Monthly Archives: November 2016

This is the sea

Once upon a time I learned to sail. Time steals the memories of that learning and now that I can navigate the river I can’t remember those days of running aground, of fighting the slow, easy current, or even of the repeated soakings as I was tipped into the water. Nor do I remember those early journeys, all way back upstream now, through the hurried rapids, down the narrow streams of my childhood. Perhaps at the time it all seemed bigger but looking back, up and across to the mountains we made our way down, I can barely make out the path of the water; like tracing my face for the lines left by tears that dried up long ago. As the river widened and relaxed into the valley some memories stick. I do remember that initial sense of freedom, striking out from the bank alone for the first time but secure in knowing that the river was slow, shallow, and not so broad that I couldn’t swim back to something solid. The river guides. That was the teaching: trust in its easy, forgiving flow and use it to learn for the sea. The unspoken truth though was that the river is poor learning for the sea but it is all we have.

The sea looked like hope from the river as I glimpsed it occasionally back then, wide eyed, staring downstream into the future. Just as looking back changed perspective, shrinking things that had seemed vast, looking forwards played the same trick but in reverse. The sea looked contained, bound by shore and horizon; it looked manageable. Navigable. The distance flattened the ceaseless rise and fall of the tides and ironed out the distant surges and storms. It looked like a gently creased, blue grey sheet stretched out between the land and sky and I miss that idea of it. I miss the time when I headed for uncharted waters with excitement and confidence, when apprehension felt like the precursor to discovery – something new and wonderful – instead of the prelude to fear. Even when the discovery was just someone else’s map of those uncharted waters, the discovery that they weren’t uncharted at all, that someone had sailed this course before and left you their notes.

And for a while, as I stuck to the charted waters or uncovered the notes from those that had sailed before me, the sea delivered on the promises whispered in its waves. Close to the mouth of the river it was as easy to sail as the river itself had been. The boat I’d built and sailed as a child rode the benign tides close to shore just as it had coped with the nudging currents that had eventually pushed it out into open water. The coastal squalls were exhilarating rather than frightening, the rush of adrenaline feeding the strength to trim the sails or tack back into the wind. And when they abated the sea was calm for long enough, and I was strong enough, open enough, to improve the boat, to make modifications and adjustments. To face each successive squall stronger than I’d faced the last. Perhaps the sea guides too. That’s what I thought in those days skimming the surface spray hugging the shoreline. I don’t think that anymore.

I don’t remember losing track of the shore. It must have happened slowly, over years, a progressive pull from the ebb of the tides winning out over the flow. Out here the sea doesn’t look contained or manageable and the notes left by fellow sailors are fewer and further between. Is it even navigable ? Out here there’s just the sea. Vast and endless and unforgiving: it can swallow you up and leave you cold, lost and adrift. When the storms hit my boat splintered and sank. I fought them until my bones ached and my fingers blistered from straining against salt lashed ropes in the desperate struggle to stay afloat. If I’d had a solid place to stand then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but the drenched deck gave no purchase for my feet. If I’d battled a single, violent tempest then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but the bad weather resolved itself into a change in the climate, storms piled on storms. If I’d learned to rest, to trust the sails to others, to admit to the weariness of near defeat, then perhaps I’d have saved the boat but even back in the days on the river I’d always sailed alone. There was no solid place to stand, there were many storms, and there was nobody to relieve me as captain: my boat splintered and sank.

The sea’s depths seemed to offer solace, they were untouched by whatever raged above. At first there was a relief in the isolation as I dropped beneath the roiling, rolling waves, pieces of my former vessel, fractured and sinking beside me. As I lingered there longer though it became colder and a kind of numbness set in; it became harder to strike out again for the surface. There was nothing up there but storms and the relentless toss and twist of the swelling waters. Nothing there but more sorrow. There was nothing here either but it was a constant nothing. It was predictable. Navigable. I was lost but if I stayed where I was I’d never be more lost and I’d never risk the hope of clutching at a way back to shore. I’d never feel the touch of the sun on skin but I’d never have to feel the rain either.

