How Far Do You Go?

‘Tell him to man up,’ said the taxi driver as we sat in the usual London traffic jam. ‘That’s what he needs to do: man up. Take me for instance. I’ve just divorced my wife of twenty-two years, but do you see me crying?’

We inched forward in the line of nose to tail cars and I tried to concentrate on what he was saying because it was clear he meant well. It was just hard to hear him over the beating of my heart, and hard to sit still when I really wanted to launch myself out of the cab and run away.

I had come to London because my son had told me he was feeling suicidal. This was the second time he had used the dreaded word. The first he had been embarrassed and tried to downplay his emotions, saying he realised it was just the sort of signpost that indicated the need to take action. But since then, a series of long conversations had taken place, each time his emotions had reached a pitch that he couldn’t handle. And each time, as his grief rose steadily to the surface while the initial shock receded, he had been more violent in his speech, more obviously devastated, more deeply upset.

I paid off the cabbie, who drove away with further reminders about ‘manning up’ and stood outside my son’s student accommodation block, consumed with anxiety about what I would find and what I would need to do. I felt wholly responsible, and knew at the same time it was the last thing my son would want. I knew it bothered him that he could not go through this alone; he would much rather be self-sufficient in his sorrow. But he couldn’t. And he turned to me because I have some sort of experience at dealing with this sort of thing; I wouldn’t tell him to man up, or scorn him, or chide him, or try and jolly him out of it. But nor would it be like the movies, with me producing some wonderfully wise maxim at the right moment that would turn him around. It would be ordinary and messy; he would fight me because it got rid of some of his anger, and be inconsolable as it got rid of some of his grief, and I would soak that excess up, because it’s effective and what else do you do?

I have come to the conclusion that emotion is a form of compacted energy, and that it can be passed from person to porous person. And when you have that sort of contagious, toxic energy inside you, it turns into anxiety and, in my case, evil hormomes.

That day seemed to be a turning point with my son, and afterwards his situation improved quite swiftly. He found for himself, and as if from nowhere, the courage to start making things better. For a while we were all happy to my exquisite relief. And then I seem to have made the fatal error of relaxing, as instantly I was down with a stubborn infection. It still returns as soon as I do anything notably energetic. Mostly I haven’t because I’ve been bone weary, and more anxious than normal. When I sit and meditate (which I should do more often), I can feel six months of tension leeching out of me with the density of the ectoplasm that swirled around a 19th century medium.

Then last week, a tragedy. One of my closest friend’s husband had an unexpected but massive heart attack. He never regained consciousness and died three days later. This is bad enough in itself, but my friend suffers from advanced multiple sclerosis. She needs a scooter to get around and can’t always use her hands. She is able to teach still at the university, but had relied on her husband for cooking and shopping and picking her up when she fell over. When her motorised scooter broke down on her way home a few weeks ago, she could ring him and he rescued her. They have a teenage daughter.

Now which of us would that taxi driver command to man up, I wonder? It would be me, right? If I can do something to help my friend, shouldn’t I do it? Well, I figured that my friend’s widowhood would last longer than this particular lapse in my health. There would be plenty of time down the line to support her, and my recent experience of grief is that it lasts a long time and grows more acute before it goes to sleep. Plus, something I could barely admit: when I saw my son that last time, I had confessed that I was growing to hate our conversations because I felt like his emotional punchbag. I’d kept my own feelings to myself up until that point, but I was running out of storage capacity inside. I felt intensely guilty afterwards, and afraid that I had ruined a necessary outlet for him. But it was also true; I forget myself in that sort of intense interaction. Despite the fog of concern and guilt, it seemed imperative now to remember myself.

Then today a meeting was called for the friends of my friend, a strategy camp to consider what practical aid can be provided. I excused myself though said I would certainly hope to help in the months to come. Another couple wrote to say that they had cut short their stay in Spain (supposed to last to mid-September) and were flying back to help. It then transpired that the wife (who has some severe health issue herself) can’t stand or sit for more than ten minutes and could we please meet somewhere with a car park nearby and provision for her to lie down?

And there’s me staying home because I’m a bit tired. Let me tell you, being selfish is tougher than it sounds.

 

 

A Geography Lesson

No matter how hard I try – and these past six months I have been attempting regular exercise, for crying out loud – I am doomed to hoard stress the way squirrels pack nuts for the winter. Now that things are a little quieter, and the internal imp who scans the horizon for trouble has relaxed, I’ve been feeling quite dreadful. It seems I can only process emotional wear and tear via a form of illness.

archipelagoBy sheer coincidence, a couple of books I’ve read and deeply enjoyed in the run-up to this week, offered an entirely different approach to stress management: the dangerous journey. In Monique Roffey’s wonderful Archipelago, Gavin and his daughter, Océan, take to the Caribbean seas with their dog, Suzy, as a way to deal with compounded grief. Almost a year ago their house was inundated by a freak flood, whose catastrophic results we only learn about as the story unfolds. Close to breakdown, Gavin decides to reawaken an old dream of his youth and take his trusty boat, Romany, west from Trinidad where they live, out towards the Galapagos Islands. Then in the memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed recounts her decision to hike the Pacific Crest Trail – or at least 1,100 miles of it – after her mother’s untimely death sends her life off course and her marriage breaks down.

