Still Spinning

When I started the Spin post the other day I didn’t mean to write about the media hype around the latest whatever it is to keep us on our toes; the latest fear to keep us in line; the latest threat to justify paying taxes and the 24 hour newsreel. I didn’t even intend to have a dig at the kids who see little past their smartphones and will be the first to perish when the power actually does go out for good. 

I didn’t intend to write those things but they were prevalent throughout the day and I did say that these posts should somehow reflect the day that they are written in a tiny snapshot of a way. If I can. I mean I’m still religiously writing in the journals. By hand. With a pen, that has actual ink. And I don’t think that that will ever stop. I don’t think it can, you see when the power does go off…and I have candles. 

I intended to write about actual spinning. In my head. It has come back and it’s disconcerting. Mostly it happens when I cough or change position quickly. I walked into town for a coffee with a colleague and she must have noticed me veering all over the place like I was drunk. 

Two years ago it struck fairly hard. I remember it like it was yesterday; I was teaching a year 10 class and my brain seemed to come loose from the inside of my head. I wouldn’t say it actually spun but rather oscillated back and forth like a VHS cassette on pause. I couldn’t stand up; I couldn’t see. My eyes were watering and my skin clammy with cold sweat. By the expressions on their faces I didn’t look too good either and I had to feel for the door and creep to the office. For months after I thought I had had a stroke; I thought it was a seizure; I thought I had a brain tumour. 

They ran the tests and found nothing and I was still getting dizzy and after a while it stopped. But now it’s back and I think that it could be stress. Too much thinking and analysing and trying to meet my ridiculous demands. Trying to force myself to write the amazing ideas that fling themselves mercilessly inside my brain in manic attempts to be let out. And there’s the girls to look after and the job to keep on doing. 

I’ll just have to see how it goes but I’ll probably be at the doctor’s again. I mean, what else can I do? It’s affecting work. It’s causing me all sorts of anguish and I really don’t want it. It’s not like I’m looking for something to define myself by so that I can know just who I am. I want the freedom of mind and the stability of the earth beneath my feet so that I can find the balance to write: that’s how I want to define myself. 

There’s a lot of writing to do… 

Africa Reflections 1

Digital Camera

It’s half a year and two full seasons since Africa and I really haven’t put my thoughts down in any sense of reflection yet. Pages and pages of notes, grubby with Zambian dust and frayed at the edges are filed neatly on the shelf above me. The things inside; the ideas and events that I recorded every minute that passed are safely stowed inside and by far the most precious thing of all the things that I brought back. But they’re different to what I need to do now with the advantage of hindsight and the perspective of time. 

I said it at the time and it remains true: I would go back there tomorrow. There was an affinity that I felt with the place and with the people that made me certain I could make a home there if I wanted to. There was a pace to life there that somehow seemed to synchronise with my own; an order of priorities that made a lot more sense that these western ways. A bigness of country and sky that lent itself to freedom and space that we don’t get on this cramped island of ours. 

But most of all it was the smiles. The smile that I wrote about in Joy  and that I saw on the faces of even the poorest and most wretched of souls that I met. A sense of the genuine article that knew itself and had known itself for a long, long time before the civilisations that now claim to know what’s best for the world. 

I am a part of this world of civilisation; it is in my blood and there’s nothing that I can do about that. But I didn’t yearn for it while I was away. I didn’t yearn to watch television or drive on tarmaced roads; I didn’t once wish that I could pop to the local shop and buy chocolate or a takeaway coffee in a plastic travel mug. I missed my girls, but that’s a different thing. I would have taken them with me if I could and it would have been hard to come home. 

But I find that I miss the Africa I knew for such a short time more than I missed home when I was there…since I got back I have found a new love for here. I have had to because I realised that there’s magic in all things when you move away from the plastic. But those local adventures are for a different post. 

These Africa reflections will try to tell the story of those days where zebras walked the central reservation of the city we stayed at for a while and elephants strolled between our tents while we slept; the world where the women held themselves so proud and erect as they carried their few possessions on the tops of their heads and where every market trader is your best friend. 

Joy

The little girl smiled at me. Her face was darker than the African night and shiny smooth. I thought a face this sculpted and serious couldn’t possibly smile, the same way that the ironwood sculptures they were selling on the roadside in the dust only stared, unmoved like the people selling them. It was not a scowl but I was intimidated nonetheless by this seven year old girl in the heart of Africa. Her name was Joy and she had the beating of me from the off. This was her back yard, after all, and I was a long way from home. 

