A Light-Hearted Poem

on that subject, here’s one I prepared earlier. (It’s a sort-of joke.)

Chalk and Cheese II

I think you’re descended from badgers.
Your whole family are industrious diggers.
You get your heads down and you burrow away
until the job is done: dense, unstoppable engines.

Whereas, well, you know my family.
You’ve seen that strange grimace
we all adopt when faced with work –
lips curling back to bare our gritted teeth,
breath held, as ill at ease as seals on a beach.

Perhaps we’re the children of sea otters,
happiest floating around
on our backs in the nurturing waters,
peering good-naturedly over our tummies,
towards each distracting sound.

A School of Browsing Manatees

All the Beauforts, Jo’s family, are high-achieving workaholics. They’ve absorbed their father’s attitude. All are piano-playing, cultured polymaths; Oxbridge alumni, consultant doctors, humbly grateful for the life they’ve been given, and resolved to celebrate and exploit it to the full. They will all pursue an outcome with stalwart determination until it is completed. It wouldn’t occur to them to do otherwise.

In contrast, my family are all such lazy, intellectually mediocre slobs, stricken by insecurities, and, in my case, miserably ungrateful for the gift of life, squandering its every opportunity. Sure, there’s been a brain surgeon grandfather, but he was an exception. My other grandfather even made enough money as a mechanic/ engineer to send my father to a minor public school. where, Jo and I suspect, he felt slightly out of place and where he learnt the mild social unease that has carried him through the rest of his life. It probably looked good on his CV, though, at least in those days.

My siblings and I are regressing towards the norm, moving back down the social ladder, earning less than our parents. We’re like primeval sea creatures that have risen to the surface on unexpected warm currents, sniffed the rarefied air and, feeling uncomfortable, are sinking back into the depth. Maybe some sort of deep-sea dugong.

Where she gets it from

In the early years of my relationship with Jo, my (future) father-in-law came round for dinner, probably to check me out. I was told to be on my best behaviour, my hair brushed and neatly parted, promises made not to swear or get too extravagantly drunk. I find these events difficult, and perhaps my father-in-law sensed this, because he got up to leave blessedly early. I was thanking my lucky stars and him, thinking we’d still get most of our evening, when Jo mentioned the bay tree in our tiny back yard/ garden. It had been intended for a pot, but somebody had planted it straight into the earth. It liked that. Now it formed a solid and unsightly trunk, right in the middle. I’d tried to dig it out that day, at Jo’s suggestion, but its root-ball had turned out to by huge and stubbornly anchored.

Hearing this, the Father-in-law grabbed a spade and leapt vigorously out the back door, with a cheery Halloo. He’s always prided himself in being hale and hearty, and would love to be considered a bit of a handy-man, having spent his working life in boardrooms. Perhaps he felt he was matching his virility to mine (no contest at all!)

Of course, I couldn’t leave a man on a pension labouring in my back yard while I looked on, no matter how youthful he appeared, so, fuming, I trailed after him dragging the clattering garden fork behind me. And we dug

And we dug

And we levered and we heaved at the root-ball. And we rocked the sturdy trunk backwards and forwards and the bay tree stayed put. It ignored us. It wasn’t going nowhere.

The sun set. 9 o’clock came and went. The last of the summer evening soaked out of the western sky. Still the F-I-L wouldn’t admit defeat. Maybe he was embarrassed to do so. I grew more and more frustrated and incredulous. Why wouldn’t he just fuck off home? I seemed to be holding my breath. I could feel the unreleased carbon dioxide flooding my cells, poisoning my body. I could feel my heart-beat increasing. It was the not knowing, from moment to moment, if he was just about to stop or was going to go on for hours. If he was willing to break the 9 o’clock barrier, would he not go on until midnight? I have a limited capacity for good behaviour at the best of times. Now, I thought I might burst into tears; I thought I might break down catastrophically, that I might start screaming and throwing my own poo around like an enraged chimp.

It was past 10 o’clock by the time he gave up and drove ruefully away.

I was livid. No, I was horrified. I’d had no idea people could be like this. Surely the evening was sacrosanct! Loafing around was your reward for having worked all day. That’s the way it was in our family! What sort of a monstrous clan had I fallen in with?