The sea doesn’t guide, it just is. The sea doesn’t guide but perhaps those that sail it still can and still do. The notes from fellow sailors are fewer and further between out here – down here – in the sea. But some remain. Even here some remain.  I found one of those stray, rare notes and it said this: even out here it’s not truly uncharted. There’s a universal map written in the stars for those able to raise their eyes and read it. Perhaps it leads back to your shore but you can’t read that map ensconced and ensnared under water. You might see the lights, foggy and distorted, but the water refracts and changes the true positions of the fixed reference points you must follow. You must brave the surface to see the way. The only way back to the shore is to risk the storms. How do you learn to be still on the waves ? Or how do you learn to lean in to the teeth of the gale and laugh ? When does knowing you’re not in control of the boat stop being terrifying and fill your heart with exhilaration ? How do you leave notes as you chart your waters that others might find and learn from in future ? These are the questions I asked and still ask as I seek the playful exploration of the shores close to the river that I learned to navigate when I was young. I read the note and draw strength to seek the surface.

This is the sea. Terrible and terrifying and relentless. Open and hopeful and limitless. Build the best boat you can and learn to make it dance on the river but accept that when you reach the sea it can crush the strongest vessel or the skilled sailor without thought or malice. All you can do is learn to sail again. Seek out the constants in the sky, learn to sail and as you chart your course leave notes that others might follow and might know that they are not alone, adrift in their storms. The river need not be our only learning. We are each other’s guides.

Once upon a time I learned to sail. Happily ever after remains my destination, out there on the horizon, across the sea.

 

……

This is story 42 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

So that’s it. Took longer than anticipated but all 42 are done and, to date, I’ve raised £700 for Mind. This one’s about everything the other 41 were about but also, in spirit, was about the value in sharing stories.

It owes a huge debt to Mike Scott and The Waterboys who said in six glorious minutes and two chords what I’ve struggled to say here.

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Fragments

I remember the bridge and the accident. Or, at least, I remember that I wrote that there was a bridge and that there was an accident. Something bad happened. We can agree on that. I’ve been coming here for weeks now, perhaps months, and trying to talk about it but the words just won’t come. The summer house at the end of a garden, slatted windows open in the late summer to let in the air, shuttered tight in the winter to protect the heat rising at our feet from the electric radiator. There’s a box of tissues that I’ve never reached for although there’s some part of me that thinks that I should: the absence of tears no doubt noted dutifully in the book of notes I never get to read. Am I a secret to myself ? A wasp drones angrily at the glass in the summer house door.

“Perhaps we should let it out ?” he asks.

I look up at him, at his eyes, at his eyebrows raised expectantly, at his kindness.

“Letting things out isn’t my forte,” I reply ruefully. He lets me lapse back into silence and watch the wasp, a study in impotent rage, continue to fail to break through the glass, fail to fly to the garden it can see but not reach.

I remembered the shattered shards of glass on the bridge after the accident. The lights from the ambulance refracting through the splinters, red and blue light dancing across the wet tarmac as I waited for them to tell me what had happened. Does it matter if there was really an accident or if I just wrote it ? Something bad happened. It seems easier somehow to dramatise it rather than  just lay out the bare facts because the reality was so banal, so mundane, or at least it was when I said it out loud; inside it felt like an accident. It’s not as if I don’t have the words. I am not short of the words, whether recounting the miserable, ordinary slide into depression, or describing it second hand via a series of thinly disguised metaphors. All of those stories came from the same source, the same white light scattered through the mosaic of broken glass strewn across the bridge, a myriad of separations, a spiders web of my shattered self reflected back in shattered glass. Does it matter if the bridge was real ?

“So what did you want to talk about ?” he asks, more questions.

“I’m not sure that I want to talk about any of it to be honest,” I reply. “You know I prefer to write it all down.”

“The stories ? The music essays ?”

“I’m better written down,” I persist.

“But it’s another front, isn’t it ? Another way of packaging yourself up to present to the world ? The pieces of yourself you’ll allow people to see. Carefully considered and thought through. Nothing in the moment or out of control or truly vulnerable or exposed.”

“Pieces of splintered glass,” I murmur. “I don’t know. Is it just a front ? I’m not saying those stories amount to ‘Blood On The Tracks’ but there’s all of me in there if you search. They seem as real to me as a hand shake or a late night conversation with a friend or, or I don’t know, an imagined road accident on a bridge and its post traumatic fall out.”

“So why don’t you cry ? Or get angry ? Through all that pain, through that trauma. Where does it all go ?”

“It goes on the page. Or it pulls me down, eats me up. It’s better on the page. I’m better on the page.”

“And do you think you could put yourself back together on the page ? Tell enough stories, find enough of the fragmented strands of yourself that you can stitch them back, weave a tapestry out of the threads. Work it all out on your own. Is that the point ?”

“That’s not the analogy I use. In the story – you know, the first one – it’s glass. All of those stories are just the little pieces of glass sprinkled across the scene of the crash, little reflections of a part of my whole.”