And yet here I was, teaching her. Spellings in the local tribal language.  

“Benya” I said. “What does it mean?”  

And then it happened; that hardwood countenance melted and her face became suddenly alive and each crease told a happier story.   

I was glad she was happy “but what does it mean?”  

She said nothing, only continued to show those perfect luminous teeth, her face alight as she moved her head a little to the side that it caught new angles: bright sunlight trapped in the shadows. Each time I asked the smile seemed to strengthen. She was enjoying herself. But still she said nothing, just watched me; the strange creature I undoubtedly was to her, sweating in the cool of the morning, flicking at tsetse flies and jumping at my own shadow. She has seen me skirt a wide hemisphere around a ragged dog as I passed through the village, the rabies poster in the clinic back home clear in my mind; the malaria pills stashed safely in my money belt.  

She clicked her tongue and the dog sprang up, bounded over to her, then flopped harmlessly on its side and let her scratch its mangy belly. Joy smiled. 

Later I asked the teacher what it all meant.  

“Little Joy” I said “why did she do that each time I asked her what it meant? What benya meant?”  

It was the strangest thing. The teacher tilted his head a little and  beamed at me, just like Joy had. Then he laughed.  

“Mzungu”, he said, white man, “you put too much importance in words. Benya means biiiig smile.” 

School starts at 7 in Zambia’s Northern Province, but it is not sharp; the children trickle in as nonchalantly as the standpipe in the corner of the yard. First one and two at the school gate, grubby fingers curled around the chainlink. Then three, four until I’m standing shivering in the chill of the morning surrounded by a dozen or so eager pupils, clad as they are in parkas and beanies. Except for the red dust blown up by the passing ox cart, the fruit of the sausage tree hanging heavy above the tiny schoolhouse and the chorus of  strange songs I might be transported to my own gloomy October suburb at the other end of the world. 

The children know his shape from a distance along the road. It is seven thirty and the teacher is on his way and in no hurry; they slip through the fence, the sight of him their permission to enter, and pound the dust to the rusty swing set in the playground. Joy is there, beaming. She is carrying a dented paint tin and is eager to show me its contents. 

Teecha” she says; “Manende. Manende. 

In the bucket is what I take to be oysters; flat and greased and very black. I take one because she tells me to; everyone takes one and it is cold, slimy in my hand. Soggy newspaper; like the messy stage of papier mache.  

“It’s millet bread” the teacher explains; “Joy’s mum brings it each day because she can’t pay school fees. Everyone has to contribute something. Manende we call it.” 

I have taken the biggest piece and I watch as the teacher dips into the bucket and pulls off a much smaller piece and pops it in his mouth. He winks at me as he works it round his mouth. “It’s good,” he says, then swallows hard and strolls back to the classroom. 

Joy is watching me, expectant. She sees the bread that I’m holding limply in my hand. It smells damp and my fingers sink into the flesh of it. She draws her fingers to her mouth and motions me to eat. I think of Yorkshire pudding and Marmite. Her eyes are fires and now everyone is watching the Mzungu as he eats the black bread. 

Just smile, I think to myself, as I take the first bite. Just Benya. 

Spin

The kids are all talking about World War III. It’s the buzz word on the street though none of them really know what they’re asking when they ask if I think it’s going to happen.  

“Why would it?” I say. “What makes you think that it’s going to happen?” 

They answer invariably “because it’s going round on twitter” or “Because so and so said.” 

My god, what power to be the one with the big following and mini-intelligence that can smear these ideas across the internet and fling them out on the most susceptible media like mobile phones and social media. 

But they don’t really look for detail; they don’t ask about what has started the hysteria – not about an Iranian general killed in Iraq by an American president on the other side of the world. It’s there if they want to see it; it’s there for them to do the research if only they took the time or even wanted to know. But part of the point is that they neither want to know or care about knowing. It’s not the point at all: the point is that there could be an outcome somewhere down the line that might affect their own safe little rhythms. There’s some vague memory from a history class that they half-listened to about Franz Ferdinand. A war started there, didn’t it..? 

Do they think of the innocents dying in foreign countries? The misery on the streets; the fear of the children at night; the broken cities and the charred buildings. No. It’s too foreign and the faces too unlike their own to care about that too much.  

