Notes From the Wasteland No. 19 ‘Teaching people is such a sacred thing’

It begins again. The working week begins. Although the space between the week and weekend is not always clear as I have to work at weekends too; I always do. This is just what I have to do. I have to make sure that my classes are prepared well in advance because even though my favourite part of teaching is the chance to talk around and between my notes I still always worry that I don’t have enough material. I have been teaching for twenty one years and this is the fear that always grips me. The truth of the matter is that I always have more than enough material, far far more than I normally need but even then this doesn’t satisfy me. I suppose this is because I can’t bear simply using the same material year after year and so it means that each class I have prepared I then have to rewrite and then rewrite and then rewrite. This is intensely satisfying and very necessary but also extremely exhausting. But I cannot have it any other way. Teaching is such a particular joy, one I have been so lucky to have stumbled into. But it is only a joy for me, and for my classes, I hope, if I come to each class and each topic afresh and with genuine vigour. The thought of coming to class having not prepared and ready to look like I really don’t care is only the kind fo thought that haunts me not sustains me. I will not be that so-what kind of teacher, that I used-to-care-but-don’t-anymore outlook that some people adopt. This is because it is such a rare pleasure to put a thought in someone’s head, see them acknowledge the workings of their own brain having had a gentle prompt from something I suggested, to see that spark ignite behind their eyes, it is such an honour that needs to be treated as sacred. And so, to me, anyone who abuses that honour by not caring, and daring to show that they don’t care, that they can’t be bothered, don’t, in my eyes, deserve to stand in front of anyone, let alone ruin that sacred relationship by refusing to acknowledge its sacredness. And though I sometimes grumble and complain, fearing that I am giving all my time and energy away, I realise, inevitably, that I am so honoured to be trusted to say things to groups of people, people who look to me for suggestions and conversations, for stories and different ways of telling them, for explanations and sometimes wonderful complications, that I will always do what it takes to make sure that no person leaves any of my classes feeling that whilst I may not have all or any of the answers, I will always at least commit to giving my all and everything every time.

And then again. Again. Again.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 16 ‘Can punctuation really save our lives?’

When questions circle and hide their intent through subterfuge and complication, as they often do, like people, lives, events, lifetimes, and consequences, how can we really tell when one question ends and another begins? Punctuation helps, it always does. It tells us when to breathe and such instructions are crucial to our survival. So punctuation is survival, then? It has to be, otherwise these sentences would run together off the bottom fo the screen and keep flowing forth and as they do they’ll draw the very life from us because the simple matter will be that we won’t know when to take a breath and normally when we don’t know about something as mechanical as drawing breath is likely to be just before we draw our last.

Breathe. In. Out. One more. And again.

And as before, we type anew and more words form and paragraphs multiply like raindrops in the puddle that is my laptop screen and sometimes when they do we know that they need taming and shaping, putting into place, and we hope that punctuation can help achieve this aim but when a raindrop hits a puddle it doesn’t sit separate and wait for permission, it simply merges, becoming part of the whole. And we all hope when we write that are words fall like raindrops and fill puddles and overflow their edges and then spread further like a tiny rivulet that swells in turns and starts to race just that little bit faster until more water forms and the tiny becomes the larger and then the larger still and the words that are our raindrops reach enough people to soak them with their wisdom and nourishment. But some raindrops don’t reach puddles to form streams and gurgle like torrents, some raindrops die trapped on greedy leaves. And that is not where you want your words to fall, drying in the sun and evaporating without trace.

I want my words to make an ocean.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 17 ‘How I manage when people let me down’

They always will. They always do. People always let you down. And when they do you won’t be surprised because you’ve been let down before and you will be let down again. And again. And again. Sometimes, it will be an enormous letdown, when someone you love doesn’t love you any more. Or never did. When they reveal that everything you thought was right was actually, totally, spectacularly wrong. So wrong that the word loses all meaning in its enormity, like a planet blocking out the light. And when that happens, and it will, or already has, or will happen again, there is no shelter or shade from the blast of this searing heat, all stripped down bone-bare and beyond.

