31. Take The Long Way – Po’ Girl
There’s a dull ache where my prostate should be and I’m sat in a car I don’t own, in the car park of an anonymous industrial estate on the outskirts of Milton Keynes, a town that seems to be comprised almost entirely of outskirts. I’m waiting for an all day meeting that I’d rather not attend; my expectations are for a painful few hours of corporate jockeying, career eyeing obfuscation and the uncomfortable small talk that only a group of people that really don’t know each other, despite spending every day together for the past three years, can muster. Look up inauspicious in the dictionary. There will be a picture of me in a Vauxhall Astra, eating a double bacon and egg McMuffin, on that industrial estate.
I had spent a good few minutes trying to manoeuvre the car between the white lines that had been marked out for parking. They’re set at an odd angle – perhaps 70 degrees – and are just marginally too narrow. As I’m first to arrive I can’t line up next to an already parked vehicle and, for reasons that now escape me, I had decided to reverse in. Trying to fit between the lines. As I repeatedly try to position the car this feels a lot like one of those free metaphors that life has been throwing at me of late.
I had not been looking forward to this day. Its purpose was for a small group of us to discuss team objectives, in the absence of a head of function, away from the office which, in the grand scheme of things, shouldn’t be cause for concern. Except I’ve been in this play before. Almost exactly twelve months ago: same meeting room in the same industrial shed with the same task to be performed under the same circumstances – no head of team, let’s sort things out. Only twelve months ago the casting was different and, specifically, I had been shunted from understudy to something approaching the lead role. Now I wasn’t even sure if I qualified as understudy.
That day a year ago had, briefly, felt like a fresh beginning. I’ve dealt with my redundancy elsewhere but this had been the point at which I felt like I’d found my way back to some kind of approximation of my previous job; my previous status I guess. I was sharing the responsibility for the running of the day, the running of the team, with someone else but it was close enough. I was back doing what I knew I could do, building a happy and productive insights team.
I was sufficiently emboldened that day to take a risk. The team were dealing with the departure of their “head of” – in retrospect maybe I was dealing with it more than they were, I’m not sure. It was someone I had a lot of respect for and was bitterly disappointed to see him depart and, again in retrospect, it surfaced a lot of memories about how I had left my previous job. So I decided to risk opening up to my colleagues, sharing what was supposed to be my own personal story of dealing with change. I stopped short of a full confessional, complete disclosure of my struggle with mental illness, but there was enough there for people to fill in the blanks. I guess it was intended to be a rallying cry, an illustration of how people can come through traumatic events and stay strong. There’s some irony. It was definitely intended as a show of strength: a sense of resolve and fortitude from what might, ostensibly, appear a place of weakness. It was about empathy and understanding and letting people know that there was someone there for them – my far less eloquent version of this “down in a hole” clip from The West Wing. If you believe the corporate text books it was intended as an overt piece of “authentic leadership”. It was definitely authentic.
And then it all went wrong. Not literally then (people didn’t start throwing things and booing – they may have wanted to…) but over the next couple of months. A series of ordinarily manageable events piling up to a point where they became unmanageable; like dropping enough pebbles onto a hillside until, eventually, it dislodged a boulder, and then the whole thing came tumbling down. Then we’re into panic attacks and adrenaline and cortisol and pills and counseling and all of that stuff.
So back in the car park, a year on, I have all of that in my head. Returning to work after my sabbatical has not been without its challenges, my subconscious seems keen to cling to the fact that I’m back in an environment where I melted down. It’s well intentioned with its occasional prompting – “hey, this is a bad place for you, I remember what happened, I’m going to stimulate some chemicals for you to encourage you to get the fuck out” – but not terribly helpful. I understand the theory of it all but unpicking it in practice – rewiring it – is hard. And this particular car park, outside of the particular meeting room I’m about to go into, is a major crime scene to revisit. If I wasn’t back on beta blockers I imagine I’d be accelerating hard back down the A5 right about now.
I have a playlist that I use for my commute to work. It is, imaginatively, called “car”. Admittedly that isn’t as strong as my Motown playlist – “Good Lordy, It’s Berry Gordy” – but on a par with most of my naming conventions (for example: “new” for, er, new stuff). It was on whilst I sat in the car thinking about the upcoming meeting, set as it usually was to play on shuffle. Sometimes life chucks you a rubbish metaphor about trying to park between the lines whilst you’re wondering where you fit in and sometimes it throws you a bone. Po’ Girl’s glorious reflection on enjoying life’s journey – because that’s the only point to it all – “Take The Long Way” shuffled its way on to the car stereo.
This song was always on the list for inclusion in the 42. I didn’t necessarily expect that this odd tale of mid life crisis would be my route into it but there it is. In some respects it might have been more obvious to pick a moment in my life that was so perfect that it stopped me in my tracks; a moment in which it’s almost easy to understand that this is a moment and that’s probably all that life is, a succession of moments. The sun setting over the ocean in Lanzarote. My wife appearing at the end of the aisle on our wedding day. Sitting holding my new born daughter in the hospital. First kiss. Playing live music. Sex. Any of those would be easy to isolate as moments in which it feels like you can express what life is about. But you don’t get that many of those. What you get are a few of those and, in between, long, long stretches of sitting in car parks – metaphorically, not literally. Unless, of course, you’re a car park attendant.
So it has to be on the list because I utterly adore it, I adore the melody, I adore the vaguely incongruous mix of country and folk and hip hop, but most of all I adore the sentiment. That reminder to be mindful, to savour experience – the journey and not the destination – and that life is not something you’re working towards, it’s something you’re doing. Right now. To steal wholesale from Annie Dillard: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives. All of that time sat in a car park, sat in a meeting room, is life.
It would be too neat and tidy if I told you that in that moment I understood everything I wanted to do with my life. If it was a film I’d have probably driven off, or better still, walked off, casually chucking the keys to a car that wasn’t mine over my shoulder. Maybe deliberately leaving the car parked across the lines first: you see what I did there ? But I don’t (sadly) live in an Aaron Sorkin drama and whilst walking off into a Milton Keynes sunrise might have been glorious for a while it would have been swiftly followed by a dawning realisation that I got responsibilities now.
It was enough, for now, that it reminded me to be present. It was enough that it got me back into that meeting room and got me through that meeting without gasping for air. Right now there are days when that is enough: that is a good day. That won’t always be enough because, how we spend our days and all that, but right now it is.