OBSTRUCTION

Here, idyll.

Surf in the distance, its soothing pianissimo thunder punctuated by the occasional foreground car.  Ultramarine sky.

But not one idea has done more than hover like a seagull over the shoreline. No stories, insights, flashes of inspiration. A brain made drowsy by a surfeit of summer. Or other things.

I’m a nighttime person, generally. Not that I sleep in. Middle-aged aches and a querulous bladder argue against bedly indulgence. So often the time after the boy and his mum head bedwards is when I imagine writing. Thinking fuzzied by the mealtime libation, ideas fogged by alcohol and the muddy lethargy that comes from watching summer sport on TV. An evening person, perhaps, but self-sabotage arises locally—a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Australian Open tennis evening sessions.

Lack of discipline is the most common get-out clause for writers trapped in a low orbit. As I trek through Irvin Yalom’s recently released memoir—a hero, I hate him—and read about his ‘mornings writing and afternoons exploring’ (Bali, Seychelles, Paris, Lake Como, Holy Homer, what a life) I recognise that under my sneering envy of his privilege lies an uncomfortable truth. I’ve never been willing to claim the keyboard. Really make a commitment and shoulder whatever sacrifice is required. The recent Rearview Mirror series at Vinyl Connection is my first attempt at greater-than-weekly writing in almost five years. Pathetic.

The surge of envy is entirely equal to the slough of self-hatred.

Self-confidence is vital in any endeavour. Somehow the ‘I can’ voice must overcome the stabs of doubt and the whispers of ineffectuality else the child is stillborn. Dead before arrival. Often thoughts and ideas appear on my inner screen like distant fireworks—brief explosions of light and muted cracks, low on the horizon and soon extinguished. Reading how Yalom spends time before sleep pondering and playing with plot and story ideas for the next day’s writing gets me thinking (again) about the ephemeral nature of my own sparks. A proper writer can bottle that lightning and tap it the next day like plugging into a wall socket. It’s not just practice, though that would help (as would a simple way to capture fleeting images). I remember lying outside at midnight in rural Jamieson, many years ago, sharing the rug with a friend as we gazed up at the Milky Way. She always seemed to be looking in the right place to see the meteorite. My sightings were peripheral; by the time my eyes flicked to the silver pencil-trail it was gone.

Yearning to decorate the sky, yet so muddily earthbound.

Brainbound, more accurately.
How to interrogate this process, despite its crushing familiarity.

An idea comes.

A writing idea, ‘cos that’s my thing.

Then something shuts down. Like a clamp, like a blanket. Like the night of an impenetrably empty space. As Piglet put it so eloquently, ‘A great big… Nothing’.

Invoking Pooh’s timorous wee friend is no accident. For all my ability to channel Owl-like pomposity and nihilistic Eeyore pessimism, it is the ever-fearful Piglet who is my enduring talisman.

An aside. I’m recalling the story where Piglet gets a bath—much against his wishes—and is highly uncomfortable until he has escaped and rolled himself in sufficient dirt to recover his familiar grubby persona. That feels a bit like me and therapy, to be honest.

Back to the brain. The shutting down syndrome. It’s a cerebral trauma response, where overload leads to stasis. Nothing revelatory there; the process is one I’ve been working through myself and with clients for decades. (Three ironic cheers for The Wounded Healer!). But we are not veering off into a psychological paper for two reasons. Firstly, I’m not remotely well-read enough on emerging research in neuropsychology to offer anything helpful, and secondly, I don’t want to. Correction: I am not able to. Even this level of disclosure has a part of me quivering with terror.

What’s to be done? Is this brain plaque capable of being dissolved by therapy and (or?) other healing processes?

Or writing? Around twenty years ago I purchased a book called Journalling For Joy. Ten years ago I took it out of the paper carry-bag. Still haven’t opened it though.

It feels like a race against time. Enough healing to write—really write, according to the desire of my crumpled heart—before the natural and unavoidable ageing process dusts away vocabulary from the mind’s blackboard, leaving only vague smears of regret… that’s the goal, I guess. Avoid regret.

Unless, of course, there’s a future in writing about not writing?