I’ve never really forgiven my father-in-law for this, but Jo has no idea what I’m on about. She looks at me blankly. Why, she wonders, would somebody procrastinate in the face of a necessary task that isn’t going to go away.
“Let’s just get it done now,” she often asks,
“But it’s 9.30!” I’ll wail
“But why put it off? It’ll need to be dealt with at some point.”
“Why put it off?”, I’ll echo, incredulously, “Isn’t it obvious? So I don’t have to do it now. And I don’t want to do it now.”
“But you won’t want to do it tomorrow…” etc.

I’m a creature of the eternal present, like the stereotype of boys. The person forced to do an unpleasant task in the future is a stranger who I have little empathy for. Jo’s identity encompasses her likely future self, like the stereotype of girls. She feels her future pain as if it were her own, because it is her own.

I always capitulate, in the end. I know Jo is right and I admire hard work, but I’ll mutter “Bay Tree!”, sullenly, at her. This has become such a sore spot that it is guaranteed to cause a thoroughly enjoyable over-reaction and I can bask masochistically in the warmth of her anger. I kind of like being yelled at. It’s familiar. It’s what I deserve.

She works all night. She works all day to pay the bills she has to pay.

I’m attracted to active, cerebral women with good careers and a determined sense of probity, rectitude and moral duty: the modern version of what used to be called “Blue-stockings”. I suspect they’ll be excellent shags, in the right mood: uninhibited and appreciative, having been sensible when picking previous partners, who and how many, and thus without hang ups and willing to direct you to what they want. (I aim to serve.) Clever people often have a good sense of humour, too.

More importantly, I know I’m highly corruptible. Moral decisions are usually hard brain work. You’ve got to use your noggin to be good and I’m not up to it. I’m weak and indecisive and prone to moral confusion, but, once I’ve adopted a position, I’m dogmatic and unable to change. I feel I can trust these women’s wise choices. It makes me feel secure: if I follow their lead, I’ll be doing the right thing. And I admire their ability to concentrate on tasks and goals, their industry and ambition, which are ethical issues.

Jo, for example, is incredibly hard-working, dynamic and resourceful. She has an amazing ability to focus on a task and, blocking out all extraneous data, concentrate on it until it is completed. She does these tasks as they arrive and need to be done. She has no truck with my nonsense about “being a morning person” or “being too tired” or “finishing it tomorrow”. She keeps going until it’s finished, whatever the time of day or night.

What’s astonishing is that she finds it just as hard and as odious as the rest of us. It is an act of will-power to keep soldiering on. That’s why she doesn’t see the time of day, or whether you’re “in the Mood”, as relevant. Sitting at the table opposite me, typing, I can hear her holding her breath, then letting it out in little gasps, at the sheer physical effort of keeping going, as if she was lifting massive rocks.

Her energy is unflagging. Once she’s completed a task, she’ll move on to the next without pause. She’ll do this for days and days, working from before 8 in the morning and coming home at 6.30pm at the absolute earliest.

She’ll immediately switch into intensive parenting mode: supervising, discussing and encouraging homework and music practice; comforting and cajoling; disciplining when necessary. If they’re troubled, she’ll sweep the kids off to the sofa for a warm cuddle, a discussion and some advice. The children refuse to do any of this with me, because I was too fierce about it when I was ill. They are punishing me but it’s a relief – it’s exhausting!

All the while Jo will be snatching the odd hour to complete spreadsheets, send emails, make phone calls, read, annotate and write reports, until she turns the light off some time past 11pm. Even then, there’s a square blue light floating in the darkness, as she checks and replies to emails.

This work rate can be demanded of her for weeks and weeks, in which case she becomes more and more emotionally and psychologically frayed. She starts suffering from insomnia, becoming volatile, unfairly irritable, randomly weepy and needy, worryingly forgetful; losing her keys, her shoes, her name badge. Not only are the wheels coming off, but also the bodywork and the chassis, yet her work-rate never flags. All that is left of her is pure spirit and determination.

Strangely, Jo doesn’t have much personal ambition. What is important to her is doing worthwhile work to the best of her ability. It’s one of the many great things about her. She applies for promotions, and gets them, because she knows she can do the jobs bloody well, and wants to, but not because she wants to “progress her career”.

Something has to give, though, in these work bouts, and it can’t be her relationship with the children. They are her real priority. On the day she got a positive result on a pregnancy test, she reminded me that the children must always come first; that everything else was secondary to their needs.

