Plan A

At the start of this year, a friend’s blog post inspired by Gretchen Rubin’s book, “The Happiness Project”, caused me to stop, reflect, and try and sort my head out. In the book, Gretchen writes a list of her 12 commandments for life – the idea being that this is part of reclaiming how she lives, and thus becoming happier.
The friend sat in a diner in Prague and devised her own “manifesto”. I tried the same thing. It was called The February 28th Plan and was a list of how I thought I could save myself over the year, by re-integrating with the world around me. I wrote it in a notebook, and have looked at it and almost immediately forgotten it several times since.

As a plan for the year, has another 24 days to run, and I think it is time to acknowledge the need for a plan B. Recently a copy of Gretchen’s book found its way to me, and I found myself reading the list that started the whole thing off. I’ve decided to try again, but this time no putting it in a book and forgetting about it – it goes somewhere I’m going to see it. And, more importantly, so are others, who I’m asking now (please, if you could) to remind me of it, from time to time.

I’ll call them my 12 commandments, because that’s what Gretchen called hers, and I don’t feel like inventing a clever title . I’m not overly keen on the religious overtones, so please note these are Buddhisthomopagan Commandments. I’m not sure how that makes them differ from Christian commandments, but it JUST DOES, OKAY?

Here we go then, 12 BHP Commandments…or, A self-prescription for happiness, part 2 (hmm…so much for no clever titles)

1. Give yourself time.
2. Define yourself by your own standards.
3. Keep faith alive.
4. Keep writing.
5. Maintain your friendships.
6. Give as much as you wish to receive.
7. Be receptive to new directions.
8. Set goals and work towards them.
9. Work on your self-esteem.
10. Protect yourself.
11. Remember you deserve kindness.
12. Connect with yourself, every day.

I think I had the Yoko Ono song Revelations in mind when I wrote 6 and 7.

So – that is the list. I suppose I should start, right now, with number 12. Although, arguably, I already have.

It hasn’t been the easiest day. I’ve felt very low and ended up in bed this evening. But I hope I’ll look back on this list and felt I did something worthwhile today.

That said, this isn’t the sort of prescription that a pharmacist can help with. Nobody can fill this one out apart from me. And, having written this self-prescription, I’m not sure where to go next, or where to start. Some of it does involve behavioural changes, or at least a change in outlook.

I’d be grateful for any advice.

Just one more thing, though. This isn’t plan B any more – its plan A. Let’s see if that helps.

Don’t let the sun go down on your grievances

The Hope Chronicles continue – I’m going to keep going until I feel the hope moving faster, growing, blossoming.  I WILL get me back.  And I’ll keep saying it until I can really, really believe it.

Let’s talk about a song.  A song can change your life…. a song can save your life… Morrissey believed the second, once upon a time.  I think I believe the first.   But perhaps the difference isn’t so clear cut.

The song in question, by a recording artist I really admire: Daniel Johnston.  My god (or your god/dess), the guy has been through life, and life has been through him.  Daniel has lived with schizophrenia and manic depression, and all the same old crap the rest of us live with too.  I guess I should be grateful that I’ve only (to my knowledge) had to tangle with metaphorical demons, rather than spiritual ones, as Daniel has.

But, perhaps to focus on the artist, rather than the illness, although both are relevant here.  Not that long ago, I heard this song again – it had been a while:

(there is a better video than this on youtube but sadly they’ve stuck an ad of Cheryl Cole talking about her hair over the top of it.)

Not that long ago – as I’m going to call the time period in question – when I heard this song again, things were really bad.  I won’t say I wanted out, but I didn’t exactly want “in” either.  There are scars that aren’t accidental.  They’re small, and they felt like they helped.  I’d lost that hope I found on the beach with D.  A temporary loss, as it happens, but it felt anything but at the time.  There were friends, trying, long-distance to do something.  But, then and there, standing in the kitchen, cutting up whatever it was I was cutting up, and eyeing the blade,  I needed some help at that very moment.

Such a simple song – no pretension.  Apparently, Johnston was once part of a movement named “the new sincerity”. by some music journo or other.  Let’s be glad that one didn’t stick.  But it is pretty apt, in this case.

