What happens in Imagination, stays in Imagination

There is a kind of logic behind obsessive worrying, which would be instantly understood by the citizens of the alternative universe from which I was, at some point, expelled in error.

The idea is that if you lie awake night after night, and every spare moment, rehearsing some terrible future scenario in the minutest of detail, that scenario will not actually happen. This is the deal the worrier strikes – with God, the Universe, the White Mice or whoever:

Dear God/Universe/White Mice

I will put all my spare energy into imagining infinite variations on post-apocalyptic Britain. I will decide, in grim detail, exactly what I will do. I will foresee everything, I will act it all out and I will also prepare for it in real life, laying in stocks, building that nuclear bunker at the bottom of the garden, so that if it should accidentally come to pass I will be ready for it.

As recompense for all that effort-expended and anguish-experienced, You will not allow said scenario to happen. I am using my imagination inventing this nightmare future-scape, but the very fact that I am imagining it means it cannot then take place in real life. My inner world is one place, my outer world is another, and the equivalent of the Red Sea stands between them. What happens in Imagination stays in Imagination.

So what has gone wrong? I spent all those years imagining exactly this – plague, panic, confined to the house for months with an army of cats, ever-decreasing supplies of Felix and Whiskas in the supermarkets or online – and now this actually seems to be taking place. I spent years devouring all those Mass Observation books about the Bulldog Spirit – How We Coped In The War – How We Nearly Didn’t Cope In The War – How Mrs Nella Last Coped In The War – never thinking it would be me needing to Cope. What sort of glitch in your vast, mathematical computer model is this?

Or perhaps it’s not a glitch. Maybe you just got bored – hmm, Conservative Party conference – hmm, discussion of strawberry propagation on Gardeners’ Question Time – 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire – meh! Bored! Let’s run a proper plague. Let’s get some lager in, and a couple of bags of crisps. We’ll veg out on our celestial sofa with the entire box set.

I’m doing my best to be entertaining. I’ve knitted half a string bag and unravelled it. I’ve watched the first four episodes of This Country and discussed them with my sister by email. I’ve been washing up, and washing clothes, and doing more washing up, and then washing more clothes. I’m planning a patchwork quilt. Are you really going to be be entertained, up there on your giant sofa, as I count my tins of cat-food and hand-sew endless tiny squares onto endless tiny other squares?

Hello?

Anybody there?

Henry swallows a wasp

I was pursuing the wasp around the kitchen, as you do, with a glass tumbler and a piece of cardboard. I was waiting for it to settle. Several of the cats had a go at it, but I managed to thwart them. Henry, however, was too quick for me. The wasp was gone, down inside him, and as with Browning’s Last Duchess, all buzzes stopped together. Surely it must have stung him all the way down? I waited, aghast, for his little oesophagus to start swelling up, for the gasping, the terrible whining indrawn effort at breath –

I was wondering if the vets had those pens you were supposed to stab people with when they accidentally ate peanuts. Were there those pens for cats? Would the vets have them. They were only a small vets, not much room for supplies. Should I just bundle him in the car and drive the six miles to the surgery? Would I have to burst in in some awful melodramatic way? Please – my cat – he’s swallowed – a wasp – ! Every bone in my non-melodramatic body rebelled against it. I simply couldn’t draw attention to myself. But I must.

Henry was probably dying of a wasp.

But if he was dying, he’d probably be dead by the time I got there anyway. Suppose I got to the car park with him in his little box and he was lying there, all golden and expired? I could hardly walk in, in front of the gloomy waiting hordes and their miscellaneous creatures, who would turn their gloomy waiting eyes upon me, expecting entertainment. What could I say?

Excuse me. My cat just died in the car. Of a wasp. Yes, a few seconds ago. Maybe we could arrange a cremation?

Henry continued to occupy the sunlit windowsill, bolt upright. He licked his lips several times. Oh My God, I thought, this is it, the wheezing, the –

What did you have to go and do that for? I asked. I sounded rather petulant.

Henry inspected his immaculate, pale gold coat – the faintest of stripes therein. He licked his lips again, and did not die.

Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands,
Then all smiles stopped together.

My word, you do look queer!