Inevitably, it’s poor old me who has to bite the bullet and his tongue, and wait until the holidays to be heard, when Jo is communicative again. I’ve got used to starting on some inane anecdote about my day, “Have you noticed that…”, to be confronted by The Hand.

The Hand is held up, palm towards me, in that universal “Halt” sign used by traffic policemen, officers on horseback, and soldiers manning checkpoints. Along with The Hand, Jo says, “I’m really, genuinely interested but I’ve got to concentrate on this or I’ll die. Tell me later.”

I get it: dragging her out of the zone seems to cause her physical pain, when she’s tired. She keeps going by getting into a sort of rhythm. Continuing to concentrate becomes so, so difficult, that the slightest distraction, having to break off even just for a moment to listen to some brief silliness from me, might cause her to have hysterics and a complete collapse.

Actually, I think this is probably good for me. As a young man, I desperately needed to be heard, to be acknowledged, to be recognised. Torrents of words forced themselves up from an almost agonising need in my chest, and enveloped all interlocutors in a spray of verbiage. My words alone were dominant, not my personality. They were experiments with language and its effects on others, not expressions of conviction. Still, other people couldn’t get their words in edgeways, and could never hold forth as I did. There wasn’t time.

Now I’ve learnt, by necessity, that if I swallow the urge, the spasm will pass almost immediately. I’ll have demonstrated self-control, I’ll feel good about myself because I’ve allowed people the space they need, and, most importantly, I’ll have been supportive of Jo. As I’ve said before, she’s our prizewinning race-horse. In her resides the family’s fortune, hopes and pride. She needs to be nursed and comforted, curry combs and hot bran mash (possibly with a dash of brandy), because if she has a nervous breakdown, we’re fucked.

Some urge to say my piece remains, of course. Sometimes I’ll write this blog. Sometimes I’ll just put my head down and plough desperately on, despite her howls of rage, just to get to the end, to have said my piece. I’ll be feeling rebellious, saying “…and when I got there, they’d already run out of sushi! Can you credit it?…”, knowing it’s trivial, but thinking I’m a trivial person. Jo will be snarling, “I’ve NO idea what you’re even SAYING, you know. I’m TRYING to deal with a VERY SERIOUS MATTER, here.” I’ll just shrug, defiantly, hopelessly, as if I don’t care, but, secretly, blighted by guilt, by doleful self-hatred.

Apology (lack of)

You may have noticed that I haven’t once mentioned Covid-19. I’ve also been pretty light on: Brexit, identity politics and the return of far-right; Climate Change; Donald Trump and his bunch of asset-stripping mercenaries; fake news and the manipulation of the mob; ISIS; the refugee crisis; social media and the dismantling of society; Syria.

This is intentional. Writing is a refuge. If I let in such enormous international crises, they would swamp a therapeutic space. I write in defiance of these things.

Comparison to a global pandemic reveals the utter triviality of my problems and fears without allaying them. My whole self-destructive fuck-wittery is a response to how insignificant we all are, and our inability to influence the world around us. If I can have no positive impact, it is better to tread as lightly as possible upon the poor old, abused Earth. I ought not to make demands on other people, either. They’ve got other things to worry about.

Anorexia kept me safe from the terrors of the world. I could preoccupy myself with food, cooking, denial and satiety; I could hurry, head down, across bare, hungry plains to the lit doorway and the cozy fireside of my next snack, ignoring the vast, empty, star-black skies above me. Jo used to find it exasperating that, in the middle of some serious discussions, I’d say, “I was thinking about making Turkish flatbreads for tea…” I think she realised that the very seriousness of the topic led me to talk about the comfortingly banal, and, in doing so, intentionally belittle myself. That’s what annoyed her.

I know this blog makes me seem completely self-obsessed, but I started writing a diary, and then this blog, at the suggestion of my Eating Disorders specialist, Abi, specifically to act as a substitute source of comfort, and to try and explain to myself, and come to terms with, why I had got into this position. This is only one aspect of the more rounded (!), real-world me. I hope.

The blog is supposed to be the place where I explore myself and then communicate what I discover. I’m the only thing I have expertise in, and I communicate because it may be of interest or use to you, in an idle moment. That’s not entirely self-absorbed, right?

This should also explain why other characters are so shadowy. I am no authority on their thoughts and motivations, so I shy away from fleshing them out. I worry people will read these posts, recognise themselves, and be justifiably furious at my reductive and self-serving depiction. All first-person narratives are solipsistic and, to be comprehensible, need to simplify the complexities and contradictions of human consciousness. But these are real people. I haven’t got the right, or their permission, to make them puppets in my pantomimes of self-justification.

