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.

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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.

 

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.

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?

58: World – Impinging

I was awakened this morning by the not so distant sound of something banging, banging, banging, banging, banging, BANGING … then a brief pause, then … banging, BANGING, again. My heart was pounding, pounding, pounding in true shell-shocked fashion, maintaining a difficult counterpoint to the banging outside: three mighty heartbeats to every bang. I thought at first that what I was hearing was someone in a van sorting parcels and packets, tossing them vigorously against the sides of the van, turning the vehicle into a super-large tympanic instrument, and I fan­cied I could hear a furious voice fuming, ‘Where the bloody hell is the packet for number sixteen?’ But then I wakened further, and I realised that wasn’t it at all. Someone just round the corner is having a long and complicated renovation done, and what I was hearing was the builders tossing debris and rubbish into a skip … still a mighty tympanic booming, but this instrument had no wheels, and no one was searching for anything.

I am usually awakened by something of the sort breaking into my nightmare-riddled sleep, and my adrenal glands react like that man who suffered so awfully in the trenches who, ever after, jumps in panic at the slightest sound, who trembles under the bed with their head pressed hard against their knees, convinced that the postman’s knocking portends violent death at any moment. There is no knocking here, but an electronic doorbell that enthusiastically and in piercing, strident voice shrieks out some famous melody or folk song, mangling every harmony ever discovered. They play heavy rock music at super-loud volumes to victims being brainwashed, I hear. They should try my door chime device at ordinary volume. Success is guaranteed.

Some imposition always intervenes before my natural, or even unnatural sleep concludes. If I try to trick the world by retiring an hour or two early, with the intention of wakening before the day’s external activities break into my interior world, I always lose the game, and some idiot will perhaps raise and lower, raise and lower the bonnet of his car at 5 am. Or a door will slam, and heated voices will each try to shout down the other in tones by turn furious, frustrated, ferocious, infuriated, in­dig­nant.

And so the acrimony of the world fragments right across the globe, and these little shards of trouble and disturbance trigger my shell-shocked brain into telling my heart to go, go now, go like the clappers, for danger is here, and death is near, and these must be our last moments on earth, so beat out your final song until the beating breaks you, for that is all we can do. We have fought this foe, you and I together, for all these years, and we must cease soon. If not today, then soon, so beat until you burst. You sound out my terror as the percussionist beats out the composer’s anguish. Between us, we can bring a rhythm to The Scream, the painting by Edvard Munch. We can make the swirling colours of his sky and ocean throb and pulse with a universal hatred of all that vexation that need not be vexation but for the selfishness, stupidity, thoughtlessness of others. We will beat out the self-destruction of civilization, for that is our only song, now.

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And every morning I waken to a fresh hatred of the world which is so stupid, so insistent, so repellent. Of course my heart objects to it. Its beating is like the beat of a war drum, but I have no idea how to take this war to my enemies. Just pounding and pounding and pounding.

45: Orchard – Drowning

A storm has come today, that throws itself up­on my dark and dismal shore, whilst I cower, huddled in my ramshackle hut at the back of the beach, whilst a wild wind rips through the heaving palms behind, whilst the sea rages and seethes and crashes upon the fluid shingle so that you cannot tell where sea ends and land begins. The whole sea is monstrous breakers breaking, breaking, furious­ly breaking, whilst the wild wind whips foam and spray right up into the atmosphere, so that you cannot tell where sea ends and sky begins.

I am cold and miserable, but I can still remem­ber the sun that I have not seen for such a long time, and I would like it to come back, to light this sorry place once more, as it did before, when there was not sea, but a garden, and I ran, and rode, up and down, up and down the path, from house up here to orchard down there. But that has all been washed away by this furious sea. The orchard lies somewhere under the waves, and I do not know why this has happened, and I do not know how to undo it. I would like to undo it, if only I could.