There’s a section on the M6 heading north, just around junction 37, when the scenery changes and you know you are in the Lake District. You know you are in the Lake District even though there is no lake and no sign of any lake, the lakes are all elsewhere. No: it is the hills. There is something about them, they rise all soft and rumpled like the skin of a pug, there’s a velveteen sheen about them that is just wrong, you know it’s wrong even if these are the only hills you’ve even known, even if they’re the kind of hills which generate a feeling of comfort, a sense of home. They are still wrong. Their nakedness is wrong, their smoothness an aberration. Somehow you know that at this latitude, with hills like those and weather that forms lakes in massive abundance, that those hills should be covered in trees. And they’re not. The reason, of course, is plain in the form of all those little white dots scattered around munching everything that grows above hoof level, but it’s not sheep that interest me in this view. It’s those strange hills, the streambeds like runnelled scars, chunks of flesh torn from the bone. And it is bone they most remind me of, old bones found in the woods or the wilderness, denuded of the flesh that makes them into something more – a human, an animal. Bones so old they’re covered in moss, the kind of bones children find and play with, not knowing, really, what they are. Is this the source of the discomfort? As though these hills, with their cropped nakedness, are just the bones of hills, remnants, the ghostly echo of something once fulsome with vivid life?
In the supermarket this morning I was thinking about the desire for things we do not need, the way in which it shapes and directs us, and whether the supermarket is merely a reflection of it or a source of it, a chicken or egg kind of question. Supermarkets have changed since I was a child. When I was a child the supermarket was about the size of a ‘local’ or mini-market or whatever the term for such a thing might be now. Our local supermarket had four aisles, an equivalent amount of space that might now be taken up by beans and ham and breakfast cereal and coffee. The ham section in the supermarket is a constant source of wonder to me. Who knew that ham could come in so many forms, so many different shapes and flavours, sources, such an array of cost and packaging? My supermarket has an entire section dedicated to ham, not a great comfort if it’s beef that you desire. I wonder about the burgeoning fascination with avocado and quinoa, and where the desire for these things have come from. Is the desire manufactured by the supermarkets? Or do the supermarkets respond to a desire? It seems an unsolvable question. If avocado was not in my supermarket, would I want it at all? Would I miss it? Would I feel that I was missing out by not having it?
[in fact I do not like avocado at all]
This question is not limited to the exotic, the unusual fruits and vegetables that aren’t commonplace here. The question is as valid for ham, for cereals, for coffee, for pasta and rice and potatoes (the array of potatoes is almost as impressive as the ham). When I was a child and we went to the supermarket, we might be able to choose between two types of ham and if we chose one of them I didn’t feel bereft of the kind we did not choose. I am not sure if we need all this ham. But if we don’t want it, what do we do about it? We could not buy it, of course, yet the fact that it is there, that we could try it, generates in itself a desire which directs us to purchase it. We eat the ham. Are we better for it?
I have been reflecting some more on my list of things to give up or stop doing, the idea of letting things go is quite appealing. Yesterday I gave up checking my personal e-mails, just for the day. I didn’t surf the internet except for work (and even there, only a little). At lunchtime I went to the library and failed to find the book I wanted to read (Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) or a movie I wanted to borrow (L’avventura, or Solaris). I did not borrow a book, I simply wandered around looking for and not finding things. Maybe not finding things is something I can add to my list. On the train I read my book, but I didn’t plug my ears with music. It rained a lot. I lay on my back on the sofa and looked at the ceiling. I looked at the square of light I could see through my window: it was grey, featureless. That was how my life felt.
I realised there are some other things I can give up, my list is growing. Last night I added to it:
- Not knowing
- Missing out
- Being unprepared
The first and the last are the ones I am least adept at, especially as the internet – such a noble idea – is a random desire generating machine which allows us to seek out things we would not otherwise be able to seek, and to know things we would not otherwise be able to know, or at least not so easily. Once, as one of my colleagues adeptly pointed out, to find the paragraph or two of knowledge we were seeking we would have to read an entire book and we would find our knowledge but we would also find a bunch of other things we weren’t expecting and the richness of knowledge which came from that is becoming a thing of the past. Now we can simply ask Google or Bing and Google or Bing will tell us exactly what we want to know, but the context, the peripheral knowledge which might lead us to know something more deeply, with greater nuance, is omitted.
The internet is most successful at enabling us to buy things we do not need.
