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.

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.

Appendix: Box – Bewildering

I sometimes recollect a waking dream I once had, about ten years ago,[1] in which I am waiting in the afterlife, having been there for some time, to take up my new life, the life I am having now. All the souls that have volunteered to be reborn – following the stories that Robert Frost tells in his poem ‘Trial by Existence’ and Plato tells in ‘The Story of Er’ in his Republic – are assembled on a vast grassy expanse, where first we must select the very life into which we will be born, for all the lives are already fixed in the divine plan, and all we have to do is choose the one that we want, according to some scheme as to which sort of experiences we need to have next, for all lives offer their own lessons, and our task, as we enter into one life after another, is to choose those lessons wisely so that we may grow as moral agents, and gradually come to an understanding of the human condition, and why it must have the character that it does. (And I should add that because all the lives are fixed in the divine plan it does not follow that we lack the free will that we usually think we have, for it is our own capacity for free choice and the manner in which we exercise our power of agency that fixes the divine plan in the form that it has.) And all the available lives are written out on sherds of pottery, or on little pages of papyrus or parchment, that we are free to rummage amongst. And here is my life, written out neatly, showing how I will find my dear J and how I must look after her, and how I will reap such joy in doing so. And it seemed to me that this particular life had been passed over, time and again, and that no one really wanted it, and I was worried then as to how my dear J would cope if no one came to look after her in her long illness and disability, and I could not choose a different life. After we had all chosen the life we wanted, we were all given a wooden box, large enough in fact to be a small chest, in which were saved things that will be useful, perhaps even needed, for our future lives. And we all sat on the grass, for the moment absorbed in the contents of our boxes, pulling out books or keys, or items of jewellery, or models of animals or houses that rep­resent our future realities, and we turned to each other in our delight so that we might congratulate our neighbours on their good fortune at having those things in their boxes. But in my waking dream, my box was empty, with respect to which (I do not know why) I felt embarrassed and ashamed. So when my neighbours turned to me to ask if I too had received wonderful things in my box, I replied that yes, I have quite wonderful things, when all along my box was quite empty. With a mixture of disappointment and horror, as I gazed into the interior of my wooden box, I knew then the awful reality of the hardships that would come to me in my future life, but I could not give it up, because I knew now how much my dear J would need me. So I would have to undertake the living of this life without the sort of help that oth­ers would have for their lives. And as it turned out, the help I did receive was, of course, J herself. For she gave me my instructions and directed our course. My hateful anxiety and depression, present from childhood, were under her authority, and my days ordered according to her needs and her plans. Not that I would have no impact whatever. No, of course I did. But as I have explained, J was my Captain, and I was a deckhand, and oh my goodness, I liked it like that. In my waking dream, I still have my box with me, and I look inside it from time to time, for it occurs to me that there really is something there to help me, and that in all this time I simply could not see it, and perhaps one day I will. But every time I look, the box is still empty, and I still feel the embarrassment and shame of being given an empty box. For now that J has gone, the emptiness of that box spills out over everything, rendering everything empty and useless and unwanted. The only thing I ever really wanted, that I want still, and which perhaps could not be represented by any object lodging in my box, was conversation with my dear J, that and the joy of coming home to our little house where we could be at peace with only each other, but where peace now eludes me. Like the fish that is unaware of the water through which it swims, for all those years I think I was largely unaware of that marvel­lous treasure – conversation with J – that so filled our hours together. I see it now, and as the months pass, my losing it becomes more and more painful. The closing period of this life that I have chosen is a horrible affair, and I do not want it. Oh my goodness… I hope, I hope, I so hope that my dear J is waiting for me at the gates of Paradise.[2] I have so much I want to tell her, and I so long to hear her response, and all the things that she will, I hope, want to tell me.

[1] This Appendix extracts a section from my book Another Grief Observed (Swaying Willow Press, 2015), written in response to the death of my wife, Jocelyn Almond. The title is added anew.

