Saturday, 9 January 2010

The Whole Damn Life

PHLEBAS the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.

Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

From T.S. Eliot - The Waste Land.


Yesterday, I wrote:

This year, I resolve to:

1. Blog more.

2. Stay off the cigarettes.

3. Ditto, cannabis

4. Ditto, alcohol

5. See more of my mum and dad

6. Deal with the issues that are causing me worry.

The first one is easy. The other five are kind of inter-related.

I don't like change. Despite the radicalism, I'm quite a conservative (small c) person. Yet life is about change. Nothing stays still forever.
My first taste of that was when I was 10 years old and my nan died. She was only 59, although to me she seemed like an old woman. My mental image of her has her standing at the kitchen sink, peeling potatoes, with a cigarette in her mouth. I loved my old nan. When my dad told me she'd died, I understood enough to know I'd never see her again. It's difficult even now to find words to explain how that made me feel. How it felt for my mum to have lost her mum when she was only 30 must have been far worse.

A year or so later I was about to go from being one of the biggest kids in Primary school to one of the smallest in secondary. I remeber being troubled about it, and my Dad was quick to reassure me that everything was going to be alright. But that's not really what was bothering me. It was change that I didn't like. I didn't really understand it but the first existentialist inklings were starting to dawn on me.

Dear reader, I've been both fortunate and unfortunate. I chose not to face up to mortality. I chose not to grow up. I spent almost 30 years as a child. I had no responsibilities. I refused to carry my own weight. I spent most of my time and all of my money avoiding reality through drink and drugs. Almost 30 carefree years! Lucky me!

Except it was nothing of the sort. I was horribly fucked up. I was an immature, self-obsessed, arrogant idiot. I sponged off my parents, I alienated what few friends I had, and I ended up fighting with my Dad.

It couldn't last of course. Things change anyway.

One thing that changed was the effect cannabis had on me. It stopped being this lovely brown gateway to beautiful music and wide open thoughts, and became something much darker. Sitting on my own, in my squalid untidy flat, having just taken a nice big hit, the thought struck me...

"It's going to happen to me, too!"

I was about 30 years old, and the weed had just torn away the veils of denial, and left me staring face to face with the prospect of growing old, and dying. And I couldn't look away. These days I never can. If I smoke pot, then by association, or by chemical action, or whatever means, I get panic attacks. Physically, I go as stiff as a board, and start shaking uncontrollably. Mentally, I go off into a horrible funk. Everything turns to dust around me. I look at my wife and see her face wither and age in my minds eye. I see the same thing in the back of my hand. The paint peels from the walls. The roof timbers rot. Then as the peak of the drug wears off, this stuff stops happening again. Or used to. Getting through to myself that I wasn't enjoying the stuff took serveral years and a lot of bad experiences. The mental images of dissolution I can conjure up at will now.

At the moment, a lot of my time is spent worrying about the future, and it's spoiling my enjoyment of the present.

Neil Gaiman created a character called Robert Gadling, who does a deal with Death that means he is spared. He lives, unaging, from the 14th century to the present day. In his final scene, he meets Death and she offers him the chance to die.

Here's what he has to say:

I don't know. Death's a funny thing.

I used to think it was a big sudden thing, like a huge owl that would swoop down out of the night and carry you off.

I don't anymore.

I think it's a slow thing. Like a thief who comes to your house day after day, taking a little thing here and a little thing there, and one day you walk round your house and there's nothing there to keep you. Nothing to make you want to stay.

And then you lie down and you shut up for ever. Lots of little deaths until the last big one.

Every time I lose a chip from a tooth, I think of that thief. The same thief took all my grandparents. In the next few years it will take my parents. And my wife. Unless I go first of course.

I got a text message the other day, from my mum. She's just partially retired. She's had a hard old life in a lot of ways. Too much shit from other people. Including me.

I'm so glad I straightened out and that they can feel proud of me. I'm glad I straightened out while they were still around to see it. My last grandad's last christmas, I couldn't afford a present for him. I'd pissed all my dole money down a grid. There'll always be a burden of guilt attached to that memory.

Anyway, I got this text. My Dad had a blood test and now has to go and have a biopsy on a lump in his prostrate and bone scan. I spoke to him briefly on the phone the day after. He sounded cheerful enough about it, but I could tell that really he was terrified. He was quick to pass me on to Mum. Of course this could just be something benign, but he's 70 years old. In ten years he will be 80. then 90. Last timeI saw him, he was finding it hard to walk down some steps. I thought the old bugger was indestructable. He could do anything. He was built like a barrel, and he could do anything. Now he can't bend his knees. Something will get him before too much longer. Perhaps at some point you learn to accept mortality, but it hasn't happened for him yet.