The first thing I needed with these books was an atlas. I confess my geography is appalling. It’s even worse than my historical knowledge, and in both cases, what meagre scraps I own come from literature. I am sorry to say that I had a rather shaky sense of where the Caribbean might be, although I knew it had something to do with America, having adored novels by Maryse Condé in the past. For those as ignorant as I was, Trinidad and Tobago are just off the north-east tip of Venezuela, and the Caribbean sits in the shape of a bird in flight between North and South America. The famous islands stretch off towards the North: Barbados, St Lucia, Martinique, and they curve around towards Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba, much larger masses of land that form a rough barrier to the Atlantic. Whereas the travellers in Archipelago hug close to the coast of South America, heading through the Panama Canal and then far, far out west to where the Galapagos sit in solitary splendour.

‘I think I had the Panama Canal mixed up with the Suez Canal,’ I told Mr Litlove.

‘You thought it was the Suez Canal?’ said Mr Litlove, in terms of wonderment, which was rich coming from a man who would hesitate to identify the subjunctive.

wildThe Pacific Crest Trail is a wilderness trail that stretches from the Mexican border in California along the crests of nine mountain ranges, including the Sierra Nevada, Klamath and Cascades, traversing Oregon and Washington on its way. The book had a dinky map in the front of it, useful for following the landmarks in Strayed’s memoir but pretty undetailed in itself. My atlas made it look much more daunting; the colours were the ochres and browns, even into the violet blues, of high altitudes. Despite the huge scale of the atlas, there was absolutely nothing there; no civilisation for inches around.

So two books with one word titles to remind you that serious travellers are a close-mouthed lot. They are too busy struggling with the elements to chat. And in both cases, decisions are made to embark on a physical challenge precisely because words fail and are insufficient for healing the pain. Something intriguingly alchemical goes on in this idea: emotional pain becomes released in physical pain, and physical toughness translates back to emotional toughness. In both cases, the journeys worked their magic, though I wonder whether it doesn’t all boil down to an email apocryphal funny my brother sent me, which said if you want to forget all your troubles, wear shoes that pinch.

Cheryl Strayed does exactly that. Young and inexperienced, she has launched into her hike in a way that shows the difference between things as we imagine they will be, and the lived reality. Her boots are a source of extreme discomfort throughout the trip and I got used to skimming the descriptions of her feet she regularly gave when she took them off at night. She also packs too extensively for her trip, creating an outsize backpack that she calls ‘Monster’, which takes its own toll on her body. You wonder whether she might have saved herself some trouble by just heading downtown and getting herself beaten up:

I did not so much look like a woman who had spent the past three weeks backpacking in the wilderness as I did a woman who had been the victim of a violent and bizarre crime. Bruises that ranged in color from yellow to black lined my arms and legs, my back and rump, as if I’d been beaten with sticks. My hips and shoulders were covered with blisters and rashes, inflamed welts and dark scabs where my skin had broken open from being chafed by the pack.’

This hike is all about her powers of endurance for Strayed, who was only 26 when she undertook it, and all about the methods of transcendence she can teach herself. Ways to bypass the boredom, the fear of all that could befall her out alone. As Archipelago is fiction, it has a lot more scope to explore its ideas. In the novel, nature is on trial, understood to be both beautiful and sublime, feared as both vicious and destructive. Gavin isn’t sure whether he is still fighting a losing battle against nature or learning to accept his place as part of it:

He has had a romantic attachment, notions about the sea, but these are fantasies. Now he is aware that the sea isn’t interested in him – and yet he’s fascinated with her. The sea has no feelings towards him whatsoever, and yet she stirs unfathomable moods in him. The sea doesn’t care, cannot care, one jot for him and his boat, his child, his dog, and yet they’ve been held mesmerised. At best, the sea is an accomplice to his restlessness.’

In both books, nature is an accomplice at best – willingly offering up vistas of breaktaking loveliness as reasons in themselves for the pain and the trouble of the undertaking. In Archipelago, nature wears a much crueller face, too, the devastation of catastrophe a magnified version of the ordinary battle for survival. But a lot happens in a silent beyond, in the place where human and nature interact. This is where the humans heal, though as Gavin realises, it is an oddly one-sided attachment where we manage to find far more than just what is visible. Perhaps it’s the sense of perspective that saves all the protagonists in the end; the awareness of their own diminutive size in relation to a wild, dangerous, tenderly indifferent world.

