Friendships – Severing

I remember my first panic attack (the usual, standardised panic attack you read about in medical books or on the Internet), the night before my final A-level exam. I had, of course, experienced throughout childhood, from the earliest of times, various intensities of alarm, fear, anxiety, sometimes strongly, sometimes debilitatingly, but never before had I experienced the profound depth of the panic that assailed me that night, the night before I would visit my school – in order to sit the paper – for the very last time. For with a sudden, unexpected, devastating realisation, I collided with the thought that I knew no one, had no friends, no acquaintances even, outside school. Even those two or three close friends I had, and with whom I would meet up independently of our going to school, even these few were heading for university in only a few weeks, and I would, in fact, make their acquaintance again, briefly, on only two further occasions.

I would have to manage on my own, and I had no idea how that could be done. No university or college course, with its fresh studies and new friends, beckoned me, for I had no idea as to what studies, what career, to pursue. Nothing seemed in the least bit appealing. I could not transfer my private joys and preferences to new locations beyond my private sphere, for all I ever craved was an interesting book and a peace and quiet, and pleasant environs, in which to read it. And facing in that direction, I could see no path to a career or to a future life, or to new friends.

I had some small sense then, and I realise now, that I needed an adviser, a guide. Even the Internet, as yet twenty years in the future, may have saved me. The potency of that panic attack opened such a deep wound of despair that has from that night never lessened. There is a sense to the idea that that panic attack never, in fact, stopped happening, and is happening still. The psychologist, perhaps, will say that this tells them something about me, but from my point of view, as the one who suffers the panic and despair, it tells me about the world, it tells me about the world that modern culture has created and imposed on us all, and it tells me that I do not belong in this world, that my desire for peace and time to read is a folly that cannot, and perhaps should not, be satisfied.

So I have blundered through this world, in all, for six long decades, hoping and hoping to find that secret of how to secure my heart’s desire, but always failing. I cannot find that for which I search, perhaps because I do not even know how to conduct the search. I am obligated to do things I do not want to do, pressed to satisfy the requirements of others and denied the option of satisfying my own wishes. The futility of this existence is beyond explaining. The hopelessness of its despair is beyond all comparison, and it is so vast that it fills the universe, and is already there no matter the direction I travel, or for how far.

This little text, I realise, confounds more than it clarifies. Adrift on this sea of hopelessness, I do not think I have ever caught a glimpse of land beyond those few illusions that proved false. This is the alienation that casts for each an unchallengeable mould that contains and constrains everyone. The mystery is that so few, so few, seem to have even the slightest awareness of their predicament.

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Interesting Things – Saving

Since childhood, I have only ever been able to get through each day and face the fact that another must follow, then another and another, by throwing every grain of effort at Interesting Things. Some days are barren, and there are no Interesting Things that will let me pick them up, and so I must endure the torment of a tedium whose source I do not understand, so cannot stand against, let alone defeat. Hold on. Hold on, there will be Interesting Things tomorrow.

When all effort is exhausted, and a fork in the road offers me either the option to abandon this charade and stop now, the pills are ready, or to hold on for another day, for Interesting Things will come, they really will come, I have managed (obviously) to take the latter path. This capacity I have to be distracted by Interesting Things, distracted enough to prolong this hateful journey, is such a tremendous blessing that I so, so much appreciate, for I know that others have not been granted it, or anything like it, and I know their suffering is so very great, and I would help if I could, but I do not know how.

Before books, and long, long before the Internet, I had my Box of Interesting Things. The cardboard box itself had contained the transformer for my 00 scale electric train set, and it was so well constructed and so sturdy that my mother decided to keep it ready for some eventual storage requirement. And before I knew it, this Box – the size of a shoebox – had taken custody of a whole variety of Interesting Things. It became my Box of Odds and Ends, whose contents easily exceeded the greatest possible marvels, because I was only a child, and greater marvels – a few, anyway – lay some way off in the future.

I cannot now remember the sheer diversity of all the wonderful things I collected, but I do remember some: horseshoe magnet, spare tyres for my toy cars, paper clips, mirror, string, empty cotton reels, drawing pins, short ruler, pencil-sharpeners (several), sticky tape, key for winding clocks, batteries, pen knife that in my hands had been reincarnated into a new life (for my great grandfather, in whose house I had come to live, had died the year I was born, and who now would cut the string on parcels or open stubborn envelopes or ease coins from between floorboards?), pencils, erasers, magnetic compass, compass for drawing circles and arcs, bulldog clips of various sizes, shoelaces, pencil caps, pencil extenders, the program issued at the school’s nativity play in 1963 (in which I played Joseph, having appropriately already fallen in love with Mary, Mother of God, who was Jane), empty pill jars and spare corks to stop them, nail file, and a few toy soldiers who had lost contact with their platoons.