When I was busy throwing my life away, he would get so angry with me. "You'll soon be 30, then 40" he'd say, which put us at loggerheads of course since what he was trying to make me see was the very thing I wanted not to see. The war ended when instead of trying to ram the future down my throat, he quietly said to me, "You're going to have so many regrets, Son.".

Days pass like nothing. Take 7 of them and you get a week. Take 52 of them and you get a year.

Bump. It's 2009.

Nudge. It's your birthday.

Bang. It's summer!

It's Christmas!

Bump. It's 2010...

6 years from now, my wife will be 60. Six years ago, I was starting on the path to becoming a driving instructor. If it's as short going forward as at is looking back, We will be there in no time.

The long hereafter? Well, in a way, I'm less bothered about the gulf of time ahead. It means as much as the billions of years that went by without me before I was born.

Growing old and dying terifies me. The actual process of dying? Well, it's what we spend our entire lives trying to avoid, isn't it?
Losing the people that I love terrifies and saddens me. I mourn their passing before they've passed.

There are things that help. One is the thought that I could get run over by a bus today. Not sure why it helps, but knowing that it could all be taken from my hands in the blink of an eye is somehow reassuring. Another is alcohol. If I get absolutely blindingly drunk, I stop worrying about the future for a while.

My liver took a beating for 20 years. It sits in my body, quietly ticking. Occasionally grumbling.
Alcoholism is no real answer. It's just a slow form of suicide, for people that haven't got the bollocks to jump off a bridge or take a knife to their wrist.

Anyway, this has become a bit more rambling than I wanted it to be, but I did want to put it all down on "paper". I thoought I'd finish with a couple of pertinant videos. The first is a song by They Might Be Giants. The second is a time lapse photography project by a guy called Dan Hanna.


Brenda Sharp said...

Getting old is an illusion. In the mirror the face that looks back at you slowly changes, but I am happier with it and my body than I was in my youth. My joints and muscles don't respond to my 'call to arms' as they did, but they get me everywhere I want to be, and let me experience everything I want to.

But the truth is I am no older than I was at 30, and I have no reason to believe I will ever age any more than I am today.

I am sorry that there is every chance I may leave you alone due to our age difference.But as Peter Pan says "Death will be an awfully big adventure" and I'm expecting to be ready for the adventure when the time comes- no wasting time worrying about it in the meantime.

Paul said...

Women live longer than men. I think I partly planned things this way so that neither of us would have to be alone for too long. Who can say?

I wish I could switch off the bad thoughts. I know I love you right here right now.

Jim Bliss said...

About six or seven years ago I developed some symptoms that I became absolutely convinced were cancer. Up until then I was under the illusion that I'd come to terms with my mortality (I spent a lot of time thinking about death in my late teens / early twenties owing to a combination of a large psychedelic intake and several close friends dying). I realised quite quickly however, when I thought I had cancer, that I wasn't at all comfortable with mortality. I was utterly terrified.

I was given the all clear cancer-wise and spent about a month light-headed with relief.

Then, the following year, I was actually diagnosed with something serious. It's not terminal so long as I keep taking the meds, though it will realistically shorten my lifespan by a few years. But given the incredible abuse that I subjected my body to over the years, it could be a lot worse and I'm certainly not complaining.

Those two experiences made me resolve to "deal with death" (as it were). After all, while I hope it's a few decades away yet, it is inevitable, and being terrified of the inevitable didn't make sense to me.

My decision to become a psychoanalyst was partly motivated by that resolution to deal with mortality. And while I won't claim that I know for sure how I'd cope if I found out tomorrow that "it's months rather than years", I think -- once the initial shock had worn off -- I have actually come a long way over the past 6 years. I think the terror has gone.

And the reason is simply because I've made a kind of peace with the life I've lived. Death is scary mostly because of the regrets we have... both the things we've done and the things we've left undone. But when you make the realisation that you are those things; that it couldn't have been any different; and that your life is given meaning precisely by its finite nature; then a calm acceptance floods into to those places where the panic and fear once resided.

The existentialists (and I'm talking about the folks who formulated and understood that world view rather than 18 year old goths who read Camus and write poetry about vampires... of whom I was one; that's self-deprecation rather than condescension) were lovers of life, and didn't fear death. Because death is exactly what makes life worth loving (and living).

Sartre laughed a lot.

Paul said...

thanks Jim. I liked that. So the clever, compassionate me is a valid part of me, but the selfish, escapist, lazy me is just as valid. It's just who I am. The Dice Man described it as the Huck Finn/Horatio Alger game.

I'm not sure if that means that we shouldn't strive to cultivate our good bits and deny our flaws. If a refusal to accept that we're flawed can cause such dissonance. Look at the hang ups people get about sex, for example.

But I'm not totally comfortable with that either. If I were to describe myself as an alcoholic, that doesn't mean I should get drunk every day, because it's part of me.