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I started watching “Six Feet Under” after my dad died. It helped me domesticate death. We don’t have enough death in our lives any more. It's this extraordinary event rather than part of life. Season one is especially poignant as it follows the family members’ different approaches to and experiences with grief. It made me feel less weird. But grief is not easy to learn. And easy to forget. I find myself having the same approach to my friend’s grief as I had to my own at first – as something to get over. Not as part of me.
I was sitting on the toilet reading a comic books with an incessant buzzing in my ear. I assumed it was a fly so I just ignored it, especially as it sounded so weak, nearly plaintive. When I finally got up the insect flew right off my arm and towards the window – it was a honeybee. I felt silly, it could have stung me! I must have brought it in on me from the garden. The dangers of gardening… I pushed it towards the opening with my comic and it finally flew away, legs dangling and full of pollen. Mine?
It was talking to J in amongst her beautiful objects and white calm backgrounds I realised why I had gotten so upset at my friend back in Warsaw. We had bumped into their friends in a park, and were sitting under the wilting trees in a heatwave, surrounded by kiddies. She asked whether we’d have children, and when I said now did not feel like the right time she set off on the usual ‘it’s never the right time’ tirade new parents so often give you. My arguments were dismissed as irrelevant – once you have one you'll see.
It hurt me deeply, but I could not put my finger on why. It was talking to J I realised how precious and how precarious I feel about my job. It's an identity for me, and one I have fought for for years with my family, and with my own prejudice. For a moment I thought I was sorted, my job continuity guaranteed, and the desire to have a child bubbled up. But the moment insecurity returned, it sunk down quicker than a lead weight. Being an academic comes first. That’s the sundae. A child would be a cherry.
I love boring seminars. A summer’s day has come, all have gone out to play, and the house of my mind breathes freely. The rooms are quiet and empty, the windows open, golden light comes flooding in. Nets billow up in the breeze. From the courtyard far below, singular phrases and words filter through. They have travelled a long way. In the shape of soap bubbles, they float through the cluttered chambers. Dust twinkles in the shafts of light. The bubbles reflect in grimy mirrors, bob up and down immense bookcases, disappearing into the darkness of ceilings high above.
The soap bubbles collide softly with pyramids of precariously balanced knick-knacks, setting off sudden sliding, tumbling avalanches. From the debris quick and shiny marbles of new thought roll out, and travel purposefully across the floor. They make a satisfying hard sound, glass on wood. Bubbles keep floating in, one by one, like drowsy bumblebees. Rooms which were long closed or overlooked open up, and my heart beats faster with longing. The body wakens too, and shakes itself like a dog after too long a nap. My senses tingle. Silent and composed in my chair, inwardly I tremble with life.
It is calm on the other side. The light is bright and warm. In low voices, doctors talk and joke between themselves at the crowded IT station. The soft sound of Slovak is coming from behind the curtain where an older woman who had fallen is being entertained by her daughter and her husband, and her grand-child. They are singing to the baby as they wait for the osteopaths to get out of bed. I get up and join a line of women heading to the CDU. A calm nurse plays mother hen to this elderly and frail brood.
We shuffle through the cosy labirynth, and I glance the inside of the admitting area. On the other side of the glass is mayhem, pain, vomit and despair. Here, we are being offered coffee and tea in polystyrene cups, and pale triangular sandwiches. I would love one, but no thank you, not before I’ve had my sickness medication. I choose one of the big, comfy chairs, with a good view of the nurses’ station. I’ve got a feeling I will be here for a while. And I’ve had my share of scrunching up on hard metal benches.
My doctor has soft, cool hands as he touches my belly. The cannula goes in like a knife into butter. Ironically, I feel much better now than I had for the last four hours, when the pain was my whole reality. As he looks for a vein we chat about jobs. He has a good story. He left academia with a bang, winning his department half a million pounds of funding as a parting gift. He wanted to make more money for himself, and be free. I tell him I left the corporate world to be free to make less.
We poke fun at one another. A&E is just a bit of fun – short shifts, just a bit of a laugh. Well it seemed less funny when I was passing out on the dirty carpet in the cold entrance, and then waiting for two hours before even seeing a nurse. My neck is still sore, as the only bearable position was to let my head hang between my legs like a dead weight, and stay perfectly still, panting, while K stood silently by my side, impotent to do anything else but observe my pain. But all is forgiven now….