It might also be the smallest of letdowns, something minor, minuscule even, inconsequential to most, unimportant, in their eyes anymore, but the importance, minor or otherwise, becomes magnified in our minds due to the fact of our disappointment and whilst it might be something as mundane as someone running late, or not calling back when they said they would, or a million other small actualities that result in the facts of our lives being constantly more complicated than we first imagined, it becomes less mundane and much more magnified in our worried minds.

But then the letdowns accumulate. Like trains running late, each letdown has a knock-on effect, altering the timetable of our life and impacting on every rail and at every junction. Not to mention that feeling of not getting to where you want to be, to be delayed, held back, to be caught in someone else’s time, not your own. Someone else’s. Always someone else’s. And the feeling of being on someone else’s time is not a good feeling, always waiting because with waiting comes hoping and with hoping comes disappointment.

Disappointment. The crush of knowing that the thing you thought would happen is also the thing you knew would never happen, but you thought it might anyway; just once, just one time. Disappointment is a weighty reason not to look to other people, a reason that endlessly justifies the decision you made the last time someone let you down – this, this is the time that I will not let someone, anyone, let me down again. Not ever. Not now. Not again. But again is a hard word to avoid and so the next time we make such a declaration, for the same reason, with the same words, their meaning loses some sheen through being said over and over. But not again. These five letters loom large, a monument to the automatic repetition that is my default position.

Again.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 15 ‘How to Want Something’

Am I allowed to want something? Someone? Am I allowed to want so hard that every other thought that fills my head is warped by this want? Not warped in the sense of malice or evil but warped in the sense of bowed somewhat, moved slightly out of alignment. And how does this wanting work? How do I accommodate this wanting? Do I fight the urge, suppressing the feeling by starving it of thought and effort, like a house plant badly tended? Or do I allow the want to be part of my everydayness? Do I greet it in the morning? Let it accompany me as I go about my (currently limited) business? Set a place for it at the table as I settle down for lunch? My want is a constant companion, after all. It whispers in my ear over breakfast and screams in my head after midnight. My want would prefer it if I didn’t sleep. Why would my want want this? Then I would be able to dull its tone, even if only for a while. My want wants to be my pillow, my comforter, the only reason to close my tired eyes and then the same reason to open them up again having tortured for the whole time in between. That is my want. How could I forget? It reminds me all the time. As I type it is as if this want is beside me, guiding my hands, pressing the keys. Perhaps that’s a good excuse? It wasn’t me, it was my want. Wasn’t it? It always been up until now. Hasn’t it? Otherwise, how else can I fuel my fire? How else can I drag myself out of bed each morning and carry on trudging through the day’s relentless mire. More words to write. Another email here. Plans and preparations. The full-time-ness of my career. The part-time-ness of the ways I hope to change course. The pressure I feel from elsewhere. The pressure I feel from inside. The want is boiling now. It is glowing red-hot in the embers of my weary mind. Another tiring night beckons, as faces and dreams and wishes and desires all combine to cause my want to beckon me to where I want to be but can’t. Not tonight. Not other nights. maybe never ever one night. I do have hope but I do feel that hope is just the beginning, just enough to stop you giving up completely. And there have been times, dark times, tough times, painful times, recent times, past times, times to come, when giving up has felt so luxurious, so delightful, so pleasingly wonderful that the temptation is more than that just a plain admittance of defeat; much more, always more, more, just more – something more structured and elegant and planned and prepared but not executed.

Not ever.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 14 ‘How hard is it to let go of something?’

Have you ever wondered how easy it really is to carry the biggest burden possible and let it weigh you down on a daily basis? Like really wondered? I don’t know about you but for me the weight of my burden is a constant companion; always there, by my side, loyal, dependable, guaranteed to never leave me. This companion is familiar, comforting (almost), and kind enough, from its perspective, to devote itself to me. But what happens if tomorrow morning, or right now, or whenever I decide that I don’t want this this constant companion, this neurotic nursemaid, this bothersome bedfellow any more? Can I just put this burden down? Leave it behind me? Go my separate way? I know that I want to but the question still remains, can I? How will I do this? What will it feel like? Will I feel lighter? Less troubled? More at ease?

