Where sheep may safely graze

I always associated this piece of music with England, perhaps from constantly hearing it on The Home Service (1939 – 1967 national radio station, now BBC Radio 4) in my childhood. Now (ach!) I discover that it is in fact Bach’s Cantata 208 and the ‘sheep’ of the title are not so much our lovely, fat woolly English sheep roaming over hill and dale, as the citizens of Weissenfels, who could ‘safely graze’ under the gracious care of the Duke of Weissenfels. Presumably the Duke was a patron or sponsor. Later it came to be thought of as the sheep being looked after by the Good Shepherd. However, it’s a lovely piece of music and I have included a classical guitar version of it. Much prefer guitar to other instruments (particularly abhor trumpets).

I was thinking about the love of one’s country the other night, whilst plugged into the MP3 player, drowning out the upstairs-and-downstairs thundering of the beastly neighbours by listening to, among other things, The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams. Music is more powerful than words. It cuts through all those ‘logical’ explanations, our sophisticated smokescreens. Like Sheep, The Lark Ascending reminds me that if you are British you cannot ever really get away from the love of your own country. This is an unfashionable and somewhat embarrassing thing to say, and it usually only surfaces here when some external threat arises.

It’s one of those visceral things like there sometimes are between people – an invisible cord joining the two, painless and mostly-forgotten about until you try to pull, or find yourself being pulled away. I feel that I have always been here, through all my incarnations. I suspect some of us are ‘travellers’, soul-wise, and some of us arise the soil. We grow out of a particular landscape, and are part of it.

When I was quite young my mother sank into depression. In those far-off days everything female/unhappy-related came under the heading of – in ascending order of severity – Needing a Tonic, Nerves, or Nervous Breakdown – the standard treatments being a) bottle of iron tonic from the chemist b) Pull Yourself Together – ‘Curtains’ as the Samaritans put it – or c) Being Taken Away. Suspect Mum had the Nervous Breakdown. She did not get Taken Away, but it felt as if she had gone away somewhere, and she only half returned.

I remember she stopped practising cartwheels on the lawn and no longer felt like playing tennis on the road with us, in the gaps between infrequent (and always black) motor cars. I remember mainly that it seemed to go on for years, and involved having to be quiet while Mum curled up on the sofa with yet another headache and Nan tiptoed round doing the housework, and getting us our tea. I remember all the aspirins, and the four hour thing. On the dot, every four hours, another two aspirins. No more than twelve a day. I remember Dad telling me it was my fault, for arguing with my sister. If I was better behaved, he said, Mum wouldn’t be sick.

One thing I don’t remember, from then, but do recall overhearing Mum talking about years later, was her obsession with the Atomic Bomb. She was convinced that we, her three girls, were all going to die, at once, and soon, under some great mushroom cloud. I am guessing that this bit of her illness may have been around 1962, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Recently it has occurred to me that what with North Korea, and America, and Russia – the whole world, it seems – threatening dire outcomes and technicolour mass destruction – wouldn’t it just be ironic if what Mum so feared for her children were to come to pass after all, but over half a century later and when she was way past fearing or comprehending it? What if she even somehow wished it into being and is somehow linked, to it?

But let’s not venture onto that same dark pathway into the woods: no good ever comes of it. Let’s just say the music made me think, about all that has been, here, on this little archipelago of islands, swished around by a chilly sea, lashed by gales in winter, rained on every few days, blessedly warm and sunlit on occasions.

All our history, all those little lives. Dinosaurs once walked where I live now. We find their footprints. We find their bones. All those kings and queens, those beggars and paupers. All those families, all those mothers fearing for their children, all those wars, all that surviving somehow-or-other, all the new generations, all the moving on, the changing and the staying the same. Sometimes, like my mother before me, I feel that something pulling away, that potential for catastrophic loss, that painful tug on the cord.

My disbelief grows weary of suspending itself…

I’m onto a sticky wicket with suspenders, I know. American suspenders are as illustrated below:

suspenders

British suspenders are things that hold up stockings, supposedly wicked, lacy and black (or red) but as I recall them from my uncomfortable schooldays, more often medical, pinkish and rubbery, and held together with sixpenny pieces when they broke. They always broke. The rubber perished. The little suspend-things cracked and disintegrated…

So what do Americans call suspenders-suspenders if what we call braces are there known as suspenders? But what holds up American stockings? If that’s suspenders too, how do they know what they are holding up? Is it just a matter of deduction from the context?

But this post is not about that.