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CHRISTMAS EVE

It’s early on Christmas Eve, just after seven. Still and overcast outside; mild but it will warm up later. Not too much though, the high thirties days are promised for later in the week. This year we get a temperate Christmas.

The house is quiet. Lulled by the low cloud, birds have slept in; their morning chatter drifts through open windows. Inside it’s silent. The boy is still abed and Cal has gone shopping for Christmas supplies. I’m going early, she said, it’ll be nuts by nine o’clock.

Silhouetted against the window is the tree, dark against the grey-blue sky. Even in the semi-dark I can see the drooping fronds. If there was more light I could see the tree’s sagging shoulders and wilted waist.

Cal ordered an Oxfam Christmas tree. It’s well covered with decorations and tinsel, but they don’t hide the desiccated limbs and browning pine needles. The tree arrived on a stinker of a day—a hundred degrees in the old currency—and never recovered. Always striving for perfection, Cal wanted to buy another one and start again but I couldn’t face the dismantle-rebuild, the floor covered with scented hypodermics, so I said no. As each day has passed I’ve felt more mean.

In the afternoons when the summer sun slams through the window she looks sadly at our dying tree but it’s too late to do anything now. Maybe it’s a metaphor for the boy transitioning to adolescence. He’s holding tenaciously onto ‘believing’ and we’re going along because we’re no more ready to surrender the innocence of childhood than he is. A part of me, a hard-nosed bit, wants to announce to all and sundry that this will be the last year of  Santa. Never liked the materialistic old bastard anyway. But I won’t, and even as I write I’m working out how to stop the boy reading this, because he is entitled to his naivety, to his participation in this December ritual. Shit, his Daddy has even played Father Christmas and got paid for it!

Decorating the tree is a Mother and child thing in our house. My contribution is to hang a couple of Christmas LP covers on the wall and a string of lights in the front window.

When I hung the lights this year, there was the usual awkwardness of tangled wires and the nervous tinkle of the glass globes knocking together. As I hooked them around the edge of the frame, they tapped against the glass, a rhythm evoking memories. We used to be on your family Christmas tree, they whisper. A spindly fake pine made magic by the deep, vivid colour of the decorative candlelights. These lights are as old as I am, still intact and still willing to cast their fifties glow into a different suburban street.

When I turned them on this year, they flickered then went dark. I carefully went around the perimeter, pinching the globes into their sockets. After all, they’ve been sitting in an old suitcase in the garage all year. Touching each candle seems a way of re-connecting with them, bringing them to life. When I get to the last globe, a red one (they are the best—deep scarlet with a glowing heart) it breaks into my hand. I’ve squeezed too hard and the glass, a half-century old and more, has fractured. Oh. There’s some anguish in my voice. Cal comes in to check I’m all right.

It’s OK, I say, but there’s a tightness in my throat. She hears it and says nothing. I hold out my hand with the crimson shards. The family Christmas lights, I just broke one. She nods. You OK? I nod back. We’re both thinking of my mother’s death, in April but so long ago. That’s quite all right in one way, but the death of the lights somehow hurts.

I scrabble around in the box, so old it is a collection of bits of cardboard rather than a container, and find a couple of loose globes from another, long defunct set. I screw one into the string and flick the power point. The lights burst into life, except for the odd one. It remains dark, but completes the circuit.

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*

THE ART OF APPRECIATION

As I walk towards the Assembly Hall the feeling of ill ease comes up instantly, unbidden. In through the cyclone wire gates, along a pitted asphalt drive towards the large, squat orange brick building. State efficiency and sixties design.

Not quite belonging, not quite understanding the culture, not knowing what to expect but tense because it isn’t relaxing. That’s what my gut is saying. Why did I come to this reunion? It’s unlikely I’ll meet anyone I want to talk to, let alone connect with. It’ll be just like school; competition and suspicion, tribalism and isolation.

The reality is both better and worse than anticipated. Better, in that I now have a vague idea of who I am and thus little enthusiasm for antler-locking or displays of plumage. I can drift around, having repetitive shallow conversations with people I didn’t know well twenty-five years ago and have little in common with now. Like the buildings themselves, the people are the same but different. I suppose I am too.

