even after april
by god there is no excuse for may
bring forth your flowers and machinery
e e cummings
faith has never been my strong suit. i craved it as far back as i remember and i crave it still. when i was around seven or eight years old i spent a lot of time alone in our village church and churchyard seeking belief in god. i recall striving to convince myself that i’d located this longed-for certainty somewhere amidst the crumbling gravestones and unmown grasses. deep down i knew i hadn’t. i think i had the idea that if i laboured hard enough for long enough at trying to believe, at some point that effort would translate into belief itself.
it can be hard to navigate a path between the news and our emotions concerning the news. many times i’ve joked with friends about our delusional impression that we can influence the outcome of a particular football match or news story according to how we engage with that story. we recognise that we are tricking ourselves – we don’t truly think we possess deific powers – but that doesn’t stop us getting so involved in the unfolding of a storyline that we clench our muscles and grind our teeth. watching drama shows and films frequently entails egging the action on – we want a set of circumstances to get increasingly chaotic and destructive. right now, when the news looks more like a film than it has ever done, i am finding similarities between my involuntary responses to fiction and fact particularly confusing. it proves impossible to keep reminding myself not to mix up how i watch true life stuff with how i watch pretend stuff, and it frightens me that following the news can trigger unseemly reactions, such as increased excitement at the prospect of things getting worse. sometimes i feel complicit. i’m tapping into monstrous aspects of collective humanity, while simultaneously recoiling in personal horror.
each time i sit down to attempt to write something new, i am reaching as far as i can inside myself to try to pinpoint a sense of experience which i hope to express convincingly. from its beginnings within me i wish for that expression to subsequently travel as far as it can outwards in order to speak to as many others as possible. this is my hope. this is why i write.
what i yearn most intensely to convey to the outside world is the stark isolation of my experience of long-term illness. on an intellectual level i know that being ill is not a moral issue, yet i feel inadequate and ashamed on account of all i cannot do and cannot be. i have felt this way to varying degrees of severity every day for almost thirty years. before lockdown i couldn’t imagine accessing a space which would provide an antidote to this. i believed i would have to cover a great physical distance, or possibly travel through time, in order to locate a place sufficiently non-judgemental, and with enough kindness and humour, to feel like home to me. i daydreamed of somewhere where being sick wouldn’t mark me out as it does here. i hungered for an environment in which manic pursuit of achievement is not the default mode, where being is more important than doing, and where taking care of one another is the primary focus. in this fantasy utopian habitat, intellectual, physical, and emotional resources would be pooled and distributed evenly, so that each citizen would get their needs met and would never be made to feel that those needs were inappropriate or excessively burdensome to others.
imagine living in a place where there is no such thing as a waste of time.
in the late afternoons during lockdown the thin man takes me in my wheelchair to the benches near the bowling green beyond the castle. we sit and look out at the view across fields, railway line, river and downs. this view has always reminded me of a picture in a book i had as a child. and whenever i think of this picture a familiar unease creeps over my skin, burrows deep into my insides and causes a tightening sensation low in my guts. the illustration transports me back to my most disturbed states of emotional alienation and dissociation. it is so sanitised and barren, entirely cleansed of any irregularity or imperfection, as if the person who drew it set out intentionally to suck the beating heart from the environment they depicted. if you were able to zoom in to a detail of the riverbank there you would find no insects scuttling out of sight, no spider web strung from one long frond to another, no bird shit, rabbit droppings, or decaying leaves – no mess of any kind. there is nothing earthy there, and nothing actually of the earth.
i have been getting to know the two trees which are closest to the bench we sit on. i look up at them on each visit and witness their daily changes. a couple of weeks ago the trees appeared to be made only from wood: main trunk leading to thick, heavy branches which lead to slimmer branches and in turn develop into twigs. then one day i noticed the first change, when i saw that at the very end of each twig a tiny bud was taking form. and the next time we dropped by, those tiny buds had begun to unfurl into fragile tender pale leaves. this week the leaves are fully formed, and i am able to pull a little twiglet away from the scar of a pollarded branch near to the ground to bring home for identification purposes. fat slow sleepy bees pass by whenever we are there, materialising so predictably that i think of them as one specific bee who i’m getting to know. and midges swarm and swarm, at some points seeming to fill every square inch of available air, and at others receding into the middle distance. i don’t recall seeing this many swarming midges since i was primary school aged.
in any comparison of then to now there is the perennial issue of memory being unreliable. apparently william james’ theory is correct; each time we re-remember a recollection we aren’t recalling the original event, but the last time we visited that event in our memory. so chances are that our favourite memories – those we go to most often in our minds – are the least trustworthy, since they have been rehearsed and subtly altered more frequently than others. i learnt about this phenomenon in a film called “marjorie prime” and more recently it came up in a television programme titled “quiz”. my attempts to seek out more detailed analysis have been unsuccessful, which is frustrating. all the same, as soon as i encountered the theory it felt like it made sense. and sometimes that is the best we have – our gut sense.
it seems many of us are relishing the opportunity to pay closer attention, making the most of our views and viewpoints not being interrupted by too many other people. while i’ve been seeing and hearing more birdlife, i have also been wondering if birds pay us any attention. i suspect that like me they are experiencing their own particular sort of holiday right now. they are enjoying a break from air pollution, from the endless battering din of traffic, and from car and shop alarms shrieking out and interfering with the detail of each other’s songs. i envision them chattering together about how cool it is that those weird crazy beings who acted like the world was their oyster have finally gone elsewhere and left them in peace. then suddenly on a thursday evening those humans come crashing back in for a few minutes, letting off fireworks, bashing saucepans, applauding and whooping. i reckon the birds curse these blundering creatures’ brief return, which lasts just long enough to remind them that the idiots continue to exist and are still prone to acting like they own the place.
as the years go by, i never stop being in pain for all the ways in which i cannot be myself. even though some faltering kind of acceptance took up residence a long time ago, and continues to develop, the fundamental pain stays, and becomes an unbearable aspect of day-to-day life which i struggle endlessly to bear. as a human being i don’t feel unusual that my life involves so much suffering. but i do feel unusual in this experience in my home town and in the accepted description of my national culture.
i have heard a number of people remark that they have surprised themselves in their reaction to lockdown. i definitely couldn’t have predicted that in these strange times i would discover a kind of rest cure, a temporary holiday from my usual state of loneliness and shame. for a short while most people in the uk are living lives similar to the one i’ve been forced to live for almost three decades. today i am not the odd one out, and this brings me an unexpected sense of peacefulness. as a new and frightening cause of death stalks the planet, there is nothing straightforward about admitting that I like the way this situation is affecting me. i like it here.