When I was at school, struggling with the uncomfortable suspenders and the 60-denier sun-mist-stockings-with-seams – surely the ugliest stocking ever invented (not about that, remember!) it was explained to me that when we get completely lost in a book, or a film, or a story told by some grey-haired hippie-type lady whilst sitting cross-legged on a cushion in the library (pre-suspenders) was called ‘suspension of disbelief’.

I did not used to find this difficult, except in the case of plays. Plays have never done it for me. I’ve never been able to get past the reality of a lot of foreshortened real human beings prancing about on a stage and acting at one another. I can tell it’s acting. I can always tell it’s acting, even if it’s good acting, and it annoys me. People are pretending and I can see them doing it.

A posh lady I went to a play with once advised me that this was probably because I hadn’t grown up in a theatre-going household. She didn’t mean to be patronising, and she was right, partially – we didn’t go to plays, or the ballet or opera, come to that.

My parents were working class and, even if they could have afforded to go, would have been terrified to pass through the doors of a theatre. They wouldn’t have known what to wear or how to behave. They would have felt they stuck out like a sore thumb.

An all-encompassing self-consciousness is one of the things which go with being not-posh. Only when you are middle class can you raise your voice above a low murmur, not minding if others hear. Only when you are middle class can you walk about with your shoulders back and your snoot in the air, flinging your purple pashmina dramatically over your right shoulder, and not even know you are doing it. That’s confidence. Read Alan Bennett’s loving tales of his Mum and Dad if you don’t believe me. He knows. Alan Bennett is the greatest.

But I could get lost in a book. So could my mother, but my father appeared not to possess the suspension of disbelief gene. Maybe he lost it, as he lost so much, as a young conscript in the second world war. The war really did for him in a lot of ways, I think. He could never leave me alone when I was reading. He used to wave his hands in front of my face and think it was funny. ‘Look at her – she’s miles away. Away with the fairies.’ He never did understand why this was annoying.

Same with films, although mercifully my father wasn’t usually with me when I went to the pictures: I could be immersed in the story, living inside even the most far-fetched sci-fi blockbuster. I would be one or all of the characters, fleeing in terror from the scary monsters, falling in love, falling off a high building… The film’s ‘afterglow’ would stay with me for days afterwards, the story re-running itself in my head, scenes acting themselves out before my inner eye. And maybe it would still be the same, if I could afford to go.

Instead of fiction-reading, my father used to read out columns from newspapers – anything he found to be of interest. He was interested in politics and the financial markets, the way they worked, even though these things had little effect on his everyday life. We used to sit there bored, and the read-out paragraphs seemed to get longer and longer. When he grew ancient, however, propped up in a chair with a cushion behind his neck and the walker by his side, he lapsed into depression and scarcely spoke.  My mother used to gauge how happy, or not, he was by whether he read out any paragraphs. Eventually, he read out no paragraphs. He read nothing. He told my sister he had forgotten everything he had ever been or ever done. God save us.

As I have grown older I have become more interested in politics and found it more and more difficult – not to read – the words still make perfect sense – but to get lost in reading. My suspension of disbelief seems to have suspended operations. I am turning into my father, and this saddens me. Reading was all I had. I got through a tedious and difficult life mostly by daydreaming. I could lose myself in stories, and in plans I would never carry out, journeys I would never, practically, be able to make. Now, although I am still doing my best to get it back I feel – now here’s a simile for you, or maybe a metaphor – like a hunted rabbit, all exits sealed by the men with the dogs – or is it ferrets? – just an airless darkness and waiting for Whatever-it-is to be sent down after me.

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

Three Black Dogs

I have not always been grateful for my sisters, I must admit. I was the first and most important and then they had to come along. The Canadian one, who was English at the time, stole my woolly bear, I remember. When I was twelve she blurted out to Kevin Brewer, a sixteen year old leather-jacketed blond-quiffed motorbike rider who went to the same youth club as me – that I had just used some white stuff to bleach my moustache. (I hasten to add, not a great whiskery handlebar moustache or anything grotesque – I’m just, you know, a brunette… well, now I’m more of a grey-with-brunette-undertones).

I had a massive crush on Kevin Brewer. I used to sit at the bottom of his garden and pine for him hour upon hour until his mother complained to my mother and my mother, irritated, told me not to.  So imagine how pleased I was with my English-at-the-time sister. Not that I ever had any chance with Kevin Brewer. What I finally got a date it was with a bespectacled weed call John-something-or-other. We went for a walk along the sea wall and I was terrified. He told me afterwards he had been dared to ask me out – by Kevin Brewer.

