When sweetness lightly dilutes the night’s intensity

OK, you get it. I’m depressed. Not clinically, but I do not really see many differences in the symptoms. When a long relationship in which you had invested everything is murdered suddenly, there is NO WAY to “just cherish the time [I] had with her, and let go” as a guy who is now (very) close to her told me pointedly yesterday in a post on FB about one of my blogs. Tell that to the core that has been shattered, sir! Tell that to the thousands of pieces life has been broken into, as I try to pick them up one by one and very very slowly glue them back together again. Tell that to the annihilated heart and soul, sir! And it has nothing to do with self-pity, and all to do with basic survival, because when your very soul has been ripped from your body, and your mind has been devastated, looking even remotely at the time with her (which was then the most magical time of my life) with any glee is beyond conceivable. That time in my life is a body with its head hacked off. And just as dead to me. The gentleman’s agenda is of course transparent, but his suggestion is so far from doable that it would be risible, where it not so absolutely tragic.

But this is not another blog in which I slowly and, hopefully, somewhat healingly, pick apart the darkness inside me. This one was instigated by the very opposite of that gentleman’s comment. It was inspired by an extremely sweet message sent to me by an ex-student, and a large part of this blog is actually that comment itself.

Let me begin by saying that zillions of friends and colleagues have been absolute troopers so far throughout this saga. Some with just a single, sympathetic line, others with long conversations, tears and hugs. And I was also incredibly touched by students, tentatively reaching out to their heartsick professor, with no agenda at all, but just because they can’t stand me being so incredibly sad.

I have picked a couple at random to give you an idea of the sort of simple, yet totally philosophical personal messages some of my students and ex-students sent me. Here is a very sweet one, for example, from a girl I taught a few years ago:

Hey Sir 😊 I have been thinking about messaging you since i saw your post and not sure if what I’m doing is ethical, since you were my lecturer, but I believe that everyone needs some motivational words sometimes. Life can be hard sometimes, but I have always seen you as a great, happy, cheerful, wise man! Don’t let anything stop you or change you! And keep your head up ‘cause you have a million reasons to do so! Hope you’re getting better and if there’s anything I can do to help you let me know. […] Kuraġġ! You are loved by many people 😊 Take care Sir!

And one more, from a girl that I taught much longer ago than the previous one:

I’m not going to ask how you’re doing because I know heartbreak is the absolute worst, especially when you love with all your heart. The healing process is tough, but you’re strong and you’ll get through it, even though it may not feel like it right now. I hope you find some solace in your art. It will not remove the cracks, but perhaps it can help you put pieces back together. Please don’t forget that you’re totally awesome and so many of us will always look up to you!

How heart-warmingly sweet are my students! 

But the one that took the cake was one I got today from a student who left university not too long ago… a happy, smiley, talented girl whom I’ve never seen without a radiant smile on her face. What she wrote touched me on a day when the lows were beyond low, and a very deep ravine would have had a problem keeping up. Here is what she wrote to me, reproduced here with her permission: 

Hi Ġorġ, I know this is going to be really random, but when I saw you today it reminded me to send you this message. I realise that you’ve been passing through a very difficult time recently and it always makes me sad when deeply emphatic people have to pass through a challenging period, because I know they feel things three times over. I just hope you understand what an impact you make on people’s lives, and as my lecturer you truly were inspiring with your love and passion for illustration and just creativity and expression in general. Life is hard, but there’s always beauty in everyday things, like the sun rising in the morning and the wonderful colours it paints the sky in, or the life that blossoms all around us, in the form of plants, trees, vegetation, insects… Don’t let hard times break your spirit or your soul, because people are external to you and you should always be your number one pride and joy. And you have so many things you should be proud of! All your experiences, the stories you can tell, your talents, the way you impact people’s lives — they’ve all made you into the person you are today. And maybe my inexperience in life fuels a sense of naivety within me, but I still believe the world is beautiful and I hope you find the strength within you to keep seeing the beauty in everyday things. I think the world has lost a sense of connectivity, but I hope you realise that even when you feel alone, you’re not alone, and you’ve made a difference in people’s lives more than you realise, and people do care. Take care, Ġorġ, and keep being you please! Keep inspiring others with your art and writing and keep hold of the light within the darkness 😊