“Do yourself a favour” Daniel sang “Become your own saviour”…and suddenly it hit… who the fuck did I think was going to pull me out of this?  Because, for a long time, I had been waiting for someone to come along say “right, you need to change this, and this, and this, and I’m going to help you and you won’t really need to worry as long as you follow me”.  I’m not sure that the wait was entirely unconscious.  I often allowed myself to pray this person would turn up.

And it struck me that that person was already here, holding a knife that he could either stick in himself or make himself dinner with.  And that person ended up standing in the kitchen, crying at the thought that only they could change it, properly.  A sad thought.  Crying at the thought that only they could change it, properly.  An inspiring thought.

And when you wake up in the morning

You’ll have a brand new feeling

And you’ll find yourself healing

So don’t let the sun go down on your grievances

A brand new feeling?  Well, I tried.  I talked about the grievances, and for a while I tried to put them to one side.  And, when I remember, I keep trying to do it.  I can’t say I always manage.  But one change that has stayed with me…I know who it is – this person that will stick out their hand and say “no more suffering, its time things got better.  Follow me”.  It aint Daniel, but thanks, Daniel, for reminding me who it really is.

And maybe I have started healing, as promised.  I’ll keep you posted.

A song can change your life.  A song can save your life.  They’re the same thing.

Get them on your tongue, then let them go

I thought this place would look beautiful in the snow.

This morning, at some strange time before the sun, I found myself in this room, at the window, as the whiteness came – trying to capture it with the camera.  All I got were a few flares of fluorescent street light, and the reflection from the glass.

What is it about watching it fall that feels so simple, yet full of promise?  The cobbles of the back lane, the trees and the walls…all taking a break underneath its cover. That comforting grey of snow clouds at night – so different from the dreary grey of rain clouds in the day.  The only illumination from some fellow insomniac, 20 or so tenements away, perhaps caught in the familiar mystery of it too.

Is it that feeling that something beautiful is coming?  The stories they told us as children: a magical man and his reindeer, soaring across the continents in an altruistic quest to give us something to believe in.  As an adult, I think part of me is taken back to the 6 year old, waiting for sleigh bells, looking at the night and wondering if this was the star…THE STAR.

Strange how the stars become simultaneously more and less mysterious as you learn about them.  The magic isn’t killed by thought, but it works better without it.  Like love, like dreams… no two alike – covering the world in a blanket, translucent yet impenetrable.

As I child, I’d try to catch them: dreams, love, snow flakes.  Insubstantial, they change as soon as you touch them, as soon as they touch you – perhaps they turn into something more fluid, if you’re lucky.  Otherwise, they freeze, and you slip up on them as your mind turns to other things.  You wonder what the world looked like before they were there, you start to miss it, and wish you had never encountered that dangerous change that promised so much.

No, not true.  As a child I knew better than to try to catch dreams.  And I didn’t question love enough to try to grasp it.  That came as I grew, and came to understand more about loss, and hope, and how the two can be tied together.  But I always liked to catch snowflakes, and I suppose I always will.  Get them on your tongue.  Bonus points if they land right in the dip in the middle.  As an adult, they’re as simple as dreams, as complex as love…as simple as love, as complex as dreams….carrots for the deer, glass of sherry for the sleigh-driver.

Is it memories?  Is that what the falling flakes bring?  Memories of a time when life was still to begin, properly, and was as mysterious and magical as the snow, and the stories they told us about it?  Yes, and no – there’s more to it than that.

The snow is best against the darkness.  It brightens up the night and makes it feel safer.  It covers up what we know: the drudgery and sadness of the everyday, and it makes it all miraculous, and new and insubstantial once again.  There’s a part of us that still believes in miracles.  It helps us hope.

Maybe it all comes back to hope.  When the snow falls, there’s even a hope in feeling hopeless.   If it fades quickly, we miss it before it is even gone.

When it lingers, we become sick of it.  We want our old world back – the one we could navigate easily, that was familiar and warm and somehow less treacherous.  And when that returns, we’re grateful for it, even if only for a short while.  Then we forget it ever changed, and get on with the serious business of being sensible once again.

How freeing, how transcendent for a moment, to stand and watch it fall, and to hope, and to believe in magic.

