One Foot In Front Of The Other



Nothing more important has ever happened to me than the first lick of beer I drank one afternoon at the end of September in the garden of a pub on the shores of Loch Lomond. As the cool liquid washed down into me I remember thinking I was living the defining moment of my life.


A twenty one mile walk can do that to a man. 






Descending into the village of Balmaha as the Loch stretched out before us, we limped our way to the bar and raised our bounties to one another. We toasted the great outdoors and the pain in our calves and a day so well lived it felt like four, and asides from the cold gold flooding our souls and the beating drums of our happiness nothing existed.


Having a mate addicted to walking long distances in strange corners of the world means you're never far from something remarkable. When Jules suggested a five day trek through the Highlands he had spent weeks researching weather systems and trains and hostels for, all I had to do was tell him to calm down and say I was in.


The West Highland Way runs 96 miles from the outskirts of Glasgow to the foot of Ben Nevis, and Jules' idea was to walk it before the weather turned. In years past when summer left the building sometimes my mood would follow suit, so this felt like the right time of year for an adventure. Five days in the sticks with a friend shooting the breeze, breathing the air of the hillsides and the creaking pines, can fill up that part of a soul that longs for something it has forgotten where to look for.






With backpacks, walking trousers, hiking boots, maps and a stash of slow release energy bars, we set about the trail. Twenty miles a day broke down to something like seven hours of good walking pace. We were headed north, away from civilisation into the bowels of the Highlands. On our first morning as distant peaks loomed up darkly on the horizon we looked at each other uneasily, knowing that was where our route was winding.


You tap into something primal when you walk long distances, one foot in front of the other, in front of the other, endlessly. You are in a process you can't imagine any end to because the landscapes are simply too big, but there is a softly beating satisfaction in moving through them, inching your way ever so slowly along the trail. Your legs pump and arms swing and your engine hums, there is sweat and mild aching and pumping blood and purpose.



Even the clouds look excited to see you.






I don't know if Liv loves the walking, or if she just loves coming with me when I do these things, says Jules. Nobody could love the walking as much as you, I think. He is a like a child exploring an unknown part of a garden, he whoops out across the valley, laughing to himself. In the new year Jules will become a father for the first time, and then it won't be long before the three of them go explore the hills.






Each morning we would rise, eat a good breakfast, sling our packs over our shoulders and hit the trail once more, the night would reveal a new ache in a new body part, the dawn would bring with it some new thought, the familiar crunch of gravel under foot, while ahead of us stretched another twenty miles and space to breathe and talk and think of anything whatsoever.


In 1699 Joseph Addison, returning from a Grand Tour of Europe, wrote 'the Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror'. It was the beginning of the idea of the sublime, an appreciation of a fear-instilling nature that dwarfed men with a greatness beyond calculation or measure. As we moved farther and deeper into the belly of the Highlands, an agreeable kind of horror began to rise up inside me.









In this unending land of bogs and whisperings one is small and insignificant and the weather changes in the blinking of an uneasy eye. There are valleys off into the distance, and valleys leading off those valleys, and you wonder what goes on there. This is a land of secrets. The wind blows hot and cold, the heather and the highland grass are beautiful and harsh. And everything is wet. This is a realm that lets you in for a brief moment and tells you to hurry along and mind your back, a glance to the side or behind and you can feel its eyes on you, watching.



Of Rannoch Moor, T S Eliot wrote:


Here the crow starves, here the patient stag
Breeds for the rifle. Between the soft moor
And the soft sky, scarcely room 
To leap or soar. Substance crumbles, in the thin air
Moon cold or moon hot.



Sometimes the going was hard and nasty. There were times when a mile felt like five and an hour lasted all morning. The aches would spread and multiply and begin to wear you down, or unkind thoughts would worm their way inside your brain and not leave. Sometimes the majesty of the surroundings wouldn't speak at all and I would stare down at my boots. And the whole thing would feel pointless and I would ask myself what the fuck I was doing out there in the middle of this barren nowhere.


But the walking would still uneasy voices. Always the same, one foot in front of the other, in front of the other, endlessly. Somehow the continuous motion would walk you through an invisible door into a different place and the clouds would clear and things would become easier. All you had to do really, was keep moving.






