Returning to life

Just a small point highlighted by the last two posts.

I reckon about a year ago that my experiences had left me hardened to point almost of being callous. It wasn’t that I felt things less, but they were overlaid by a hard shell that left me blunt and sometimes angry, and that had me impervious to the effects of personal emotion. I would still be moved by tragedy and by triumph – I’ve always been someone affected to the point of tears by such things – but when it came to my life I was almost ruthlessly impassive. I felt like a hard bastard, and had for some time. Having survived homelessness everything else seemed trivial, even small.

It was not a circumstance I was happy with. I felt distant from myself. Being distant from myself I also felt distant to much of society, even still. I wanted to be the sensitive man I’d always been. I was sad thinking I might have lost it. I didn’t want to be tough, or calloused, or indifferent. I wanted to feel. I wanted to be part of things. I wanted to feel the torrent of life surge about me, pushing and pulling and taking me it’s capricious way because to feel, and to feel deeply, is life.

I might be sad at this moment, but sad is better than feeling nothing. I’m grateful that some of that life has returned to me. Being homeless was to live in a wasteland. Coming out of that was to return to a barren landscape. Now that landscape shows signs of re-growth and in time, I hope and expect, it will be a lush playground.

Perhaps it needed only time to return to this state, but I credit a couple of things for it. I think first is actually finding myself interested in someone else after years of forced abstinence. Even when things were good I never fell easily but fell hard when it happened. In this case, it caught me by surprise. I found myself flirting with someone flirting with me. That wasn’t unusual – what was unusual is that from the flirtation came real affection, and the beginnings of hope I only ever realised after the fact.

That’s been no fairy-tale and it’s not anywhere near where I want it to be, and it may never be so – but I feel it, I’m alive to the possibility, can feel those tendrils of desire and hope and pure tenderness spread through me like an elixir. Even in despair – which I am yet to experience this time – there is life, much preferred to casual indifference (though sometimes in the midst of it you may think differently).

The second thing is the choice I made to open myself up. In retrospect, I can see the choice was made easier because of what I felt for the girl. The depression I experienced over Christmas was enough for me to know that I should change things, but it was the utter mortification knowing that it had undone everything with the girl who forced me into action. I couldn’t live with the shame and guilt and tragedy of it.

I have said before opening up as I have is one of the most important things I’ve done in my whole life. It has been hard at times and perhaps difficult for others occasionally to absorb, but it has been largely positive. As I open myself to the world, the world opens itself to me.

I wish I could share it with her. It’s been one of the great frustrations that the one person I really want to share it with I cannot. Perhaps she did eavesdrop the other night and heard at least a part of my story. It would put a different spin on much she might have considered settled fact. It would be something for her to think about, and I can’t imagine it leaving her indifferent.

Regardless of what she knows or doesn’t, what I ever tell her or how it turns out, I owe her more than she can know. Meeting her, and feeling for her, set me on the path to reclaiming myself. I’d like to tell her that someday, but don’t know if I ever will.


Falling backwards

I’ve never had much trouble attracting women. I’ve always thought it was for a combination of reasons. I was always slightly elusive, which drew many on, plus I had the nonchalance of someone indifferent to public opinion. On top of that I had wit and intelligence – I was an interesting, often fun person to be around. I’d like to think my more sensitive qualities played a part, but it seems to me that only ever counts as we become more intimate. There are women today who think I’m a hard bastard, and somehow like me for it. To discover that I’m actually quite sensitive too comes as an unexpected twist.

Without doing much there seem to be a bunch of women about now. I think part of it is that I’ve plugged myself back into the grid and have become visible again. I’m catching up with a lot of people lately that I’d neglected by circumstance over the past few years. Most of them are women. I enjoy the company of women, I enjoy being interesting to them, and I enjoy unpeeling the layers. I suspect there are a couple from my past who might have subtle designs if things work out the right way – they know me, they always liked me, they trust me.

I feel none of that myself but I don’t rule it out. I don’t think it’s really my scene, and for me that moment has long past. In its place is affection and genuine interest – I like them too, I’m curious about their life, and in my own way I care for them.

