Post Holiday Reflections – I Need a Word

I’ve just come back from an amazing four day break in Florence (taking in a day trip to Venice). It was my second time in Italy (last year I went to Rome) and I’m hopelessly in love with what I’ve seen and experienced (more about that in other posts, once I’ve had time to think about how to present them), so I’ve decided to write a reflection on how I feel now I’m back, and it’s not great. It’s not that my depression has in any way returned – and that’s something I need to keep in mind and perspective – but that I have the strong feeling of being unsettled, of an inner agitation, a sense that things are not right, for me, for now. Being away, and now coming back to ‘real’ life, if you will, has made all that surface again.

I’m aware, of course, that being on holiday is a very different way of life. When we’re away, our worries and concerns (hopefully) disappear, or at least lessen, and we enter a kind of existence that (again, hopefully) frees us, liberates us, from what we’ve left behind. Take last year, for example. Before I left for Rome, I was, and had been for months and months, a depressed and anxious mess. It was so bad just before the holiday that I honestly felt like cancelling it, which was a terrible way to feel, considering that I was going away with my amazing and supportive daughter, and that Rome was a bucket list destination for me. Trying to act normally, but feeling as though I was dying inside, I wanted to cancel up until the point when we were on the plane. I didn’t believe it was possible, given the state I was in, to even think about enjoying myself. And yet, when we arrived in Rome, and I saw the Trevi fountain, busy with tourists (including us, of course) I just burst into relieved tears that I was there. But they were also tears of appreciation of the beauty. Beauty, I have found, however you may define it, has that effect on me. It feeds me, and helps me to feel positive. So that holiday was an amazing experience. I joked about living in Italy for a year, but the actual feeling itself wasn’t a joke. And it isn’t a joke now.

When I saw the sheer beauty that is Florence, when I stepped out of Venice station onto the concourse and saw the Grand Canal, I cried again – again, more on this in later posts. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Why should I be ashamed of being moved by beautiful places, beautiful things? I cried when I left too; it was as though part of my heart had been ripped out and left behind. And that feeling has resurfaced again now I’ve returned. While I was away, I didn’t think about anything else but where I was. I lived in the moment and for the moment.  Now I’m back, I’m living yet again in an uncertain future. I want to be somewhere else that isn’t here in Luton, doing something that isn’t what I’m doing now – not the teaching side of my job, mind you, never that –  but the rest of it, the sense that I’m just working as a cog in a machine that no longer values people, or that treats us respectfully. I go back on social media to find the same divisions, the same hate for anything that is considered ‘wrong’ – ‘You don’t believe the same things as I do? You’re a bad person.’ And I’m less tolerant of it than ever.

I’m all too aware of my extreme idealism, because I know that’s what it is. I know that many people feel that way about their jobs, and their lives, and I think it’s sad. I know I should be grateful for what I have, and on one level, I am. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to tolerate, and post-holiday, after being in a place that inspires me, that makes me want, more and more, to just discover more in general, and myself in particular, what drives me, how I learn to be driven by my passions, my heart yearns to do it. It yearns to really live life, rather than just be a passenger, drifting on the currents.

It all comes back, I guess, to needing change. That elusive ‘something’ that I can’t put my finger on, or define. I know I can’t just up and leave, for many reasons, not least financially, but the temptation to do just that is becoming almost overwhelming. While I was in Florence my daughter and I watched the Italian section of Eat, Pray, Love again. I love that film, it’s hopeful, and celebrates a freedom most of us can only imagine, but it’s a freedom born of despair and misery. But we can’t all afford to take a year out, and we don’t all have the courage to travel alone, as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert did. Again, much of that comes down to courage and the willingness – not just the desire – to change, and a huge amount of faith that one can change one’s life in profound ways. Anyway, I cried (yet again!) watching the beginning of that film, because whatever else Gilbert may be, however privileged she is, she still experienced that desperate unhappiness with her situation, a situation that many people thought she should be grateful for, that they thought she should tolerate, because why would she want to throw it all away? But surely sometimes we have to find the courage and the means to make those changes, take those positive steps to our own peace? Surely sometimes we have to tear it all down to build something new and more meaningful.

Anyway, those are my feelings now. This has been a really difficult year for me, as I’ve written before, but I’m emerging, still emerging, from the deadening cocoon of depression into what needs, so desperately, to lead to a new way of being. Something that Elizabeth Gilbert’s Italian friends said in the film during a discussion about finding a word that sums up where they’re from, and which represents themselves was interesting. It made me think a lot about myself: Elizabeth Gilbert said that she was a writer, but she was told that was what she did, not who she was. Maybe, someone said, she was a woman in search of a word. I kind of couldn’t stop crying at that, because it sums up my emotions now. Coming home to a place that is stagnant (my word for where I live), back to a profession that is ‘lecturer’, which is what I do, has made me think about that line again. Maybe ‘teacher’ is more what I am – and I think there’s a big difference between ‘teacher’ and ‘lecturer’; ‘writer’ is definitely who I am. One of my friends tells me I should be happy because my being a lecturer in creative writing enables me to be a paid writer, but he doesn’t get that it’s not who I am. It’s not the same, although his words, of course, have some logic to them.