Just before Kirkton, where the Herive Burn winds its way down towards the river Fillan, the West Highland Way passes through a forest of otherworldly beauty. It is a fairytale thing, existing firmly in the realm of fantasy. In the cool air of the morning as the forest dripped wet and the sun reached through the trees lighting the edges of all it touched, I felt supremely happy. And creeping softly through the air came voices. It was our third day, where we met Dustin and Fraser.


Fraser was a Scot from Kilmaurs, he had been planning this walk for weeks from a desk he couldn't wait to get away from. Dustin was over from the US, sinuous black lines tattooed on his body showed trails he had walked around the world, bringing with him always the ashes of beloved family he would scatter on the hillside. How do you know each other, Jules asked. We don't, they replied.


We walked the next two and a half days with them, and became four. We shared jokes, told long-winded stories, drank triumphant beers together, all sharing in the grand adventure. You forge strong bonds with people you walk fifty miles alongside. Maybe walking these things takes a certain type of person that recognises themself in the other. It was a strange process of half chance that brought us together, and strange too how emotional a goodbye can be with people that two days before you had no idea existed. 






As the train teetered along the track out of Fort William and back to the land of the living, I looked across the moors and thought it would be cathartic to catch a last glimpse of the land we'd spent five days traversing. But what would I know. I could hardly see straight. The exhilaration of the finish had been too much for us, Jules and I had got absolutely totalled in Fort William, we had strangled the night and died with the dawn, and were blurry-eyed ghosts of men.


*


A month has passed now, and we are back in our respective places. 


London is darkening in the mid-afternoon. Autumn is coating the pavements and the street sweepers are working overtime. Fraser is back up north planning a long overdue wedding. Dustin is back across the ocean half-interestedly going on dates. Jules is keeping Liv company while her tummy grows, and I am writing this. Right this second, out by the Loch we passed on our second day, the wind is tugging at the branches of the little tree by the water's edge, as tiny little waves lap over the pebbles below.


It's funny to think this is happening right now.


As if it is always there, waiting.






Cities can be gnarled and crooked unkind places, full of the sadness of life and the hardship written on the faces of people walking by. But there are places that exist that make your soul soar. That are terrifying in scale and have a majesty you feel privileged just to be in the midst of. You mean nothing out there, but you don't need to, you just move through it open-mouthed. 


The older I get the more I realise that shittiness is a matter of time. We don't know when the things we take for granted will get taken from us. So maybe any time not spent in pain or anxiety or emotional turmoil is a heaven on earth.


Somewhere in the cracks of the everyday are the spaces where the earth exists in all its force and magnificence. It changes everything. Strange corners of the world that simply take your breath away. That are only a good idea and a train ride away.


And are always there, waiting.






The End Of The Affair



A bald man. 


This is all I am now, I thought to myself.


One of them. The men with no hair.


I gazed into the mirror and applied a grey paste carefully to the top of my head with a spatula. The paste stuck to the remaining hairs, matting them together, as questions of a new identity loomed on the horizon like the light of a new day.







The treatment would be more effective if you had come two years ago, the woman with the eastern European accent had said to me three days earlier. There is, she grimaced, not much chance now to stimulate regrowth. I nodded, and thought of the months it had taken to summon the courage to get myself to that cold dead room.


I listened to her advice about moving the spatula most effectively across the surface of my scalp, absorbed some statistics about follicle regeneration, paid too much money for a brace of medications and descended the stairs. The two of us returned home through the muted light of the morning, my secret and I.



And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair -
(They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!")
My morning coat, my collar mounted firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.


The visit to the hair loss clinic was six years ago. My journey through hair loss began two years before that, a journey that has been slow and confusing and happened one hair at a time. But it should have come as no surprise.


The Argentines on my father's side were born with diminishing hairlines and large appendages. My English family are abundant on top and less-so below. As fate would have it my brother got a wonderful crop and a hearty lunchbox, and there there was me, lurking at the shallow end of the gene pool.


Even with a suspicion my hair type was never going to stick around for long, I clung to hope. To look hard I'd shaved my head since I was eighteen, and since I couldn't see much hair on me anyway I didn't notice its soundless departure. What could be more unobtrusive than a hair soundlessly departing. One night aged 28, I caught my reflection in a pub mirror at a funny angle and stopped breathing.



Fuck me.


I'm going fucking bald.



As the penny dropped a new feeling surged up inside me, one of deep fear. Perhaps it was the first sign of an irreversible decline, the beginning of the end, the Reaper emerging from the shadows for a brief moment to clear his throat. I'd prided myself on not being scared of death and here it was staring me in the face, in the form of a ceiling light bouncing off the surface of my head and lighting up the wall on the other side of the room.