However – gosh, that was as long digression – this evening I was glad of my Canadian sister. She phones me quite a lot at the moment because my brother-in-law has terminal cancer and she is on her own out there. She is even more on her own because he is fed up with her crying all over the place when he just wants to carry on as normal – a different approach. So she was feeling low this morning (it’s morning in Alberta when it’s evening here) and she called me, and we chatted round in circles as usual. We talked about counselling and short-term projects – small goals, easier to cope with. I didn’t know how to reach out across the Atlantic and lift her mood but quite by accident – as you shall see – I did.

In the meantime I had been having one of my Black Dog days. It was something to do with the necessity of spending a whole day being driven round properties with a guy called Gavin on Tuesday – the thought of which was already exhausting me – and the prospect of visiting Mum in the mental hospital on Easter Day. I don’t talk about Black Doggie much – he is manageable. I’ve seen what clinical depression does to people (this is my third lot of psych ward visiting) and my occasional Grim Day is nothing in comparison.

So, I got in the car, in a chilly wind (Storm Kate – don’t they sound nice with names? – is due to hit the South East at midnight). I stopped off at the one-and-only-shop to buy a box of chocolate fingers for Mum, since it’s Easter Sunday. When I got there she didn’t want them. Black Doggie was with her too. Two Black Doggies in one room. She had a headache. I persuaded the nurse to give her some paracetamol. The old lady who sings to me, sang to me again. She eyed the chocolate fingers.

‘I often share my things with your Mum. I expect your Mum would want me to have a chocolate finger. Or two. If she could speak.’ Her eyes never left the box and the tantalising chocolate-finger picture on the packaging. I gave her two. Had to ask the nurse for help getting into the cellophane. He gave me that look, like – shall I reserve you a chair in the Recreation Room now? On the way out I gave her the rest of the packet. ‘That was kind of you,’ said the nurse. ‘It’s not easy, is it? This time?’

So Mum and I sat and held hands, and I lent her my comb because she said hers had disappeared. She had someone else’s trousers on. I told her to keep the comb, but she gave it back. I wrote notes for her. She looked at them and handed them back to me. ‘I’m never getting out of here.’

‘Yes, you are. Soon. It’s a hospital. They can’t keep you for ever.’

‘I don’t believe it. What use am I? The doctors should give me something to get rid of me. What use am I, in here?’ Outside, there were daffodils, and birds flying about. In here, on the wall, was a frieze of spring made of coloured paper and cotton wool, like you see in the classrooms at infants’ school.

So, really, three Black Doggies – the Canadian one, mine and the one sat next to my Mum in the mental ward.

But then my sister phoned and she told me she was thinking of learning shorthand, as one of those short-term projects to cheer herself up. It wasn’t that she needed shorthand, she said, but she liked the shapes it made. She could see it on the wall – like a poem, maybe – and visitors would ask, ‘What do all those squiggles mean?’ And I said that was a weird coincidence – I had only five minutes before ordered a second-hand book on Gregg shorthand, having been reminded of it by an old post on this blog. Mum had had a book on Gregg shorthand – turned out we both remembered it.

And somehow the weirdness, that we should have both thought of learning shorthand, at the same time, all those thousands of miles apart across windswept oceans, lifted her mood. Mine too. She asked me to order the same book for her. We would learn it together, she said, and she would write me letters in Gregg shorthand, and I would write her Gregg shorthand letters back, and she would make artwork using Gregg shorthand, or write a diary that her husband couldn’t read, or…

Once, when we were teenagers, sat in that stuffy suburban living room with our parents and other visiting family, the same funny thing occurred to us both at the same time. It wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t anything anyone had said it was just – an invisible amusement. I caught her eye and she caught mine. I started giggling, and she started giggling. And of course no one else had any idea what we were giggling about – and even we weren’t entirely sure –  which made it funnier still.

It was ten minutes before we could stop, by which time we had the hiccups.

Once apron a time

Mrs Daniels lived in the bungalow next door to Nan and Grandad’s. I don’t remember much about her. She was small, a bit shrivelled-looking. There was definitely a Mr Daniels. He seemed to be bigger, and red in the face. Nan, who was a much better source of stories than Mum, told me that Mrs Daniels’ one peculiarity was collecting those frilly waist-tied aprons 1950s housewives were often pictured wearing.

She didn’t just collect the occasional apron. She collected one a day – at least. She got them from Hazell’s, a kind of all-purpose grocery shop and Post Office just below the station. In this same shop I was stung by a wasp which was lurking under the counter, just where I happened to place my hand. The wasp was attracted to the sticky cakes which were, of course, uncovered and displayed at the front of the counter so as to collect the maximum amount of dust, sneeze-germs and halfpennies dropped from purses. Same logic as hanging entire dead animals on hooks outside butchers shops so as to attract flies and absorb traffic fumes. I remember making no sound, but completing my purchases and waiting till I was outside to inspect the sting. Being stared at and fussed over was infinitely worse than pain and a bit of poison.