My father loved Stanley Holloway’s monologues, and would recite ‘The Lion And Albert’ at the drop of a hat:

Then Mother said, “Right’s right, young feller;
I think it’s a shame and a sin
For a lion to go and eat Albert
And after we’ve paid to come in!” 

The one I was reminded of today is of a man who thinks he is feeling better after an illness, only to be told by everyone he happens to bump into how very, very bad he looks.

I’ve been very poorly but now I feel prime,
I’ve been out today for the very first time.
I felt like a lad as I walked down the road,
Then I met Old Jones and he said, ‘Well I’m blowed!’
My word, you do look queer!
My word, you do look queer!

Sadly, the meanings of some words do change over time.

Well, I celebrated the 1st of October in style by indulging in one of my quarterly (ish) hospital check-ups, audits or assessments – they call them something different each time. Friends and relations have a nasty habit of sending me good luck texts in advance of these, or putting on that sad, sympathetic face.

‘You’ll be so worried, but I’m sure it will turn out OK’.

‘Don’t let the nerves get to you. Think of something nice while you’re waiting.’

‘I’m keeping my fingers crossed.’

‘Thinking of you… xxx xxx’

By the time you’ve received a whole lot of these anxious, condolence-type good wishes you do begin to wonder if they all know something you don’t. Should you be more worried? Maybe you should be chewing your fingernails or tearing your hair out in little clumps?

Actually, I don’t worry so much about the appointments. The initial diagnostic sequence of events was a bit of a shock to the system, but now it’s just wait around for ages then get told a lot of numbers you don’t entirely understand by a dishevelled, distracted young lady who is reading them off a computer screen, generally indicating that not much has changed since last time you met. Then you go home.

Two things really stress me out, the twenty-two mile drive to the hospital through the morning rush hour, and finding the one remaining space in the hospital car park. I set off at seven this morning for a nine-thirty appointment, having been up since three-thirty feeding and mucking out the cats. Nose to tail traffic. Headlights, more headlights. Rain on the windscreen. Listening to local radio as I drive. The helicopter has spotted long, long queues on the very road I am on, and have no option to get off. By the time I get there my hands are stiff from gripping the steering wheel in fierce concentration. My eyes are beginning to hurt. Since I gave up the TV I haven’t needed to wear my glasses, except for driving.

The reason I opt for the earliest possible appointment is to stand a chance of finding that elusive space. The hospital is huge, reached only via a maze of tiny street lined with pigging little sooty-looking houses, like something out of Dickens. There is nowhere to park in these pigging little streets and indeed every one of them for miles around is double yellow lined, just in case you might be tempted to try. Even early in the morning the queue just to get in to the hospital stretches out into these streets. It stretches round the corner and through the traffic lights and back up the preceding road. The lights change, but nothing can actually move, because of that queue.

And once inside the gates there is another queue, to get to the car park barriers. Above one’s head giant red signs inform you how many spaces there are, theoretically, remaining. These signs bear no relation to the actual number of spaces.

You have to draw up next to the barrier, wind down your window and press a button hoping that a ticket will, eventually, slide out and the In barrier go up. Sometimes it doesn’t slide out. You can be pressing that button every few seconds for five minutes or so. No ticket. This is because the machine believes there are No Spaces Left. Effectively, you are waiting for one person to come out the hospital, amble to their car and leave.

Then suddenly you get your ticket, which you have to grasp between your teeth whilst accelerating madly and fumbling with the button to wind up the window at the same time. If you’re too slow the ghastly yellow thing might come crashing down again – chop the car in half. Or maybe you.

And then when you get in there are no actual spaces only theoretical spaces and cars circling, and circling. And once in it’s like the Hotel California – even if there is no space, you can’t leave. Not without having spent several hours in the hospital first, and then inserting your little cardboard card in another machine, which will not, of course, pay any attention to your bank card when you attempt to ‘contactless’ it…

No, the appointment is the least of my worries.