But then books came, and more books, and now they fill the house, thousands of them, as my Box of Interesting Things developed a more abstract aspect so to speak, expanding outwards from little physical things to include all these years later the thoughts and experiences of others, spreading out across the world like a greedy fire to consume, and thereby brighten my life, the tales of travellers and dramas of playwrights, of histories of distant times, of fabulous fables and arduous endeavours, and passing over at great length the earnest thoughts of profound philosophers. Here in this sanctuary, in this Box I have filled, lie worlds within worlds of wonders and marvels. This is what has saved me from such a bleakness that I struggle to describe, from this despair in the face of a pointlessness that fastened its jaws to my ankles in childhood, and which I know now will never release me.

There are many things that I dread at various levels of dismay, but the most profound, the most terrifying, is that fear of waking one day and finding that Interesting Things are not interesting any more. Of all the evils that this world may yet shove through my door, this is the one that unnerves me the most.

67: Shroud – Concealing

This is how things are for me. Is there no va­lidity to this experience? Even the madman suffers the reality of his own experience. Even the world of the psychotic is a world that is lived in, no mat­ter how hopeless its capacity to nourish and sustain, to deliver up a meaning that makes going on a possibility. I am not sure if what is at issue is the Nature of the Real or an Inability to Make Con­tact with the Real. When those who, like me, feel compelled by the irresistible logic of empirical idealism cannot find anything real that subsists beyond the experience we have of what-we-may-think-is-real, what can we do in this despairing not-world whose moment by moment unfolding is nothing but the laying down of traps?

I have been lucky, when I know that others have not, for however heavily the bleakness that weighs down this side of the balance, I have rev­elled in the good fortune of having more than enough interesting things to place on the other side. Just as distractions perhaps, just as a substi­tute for the sun that does not really shine outside the cave that has no outside. It is for that no less a precious thing, and here is my one hope, that in­teresting things never lose their appeal, though, there is in that hope a terrible dread that matters cannot stand so forever. And then what? Lack of certainty, or at least lack of hope for a certain robustness to that certainty, feeds such a primitive fear of some nameless abomination. Please, more distractions to cover it up! Please, more distractions that reach right to the edges and tuck around like a proper shroud.

61: Earth – Rising

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On a spring day in 1975, I had come down to this little house – long before it was to become my little house – to pick up my wife, who was not yet my wife, from where she lived with her parents, to take her back on the bus to my parents’ house, where I was still living, to spend the afternoon and evening together, for the first time ever.

The house was very busy and very noisy that day. My parents were there, and my mother’s par­ents had come round from their little maisonette half a mile away; by brother and his friend were there, as were my sister and her friend. So to get some peace, and find a space in which to talk, we stayed in my bedroom, she on the long sofa, and I perched on the edge of the bed with my elbows on my knees, and we talked and talked. For six hours we talked, and when it was time to take her home again, I was in love, and I was addicted to her conversation. From that point, I craved her company for her conversation. Everything else immedi­ately assumed the role of distraction, whose pur­pose it became to tug the seconds and minutes out of the future until, at last, new conversations would arrive, and my addiction was for the mo­ment satisfied once again. At first, we met every day at school, then, once our courses concluded and the exams were upon us, daily contact ended, and on those days when we did not meet, I would always phone her in the evenings, and perhaps for an hour so, there came the conversations that I craved. We would meet once, each weekend when she would visit my parents’ house, and on one day during the week I would visit her parents’ house. The gaps were filled by phone calls, and by wait­ing, by seeking distractions that used up the inter­vening time between where I was and our next meeting.

And that craving, that addiction, that affliction, has never left me. Everything else, for our entire married life, was subordinate to our conversations, and nothing mattered, not really, apart from our conversations.

So now, all these months after having been cleaved so irrevocably from the conversation that I crave, I find that I experience matters just as I did then, all those years ago, when the world was di­vided into the joy of conversations and the barely endurable discomfort of waiting for conversations. So this is what I am waiting for, and this is why everything is nothing but an attempt to find a dis­traction through which time will pass until it is again time for conversation. Except now, no con­versation can ever come again. And that fact makes the distractions useless, makes the waiting pointless. What I await can never come, yet I find that I am waiting all the same. I do not really, not really want to read Orwell’s 1984, but I read it anyway in order to bring closer – according to my old habit – those new conversations that I crave more than any addict has ever craved his fix. Yet they do not come. So I endure a state of perma­nent withdrawal that will never lessen, as the daily routine of sleeplessness, nightmares, pounding heart, abdominal cramps, revulsion at everything, headaches, dizziness and weeping crash together like runners in the field trying all at once to get through a narrow gate.