A flicker of disappointment that my notional list of who I’d actually like to see remains stubbonly devoid of ticks. Would have been nice to hang out with a mate. And the fantasy of two girls I actually liked (but was much too shy and socially incompetent to ever talk to) showing up and being available for a conversation (I can do that now, if I concentrate; almost like a real grown-up) was dashed. Still, I raise a plastic cup of wine to their memory. To Julie Gill and Deborah Roberts: may your lives have unfolded richly. Salute.

The outsider feeling was strong. They say you turn into a teenager as soon as you step into your parents’ house. Applies to high school too, it seems. I wandered outside. A man who was a smart-arse with a smear of bully walks up to me as I pollute the cool summer air with a roll-up cigarette.

What are you doing these days?

It’s more a challenge than an enquiry.

Now this is tricky. If I say “I’m a Psychologist, I work as a counsellor” people can get spooked. Some primitive fear of mind-reading or instant analysis, I guess. Sometimes I used to offer reassurance by observing I was currently off duty and anyway I charge quite a lot. This usually did not have any helpful impact. Often the reverse. Plonker.

Feeling disconnected does not support empathy.

I’m a psychologist, I say.

Still on the front foot, he smiles. Or sneers.

Huh. People become psychologists so they can work out their own shit.

Yes, I say. Good, isn’t it?

He wanders off.

And it is good.

I learn from my clients. Sharing others’ struggles has made me a better man (and incidentally but happily, a better therapist. Or so I delude myself). I’m regularly moved by the stories and inspired by human resilience. It is awesome (ie: evoking awe) to witness the pull towards healing that is often revealed in our most vulnerable moments.

Sometimes my own shit gets prodded, but I’ve learned to notice and put it aside. Later I’ll reflect and maybe find something to take to supervision or my own therapy. (Still bountifully flawed, you see). My task is not to have worked it all out but to be able to recognise when something pulls me away from the person I’m with. Increasingly, my goal is not to do anything but to be with someone; the other …thou. Irvin Yalom and a phalanx of therapists helped teach me that.

But sometimes a little bit of concrete action is helpful.

A chap I’ve been seeing for a while is struggling with seeing over the wall of negativity that has grown around him. Not surprisingly, the thick foundations were laid in childhood and time and setbacks have added stone.

This week I remembered an exercise I was commanded to undertake by a mentor way back at the beginning of my career when negative was the only terminal of the battery I knew.

You have to practice, she admonished my miserable self. Regularly. Get a notebook, write down three blessings every day.

Blessings?

Oh for goodness sake, she snapped, call them Appreciations. Call them Enjoyments, call them Noticings. Just do it.

And I did. Partially because I recognised a truth in her robust sermon, and partly because she was a little scary.

Did it work? Hard to say. All change is incremental, and we all have to fake it until we can make it. Still, I’ve not forgotten that task in thirty years, and it came to me as I sat with my client. So I proposed the exercise, gently, and volunteered to send him a text to prompt action. Nothing wrong with a nudge now and then.

I sent the message. It was a photo. I thought I could benefit from leading by example. After all, we teach best what we most need to learn. Perhaps he will get something from it too. I hope so.

So thanks, Tony, for helping me remember that, in a shitty world, it’s worth noticing gleams of light, no matter how ephemeral or transient.

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PS. The middle one is a cricket reference. Ashes cricket, no less.

Another PS.  I had to share the friend’s photo with Tony, and I feel the same compulsion here. (Venice Biennale)

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AD VANCE

I’ve been reading a compendium of the Jack Vance stories: Tales Of The Dying Earth#, set in an unimaginably distant future where the sun, the very source of life, is expiring, it’s hydrogen stocks exhausted as it feebly illuminates a future primitive world with claret luminescence.

I still have my original paperback, excavated from a dusty secondhand bookshop in the seventies.  The yellowed, desiccated pages are only tenuously attached to the spinal cord, and this state of deterioration moved me to purchase a twenty-first century edition.

As I read the first part—simply called The Dying Earth—vague memories surfaced of the unconnected stories, but of the later instalments, nothing. Did I even read The Eyes of the Overworld?