I think you can all see why it hit me right where the hurt was most bitter. It was a gentle (even if, unfortunately, temporary) balm on my savagely slashed and profusely bleeding wound. And I realised that there are not just selfish people in the world, ready to tear your world apart at the drop of a hat… push you from the top of a high cliff and watch you spatter all over the hard ground below… that there are also sweet ones who see in me what I do not see in myself. And for her pointing that out to me, I am extremely grateful.

No, unfortunately, the beauty in everyday things has lost an enormous amount of its lustre to me right now, and I have not yet learnt to appreciate it alone… because (as my ironic last post on FB with her in it said) the best things in life are shared. And I had learned only to share and never to appreciate alone. So that is something new to me that I need to learn among the many pains and sorrows that overwhelm it. But I will, hopefully not too far in the future, until, at some point in my life, someone will teach me how to share again… and, yes, I will try to “keep hold of the light” until that happens.

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To sleep or not to sleep

In the past couple of months, I have been having problems with sleep. It is a well known fact, that satisfactory sleep is tied firmly to a feeling of security. That is why two compatible people together sleep better, most of the time, than one person alone. But of course, in my particular case, the whole problem is much deeper than that. There is no doubt that the loss of the other in my bed has affected my sleep through the lack of the physical reassurance of touch, but much more vividly, the change has been brought about by the acuteness of the darkness the irrevocable absence has brought into my mind and heart. So the overwhelming insecurity is a permanent fixture, waylaid at times, but persistently there, ready to pounce the second I am caught unawares.

I have always slept lightly, and because of a number of health issues, have had interrupted nights forever. But my mental and emotional conditions right now have aggravated that to the extreme. I hardly ever go to bed before midnight… but, like clockwork, my mental four o’clock alarm chimes and I am fully awake, with very tiny chances of drifting off again.

Because that is when the mind is smothered by uncontrollable thoughts. They are an avalanche, indomitable and catastrophic. They lull at first, making sure there is no defence possible, calmly sliding into position at the edges of consciousness… slinking in like silent snakes, noiselessly skirting the edges of my thoughts. And then the thoughts attack… full on, with trumpets blaring and horses in full gallop, with guns blazing and a kettledrum bang-banging for rhythmic marching in overwhelming, totally dominating invasion, defeating all resistance, sweeping away defiance with the sudden destructiveness of a gigantic tsunami.

And with it come the really nasty, daily headaches, compounded by the fact that I’ve been partaking of the soothing forgetfulness poison of whisky a bit too much of late, albeit during a controlled, limited time in the evenings. But … much much worse than that… everything is aggravated by the palpitating snare-drum devastation of heartache.

I try all the tricks. For example, I repeat the phrase “blank it out” to the point of nausea, trying to push back the dark, gigantic tanks of war that, however, just roll over all attempts at camouflage, sowing fire-breathing dragons and gristle-gnawing crocodiles into my thumping brain. And the tanks take the form of doubts, of unanswered questions, of regrets, of sorrow, of grief (intense, heart-stopping, stomach-crunching grief!)… of terror of the present and horror of the future. And they all manage to crunch themselves into the hours of tossing and turning, with eyes shut (but really wide open).

I usually give up the ghost around six, switching off the alarm optimistically set for two hours later, and try to obliterate the waves with activity, which only partly works because of a number of things. The dark abyss slashed open by the annihilating thoughts remains very much inside me, with my stomach dropping into it often, with the jolt of a sky-rocketing lift. And then there is the effect on my health. And trust me, after one such non-night, to put on the BBC (as is my wont in the mornings) and get Claudia Hammond’s programme Health Check discussing the incontrovertible findings of new research that shows just how impossibly amplified the risk of heart attack is by… yeah… lack of sleep. That there is a very direct co-relation. They said we need eight to nine hours. I’ve slept between three to four hours maximum every night for two and a half months, with very rare exceptions in which I might have got six!

