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.


In The Zone

People will call the one thing by all sorts of different names. It took me a long time to realise that In The Zone was more or less the same thing as the One-Pointedness of Zen. Thing is, I was once into Zen, whereas sport… instant inattention. I hated sport at school because I could see absolutely no point in it. If I wanted exercise I could walk… hell, I could even run about a bit. Why did I need to put on a lot of complicated padding and stand shivering on in a hockey goal waiting for a great horde of hoydens to come bearing down on me, screaming? What was the point of jumping over that pole? Why jump into that sandpit? Sand is just sand. Why does it have to have rituals attached to it?

I suppose it didn’t help being tall. I come from a tall family. Dad was a six foot four electrician/racing cyclist and one of my sisters is six foot. Both of my sisters are taller than me. The slightly-less-than-six-foot one once asked a prospective blind date over the phone if his mother had thought to mention that she was a Giantess. (His mother set up the date.) It dogs us all, this bigness. Luckily it didn’t put him off, and they’ve been together for years. I read somewhere that elephants are the only animals on the planet that can’t jump. My two friends Daisy, Rose and I spent some time on Wednesday trying to think of animals, apart from elephants, that couldn’t jump. None, apart from the females of my family. Possibly earthworms.

So it never really occurred to me that I could enter this Zone thing. I could never understand how they did it, these high-jump people. Preparing to jump three times their own height, defying gravity in the process, they rock backwards and forwards and make funny faces; they do these funny snorty breaths and frown a lot and I think – you are surrounded by an arena full of other people. Other people, the most distracting and irritating items on earth, all staring at you, all staring at you, all waiting for you to run up to that jump, catapult off your wobbly pole and crash back to terra firma, preferably breaking a few small bones in the process. That’s why people watch sport – to see injury, death, defeat, tears, tantrums, flaming car crashes. They don’t want you to win.

I wasn’t having much luck with One-Pointedness either. I spent hours on the living room floor, trying to get my legs to cross like they were supposed to, trying not to be in severe and unnatural discomfort whilst trying to empty my mind, empty my mind… and then my nose would start to itch or a cat would come along and demand to be made a fuss of. The more I tried to focus the more up-tight I became. I am not designed to focus – in everyday life, anyway. I am designed to be distracted. That’s how I write the poems – distraction, distraction, distraction.


But then enlightenment struck. I realised that when I writing, and only when writing, I was in the Zone; I was Going with the Flow, man; I was One-Pointed. How else could four hours go by without my noticing? The sun had gone down and at some point stars had come out. And a full moon. How had that happened? I had forgotten to close the curtains and outside the garden was pitch black. Curtains?

I don’t know, said my husband, stomping up from his Workshop in one of his Moods, how it is that the one household task you are entrusted with, the closing of the curtains every evening, you still manage to fail to do!

Had I had my wits about me I would have snapped back, sharp as a button: What about when you’re down in the Workshop making those fragile, fantastical models of steam engines and don’t reappear till midnight? Is it a case of man-in-the-zone – only to be expected; woman-in-the-zone – whoever heard of that? But of course, I never did have my wits about me.