Being unprepared, I think, is my Achilles’ heel. Or, rather, being prepared. I am always preparing, planning, scheming and making lists. Like this list. I am already making a list of things to do when I’m on holiday in 2 weeks; and then again 3 weeks after that. I am thinking about what to do for my daughter’s birthday and for Christmas, and I am thinking about the fact that my boss is retiring soon and what will happen when he does. In the back of my mind my own retirement looms, though it is at least 20 years away. I am planning meals days in advance. I am planning my work, my reading, what I’ll write about. I am thinking about how I will think about what I am doing for the rest of the day. I cannot stop planning. Planning is why I have a freezer full of food I’ll probably never eat, and food in tins and cupboards full of flour. Planning is why I have 1,000+ books on the shelf, about a quarter of which I have not read and might not ever, Planning is why I have a drawer full of socks, and Tupperware pots and pans which haven’t seen the light of day in years. Just in case. Planning is why spontaneity takes me totally by surprise, why I have never spent an afternoon boozing in the garden, or taken a day off work to sleep, or indulged in any other slovenly or self-indulgent behaviour. I am beginning to wonder if I’ve missed something fundamental by this. I am resisting my desire to make a plan to be spontaneous.
I have been thinking a lot today about silence and absence, about darkness and emptiness and taking pause to listen and observe and not judge. Last night we watched a movie on Netflix called The Circle. It wasn’t a great movie, it wasn’t bad either. It was about an organisation that provided social networking, I guess it is likely modelled on Facebook, and the organisation is called The Circle and when you work there it takes over your life. The main character, played by Emma Watson, is co-opted into going for ‘full transparency’, that is she allowed the organisation to project every aspect of her life and she interacted with the people who commented on it, and of course it went wrong. Privacy is an essential part of our existence, we need quiet spaces into which we can withdraw and re-centre ourselves, to figure out who we are and how we want to be. Total openness, total transparency, doesn’t permit this. We show ourselves warts & all as an act of intimacy. It is impossible to be intimate with the entire world. Something fundamental is lost in the process.
I was thinking this morning about the implausibility of writing anything meaningful in an era when every person with access to a keyboard, or a keypad, and the internet is screaming silently into the void day in and day out. Myself included. We have been told it is good to talk, that we will all be fulfilled by self-expression. Maybe what the world needs now is a long dose of silent reflection. Myself included.
And I have been reading this wonderful article by Jenny Odell, which was in fact a talk, about doing nothing, the value of doing nothing, the ways in which art and nature can subvert our thinking and remind us what is important, how to allow time to pass and not feel we have to spend it. As though all time is currency; in fact it is hard to even talk about time without falling into the idea of spending time of using it, as though it is a resource which only matters when it generates currency. I came to realise as I read this article that the entire reason I wanted a cat – notwithstanding the cuteness, the companionship, the joy that comes from sharing your life with another – was that having a cat gave me an excuse to sit still, to stop doing anything. Oh I can’t get up because the cat is asleep on my knee. I must sit here doing nothing because the cat is simply forcing me to do it, it would be completely impossible for me to move. And this has worked so beautifully that we will, hopefully, shortly be adopting five rabbits and then I will simply have to sit very still outside in the garden because it is most important that the rabbits become accustomed to my humanness and human smell; and once we have both the cat and all the bunnies it will be simply inconceivable that we could leave them so I will be obliged to stay home rather than going on holidays or day trips, visiting relatives or travelling for work because the bunnies, after all, will need me and it would be unforgivable to let them down. Poor, innocent little bunnies.
I read another article today about a man, an artist, who learned a new skill every month as a way of reminding himself, again, how to be a beginner, something adults are not very adept at. And I was thinking this is a great idea, that I love this idea, but what I need more than anything is to learn to do nothing, to be quiet and silent, to allow the world to evolve around me without needing to intervene or to shape or to assert my selfhood onto it. If I were to make a list, it might look like this:
- Not speaking
- Not reacting
- Not asserting my opinion
- Exploring darkness
- Being very still.
- Not doing anything.
- Observing without judging.
- Thinking, silently.
- Emptying myself.
I still have so much to learn.
