Breathing Spaces

Apropos of nothing, the one-armed cat is gaining speed with every day that passes. He has now re-learned how to gallop, and therefore how to scare the bejasus out of selected other cats. This morning I spotted George clinging hot-foot to a central-heating radiator, trying and failing to haul himself up, having been chased up there by some sort of furry Grendel, now nipping joyfully at his ankles. Cats cope with adversity so much better than us. If you had lost an arm, would you be galloping?

I was thinking the other day about the spaces I have found, when I felt like the wounded Grendel. Grendel, if I remember aright, slunk off to the swamp, or maybe some sort of big pond, and drowned there. Poor Grendel! Why do I feel sorrier for him than that granite-jawed hero Beowulf, who also died – in the end?

So, when feeling like a wounded Grendel (on average once a day, when imprisoned in the world of work), I would have to get away. If I couldn’t get away – meltdown. If you’ve never seen a meltdown…

The thing is with meltdowns, you can see them happening from inside. You can witness yourself behaving like some kind of lunatic and yet you can’t stop. Not for hours, sometimes not for days can you stop. And then you have to get yourself home, still sobbing and attracting horrified glances from passers-by. I had to walk four miles in that condition, once. And then you have to recover. And then, somehow, you have to go back, hoping you haven’t been fired in your absence. Pretending it never happened.

Breathing spaces are essential, and the trick is to get to them early, to forestall… it.

When I worked at the Power Station, it was difficult. We were virtually imprisoned many windswept miles from anywhere at all, behind a revolving-gate and plastic-pass security system that sometimes would and sometimes wouldn’t let you out. Mostly I hid in the loos, but there’s only so long you can do that, and toilets are not the most pleasant of places when you’re trying to regain your sang froid. I remember once, a blowsy blonde fellow-employee (I recognised her voice and that inane laugh) entered the cubicle next to me. I took a deep breath. She let off a huge – what’s a polite word for it – oh, bother it – Fart.

Oops! she screeched – that laugh again – But better out than in!

Oh go away, I thought. But people never go away.

In later jobs it got easier, though there was always at least one meltdown per job, just as there was always one bull-necked female supervisor or superior who took a raging dislike to me. Where did I go in those latter days, to breathe?

There was the library, in winter. I would find an empty table in the reference section and prop some weighty tome in front of me. I wasn’t actually using the tome, of course, I was writing, reading or daydreaming behind it.

And there was the church. That was usually empty at lunchtimes. I’ve always liked churches, when empty. I like places with really high ceilings. I think that’s what it is, the ceilings. Which I suppose is why churches and cathedrals were designed that way – as a kind of foretaste of heaven. Occasionally though they would have art exhibitions of fairly bad paintings, or concerts, or flower-arranging competitions.  Not so good.

In summer there was the Memorial Gardens – why do I find death so restful? – where the dead of World War One were cast in greenish bronze on all four sides of a stone memorial. What I liked was the space, and the green of the grass, and the rows of trees, and the unimaginative flower bed with their soldierly ranks of pansies and marigolds. I liked the wasps, and the students mucking about in their lunch-hours, and the drunks in the far bushes with their bottles of stuff in paper bags, or surrounded by a clutter of empty tins. I liked the prim professional people with their sandwiches. I liked the blue sky and the sunshine and the distance. Distance. I have to have space. That was my best place. Most of my best poems were written there.

And at other times I have found sanctuary in cafés, sitting in a parked car in a huge, anonymous supermarket carpark, and on railway stations where I could hang around pretending to wait for trains. Distance again – those rails which might be going – anywhere. I didn’t need to go. It was enough to know that I could go. Sometimes I found a kind of harbour at harbours, or anywhere, really, by the sea. Sea is distance. It is on the edge, it is – where you could, if necessary, walk into the water and swim, or jump onto a ship and sail away, never to be seen or heard of again. Distant parts. Freedom.

Where are your breathing spaces? Or don’t you need them?


12 thoughts on “Breathing Spaces

  1. Not surprisingly, my breathing spaces are the same as yours –along with being underwater, or swimming in the intimate shadows of a lake, or, in crappier seasons, huddling under a quilt or two in a darkened room with some sort of white noise running, lol. As long as I have sky and seagulls, though, I needn’t long for oceans. I’ve often wondered if the last breathing space for our elders appears to us as dementia. Perhaps it is more or at least some self-defense than all deterioration?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember reading, a very long time ago, that dementia could be interpreted as a way of dying without knowing about it – for those souls not yet advanced enough to face it head on. I have also heard of madness as th alternative escape, to suicide. The kindest one I heard was that some American Indians see the demented person as being half in and half out of the transition to the spirit world, or living on both planes at once, and therefore such people should be revered.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. I need a little breathing space almost every day, but I can be pretty flexible about where I find it. Mostly, I just need to be alone with no need to interact with anyone else (except possibly an animal, for some reason I never tire of a dog’s company, or a horse, etc.) I’m actually a rather social person most of the time, but that’s only if I can get in my breathing space. Otherwise I get tense and snarky, which is never good…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes. I have never written about them before but my friends have seen at least one of them. A lifetime being afraid of them, ashamed of them, not understanding them and trying to cover them up. It just kind of makes me angry now, but good to talk / write /share, I think.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ah, breathing spaces. It isn’t something I’ve consciously thought about but instinctively when feeling besieged I seek the outside world. Staring up at the sky will help, or a quick walk outside. Anything to break the invisible to anyone but me pressure squeezing my head to the point of explosion. Like Ann, being alone is a key part, with the exception of my dog who makes any situation better. Thank you for a though provoking post.

    Liked by 1 person

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