That night I went to bed in a beanie, woke up and didn't take a cycling cap off for three months. 







On top of feeling old, was the creeping feeling something in me wasn't quite as it should be. Very sick people lose their hair, I thought. Samson's fate had made me assign strength and virility to hair, surely women would do the same. Every morning the mirror spoke to me of frailty, proof my halcyon days were fast dissolving in the rearview. Never again would I step out of the shower and rub a towel seductively through my locks. Applying moisturiser to my forehead became confusing. At which point did I stop?



I kept my hair very short, so the areas where it thinned would be less obvious. But people would get curious. So are you losing it, they'd ask. Or do you just like having it shaved. My reddening cheeks would answer back. Those who hadn't seen me for a year or two would greet me with raised eyebrows. My brother bought me a Bald Eagle for Christmas. 







After two years of denial and baseball caps, I dragged myself to the hair clinic. Returning home with the treatment as I described, I began to apply a grey cream to the top of my head each morning with a spatula. Is this all I am now? I would ask myself. A bald man. I had joined a club with a lifetime membership, a club all members of which share the same identity, an identity they wear without choice, not on their sleeves, by dint of the little beam of light reflecting off the tops of their shiny heads. 


As the morning broke on the third day of my new ritual and the paste I was applying began to congeal, matting the hairs together in a sticky clump, I looked searingly into my soul and heard myself say... 



This is fucking ridiculous



Then and there in front of that mirror, I stopped giving a fuck.



*


With much joy I disposed of the silly cream in the bin, and since that day I haven't cared very much about my hair. It doesn't really affect me anymore. That's not to say I wouldn't prefer to have loads. It just means I'd rather not care than waste time consumed by something I have no control over. Once I'd come to the realisation it was a battle I couldn't win, it became pointless to try. 


My insecurities about my hair were wedded to the delusion that the people in my life might be judging me on any grounds other than who I was, what was inside me. When it came to the dating scene, I told myself that if a woman didn't fancy me on account of my shiny dome, I probably wouldn't fancy her either. If this didn't always hold true, I could always reference the scientific literature surrounding bald men and their prowess in the bedchamber. 



And when all else failed, I could resort to denial.






Having not much hair is great. 


The maintenance of it is negative-nothing, in terms of the amount of thought it requires. Fearing a bad day out at the barber is no longer a factor in my life, the dread of a shit haircut was something I had to process six years ago, before realising it wasn't even a shit haircut. I've grown to like my hair.


Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. No matter how mundane something might appear, by repeating it in a quasi-religious manner it can become a contemplative and even meditative act. The weekly ritual of shaving my own melon comes pretty close.






Every single person has something going on in their life that they hate themselves for and berate themselves for without end, that nobody but themselves even know exists. Not because they don't care, but they just don't have time to. Because they in turn are busy worrying about their thing. And if they did know they wouldn't care anyway. Not out of apathy but because they would know it doesn't matter. People matter, the stuff on the inside, the sticky emotional treacle we are made of that makes us nobody but ourselves.


I mean I'm also full of shit. 


I still see photos of myself from time to time and wince. I still take a pill in the morning designed to curtail the outright exodus of anything on my head still growing. But I used to think before I didn't want to be just the bald man. But now I don't care. The cool thing about life and getting older is that you learn what not to give a shit about.


The softening of time and drying up of follicles has led me to think people might actually like me not in spite of my baldness, but because of it too. After all it is a part of me. A glass neither half empty nor half full but a glass twice the size it needs to be. Almost like a calling card. No longer just Domingo the guy with no hair. But... Domingo, the guy with no hair.



Not a source of weakness and of shame.



A source of love perhaps too.








The More Loving One




Today is a Saturday of early August and after lunch, the Premier League season will begin again.






And because of this fact I am deeply uneasy, because I hate football.



I hate how boring it is. I hate how repetitive it is. I hate how easy it is to have an opinion about. I hate its baseness and cheapness. The lack of honour in it, the monotony and broken dreams, I hate Sky Sports Super Sunday, I hate how football sucks hours from my life. How it hoovers my emotions and churns them around and shits them out, I hate how try as I might I can't help but be hooked by it.



