Moments in a life and those restarts you have to make.
He’d drawn a dinosaur for her and it was a pretty good one, stretching the entire width of the blackboard. He’d used white chalk for the main details but added a huge lot of pecky touches in red and green. Too many I thought. He was another teacher and her beau and I’d watched their courtship quietly. When you’re in the single digits of your life, they think you don’t notice things, but you do.
She’d an Irish name and a very Irish look about her; not particularly pretty, tall, strong but willowy, bony hips, delicate, elegant, vulnerable with pale transparent pianist hands that had a fluttering and diffident life all of their own. I was of course totally smitten by her and thinking about it, I still am but in a gentler sense. I do hope life went on to be good to her.
I waited and watched. She walked in, saw it, and smiled like I’d never seen her do. I just knew there was a little secret dinosaur joke between them. He’d surprised her and I was so happy that he’d made her happy.
I loved her and I think we all did. In that dangerous world outside your Ma, Da and the safe nest of home you were obliged to risk leaving every morning, it was all hostile. There was little love in it, but what there was, she provided for us. We were the kids who didn’t get to go anywhere near the main brick-built building; we got taught in a separate wooden shack on stilts, discreetly hidden away behind the main building. Beyond us was nothing more than the church separated by the graveyard. That was our play area.
We’re all born with something we think is just for us. It’s our little special thing. My one was drawing and it was totally compulsive. Everything else got blocked out or was barely noticed. I could always draw things that the other kids were slightly in awe of. It made me special and exotic and Jesus, when you’re a kid, that’s enough to get you by. I’d work away in self-absorbed isolation on something that interested me and the hours would fly by.
She reached in, grabbed me by an ear and tugged me out of the comfort zone I’d been hiding in. From then on, no more of that eyes and ears open and keep your gob shut easy option stuff. Looking back on it, she had a good strategy. If she could get me to grudgingly engage with the system, perhaps the rest would come out too. Make me a believer that things could change, and the rest might follow.
As Christmas approached, they wanted me to make models of the figures of Joseph, Mary and the infant Christ child for the manger in the church. I’d always worked on scraps of paper and the shit end of corrugated wallpaper offcuts. I’d never done any sort of work with clay. Within five tentative minutes, I was very comfortable with it. It was so easy. No more trying to do the three D thing in two D. I was working away, trying to finish the thing when I surfaced for a moment. There was a crowd of grownups discussing me like I wasn’t there, like I didn’t exist. An object. A curiosity. Nobody.
It was the first time in my life that I’d looked up from the work and realised I’d become some sort of performing pet seal for them. From then on, the figures in the crib were going to be someone else’s responsibity, because I went to the trouble of producing some interesting grotesques for each of the players and they never bothered me again. I’d designed every one of them to offend each and every one of their sensibilities. In a subtle way, the hook-nosed Joseph looked lecherous and the wide-hipped Virgin Mary looked very available.
It was a palpable hit and although momentarily satisfying, was a complete disaster. Precocious little prick that I was, I’d destroyed her way into cracking us and at the same time, probably totally buggered up everyone else’s chances of engaging with the big society boogie man. She’d dropped her defences in my case and I’d managed to really hurt her deeply. I’ll never forget the way she looked at me and resolved to never do anything like that again. Ever.
I’d discovered sin but also realised the sleeper had to awake. I had to start engaging with the real world, even if that meant leaving the safety zone. A couple of times, I’ve gone back trying to find that place again, but it, like childhood, was long gone.
It was the first fracture point in my life.
Boom, boom, rock the room. You’ve finally dared to kiss her and she’s come back big time. Every plan you thought you might have had to approach her slowly and carefully, has just gone home to Jesus. She gets one hand behind your head, grabs a hunk of hair, cranks it down to deliver the big kiss and the other one she slides down your back and into your trousers and onto your butt, and she’s doing a bit of kneading. You’re not that far behind yourself. So much for plans.
It is a sort of madness.
You get the hell out of wherever it is and back to your place or her’s, whichever is the nearest. You can’t keep your hands off each other. It’s sort of verging on the violent. She is absolutely delicious. You get through the front door and one of you back heels it shut and that was the last sane act either of you did that night after kicking off your shoes.
She’s doing a bit of ripping and buttons are pinging off one of your best shirts but at the same time, that tricky catch on the back of her bra is going to get totally destroyed. You’re supposed to be heading for the bedroom but you’ve just got to do the emergency stop at the couch. She wants you and you want her – right now. You fall off the couch but you keep rolling. The first crash is that coffee table, but you’re a tough guy and you’ll pick the glass splinters out of your butt tomorrow, you’ve got much more important things on your mind at the moment.
