Sometimes (very occasionally) you go a whole day before it hits you again. Some days, it's every other minute, near enough every thought. Grief comes in lots of forms (and, supposedly, seven stages), and doesn't just apply to the death of another person. It's no surprise, given the extraordinary power of grief to knock you sideways, to put you out of your stride (and a thousand other tired metaphors and similes) that there is a kind of spiritual world in which grief is allayed by the promise of another meeting in the future.
"You will meet them again. But not yet." That's the idea. That the person lost and gone is not quite so lost, just metaphysically distant, such that the living cannot touch them or see them, but that they will be there somehow at the point that we die. I prefer Maximus' own 'What we do in life echoes in eternity', as some particularly meticulous readers of These Matters will already be aware. That way, there is no promise of a future driving the now, no 'just out of reach' spiritual realm that, through the right medium (in all possible senses) be contacted. That way the grief is allowed to be complete, to reach the end of those seven stages where there is a new normal.
It is common - and, I think, a certain type of easy - to feel that spirituality when death or some other source of crippling grief comes. I used to refer to my mother as a 'births, marriages and deaths Christian', which I think carries some of the message. It's not about belief in God and the message that Christ brings about peace and love, although I suppose it lines up with the 'hope' bit. It's about the sense that someone lost will be there, complete and intact, years after their own death, when I die myself. And that hope is cruel in both ways, because it promises life after death both for you and for me, despite the lack of anything convincing from inside this life to suggest that's how it will happen.
I'm definitely stuck on the 'bargaining' and 'depression' stages of grief, and that applies to a bunch of different examples. I think, that the self-same urge that makes some people religious and create a personal relationship with God is the one that drives the bargaining stage. My connection with the spiritual (God, Jesus, Providence, the afterlife) is all negative, I think. I don't go into churches and feel anything when I'm happy. To me, a church is a place of dreadful, awful loss and pain, somewhere I am forced to contemplate life without God, death, loneliness and my own inadequacy and sin as a person. And because of my lack of faith, I cannot pile all of that on to Jesus and let him carry the burden.
If there is a message in all this (rather than just rambling nonsense) it is that the consolation of life is in the moments. A shared moment of joy, intellectual discovery, sporting success, whatever... It could be the realisation that someone has become a real friend, it could even be a difficult moment of sharing something significant. It could be holding a tarantula to impress a small person. What mindfulness teaches - once you get through the hippy claptrap - is that it is the now that matters. Sometimes 'now' is rubbish, of course, but sometimes it isn't. Loss, defeat, frustration, disappointment, these all feature in a full, complete life, and there would be no meaning to joy without them. And I think that is true of grief. So, on the occasion of the birthday (actually, now, a day after) of a departed friend, it is right and proper to offer a toast: "To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die."
Ave atque vale.
Rewatching the David Tennant Doctor Who at the moment, it is clear that Steven Moffatt in those early episodes has really got an eye for the delicate love story. The Doctor himself meets and romances Madame de Pompadour, and is clearly genuinely upset by her death. Rose is desperately in love with him, and - somewhat to his discredit - he is thoroughly aware of it and doesn't make it easier for her. For some of those episodes, where Mickey comes along with them, we as the audience are completely aware of the failure of Mickey and Rose as a relationship, and that failure is because of the Doctor, the non-superhuman superhuman hero, the one with no special powers to run or fight or shoot flames. The character is the sort of anti Game of Thrones, using thought and wit as his weapon, rather than blade or fist. There's something really British about it, in common with Sherlock Holmes, or the heroes of countless Walter Scott novels: they're human, even if they are a bit special. There's no need for the hero to have strength beyond what your average mortal man can manage, indeed, it would be pointless to have a character that is immune to any and all harm, strong enough to solve any problem with brute force... That's a peculiarly American trope, as I have written before. The Doctor's compassion is his strength, not his weakness.