But what if I don’t feel any of these things?

What if I feel bereft? Apart? Separated? Adrift? Devoid of gravity? Unpinned to the surface of the world? I suppose the question really is, do I want to let go? I know what both answers are. I want to let go. I don’t want to let go. I want to let go because I want to feel different to how I feel today. Right now. Last week. Always. I don’t want to let go because I don’t want to feel different to how I feel today. Right now. Last week. Always. It is all I want. It is everything I have never wanted.

Everything.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 13 ‘I have just about had enough’

I’ve reached that point again where most things, most ordinary things, those ordinary things like work and home and the day to day of our lives, all these things are piling up to pull me down once more. This is not a dramatic cry for help, rather a quieter acknowledgement that the default position I tend to occupy is one of resignation. I am resigned to the fact that today, at this time, as I write, I am at the edge of my tolerance with everything. I’ll carry on, I always do, I always have done, but that doesn’t mean that my carrying on should be seen as accepting defeat, because it isn’t and I am not. It simply means that I still need to live and to work and to go about my daily business, because my daily business is all I have to go about – it is my business after all. There have been times when I have felt determined to carry on, and that that determination has been tiring, wearying, crushing, numbing; a fight in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, obstruction, provocation, or just simple difficulty. There are other times when the need to continue is still the same need but the impulse to continue is less pronounced and more one of gentle effort. But everything is always a fight. Everything. This is especially true when I look out my window to consider the absolute darkness fo the world right now. As I see the awful view of anger and pestilence and ignorance and more anger, the terrible ache of ignorance as it gnaws at people and causes them to rage and fight and kill. When I see grinning, grotesque faces urging harm and hurt on others. Or others clutched by complacency, gripped by indifference and only fuelled by personal desire, making decisions that suit themselves first and others last, if at all. Outside my window, through the glass, out into the world, it is dark and dangerous place to be right now. I am safe right now, that’s true, and I am separate. I am loved by people and feel protected by this. I am wanted by some but, sadly, not by others. These are the basic dimensions of my existence, the current coordinates that locate me in the spaces of my world. And, in defiance of all that I have outlined previously, I won’t be pulled down today.

I simply won’t.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 11 ‘I’m happy to say that I’m not always happy.’

I’m happy to say that I’m not always happy. Not in the sense of a joke or a tongue-twister; that’s not what I’m happy to say. I’m not being glib, or facetious, I’m not downplaying or undermining anyone or anything. But I am happy to say that things are not always light and bright for me. The darkness is always there, just over the hill, only as as far as the end of the day, the next passing cloud, the step I take after the next one. This is not a confession or a realisation. It is nowhere near as dramatic as that. This is just a simple statement of fact. Not that there is anything simple about simply being happy. Far from it.

I look back as far as I can to see where the darkness was born and I can only say that it was possibly always there inside of me. And outside of me. There is no blame. No one who knows me is responsible in any way for anything. That’s not how this works. I am only responsible for myself. Perhaps this is a luxurious position to occupy? As always, I can only speak for myself. For other people there are other reasons. That is understood. When I survey my past I can identify events and situations, as we all can, but the same can be said of my more recent life. Indeed, I feel that this more recent life has been far more profound in terms of its impact on me. Far more. In fact so far more that I am only slowly beginning to realise how profound. Hence each one of these slowly typed words.

The pandemic doesn’t help. Pandemics never do. But that’s slightly counter-intuitive, like blaming meat for rotting, or vacuums for filling with air. If it wasn’t this, it would be that. And if it wasn’t that it would be something else. Or something else. Again. Ad infinitum. Perhaps the pandemic does help? And nothing in this last sentence is meant to downplay anything whatsoever to do with the global misery and horror that the pandemic has brought upon us all. But perhaps the pandemic helps me to find the time to sit down and think more deeply about things. Mortality does that, I guess, and I have been as mortally afraid of the virus as everyone else. Outside the window of the room I’m currently writing in, the surge in cases is truly extraordinary, as it is elsewhere, and were it not the reality of our lives it would be another hold that Netflix can cleverly have over us with their current capacity for compelling storytelling.

