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.



42: Hand – Burning

It is so terribly cold today, that as I press my hand against my naked thigh, as can happen during a trip to the lavatory, depending upon whether one stands or sits, it felt as though my skin was burning, that instead of pressing the side of my hand against a human thigh at normal temperature, I had in fact pressed it against some electrical device, some heater or some cooking gadget. If I had not known that this sensation had in fact been caused by nothing more threatening than my own flesh, I would have immediately drawn my hand away and concerned myself to investigate further. How odd. I have never experienced that before. And here I sit, later, in my unheated room, making this record of my observations in my green notebook, with a 9B pencil that keeps its point well, writing with hands so cold and unfeeling that my trembling traces are losing their meanings even before they finish being scraped off the little cone of graphite whose task today is to bear witness to such trivia.

I say this simply to record the fact that here are circumstances over which I have no lasting power to prevail. In these sorry times, when the rich keep paradise all for themselves, what should we ex­pect?

35: Lost Dog – Following

Look, that window there, the one next to the dark green front door … could I not be behind that window, on the other side, in another room, safe? Could I not have friends come to see me, who laugh through the smoke of our cigars? Or perhaps there comes a new lady friend, who sees the future more clearly than I, and has it all safely mapped out, all charted and plumbed, a double life, she and me, for at least a few years?

Could I not have bookcases bearing authors who shape a comely world of things so interesting I will weep at the wonder of it? And can there be a gar­den through the French doors, at the back of that room? And for hotter days, a summerhouse half-hidden in a fair forest of bamboo? And mightn’t its timbers never quite give up their ambition to always, always smell faintly of creosote, the smell of which always takes me back to childhood holi­days in chalets in Dorset, near the coast with its cliffs and sands and long summer days, and in the evenings and through the nights, the steady smell of creosote?

Mightn’t there be another world in which I could live, relieved of this despair? Or must this despair follow me, like a lost dog that wishes it were found again, into all possible worlds?

May there be glass in the doors of the book­cases, like in olden days, with keys to keep them shut?

Oh, but may there be conversations with my dear wife again?

33: Biscuits – Mending

I dread filling in forms. I have a form of formophobia, so to speak. For there is usually that question without a question mark, occupation, and I never know how to answer. For I never did consistently work at anything, except when I was an undergraduate, and after that when I was a post-graduate, and I suppose it is fair to include the time was commissioned to write a book about the philosophy of the Roman Stoic teacher Epictetus. That, I think, is the extent of my list. If I was an associate lecturer, that was for eight weeks. If I was a tutor, that was for one term. To be sure, I have always been occupied by reading and, to a lesser extent, by writing. But those answers are not what the ques­tion is asking. Occu­pa­tion seems to be a demand that I justify my existence, my entitlement to wear clothes and sleep in a bed, and I cannot. I have no defence to offer, for I have never had an occupation of the sort that others seem to have. I struggle even to fantasise about how it must feel to be able to respond ‘bus driver’, ‘solicitor’, ‘road sweeper’, ‘aeronautical engineer’, ‘wallpaper designer’. But no. There are no such expressions that will align with the life that I have actually lived. For all those years, I cared for my sick and disabled wife. But that is not the answer that the question is asking. I am tempted to play the fool, and write ‘broken biscuit mender’, but that way trouble lies. And I have never liked trou­ble.

17: Pencil – Sharpening

I must have used up hundreds of pencils in all this time, from when I was two or three, when my parents or grandparents first gave me pencils and paper to play with. Yet I have no recollection of ever throwing away a pencil stub. I can remember one instance of struggling to sharpen a little stub, because I had foolishly forgotten to bring to class a much-needed replacement pencil. So there I was, at the age of perhaps seven, struggling to put a point on a little bit of pencil that was hardly an inch long. Yet not a single instance of dispos­ing of a useless pencil stub will come to me. So as I gradually sharpen away this mustard-yellow Koh-I-Noor Hardtmuth 1500 (8B) that I am us­ing to underline the books I am reading, I am keeping my eye on it, watching as my sharpen­ing reduces it bit by bit. There is some way to go, as I started using it only recently, and it is still a decent length, at perhaps five and a half inches. I am sharp­ening it with a new penknife that I acquired just a day or two ago, a knife I chose online look­ing at the pictures and carefully reading the de­scriptions, selected especially for this single func­tion. From one end folds out the larger clip point blade and the smallest spey blade. These I will reserve for special tasks that may not be pencil-related at all, such as opening packages, or turning plastic bot­tles into useful pots (you can use the opposite end to make a funnel). From the other end of the knife folds out a single, medium-sized sheepsfoot blade, whose straight edge is ideal for sharpening pencils. Trial runs have proved most satisfactory. For the first time ever, I am deter­mined to remain con­scious of my throwing away – perhaps in a couple of weeks – the stub of this Koh-I-Noor pencil.

Perhaps the excitement of starting a new pencil has always been so strong that my memories of having just thrown away a stub could not survive the thrill. I have a 7B ready for the forthcoming event.