So the clamping I feel in my chest at times might not be psychosomatic after all, as I keep on telling myself. It might not be my mistreated oesophagus in the after-throes of reflux. It might actually be the real thing.

And this is when the really worrying thought came into my mind… and I wish it hadn’t. This is when I realised that I was not worried. That death no longer mattered much to me. It was not preferable to life, no… but, unlike before, when I aspired to prolong life in ways that were almost frantic… the reasons for living have almost entirely disappeared. Yes, I have my somewhat successful career… yes, I have my creativity and my mind (that some consider to be a fine one) and my art and way with words, yes I have a lot of friends who were real troopers in the worst darkness ever of my life, yes, I have my kids, mum, siblings… yes… I suppose my demise will be a loss of sorts to lots of people, not least my students, and the country would lose my creative productivity…. but what would I lose?

Not much, really. 

No, I’m not suicidal. That’s not the way I do things. But I suppose not really caring much if I live or die is a version of that. I’ll make no particular effort to die before my time has come, but I very much doubt I’ll make any massive effort to the opposite, either.

This might very well be the lack of sleep itself speaking, but I think what that does is compound the thoughts, not create them, in much the same way that the vicious circle of waking letting in the hoards of dark ruminations stops sleep, and goes round and round and round, revisiting in detail each nook and cranny of negativity. And I know this might be a phase of thought that will pass with time and a change in conditions of life, but at the moment of writing, there is no indication whatsoever that it is temporary.

Hey, maybe my many waking hours are anticipatory compensation for when total darkness takes over and waking will not be an option. And there will be no tormenting thoughts invading the mind then. They’ll be left outside in the cold, hammering on a door that will never open to them ever again.

Now there’s a thought I have not had at night!

The thought-enhancing silence

The silence in the middle of the small town of Köyceğiz, in Southwestern Turkey, is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced, though right now a cicada is trying to break it, or break its little heart trying.

Walking by the huge lake here, also called Köyceğiz, you can’t even hear the lapping of the waters, as they are becalmed a lot of the time, almost as if there is no organic beating heart within that huge expanse of water, when in fact there are, among many other sea creatures, a lot of massively huge turles that one can see swimming just below the surface. But their heartbeats aren’t enough to break the mirror that looks back at me as I peer into its depths.

There are very few people around, since the peak of the Turkish summer season is gone, but the heat is still oppressive to the extreme and it sears the soles of your feet and the inside of your mind, almost toasting you alive as you walk, very slowly, along the lake’s very well curated banks, as sweat pours out of pores you didn’t even know you had.

The place is absolutely gorgeous. The lake itself, of course, is idyllic and the mountains that border its horizon rise and fall, having different levels and different shades, almost as if they were shot by a Disney Multiplane Camera. And there are trees everywhere, and every few steps water pouring out of pipes that compensates for the heat-driven dryness. And it’s almost as if I’m alone in this world so beautiful it was gifted to me by well-wishing friends, who, knowing how darkness has engulfed my world right now, cared enough about my well being to do something about it, trying to push a bit of light to dilute, even if very very briefly, the density of the black.

The beauty is just amazing and unique, but it’s the silence that predominates. It’s a solid wall that wraps you round in abstract cast concrete. And of course, thoughts just reverberate in it. Loud and harsh and clanging, like the inside of a bell-tower during the feast of the village patron saint. And thoughts aren’t exactly lacking right now. They keep me awake at night, they share my down time as I try to work, they fight back against my life-giving creativity, they punch me in the stomach and my heart and my mind, they engulf my very soul. Because, as I have already said in preceeding blogs, my world has been turned upside down by a sudden, intransigent decision I was helpless to overturn, but which in turn overturned me and all that I am and can be and will be. Demolishing the past, destroying the present, and annihilating the future.