But, having begun to write this post a couple of days ago in response really to the Doctor-Rose-Mickey storyline, I do feel that these episodes are written, acted, edited (whatever that means!), put together in such a way that the stories are clear and engaging. This is in contrast to the more recent Peter Capaldi and (sadly) Jodie Whittaker series, which haven't quite managed the same deftness of touch. I write These Matters in such a way that I am not legitimately able to just put you, the reader, directly in the mind of my characters, and so I must try to do what I can to show, rather than tell. This run of stories - indeed, the whole Rose story arc which carries on even beyond her time as companion (official mistress?) - is well told, because you don't need to be told. It's obvious without being spoken, and it would suffer for being made explicit. In writing book IV, I have bought myself a few places where I can express the Edward Strelley / Elizabeth storyline more from their internal perspective than from what might be visible to the camera, allowing myself one or two glimpses of things they have written down, but also giving them the opportunity to talk out their feelings to others. Strelley in particular developed a habit of seeking out religious men, perhaps because of the failure of his own faith, but it is about Elizabeth that he talks, not about God (usually!). Their story in book IV is more about them being apart than them being together, of course, but it is the backbone of the book.
There is a challenge in representing the ephemeral, the rapid transients that sometimes pass through the mind or even from the lips. I find myself sometimes wondering whether I did in fact speak out loud the words that I seem to remember saying (usually when I'm on my own; sometimes my voice seems to speak without really being authorised or commanded by whatever the central control system is!), so to try to represent something so tenuous, so insubstantial as a thought is, possibly, beyond me altogether. I have tried to express the way these two feel about each other - the punch-in-the-gut, heatwave, can't sleep type of love that is both utterly hopeless and thoroughly enchanting - since it became clear that that was, in fact, how they feel. I can't help but feel I have risked boring the reader - more accurately, that Edward Strelley has risked boring the reader - with the repeated discussions of his feelings with all manner of folk who might chance to listen to him.
Longshawe and Caroline de Winter's story is, by way of a contrast, much more smooth and possibly that bit less interesting to try to write. There is less in the way of their being together, so much so that their relationship is a bit more like the sort of steady, stable relationship that so very rarely ends up being the centrepiece of a book, film or series. Fulfilled (ish), their love loses some of that desperate quality, moving closer to compassion and companionship. That is not to say that they do not love each other, but the chance to express that love for each other has made them more sensible (more realistic?) about what their love is and what it is not. Their love is more conventional, both in its genesis and its expression, not born of the kind of shared experience of Edward Strelley and Elizabeth, of the time spent together and the losses felt. Longshawe is awkward and hesitant over Caroline, troubled by his own arrogant behaviour in what is, by book IV, the distant past. Strelley and Elizabeth do not have that same awkwardness. It is perhaps also worth adding that Longshawe thinks Caroline de Winter is beautiful, just as she thinks he is dashing and handsome. Strelley would not even be able to describe Elizabeth physically, because it hasn't occurred to him to think of her that way. So 'companionship' might be a good way of describing it, but it doesn't capture the encompassing nature at all. And that's difficult, because I want to get across that depth of feeling - in Strelley's case, the almost obsessive, intrusive nature of his feelings - and there just aren't many good words to use. Because 'love' is so many different things...
But, like that bloody Australian woman ending in The Magus, it isn't quite clear how all this will/does end. So you'll just have to buy book IV when I've finished writing the thing. And then I'll spend a couple of years trying to persuade you to buy book V (instead of concentrating on writing it!).
To be honest, it does mean that you can't mindlessly put TV on in the background. Another way of thinking about it is that you reduce the possibility of double-screening because one of the screens is more-or-less redundant. But yes, it seems that during a briefly unsupervised period of attempting to turn on Thomas the Tank Engine earlier this evening, the baby has disappeared the remote control for the Virgin box. Bastard. He has definitely been outside since the last time now-lost controller was spotted, so there is the outside chance that he has hidden it under a pot in the garden. I shall not be enjoying trying to explain this story to Virgin. That level of cantankerousness has only really got going relatively recently. He has been able to identify the cupboard containing the better food for six or so months already, and takes great delight in launching his lunch as far away as possible if he doesn't think it looks any good.