I did some reading over the weekend while I was in the maelstrom. I’m always reading and I have an open mind. I was thinking about what I wanted and what I felt. In the background was this other woman, A, who I like, but don’t know yet if I like her enough in that way. I want to find that out, but as I considered that and did my reading and felt as I did I came to admit another undoubted flaw.

I have intimacy issues, I think. That’s probably news to no-one, including me, but it became front and centre and here I am trying to change the way I interact and respond to the world about me it seemed high time I actually did something about it.

I had happened across attachment theory, which I’d read about previously, but from a more academic perspective. This time I felt it more personally. I can’t explain the why or how of it, and don’t know which of the formative relationships made it so (though there is complexity there), but I have little doubt I fall dead centre of the avoidant type. It accounts for most of my adult intimate relationships, with few exceptions. I would rationalise it at the time, I didn’t have the time or space, there were other things I wanted to do, I didn’t want to settle down yet/commit, there was some place I had to travel to, things weren’t perfect, and of course, I wanted to keep my options open.

I’m curious about the root cause of this behaviour, but that’s lost in the mists of time and may not be relevant any longer. What’s important is now and the opportunity before me. I want to learn to commit, to give over of myself which, it seems to me, is the crux of the issue.

As I sit here writing this the key issue appears to be of trust, and maybe that gives some clue how I developed like this. It’s like one of those exercises whereby you allow yourself to fall backwards and trust there will be someone there to break your fall. I’ve always framed this in terms of independence – I don’t need anyone to catch me, I can manage it myself. Perhaps that is learned, because I couldn’t rely on being caught when it counted – I don’t recall that, yet I know my mum suffered a nervous breakdown before I was ten, which made her pretty frail. Perhaps I learned then that I had to tend for myself – my father was a distant, often absent character. In any case what I frame as a desire for self-sufficiency (which so many find alluring) is in fact a reluctance to trust to fate.

If this is so then the obvious solution is to allow myself to fall, trusting to it. Easier said than done, but at least now – perhaps – I understand.

Doing and being

These last few weeks have given me a good insight into the difference between doing and being.

What you do is generally a function of who you are – your being. That’s the natural way of things as it was – with exceptions – for me.

I say exceptions because few of us are one seamless, uncomplicated being. We each contain contradictions and flaws. We have issues and hang-ups, but what generally it means that who we are at a certain point is given expression through our actions.

That was true of me in large part, except that there was a significant swathe of my being I kept separate from the world. That part of me rarely expressed itself in my words or actions. Instead the persona that was true for the other 80% of me was given 100% coverage. I might think something, I might feel something, something might be true of me in that moment, but I kept it close to me. To the outside world there was no difference in my demeanour, and over the course of many years it became established and habitual.

I’m now trying to break that habit. I want to give true expression of that self, but it’s hard work because it is not natural.

My solution has been to act in that way. That means doing things which I think give expression to that side of me. It’s not real though, certainly not a true expression of that being because I am forcing something that might otherwise flow naturally. I am given some satisfaction by these acts, and in fact have felt moments of liberation. It is only embodied in those random actions though. I am confused and lost when I am not doing something because I have no achieved that openness of being.

I don’t know that I have many options if this is what I want. I think if I do these things often enough it will start to become real, and there is some merit in that if only because I am normalising something which till now I’ve kept secret. The problem with that is that there is a limit to what I can do. I can’t go about telling everyone my story, nor do I want to. But if not that, then what?

The idea is that by doing this that suppressed part of my being emerges. Ideally, with time, it blends into a whole – not 80% this and 20% that, but rather an honest 100% with degrees of perspective and natural bias one way or another as the situation dictates. It should flow, but that is some way off.

This is not about changing who I am, it’s about allowing myself to express authentically all the time. I’m not about to become less driven or competitive. There will be times when I come on strong. I recognise that it’s okay to be glib, to go the one liner, but not when something authentic or real is expected or needed – no more deflections. I wish to express the sensitive side of myself more often, be honest with people and open. I don’t really get hung-up on status or anything like that, but I felt shame at what happened with me and was proud enough to keep it hidden.