So although I’m probably not going to run off to Italy to find myself, tempting though that is (I’d get on a plane right now if I could!), I am going to search for my word, and live it before it’s too late and I’ve lost it forever.

Staring into the Abyss. A Fiction

 

Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you. (Friedrich Nietzsche – Beyond Good and Evil)

 

THERE was once a girl who gazed into an abyss. She didn’t know it then, because she was still innocent, but that abyss, with all its howling horrors, was the void of her own dark imaginings. The dark void of her own truths, if we can believe in truth, for we are all our own creations and we often twist ourselves.

And allow others to twist us.

Fascinated, the girl put a tentative foot over the side of the abyss and discovered that it had a gentle but slippery slope, and she began to descend. As she came closer to the lower levels, she began to hear the howls of the damned, the abandoned, and overcome with curiosity, she began to listen. Although she couldn’t understand that they were saying, she recognised from the tone of the voices that they were tales of horror and despair, of terror and misery, and although she tried to leave, because the stories were awful, she found herself rooted to the spot. She felt their voices enter her brain, twisting it and turning it into a battlefield where the forces of sanity and madness would fight for ownership for the rest of her life.

Finally understanding the danger, she freed herself, and returned to the surface as fast as she could, but the realisation had come too late.

So, she began to go further into the darkness. She sought out forbidden tales of the monstrous, became obsessed with myths and legends and the creatures that inhabited them. Hunted down evil hags who tempted young children with gingerbread (she didn’t know what gingerbread was but it sounded delicious and she wanted some), wolves in human form, and humans in wolf form, in the bloodsuckers of folk tales (she wished for eternity, although even this short mortal life was sometimes a burden), and the siren-songs of loathing that seduced not only men, but her too, as she listened to the melodies of those that lurked in the dark (under her bed, in the shadow-recesses of her wardrobe), and talked to the primal fears that all people have. Fears of loss, of death, of loss of control and chaos, and the darkness which whispered to her with the voices of the wandering and abandamned. As she grew she became fluent in their languages.

The languages of pain, which are:

Confusion

Denial.

Desolation.

Dread

Emptiness.

Fear.

Fury.

Grief.

Sorrow.

Submission.

 

Annihilation

She grew older still. The horrors continued to haunt her, and she began to write them down, to create tales of the monsters and terrors that the voices told her about, because writing their names gave her power, for by now she had long realised that the dark that consumed her was not a good dark. It was no longer attractive or seductive (those vampires, for example, weren’t really beautiful tortured artist-souls who grieved the loss of their humanity, they were malignant bite-your-neck-out vermin). But she didn’t know that giving them form gave them power too. But it was too late; their languages had become her language, and she had learned to be fluent in their dread tongues, and once you have learned their tongues, it takes powerful magic to unlearn them. So she ventured further into the abyss, until she came to the very lowest levels, and she explored the lands of the abandamned, and was accepted into them as one of their own. She inhabited her own city, and that city was named Despair.

There was no leaving it behind, and she became comfortable there, and Despair began to develop behind its own walls.

Her fame grew throughout the land, and acolytes sought her out. They clamoured from beyond the walls, banged their fists against the gates, wanting her to let them in. And so, unable to keep the lessons to herself, she let them into her city, and began to teach them the words, and they were eager to learn the art of writing. She began to discover that it wasn’t just her who understood those terrible languages; the acolytes had sought her out because they wanted to gaze into the abyss too. So they gazed, and they shared the same horrors, and together, they wrote the stories of the abandamned.

 

On the Stories We Tell Ourselves, the Fictions We Create. Part 2: ‘Dreams in The Haunted House’.

“People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.”

― Neil Gaiman

 

My dreams have always been vivid. Technicolour, stereophonic epics play themselves out in my mind whilst I sleep, complete with a sense of smell and touch. Dreams of being chased by Tyrannosaurus Rex (this has been recurrent since I saw Jurassic Park in 1993, where the park became a penal colony and I had committed some horrific crime of which I had no memory, dropped into the park and had to escape). Dreams in which my mobile phone becomes a device that can only play games, meaning I am unable to communicate my feelings, my fears, the fact that I am hopelessly lost and cannot locate the people who love me. Dreams that seem like past life regressions, in which I die, often painfully and too young, only to wake, still alive, but terrified. All symbolic of my fears: of utter abandonment, of being unable to express myself. Of dying unfulfilled.