I did meet (ish - I did not have a hold) a much younger baby at the weekend, though. One of the members of the college where I was at university had just had her fifth child (yes, five) and it decided to attend the reunion weekend with her. It was an event where the non-members rule was otherwise strictly enforced (causing great enragement in a number of households), though. Disappointingly, the outgoing president (Lord Eatwell of Mangetout) did not make an appearance, although I look forward to my letter asking me to fill his shoes. He was a constant presence when we were students, unlike the former Vice President who did attend on Saturday, and at the time it was Q550, an appeal for injections of cash from former and current students. That's nearly six hundred years of history of which we form a small (insignificant, perhaps) part. But a part nonetheless. And perhaps, some day, Edward Strelley will become Queens' most famous fictional alumnus. Perhaps.
That shift might allow me to take back some of the ownership of the place which has inevitably diminished in the twenty years since. It's cruel, in a way, to invite old students back just to remind us of what was once, but I think most of us can look back on it fondly and say that although it was a great time, we do not regret its passing. Some lament the no-longer, but others felt rather that it is better to be who we are now than to spend too much energy on what is now the distant past. I don't know, because there was a bit of me that longed desperately for it all to be 'live' again. That me - the one that went then - was lazy and unfocused, but I don't resent him for that particularly. One friend of mine feared that the twenty-years-ago version of her was actually pretty terrible, and apologised to anyone who would listen. She has not yet forgiven herself, even across more than half of her life. By way of an example of how that might work, I met one person who had recently been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. Twenty years ago, I dismissed him - I think that is the right verb - as strange, unfathomable even. Now, with twenty more years of people and experiences to go on, I can make much more sense of him, appreciate how he sees the world, and be a much kinder and more accepting person than I was.
It would be wrong of me to berate myself for the failings of teenage me. Teenage me certainly didn't, which is strange, considering the extent to which adult me might dwell on these things. Part of what I take (some, limited) pride in is the fact that I have changed myself to be closer to the ideal ("be excellent to each other"), driven out some of the racism or xenophobia or homophobia that was a definite part of the world I inhabited before leaving for university. It's hardly surprising that people were looking back, given the context, and equally unsurprising that there were some bits that we perhaps would prefer not to remember in great detail (or be reminded of, having failed to form memories of them at the time). Without those experiences (or the lacunae!) we would not be who we are.
Scarred for life? Perhaps. I prefer Billy Connoly's 'windswept and interesting'.
Artemisia Gentileschi is in the news. It's hardly as though her self-portrait as St Catherine sold for peanuts, but the relatively small sum compared to, for example, Caravaggio's work, is some indication of the relative lack of prominence of female artists. During one of those conversations on Saturday night, I tried to introduce Gentileschi into an exchange about painters. My interlocutor, who might generously be described as well-oiled at the time we had this chat, maintained that Van Gogh was a crap painter, but that was just her opinion and therefore didn't speak on anything objective. Some time later, it might be added, she was holding forth on the subject of a medium who is capable of accurately predicting the future of her family. I largely let this bit about the medium slide, but I did engage on the subject of painters. Artemisia Gentileschi is, for me, something of a riff. She's very easy to set off on in conversation, because a very few people have heard of her, her story is very interesting and dreadful, and not many people have seen the paintings. Now, of course, you can summon Judith and Holofernes with the magic of the internet, and compare it directly to Caravaggio's. Some folk might even look at the paintings. Thoroughly recommended both by me and by Will Gompertz...
Mrs. Bibby : Our lord and master, having grudgingly conceded that art may have its uses, I gather, I'm supossed, to give your Oxford and Cambridge boys a smattering of art history.
Hector : Not my bag, Hazel. Irwin's your man.
Tom Irwin : It's really just the icing on the cake.
Mrs. Bibby : Is art ever anything else?
