One year ago Mum died, and I was heading into a working Christmas at Monkey Puzzle Meadow, the ‘crisis house’.
Unlike those passing through Monkey Puzzle Meadow, Mum’s choice was not suicide. She was far too addicted to self-punishment for that. Her older sister, however, tried to take her own life as recently as last Spring, shortly after her 90th birthday. Aunt Ellen swallowed lots of pills but was found and, errrr, ‘rescued’ in time. During her subsequent month in hospital Ellen recorded her thoughts in a journal, mainly as a tactic to stay sane (for that is exactly what she was and is) and thus ensure a return to her home and to some semblance of control over her life:
“I once was caressed, now I am assessed. Have I become a commodity? I cannot imagine which end of the scale I am exceeding.”
“Life lives itself in two ways: one way we think we understand; the second way is lived for us by something other. Now and then we’re surprised by the latter. We give it all sorts of names, but nothing makes sense, save the eternal necessity of paying. Life is too strong for me, its gusts and heats, its deadly colds have left me stranded, gasping and afraid that I won’t be able to show a brave face.”
I have been slowly integrating the Monkey Puzzle Meadow experience, and I feel privileged to have been a sentient, learning human being in an environment coursing with the thoughts and feelings of women and men overcoming the often rational temptation to initiate their own death. I confess that I was not thick-skinned enough to ‘take it’, to shut off from the painful issues for long enough. I could do it on a day-to-day basis, and hopefully give meaningful support to individuals, but in the longer term I knew deep down that the toll was too great. Lack of support from above and politically motivated changes to the service were both aggravating factors, but I now understand that I had reached the limits of my ability to maintain (despite being Maintenant Man!) that teetering, ever-shifting balance between detachment and engagement.
Running a residential service is, by its very nature, hugely committing if you take the role seriously. The house runs 24:7 for 52 weeks of the year. At some enzyme-in-the-gut level it is always with you even when you are off duty. That partly explains both the fascination and the fatigue, but the biggest factor lies in the phenomenon of suicide itself. It is such a very human fact. No other animal uses this behaviour. It seems possible that certain creatures are capable of developing a rudimentary sense of ‘self’, but any claims to have witnessed animals actively seeking their own demise are just sentimental projections of human desire. And it is a phenomenon that touches most lives, whether via inner thoughts (as with sexual fantasies, the vast majority of people who think about suicide would never even get close to attempting it) or via friends or family members. A loved aunt on my Dad’s side killed herself with gin and barbiturates during my first year at university.
It’s the one thing that many people cannot talk about to the person(s) with whom they can “share everything”.
Perhaps this intensely personal quality is part of its allure. For those who are drawn into the mental health system it becomes a vital identity, something that it is hard to break from because what would remain? For the majority, it is a sign that the intensely personal has grown fat and demanding, that the self has bloated to a point where both the need for love and the needs of loved ones are eclipsed.
And then there are the entirely rational folk who are terminally ill, or who recognise no connections to other people (and who have aged to a point where that will not change). Ellen is in the latter category. Her words illustrate the power of the ‘lone self’, but also hint at a learning from her experience:
“At night I know different things. I look at a darkened sky and I try to understand what it is telling me. The night is for me alone, the day belongs to everyone. The day changes so quickly, the night is eternal. I shall stand under a tree and let it lift me – that will be the way to go! I have just had my first bath alone since coming home from the hospital. It is so necessary to pour water over oneself. A christening? A pagan purification?”
So right now Ellen is the baby that will not be thrown out with the bath water. Whatever we do, it just ain’t possible to escape from the tyranny of rebirth……though the Buddha is supposed to have achieved just that. To be honest, I’m not sure I would want to achieve that, there’s so much to relish about learning to be human, about signing your own life warrant with a defiant flourish.
* * * * *
Sami had travelled up and down the scimitar-shaped peninsula after completing her studies of the scattered remnants of the indigenous peoples of Eastern Siberia. This was still one of the last places on earth where the forces of nature had successfully conspired to dilute the Glorious New Monoculture. It was a losing battle, but Kamchatka was going down fighting. Kamchatka the place that is. The resistance of certain people was important, but the knowledge implicit in place was the most crucial factor.
Despite her mixed feelings, Sami had been unable to resist the temptation to put a little of her inner feelings into Pull Yourself Together. The book was ‘safely’ set in the late 19th century and was about the love affair between an Alaskan fishing boat captain and a young woman from Petropavlosk during the period of the transfer of power from Russia to America in the new Alaskan state. She did not yet understand the pull that Kamchatka exerted on her spirit, but now, with little more than three days to go before her submission deadline, she cast an anxious eye over one of the paragraphs that she knew would cause trouble with the Slush Pile, the Fictitious Prose Narrative Commission.
“The commander of the Cossack unit called a halt to the search for Ahora Hombre at dusk on the twentieth day of the expedition. The trail had gone cold. ‘Ahora, the son of a whore, could be anywhere in Kamchatka by now…I hope he has been drowned in the lava of some volcano, or eaten slowly by a bear with a cruel mind’.
The commander surveyed the darkening river valley below the terrace on which the Cossacks had camped. Like all who know only power and who are therefore bound to abuse that power, he feared and hated the things he could not understand. The contours of the terrain, and the very fibres of the land itself, seemed to give off a peaceful, slumbering energy. It was as if the tundra and the hills and the sinewy river were smiling in some secret dream. The commander felt a violent urge to wake the dreamer up, to wipe that knowing smile off its face. Or better still to threaten and torture until the land’s secrets were revealed. But the commander was not a stupid man. He was of the breed of authority that would come to dominate the world over the next two hundred years: one foot in the naked brutality of the past; one foot in the subtle co-options and compromises of the future.
‘If you wake the smiling dreamer too soon, the secret of the smile will be lost forever’. He spat his mouthful of betel-pepper into the fire and turned his thoughts to enforcing a new tax levy on the village of Palana on his way home.”
Before Sami could weigh up whether to tone down the criticism of powers-that-be, her thoughts were interrupted by the live connection tone from her tele-console. It was the private line. In theory this was a service that the Corporates could not monitor. However, everyone knew that routine surveillance kicked in after ten seconds of connection, the ten seconds being a lingering relic from the days of token civil liberties. Even tokenism was becoming increasingly unnecessary.
Sami activated the line, fully expecting another pleading call from her parents.
An urgent, unrecognised male voice cut through her half-formed reassurances: “In two hours time, be in the poetry section of the Cowell Museum library. Act on the message written on the No Novel Underground leaflet inside Songs of Innocence and Experience“.
* * * * *
Some lovely exchanges about signature tunes since the previous post…thank you, and keep them coming in. I won’t publish any here unless anyone specifically asks. As for my own, which I now have to deliver on (reluctantly because I still feel divided) I had decided to plump for an instrumental as words can become too subjectively loaded. And it’s not at all about one’s favourite songs.
However, no instrumental quite fell into place. Musically, The Liquidator by The Harry J All Stars is near perfect, but the title doesn’t fit. And Beethoven’s Late Quartets are just too long, even if a single section is isolated. So I returned to the notion of words being acceptable, and henceforth any human intercourse will be topped and tailed to the strains of The Incredible String Band performing Big Ted. I will not reproduce the lyrics here, or speculate as to why a Maintenant Man might possibly identify with the diminutive form of the name Edward. Those who are interested can, no doubt, google the lyrics and Spotify the song (other internet-based download services are available…but beware of i-Tunes…).