It might take a while this, but I think it will come in increments. At the end of it I should be a whole being, an everything I do will be an expression of that.

The hunger artist

For some reason I recalled last night a Kafka story called, I think, The Hunger Artist. It’s a very Kafkaesque tale, absurd and ultimately poignant. It’s about a man who works in a circus, famous for fasting. The crowds come to see him, a skinny man in a cage. Overtime his appeal fades – he does nothing after all except not eat. He is shifted away from a place of prominence, and largely forgotten. One day he is re-discovered in some corner of the circus, on the verge of death from starvation. His final words are that he ‘could never find anything he liked to eat’. It’s beautifully banal, and that’s the story.

So what made me think of this now? That’s an interesting question – but then how does one thing lead to another? I don’t know the answer to either question. It’s there in your head, dredged up from the depths for reasons unknown, and perhaps for no reason at all, perhaps just randomly. Randomness exists. It’s a real thing of substance. But I think in situations such as this randomness has little part. Randomness, I think, influences the external. The internal has its own rhyme and reason, even when the reason is barely rational. So I think.

In any case I’m not going to waste my time trying to figure this out. It occurred to me watching an English sit-com called Lovesick. It made me laugh sometimes, and brought back memories. At the same time I’m sending messages to and fro with Donna, largely about new year’s eve, but other cryptic stuff too.

I want to be down the beach come new year’s eve, at Wye River where I have an invite from the Cheeses. Donna is at a loose end though and I feel some responsibility for her. I’ve also got an invite to a party of the city and she was interested in coming along. If that’s what she wants to do I’ll delay my trip to Wye River for a few days – but I really need to get it sorted. As usual though, Donna is all over the place.

Then I’ve got the turmoil of the week behind me, the uncertainty and confusion and conflicting desires. I think abruptly I just need to get some sex. Sex is the answer to a lot of things, no matter the question. Except it’s only really the illusion of an answer – though, even so, it’s not so bad.

In this case I’m thinking that sex is a circuit-breaker for me. Go hard and obliterate myself in the act. So often when I’m confused or uncertain I’m moved to acts of relative violence. I’m not punching people in the head, but sex comes to the front of mind, or I bury myself in work – I’ve had a majorly productive week. It’s because my mind is going at a million miles an hour and I need to burn that energy somehow. And so I think I just need to have sex and that will solve everything. For an hour or so it seems an alluring option, do that and let the pieces fall. It’s very much a male option.

Then I think of the story. It insinuates itself into my mind. Am I the hunger artist – am I the man who just can’t find anything he likes?

This is my nature, and it will never change – always wondering, always searching, always wanting more, and eternally restless for it.

Earthly hopes

I’ve just had breakfast on Christmas morning, some poached eggs with mushrooms on toast, and opened the few presents I’ve got (though more than last year), and Christmas carols are playing. Soon enough Rigby and I will go for a walk down by the beach, which might become a tradition. He received his gift this morning too and happily gobbled it up, but I don’t think he has much idea about Christmas.

There was a patch this morning of about five minutes when I felt a bit sad. I had reflected on years past, how from too early the phone would be ringing and it would be mum on the phone as happy as a child wishing me a heartfelt Merry Christmas. It would be all action after that, preparing for the day ahead, then getting in the car with my bag of pressies and bottles of bubbles that were always my responsibility. I’d be at mum’s by 11, and earlier if I was going for breakfast. I’d be greeted exuberantly, but then put to work helping with the grandiose preparations. Gradually the house would fill and resonate with happy voices and the cries of excited kids. Eventually, we would sit down with a drink in our hand and whoever was the designated Santa of the year would hand out presents from under the tree. I figure it’s a familiar scene a million times over.

Around noon today I’ll be setting off for a Christmas lunch in Canterbury. I intended to have this day alone but was tricked into this. Probably not a bad thing. I gather it’ll be pretty low-key, but with some drinking.