I loved both these books – they were highly engrossing, the Roffey full of glorious descriptions, the Strayed balancing its material well between accounts of the trip and her past life leading up to it. And they both have plenty of adventures to recount. But I am left feeling that the Existentialists were right – people are either thinkers or doers and it’s hard to be both. Travel is not the answer to angst for me: instead I have to be attentive to my internal geography. When I was much worse with chronic fatigue, I used to consider my body as a wild and lawless land, with sacking and pillaging going on in ways I couldn’t control. These days, there is much more of a community feel about my internal world, though every so often we have to hunker down when the Visigoths of stress maraud through.

In Which I Try Something New

You may recall a while back (October to be precise), I began having trouble with my left arm. The first thing I noticed was how painful it was to put my car into second gear. I thought I had probably pulled a muscle, but when it wasn’t getting better a month or so later, I went to see the osteopath. He said it was a pinched nerve in my neck, manipulated my spine, and the whole thing went from being an irritating nuisance to a big, painful problem that involved me spending way too much time pressing a bag of frozen sweetcorn to my neck. I then went and saw a physiotherapist, who said that the nerves down my arm were too tight, and that there was a posture issue; my shoulder was too far forward and I needed to pull my shoulder blades in at every opportunity. Well, for a while I saw both of them, was rubbed and cracked and generally pulled about and submitted to all manner of awkward exercises. As the months have gone by, I have gradually improved at the exercises, but my arm has not stopped hurting. These days, I can change into second gear okay, but if I hold my arm out straight, I can’t bend it out to the side from the elbow.

I stopped seeing the physio when his treatment didn’t seem to make the least bit of difference, and I have also decided recently not to go back to the osteopath because I really loathe being cracked, and there isn’t much else he likes to do. Plus, between you and me, he’s a bit of an insufferable smartie-pants.

And then last week, I realised my right arm was starting to cause me trouble too. Quite different this time, in that it was mostly my little finger that was feeling sort of numb and tingly, and sometimes there’d be a twinge in my right shoulder. Well, after spending some time with my head on the desk thinking, I cannot go on, I decided to look for a new practitioner. For a while I considered a pilates class, but the problem there is that if I can’t do half the exercises because of my dodgy left arm, I won’t actually be improving anything. And then I saw a link to an Alexander Technique teacher and I recalled the lovely Susan saying that she was a convert; so I thought I’d give it a try.

I nearly backed out before I’d even begun. When I rang the woman to make an appointment and told her about my immobile left arm she said, ‘Gosh, how strange! I’ve never heard of that before.’ Which did not inspire me with confidence, I can tell you. Then when it came to the day itself, I was tired and had one of those skull-tightening headaches that do not make a person pleased to be out in the world. But the prospect of never being able to high five anyone ever again was just enough to propel me into the car and across town.

My teacher was by no means a spring chicken, but she certainly had exceptional posture. The room I entered was quite bare apart from a chair, a treatment bed and a small skeleton that hung at such an odd angle from its hook that I had to wonder if it hadn’t been tap-dancing while alone and was then obliged to freeze mid-shuffle when we came in. It was so quiet that all I could hear was the pounding of my headache in my temples. My teacher ushered me into the seat and had me stand and sit down a few times. Then she began patting and smoothing me down with her hands, often one (blissfully cool) hand on my forehead, while the other traced the pattern of my bones. Every once in a while, she would pat a little more firmly, and another piece of my skeleton would slide into a quite different position. It was extraordinary.

‘Yes,’ she said after a while. ‘You don’t look bad from the outside, but in fact, on the inside it’s all quite asymmetrical.’ She did another pat and slide and shift. ‘There, that’s nice.’

‘Story of your life, isn’t it?’ said Mr Litlove when I was recounting the session to him later. ‘You look all right from the outside, quite a viable human being, even. And then inside is a mess.’

‘Thank you, dear,’ I said.

I gave my teacher a potted history of my life. Academia, then years off with chronic fatigue, and now writing full time. Those years of being ill when I did nothing but lie about on beds and sofas would have ruined any muscle tone I had. And then the gradual return to work saw me hunched over a laptop (which everyone has agreed fervently are the work of the devil, as far as one’s spine is concerned) for what has been now, astoundingly, the past six years. It’s no wonder I’m all out of alignment. She showed me how lightly attached are the collar bones and the shoulder blades, floating almost above the ribcage and easy to displace. The skeleton hung its head sympathetically and I kept a close eye on it – I imagined its lethargy was faked and it might break into a spirited rendition of 42nd Street at any moment.