On a rather different note, here's a young(ish) person in the public eye, talking about her mental health. Presumably that discussion and the linked article relate to Mental Health Awareness Week. At the risk of sounding patronising, well done, Maisie, it is important that people in the public eye speak out about their mental health, and it is hopeful that someone who might be a role model is able to express herself in this way. The coincidence that the second anniversary of the suicide of Chris Cornell (18th May 2017) lies within that week is fitting. As I have tried to write previously, he suffered from depression, and wrote not so much about the act of suicide but about the contemplation of what it might mean to remove himself from life. These are his words:
"No one really knows what run-of-the-mill depression is. You'll think somebody has run-of-the-mill depression, and then the next thing you know, they're hanging from a rope. It's hard to tell the difference. But I do feel that depression can be useful. Sometimes it's just chemical. It doesn't seem to come from anywhere. And whenever I've been in any kind of depression, I've over the years tried to not only imagine what it feels like to not be there, but try to remind myself that I could just wake up the next day and it could be gone because that happens, and not to worry about it. And at the same time, when I'm feeling great, I remember the depression and think about the differences in what I'm feeling and why I would feel that way, and not be reactionary one way or the other. You just have to realize that these are patterns of life and you just go through them."
It is utterly heartbreaking that, having been able to say those words, nearly twenty years later he took his own life. So, here he is at his rawest, his most honest, his best, what we should remember him for, not for his suicide but for his life:
Now then. It's not exactly hot news that there has been a discussion about this issue: should parents be able to opt their children out of these lessons that have an inclusive agenda and represent a range of the lives that children and adults might lead? My imagination has always gone to a place where this sort of thing happens in a community radically different from the one I inhabit, where there is a group of people with a very specific (and often religious) viewpoint that is incompatible with the 21st century liberalism that seems to lie at the heart of most of the top-down agenda in education. So it comes as something of a surprise to learn that the sex education programme for the intermediately-sized person in my house has become the subject of debate in the school community.
To me, this is a non-issue, and perhaps that's where I need to do some improving. Schools can approach sex-as-procreation from a biological standpoint, and when it comes to describing and explaining reproduction, that's what happens. But when it comes to teaching about relationships, there's an entirely different flavour, and it's not right to limit what it is that constitutes an appropriate romantic relationship to the 'one man and one woman' that does not, in that guise at least, appear anywhere in the Bible. It can be easy to forget that not everyone supports this view, and it can be equally easy to dismiss anyone who does not share it as anything from under-educated to simply barbaric. Arguing against a religion-inspired viewpoint such as this, though, is incredibly difficult. I have tried - often with great enthusiasm but diminished skill due to the malign influence of beer - to persuade a range of hitherto unsuspecting Christians (and, for whatever reason, that's the group of people who have been on the receiving end of my efforts) that their interpretation of their own religion is wrong. I go down the line of Jesus being generally tolerant and forgiving, very much of the 'be excellent to each other' school of thought. The response is generally of a fairly intimate - one might even suggest 'prurient' - nature, focusing on people's sexual behaviour. I try the line that says 'same bit of the Bible as shellfish', the counter-argument seems to be that prohibition of homosexuality is somehow more central than prohibition of prawns, which was only ever a sensible counter-measure to the possibility of food poisoning.
This is a situation where parental choice could legitimately be overridden, but that takes a serious amount of stones for a headteacher: to announce to the community that she serves that one of their beliefs will be actively contradicted in school is to risk all manner of comebacks. Schools are held to account for all sorts of things that, really, lie outside their power to put right. Being a headteacher is obviously a responsible position, but this seems to be a responsibility that should be handled at a top-down level. It's an argument that ought to get some real attention, whatever the outcome.
Well, no. But as a result of the (very) small person's limited life skills and preference for Thomas the Tank Engine as a prophylactic against apoplexy, I have been watching that rather sentimental elegy to the steam era. The Diesel engine (deviously named 'Diesel') is a baddie. There's no more to it than that. He's the embodiment of the same sort of thing that the factories represent in a particular brand of late Georgian or early Victorian novel. Viewed through one lens, that is progress. Viewed through another, it is the merciless advance of technology, driven by money, sponsored by unfeeling and grabbing tycoons. According to Wikipedia, there is a story called 'Thomas and the Evil Diesel'. No ambiguity there, then.