Listening to the carols this morning there was one that I stopped to listen to closely. Carols are so familiar as to be muzak, and it’s rare even as we mouth along with the lyrics that we really listen. Most of the lyrics are idealised, good-natured, but hardly intimate. An exception is Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – at least to me. Perhaps it’s the times, but I listen to the lyrics and they’re something I want to believe in, and therefore become more personal for me. It’s a quieter, less exuberant song, smaller in scale and therefore more earthly. I have a very good version of it by Nora Sagal.

Otherwise, I like Carol of the Bells, purely for the melodic purity of it. There’s a lot of good versions of this, but the a capella version I have by Pentatonix is hard to top.

That’s my Christmas. How’s yours? Hope it brings you wisdom, compassion and joy.

Aspirations to the conventional?

Had a few beers, and knocked over a few pins yesterday afternoon at a Christmas function for the management level staff in our team. I was ambivalent going into it. It chafed at my democratic spirit – I’m happy to party, but to have a party exclusively for management seemed both unfair and elitist. Then it was the venue. I voted for a sit-down lunch at some you beaut barbecue restaurant at Crown; the riff raff voted for Strike. Then, of course, there was the crowd I was joining, most of whom I would never dream of socialising with.

So okay, that’s a bit unfair, if not maybe a tad snobbish too. Mea culpa. And actually there are about 4-5 I’d happily have a beer with, and most of the others are okay types. There are a few though I think pretty ordinary – generally from the call centre, promoted from the floor and taken to the job with either a tyrannical zeal, or sloppy indifference. Neither endear me by nature, and I reckon I could write a paper on how people take to positions of authority. It’s a bit like the nouveau riche and old money; one needs to splash it around to prove it, the other accepts it with a modest grace.

But I digress. I hadn’t played ten pin bowling for about ten years, and was pretty rusty but did okay – came about 4th out of 25. Then there was karaoke, way too early in the day for that, and much too sober. I abstained, reflecting that alcohol not just removes the inhibitions to stand up and belt out a cheesy song, it also does something for your hearing. There are beer goggles, I guess there are beer ears too. Half cut the voices of your drunken mates inspire hilarity more often than not; sober, and it’s just noise.

Finally we stepped out and had a few beers sitting around, which was much more my speed. I can be pretty laconic, but I don’t mind joining in when the conversation gets interesting. I found myself at a table where there were some interesting personalities and different perspectives and the hand-brakes were off.

It was around this time that I found myself glancing more frequently at one of the women there. Strictly speaking not a member of the team, she’d been invited along as the HR representative who deals with us. She’s an attractive woman, dark haired, long legged, she was also one of the HR people I butted my head against early in the year. We have a complicated relationship now.

It made me think. I wasn’t about to try anything, but I couldn’t help but feel something. It is ever the way. I don’t think it will ever change, that I’ll ever mellow. It’s hard wired into me. It complicates things, but at the same time I’m glad of it. It feels like life. It feels like you’re carrying a loaded gun, and with it comes danger. Desire, ultimately, is an act of aspiration, and no more so than the competitive lust that I feel so often.

And so this brings me back to the Christmas party last Friday night. I went there thinking that given the opportunity I might make a romantic move. As it turns out it was not really a night of such opportunities, and I figured that out pretty early on – she was on another table, and the noise made intimate conversation awkward. Everything was in motion, people coming and going all the time, being pulled away to dance, or get a photo taken, or to talk with someone else, all of which meant there was little chance of continuity.

I was happy to save it for another time. Instead I devoted my attentions to enjoying myself. The theme was gangster, and to my surprise I found as part of the entertainment there was a dance troop. They danced a few numbers, changing into different outfits and performing to different songs from the 1920’s and thirties. It was well done, but the girls were the stars of the show – and once more I felt that familiar stirring. One particularly I watched, drawn by the look of joy on her face as much as I was to her long legs and good looks. The desire I felt was much more platonic – I was interested on what led down that pathway, and I think a big part of desire is curiosity and opportunity. They are different doors we may open, but mostly pass on by – though not always.

