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

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.

storks

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.

VISITING THE CASTLE

In this courtyard, overborne and

Cramped by shuttered rooms,

The leaded panes grown cataracts of light,

Moss grows between the stones

And a marble fountain plays.

It is small, unremarkable,

Nobody in here to view it, just a sparrow

Thirsting in the furnace of July;

Nobody in here and yet

The bowl is full of coins.

 

Maybe each of us comes alone

And again discovers what queens and princes knew;

Maybe they too, in their moments of distraction,

Trailed their finger-ends beneath the water

And, feeling it cool and simple,

Sighed and threw silver, leaving behind

Battered portraits of their ancestors,

Distorted by refraction

And by motion.

 

I will not throw a coin.

For all their praying, those who threw before

Are no less saved or lost. I would rather just

Recall them, these unknown dreamers, feeling

The benediction in the sun, the wish in the stone,

Their lives and mine

In the sound of

Water falling.

Eight tracks, one book and a luxury item

I don’t know how many people outside the UK will have heard of Desert Island Discs? It’s a BBC Radio 4 programme which has been running since January 1942. It’s a British institution along with Doctor Who, the children’s programme Blue Peter, the sacred Shipping Forecast and that ghastly, never-ending Northern soap Coronation Street. All are much loved, much mocked and never likely to be forsaken by viewers and listeners. This little cluster of programmes is infinitely reassuring to the British. Whatever else may change – terrorists threatening to blow us up, immigrants battering down our borders, farmers releasing cows in supermarkets to protest at the price of milk, an unlikely person with a beard being elected as Leader of the Opposition, weather forecast data no longer to be supplied by the Meteorological Office – as long as we have this handful TV and radio programmes we are going to be OK. No need to worry. Have another cup of tea. All’s right with the world. Underneath, we are a very nervous nation.

The basic premise is this: each week a guest, called a “castaway” during the program, is asked to choose eight pieces of music, a book and a luxury item that they would take if they were to be cast away on a desert island, whilst discussing their lives and the reasons for their choices. (Thank you Wikipedia for the definition).

Why discs? These pieces of music would once have been encoded on gramophone records, children. Gramophone records were black discs originally made of something called shellac. Shellac was easily breakable, as I can attest, having accidentally parked my teenage posterior on my ancient shellac disc of Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly’s True Love – oh, I loved both the song and Bing Crosby. I’m sure sitting on and shattering them set an unlucky precedent for the rest of my life .

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAO8vlvPS88

Latterly shellac was replaced with plastic, and plastic was replaced by downloadable tracks. Unless something has replaced tracks? Forgive me, I’m old and still listening to CDs with occasional recourse to a Tesco generic MP3 for yomping along the sea-front. Actually, I don’t so much yomp as totter nowadays but the fresh air is good for me.

Guests are invited to imagine themselves cast away on a desert island, and to choose eight pieces of music to take with them. Excerpts from their choices are played or, in the case of short pieces, the whole work. At the end of the programme they choose the one piece they regard most highly. They are then asked which book they would take with them; they are automatically given the Complete Works of Shakespeare and either the Bible or another appropriate religious or philosophical work. (Wikipedia again. Why bother to rewrite something when it’s perfectly well-written already?)

There’s one final element. Guests are allowed to choose one luxury item to take with them. It must be inanimate and can’t be something you could use either to escape from the island or to communicate with the world beyond. Comedian John Cleese of Monty Python’s Flying Circus fame was allowed to take Michael Palin with him on one condition – that Michael Palin would be dead, and stuffed. People tend to ask for pianos, and champagne, for example. If you’re fascinated to see a list of what people actually do ask for (I love lists, don’t you?) here is the link:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Desert_Island_Discs_episodes_(2011%E2%80%93present)

The above list answered one of my questions – what about electricity? I suspect the desert island must be attached to the mains by an underwater cable, since people have asked for electric guitars, cappuchino-makers, a Sex and the City DVD boxset (why on Earth…?), though others, when requesting laptops and i-pods, and taking the whole frivolous concept ultra-seriously, have been careful to specify solar-powered.

Working out and Desert Island Disc list is something I have never attempted before but, for your edification and delight, Ladies and Gentlemen, I am going to attempt it now. I suggest ‘Desert Island Discs’ as a good game, perhaps for power-cuts, or at Christmas when full of brussels-sprouts and Yorkshire Pud, or to amuse the children on a rainy Saturday afternoon. As long as you take it seriously – but not necessarily so seriously as to suggest solar-powered laptops – you might discover a few profound somethings about yourself and your fellow players. It might also be an idea to repeat it every ten Christmases or so (concealing the previous list from yourself) to see if your tastes have changed.

So, my current eight Desert Island tracks would be:

  • Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis, Tallis Scholars version
  • Fire at Midnight by Jethro Tull (Songs from the Wood)
  • True Love by Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly
  • Famous Blue Raincoat (Leonard Cohen, but Jennifer Warnes’ version)
  • Another Monday – instrumental, by John Renbourn from the album of the same name
  • The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughan Williams
  • Eternity by Dougie MacLean
  • Who Will Sing Me Lullabies by Kate Rusby

My ‘most highly regarded’ would have to be Spem in Alium. I have blogged about that before. Also about desert islands, actually, though in a slightly different context.

I won’t go into all the reasons for my choices. Quite often these are down to personal/ sentimental associations with the tracks as much as the tracks themselves. And by now I am sure you are no longer listening and are busy disagreeing, arguing amongst yourselves or compiling your own list.

How I could manage with only one book I don’t know, since at the moment I have about 2,000 and will never get to the end of reading them. However, the best thing seems to go for value for – not money but words. Mercifully I’ll already have the Bible and Shakespeare – there’s an entire desert island’s-worth in the Bible. Shakespeare is just the icing on the cake.

My first thought was to go for Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill – a fearsomely abstruse book on a subject that interests me greatly. I feel that reading it would be greatly to my spiritual benefit, but wonder if I actually would read it in my changed circumstances, given that it is so challenging, both in terms of subject matter and a thorn-thicket of elaborate and antiquated English. After all, if you can’t meditate and attain a state of higher consciousness on a desert island, with blue sky above, the sound of the sea and a warm, sandy beach, where can you? So I decided to follow the example of many other castaways and ask for the biggest possible anthology of poetry. Poems have such potential for entertainment – not just savouring and studying them, but learning them by heart, making up tunes and singing them, discovering hidden messages in them by opening the volume at random (also possible with the Bible and Shakespeare, of course) declaiming them aloud to the seagulls so as not to forget the sound of your own voice…

And for my luxury item, a solar-powered… no, it would have to be a giant, inexhaustible, damp- and weather-proof store cupboard or underground vault stacked from floor to ceiling with green and yellow A4 writing pads, wide feint, cardboard-backed, and an equally inexhaustible supply of top-quality 2B pencils, with pencil sharpeners. Maybe a ring-binder file or two… and a box of paperclips…