Tag Archives: Reflection

The Fall. Part 11.

James describes the 48 or so hours that followed as some of the most painful, frustrating, and surreal of his life. Nevertheless, almost two years later the events themselves are still fresh in his mind, in intricate detail, tattooed onto his memory by the force of emotion. So, while this part of the story is written by me, it has been spoken to me by James, they are his words.

Pen and I lay on the bed. We were both in tears. Pen’s hysterical screaming had lasted some time, I don’t know, maybe 5 minutes, but it might have been much less, such a noise, perhaps it seemed like it was going on for longer than it really was. We didn’t say much to each other at first; what is there that can be said in such a moment, all is platitude. Pen’s predominantly pragmatic sense must have taken hold at some point because she quite abruptly sat up and asked what I thought we should do now. Almost as soon as she had asked it, she dismissed it again and said that she needed a drink. We had some beer in the RV but she needed something stronger. So I suggested walking up to the main road where I had seen a liquor store – I offered to go, but she didn’t want to be left on her own so we both went. It was the first time out into the world, post-…what – what should I call this event? Post-Anna. Post-normality. Post-happiness. At the time it was post everything, nothing looked or felt the same, and we didn’t think it ever would. 

So, out into the post-Anna world. I have never been so struck by the gulf that could exist between the internal and external states of this world. How resistant that thin veneer of normality has to be to maintain an external appearance of order, when inside there are so many different things going on, so many indescribable things, things you can’t make sense of, let alone put into words. The simplest interaction with a liquor store owner becomes a matter of total rote, automated being. There is no thought process, your thoughts are buried, they’re down there somewhere, drowning in that mess. Something carries you through, some tacit sociability enables you to smile, be polite, make small talk. As we walked back to the campsite we held hands tightly and did not speak. There could be no pretence with each other. To speak would have been to lose that sense of order, which was keeping us from breaking down in the street. Just had to hold tight to each other. I could feel Penny’s breathing tensed against this emotional threat, I could feel mine doing the same thing. Defending, protecting our outward appearance.

1am local time. Sitting on the picnic tables beside the RV, drinking gin, smoking our first cigarettes in years. The next RV was about 20 yards away, one light still on inside. Looking around the campsite, with the exception of the occasional light on, we felt fairly alone, and this was how we wanted it. This was how we would try and begin to make sense of what had happened and how we were to respond to it. 

Penny poured herself another drink, the first one having disappeared at some speed, and lit a second cigarette. I was struggling a bit with smoking again, the nicotine was turning my stomach, but I persevered, I wanted Penny to do what she needed to and not stop to think about whether or not she should be doing it. Should and should not had gone, they had no place here.

We talked through our options. Though I hadn’t checked I was pretty sure that there was no international airport in Santa Fe, nor did I imagine we would be able to drop the RV there. So, any return journey we made would need to deal with both of these things first. It was now the small hours of Wednesday morning. As I would be in no fit state to drive until about midday the following day, we were at that point looking at probably getting home by Thursday lunch time at the earliest. I guess we had both just gone initially on the assumption that we would try and get back home as quickly as possible. At some point Pen stopped and said that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea. What if we continued – not to complete the whole trip, but to complete what we came here to do; get married. We were booked in to a chapel on Saturday. What difference was another 2 days going to make? We felt like maybe this was what Anna would have wanted us to do.

Getting the laptop from the RV I started trying to work out our options in more detail. Las Vegas was about a 12 hour drive away. We didn’t want to stop anywhere else now, the holiday was over, we just wanted to do what we came here to do and then go home. There was an international airport in Las Vegas, and there was a depot where we could drop the RV. As we could probably make the journey in a day, I suggested seeing if we could move our bookings forwards by a day or two. It seemed possible that we could be flying home by friday – only a day or so later than if we upped and left now. I also checked what it would require for us to leave as soon as possible. The nearest RV depot was Albuquerque, where there was also a domestic airport. The nearest international airports were Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. All this seemed to be pointing towards the Las Vegas plan. However, we were both worried about still having that amount of driving to do. At that point I was so exhausted I couldn’t really think about the idea of driving 12 hours. Given everything else that was going through my head I didn’t know whether I would be able to focus on the task of driving. 

At this point, Penny decided that I should go to bed. She said that she wouldn’t be able to sleep, but that whatever we were going to do would require me to drive somewhere and so I needed to rest. So, we packed up for the night. Penny gave me a sleeping pill, then sat next to me. My last memory of that day is Penny sitting next to me with here legs tucked up, hugging her knees, headphones on, eyes bright and looking ahead of her at the wall of the RV, and beyond, to tomorrow. It felt good, in as much as ‘good’ was at that point possible. It felt like maybe we could do something to honour Anna, by continuing, we still felt like we had a purpose.

I slept. 

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The Fall. Part 10.

That evening, James and Penny went back into Santa Fe as planned. They ate a meal in a charming little contemporary Mexican cafe and enjoyed a couple of local beers. Making their way back to the RV by about 10pm, they opened another beer, put a little music on and settled in for another relaxing night, reading and route planning. James was leaning more towards the latter of his journey decisions to take in the surrounding villages between Santa Fe and Grand Canyon. Penny, who observed this growing obsession with affectionate amusement, was happy to be taken wherever and however; a self-confessed control freak, this was an unusual experience for her and she was loving it.

Midnight approached and it seemed like bed time – however, James had discovered that his phone had no charge on it and as tomorrow was a travelling day they would need something for an alarm clock. So Pen turned on her phone, which had been switched off up till that point. She had just turned it on and put it on the table when it rang. Confused, Pen looked at her phone to see her Dad’s number calling. Ordinarily she might not have bothered answering, but this seemed odd. He knew they were abroad, and what’s more, midnight in Santa Fe meant it was about 6am back home. She answered, putting the phone on speaker:

“Hello”

“Penny? It’s Dad…

He paused. He sounded odd, his voice wavered.

