately, over the past few months, I’ve barely lifted a finger to push the plan forward. I’ve thought about it, I’ve scheduled in time to work at it and then, nada. The passion that kept me plugging away has gone. I’m running on empty. I just don’t care.

Given that I’ve spent so much of my life working towards the plan, it’s not surprising that seemingly running out of steam on the cusp of finally reaching my goal is shattering. Or it should be shattering. I’ve spent months picking over the emptiness where my motivation used to be, asking myself whether this is some form of cowardice, laziness, or self-sabotage – me being reluctant or unable to go that last extra mile and clothing it in lack of interest. For weeks, I’ve been waking up at 3am, wrestling with the certainty that this lack of umph is just final proof that I’m one of life’s losers, an innate failure, a dream-addled idiot. After all, other people achieve their long-cherished aims, so why can’t I?

It’s only been in this past week that I’ve realised that you cannot witness and experience the kind of pain, violence and loss that we have over the past 18 months and still be the same people afterwards.

This might not sound like much of a revelation, but it’s amazing what kind of effect it can have.

Of course my passion for the plan has gone. Of course the umph that kept me pushing away at it has disappeared. For me, this person sitting here, the plan is meaningless. It is a dead thing. It’s somebody else’s plan, a plan made and pursued by someone who valued and loved different things to me. It’s not a bad plan – it’s just not mine anymore.

So this is us, me and my partner, starting out without a plan for the first time in over ten years. No home, no mortgage, no kids, no permanent jobs. Though there’s no escaping the fact that this situation causes severe bouts of self-pity, shame and feeling like a failure, we’re not so engrossed in self-flagellation that we can’t see this moment for what it is – a really rare opportunity. It’s not everyone who gets the chance in their mid-thirties to pause, take stock and re-think what’s important in life. And then start from scratch.

It might work. It might not. But we’re putting all our eggs in one basket and experimenting with our lives, because at this point, we can.