I catch the sight of myself in the hotel room mirror. Here I am. Still young, still fresh, full of mischief. Happy, bizarrely happy on this day of grey mists, uncomfortable sweats, and longing. The oysters were a salty, milky explosion of happiness, one by one, the whole dozen. I celebrated each of them, rejoiced in each of them, looking, smelling, dabbing, tilting the shell with its delicious load like a salute to the gods of the sea, and chewing, chewing, chewing until they gave up all their secrets, and my eyes closed, and my breast sighed with purest pleasure.
They tasted just like the smooth rocks one would scoop up from the shore of the sea, glistening, and stick into one's mouth, how could you resist, no I am not too old to do that. On the way back I stuck my hands in my pockets, feeling boyish, feeling light. I stopped at the crossing and stared at the marvel of the forth, lanterns on the far shore blinking in an unmistakable line of human life, across the gulf of darkness, under the sky of purest black. The magic of Edinburgh was upon me, in me, always, like home.
I curl up as comfortable as I can in the train seat, the landscape streams past. I've done no work today. I was planning on it, but K came back, meowing from the kitchen, ran up the stairs to put his face against me, and thoughts of ethics reviews and articles were quickly and easily dismissed. The accountant in me tut-tuts in disappointment. How long do I think I will be able to carry on like this, hmm? Working three day weeks? You don’t work as hard as you should, you know, you immigrant, you daughter, you sister.
But the sky is so grey and the disturbance of travel makes me close down and seek comfort in comfort, in warm sweaters, the book. I have stopped beating myself up, as much as I used to anyway. Life is for the living, after all. I turn the accountant off and focus on the texture of the table under my fingers, on the slightly disappointing taste of my eggs Florentine. I am here now. What more can be done. Life goes by fast. If you don’t stop and look at it from time to time, you may miss it.
I can see the patterns of the wood set out clearly in the table tops, like liquid gold mysteriously solidified, like the stripes in a certain kind of stone which looks like frozen velvet, or molasses. I am a bit tipsy, and a bit emotional, finishing my book at a brightly lit table in this pub in the middle of nowhere, full of strangers and their chips. Travel shakes the dust off me, and leaves me raw and naked. Vulnerable. The world presses itself onto me, so immediate it is nearly painful. Everyone, everything, is so real, and so remote.
Travelling through London is a sensual overload. So many people, so many faces. I could stand by the escalator all day long, just looking. The faces are so beautiful. Everyone is so composed, individual, wrapped up in themselves. They stand shoulder to shoulder, mouth to mouth, and yet it does not affect them. They do not reach out for a touch, for a kiss, they do not even look. Of course to always look, at everyone, in a day in London, would render one insane. But all this beauty, in its singularity, in its totality, passes one by. Such waste.
We are afraid of beggars because we are close to them. We are just a step away from penury, all the time. Just one accident away, one misfortune away. From time to time the absolute, animal fear of it seizes me. I could be that man on the side of the sidewalk. I could be that woman mumbling to herself. We pretend we are so far removed, we believe in our jobs, in our futures, as if something, anything, was guaranteeing them. Nothing does. The animal fear – of poverty, destitution, death – makes the blinkers and the harness of our lives.
We distract ourselves with the hubris of entertainment, intellectual and physical stimulation. We pretend we're not made of flesh and bone, we pretend we're not accidental, we pretend we are not vulnerable. This kid with dreadlocks, how does he get out of bed? How dare he have hope? This woman with her pot belly and flowing grey her, what is her bubble made of? How can she look so self-assured? How much money do you have to have before the fear is silenced? We live insane lives. We are insane, clearly deficient of mind, to go on like this.
Not far from crying. A sweet tingling in the arch of the nose, a tightening at the back of the throat. I could cry. But for what reason. I have said goodbye to a colleague and a friend. And yet it feels like I am leaving behind a piece of my heart, raw and beating. I know I love him. I think I know he loves me too. I think of ‘the Village’; careful not to touch. It feels like a gift to spend time together, these last few days, where I just settled into his house like I belonged.
Time spent in a bubble, of sunny weather, or domestic yet holiday spirit, only preoccupied with one another and our conversations. The kids were shy and absent, and so we had this strange ongoing one on one, too intense even at times, with his incessant talking. But now at the parting there is no hiding, and we hug so closely and sweetly, and he says he is going to cry. So there it is. And I am sure he is self-aware enough to know. And I wonder, does he discuss this at a kitchen table somewhere with a friend.