When all passion had been spent, she lay sleeping under the protection of my left arm and I passed the rest of the night just looking at her in wonderment as she slept so warmly. Lordy, she seemed to glow. Lovely, lovely, oh so lovely. It can’t be happening to a man like me. I’d been with a lot of women, but this was different. There was no artifice on her part; there was just something about her. She had me. I didn’t think anything so simple but so powerful could still happen to someone so fucked over as me, an undeserving creature made of clay. Out of the blue, a whole new direction in my life beckoned and all I had to do was go with the flow. Don’t fight it, it’s not difficult, just drift on downstream.
By the time the light of sunrise came through the blinds, and for the first time in my life, I’d committed to a relationship I wasn’t in control of. It’s lasted and I’ve never regretted that decision. Sometimes you’ve just got to make the jump.
My youngest kid is what’s called musical and can pretty much pick out a tune on anything that’s capable of making a noise. I knew that when he was a baby, before he or anyone else did. I’ve the ingrained habit of getting up with the sun and I’d always quietly peek into their rooms, to do the kids are still alive check, on my way to making that first coffee of the day, without which life can’t begin.
He’d always be awake and laying there on his back in the cot, legs and arms waving and crooning some endless wandering tune in a baby voice. He’d be content and happy as a lark. It was an as yet unformed mind, making sounds it found pleasant, and I was listening to someone moving closer and closer to their own personal invention of music.
I must have spent hours just leaning against the wall outside of his bedroom listening. Ten years earlier, I wouldn’t have understood that man.
I’d been around at a friend’s house and although some heavy drinking had been involved, I’d insisted as usual on no taxi and that I’d walk home. It’s about four miles because I live out in the sticks; on the outskirts of what passes for a town but it does give me time to think an evening over and to sober up a bit. Walk it off you drunken bum.
I heard the whimper, because it had heard me walking through the darkness, and that’s what you do when you’re in trouble. I know the way something like that sounds. I stopped walking, listened and it whimpered again. That was good, I could place it better on my left at an angle and went down into the ditch, drenched my feet at the bottom of it but went up the other side of it and into the thicket. Bloody thorns everywhere, which tore into me in their own way but I had a good fix on it as I tunnelled in towards it.
I got my head in there and my hands in there and it was just ruined. A dog. I could feel those sharp pointy breaks with my fingertips. Back broke and chest smashed in and he was just frothing blood. Ah Christ. Some car had hit it in the darkness and pinged it into the hedge. I put my hands around its neck, counted vertebrae by touch to get on target and waited for the old me to do something. Go on, do it, do it, just bloody well do it. End it. One quick snap. Do it.
The mannish thing to do, I could no longer do. Useless, useless, absolutely bloody useless. There was a time I wouldn’t have hesitated but now I knew it just wasn’t in me any more or maybe I’d become a weaker man. I held the poor bastard and we cuddled up and waited as best we could together in the thicket. I gentled him and calmed him down and he licked some blood off my hands. No one should die alone and he didn’t.
I watched that last spark of light slowly fade from his eyes, and after a while, struggled out of the thicket to lay him out beside the road. Dogs like that have family and I wanted them to find him. That was alright, a good thing. You walk on home to yours and hope for better days. It was just one of those shit end bone things you do and have to endure. Life goes on.
I was fishing in a bend of the river and laying the line down just so beautifully in all the right places and catching fish. It was perfect. There was a quiet rhythm about it and I took them or let them go, dependant on nothing more than my whim. Whatever I took, I knew would be eaten by a whole passel of my brother’s children. Shredded trout on toast, which would be eaten with a child’s zest. It was one of those perfect moments in life; man the hunter doing it so easily and well, and all on a lovely summer’s day.
I’d been quietly struggling with a lot of inner demons and finally realised I’d somehow put them to rest. I’d forgiven myself and the world, and there was nothing now but this river, this day, the sunshine and the simplicity of this afternoon. For the first time in so many years, I was at last content in my heart of hearts. It was like finally breathing out a breath I’d never known I’d been holding. No more hidden strife. Breathe out. I waded to the nearest rock, sat on it and wept underneath the crushing weight of a blue summer sky and the vastness of the wilderness.
It was that final act of closure. A goodbye to so many people and things. They would no longer haunt me and perhaps the tears were more for consigning them to what I knew would be oblivion. They would be forgotten and that was my needed betrayal of them all, so I could finally move on with some measure of peace in my life.
It’s funny. Alone and unencumbered in a wilderness, you’re more likely to examine what’s inside you, and perhaps that’s why I prefer to fish alone by myself in those dangerous mountain rivers. It’s just you, the sky and the waters and the mountains. The river can spate very quickly or the weather can close in without you noticing or you can just simply misjudge the next step. Any one of those can kill you. I don’t mind that. It wouldn’t be a bad place to die. You’re out there to take life, so it only seems fair that you should be putting your own at some risk. It gives a solid workman like edge to the pleasure.