The exercise I’ve been given is to lie flat on the floor, my knees bent, with a book about two inches thick under my head for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, several times a day. Finally, an exercise I can embrace wholeheartedly! When I read, I have to prop the book up on cushions so I’m not taking the weight of it in my arms. The toughest thing at the moment is the fact that both reading and typing definitely make my shoulders and elbows twinge and my little finger go numb. Reading and typing are what I do; they are what I am, and I don’t really want voice recognition software as I think through my fingers. So somehow, some way I simply have to get this fixed. I have no idea whether the Alexander Technique will help me more than the other solutions I’ve tried, but it was certainly a most restful and soothing experience. I left without a headache and feeling strangely light on my feet. And I’m looking forward to going again. Back in the days when I took Chinese medicine I used to love having my pulse taken, and this feels analogous. It’s a special pleasure to have another person being gently attentive to the internal machine.

 

The Lost Diary

Last week we renovated our study, and this involved moving the desk out for a while. We took the drawers out first and realised they were crammed full of stuff, just stuff, cards, notebooks, packs of paper, letters, folders… Definitely time for a clear out. It was nostalgic enough trawling through all the cards we’d been sent when our son was born (I couldn’t bear to throw them away), and brochures from the lycée where I lived and taught in France. And then we came upon the most extraordinary thing: a diary from 1993, the year we were married, and we had kept it alternately between the months of March and May. We neither of us had any recollection whatsoever of writing it.

Now when Marguerite Duras did something similar, publishing a diary she said she had found in the back of a wardrobe that she had no memory of writing, everyone coughed *publicitystunt* behind their hands. But this turns out to be unfair. I can honestly say it is possible to write a diary and forget all about it.

Naturally, we fell upon our former selves with avid curiosity. We had just become engaged and were hunting for a house to buy. I was working at Waterstones, the booksellers, whilst applying for an M.Phil and Mr Litlove had just begun shift work as a factory manager in Leicester. We were constantly in transit between our rented accommodation, our parents’ homes and the house we wanted. We were unbelievably young and untested, naïve and romantic in a way that we laughed at in our older, knowing incarnations, because it was so terribly poignant. Hope, it seems, gives you the strength to be vulnerable.

We sat over our lunch, reading bits out to each other.

‘Listen to this,’ I said to Mr Litlove. ‘”Sleep late, having strange dreams. Have my first, ‘Litlove my wife being annoying and nothing going right’ sort of dream. Is this preparing me for married life, or is it just to balance the wonderful times we are having together at the moment?”’

Mr Litlove instantly started crying out ‘Wake me up! Wake me up! I’m in the dream again!’

‘Ha, ha,’ I said, coldly. ‘How about this bit: “Didn’t get much done this afternoon. Think Litlove will be good for me in this respect.”’ I looked up at him. ‘What? What was that expression for?’

I moved onto a part of the diary I’d written, marvelling at an era when my handwriting was still legible. I’d been really nervous about the wedding, which in hindsight had been a deep anxiety about marriage and motherhood (which I presumed would be my fate) and all it entailed. I read: “The only solution is to keep busily organising as this can only reduce my worries. Mr L. thinks I’m being super-efficient when really I’m only trying to stay calm.”’

‘Nothing changes,’ commented Mr. Litlove

And in a weird way nothing had changed. Mr Litlove noted that I complained about feeling tired a lot even when I was 24. And he found several entries in which he’d looked forward to making furniture for our house. That really surprised us; it felt like the woodworking of the last few years had been a recent desire, sprung from nowhere. But then at the same time, everything had changed. We were not that couple anymore; we knew now what our future had been. There had been amazing experiences – I’d had my career at the university, we’d watched our son grow up, we were still together and in love after all that had happened. But we’d had to go through some excruciating times, too; the dark years dominated by my chronic fatigue, bitter disappointment with each other, financial worries, the unimaginable strain of early parenthood.

Adam Phillips wrote that ‘falling in love is the (sometimes necessary) prelude to a better but diminished – better because diminished – thing; a more realistic appreciation of oneself and the other person’. Never had those words struck me as more true: what reading the diary told me was how little we had known back then, about each other and about life. Now armed with hard-won knowledge, I was disillusioned in a good way. The happiness of back then had been so intense and so fragile; neither of us could believe in it. And rightly so – ordinary contentment is a smaller, harder thing, boiled down to its toughest consistency. It has no glister, but its dullness is reliably real. I wouldn’t swap it for the ecstasies of youth if you paid me.

We return to the diary every now and then, still fascinated by its alien oddness, the only proper sign of the past. It holds such poignancy for us. The last entry in it from Mr Litlove ends: ‘I feel very lucky to be me and here and now.’ And we shiver for him, almost forgetting the surprising truth, that he survived the hubris of good luck.