There is something romantic about the steam railway, particularly to the eyes of post-war Britain. There is something undeniably majestic about the late era of steam engines, and seeing them in the flesh (iron?) in the Railway Museum at York is a humbling experience. There's one particular cutaway engine which proves just how impressive these steam engines were as pieces of invention and building, and it's possible to see exactly why there might be this sentimentality for steam. Some things are bettered by the next thing, though. Diesel is a better technology in a lot of ways than steam, but in the Railway Series you can see just how the steam engines can be presented as preferable. At the very simplest level, the steam engines are painted beautifully, clean and bright. Diesel himself is grey/black, and looks thoroughly miserable. The future, it seems, is always going to be frightening, and characterised as such by those who long for the glorious past. I'm not immune to it. Old guitars and amplifiers hold a mystique to me that doesn't necessarily reflect on their sound or playability. I'll look at the old stuff in the guitar shop first, and then usually the old-fashioned stuff. Although it might be worth saying that this is a market that introduced the concept of the 'relic' - a new instrument knocked about to look like an old one - and therefore pointing to it as a marker for anything ought to be done with caution.
At the risk of revealing something of the hippy, lentil-weaving, quinoa-eating part of myself, though, I have been working on, for several years now, my ability to exist a bit more in the moment. Some moments are better than others, granted, but the big thing for me has been to allow the bad moments to pass without grabbing hold of them, shaking them and shouting at them, arguing with them. The idea behind Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is to engage these bad thoughts, and disarm them intellectually (ish; there's a bit more to it than that but that's the point), whereas the point of the mindfulness-based therapy I experienced is to allow the bad moments to pass without engaging with them. It sounds ludicrously simple - and as I have written before, that it can't possibly be effective - but I really think that those of us who might be characterised as dwellers, those of us whose thoughts churn endlessly (and usually unhelpfully, at night, preventing the exact restful sleep that might help them to ease), the searchlight souls, can learn something from it.
There's a risk, though, particularly if you read and act on folks' posts on facebook, those 'inspirational' quotations that encourage you to be true to yourself, to be honest with people, to live your life in the moment and all that stuff, that you might end up saying a bunch of stuff. The world works, as far as I can tell, on keeping some of what you think and feel to yourself. Imagine the unadulterated carnage if we all went ahead and just told each other what we actually thought or felt...
Not all mine, of course. But it'll make sense once book IV is done!
Happy the man, and happy he alone,
He who can call today his own:
He who, secure within, can say,
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair or foul or rain or shine,
The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not heaven itself upon the past has power,
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.
“That is it. Your choice.”
“I wrote it down.” Strelley smiles thinly. “My prayer that I would not have to make this choice.
“God, do not call on me to choose: her or not her.
“Let me be, alone, with regret for things not said.
“Should she ask, I do not have the strength to say no.”
“Edward,” Elizabeth Strelley says, quietly, “I didn’t know. I don’t think Caroline did either.”
“You weren’t supposed to. I’m sorry. Truly. Because if Sudeley had found out, it would have been dreadful for us all.”
“Did you tell her?” Elizabeth Strelley’s voice isn’t indignant, there is no hint of accusation or jealousy. She watches his face. “You did. Well, perhaps you shouldn’t have. It might have been easier on her if she thought you were dead and gone.”
“I thought that too. But with Grindal dying… She had to have some comfort. I did not go to her to tell her… But I made sure she knew I was alive. Before I went, I didn’t understand how I felt.”
“What do you mean?”
“It was only when I was a thousand miles away,” Edward Strelley says, “without her, and thinking about what to do next. Then I realised. Then I knew. And when I came back, she was in prison, alone and frightened. And I could not bear to hold it in me any longer.”
“You love her.”
“Desperately. So that I can think of little else.”
“Does she know that?”
“And? Does she feel the same?”
“I hope not.”
When to the sessions of sweet silent thought