“So change the analogy. Glass doesn’t really yield. It shatters or breaks and even if you could glue it all back together you’d always see the joins, you’d never see through it as clearly again. Sure, we unravel sometimes but when you knit the frayed threads back together you can make something new; just as strong as it was before, maybe stronger if you can see where the stitches failed last time. Don’t write stories to describe the fractured pieces of glass. Weave.”

“How would I start ?”

“I don’t know. You’re the story-teller. How do stories usually start ?”

 

……

This is story 41 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

This is intended as a wrap back to the very first story: Beginnings. It either all gets a bit meta or it disappears up its own arse. It’s a fine line… but it’s well intentioned. One to go.

Riffs and variations on loss and friendship featuring onion rings, Nick Cave, tinnitus, and Brexit

“Don’t ask me about sex, okay ?”

“It’s okay Pete. I’ve had the talk. My mum drew the short straw and told me what goes where and how babies are made and how to stop babies being made and how to fake an orgasm. All that stuff.”

“How to what now ?”

“Alright, alright. Just kidding. She only told me the important stuff. You know the faking it bit and how to stop babies being made,” laughed Jen.

“This explains a lot. Remind me never to meet your mother. Or, indeed, sleep with her.”

“At least it wasn’t my dad, right ? And did you just turn down my mum ? You shouldn’t be so choosy. She’s pretty hot for her age.”

Pete exhaled loudly, deliberately. “Weird now. I knew I shouldn’t have raised sex, it always gets weird. All I was saying was don’t ask me about whether I’ve had any recently.”

“Given the request I think I can fill in the blanks. Don’t worry anyway, I wasn’t calling to check up on that. I’ve learned my lesson. We’ll just end up talking about Eeyore having phone sex with Sufjan Stevens again.”

“That’s not quite how I remember it.”

“I was paraphrasing.” Jen put on her best TV voice over voice: “Previously on conversations between Pete and Jen…”

“That’d never make it past the pilot episode,” Pete countered.

“Hey, it might. Maybe they’d get someone more famous in to replace you for the actual series but I reckon I’d be snapped up to continue playing the role of myself.”

“I’d forgotten just how much your calls cheer me up Jen…”

“Quit it sarcasm boy. I know the only reason you won’t let me Skype you is that you wouldn’t be able to hide the smiling.”

“No, it’s because I don’t want you to see the state of the flat to be honest.”

“Still living out of pizza boxes ?” asked Jen, concerned.

“Something like that. More like I’m living in a pizza box. Apparently some people get a compulsion to clean and tidy as a side order to go with their grief but I didn’t seem to.”

“Like the world’s worst meal deal ?”

“Yeah. An Unhappy Meal,” said Pete. “I’ll take mine extra large.”

“What are the fries in this analogy ?”

“I don’t think that’s the most important part of what I’m saying Jen.”

“Mmm, I know. I just really like fries. I think they’re probably the onion rings or something. Georgie loved those Burger King onion rings, you know ?”

“Yeah, she did,” said Pete. “Do you remember coming back from The Chemical Brothers in Brixton ? She must have had four bags of them before we got to Victoria. I think she had the munchies from all that secondary smoke.”

“She never could handle her secondary smoke.”

“Handled everything else though,” said Pete quietly.

“Yes, she did Pete,” Jen answered, equally quietly. “She was… She was… Fuck. There’s nothing I can say that isn’t fucking trite and pointless. She was Georgie and she was my friend. That’s it. It’s as simple as that. I miss her. I miss her so fucking much.”

“I thought it’d get easier, you know ?” said Pete. “Those first months I was just numb to everything, like my brain had decided to self administer a huge dose of anaesthetic. I knew there was something horribly wrong but it was all sort of detached, like I was watching it happen to someone else. But these past few weeks the anaesthetic’s wearing off and outside of the numbness there’s just pain. There’s just nothing but pain.”

“I’m supposed to say it’ll take time, right ?” said Jen gently.

“You’re hurting too Jen. It’ll take time for all of us. I don’t know, the talking helps but the actual words… the actual words just all feel empty.”

“That’s why I call and talk… talk stupid. All that vapid nonsense is just a way to not say what we’re supposed to say. If the words are all empty then why not make them really, properly empty ? I miss her so hard Pete and I know that it’s not fair to call you and say that.”

“It’s okay. None of it’s fair but I don’t have exclusive rights on missing Georgie. She loved you. You were her best friend.”

“Apart from you. We were her best friends. Christ, I can’t believe it’s been three and a half years.”