Our fears and our memories linger in our dreams. Some of my biggest fears, I believe, stem from the house in which I lived when I was that scared little girl I wrote about in my previous post. A two up, two down later-to-be-condemned tenement in Hackney which I shared with my grandfather, my uncle, and my parents. I shared a bedroom with my parents for the first thirteen years of my life. There was no privacy. Nowhere for me to be me, or them to be them. We had an outside toilet, to which I used to creep, alone, in the middle of the night, too scared to wake my parents, absolutely terrified of the shadows that crept about in the downstairs scullery. Afraid of the dark and the spiders that lurked within the outhouse in the yard outside the kitchen door.

I’ve been pretty scared of the dark ever since. Always sleep with the landing light on.

Below is a piece I wrote from a recurring dream I had for years, as a result of (memories of) that fear. It’s tidied up of course, but overall, it’s pretty much how I dreamed it. This dream haunted me around once a month, sometimes more, sometimes less. And it was a haunting, because the ghosts of past places, of past terrors, returned to haunt

I decided that as the dream was recurring, and in a way, so worrying for me, that I’d write it out. I did that the very next time I had it, and the below piece is the result. It’s interesting that I haven’t had the dream since: writing it out seems to have cleared the decks, as it were.

Does all this perhaps go back to that only child place? That emotional space where I was surrounded by unquestioning, unconditional love. Except: love is always conditional, and the love of my parents for their only child meant that I was the epicentre of their world. Their sun, moon, stars and universe. Some people would regard that as heaven, and I understand that. Love is something that so many children lack. And yet… And yet…  Being everything to someone else is a huge responsibility for anyone. Too big, at least in my experience. My writing, I  think, know, often comes from that place. The place where I feel stifled, oppressed, inadequate.

Powerless

 

Memory Revisited

 

… You walk down the street, wondering how you came to be here. Were you wishing for this place? Does desire make something so? You’ve yearned to be a child again so often; adulthood is a burden you can no longer bear.

You search for clues that this is the place you remember from those (remembered) happy days decades before. The houses are in the same alignment – terraced, back-to-back, two up, two down. They line the street as they always did. Even the pub on the corner where the drunks used to spill out, shouting and fighting, into the road at closing time still stands. But now there is an air of decay, the houses blank-eyed spectral tenements, wavering in and out of your sight. As you sniff the air, you can smell the rot on the cold winter wind that whistles round you, inside you, until it bleeds your dead heart white.

No people live here anymore; like you, the streets are empty. Your friends and family have disappeared into the abyss of recall, leaving haunting memories of (what once felt like) vibrant life. The only inhabitants are curious tumbleweeds, who crowd round your feet, perhaps drawn to the no-longer-life in you. The whining of the cold wind makes them rustle, bestows upon them a curious language of their own. Do they speak to you, and if they do, what do they say? You cannot grasp it, their language. If it means anything at all. At any time, you realise as they crowd closer, they could wind their dry-grass tendrils around you, and bind you, and you will become a tumbleweed too, drifting, pushed this way and that at random, dizzy with chaos.

You shuffle your feet and the tumbleweeds skitter away. Relieved, you look again at the houses. At your house, where you lived and loved, where you took your first steps, spoke your first words, kissed your first kiss. A house always full of firm, unyielding love. Now it appears like the others. Flimsy. Not quite there. Its red bricks have turned translucent grey, like the hair on your head. It wavers in your sight, a flickering projection from a faulty reel of film. You cannot bear to lose it – reminiscence binds you successfully where the tumbleweed failed – and you run toward it, hurry inside, before it fades entirely.

The door opens into a grey-grained passage. A black and white horror movie-set. No wind blows, but the chill here is deeper, like you’ve stepped into an abattoir where your memories hang, frozen corpses on hooks. Bare cracked lino curling up at the skirting boards like bread in old sandwiches covers the floor. Dusty cobwebs hang from the ceiling. Shrouds. They caress your face and whisper words, as only cobwebs can. You brush them away, but like the tumbleweed, they cannot resist you or the life you bring here. Damp-infested wallpaper peels from the walls in jagged strips. It sees your fading hope, and flays away more layers. Strips you bare.

Upstairs, the safe place where your mother rocked you and told you that she would protect you forever and ever and ever, beckons. But the stairs have collapsed with your own advancing decay, and so you must go forward, down the passageway to your grandfather’s bedroom, hoping for solace. You hear music playing – his favourite tune, although you can’t remember its name – but it’s discordant and jarring, and still the memories scream and writhe on their hooks, begging for release.

Past your grandfather’s bedroom is the scullery, that place where the darkness lives, and where the floor is covered with putrescent treacle that willfully impedes your movement. You don’t want to go down here, it leads to oblivion, but you hear the memories cry for you again, and you know you must face annihilation rather than abandon them. So you step into the living dark, you allow it to hold you in its arms, you endure its penetration, become utterly filled with emptiness, and you survive the ordeal, to emerge at the kitchen door, where freedom and memory wait for you to liberate them.

You open the kitchen door and step outside.

You walk down the street, wondering how you came to be here…