They don’t really fear for their own safety in this either. There’s a big city fifteen miles away and if that got hit there might be some effect but that’s very unlikely, despite the spin. There’s no real need to hit that city, either. It would be a long way down the list and there’s absolutely no chance of this little town getting hit. 

But then someone mentioned that they probably wouldn’t hit populations like that, anyway. That’s sooo 20th century. What they’d do, this is the new spin, is to hit the infrastructures. Out of town utilities. So dirty water, maybe. Might run low on petrol for a bit. All ok so far; some of them like the idea of a bit of disruption. 

Then someone says that they’d hit the power stations first and there’d be blackouts. No power. And there’s silence for a minute as they contemplate the romance of actually needing a candle and not just using one to make the downstairs toilet smell nice; maybe missing an episode or two of a favourite soap, but that’s not so bad because, they think, I’ve got my phone. That’s portable that is, don’t need to power for- 

And this is when it hits home. Only then that they start to stop mithering and muttering and actually pay attention. This is the hysteria and it would be fascinating to see. It’s a fascinating time to be alive, really. I quite enjoy it when I take the time to stop and think about it. 

But it is all spin. It’s hard to know what to take in and what to ignore. With all this noticing that I’ve just started to notice that I do I’m trying to limit what goes in. 

Does it matter that the US president hardly opens his eyes when he speaks? That his facial expressions make it seem like he’s being sarcastic – but then don’t trust me on that. I’ve never been so good with reading people’s expressions. Apparently I’m always carrying anger with me. Didn’t know that. 

I’ll be back with more spin in a bit…     

Degrees of Desire

At the end of the day things turn out as they’re meant to. It’s a case of natural selection. The mud sinks back to the bottom of the pond. All things return to dust in the end and sometimes in the meantime the things we don’t want to happen do anyway. 

If we could live with that and be a bit more patient then maybe there wouldn’t be so much of a mess. It is a mess. You must be a able to see that as well as I can. It’s all so temporary and plastic and cheap and we put up with it so that we can keep up. Fomophobia might actually make it into the dictionary this year. I mean ffs. 

It’s the way it is and we have to be brave or afflicted to resist it. I resist as much as I can and I’m not brave, simple unable to keep up. I’m too busy counting the patterns on a new carpet or listing the jobs I won’t do today. 

I notice, though. I see them pass me by, these plastic people who run the world and influence the rules imposed on me. These phony figures of authority that slide past me as I stand still and feel the current running through my fingers. As I wait to be called up to my rightful place but lack the desire to get there on my own.  

Degrees of Desire. That’s all it comes down to in the short termage of it all. It is mightily unsatisfactory. But it will all work out in the end when there’s no one there to see it.

Trauma

Awake before dawn to talk of a distant winter farm. It doesn’t feel like winter. We are on the other side of the solstice now and there has been no winter. Lots of grey; plenty of rain. No winter. We will need a winter soon just to reset our mood.  

A work day. A real Monday workday with the steady growl of traffic along the back. From time to time the show-off neon glow of ambulance or fire engine eerily sliding by in conspicuous silence. The threatening rumble of a heavy lorry putting the morning into context and shaking me into action. I have to find action from somewhere. 

And then I’m on the high street and it’s still dark. My pack is heavy and I can’t remember what’s in it but I’m sure that I need all of it. From time to time I’ll check that my book is there, safely stowed into the secret compartment at the back. Against my back. I run my fingers in there to feel the familiar texture, the shape and weight. It is a burden I carry willingly but I wish that the morning ambulances would announce their arrival with a distant wail that gradually approaches. I cannot abide the sudden invasion of that pervasive light. It is enough that it fingers through my windows at night. 

This will be it for a while. A little freedom on the walk in until the minute I walk through those gates and I’m no longer mine own. 

There are no bells but the rigidity of the need for routine hangs in the air like the aftermath of a knell. This time, that time, here there, this, that. None of them my places and all of them another inch of me consumed; swallowed by the order of things that is more a part of me than the chaos of the break. It is gloriously comforting to be consumed by the monster.  

If only I didn’t have to face all those faces. If only I didn’t have to have those repeated banal conversations: 

‘Hi’ 

‘Hi’ 

”Happy new year’ 

‘Happy new year’ 

‘Good break?’ 

‘Good thanks, you?’ 

Oh the bullshit waste of time of it all. No one cares. They stop listening even as they’re half-way in. The full routine of it. It is marvelously comforting all of; the useless unfeeling bullshit of it all. 