So why am I happy to say that I’m not always happy? Is that even a thing to say out loud? It is. And I’m happy to say it. Because the alternative is not to say it and not saying things is something I use to do too much.

Far too much.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 10 ‘Do you think about people you no longer know?’

Do you think about people you no longer know?

People you used to know, intimately or otherwise. Either last week or years ago. Not because they are dead but just because you no longer know them. Do you wonder what they are doing? How they are? How they are feeling? Do they still like the things they like? The things they don’t like? Are they laughing? Crying? Happy? Broken? Or just somewhere in between like always? I suppose at the heart of this is the thought that maybe they are thinking about you? Wondering how you are doing? Remembering the touch of your hand on their skin? Your voice in their ear? Just remembering? I suppose at the heart of this is also the thought that probably they are not thinking about you? They’re not wondering how you are doing. They have long forgotten the touch of your hand on their skin. Your voice in their ear. No longer just remembering.

Do these questions linger? Do they stay with us like a taste on our lips? A flash in our thoughts, an interruption; occasional or often? Do they lay in wait for us? Are they lurking somewhere, silent and hidden, like the ultimate prank, with time bided and everything? Or do we just forget, remember and then forget? We can’t hold every thought and feeling we’ve ever had in equal suspension, knowing the contours of each simultaneously. That’s just too many stars to try and see in the night sky. But imagine if it was possible? Like the roots of some fabulous tree outlined in the soil that is our brain. Each gnarl and twist visible at the same time. I once went somewhere so beautiful that it was impossible to take it all in with my eyes. Photos were no good, with their frames and aspect ratios. The views were just too big and too vast and far too amazing. And even though I wanted to see everything at once I simply couldn’t. The vastness was a reminder of the limits that are forced upon us by such things as biology, limits that chafe and deny but defy defiance.

All of this is fine and well until you see the person you no longer know. In many cases, this doesn’t ever happen, geography and other guardrails prevent us from these encounters. But there are always times where we do see these people, maybe from afar, online, up close or any other combination of time and space and place. What do we do then? Pretend we never knew them at all? Hope they don’t see us? If they don’t see us then that’s something but what if they do? What do we do? Chat? Smile? Blush? Cut them dead? Look over their shoulder? The answer is that there is no answer until such times and we need one and then we won’t know. We may wish the worst for someone and rehearse for years the thing we want to say if we ever see them again. And then we see them and our long-brewed rage subsides long enough for us to force a small smile. Or forces us to because at the moment we had dreamed about for so long we learn that the fuel that flamed our fire had exhausted itself at the moment of meeting. Or it doesn’t and we don’t and then we do and all the fuel we had stored for years pours forth in a final act of futile firestarting.

So the question is what are we supposed to do about this thinking and these thoughts? We can’t ignore them. I can’t, anyway. And in any case, why should we? Should I? After all, these thoughts about these people are part and parcel of what it is to simply exist, to be; to be conscious of our past and mindful of where it points us forwards. But they are also about what it is to love and then love no more. Sometimes the choice to love no more is out choice, we decide and the deal with our decision. Other times, this choice is not ours to make but is made anyway. We have no choice for if we did it would always be the case that this would be something we would not choose.

But I cannot speak for anyone.

I can only say for me.

Notes From the Wasteland No. 9 ‘What means the most to you?’

What means the most to you?

People. Obviously, and endlessly. Absence is absolute. It is for me. Connection is everything. The only thing. Real. Profound. Deep-felt and long-lasting. If ever severed or broken, then all else that follows is broken too. Even though we wish it wasn’t.

But wishes are the winning lottery tickets you never bought. The face we saw but never kissed. The hand we never held. The life we never lead because we have to lead another. That other life. The one we might not have wished for after all. But where does this leave us anyway?

Perhaps wishing is only wasting the chance to wonder?