Hazell’s may well have been staying afloat financially only because of Mrs Daniels. The brightly coloured pinnies were hung from a hook on a pillar, and a garland of fresh ones appeared every day (I guess they bought in bulk, especially for Mrs Daniels). They certainly were attractive – I could see why she liked them. The 1950s was a time of bright and bold design. Fabrics were sprinkled with larger-than life vegetables and illustrations of kitchen equipment – colanders, apple-corers, wooden spoons and so forth. The colour thing was a reaction against the drabness of war, the dark, utility clothing, the sensibleness of everything. And the housewife – well, housewives were the new rock and roll. Men were back from the war. Women had to be encouraged not to keep the jobs they had proven so efficient at during the war. The emphasis once again was on femininity, on the household arts. A woman was encouraged keep young and beautiful, stand by her man and have lots and lots of babies. This was to replace Britain’s lost boys, the widows’ lost husbands, the spinsters’ lost fiancés. A generation of slaughtered, unconceived and unborn children. It was a woman’s duty to be fruitful. Hence the baby boomer generation.

Yes, if I had been of apron-wearing age, and if my pocket money hadn’t been so measly I too would have been attracted to frilly pinafores. I remember asking Nan what exactly Mrs D did with her aprons. Did she wear them one on top of the other – each serving to protect the one beneath? Nan laughed. It reminded her of a song about a spider and a fly. There was an old lady who swallowed a fly…

If she did leave the aprons on, why wasn’t she as stout as a barrel by now? Did she even take them off at night? How long would it take to untie them, smooth and fold them all?  Or did she keep them stacked neatly and laid them in her airing-cupboard just in case. Just in case the thousand other aprons should be stolen from her. Just in case the moth should get in and chew holes from the top of the stack to bottom. Just in case… Because I sense that would be the underlying fear. There is always an underlying fear. One day she would be in dire need of an apron, and wouldn’t have one. Yes, she might run out of aprons. Unfortunately, and I am loath to admit it, I can understand that quirk.

I worry about running out of things too. After a trawl round the supermarket I don’t even have to glance down at my trolley to know that I will have bought two of everything – two cakes, two packs of eight yoghurts, two loaves of bread. I will buy two loaves of bread even when I know one will be stale before I open it. Everything must be backed up. My mother is the same, I notice – two currant cakes, when she doesn’t even like currant cake – or four, or six – but never an odd number. It’s that fear of being without, of finding the cupboard bare – even if the corner shop is just around the corner. Unsatisfied want. Probably something to do with breast-feeding. Yes, let’s blame it on the bosoms.

I read somewhere that people who do this may actually be twins, but one of the twin has been lost in the womb (making that person a Womb Twin Survivor). That impulse to provide for the other, to make real the missing sibling, never to let them go. The same thing as children, insisting that a place be laid at table for their imaginary friend, and bereaved parents keeping their child’s room untouched for years. That tie of love, that cord stretching between the living and the lost. The impossibility of letting go.

I read somewhere else that extreme hoarding is a way of not dealing with a problem in the past – something so painful the person isn’t capable of dealing with it – at least, not without help. And even with help, extreme hoarders are known to be among the least motivated and most recalcitrant of subjects when it comes to therapy. So what is the point of hoarding? What is the mechanism? One theory is that a hoarder is creating a second problem, which supersedes the first. So, a houseful of junk is a suit of armour. Remove the junk and that person is raw, terrified – like a snail without its shell.

I suppose the thing is, we are none of us that far from OCD. Where does eccentricity end and extreme hoarding begin? At what point do you cross the line, from thinking It’s getting terribly crowded in here with all these aprons, or I could do with a sixth garden shed to house my lawnmower collection to I can’t let this tottering mountain of old newspapers go? I have no option but to read them all in case there’s something I’ve missed – an article, maybe, or an advert. Something in the obituaries. And even then, I won’t let them go…

Or it may be that Mrs Daniels was bored and depressed. Lonely. The aprons were bright, fresh and pretty, they smelled of new cotton, they were crackling-stiff with that starchy ‘dressing’ and they made her feel better. Or buying an apron made her feel she had accomplished something– that here was at least one thing she could tick off her list.

She died a long time ago. I sometimes wonder whether she isn’t wandering around heaven, collecting dropped angel-feathers to arrange in crystal vases, or…