Each summer, in between the polite applause and whispered gasps and cat gut thwacking nylon and leather on willow and the sweat and gears and heroism on Alpine mountain roads, at the back of my mind is the gnawing fear that the football season is approaching and the roar from the terraces, a murmur on the wind, is slowly finding form and gathering force like a wave in a distant ocean, and I fear its onset like a growing malaise because I know it will take the worst of me.



And so here we are. 






A few hours from now will mark the beginning of the end. The next ten months of my life will be coloured by this thing, this background noise, this static in the corner of my mind that will sit there, unmoving, making me feel uneasy, that I just don't like about myself. And I don't feel I have much choice.


*


The first intense crush of my life was Gary Lineker. 



Not a football crush, a real crush.



I was six and he had come back from Italia '90 and both him and Paul Gascoigne were playing for Tottenham, and as I gazed wide-eyed at the back pages of the newspaper I remember thinking how there could be a single person on the planet who wasn't a Spurs fan was beyond me.






Three decades on I'm still a Spurs fan. As a journey it has been a non-starter, the car is still in the driveway, the keys broken off in the ignition. Without the highs the lows lose resonance, and supporting a team hovering around mid-table for a third of a century had come to warrant little more than a shoulder-shrug and the preamble to another drab weekend. Tottering Tottenham, they called us.



But four years ago something happened. 



We started doing alright.







An Argentine manager called Maurico came in and some strange sorcery saw Spurs rising up the table, doggedly and consistently, and my dormant fandom began to reheat. All of a sudden I was six again, Gary was standing over my bedside beaming, I was all in. I learnt the fixture list by heart. I organised weekends around games. I'd sit alone in forsaken backwater pubs rifling through a ramekin of peanuts staring impatiently at the big screen waiting for the early kick-off. 


I followed the construction of the new stadium as if it was my own kitchen refurb, I checked the webcam every two days for updates. I cycled up to N17 to tour the half-finished ground. I visited the Tottenham Experience to soak up the largest retail space of any club in Europe, I bought a jumper and a keyring.


Things on the pitch were heating up too. At the end of last season Tottenham reached the final of the most important club competition in the world. Which was absolutely shocking. We beat the best team in the country in the quarter-finals. In the semis we came back from three goals down to beat Ajax of Amsterdam in the last minute of injury time. Spurs fans all over the world had heart attacks. 


Mauricio fell to his knees at the final whistle overcome with emotion and later declared...



It is impossible to live without the emotion football brings!






I wouldn't know.



Because I was in bed. I saw none of it.



At 2-0 down after half an hour I turned the game off. The same thing happened to me in the final, the biggest match in Tottenham's history. I went to the stadium with 60,000 Spurs fans to watch the match beamed back from Madrid on six giant screens. 1-0 down with twenty minutes left but arguably the better side and still in the game, I slung my bag over my shoulder and walked out of the stadium. I turned my phone off and cycled back along the canal in the encroaching dark.







I couldn't sit with the level of cortisol coursing through my body. I still can't.



Each failed pass, each hopeless high ball, each bumbled set piece was more than I could take. As the seconds ticked by the dark mass of my mood metastasised, and prolonging it became so painful it overrode the prospect of any joy I might feel. I could no longer bear it, so what did I do. I forgot about football altogether. I put myself to bed, I walked out of a packed stadium, I unshackled myself from pain.



And with it I lost any chance of feeling pure ecstatic joy.








There is a strange thing about sport. 



The investment in it. The reading of articles, the scanning of statistics, the buying of merchandise, the amount of time spent caring in something, the outcome of which you have no control over whatsoever. The only control you have is in how much you choose to care, at what point you choose to walk away. It is a love affair.


The day I went to the Spurs stadium to watch the Champions League final taught me something about football I'd never experienced. In the hours I spent around the ground in the build-up to kick off on that early afternoon of midsummer, I saw an outpouring of human emotion such that it changed the way I saw the game as a whole. 







What happened on the pitch was a sideshow. 



I saw six hundred fans outside a pub jumping in unison for forty five minutes spraying fountains of beer all over themselves. I saw a man up a lamppost being cheered by an army of three thousand. I saw a four year old screaming YID AAAAARMY at the top of his voice, exploding with pride. It was joy and passion unbridled, something tribal. It was human connection. 






As a dad and his two kids made their way through the cacophonous underbelly of the stadium, I went up and asked him what it felt like to be bringing his boys to the ground, to be passing on the baton. It's different, he said. Do you wish you were in the mad throng of six hundred, stomping in unison, drowning in beer, I asked. He looked at me deadly seriously. I was mate, I am.