I told myself today, after the recent diagnosis of the thing that I can’t yet talk about that I must not let myself be consumed by it. It is just a cloak that will turn me into something else while it wants me then spit me out when I’ve done my work. 

I am shamefully pleased at the end of this day that I am mildly happy with how I got through it; how maybe I even enjoyed it a bit. Because it’s different now and I have vowed that I have to shrug off the disguise. Must not let it fool me any more. I’m not fooling anyone. 

It’s another comforting trauma. 

Grip

I’m absolutely certain now what it is. No. That’s not right. It’s not what I mean. It’s worth getting it right before we go on. That’s part of the point, after all. I’ll start differently. 

I’m absolutely certain now what I am. That’s more what it needs to be. 

The trouble is that I can’t say the words. I know the words, I mean, it’s been a part of my professional career to know these words and what they mean. An irony is that I shunned these words and often rejected them as justifications for the behaviour of individuals. I can’t say the words now that I am certain that they apply to me. Not just yet. That, and the rejection of others’ adherence to them are just more signs that I’m finally right. That I’m finally there at the place I have always been destined to turn up at one day. 

Maybe if I was a kid in these times I would have got here many years ago. Maybe my life might have been different. I think and have thunk this a lot even though it hurts my brain and is useless. 

If things hadn’t happened in exactly the way they did for the last 43 years then I wouldn’t be precisely here with precisely the people that I have. I wouldn’t have my girls and all suffering is worth knowing them. 

The question is, now that I have realised that all that has passed and the grey fog that has followed me all places; that has coloured relationships and found and lost a lot of good people; that has made people think me an arsehole just because of the way that I have said things. Sometimes I look back and realise that even a look or expression that I have given has defined the course of events or relations. The tiniest flutter of an eyelid seen in the wrong way: a butterfly effect. The question I’m getting to is what happens next? 

I’ve got through this far, this ridiculously far, because of the mask. The act. The great show. All the world’s a stage and this performance has been going on for decades. Plath wanted to unpeel.  

I’ve never been me and I am so tired. 

Awake?

It has not been an easy Christmas and I’m still unsure why. The trimmings were all there and twinkling as they are meant to; the food that was cooked up was (as usual) exquisite and the time with family in our wonderful home was exactly as perfect as I could ever have hoped it would be before I had any of this. 

In truth it’s always like this at Christmas and I always put it down to the ridiculous weight of expectation that is built up in the extensive run-up to the holidays that starts the while the kids are still counting their trick-or-treat hauls then dissappears in a puff of glitter the minute that the 25th is over. It’s a kind of grief. A bit of a shock. It’s the intensity of the term of school that is then turned into the blissfully solitary days between my last day at work and that of my girls. 

I have always let the season carry me away and dump me in the new year; I’ve always relied on the resumption of the school routine and the familiar faces to slot me back into my comfort zone where things are predictable and nothing ever strays too much from flatline of expectation. 

But it’s different this year. I haven’t put my finger on what it is that has made me realise it but I’m seeing things differently. I’m exploring possibilities that I had never before entertained and it might be that I’m simply no longer willing to accept that this is the way that things are and that the way I’m feeling on this eternal roller-coaster is the way that it will always be. 

It’s probably a combination of things. It usually is the perfect storm that pushes things out of the flatline and I suddenly seem to have been forced to realised that a different approach is needed. Here’s a couple of things that have probably combined to push things just out of what is tolerable: 