Gibbering Idiocy

I live my life in a state of perpetual, if thinly spread, fear, ie I tend to worry about virtually everything, a lot. Many a time I will wake in the middle of the night in abject terror over some future scenario that is almost certain to come to pass, and contemplating ever wilder and more impractical solutions. Unsurprisingly then, the other night, in raging summer temperatures, in the midst of a fierce thunderstorm I was suddenly jettisoned from a scary dream and into an equally scary wakefulness.

In the dream, brown, filthy water was cascading down from the ceiling of my house. This has actually happened to me twice before in this house, once thanks to incompetent plumbers and once because of a broken or malfunctioning something or other on or adjacent to the water tank. Sitting bolt upright in my dark and stuffy bedroom, I envisaged what would happen if – no when, for of course I am catastrophising – this occurred in the middle of the night.

The muppet neighbours with their trillions of friends and relatives and their million large vehicles would once again have parked a jeep/all terrain vehicle/Rolls Royce/army tank so as to obstruct my water-meter cover, which is out in the road. Either their big, fat, plebeian tyres would be right on top of the cover or their big, fat, plebeian car would be right over the cover.

If the former, I would be knocking on their door attempting to rouse them in the middle of the night. Their baby would wake up and scream, but naturally they wouldn’t: they seem immune to their own baby. (If only I was.)

If the latter I would be laid out full length among the puddles and weeds trying to reach under their vehicle to lever or heave up a metal cover which even brawny plumbers have had trouble with. Then I would be trying to wrench some sort of flooded underwater handle a quarter (or might it be half?) turn to the right (or could it be left?) in the hope that this would shut off the water.

I spent some time, bolt upright in the thunderstorm, hatching plans to prevent this scenario. I would, I decided, look on the internet for some sort of specialist traffic cone – preferably a blue and white one with Water Meter! Official! stamped all over it. I would sneak out there when, hopefully, the Muppets were not spying of me out of their front window, and place the cone over my water meter. Do not to park on it, Muppets. I then envisaged male Muppet coming round and lecturing me, terrifyingly, for – what? Something or other.

Either that or the (expensive) specialist traffic cone would simply disappear into Muppet Mordor – that heap of half-finished projects, wrecked garden, spare washing-machine drums, motorbikes, speedboats, dog poo and smouldering bonfires – never to be seen again.

Then I realised I could instead buy a small tin of luminous bright blue metal paint and sneak out there when they were not looking and paint my water meter cover blue. This would take longer to accomplish than the placing of the cone, the risk being that someone, or several someones, would emerge and ask me what I was up to – and laugh – but would have the advantage that they could not steal luminous blue paint, once applied.

By this time it was daylight, and plan C dawned. I could call a plumber and ask him to fit some sort of water-supply-cutting-off-thing inside my house! Then, if filthy brown water were to come gushing through my ceiling in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t have to throw myself upon the Muppets’ mercy at all – Muppets circumvented – I could just toddle down to my kitchen and turn it off.

The plumbers came this morning. It took them about ten minutes to fit a snazzy little handle under the sink and they charged me an awful lot of money – twice as much, apparently, because it is a Saturday. They didn’t mention that when I phoned them, or I would have waited till Monday.

Whatever gets you through the night…

I was going to call this post Loose Elastic (there used to be jokes, in the days when ladies’ undergarments were held up by perilously slim pieces of actual elastic, about a young lady called Lucy Lastic) but decided against. A bit frivolous for the subject matter, I decided.

Because these are a few passing thoughts about anxiety and depression. I don’t know about you but I usually seem to be suffering from one or another of these. I’m lucky in that although these two Nasssty Creatures walk alongside me more or less daily they rarely get unbearably Nasssty. I have witnessed real clinical depression: I know I’m lucky.

Of course they’re not really two separate Creatures but alternative and interchangeable manifestations of the same Creature and it occurs to me that both are the result of not being able to stay in the present moment. You could say that depression is the result of being pulled back into the past, and anxiety the result of being pushed into the future. It’s as if your poor mind is on a piece of elastic and being bounced first this way and then that.

When I am depressed it’s usually because I’m going over and over thing that happened in the past, thinking about people I once knew, people who died, people I said the wrong thing to, situations I handled badly; terrible, terrible mistakes I made. My imagination busies itself with ‘what ifs’. I resurrect the vanished and dead and hold long, sad conversations with them. I replay the dreadful bits of my past, trying to get them right second time round. I imagine lives where this or that wouldn’t have happened, in which I might have been happier.