It made me consider my situation standing there. There I was thinking I wanted to get close to one woman in particular. I had reservations because of my circumstances, but they could be overcome without too much issue. Still, something in me shrunk from the possibility – as I have so, so often – and I wondered if I should just accept it and live as I always have, poking my head into different doors, indulging my curiosity, following up on opportunity. Maybe I just wasn’t meant for the sort of commitment required, maybe for me it was always going to be episodic. Little adventures, enough to keep me interested.

Naturally I had to stop to think about that: why must it be that way?

I don’t know when or how it started, but there came a moment when I realised I didn’t want to be like everyone else – this is going back decades, when I was still a kid. I was happy to be out of step, and figured more often than not that if I was on a different path to most people then that was likely proof I was heading in the right direction. There’s a bit of exceptionalism in this. Everyone likes to think themselves a little special, but I think I genuinely believed it. Because of that I always pitched myself higher. I was going to do this or that. I had to do these things to justify that opinion. It wasn’t hard for me because I was also incredibly competitive, and on a superficial level I probably achieved something along the way.

Of course it’s an illusion. I might think myself gifted, special, made for a higher purpose, but at the same time there’s a part of me that knows that’s self-indulgent bullshit – get your hand off it H. You go on though because you realise it’s only with that belief can you hope to fulfil that expectation. You defy your doubts almost out of perversity.

Hand in hand with this is an utter reluctance to be conventional. It’s in your mind, you don’t want any part of that, and it informs not just your perspective, but behaviour. There’s an element of substance in it – the fear that once you accept a ‘conventional’ lifestyle that any hope of being exceptional is lost. The self is in large part sublimated to the whole, and personal ambition takes a step back. It makes sense. I look at my friends married now with kids, and while I feel a certain envy I see that in the transition they have set aside perspectives I feel I couldn’t live without.

It’s natural for a parent to be insular. As an individual it’s easy to venture into the world with nothing to lose but yourself. There’s a recklessness in that which makes for vivid engagement. As a parent you become a part of an entity. You look more inwards than outwards, not just to protect and provide, but for inspiration and motivation. I understand that – it makes sense. And there’s something lovely in that.

Is that me, though? That could be my challenge now. I like being inquisitive. I like being aggressively questing. I like variety and difference, like the sense of unknowing I look to overcome, like the feeling that regardless of the tribulations I experience along the way that I’m moving forward, becoming more. I fear becoming conventional and losing that – and perhaps then it’s better to find comfort and knowledge with different types, different people along the way, blondes and brunettes, doctors and dancers, Christian and Buddhist, Australian and otherwise. In the kaleidoscope of experience there is something very alluring to me – which brings me back to yesterday afternoon and pondering the HR lady.

I wonder all of this, but as I write it there is some deep part of me that recoils from it: I don’t want to give up on the sweet dreams of love and affection, of a true family. And yet, as I get close to the possibility of it I shrink back. This is the impasse I have to resolve.

The trick is to reconcile individual aspirations with the desire to be part of something greater than I alone. I want to continue to look outwards, be curious and assertive, while be a proper partner and – if it comes to it – father. It must be possible to be both. There’s always compromise, but must there be sacrifice? I suspect it will be a negotiation within myself, and probably only possible with the help of others. From here on in I can only be completely honest with myself and others – that’s the necessary requirement. Accept the conventional, strive to be more.

Wise words

I always think that hot weather in Melbourne has a different nature to hot weather in other parts of the world. A classically hot day in Melbourne is a heavy thing. It sits upon the landscape pressing it down. When you’re a part of that landscape you feel it keenly. It has a sharp and incessant quality. Shadows are clearly defined, and the sun is as painted in the corner of the sky, ever shining, ever beaming like a heat ray. It seems inescapable and static. The only difference is when the north wind blows, which is wicked and hot; and those moments of relief when the weather finally breaks.

I experienced the hot Melbourne weather standing at the bus stop in Frankston yesterday waiting to be picked up. I watched the comings and goings: the buses stopping and starting up again, the locals passing by or entering into the station concourse, some with their shirts off, and others waiting, like I, to be collected. I was the odd man out, not just in the heat, but in Frankston in general, dressed in a suit and with a silk tie with scarlet flowers on it.