  • The opportunity for promotion in my job that I thought I have been working for; that seemed so natural a progression came up. It’s a once-in-a-decade chance and that’s exactly how long I’ve been waiting for it. But I didn’t go for it. I didn’t go for it because I was terrified what it would do to me if I didn’t get it. Something similar came up five years ago and I didn’t get it and the recoil was drawn-out and devastating. I found that I had to reset my whole sense of self, and that takes a lot of time and effort. 
  • That’s not the only reason I didn’t go for it, though. The reason that I told myself was the real reason was that I wanted to free myself up the time and headspace to write. There’s no chance in hell that I would be able to write if I was in the role. This is absolutely the reason that I want to be the truth; that I really need to be the truth. 
  • I just wanted them to want me to go for it and maybe the most difficult part of it all is that, despite all that I’ve put into the place, not a single one of them came and asked if I was going for it. I think that’s all I wanted and while I detest that truth I think that being in a position to reject the opportunity would have given me a sense of empowerment. Somehow I need that. 
  • I got long-listed for a piece of travel-writing that I’d put together in the autumn. It was a bit of a rushed entry to meet the deadline, but then I will always think that. The competition was international and for a major travel publication, so to get long-listed down to the final eight was quite something, especially when you consider that this was the first piece of writing that I had ever submitted anywhere. Great, no? I didn’t get onto the shortlist and so it all felt a bit of a failure. I know… 
  • I didn’t go to the staff party at the end of term. The thought of dressing up – both in black tie I would have had to wear and in the front I would have to conjure in my attitude and behaviour – were things that I couldn’t muster. The thought of it, compared to the thought of being at home in front of the fire. Well, there was no competition. 
  • That’s what it comes down to, really. I would simply much prefer not to have to be with people. I’m not sure what aspect of it I detest or fear so much but there are increasingly physical manifestations of my discomfort that are nagging at me. I really don’t want to ignore them any more for fear of what might happen if I push it too much. 
  • A number of times this holiday there have been occasions where I’ve been immersed in the past through old family videos. Videos that initially stretched back to the births of the girls and the early years of my marriage and then down at dad’s to the more distant past of my childhood. something clicked in me as I watched myself and as I realised that what I had been living was a life slightly out of kilter with everyone else. 

There were more things; little details that accumulate into a bigger and cluttered tapestry. So much detail; so much information cramming for order. A single day fills page after page of my journals as I record the looks I get from strangers; the comments of friends; the business of the world and the relentlessness of time. 

Something in me has woken up and seems like it’s about to shape the direction of my writing. I am not elated by that because I don’t trust it yet. I am cynical of ‘answers’ because they have flitted in and out of my desire to understand for the best part of four decades, but I am keen to be guided by this new direction because it does not fit into the cyclical pattern of all of the other things that I have tried.  

I invite you to come with me.

Oh: Christmas Tree

So we’re on the ‘that time of year’ thing again. You know, when I can squeeze in a minute or two to remember that Lennon was right…when I can leave behind the marking that just will not stop piling up on my desk, to the point where I’ve put a new pile at the back of the classroom. Which is also piling… 

So this weekend was the annual jaunt to the Christmas tree farm on the other side of town and a couple of hours spent picking through dead fir and pine and trying to decide which one to bring back into our home and cover with lights and sparkly, dangly things. Very bizarre, when you stop to think about it, but wonderfully quirky too and harking to an age and a reason that we’ll never fully understand.  

Very bizarre that I hardly flinch when the man in fingerless gloves and hi-viz jacket tells me that this particular dead tree is mine for £48. (Forty-eight). Bargain, let’s get the show on the road, the fun has just begun. 

Because now they’ve wrapped the thing up so it looks like some elongated hobbit-victim of Shelob that I, on the windiest day of the year, have to strap to my car roof with a bungee net that keeps snapping at my fingers when I pull it too tight and two young back-seat drivers who scream at every corner, convinced that it’s about to fall off. But that’s fine. I’m covered in sap and sticking to the steering wheel, and sweating because I had to wear the jumper with the owls and snowflakes for this one time of the year and the elf hat is cooking my brain. There’s needles in my socks from the myriad potentials that I had to lift, hold, twirl… 

But then we’re home and it’s fine and, after I’ve cut twelve quid’s worth from the base, the dead tree fits perfectly in the bay window and the girls, well to be fair, they’ve made it look amazing.  

But there’s still time for me to screw it all up, as I almost do when I get out the hoover to clean up the fallen needs and other debris from the operation and, before I know it the inside of the Dyson is glowing and flashing like a jar full of fireflies because I’ve only gone and sucked up the lead from the lights. Think of that scene in The Grinch where the Whoville residents are decorating their houses with that big gun which shoots of strings of lights exactly in position. Think of that in reverse and think also of baubles pinging everywhere, children screaming and a Dyson blinking lights from deep in its belly. A big clunking slurp of spaghetti. 

Think of me for the rest of the evening disassembling, retracting and reassembling the guts of the machine to free the lights. Think of me collecting errant decorations and replacing strings of lights, baubles, whatever. And this is all before venturing out of the of the bedroom window to hang icicle flashers from the roof guttering while sliding on the tiles in the dark.  

I’d say that I’ll leave it for another day, but it’s already done and, as it always does, the place looks lovely.