[2] See her poem, which I shall post in the very next blog, tomorrow.


68: Someone – Falling

I only ever wanted to bear witness, for one can only ever bear witness for oneself and say, this is what happened to me; this is what I saw; this is how I felt. And others may come to that bearing witness and recognise features in it, and they may say, that’s how it is; that’s how it is for me, also; so I am not alone. This utter and necessary isolation is common to all, and some may come to be aware of it, and come to bear witness and come to attend to others who also bear witness. So here we are, not sharing an experience, but knowing that others have the same experience. We cannot have an experience of having the experience that others have, for that to happen we would have to be them, for we can only ever have our own experiences.

Thus, a profound loneliness confines each of us in our own isolated prison, bound fast by not be­ing able to have the experiences of others. Yet we hear them speak their evidence and declare its truth, and what we can understand of its content does not contradict our own evidence. This is the closeness we may have, and perhaps that is sufficient. At least we may be kind, for anyone may be desperate and may be saved by compassion. At least once, if only ever once, we must hope to catch someone who is falling and who does not know how to stop. All we have to do is say I will be with you. I have seen enough to know how to do that.

66: Darkness – Hurting

Is there not then, inevitably, always, almost always, a shortfall, a gap, a distance we cannot cross, between what we hope for, desire, wish, an­ticipate, yearn for and for which we may stretch forth pleading hands, and what our capacities as agents, in these bodies with these powers, at this time, hemmed in by this history, can actually achieve? Are we not doomed to disappointment? Even if we start off heading in the right direction, we nevertheless never see our journey through to the end we had hoped for.

Oh, such effort, such tiring effort that always fails.

Is this a petty, mean, peevish complaint?

What I had imagined for this world, for me, for everyone, remains forever in imagination. At best it may inspire and motivate actions that only ever go so far, then fail. Everything is a botched job, a crudity, a parody of the ideal that hope and imagination conjured in the bright sun beyond the mouth of the cave in which we are doomed to lie tethered to great iron rings, tightly bound by iron chains all our days … for in here, here in the des­perate darkness is the reality of things, the truth of how matters stand. There is no sun outside, just as there is no outside. The cave goes on forever, an endlessly recycling Möbius strip of disappoint­ment.

I do not understand why so few have noticed. They do not even laugh at the folly of their predicament, because they do not see any predicament. Instead, they think that money and power, status and possessions are actually important. They bask in the sunlight of their folly, when really, all is dark and useless, and soon enough hurtful.

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.

53: Always – Waiting (2)

Why stay here any longer? Why endure this despair? Such questions have draped them­selves across my daily experiences for such a long time that now they are just part of the furniture, as they say. Simply another aspect of what happens. Especially since my dear wife died, and my mission as her carer ended so abruptly, those questions have grown so large… So I answer them, pretty much every day, when they intrude into my thoughts, I say to them, ‘Let me wait one more day. Something might turn up, something that at last makes real sense of staying, something that will help.’

And I cheat by lining up my projects, for I have to stay here to see them through, and I don’t want to abandon them, or at least I feel I have some obligation to wait and see how they turn out. It’s a sort of trick I am playing on myself. I cannot go yet, because this project, or that project, like an infant, or like my sick wife, needs me to stay to do these things so that it may prosper. And if it does prosper, is that not a sort of prospering for me also?

But there is such a thinness to that reason for staying. I am starting to see through my own trick. And so I introduce another one, by deliberately reading two or three books at the same time, by trying as hard as I may to find them interesting, by underlining phrases and sentences, putting boxes around whole paragraphs, and writing notes all over their pages. I should not go yet, because I have not finished this book, and even though it is not really of any importance … well, something helpful might turn up, and if not proper answers to my predicament, then perhaps something at least comforting, or just interesting, that for a moment shows me a different perspective, from where I can see the sun shining, like it used to, in my dreams.