It is an amazing collection of four books, dotted across the author’s timeline. A generous lifetime—ninety-six years—but not so much compared to the history of a world.

Vance was born in California in 1916, the middle of the first world war. Poor eyesight precluded military service during WWII, but such was his desire to contribute that he memorised the standard eye chart and thus gained admission to the merchant marine, indicative of a life-long love of boats and the sea.

The Dying Earth was Vance’s first published novel, in 1950 when he was thirty-four. It’s not really a novel, more a collection of stories in the same imagined setting, this wheezing Earth populated by self-obsessed magicians, freakish hybrids, and malevolent monsters (many of which inhabit human physiology). Yes, Vance’s distant future is powered by magic. And the fictional invention and prismatic flashes of language leap out of the pages almost seventy years later.

A sequel of sorts, The Eyes of the Overworld, came out in 1966. It follows the misadventures of an immoral chancer named Cugel (who is, indeed, a blunt instrument) as he attempts to reap what he can from the dying earth. The same unlikable anti-hero re-appeared in 1983, his name celebrated in the book title: Cugel’s Saga. A year later came the final volume of tales, Rhialto the Marvellous, focussing on the small but highly influential group of magicians who inhabit the end of time.

The pall of extinction hangs over these stories, giving a paradoxical sense of both denial and despair. In scattered societies covering the spectrum from puritan to decadent, mundane to supernatural, the folk at the shadowy perimeter of endless darkness are mostly focussed on day-to-day survival within the carefully constructed (yet rotting) fabric of exhausted humanity. Vance doesn’t seem to be much of a fan of the human race.

Yet here they are, in all their mutated and petty-minded glory, countless eons out from the birth of civilisation. A hundred thousand years of continuous procreation may have produced a menagerie of exotic sub-types, yet the parameters of everyday life—food, power, sex, survival—remain consistent as motivators, if unfamiliar in their modes of expression.

There are a handful of chapters still to read before Tales of the Dying Earth is returned to the shelves, leaving the light and warmth of the coffee table for the dusty museum of the bookshelves. In a (perhaps) unconscious attempt to delay the inevitable ending, I’ve been reading some Bill Bryson. I find I oscillate between fiction and non-fiction these days, like a tennis match between university faculties; Arts vs Sciences.

In A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson’s commitment to rational understanding and his almost raucous enthusiasm for language collide in a breakneck drive through the history of, well, life the universe and everything. What it says on the cover, really.

In the chapter I read the other day, Bryson reminds us, almost apologetically, that history is packed with species extinctions. Many, many more types of creatures have disappeared forever than are alive today, and there is absolutely no reason to expect the human race will achieve anything special in terms of long-term survival. If Jack Vance had read Bryson, he might not have bothered with his fantasy novels at all. It’s bacteria who rule, Bill observes. It’s their planet and they let us occupy it.

But for how long?

Here’s an analogy that really demonstrates our chronological heft in the 4.5 billion year history of earth.*

Stretch your arms to their fullest extent and imagine that width as the entire history of the earth. On this scale, according to John McPhee in Basin & Range, the distance from the fingertips of one hand to the wrist of the other, is pre-Cambrian. All of complex life is in one hand, and—in a single stroke with a medium grained nail-file—you could eradicate human history.

Fortunately that moment hasn’t happened but the chances are good that it will. I don’t wish to interject a moment of gloom just at this point, but the fact is that there is one other extremely pertinent quality about life on earth: it goes extinct, quite regularly. Species crumple and die remarkably routinely, and the more complex they get the more quickly they go extinct.

Sobering, isn’t it?

So tonight I’ll eat home-made pizza made by the lovely Ms Keyboard, gaze at the evolving boy with a mixture of wonder and love that is almost breathtaking, mediate the exquisite pain of existence with a good bottle of red, and try to be in the moment.

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# Jack Vance (2002) Fantasy Masterworks (4) – Tales of The Dying Earth. Gollancz, London, UK.

*  Bill Bryson (2003) A Short History of Nearly Everything. Broadway Books, NY, USA.

Feature image: “The Dying Earth” by George Barr (1976)