(I’m full of plausible excuses for being a twat, aren’t I?)

“You don’t work, you don’t eat…”

This need to resist lethargy became particularly urgent once we’d had children. Babies can’t be left to fend for themselves. They would die. Not metaphorically, not spiritually: actually. Literally. Dead. Parenting is an enormous responsibility and it requires enormous effort: great barren wastes of sleeplessness, endless tolerance and patience; endless anxiety; vigilance, discipline, housework… For years and years and years.

You weren’t in control of their needs or their rhythms, so you never felt fully prepared. And it wouldn’t stop. You couldn’t knock off at 5. You couldn’t plod on through, clock-watching, until the klaxon went, then collapse on the sofa. Only in brief snatches of sleep was there any respite.

This is a wholesome and a psychologically healthy way to live. It is founded on love and nurturing and ought to be deeply rewarding. I believed (and believe) that, but the images that accompanied the conviction seemed, somehow, unsustainably exhausting. I couldn’t anticipate the sources of nourishment that would keep me going.

The birth of my first child was undoubtedly one of the two most important events of my life (the other being the birth of my second child). It felt as if huge sheets of feeling: terror, elation, agony, were flapping and snapping across the ceiling, above my head, shot through with strands of brisk, professional focus in midwife-uniform blue. If I reached up, their electricity would thrill down my arm for a moment, but they didn’t seem to be mine. Perhaps they were Jo’s. I couldn’t locate the self that was me to channel or place these emotions. I couldn’t even say I was detached, because that implies two very concrete locations: where I was and where they were. I felt as if I’d been injected with morphine and beta-blockers, discorporated, and had my ghost translocated to the surface of Mars in the middle of a sand storm. In other words, I didn’t know what to think. Or what to feel. I could recognise how important and precious was the little bundle of being that had sprung miraculously into existence in my arms, but I didn’t feel clear resonances inside myself. There was just turbid and agitated hubbub where I should have been ringing like a bell with clear, pure emotion.

I know this is a damning assessment of me, rather than parenthood. A few years later, when my most cynical, repressed and hard-nosed friend had his first child, I mentioned this experience, hoping to bond over how different the popular, sentimental vision of child-birth was with the reality, how love grows. He said, “oh? Really? Well, the first time is set eyes on my daughter I was overwhelmed with the most powerful sense of love. It was amazing!”
“Oh, how lovely! What a happy image,” I replied, thinking, “Right. That’s another thing I must never mention to anyone ever again. It can become another of my grubby little secrets.” I had hoped (I still hope) that I just wasn’t in touch with my feelings.

Maybe I’m not fully human. Phillip pointed out, in a recent therapy session, that I’d just said, “The thing about humans is that they…” I hadn’t noticed.

Caring for your children is the prime directive. There is nothing more reviled than a neglectful or abusive parent; there is nothing more saintly than a dedicated, self-sacrificing one. This was my greatest test. The other people I damaged: Lulu, Jo, my parents, my sisters: they were all adults: they could look after themselves, give as good as they got, but my children were wholly vulnerable, wholly dependent on me, and I was pretty certain I wasn’t up to the job. I was too weak and self-indulgent, too nasty.

I had to try, of course. I steeled myself. I moved into parenthood with trepidation, looking around wildly all the time, trying to anticipate fate’s next ambush, which would almost certainly be a trap I’d set for myself.

The struggle was constant, so I needed to make every minute count, be constantly vigilant, constantly maintaining the defences, always driving myself forwards, driving my legs to straighten and lift me out of chairs and beds where I’d temporarily dropped, or I might stay in them for ever; always driving me away from the lip of a complete and catastrophic collapse that would send me sprawling to the ground, all muscles loose, never to rise again.

Because, if you don’t make the effort, if you don’t contribute, you are breaking the social contract. If you aren’t caring for them, why should anyone care for you? or care what happens to you? You are a worthless git, “a tube for turning good food into shite.” If you don’t keep swimming, you drown. “If you don’t work, you die.”

And so will your children.

If only I could find some excuse for giving up, curling up and just enduring…

Yesterday, two young lads walked past me. One was saying, “…They’d all die, bruv: you don’t work, you don’t eat…”