I would like my new, my new unwanted life, to be wanted, needed by someone, as my dear wife needed and wanted me for all those years yet, trapped in this despair, I see no way of ever find­ing an opening I might squeeze through. That I could ever do this, strikes me as ridiculous as the notion that I might one day live on Mars, and step out from an agreeable little modular dwelling – where I still have some of my old books – under its protective dome, where it quite often gets as warm as I remember it back on Earth, all those years ago, before the illness came, and we would walk across the little field close to her parents’ house, or explore the Roman Museum at Verula­mium … and where under the dome I would sit on an old, familiar chair watching the horizon, because I know that the Earth will rise in a moment, and as the sky darkens on another Martian day, that distant, distant planet where I knew my con­versa­tions, will grow agreeably bright, hinting at a tranquil blue, and for just a second I will fancy that I can hear her voice calling to me, as she used to, from inside, for she has something new to tell me, and now I do so want to hear it, even though we are on Mars. I would want to keep hearing it forever.

But I am not on Mars, I am here, where I have always been, waiting and waiting for nothing.

[The photograph of Mars is a public do­main image originating with NASA and sourced from the Wikimedia Commons website.]

59: Panic – Recurring

Panic, panic, panic, like the torrential rains we have had these past few days, beats down on every thought, drenching every thought, negating every thought, and my heart pounds and pounds and pounds its terror, and I hear it speak in a quiet voice, Oh, dear God, must there yet be more of this?

And I have no words of comfort other than the truth, ‘There will be no more conversations, now that she has gone, now that my dear wife has gone. For she was the one who spoke to us, she was the one who always knew what to do.’

But can she not come now, from the afterlife, if only infrequently, if only once?

‘I thought she would, because she could not doubt the fact of life after death. There is just too much evidence, and she read the books of re­searchers who jolly well knew their craft, and in the face of such evidence, there could be only one rational position. So if anyone were to come back with words of comfort, it would be her, yet she does not come, and that is half of your panic. The other half is stirred by the realisation that there will be no more conversation, for the rest of our time in this dismal, cruel reality, there will be no more conversation.’

Can we not find other people to talk to?

‘Maybe. But how do we find them? How could we ever develop that intimacy that we shared for all those years? No one knows we are here, you and I, slowly losing our reason for lack of conversation that like the centreboard of a boat would hold us to a sensible course.’

Could we not continue on our old course?

‘No. Have you forgotten? She died, and for all those years, because of her lifelong illness and disability, we looked after her, and her thoughts were as free and vigorous and engaging and enlightening as they could be, for her sickness lodged only in her body. So that is why we were always so busy, you and I, preparing meals, wash­ing and cleaning and taking her out to the hospi­tal, and once in a while, so infrequently towards the end, we would have a day out at St Albans, and before that we used to visit that second-hand bookshop that had taken over the premises of a closed-down solicitors, with all those little offices, ideal for categorising all the books into major sub­ject areas – in this office, history, in this office next door, literature, and further down the long, long corridor, other little rooms for gardening, adven­ture and travel, crime, and children’s books, right at the very end. But do you remember, the owner had to close the shop when the council put up the business rates to a level he could not sustain? That was when we bought one of his tables, which we brought home in the back of our car, which to this day has been in the back room, its two shelves, and the top of course, stacked with books, so maybe the table does not know anything untoward has happened, and in its own feeble way, for it is made of wood, it thinks it is still in the bookshop, and that when I go to take books from it, and bring them back, it thinks I am a customer.’

Is there nothing, then, that will end this pounding and this panic and this despair?

‘I do not think so. We must hope that it will not last for long. We are not young any more, you realise? Not like we used to be. For that is how we felt, we felt so very young, right up until the day she died, even though others, especially those who are as yet young, would think us already old. This is how our days are now, and they are not so bad, not so bad when tabulated against all the other days that sometimes others must suffer, for the suffering here is so very great.’

I do know that, I do. And I am so very sad for it.

‘As am I, as am I, my dear heart – for that is how she would refer to me, sometimes, and that is how I may now address you, just for a little long­er, to keep the phrase alive in this little house (for it is not “our little house” any more).’

57: Dreams – Recurring

Decent sleep has always eluded me, or so it seems. Before that awful school, did sleep come pleasantly welcomed? I cannot remember. Perhaps it did. But later, and forever, no sleep that is not troubled by terrible dreams has ever come to me.

So it was last night, all night long, as one trial or torment or tribulation after another afflicted my miserable slumbers with dreams and nightmares of troubles and conflicts and perplexities. I do not catalogue these dreams. I do not even look upon them later, when awake, other than to acknowl­edge their mere occurring, for to dwell upon their content and rehearse their narratives and outcomes would etch them upon my memory sufficiently, I fear, to have them reappear at odd moments unbidden and irritating and fearful, later that day and in days to come. Some few dreams that I had years ago, or in childhood, still come back to me, every few days, every few weeks at least, and I am desperate not to add to their stock.