If I’m anxious it’s usually because I am going over and over things that are scheduled to happen soon – it might be something simple, like a visit from the plumber or driving to an unfamiliar place – imagining all the things that might – no, are bound to – go wrong, hoping that if I rehearse them well enough I will be able to influence what happens, inoculate myself against an evil future. Stop The Bad Thing Happening.

Neither makes any difference. The past remains the past, the dead are still dead, the gone are still gone. The future remains unknown and uncontrollable. I am still right here, and still exactly as unhappy/afraid.

Meditation is supposed to be good for staying in the present moment, and I keep meaning to do that, when I can stop fretting for an hour or two. What I have found is that it helps at least to attempt to be mindful. Once you start to notice that you are maundering around in the past or fretting away in the future, you can take a deep breath and return yourself to the present moment. No use trying not to go there in the first place, just start noticing when you have.

I usually say something to myself, like: Well, you’ve done quite a bit of worrying about that, now concentrate on your driving/walking/washing up – or whatever. This is really the equivalent of the technique they teach you at meditation/relaxation classes: identify your worry and place it in an imaginary black sack; tie the sack up and place it to one side for the time being; you can come back and open it any time. Except you don’t really need the black sack. If you can just get as far as noticing, the worry tends to leap into the sack and tie itself up automatically.

I’ve also noticed I tend to get most anxious or depressed when I am doing nothing – lying in bed trying to sleep, for instance – or doing semi-automatic but uninteresting stuff like driving, walking or washing up. Ping! There goes the elastic and there I am, sloshing around in the past or tiptoeing around in the future. The answer seems to be to keep busy, but for preference at something interesting, that absorbs you. You know what your particular thing is, and when you are in the zone, don’t you? It’s when time flies without you noticing it, where you are filled with a kind of joy, an almost feverish excitement about the task in hand. Whatever it is, when you have completed it you are aware that you have achieved something, and that you have been, for a while, entirely and perfectly yourself.

Writing is mine, and reading used to be. I am now re-training myself to read – properly, deeply – that ‘getting lost in a book’ feeling that I used to get as a child. The internet is rewiring our brains, did you know that? We are in the process of becoming skimmers, clickers, extractors of key words and phrases. The only way to get reading back is to keep practising. After a while – maybe many weeks or even months – the ‘getting lost’ facility comes back. What you really need is a brain that can do both – skim for information, read for pleasure. Stories – either telling them or listening them – ideal. Stories distract you from that dreary self-absorption, that endless monologue.

I can imagine that for some people the key to at least a temporary ‘present momentness’ would be music (to sooth the savage breast, etcetera), for others it might be a complicated piece of knitting or the challenge of drawing a difficult subject or capturing a landscape. I can imagine it might be maths, or solving puzzles if you are that way inclined.

But is reading or writing really being present, or might it be the ultimate form of being elsewhere? Maybe I can’t bear to be here at all, even for a second; can only sustain life on this ghastly planet, in these terrifying times, by being as much as possible, second by second, elsewhere? What is a book but a yet another imaginary world, an alternative world, another place?

In which case, I’m tempted to say to hell with it! I’ll be elsewhere in whatever way happens to make me happiest, or at any rate least unhappy. I’ll be absent without leave. Bother the Buddha, I’m going to get through my compulsory sojourn on this doomed planet in any which way I can.

Whatever gets you through the night.

gin-lane

Fork Goodness Sake

Fork?

WordPress, you are scraping the barrel. Presumably soon it will be Knife or even… wait for it… Spoon.

How about Potato-Masher, Ceramic Hob or Whisk? All equally depressing. Maybe they’ve been done already. Honestly, fork – a word that reminds me of nothing – apart from the obvious rude word of similar pronunciation (which everyone else will no doubt seize upon) and late tiny comedian Ronnie Corbett and his sketch about the four candles/fork-handles. Yes, large man goes into hardware shop and demands fork-handles. Little man behind the counter goes away and comes back with… four candles. Ha ha.

Ha… ?