That’s why this morning, at some strange time before the sun, I found myself trying to catch it in a picture.  Silly boy, what have you learned about dreams, and magic?  Try to hold them and they’re gone.  Let them go, and you hold them.  And when the alarm went, and it turned out the strange time was only 10 minutes before I normally get up, it was okay to go back to the world, knowing it had been another place just for that brief time.  I had been another place just for that time.

Hope.  Magic

I thought this place would look beautiful in the snow.

Hope

I think I want to write about hope.  And to keep writing about hope.  And, eventually, to make it complete and real again.

They say if you can’t find something, to look in the place where you last remember having it.

I remember a night, not all that long ago.  It was the start of the dark days that end the year: the air had that shivver of Autumn, and we had driven for hours, singing, to a beach we never planned to visit.

The city we’d left behind had been full of people dressed up as zombies, vampires, fairies – you name it.  I remembered the excitement of pretending to be something else, knowing you’d get to go back to being yourself, and envied them.

Coming back to being yourself.  It seemed too much to ask for.  We’d left the city and its arguments behind, and as the sun set we headed West.  We hit the coast because the car just seemed to go there.

We walked a long way along the beach.  You could see the coastal town in the distance, slowly turning into points of light as the darkness moved in – comforting, somehow.  You don’t mind the darkness, when you know you’ve got a spark.

As we sat, and watched the sun going down and the moon coming up, I told my friend some of the things I had been frightened to say.  Not everything – that took too much bravery right then – but enough.  Enough so that it felt significant, and new, and I felt just that tiny bit less alone.  And for a little while it didn’t matter than we were on a Scottish beach in October, and that it was drizzling, and that I was crying….

No, that isn’t true – it did matter, it mattered a whole lot.  I was where I had to be.  And someone was there with me, caring, and saying things would change.  And they did, right then and there, because something started to come back.  The feeling that things could be better, might be better… not “would be better” – not yet…still not there yet…

I always loved the magic of Halloween, or Samhain, the otherwordliness, and the place in the cycle of death and rebirth that it represents.  On those nights it feels like anything is possible.  And we walked back, realising how far along the sand we’d come, and I stepped in a puddle, and the drizzle found its way into our skin.  The hotels on the shoreline, lit from below by spotlight – magnificent white haunted houses, each full of secrets.  The gulls crying “you’re sad, but that happens, give it time”, the water lapping over my feet as I stopped to stare out at the sea, and willed it to take all the feelings of loathing away, and to cleanse the present and the future, somehow.  The other world was there right then, and it wasn’t another world at all – it was the magic in this one.

It didn’t last, of course.  My friend went on the train South, and I stayed in the city, full of arguments.  And I had to adjust to putting this new feeling in with the old ones, and it didn’t settle well.  For a while, I thought I’d lost it entirely.  But, every now and then, I can feel it shifting in me.  It hasn’t gone.  I can still go there in my mind.

Hope, the spark.  It isn’t everything, by any means, but when we’ve lost it we’ve lost everything.  If you can find it again, and if someone can help you, that’s the greatest gift they could give you.

They say if you can’t find something, to look in the place where you last remember having it.  And it isn’t lost any more.  And, in my brighter moments, I believe that neither am I.  Not so long ago, just for a while, anything was possible.

Jeremy Clarkson, and the “selfish” suicides.

Okay – a brief intro if you aren’t from the UK.  Jeremy Clarkson is a right-wing television host and narcissist whose outpourings include a column for The Sun newspaper.  This week, he upset a lot of people by using a TV interview to state that public sector workers striking to maintain their pensions should be shot in front of their families.

He was subsequently forced to apologise, but that isn’t the subject of this post.  This concerns his other comments, made in the same interview and subsequently re-iterated in the press.  These offered his insight on the subject of suicide – particularly, those who kill themselves by throwing themselves in front of trains.  I’m not going to repeat verbatim what he said here – it was graphic, crass and headline-grabbing, designed to boost Christmas book and DVD sales.  But the general thrust of his argument was that killing yourself in this way is selfish, because of the effect on the train driver, and because of the delay it causes commuters.  Clarkson’s comments have provoked mixed reaction.  Mental health charities condemned his statement as offensive and stigmatising.