And it is wonderful to know I am capable of feeling like this again, still. It really is wonderful to feel this deep, deep tug, an oceanic current, constant, powerful. Just to feel it. To know it's there. A connection. But also a stretching. A desire to stretch in new directions, intellectually, emotionally. To live more. As my life has been shrinking lately. It feels like it. A shrinking inward, to conserve the energy, to safeguard against the world which seems hostile and hard and full of thorns. A self-reinforcing spiral in which we cling closer and closer together.
Until we fuse into one co-dependent ball of inwardness, anxiety, refusal, misanthropy. This made sense when I was home. It feels like K is on that trajectory, and I want to be with him, accompany him, I don’t want to be growing outwards while he's seeking comfort inwards. But perhaps this is not the right approach. A reinforcing of cosy negativity. I cannot live his life. But I can not foreclose mine. But then what happens to the joint journey? If all we can do is bear witness to one another’s lives, that surely cannot be enough.
All is not well. A sense of fear grips me. The other day I woke up and tears rolled down my face. I had been dreaming that K had told me I was not special, just weird. Not unkindly, but simply. My identity is unravelling. A series of disappointments. The Brexit fears first; stirred up by my toothy American friend. A week of reading documents, of frenzied anxiety. K just as anxious as me, not offering support I needed. Can I apply for citizenship? Rules had changed, I will not be able to until next year. And so we marry.
Not an unjoyful event. It does warm my heart to think of it. But right at this moment that is not enough. One evening when K came back from work I was so anxious, so scared, so unsettled I sat in a stupor, with heavy limbs, heavy chest, lifting it with effort at every breath, and finally cried over my pasta, a deep, harrowing weep I had not felt since my father died. Who am I? How can this be? I have been calling myself a local patriot. I have done everything right. I have left home and settled here.
There is no other imaginable place for me. I have come to love the plants and the landscape. I have come to understand this place better than any other, and to feel safe here as an insider outsider. And now I am being pushed out, being grown out? Now I am told I do not belong? This stamp of an immigrant, I have never felt it before. I have never appreciated how weighty it is. And I have nowhere else to go. There is no family waiting to take me back in. No other home than this, and I am
…told that this home is not mine, that I do not belong here, that I don’t have a right to anything I have built here. And that shattered me.
And then the rejections. Two now for that one paper, and a full, awful, humiliating rewrite for the other, humiliating not because it’s a rewrite but because it's shit, because the paper is shit, because the project was shit, or I am shit in my inability to make anything of it. And I feel bitter, and weak. And I can see how spoilt I am, and I resent it.
Love me for me! I say. Love me and give me stuff just because I’m cute and smart! I am spoiled. Spoiled brat used to getting her way. Used to having it easy, having it handed to her. Hard work, sure, but only if it’s fun, if things don’t depend on it. Hard work because there is no other choice, because only hard work can get me where I need to be; worse, hard work because I HAVE TO WORK HARD, because I am not effortlessly brilliant, because I am just … because I am not brilliant. Because..
...I am in fact, thick. I can see how certain people’s minds work, and they are like quicksilver, they think laterally, make connections. I am not like this. I can see it so plainly. It takes an effort to think. It's easier not to think. And when I'm afraid of failing, like now, I prefer not to think. I fill my time, my mind, with the radio, with books. I consume avidly. Anything but thinking. Between fieldwork visits, instead of mulling over what had happened, instead of analysing, I turn my mind off. Because I'm afraid I will not
…come up with anything intelligent. I confuse myself. I forget why I'm doing things. I have to remind myself, and then my assumptions seem absurd, stupid even. Running before I can walk. Not spent enough time reading, thinking. Wasting my time. Nothing good will come of it. At times I think, better enjoy these three years, because at the end this will be the end, you will not get another job, in fact it would be better if you wouldn’t because all another job will do is prolong the inevitable, your slow decline from the heights you imagined you
…inhabit into the reality of your mediocracy. All you’ve achieved has been a fluke, or you’ve barely scraped by, or you cashed in the ideas of others. You are not getting better, smarter, with age. You are getting stupider.
And it feels like I am growing up now. Looking back and seeing my childhood delusion of importance, seeing so clearly how I have been secretly, consistently expecting the world to bend to my will somehow, to be kind to me, to be nice to me, to love me. And my hard work, that was just something I did
…as a favour to others, to maintain good manners, to maintain good form, not because I needed to. And now…
And now I am full of fear. I can’t revive the joy I felt when I still believed this was all just play, something without consequences, that I could let it go whenever I wanted. It is still my consolation, the idea that I could, I could walk away. But do I really believe it? That I could just live happily without a certain feeling of superiority? How I love feeling superior. How generous it makes me, how kind.
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