So upon waking with the recollections of new dreams tumbling about me, I turn quickly to some practical matter in the hope of banishing them quickly – getting dressed, boiling the kettle, checking for mail, stalking the message boards for evil to fight. And it works. Ask me now to give examples of my bad dreams, and other than those few old ones just mentioned, I cannot. My night-crumpled memo­ries are all smoothed out by the time I settle down to my reading or writing or lyre playing. I know only their broad brushstrokes. I see no Mona Lisa, but mere portrait. No details of any Guernica, but mayhem… I see now just general descriptions of arguments, frustrations, searchings, fleeings, confrontings … just the topic headings, but no explana­tory content.

But now, today, after less than four hours sleep riddled by nightmares now thankfully beyond re­call, I am tired and sleepy, and my concentration flaps about my intellectual efforts like a wet sheet tied at one corner thrashing in the wind, and hope of engaging with interesting books or writing something cannot be awakened. If this account makes any sense, that is because I have worked at it over the days, struggling to capture the sense of what I want to convey, struggling to find interest­ing words and a way to make agreeable phrases, to congeal these confused thoughts into some kind of self-supporting structure that shelters this tiny aspect of what populates my lifelong despair. Not for sympathy, not for any clear reason at all, really. I would like to put a few nails through the human condition, to pin it down so that others may say, ‘Yes. That is how it is. That is what happens to me. Here is something familiar, though loathsome…’

I do not want to be on my own.

56: Silence – Looming

Dear God, please bring me some distraction, something that can draw my awareness away from this insistent, heavy, despair. I had one friend I could talk to, and she has gone now, so I am bereft of guidance, support, and even the rhythms of everyday life are ended now. So I sit hunched in my ramshackle hut whilst the storm rages, as still, as still as I can. I am waiting, waiting, but I do not know why, or what I am waiting for. For help, perhaps, for the distraction that I crave, for the storm to end. But I cannot even picture that new day, when the gentle waves will lap upon a quieter shore, and the sun will shine down and warm the wet shingle, and I will leave this little hut to venture out for new things, a sight I have not seen before, a fruit I have not tasted. I write these words, yet there is no picture for me of what they describe. They are as yet a foreign tongue that I do not know, and they will not divulge their mean­ing, like hard words, they adhere stubbornly to the page and will not affect the workings of my mind, they will not awaken the new thoughts that I would like to have.

This despair, then, is a static thing, a thing that holds down and restricts all possibilities, that de­nies the possibility of change. But I do strain against it, I do. I am not some fool who lies supine under his assailant without even a tremor of struggle. I have invented some tunes for my lyre, though there is no one here to hear them, but I have done that, and I even wrote them down so as not to forget them, and to have them ready for that sunny day I want so much. Is that all? The constricting power of this despair is so very powerful. There are books, and I try to read, and I write my notes in their margins as a substitute for my lost con­versations, yet nothing really comes of it, for that tiredness takes over, and it sends me into fitful bad-dreaming sleep at all hours, and I forget so very quickly what I have read and written. So many times do I open books to find with some sur­prise that I have already read them, for there is writing all over their pages, and it is my writing, and I have been here before, and I have forgot­ten.

If I live to the age attained by my grandfather, the years I have yet to live following the ending of my marriage will exceed the years of the marriage itself, and oh dear, that is a dreadful thought. For all those future years, no conversations. It is such a silent thing, this despair, for the crashing break­ers are not real, and there is no sound. I have tried to recall past conversations, but I cannot do it. Memory fails and shudders to a halt with perhaps the knowledge that yes, we watched that film … but I cannot remember what we said about it. We must have said something … but what was it? It has gone, like tricycles and orchards, and days in the park, or in my great grandmother’s garden, or being in the company of my dear wife … all gone. And all that is left is the effort to keep breathing, to make this body stay alive for another minute, and then for the minute after that, and so on it goes, hour after hour, week after week. And still it seems, and always has seemed, that she died last week, that perhaps it is all a terrible mistake, and I will awaken from this nightmare. And now I am back in my little hut again, and that other world that seemed so real, that world of tricycles and books and conversations, that must be the dream, that trying to stay there, that must be where the madness lies.

Despair is the absence of all hope, when time will no longer permit a perception of past and future, where nothing is allowed to happen any more. It is like lying under a pile of rocks that makes breathing so very difficult, yet still I must try to breathe. But I do not know why. I would like to know what this effort is for. But no, it is a complete mystery. I would like to be of use, to have a mission, to have a purpose, as I did before, but no one wants me for anything. It seems rather odd … but that is the truth of it. It’s the way of things. It’s the way of things.