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.

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.

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.

64: Shadows – Beseeching

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I stood on a vast plain, bare of bower, building, grove or thicket. And there about me also standing were the hordes of all those who had never been and never would be, blank of visage, vacant, dumb, yet sad and sorrowful after their own fashion. Yet one close by, seeing that I was different, did speak and say, ‘Might not we also have our chance to live? To see the light and hear the rain, and feel the heat of summer and frost of winter days? Might we not also know one another, and speak our joy at that knowing? Might we not do things, and fashion a world?’

For about me clung the aura of a life lived, and they could see it, and this they all yearned for.

‘You do not know for what you ask,’ I told them. ‘There is a hardness to things, and an anguish that never fades, and the fear of endings before the endings end. And there is such a sorrow, that you will wish your wish undone. The payment of pain that must be paid is set at a very high price, for some, for many perhaps, even if not for all. And you will not know until it is too late what your own payment must be. But the seal has already been pressed, and there can be no retractions, except to choose to return to the oblivion you already know, from whence the yearning to go back will be rekindled, and the sorrow will never cease. Dream and wonder at what a life might be like, but do not wish upon it any semblance of reality. This place here, this place where all is peace and nothing can happen is a paradise of sorts, and it is folly to wish for any other.’

When I awoke, I could see rows of shadows lined up on the wallpaper that were not there be­fore, and which never change or move or fade, yet I sense them looking at me, yearning to come through, for they had not heard me, or had no understanding of my warning.

‘Folly, such folly awaits you,’ I say to them.

63: Horizon – Narrowing

On distant days in distant years, before the illness and before we had to give up almost every­thing, we walked long paths through dry summer woods, and later spied distant towns from naked hilltops. And before that, on my own, in child­hood, I strode in wellingtons along shallow streams and marvelled at the hovering dragonflies. On our bicycles, I would set off with friends and take half the day to ride right across the Ordnance Survey map, and onto the next one. And when we got home again, we weren’t even exhausted. But then with illness, our horizon, in a moment it seems, drew right in close and fitted tight against the fences and little walls of our little house, here, at the centre of things. We were not unhappy with our new horizon, because we had our conversa­tions, and we had our books, and with the televi­sion especially, we could see to distant places and almost confront our confinement and join the ranks of the unimpeded for just a short while. We didn’t mind. The more confined we were, the more liberated became our thoughts, and that was exhilarating. So many, so many interesting things to wonder at. That we could not go to them, that we could not touch them, that we could not share them with others, but only with each other – well that did not matter in the slightest. We grew accustomed to it. We liked it like that. We did not hate the illness. It became a familiar presence, and that was all right.

But now, alone, nothing seems familiar any more. These old things here, and my new thoughts, seem like unwelcome strangers who come to disrupt the even flow of things, to destroy the steady rhythm that over the decades had set in, which bit by bit had settled to a familiar beat that so quietly, so quietly counted off the peaceful years and rolled out the fabric upon which we laid our conversations, and which the passing time rolled up again, and kept in safe-keeping, for a while, in our memories.

There is now nothing to keep me confined to this narrow horizon, except my terror of the world and the horror is threatens to induce. For alone, I feel so strangely unsafe, as unsafe as my dear wife felt because of the way her illness afflicted her, leaving her feeble and physically incapable of mov­ing without help, for whom the limit was lifting a pen or raising a spoon. But amidst the dismay of that disability there I stood, ready and eager to do all that must be done to carry on. So we carried on, and the world fed our craving for interesting things, for meaning and purpose. But now that has come crashing down, and now I keep breathing, and keep on breathing some more, and I look out beyond my fences and hope that something will come for me. I know not what it may be. And not knowing, I cannot set off to find it, and I cannot ask for help, for there is nothing to ask for, for there is no sense in asking for what I need, when I do not know what it is.

62: Mountain – Moving

With every awakening comes the same wish that things could be other than they are. Of things close at hand, the wish that amongst them be my purpose, and of things further off, that same draw­ing in of breath, a gasp perhaps, solicited by witnessing everywhere the sheer weight of suffering that bears down on others as much as it presses down on me, but also the fury, the anger and an­guish that much of this wretchedness is caused by something as simple and mean as the abuse of power. For there is that elite which rules this world for their exclusive benefit alone, that mighty elite, mighty in power but nothing else, who bend us all to their will, to make what happens exactly what they want to happen, for the indulgence of misery and the pure pleasure of exercising their power, like a child in the bliss of their exhilaration as they stamp on a mouse and taste the pure pleas­ure of their brutality.

But what is to be done? I do not know. Every few years we may, if we so wish, vote for the per­son we believe possesses more humanity and more decency than the others. Though, as likely as not, many will vote for their favoured candidate motivated only by their own self-interest, drawn in with the promise of tax cuts, or the hope of relishing a bit of bene­fits scrounger bashing in the form of policies that will drive the weakest and the most vulnerable to suicide, or take away someone’s means of sustain­ing themselves, so that they can­not sustain them­selves and die of starvation, alone and cold in the darkness of these hateful times.

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So I awaken to find that I am still alive, and I must live on through this horror. I would mend it. I would mend it all, but I do not know how. It is easier to move a mountain with a teaspoon, given a strong enough teaspoon and enough time.[1] But mend the evil of the world? It cannot be done. We must bear its onslaught and wish in utter futility for something different.

[1] If that were the deal, if God were to come and say, ‘Move this mountain four miles to the west, and here is the indestructible teaspoon that you must use, and I will end all evil on this world forever, and I will make you live long enough to complete the task,’ I would take the spoon. This would be my purpose, and I would set to with enthusiasm, concerned about only two things: will humanity be able to survive the intervening eons that must pass before I can move the mountain, and will the planet itself last long enough for me to finish the job? For the roughest of calculations suggests that moving a mountain with a teaspoon must occupy one’s every waking moment for at least a few billion years. There is also the concern that in moving a moun­tain with a teaspoon one will not avoid pulverising it to chip­pings and grains, and as quickly as one way try to heap it up again at its new location, will the wind not simply blow it away? Will God allow for that? Or must I forever chase downwind after the receding mountain and try to bring it all back again, and maybe find a way to cement it all together? When it’s all fin­ished, can I keep the teaspoon as a souvenir?