The true DNA of football runs through the heart of working class families, generations of football fans, born into a love for it who grow up with it in their blood and pass it down. Who go to cheer their team every match day and its resulting triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same. Who proclaim their love to their losing side at full-time just for getting to a final.







Who the hell walks out of a Champions League final with twenty minutes to go. I can't call myself a real fan. Real fans are all in, regardless of pain. That's what love is, being all in. Football isn't about winning. It's about investing your love in something through the highs and lows, and being unconditional.



How should we like it were the stars to burn 
With a passion for us we could not return? 
If equal affection cannot be, 
Let the more loving one be me.



To be half in, only to guard oneself against suffering, that is no life. 



So how am I set for the oncoming season.



The other thing about life, I suppose, is sometimes you just have to let it happen.



The Diary Of A Burner



The last email I ever read on a phone was from Papa John's Pizza in July 2011



It was the middle of a long hot summer and as I gazed into the sad space between me and my loneliness a beep from my Blackberry Bold 9700 pierced the haze of the afternoon and warned me of a 2 for 1 deal I shouldn't miss. Soon after I lost the phone and downgraded to a Nokia. That last call for pepperoni proved to be the last breath of my relationship with the internet in my pocket.






In the intervening eight years since Papa John's came knocking I've hopped from rubbish phone to rubbish phone, and in the same timespan technology has become so advanced it is indistinguishable from magic. My Nokia 301 can do very little other than take calls and get texts, and the day I tried to download WhatsApp it froze and threatened to ignite.


These are the phones immortalised by the Matrix, that gave 90s teens their first taste of freedom from behind bedroom doors, the burners used by dealers to keep the police off their tail, and the reason Snake became the best mobile game of all time. These are the phones I've carried in my pocket for the last decade.


And I ask myself why.



And it's confusing because I can't give a straight answer.








Why, when modern life is increasingly run on them did I refuse to get a smartphone. Going against the grain had something to do with it, I suppose following trends did the opposite of what I desired, which was to be noticed. But there was one thing that bugged me. The lack of thought that went into the idea that the most recent thing must be the best. As if everyone was running blindly after what they stood to gain, and paying no attention to what they might lose. 



For me, there are dangers in things being too good. 



When I was a child MTV was too good, I would sit for hours flicking through music channels like a maniac until my parents banned me from watching television. YouTube became too good, last month the Guardian published my account of a daily battle with a spiralling YouTube habit. If I ever go on a smartphone, the level of sorcery I feel like I'm wielding puts fear into me. So my technophobia has another root. Maybe I was policing myself all along, fearing the smartphone-shaped prison cell I might one day wake up in.


But there was something else. An emotion that would build up inside me when I spent too long on a phone, something tugging at my insides when I looked for too long at a screen. Too much cortisol, the opposite of peace. I hated it, and because I hated it I wanted to turn my back on it.






So for better or worse I spent the last eight years navigating my way through the modern world with a hunk of plastic that, dropped into a pint, would affect my life in no way whatsoever. The small print of which I've become so accustomed to it's only when I write it down that it strikes me as strange.


*

I haven't checked an email in the street since 2011. Or in fact anything apart from a text. I've never been on a WhatsApp group. I've never been on a Tinder date. I can't use emojis. I can't order an Uber. I can't listen to Spotify. I can't use Instagram. I have an iPod shuffle, a camera, a Barclays pin-sentry, and an unnecessarily heavy backpack. If I can't memorise where I'm going I take an A to Z with me. I text friends to google things for me and the nicer ones reply. I still call 118 118


If I'm really screwed I can do this, but any info at all is the work of five minutes.






*


Four years ago in a restaurant, my parents began to frown. 



It was the vision of a couple sitting opposite one another making no conversation at all, bent-double over their phones. What are they doing, asked my mother. I thought about how to reply. The thing is, I said... these things now mean you're in fifteen conversations with fifteen different people, all at the same time, none of whom are in the room, all of whom need your attention. When do they ever get to be still, she asked. And we looked around, and half the tables in the room appeared to be under the same spell.


*


Much of this is about freedom.