I am, of course, working hard to get back on track, since this way lies total destruction of my mind and soul. It looks anything but hopeful as I write this, but I need to believe it is, because giving up leads to places I do not want to go. And Köyceğiz, that has given me so much by way of beauty, has also amplified the thoughts with its silence, though maybe, in so doing, has also helped me embrace them, and with them, the grief that is such an integral part of what has happened. Because only through embracing it will I eventually wear it out. I cannot get rid of it. I cannot ignore it. It will bore a hole in my heart and kill me. I need to hold it to me as it tortures me, grabs my stomach and twists, stops me breathing… like accepting the drill of the dentist during a root canal (but without anaesthetic!) knowing that, at some point in the future… potentially a very distant one… it will help ease the killer toothache. A psychologist friend of mine has actually told me I have to do this.

So, in a sense, thank you Köyceğiz for your thought-amplifying silence. I cannot not hurt right now… it’s like existing with half of every organ amputated, and needing to understand how to make do with half a heart, and half a liver… and, much worse, half a soul… but the pain writ large helps me put it in some sort of order. Still painful, but a tiny bit more acceptable.

If only there was just the beauty to be enjoyed in this wondrous place… shared with the only one who mattered to me to share beauty with! But therein lies the insanity in the excruciation that underlies the mess I’m in. So I will also need to learn how to appreciate the beauty alone, till sharing Köyceğiz with someone who can regrow the amputated half of my soul becomes again an option I can live with.

Happiness (and the lack of it)

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As I walked in Malmö city centre a few months ago, I noted a young girl… no more than twenty… walking on the pavement and crying. She had tears streaking down her face, her eyes were misted over, inward looking, her lips were trembling, her features distorted in a mask of misery.

I was uncertain what to do. Surely it was not my place to go ask her if she was all right? She obviously was not, so that would have been trite and out of place. In the end I decided that it was not something I could affect, and she turned the corner and was gone.

But my mind stayed with her. And I could not, for the life of me, conceptualise anything so hellish that would make that girl blubber in that way for all to see as she walked in the middle of a busy city. I mean…what could have been so impossibly bad after all? I thought.

Now, months later, I know exactly what could have been hell for her. Not what in itself, but the concepts that underlie misery and happiness.

You see, I could not conceptualise such horrors at the time because I was fundamentally happy. I was in a stable, long-term, happy relationship that had borrowed a lot more from fairy tales than reality, but held together very nicely thank you. I was doing well in my profession (was, in fact, about to be promoted), a serious health problem had been all but solved, I was working on a new children’s book that had enormous promise. My life was happy. Happiness was the overarching emotion that then coloured all other emotions. I’m not saying everything was perfect. Research is very clear about what the state of happiness is. Lyubomirsky, Sheldon and Shkade’s paper from 2005 called “Pursuing Happiness”, for example, quotes the literature in defining happiness “in terms of frequent positive affect, high life satisfaction, and infrequent negative affect. These three constructs are the three primary components of subjective well-being…” (p.115) There was no doubt, therefore that I was satisfying all three constructs, with the negative affect being my own construction of opposition to that very happiness… as I have had occasion to explain in the blog previous to this one. However, the other two constructs were by far predominating.

There was no doubt that my thoughts, feelings and inclinations were being coloured by my happiness, limiting my perception of reasons for sadness in others… and possibly, as a direct result, in myself. And this is weird, because for all intents and purposes, I’m an empath… a bit of a natural inclination in that direction enhanced by my communications training, particularly in the way I search for and collocate patterns of behaviour.

So even my empathy was being swayed by my natural happiness.