Clarkson’s comments seemed to suggest there was a more “considerate” alternative…He didn’t specify what this was, but it presumably involves going off and dying quietly.  Writing a note and leaving yourself for your relatives or a health worker to find, perhaps.  Or would the preferred option be just vanishing, and leaving your friends and family to wonder, forever, where you might be?

Worryingly, there appears to be some public reaction supporting his article.   Please, if you must end your life, be kind enough to do it out of sight.

So – what is it we’d like to keep out of sight?  Obviously a dead body is not something one wants to view on a regular basis, but is there something more insidious here?  I can’t help feeling this encapsulates our wider reluctance to view the consequences of human suffering, physical or mental.  Those with physical health difficulties are routinely marginalised.  Those with mental health difficulties learn to keep quiet most of the time.  Depression still exists behind closed doors, though it is one of our society’s most dangerous conditions.  According to the World Health Organisation suicide is one of the three most common causes of death in those aged 15-44.  And, though you don’t often hear this, suicide rates increase rather than decrease with age.

And yet, it is still seen as acceptable to castigate those experiencing this condition, in a manner to which few other health conditions (with the possible exceptions of lung disease and obesity) are subject.   Understanding why someone might want to kill themselves – in this or any other way – requires an in-depth look at things we’d rather avoid, and a level of empathy that is neither comfortable nor commonplace.

So, is the act of throwing yourself in front of a train selfish?  Well, maybe it is.  I’ve come across the body of a suicide victim – someone I knew – and that image will be with me forever.   I can only imagine what it must be like for a train driver to experience that, over and over again.  But to berate the suicidal person misses the point entirely.

Think of it…  you’re going to leap towards a lump of metal travelling at over 100 miles an hour.  Your death will be cold, hard and messy and worst of all – completely public.  And pretty much inevitable – this isn’t a cry for help, this is an absolute end.  This is, generally, unlikely to be the act of someone in a grounded, supported place, capable of balancing the comparative morality of one method over another.  This is a completely desperate act, coming from a place of utter desolation.  It isn’t something to be judged and mocked from the warmth of a television studio.

So, yes, I do care about the train driver.  But let’s shift the focus, can we?  Suicide and depression aren’t neat things to hang books sales on, or a suitable butt of tea-time humour.  They are about as funny as cancer and heart disease.  Perhaps you can picture that person, standing on the platform, contemplating the act.  Perhaps you’ve had your moments too, but can you claim you know anything, at all, about what they might be thinking?  And if you don’t – how qualified do you feel to judge either their thought processes or their actions?  Can we please shift away from this odious, outdated, yet stubbornly persistent approach of castigating the sufferer of depression, and instead try and change a society that marginalises those with health problems, that would prefer them to die quietly rather than make our trains late?

People with mental health problems need support, kindness, empathy and a health system funded to deliver these where social support is not enough.  That, more than opprobrium and judgement, will keep the train lines clear.

And, just in case: http://www.samaritans.org (08457 90 90 90).

With my both feet firmly planted way up there, in mid air.

There’s a  Cass Elliott song, called “The Good Times Are Coming”.  She sang it after she’d left the Mamas and Papas, and saw a new future for herself, defined on her own terms… a star in her own right, and not just The Fat One From The Band.

I remember hearing the song many years ago, on a copy of a vinyl entitled “Mama’s Big Ones” – the whole album is full of songs where she is imagining a new future – a happy life.  Obviously, life had other plans.

There’s something incredibly haunting about that track… the dream of something better, the attempt to convince oneself that there will be a change, that you’re changing right now, and that it will bring happiness.  And who knows, maybe there is something magical about this track… my friend once played it six times before a job interview.  She got the job.

Perhaps it made my friend believe things would change.  Perhaps it made Cass believe that too.  And, while they had that belief, nothing could stop them.  Or, at least, they couldn’t stop themselves.

I wish I could hold the song within myself, take it with me, believe it.  Because,  just lately, it has been hard to believe those times are on their way.

The good times are coming

When they come I’ll  be there

With my both feet firmly planted way up there

In mid air.

That’s what this blog is about.  If you’ve spent a fair bit of time with your feet in mid-air, I hope you’ll appreciate it.