I hadn’t drawn a thing or seriously put a brush to canvas for over thirty years. For a lot of reasons, it seemed sterile and just didn’t work for me anymore. Too much darkness. Tainted and tired well beyond description. I still felt the compulsion to have that simple thing back again, and in despair and as an act of desperation, moved to the medium of words. It was a bit clunky at first but it was like coming home; I’d thought all that stuff was dead in me but it wasn’t.
The same old elements of that first love of my childhood were still there, just as they originally were, but they’d just been hibernating, patiently waiting for me to come back to them; truth, structure, reason, tones, shades and some emotional resonance bigger than me. They were all still there waiting like old friends that I’d neglected.
Where it’ll take me, I’ve no sure idea. Absolutely none. I’ve just surrendered to it and I’ll find out. There are no guarantees, there never were. It’s about taking the chance of constructing something non-essential that’s still so important to you. Art with a capital A, it’ll never be, because art is now aimed at an aesthetic elite, whose sensitivities I simply don’t understand anyway.
No, scratch that. It’s not that I don’t understand them, I do; it’s just that I despise them for setting the bar so low. I think of what they do as a sort of cowardice. They don’t even try to talk to people. There’s no connection. They’re afraid of the judgement of the ordinary person, so it’s easier to aim enigmatic absurdities at the professional critics, to give them something to bicker over. It’s their irrelevant football and I’ll leave them to kick it around between themselves.
What I do and am content with, is more like the honest work of an artisan. It pays nothing, nothing is expected of it and in some absolute sense, it probably means nothing, but it means something to me and if it touches one single human mind out there in that vast listening silence of the internet, then it actually does mean something, if only just for that one single person. You. That’s the hope, that’s the hit, the faith. You open your heart up and I suppose wait to get killed but you don’t care really. You’re a veteran who’s still somehow in that cheapo wooden classroom on stilts beside the graveyard.
At the heart of all art is reason and that’s why I still believe in science. It’s somehow fudging its blundering way towards a definition of our perception of our world and it’ll never get there and I know it, but the hope is it’ll be making some progress. One more layer off the onion skin, one less mystery stripped off, one step closer and after a while, you realise it’s a process which can never end. That’s why science is so demanding and yet such an act of delicate seduction. I truly hate it being treated like an obliging world-weary whore by the pimps of climate science.
I’ve met a few people, who’ve seemingly had a life totally unencumbered by strife or misfortune, and though I’ve envied them for their luck, they were somehow shallow. They couldn’t connect to the rest of us ordinary mortals, who’ve not been so fortunate. They seemed somehow shallow and orphaned, and they knew it too. People like me make them uncomfortable. Looking at them and their totally organised, totally orderly and yet their desperately seeking Susan lives, I’d rather have gone through the pain loop, because their life has no zest in it.
If you’ve never ever been freezing, the pleasure of sitting in front of a fire you’ve lit after willing those frozen strangers you used to call fingers to hold onto that match just long enough to strike it, is beyond your ken. The philosopher Schopenhauer caught that idea; life without pain is meaningless. If you’ve lived a life of bland crap that passes as bliss, simple real pleasure is meaningless to you. It’s getting through terrible and cruel times that lends the better times a deeper context.
Every one of those times, I had to dust myself off and make a new beginning. Every time, I found out it was worth the effort, though initially it was just plain scary. Life throws us these curve balls, we cope with them because we have to, but if you hang on in there, show a bit of heart and abide in the face of adversity, the thing comes around. Mostly, you don’t have much in the way of choice anyway.
I’ve found joy in so many things that I thought unlikely. My helpless life-long love of a woman, the strangeness of my beautiful and still strange children who’ll be so much better than me, all those lovely friends, those dancing ideas bopping just outside the let’s be safe zone, those not so fashionable friends, those down home folks I love, those people who saw something in me and loved me and took me into their heart, all that great music, all those delicious books, all those words bip bip bopping around, like the land of a thousand dances. All those little kindnesses generously bestowed upon me by strangers. I’ve indeed led a fortunate life.
Don’t be afraid to hope, don’t be a whole life planned in front of you person. Perhaps be an awkward bastard. Or bitch. Your life and the way you choose to live it is not their problem nor any of their damn business anyway, it’s your own exclusive adventure.
Life is all about change and this is the start of a new year. Charge down the beach and leap whole-heartedly into that big, threatening, surging wave of change. The risk you’ll always run is that it might drown you, but so often in my experience, it washes you up on much more interesting and ultimately happier shores.
Have a care but take the plunge.