And then the main source of my happiness, my relationship, the very lynchpin of my existence, was brought crashing down overnight, and it died very fast after that, efficiently, intransigently, in spite of all my efforts to the opposite. And the overarching veneer of joy, that had coloured the world bright and found it difficult to understand the fundamental reasons for sadness, disappeared. My frequent smile went with it. My approach to life darkened. I stopped quipping, joking about everything (sometimes annoyingly… so I suppose it was a relief to some friends, at least), I stopped looking at sunsets and feeling their warmth on my face and letting their colours turn my soul to gold.

I died inside, and everything darkened.

OK… let me try to explain this as best I can. Think of an old painting that had warm, beautiful colours when first created by the master. Think of grime accumulating over centuries, in which the colours dull, the bright hues become pastel… the content remains the same and recognisable, but the verve and oomph… the pomp and circumstance, if you like… are no longer there. In my case it just took one day… less, actually, a few minutes, to do that, but the effect was undoubtedly the same.

And suddenly, the other day, I remembered the crying girl in Malmö, and my heart immediately went out to her, and OH, how I recognised her despair at whatever had instigated that bout of intense misery.

Now it was difficult for me to recognise the reason for laughter and joking… in much the same way that I had not understood what could have motivated the sadness. And none of my much vaunted academic prowess that makes me analyse everything everywhere even began to help, for the very simple reason that I could not recognise that there was actually anything to analyse when I was in the very thick of it. Because the happiness was a coating of the soul… a veneer on everything that I did and felt. That is exactly what the sadness is now, and it’s darkened the taste of good food and darkened the light streaming through cracks in the curtains early in the morning, darkened the intensity of an exciting movie, darkened the air I breathe, making it thicker and less filling (stopping in my chest, more often than not), darkened the silence and the smile on people’s lips. Darkened my whole perception of reality.

I have no clue when my next bout of happiness will come around. It’s going to need to be a doozy to clear out the misery that is weighing down my soul.

In fact, right now, it’s telling me that it is never going to happen. And no matter how I struggle, I find it hard to contradict it.

Next time I’ll know better! – On why I will no longer report illegalities to the Occupational Health and Safety Authority

If you’d come across Malta for the first time, you would not be blamed thinking that the much prophesied apocalypse had come to roost here. From the snaking monster of cars that clogs the arteries of our roads, to towering cranes and the ‘development’ that invariably accompanies it… dangerous dragons all, belching fumes of dust that maim the lungs and kill the will to live.

Of late, of course, that thing that goes around came around and suddenly, we’re all talking about the massive danger to civilian life that unbridled construction has become. A few homes neighbouring building sites fell down. The amazing thing is that more haven’t fallen down, and one wonders how many will fall down of their own free will over the years, their foundations undermined in such a way that the danger is latent rater than immediate.

I have lived through three major building sites around my flat. I am asthmatic and suffer massively from headaches. The incredible noise, the dust, the shaking foundations, the persistent dirt that washes over a neighbourhood were building is going on, the street blockage, the inconvenience. All of that and more. But what actually affected me much more than anything else (well, maybe except for the noise of the digger!) was the total disrespect for health and safety that the workers at the building site across the way from me had. They straddled planks balancing precariously on sacks of cement, four or five floors up. They inhaled dust from the stone cutting and planing machines that surely must have lead to permanent calcification of their lungs. They wore no helmets, no harnesses, no protective shoes. They often wore no clothes at all, except for skimpy shorts that covered modesty but did little else.

I was expecting a fatal accident to happen at any moment, and a couple of times I just couldn’t take it! Took photos and sent them off to the Occupational Health and Safety Authority, who would duly acknowledge receipt of my mail and actually send inspectors. And work would stop for a day, and the following day the workers had helmets and harnesses. And the day following that, the harnesses would still be on, but they’d have dangling ropes, unconnected and as useless as a damp squib! And then the helmets would disappear as well. So on and so forth. Until my hackles went up so high I had to contact the OHSA again.

This happened a few times while the huge block was being erected. And people moved in and the workers disappeared. None died, as far as I know, but it wasn’t from lack of their trying.