“Want to hear something stupid ?” said Pete, suddenly.

“Always. Especially now,” replied Jen.

“I got into an argument today with some bloke in Sainsbury’s. I think I’d been spoiling for a fight for the last few weeks, I just didn’t expect it to be over a deli counter in a supermarket. I keep thinking I’m through the angry phase but then I just find myself back in it again. Anyway, we were waiting to get served – it was one of those counters where you take a ticket and wait for your number to come up – when this guy suddenly pushed in front of the woman in front of him. She says something, strong Eastern European accent, and then he turns round and tells her that he doesn’t have to wait in line behind people like her anymore. That she can go get her cheese in her own country.”

“Her own cheese ?”

“Seriously. You couldn’t make it up. He started ranting about taking our country back and how she wasn’t welcome, coming over here buying up all the foreign cheese. I think she was Polish…”

“Renowned cheese makers that they are…”

“Well, quite,” Pete continued. “Anyway, everyone was standing around not knowing what to do and this poor woman started to look really quite scared so I asked him to get back to his place in the queue and calm down a bit.

“You asked him to calm down ?”

“Yeah. Turns out telling frothing bigots to calm down doesn’t really calm them down,” said Pete.

“What were the chances ?”

“Easy in hindsight. He starts yelling at me that I’m a traitor to my country and that I need to learn what democracy means and how his grandparents had liberated Europe from the Nazi’s…”

“So he started doing irony ?”

“Not intentionally, no. I think he offered me outside but by then the security guy had appeared and threatened to throw us both out if we didn’t cool down. My new friend Mosley or Nigel or whatever his name was turns back to the counter and places his order. Only goes and orders pierogi and kabanos.”

“No fucking way.”

“No, he didn’t really. Slab of Cheddar and some Red Leicester.”

There was a pause as Pete laughed at his own joke before Jen asked, “How’d we get in this mess ?”

“Elastic bands,” answered Pete. “Hear me out, I’ve got this theory. I didn’t vote leave but I get why some people did. They’re not all like that idiot. It’s just that we’ve gotten too stretched…”

“Keep going Chomsky.”

“It’s good, you’ll like it. The elastic band is society and then imagine the people at the top of society are one end of the elastic band and the people at the bottom are opposite them. The more distance there is between them the more tension there is in the band, until the band either snaps back together again or…”

“Or it breaks,” Jen finished.

“Or it breaks.” Pete started singing softly: “I got those elastic band post-Brexit blues.”

“Ha, sounds like it should be a Nick Cave song.”

“You heard Skeleton Tree ?”

“Of course I’ve heard it Pete. When you were telling me about that Sufjan Stevens record a couple of months ago I couldn’t get my head round it. I couldn’t understand why you’d want to listen to something that was so nakedly carved out of someone else’s grief. But then I heard the Cave record and I’m like a moth banging its head against a light bulb. There’s no shelter in it, no comfort but it just shows you so much pain that it kind of matches your own. I’m not making any sense…

“No, I get it. You ever have tinnitus ?”

“That ear ringing thing ? No, not really. I mean only after a gig or something, nothing permanent,” said Jen.

“I have it a bit. Like static in my left ear all the time. It’s always there but one of the things they tell you to do to mask it is to match it up with something on the same frequency. So I might listen to some tuned out radio white noise and then I don’t hear it. I think the Nick Cave record’s like that. Only something that intense, that raw, can match up to what we’re feeling and give some release to the pain. Maybe not release. Give some sensation to the pain might be a better way of describing it. It short cuts that anaesthetic.”

“Why’d we want to do that ?”

“Because the anaesthetic’s not real,” sighed Pete. “She’s gone Jen and she’s not coming back.”

The line was silent for five, ten seconds. Eventually Jen asked the same question she’d asked every week or so for the past five months.

“I gotta go now Pete, early start tomorrow, but are you alright ?” There was the same pause he always left before answering and then the same answer before the line went dead.

“No. Not today Jen. But ask me again tomorrow. What about you ?”

“No. Me neither Pete. But ask me too.”

 

……

This is story 40 in a series of 42 to raise money and awareness for the mental health charity Mind. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are really welcome: http://www.justgiving.com/42shorts

This is a direct sequel to story 14 (https://42at42.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/riffs-and-variations-on-loss-and-friendship-featuring-balloons-aa-milne-sufjan-stevens-and-phone-sex/) and shares its structure: I just really wanted to hear Pete and Jen talking to each other again. It also directly lifts its title (or the basis for its title) from the similarly named Sufjan Stevens song.