I was picked up by a friend and we drove the short distance to the chapel where the funeral of my friend’s father was about to commence. On the way we chatted, catching up on old news. It was cool in the car with the air-con going full blast. Driving down the beach road we looked out over the beach and the distant escarpment at Mt Martha, both of us commenting on how idyllic it was. It’s like a painted scene, I said, the colours rich and deep, the sea blue, the sand a rich beige, and the trees atop the escarpment a dusty green. Later it reminded me of something Rupert Bunny might have painted, a timeless, eternal landscape where ladies might once have promenaded with parasols in their hands, while today yachts scud across the water and boys in board shorts cavort.

The chapel was full. Later I was told they had double the crowd expected. The overflow spilled into another room where the service could be watched by video link. We stood at the back of the room overlooking the seated heads. It was an elegant scene, different from the sterile chapels I’ve attended in the past. It was an old house with high ceilings. A modern chandelier dangled brass orbs. A row of windows let in the light from outside. Across the road and through the trees was the beach.

As funerals go it was a good funeral. I had my own memories of my mate’s dad, a kind and considerate man with a spark of wit. He had always seemed so robust. In my memory I saw as a kind of Harry Andrews type, salt of the earth, though with a bit more levity. Whatever my thoughts of him were it was clear he was held in great esteem by very many. My opinion of him seemed validated by the crowd: he was a man of quality.

I listened as the celebrant gave the conventional eulogy, before one by one his sons got up to share their memories. This was incredibly moving. It was clear he was a much loved father. The memories shared were vivid, sometimes funny, and often poignant. Their grief was articulated in different voices, and at times it threatened to overcome them.

It’s funny, I felt glad to be there to witness. It was real and true. It was sad that he was gone, but wonderful he had existed. I felt a kind of pride at being part of the human race he had been part of. But then I couldn’t help but feel envy too. I listened to the stories of these grieving sons and wondered what I could say on behalf of my own father. I had nothing to compare, not even the smallest thing. Once more I felt a sense of being deprived. How might it have been had I a father like that? I wished I could feel so deeply, could love so much – and yet, timely as it was, when I contacted my father by SMS the other day to tell him I had to record him as a next of kin I didn’t even receive an acknowledgement. That bus has long departed.

We ended up at the Dava hotel next door. You relax. It’s a different vibe, the tie is loosened. It’s an open bar and you share a cold beer with people you haven’t seen for years. The stories flow, memories are recalled. I had forgotten some, but remembering them again they seemed just like yesterday. How does time fly? Was that really twenty years ago? There seems something strange and wonderful about it. You look around. One of your friends is unchanged. You yourself are little different. But others are older, greyer, bigger. Men now, not boys, but when did that happen?

Here we are in a funeral though. If that was behind us, then ahead was this. I stood in the chapel thinking that I will be here again sometime, and one of my friends I share a beer with today might be in the casket – and one day it will be me. But that’s in the future, now is remembrance.

It’s the nature of funerals that while it is a sad occasion we celebrate by remembering. The connections that have dissolved or disconnected by time and distance in that brief period become real again. Moments are shared and recalled, laughter blossoms, stories are told.

I caught up with my mates younger brother, a lovely, knockabout bloke (they’re all lovely, a great family). He had struggled in giving his eulogy. When I shook his hand after the service he was still grief stricken. Now, at the reception, we shook hands again and with a smile said “as soon as I saw you H I had to laugh, you remember…” and off he went recalling a moment I had forgotten altogether (from my mates wedding) that I remembered again and laughed with him. Fancy that, we thought.

I threaded through the crowd, catching up with the eldest son, and then my mates mum, while being introduced to others. Outside the sun blazed down. The sea could be seen from the upstairs bar where we stood. As it had in the chapel the air-con struggled.

At the end I felt enlarged inside. I had awareness. Life was bigger than I remembered and it ends with death. It had boundaries, but the boundaries gave it meaning. I had commented to one of the sons he must be proud at the turn out and the testament it was for his father. He told me his father lived by the precept in 7 Habits of Effective Men – live like you want be remembered at your funeral. Yes, I thought, wise words – but what would people remember of me?