As usual my first recourse is to other writers. My battered school edition of Eliot’s poems is not much help –
what is actual is actual only for one time
And for one place
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
The Daily Stoic Journal has a different angle: today’s prompt is ‘Where am I a loud mouth?’ Well..! At risk of sounding smug (although self-satisfaction is absolutely not in play here: rather the opposite) last night I was so troubled, or disappointed, or dissatisfied – with myself, my lack of courage, my loss of confidence, my social laziness or ineptitude, evoking vivid and disspiriting memories of our mum in her later years, making absolutely no effort to take part in the conversation, that I googled ‘symptoms of dementia’, inconclusively. Some days I fear I am becoming my mother, or at least taking on some of her least appealing characteristics. I’m not sure which were more off-putting: those occasions when her lack of engagement took a surly turn – I recall in particular an episode with a Norfolk neighbour – or others when she smiled vaguely, as at the supper table in the Hythe hotel on our last Music at Leisure weekend together, making no attempt to join in. The mother of another friend, now also sadly no longer with us, often disappeared into her own world. Sometimes she could be brought back with a word, or a touch of the hand; often it felt like an intrusion. Really, I think I have to take responsibility for my own actions at the time, rather than succumbing to inertia and its resulting dismay and then beating myself up afterwards… something about inhabiting the present moment fully, keeping a lid on petty resentments and minor discomforts but also perhaps being a little more forgiving towards myself? I could certainly take a leaf out of the book of one friend and practise smiling more!
Maybe Eliot was some help, after all: perhaps this is a time to ‘commune with your own heart and in your chamber’ and be still.
(Only 45 days to go….!)
In town this morning, I almost fell over a very substantial all-weather pile of sleeping-out kit, on the corner of Emmanuel Street where a regular Big Issue seller with her cloying greeting has also to be negotiated. On a bench outside Boots, a man who decades ago you might have described as a ‘gentleman of the road’ sat, head in hands, roaring – literally. I could make out the odd word – ‘fuckers’ was in there, for sure. Drunk? Or simply enraged? I didn’t get close enough to tell but, like the rest of the Thursday morning crowd, gave him a wide berth. I wasn’t around for long though long enough to register the untidy straggle of discarded blankets and bits of cardboard or, in other doorways, couples and singles apparently sleeping peacefully. I saw one teenager look curiously at one such nest; others, like myself, hurried by, tamping down any sense of shame or sympathy or outrage that threatened to make itself felt.
(44 days remaining…)
I’m remembering Francesca, talking about the last weeks and days of her grandmother: ‘I do what I need to sleep at night.’ And another memory, unbidden: on a street somewhere in Buenos Aires, as we walked back in the early hours from a milonga, Francesca gently tucking a sizable note under the pillow of a doorway sleeper. Last time I was there, real poverty was all too visible: the massive sprawl of Villa 31, the shanty town of 120,000 you pass en route to Tigre, the cartoneros picking through the trash for cardboard to sell, the encampments which have grown up beneath bridges and flyovers, kids who tout for business at traffic lights. I'm remembering too how those who scratch a living from selling or performing on the Subte are treated with courtesy. Some in Argentina, though, recognise that in these respects theirs remains a third world country. Whereas we –
(43 days left)
Over the past few days, a series of chance encounters. As I rounded the corner of Westbrook Drive late one morning a tall man, well-dressed, beer bottle in hand, stood on the opposite pavement, swaying slightly. As I approached, he turned to face me and observed me as I walked past. Turning onto Milton Road, I was greeted in friendly fashion by a youngish man I’ve seen before but have never spoken to. Scrawny, with long yellow hair and a grubby white cap, he appeared wired. On my way back from the shop, I saw him again waiting at the bus stop, shifting and pacing, unable to be still until suddenly he took off and marched across the road, oblivious to traffic. By this time the first man had progressed the few yards to the end of the street. The following morning, as I waited for a bus, I watched a woman on the opposite side of the road pacing up and down outside the Co-op, looking along the street in both directions, as if expecting a lift. Smartly dressed, with dark hair, perhaps in her forties, she held a single red rose. Was she waiting for a blind date or just a meeting with someone she hadn’t met before, who wouldn’t recognise her – perhaps a potential employer? Given the romantic connotations of the flower the former seemed the more likely. Infuriatingly, my attention was distracted by a young woman who came out of the Old Spring after a birthday lunch for her mother, keen to tell me all about it and the next time I looked, the woman and her rose had vanished. Late that night, as I waited for yet another bus, a young man – late teens, early twenties? – picked bits of litter off the pavement and put them in one of the roadside bins. I watched as he disappeared into the distance, still collecting. Then, yesterday morning, another bus stop, another chance meeting, which began when Chloe, who I later learnt was approaching her 16th birthday, slapped me lightly on the shoulder twice and was reprimanded by the couple I assumed were her parents. They alternately murmured endearments and told her off. The girl was silent. Eventually after a long and affectionate goodbye, the girl left with the man. The woman explained that he was in fact her brother and had looked after Chloe, who had severe learning difficulties and was unable to speak, since birth as she, the mother, also had learning difficulties.
I once read somewhere that it is a mark of
the perfection of the wise to arrive at the
place they should be, at the time they should
come; but such correspondence does not belong to lives less perfect. If we ever sometimes, momentarily, arrive at the time and the place, it is already much. The marvel is that we ever do arrive at what is our own; and then with such a sense of homecoming, as though the long waste of time stretching before and after had never existed at all.
Which seemed to me then, and seems now, a perfect evocation of that sense of ‘homecoming’ (echoed beautifully in Simon Armitage’s poem of that name).
(…and I make that 40 days of abstinence remaining!)