Because a Nokia 301 really removes some options. I have no world in my pocket. No newsreel of other lives at the touch of a button. The only world I have is the world in front of my face. I can't share an experience with anyone except the person I'm with. I can't get fomo because I have no idea what I'm missing out on. If I haven't seen someone for four months I have no idea what they've been up to. My phone just isn't very interesting. All I have is the living breathing world in front of my face.



And there is a deeper unconscious effect. 



Because I have nothing to distract me from emotional pain I am forced to sit in my emotions and grapple with them. To bear the brunt of the pain and meet it full in the face and try to understand my worries, rather than suffer the anxieties they create. And in the end, perhaps this has obliged me to get to know myself better. Few people can have described this better than Louis C K talking about why he'll never buy his kids a phone.






A year and a half ago I walked into a pub on a cold December night and saw a girl across the room waiting tables. I peered deeply inside myself and summoning up the courage, I walked over to her and asked for her number. I'd been single for a long time, I had no leads whatsoever, I was running out of options. And she was... well. I don't think I would have met my girlfriend if I'd had a smartphone. I would have been too distracted by the world inside my pocket to notice her.


The real things, the truly important eternal things, don't exist in pixels. They exist in front of our faces. The real world of real happiness and real pain and smells and laughter and the spaces in between, where the beautiful depths of life reside.


But in search of them we huddle around our devices, warming ourselves by their glow, bent-double, plastic-wrapped, alone and in company, on trains, heads bowed, stepping into oncoming traffic, present in a different distant moment making plans for lives that are passing us by, missing the present like a train that always leaves too early. The things that don't mean to hurt us we will use to injure ourselves. Not understanding the extent of our self-harm. Not asking ourselves a question perhaps we need to.



How much is gained. How much is lost. 



One New Message




This is the tale of a text message.



And the opposing hemispheres of the brain. And about waiting. It began a few years ago on a Saturday morning of Spring when I came across my friend Will standing especially morosely in the queue of a coffee shop. Knowing he was in the seedling stages of a romance I asked him how it was going. Awful, he replied. I was fine until ten minutes ago. What happened, I asked. I fucking texted her. Now I'm fucked. Every minute that goes by until she texts back is a complete hell. I just nuked my whole morning.






At some point in my past, my brain started working in this strange way that was hellbent on trying to link two ideas together. Like the time I realised the life-cycle of a leaf was a meditation on growing old. Or how my fear of police sirens was my inner child fleeing parental authority. I'd make these pretty banal connections and sit back and feel like Carl Jung. Basking in the idea that my brain made everything mean something else.


But one tenuous link eluded me. I knew it meant something, but whatever that was had me stumped. I'd always kept my phone on silent, so I wouldn't be bothered by the beeping, but I couldn't work out why. My gut told me it was a dislike for loud intrusive noises or a luddite relationship to technology, or simply not wanting to be disturbed while I concentrated on something. 






But this explanation never did it for me. It was something deeper. 


And so I found myself the other day wandering the streets of Rome, in a state familiar to Will that day outside the coffee shop, waiting on a text message. And feeling my day being eaten up by angst. When I was supposed to be taking in the beauty of the ancient capital of the world, all I could think about was this stupid little box of plastic in my pocket. And I just kept checking it. And checking it. And getting more and more angry with myself for caring.


My friend Jonty who was with me, and who I was submitting to the tortures of my uncertainty, told me about the left and right hemispheres of the brain. The left hemisphere, he said, is the linear, problem-solving, logistical sphere. The right brain is more creative, holistic and eternal. With my mind still consumed by the lone antidote I sought for the unbearable pain of my life, I heard him say mate... just be more right brain about the whole thing.



Put your phone on loud. That way if you get a message, you'll hear it.



You won't have to check it all the time.



Related image



And like the Ignudi sent from the heavens depicted on the Sistine Chapel ceiling not far away, the solution to my silent-mode conundrum descended from on high as if sent by a celestial hand. It wasn't about being bothered by the beeping, it was quite the opposite. I kept my phone on silent because of hope. As long as my phone was on silent, I held out a hope there might be something on it I needed to read. With my phone on silent, I was close to a message all the time, because silence meant its opposite, it meant everything. 



I realised what I really feared was what silence actually meant, when my phone was on loud.



*


Have patience with everything that is unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which could not be given to you, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far into the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.