I went walking at lunchtime, not anywhere in particular but just moving around the streets. I wasn’t in search of a view, not an outer view anyway. I walked a long way and the more I walked the happier I became. My thoughts flowed freely. I was thinking about interest, how interesting the world is, how diverse, how changeable, how it offers itself to our imagination (as Mary Oliver would put it) and renews itself over and over. The world is an interesting place. I have always found it interesting, everything is interesting, there is always so much to learn. I realised, as I thought about this, that my whole life I have been unable to distinguish between what I find interesting and what I should pursue. I have pursued everything, I have followed every curious thought and I have driven myself crazy doing it. It is so hard to settle on one thing when there is always another interesting thing just drifting into my attention. Yet this interest, this desire, is pure distraction. I have failed to learn discrimination. Maybe it is time that I should, or maybe I should learn to observe all the interesting things around me without trying to claim them, to own them by knowing them. Maybe I need to become curious about not knowing, unknowing, about mysteries as mysteries and not puzzles to be solved. This itself was a puzzling thought. I have puzzled over it and I have no answers. It is a mystery. It is a good enough place to start.
There are days when, as they draw to a close, there’s an ache in the back, just beneath the shoulders, and it is uncomfortable and yet it is good because it signals a day spent active, doing things, making food, digging the garden, cleaning, working with the body. The body is not a machine, it is not a tool, it is not a container, it is what we are. We cannot separate from it, no matter how much we convince ourselves we can. When we use our bodies, we use ourselves. We are occupied, busy, working or playing. We are fully engaged, experiencing the world not just through the eyes or the mind but through all our senses. I ache today. I ache but I have been here, present in the moment. I have made food. I have talked with my daughter, we have played. I have walked. I have carried a heavy shopping bag and felt the sun toasting the bare skin on the back of my neck, a sensitive spot. I have sweated. I do not smell good (though my daughter says otherwise). There’s a faint buzzing sound in one ear and the regular beat of a clock ticking and, if I sit still enough, my heart pumping in my chest. There is a beautiful light coming through the window, the sound of an aircraft somewhere high above me. My fingers tingle, my body feels tense in places, numb in others. My house smells of sweet fried onions and the tang of chilli which catches at the back of the throat. How can I experience this except through the agency of my body, derided and under-appreciated as it is? I must love it more which is a way of saying, I suppose, that I must love myself more.
Sitting in the dentist’s chair I had time to think about pain, about perception of pain and fear of pain. I was not in pain. I was having my teeth hygiened, a process which is discomforting but generally without pain. Over the past few days I’ve had some sensitivity, and I mentioned this to the hygienist and she promised to be careful. I opened my mouth, closed my eyes and relaxed. She worked on my mouth. I forced myself to release the tension, the expectation of pain, a sharp, sudden shock, always on the edge of my mind. I wondered if the fear of pain is worse than the pain itself; it is hard to remember, pain is often so fleeting and transient, it is so long since I’ve experienced continuous pain. Pain, as opposed to discomfort. Discomfort is common: an aching shoulder, a sore back, legs burning after exercise. But discomfort and pain are something different, as distinct as pleasure and comfort though there is an overlap between both. I think about the pain of a nerve triggered, the sensation like sucking on a sour sweet, indescribable, at once sharp, tender, a silent scream in the mind, the body tenses with the shock, the mind consumed by sensation of it. There is an edge of desire to it, the desire to experience an all-consuming sensation, even an unpleasant one. But the desire, too, is fleeting. Pleasure, too, can be too much. True pleasure is overwhelming. The hygienist scraped away, pushing here, picking there. I stopped thinking, allowing myself to feel every bit of it.
In the evening we went hiking in the quarried hills. We travelled a new path, an old stream bed that had dried out, tumbled with rocks and sheep droppings. We climbed up to where we could see the thin, silvery line of the sea on the horizon, various pockets of water glistening like dropped coins, and then back down again to where the little stream cut through the valley. The water level was low, the water itself ran red with iron and other minerals, the reason for the scarred nature of the landscape. It was easy to ford the stream. We crossed and then climbed up the steep cutting, climbing up rocks and slippery moss, gaining hand-holds on the heather and bilberry bushes. It is the kind of climb I have not done in some time, one which required my whole body, and it made me feel a kind of alive that I haven’t experienced since my children were born, just me and my body pitted against the landscape, or not pitted against but a part of because in this way I am more part of the world than I ever am in my daily life, safely behind brick walls sitting on my manufactured sofa. Part way up I stop and look down and despite my vertigo, which would usually trigger right now, I feel nothing but exhilaration. I am high above the ground yet still on the ground, I am teetering on the edge and yet every step I take is as solid as the last and the next is just as solid as that. When I reach the top I am breathless, my arms ache and the wind whips the sweat on my face but it is marvellous to stand here, looking out towards the sea, the world’s great greenness, its extraordinary beauty, laid out beneath my feet.