…Is James with you?”

“Yeah he’s right here…”

“You’re sure, he’s right there with you?”

“Yeah, Dad what is it?”

“Mum’s died”

“What? Your mum??”

Richard’s mother was 92 and had been in poor health for some time

“The diabetes caught up with her”

“Wait, Dad, who? Joan or Anna??”

“Anna”

Penny dropped the phone and screamed. It was a horrible noise. Pure, hysterical, uncontrollable shock.

They were falling.


Dude, where’s my pen?

I’ve lost my pen.

This might not seem like a disastrous situation to many. After all, while I’m a writer, surely I don’t write everything out with pen and paper. I mean, what century are we in??

Well, it is a big deal. It is my favourite pen. It was a present from my late grandmother, so it has sentimental value. I have appalling handwriting, and there are many pens I just cannot write legibly with, but I have used this one for a long time, so we are as comfortable together as a pair of old shoes. We have also been through a lot together. It accompanied me the whole way through my PhD, underlining key phrases, scribbling fieldnotes, writing notes at conferences, jotting down eureka moments on the move, or at 4am, whenever they struck. It has survived so many demanding research encounters, from infant classrooms to dementia care wards, that now to lose it in my house somewhere is infuriatingly mundane.

The long and the short of it is that I will either need to turn my house upside down in order to find it. Not appealing. Or I will have to go out and find a new pen. Heart wrenching.

There is a point lurking somewhere in this personal tale of woe. I’ve been fairly unsettled by this seemingly slight turn of events, now that might appear silly to some, but the fact is that it’s broken my stride a bit. It’s a little niggling thing that I notice whenever I reach for my pen and it’s not there. It’s like a little scratch that I can’t leave alone so it doesn’t heal. I think it is a part of a delicate thing that we all construct to help us administer our lives, which is routine.

Whether or not we realise it we all have our routines. Little things which we do in the same or similar way, or at the same time, on a regular basis. I would think the majority of people are aware of many of their own little routines – getting up at the same time, to go to work at the same time and place, where we all start the day in the same way, by turning on our computer, hanging up our coat and making ourselves a cup of coffee in our usual mug. Ok, this is a little glib, but you get the idea. But then I think even for those of us who are well aware of our routines, there are still more that lurk somewhere beneath consciousness, things that we are not really aware that we do in a patterned and predictable manner.

I also think we sometimes don’t understand the power of a routine, until we find it is not there anymore.

Routines are immensely powerful little strategies. They enable us to be the productive little nodes that we all can be. And taking them away can bring you to the edge of abyss. They are the rhythms through which we experience our lives, our selves.

I’ve written a fair bit about routine. When I first went into working in infant classrooms for my PhD research, routine was one of the ways I started to make sense of life in the classroom. And that is exactly what they do. They organise, they make sense, they rationalise. Thus the argument that I began to develop was that the manner in which the school child had their day organised for them – the time/space regularities of the school day, the uniform, the rules of interaction, the behaviour codes, etc., were all designed to internalise a sense of the right way to do school, the right way to be. Once there is a clear sense of what is right then those who don’t ‘fit’ are made clearly visible. Thus, routine is a fundamental principle of inclusion and exclusion. If you want to read the full version of this argument you can do so here or there is an older, not as good, but free, version here.

My scholarly interest in routines has also driven a personal love/hate affair with them. While I recognise the productive potential of a routine, and I have many of my own, I am still bothered by the somewhat disembodied nature of the routine. It feels like they require us to place a little bit of control for ourselves, a little bit of our personal sense of agency, into something impersonal, outside ourselves. I worry that we can become overly dependant on these little objectified parts of ourselves. I worry that the web they construct can become a very significant in providing us with an everyday sense of security, a sense of ourselves.

Then there are all the implications of the argument about the routine being a means of inclusion or exclusion. I worry about the manner in which I make myself visible via the routines that I either subconsciously accept or reject. Consumer behaviour makes an obvious example. To what extent can some clever marketer come along and simply map me around a supermarket? Or those ‘reccomendation’ pages that you get on places like Amazon. They bug me.

If routines are essentially about rhythm, then think about the power of the algorithm. Amazon and Last FM might be among the most benign uses of these – what about insurance companies?

Now, it is not my intention to instil a debilitating sense of paranoia in anybody. But, I’ve always thought that paranoia becomes a lot less irrational when we think about the forces well beyond our control or comprehension that we are subject to. So, a productive skepticism about routines, I think, reflects a healthy sense of paranoia.

I still use them of course, but they can be a bit like rights, they can clash.

I know the best times of day for me to write is between about 6am and 10am and the best places to do so is at home. However, I also know that being in the office from 9-5 is the best means of ensuring I’m up to speed with work. And there’s the clash, and one of my fundamental sources of Doctoral Nostalgia – writing gets squeezed out by the day job. True, I could get up at 5am, do three hours writing then get on the train to work and be there by about 9.30. But then I would have to go to bed at about 9pm, and that clashes with my swimming routine, and if I don’t do any exercise I become far too apathetical to even consider 5am a reasonable time to get up in the morning.

Routines can take you beyond yourself. How many clashes does it take before you reach your elastic limit?

Nevertheless, they can be handy little designs for life.

I know that if I read some fiction everyday then I will read more, not less, academic literature as well.

I know that if I do some form of exercise everyday then I will be happier.

I know that my coffee tastes better from my favourite mug.

I know that losing my favourite pen leaves me with a deeply unsettling sense of ontological insecurity.

Odd sort aren’t we?