So I’ll just ramble on all Virginia Woolf and stream-of-consciousness whilst pretending to write about forks.

Today I forced myself to leave the house. I’ve always been somewhat reclusive but since moving here, to the End of the Earth (or England, anyway) where there is nothing and no one to tempt me from my portals, I have been turning into a veritable hermit. I even read some books about becoming a hermit at one stage. One was called A Pelican of the Wilderness. A good deal more interesting, as a title, than Fork.

Going out always involves Anxiety with a capital A. The more items going out involves, the greater the degree of uncertainty/variability to the enterprise and the longer the list of Bad Things That Might Possibly Happen. I don’t have that ability normal people seem to have, to have a long list of To Dos in front of them, but only worry about one at a time. If I have three To Dos I am forced to fear all three simultaneously and in precisely equal measure. But – sometimes it can’t be helped.

Today – number one – I had to go to the dentist. My worry-scape for that involved:

  • Timing – when to set off so as not to be too early or too late;
  • 5p pieces – have huge numbers of – tiny coins, size of washers – need to get rid of in that parking ticket machine – but how long will it take to feed £2 worth of 5p pieces (40?) into that parking ticket machine, and what if there’s some evil Man behind me, tapping his feet and sighing – what if my hands start shaking and I drop all the 5p pieces on the floor and have to do some sort of extended bunny dip in order to pick them up, and all the while he’s huffing and puffing?
  • What if there’s not a space in that car park at all? Sometimes there isn’t.
  • Dentist – is it the dentist or the hygienist this time? I can’t remember. Am I to be breathed-on and lectured, or spiked, polished and lectured?
  • Will it be Upstairs or Downstairs?
  • Should I take anything to read? Will I be able to concentrate to read, with the TV blaring in the corner showing endless Close Calls and Lucky Escapes on some channel I don’t usually watch?

Number two – oh God, another thing – I have to go to the tip, as it’s in the same Godawful town and I have to combine Things to save Petrol. Worry-scape:

  • What if I zoom straight past the entrance to the Household Recycling Centre, which is somewhat unexpected and disguised by the entrance to the station and a line of unfriendly-looking taxis?
  • What if there are too many cars in the tip and I have to do sort of manoeuvring, and I hit another car because I’ve reversed kind of crooked and then the man will get out and he’s bound to be a really horrid old man with a sort of tweedy cap and he’ll be so sarcastic and his wife, snooty-nosed cow, will be sitting in the passenger seat regarding me disapprovingly in the rear-view mirror and…
  • What if that bearded operative with the high-vis jacket comes over and wants to help me with the mountain of smelly black sacks I’ve just stacked in the back of the car? He doesn’t speak he just sort of leers at you and…
  • What if he doesn’t come over and I have to hike all these smelly black sacks up all those steps to that hellish skip-thing and heave them over the edge using all the strength in my ancient arms and… and then I’m bound to fall down the steps and then I’ll end up in hospital with a broken leg, maybe two broken legs and then who’s going to feed the cats?

Thirdly, to the vets.

  • What if it turns out really expensive and crashes my already severely stressed credit card and then I have to stand in the vets being embarrassed and trying to find another credit card in my wallet that won’t crash? How kind they’ll be to me. How silently-yet-audibly impatient all those waiting large-dog, gerbil and parakeet owners…
  • What if I cry, even though I don’t feel like I’m going to, when I see Rufus’s empty basket?
  • What if I start talking nineteen-to-the-dozen about Auntie Gladys or visiting Mum in the Home or the relative merits of different makes of saucepan? It could go either way.
  • What if it’s really hot in there and I have to wait and wait and wait, and I’ll be too self-conscious to take my cardigan off or maybe the vet will come out – the one who Did the Deed, and I’ll be forced to say Yes, Fine Thanks or talk about saucepans until she goes away again?

I have to worry about all those things before I set out, whilst I am driving along and all the time I am at each of those stops along the way. That’s what anxiety is like. Someone once described it as Fear Spread Thin. I prefer to think of it, in related terms, like Marmite: a little goes a very long way.

marmite.jpg

(Swarovski crystal embossed Marmite Jar, £2000 apparently. Why?)