And then, a few months ago, I got a police summons that I was called as witness against the contractors. Three separate summons, but all for the same morning. It was a bad time… exam time at University. I had to cancel meetings that had been planned for weeks, but grumblingly thought it was my duty to see this through. A citizen should stand up in the face of the rampant illegalities that are around us. Even more if those illegalities can cost lives through the neglect, or just plain stinginess, of contractors.

So I was in court at the appointed time of 9.00 am. It was difficult for someone who had never been to court to find the actual hall… there were none listed on the summons, and the notice boards were only populated about half an hour after the appointed time. And there is no-one official around to ask. It looked like a non-violent melee, a free for all, with people obviously knowing each other chatting away, and the newbie trying to find his way.

Someone knew, and I was pointed to a closed door around which milled a lot of people. When the notice was eventually put up, I saw that there were dozens of cases for that same hall and same magistrate, all for that morning. So I waited to be called.

Nothing happened. At one point I thought I heard one of the contractors against whom I was a witness being called in, but not the two others, and no-one called me in the meantime, so I thought I’d imagined it.

At just after 11.00 am, a police sergeant stuck his head out of the hall door and asked for those whose case had not yet been called. I tentatively told him what I was there for. He looked through his list. “Ah,” said. “That case was adjourned!” And the other two, I asked? “Oh, they could not serve the summons to those two!” he calmly said. So what do I do, I asked, trying to hold back the anger that nearly choked me at that point. “Oh, you’ll have to come back,” he said with a smile, and gave me a date… this time slam bang in the last week of semester, when it’s impossible to postpone classes.

I fumed out. Wrote to the OHSA and told them off! Not their fault. It’s the court system being what it is. But I still had to go when called, or else I’d be fined for contempt!

And I was summoned. Only just, as I’d just got home from abroad. It seems people do not travel. They just wait in their homes waiting for policemen to deliver summons.

Again, I was there at 9.00. Again I waited. Again I wasn’t called. But the two cases I had been summoned for were. An hour or so later. And they must have left through the back door, because another case was called. I tried to talk to the policeman who was calling cases, but he indicated he was busy. I waited another half an hour then collared him the moment his head came out for the next call. Oh, he said. Both cases were adjourned. For a time when I’ll definitely be abroad.

And I fumed out again. And decided that being a good citizen is not worth it after all. And that the next time I see someone about to die as they  do a sprightly dance in mid-air on planks hanging from threads, I’ll turn my head away and not let the overwhelming need to save them make me have to contend with a court system that has no respect for citizens doing their duty.

Most definitely. Next time I’ll know better!

A silent silence

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The silence runs deeper than the silence itself. Because there is no actual silence. There’s a gentle rustle as trees, as old as god knows what, are gently brushed by a very light wind. There is the lapping of waves… like lovers, waters kissing rocks, gently rocking over them, making love in ways that are only known to nature that has been untouched by the artifical hand of what we laughingly refer to as civilisation.

No, there is no actual silence, but yet, it is a silence deeper than any I’ve felt in vacuum, because silence is not the absence of noise, it is the intense pleasure of the lack of the humdrum familiar… the abject hum of everyday outside the window… the massive, overwhelming roar of life as it happens anywhere on my island home.

This too is an island, but so far removed from the familiar world of home as to be virtually another world. A world of green, and blue, and quiet red rooftops that feel like they’ve been lifted out of a northern crib. A world of rocks that love the waters that surround them, and in which even old boathouses enrich, rather than blemish the landscape.

Yes, it’s lifted out of a postcard, but there’s no printing, no paper… just the reality of the deep silence of the soul, an eternity of gentle sussuration as thoughts slowly drift out into puffs of non-existence. A disarming debilitating of the need to work… an antidote to tension and stress.

And it’s a permeating silence that creates a lethargic energy that dissipates softly into thoughtlessness, as the spirit hums gently to itself and eases the burden of life.