Rainer Maria Rilke


*


So I took the plunge and stuck my phone on loud. So I could really know what silence was. That it was exactly that. Silent. And I could learn to sit in it. To love the questions themselves liked locked doors or books written in a very foreign tongue. And leave the answers alone. Along many meandering conversations Jonty and I spoke of presence, and of being thankful for being itself. That there were really only a few things in life worth complaining about, and heartache definitely wasn't one of them. The mere sense of living was joy enough.



One late afternoon in Rome as we sheltered in the cool of the apartment as the last rays of Italian sun found their way through the shutters, I spied my phone lying on the table, discretely minding its business, with its new functionality, ready to sound out if anything came its way. And I gazed at the shafts of light knifing the darkness, and felt a contentment wash over me. A contentment that came from sitting in the unknowing and the blessed unrest. To wait for this thing to come knocking, if it did at all, that I would hear its knock when it came.



What's Up World



Happiness is....



a bench on a railway platform on a Sunday afternoon dropped in the middle of fields. Waiting for something that will happen but not too soon. Birds are singing to one another in trees out of sight, the air is thick with the ease of a summer afternoon of inconsequence. The train will come, and move off again, and life will continue along its sinuous path. But for the moment not a lot is up to very much.






Right now happiness is the inhibition of dopamine reuptake through norepinephrine and dopamine transporters found in the prefrontal cortex of my brain. Each morning I sodastream some refrigerated tap water and wash a little white pill down my throat and it goes to work. Five weeks I've been doing it now.


But happiness isn't the right word exactly. I wouldn't say I'm happy this minute. I don't know what happiness means today. I thought I knew yesterday when I sat down to write. But it isn't here now, it must have got bored and moved on someplace else. I feel okay but I'm not euphoric.







It turns out writing about happiness is harder than writing about its opposite. 


That word that makes my insides recoil like a bewildered worm. My doc said he thought my depression was endogenous, that it came from inside me rather than being brought about by external events. He would say that wouldn't he, said my mother. That's what all therapists want you to hear. But your mother would say that, said my girlfriend. Accepting you have an illness is harder than reasoning you're idle and uninspired.


As the meds went to work I noticed things becoming a little easier. Doom didn't last as long. I'd wake up okay and go to bed okay, and things might get bad but I wouldn't fall so far. Things were good, or at least better. Things were moving in the right direction. And I figured something out. The opposite of feeling shit isn't happiness. The opposite of feeling shit is not feeling shit. The pills weren't magicking up happiness, they were softening the blows. The floor of my mood was more a paddling pool than a dank black sea.



I was realising the happiness was up to me.






When my despair began to unseam itself it made me think of the parity between physical and mental health. You take good health for granted until it's taken from you. And when it returns you feel incredibly thankful, to have something back you never realised you might be without. Increasingly I had my health, and all things twinkled in the gloaming.



But happiness is a bullshit word.



Happiness is wonderful but it's also kind of stupid. It is camp and fleeting and unfaithful. It seems strange to see it as the bullseye. Happiness can be a high, but I don't think it can be a state. The world is too twisted and gnarled and unstable for us to be hung up on the pursuit of it, maybe the best we can ask for is an absence of misery.


Lincoln said folk are usually about as happy as they make up their minds to be. What he meant was most of the time we have agency over it, that happiness can be the by-product of things within our control. If you have the cud of an engaged life ruminating in your gut, now and again you'll fart out some happiness.



*


Those are only happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.


John Stuart Mill


*



Happiness for me means coming back to life. It's the sunlight of the early morning turning my plants translucent. It's cycling through strange back streets in Lewisham at midnight listening to hiphop in the hurling rain. It's the golden half-minute with your back to the bar waiting as your pint gets poured. It's the crema on the espresso from my expensive new coffee machine. It's the clean feel of the street after rain. The line in the book that makes you freeze. The honeysuckle by the canal, the smile from the bus driver, the interrupted dream that finds its way back.


It is like the world has been illuminated. 






It's the feeling of strength that comes from a trust that when this happiness subsides there isn't this darkness waiting to envelop you. It's not being the hostage of the next thought that comes careening into your head. More than anything happiness is just not feeling like shit. 


Perhaps there is a deeper longer-term happiness. The happiness in realising everything you already have is all you really need. I don't think I'm there yet. It could also be having children. Last time I checked I wasn't there yet either. But when you spend a very long time feeling apart from the world, seeing it through a glass darkly, to realise it's still there and you are a part of it again and you have a role to play, and the people you love are still around and they love you and all is waiting to be resumed. 



It's pretty cool.