Thursday, 19 May 2016

On Vestibules

In the garden there are dewdrops on the grass, and between the grass small flowers are growing. The black paint on the outhouse door is old, it is cracked in places, and where it is cracked you can see the pale wood underneath. The wood, too, is old.

It is Wednesday and I am home, drinking coffee, listening to John Coltrane, thinking I should be happier. It is easy to forget, at work waiting to leave, that the absence of a negative does not always feel like a positive. Sometimes you stop and in the stillness you become a target towards which all those clawed thoughts that have been prowling can pounce. But then if there are beasts back there, in the recesses of the mind, maybe they need to be given room to leap.

For a long time I thought I worked in bars because something was broken inside me, because bar work was what was left when I had lost the ability to try at anything else. Its frustrations, the claustrophobic dimensions of its existence, felt symbolic of my wider failings. It was the place in which I waited for my true life to begin, and then I woke up and I was 31, and I realised it probably already had.

But maybe this is not uncommon. Perhaps we are all struggling against lives of barely-masked dullness, raging pettiness, vague disappointment. We sense something wrong, some unnameable beauty lost, some weight dragging us back from climbing upwards to the rarefied air beyond. Our suffering is a barrier locking us out from our true destinies, and we find innumerable reasons for which this suffering can be blamed.

We blame work, customers, clients, bosses; we blame the weather, politicians, our parents, God. We tell ourselves that if only we could finish that degree, sign that record deal, lose that weight, make that person love us, change that government, write that novel, then we would be happy, we would finally have arrived.

Our lives are lived as if in an antechamber, a vestibule, putting our faith in a room beyond, waiting to be ushered through ornate doors into a palatial ballroom, free from suffering, devoid of pain -- and until that happens we kill boring hours here, paying as little attention as possible, running down the clock. We do not progress and we ruminate on our denied entry, whether it could be because of our wrong shoes, our wrong bodies, our wrong minds.

Or else we try to go back. With growing awareness of the miserliness of life, the sense of being cheated out of something we can't quite place -- often manifesting in our 20s, as it dawns that the hand we've been dealt isn't exactly loaded with aces, and the dealer might not allow us to burn -- we attempt a scramble back into childhood, to a time when strong arms cradled us, when our suffering was someone else's responsibility. We let the dishes pile up and we eat junk food and watch primary-coloured superhero films or Kardashian cartoons under blankets, gathering the ease and warmth around us like a parental embrace, forgetting that, stripped of nostalgia, our youths were as fraught with pain and angst as any time.

Or if we're feeling intellectual we might cry for a return to the pastoral paradise before Facebook and Instagram hijacked our dopamine systems, before computers designed to ease our lives made slaves of us all, back to a simpler past of perhaps the early 20th Century, when everyone on Planet Earth was happy all of the time.

But what if there is no escape? What if this vestibule -- slightly cold, a little small, permeated with blunder and embarrassment and gently humourous failure -- is the only room in which we will ever exist? If we are dragged in here from the cold of the cosmos, through the gateway of consciousness, in order to shuffle around for a few sparse years in this quiet hallway, clumsily tipping our hats and tripping over our feet, saying never quite the right thing, blushing too often, until our time is up and we are led back out, confusion fighting comprehension on our fading faces, to merge back into the waiting night?

Would the true work of our lives then come not from defeating monotony, suffering, but from building an honest relationship with it? From admitting the pain at not getting more, and thus letting in the joy at getting even this?

Realising the finite nature of our lives, the proximity of the walls, we can cease wishing to be elsewhere and accept that we are here, do the work that is here, before us, now.

I don't know what that means for you. But in bar work I think it might mean greeting customers with a smile, holding them in awareness, letting the message pass from your eyes to theirs that you know about the vestibule, that you are in it with them, will do what you can to make it all right. I think it means pouring a drink carefully. Saying thank you and meaning it. Sweeping even under the shelves, where people can't see. Washing the jiggers as you go. Mopping the floor wet and then again dry, with attentiveness, with elegance, with what may amount to a kind of love. Meeting the boredom and lethargy head on, with eyes open, focusing on the mundane moments as if they were all that mattered, as if they were all you ever had.

We are in a vestibule, and it is dusty, decaying, does not feel like nearly enough. But to be clear it is composed of exploded stars, perched on the edge of an unknowable void, held together by forces mystical and everlasting -- as, in fact, are you. Most of the stories we tell ourselves, the entertainment we watch, the conversations we have, swaddle us in the illusion of catharsis, happy endings, a ballroom beyond. But I think the truth may turn out to be both less than this, and, in an odd way, much more.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

A Truth Told By Only The Rain

Two days off from work, finally, and the rain is falling steadily, softening the wooden fence outside my window, drawing forth smells of the earth, holding the world together in a slow sad greying embrace. A realm of dampened joy, edgeless as remembered childhood.

Let go frustration at the weather: the vicissitudes of our planet's climate are not predicated upon the structure of my weekly rota. There is nothing to which I am of central importance, save myself -- and that is a comfort, I think, finally. Watch the little puddles, the bending stalks, the subdued stoicism of the terraced houses across the car park. Be in all of it, melt into it, resign myself to its decaying beauty.

It is hard trying to write while working full time in bars. At least it is hard if you struggle with borderline alcoholism and fairly centreline depression and anxiety, and you go drinking after work with students to whom you are ten years senior, and you stay late, using rum to be funnier than you are, and you sleep through until 2pm, and then there you are back at work anxious again and sans the rum that makes you (at least in your eyes, when you've had too much rum) temporarily funny, even though you promised yourself you wouldn't (do all these things (please not again)).

While my pub was closed for refurbishment I was working on a longish essay about the hemispheres of the brain and our imbalanced lives, but since thrusting myself back into long hours and longer nights the piece has gone stale, so here are some other words instead, about nothing in particular, to keep this blog's frail heart beating.

And why not about nothing? I was reading recently how language is now thought not to have developed as a tool to aid hunting, the communication of piecemeal facts, but as an extension of bonding through social grooming, a necessary evolution once tribes grew too large for every individual to spend time stroking every other individual. Caressing one another with words, music, from a distance, cooing that I am here and so are you, that we are here together, that it will be all right.

But it wasn't long before the process was hijacked, bent to the growing need to discuss the optimum firing range of crossbows, to trick people into buying anti-ageing creams that do not work, to argue about whose old man in the clouds was here first. We began to create vast conceptual networks in our heads, maps of existence written in words, and gradually we lost touch with the living world around us, the actual terrain through which we walk.

Of course language also helped take us to the moon, invent The Beatles, and build the computer I'm now typing this on, so I'm not denying its uses. Just noting that a tool that once soothed us in shared communion now as often isolates us in webs of abstraction. Words are like tin cups that we may dip in the ocean of truth around us, passing one swig of knowledge to another. But a cup can never hold the entirety of the ocean. Yet we're so enraptured by the power of our little vessels that we believe anything that does not fit into them is not real, does not matter.

The rain tells a different story. Listen to the gentle inexorability of its patter, its mellifluous beat, for long enough, and you will here a truth that no words can contain. Stare into the interstitial space between the droplets, into a void that is forever penetrated yet never touched, and you will hear the answers to questions too large for words. Staying quiet long enough to listen, of course, is the trick.

I'm busy again tomorrow, back into bustle and words and work. But I'm grateful for these two days off, for a chance to cease striving and sit and try to hear a truth beating down, half forgotten, like childhood.

And now it is late and the rain has stopped. I guess it has said all it wanted to say. I will write again next week. I will.