But I went, and I accomplished all those tasks in four long hours of out-of-the-house-ness, and nothing very terrible went wrong. The only thing was that bus-driver gesticulating at me and doing those stupid-old-woman grimaces and shrugs through his giant windscreen because rather than confidently zooming out of the gap he had left for me into a fast-moving stream of traffic, I edged nervously out into the fast-moving stream of traffic.

So, on one side of the scales all three tasks completed without injury, humiliation or descent into madness: on the other side, baboon-faced and no doubt baboon-bottomed bus driver who deserves to get home tonight and find his wife has gone to Bingo and left him a tin of that slimy macaroni cheese (the even worse cheap version that is vaguely grey when it emerges from the tin, not even synthetic yellow) and a half-stale loaf of bread to make himself some toast to put it on.

Aha! – one side – the other side – therefore – a fork.

fork3

Blogging While Rome Burns

I’m not good at plans. I make any number of them. My computer’s littered with them. Mostly they are called Plan. Sometimes they are called Plan 2 or Plan 3. I found one the other day called Yet Another Plan. But not a single one of these Plans have I ever managed to put into action. Making them used to make me feel like I was doing something. Like I was in control. It doesn’t nowadays but I can’t seem to stop making them.

I don’t know whether my life is currently going to hell in a handcart, and my survival so far has just been a lucky accident. I don’t know the state of my life because another thing I’m not good at is assessing and coming to logical conclusions. I am very logical; drearily, pedantically logical in fact at times. I just can’t apply the dreary logic to my own circumstances. My mind goes off at tangents, and then tangents from the tangents. It slithers away from most things. Slithers back to the single thing it was designed for – scribbling stories; finessing poems few people will ever read – and of course to blogging, this endless tap-tap-tapping away and one damned machine or another. I am all input and no output. Consumed by what I am, and the way my brain is wired, I need another planet to be on.

Sorry, this sounds like some ancient Roman death-rattle and it didn’t start off like that. There’s nothing new in the situation – I’m just noticing it more at the moment, what with the pending house move and all the alien focussing-on-dull-stuff that that process entails. And Mum going into a home.

When Mum was around it was my role to be her child. I knew where I was with that. However old I got, having no children of my own, I remained her child. Now she’s left me, mentally – physically too, since she was carted off in an ambulance with an exhausted lady social worker. I was one of the principals in our family play. I played the eldest daughter, that gifted disappointment, the damp squib. I was the Sunday visitor staring into space; the one who did the tortoise shuffle up to the café with her; who manoeuvred her arms, with all those woolly layers, into the sleeves of her winter coat; who fumbled about for her walking-stick under the table. I was the one with the endless capacity for boredom (which was really a capacity to be thinking of many other things whilst appearing to listen). I was the incompetent, the unlucky one, an endless source of concern for a mother who ran on worry. ‘Oh Linda!’ her constant refrain. That was what I was for.

And suddenly here I am – one of a faceless crowd mumbling rhubarb-rhubarb to sound like I’m really talking; third from the left in the chorus; the soldier who walks on with a spear in the Second Act.

So, at the moment my own particular Rome may be burning. Or I may just be worrying too much. Usually it’s the worrying, but as usual I have no way of telling. But I can tell you this one thing, best beloveds: writing makes the world all right. Writing about disintegration pulls everything back together. Writing about chaos makes some temporary sense of it. Writing is threading a giant bowlful of beads into a necklace. Why or how that should be… I don’t know.

I did some cursory research about the Emperor Nero. He couldn’t actually have fiddled while Rome burned since violins – that whole class of instruments – hadn’t been invented yet. He might have played the cithara, which may or may not be the wooden instrument he is shown with, in the above illustration. Or his fiddle/cithara playing may be purely metaphorical. Sadistic, decadent, unpopular – he wasn’t nice at all, old Nero. He was an ineffectual leader, not bothered about the sufferings of his people, and that’s probably what the legends of his fiddle-playing were all about.

Therefore blog on, best beloveds. Like the orchestra on the Titanic, we shall keep on playing Nearer my God to Thee as sea-water dampens our trouser-bottoms. If Rome is indeed burning, such music shall we have.