Uncertain Ills Torment Us Most
There is a strange, and not inappropriate, saying that you don’t know what you’ve got until it is gone. In this case, the removal of your access to communication with the outside world, I think it fair to say that you did know what you had and respected it greatly; but other people knew too and, with that knowledge, they were able to hurt and harm you needlessly. I’ve never understood this American penchant for writing people up, for making a mark against their record when whatever happened is so trivial, so unimportant, that it could have been cleared up and settled with a few words of admonishment or a discussion of what happened and why. Generally, as far as I can see, people get written up because the other person cannot handle the truth, or is in a position of power and still feels the need to exert it to retain their perceived position. That tells me a great deal about the person, without me even needing to meet them, know who they are or what their background is. Fortunately we are able to work around this minor obstacle by using the ancient, tried and trusted means of communication: pen and paper. And if this restriction on your use of modern technology means that I do not hear from you for a few weeks, that’s fine, I’m not going anywhere. In my long life I have learned that patience really is of use, if not a virtue, and that there are always reasons for a delay or an omission, a mistake or whatever. We are, after all, mostly all human.
This is also something that I’ve come to realise and bear in mind when writing to people: there is someone looking over your shoulder at all times. It is a very strange feeling because, out here, such an action would be illegal. If I discovered that someone was reading my mail – and this is, funnily enough, one of the many reasons I dislike electronic mail – I would be upset. I mostly write just for the person who is on the address label, and see no reason why my words should be shared by anyone else prior to that person receiving them. Writing to those who are incarcerated, though, I have become used to the idea that there is no privacy, that the Rights and Freedoms of other people do not apply, and that we are, effectively, playthings according to the whims and moods of faceless – for me – people somewhere in the system. I can live with that, it’s not as if I am peddling state secrets or planning anything illegal, even though I am exceptionally uncomfortable with the invasion of my privacy I have to accept that you live under different rules and with different masters. So, if I don’t hear from you before the middle of September I shall know why, and I will know not to worry, nor to think that you’ve found something better to do with your time and energies.
It may seem strange in our modern quick-as-you-can, short attention span, scrolling through the news so that nothing is missed, nothing overlooked society, but there are some of us who take their time, who are not to be hurried, and who appreciate that people need time to themselves, or that other events have priority, or that they are simply prevented, for some reason or another, from answering a letter. I gave up thinking of myself as the highest priority in someone else’s life many, many years ago, and this has constantly been proven as a correct assessment, and also to my advantage. Those of us who take life as it comes have more pleasant surprises than those of us who worry, always fear the worst and tend to steer towards a more pessimistic outlook of the world. If my post box is empty in the morning, as it was yesterday, then I have plenty of other things I can be doing with my time. And, seeing it empty, I can remind myself that I received two letters the day before, and be grateful for that. So here’s a small reminder, created by a young artist in Japan, that even when it is raining outside, we can sit in the warmth and watch the world with wonder, and know that the sun will return and we can carry on as if nothing else had happened to derail our plans.
Speaking about forgetting and the desire to be remembered: I am going to be writing to a young woman in a few days time who I haven’t written to for many years. I daresay she won’t remember me, but back in 1976 I had a summer job in Wales, working as a cook for six weeks in a youth hostel, right under the beauty of Mount Snowdon. The hostel housed about thirty children, and was always used for groups, never individuals. They would come for a week, then we’d have one day empty, and then the next group would arrive. Their time was taken up with visiting local towns, nature reserves and climbing the mountain. Mine was taken up with keeping the hostel clean , preparing their lunchboxes and all of their other meals. I had one and one half free days a week, and could climb the mountain or cycle down into the next village as the mood took me. This was the year that I bought my first vinyl record with my own, hard-earned cash – a Bob Dylan record: Desire, which was brought out in 1976. I also bought a Carpenter’s single, but that is another matter entirely!
Then one day, completely out of the blue, I received a postcard from a young woman one year above me in our school. It was strange because I knew her and had spoken with her several times once we were in our senior years, but there was really no connection there. We were both, I suspect, loners, but both went in completely different directions. I spent by school years in the library with books, out on the North Yorkshire Moors with Nature, or travelling around the countryside from one youth hostel to the next and, eventually, later doing the same in Europe. I had always worked the summer holidays in one way or another, mostly as a fruit picker, to finance the other holidays and, to be frank, to get away from home. I enjoyed living in the heart of London, but it had limitations and I always had the desire to break out and see considerably more of the world than even this superb capital city had to offer. In fact, I saw more of London once I had left it that in all the years I was living there.
So I was working in Nant Gwynant in Wales, spending time in the valley and occasionally going in to Beddgelert and a postcard comes from a young woman and I was completely lost, had no idea what it meant. Which was the beginning of my letter writing, believe it or not. I had been quite happy, completely alone on the middle of an almost deserted valley in Wales, and civilisation caught up with me again and changed the way that I thought. I imagined that this young woman had spent the summer vacation at home with her family, perhaps had a week away on the coast or similar, but otherwise nothing special. Then I thought that this was probably the case with everyone in my class, and that it was so every single year. And I was out there, in the world.
I wonder what life would have been like, over the last forty-one years, if that postcard had never come, if I hadn’t replied to her and had my little moment of enlightenment. I would probably be working in some side-street bar or a sleazy downtown restaurant, perhaps in one of those places of ill-repute which flourished in Soho in my youthful years. Either that, or I would have held on to my own personal revelation of a few years earlier, as I discovered that Europeans – the French at least – were not the monsters and freaks my school teachers had painted them as, but ordinary human beings living in a well-ordered society in a different country. I also wonder what life would have been like if I had reacted to this unexpected postcard in a different manner. I wrote a postcard back, and that was effectively the end of the correspondence. We saw one another at school when the new term began – both of us in our final year – and she told me she’d written because she heard I was working somewhere, and thought I might be lonely. Which goes to show how well she knew me, along with everyone else I was in contact with at the time: I was completely in my element when out and about on my own, but suffered from loneliness and depression when in school. Just, in the school, no one noticed, no one cared.
I’m full of cracks, and leak out on all sides
so wrote Terence, and I think we can agree that no one is perfect, we all have our areas which could be improved upon, but it is always useful when someone else happens to notice a few of the cracks and tries to plug the leaks in an appropriate fashion, rather than sticking a crowbar into the opening space and making the damage even worse. And Michel de Montaigne, who I constantly return to for wise words and inspiration, writes something which I appreciate more than any other in times of stress, when the world is getting me down and I am unsure how to go on:
There is no mind so puny or brutish as not to reveal some particular faculty shining out; there is none so buried but that some bit of it will burst forth.
No matter how life may try and get us down, there is always a good side to it, and this is what we should seek out. Those people who are true friends will remain true friends through all adversity; those who seek something else will tire of waiting and move on, mercenary, in search of a new target and, as we will come to see, leave us the better for it, being freed from their attentions. Everything which rise up and appears to be about to put us down, force us into a situation we do not wish to be in, can be utilised to our benefit in one fashion or another; we merely need to be awake enough to appreciate this fact, and to search for the good side.
As a child, when it was considered that I had done wrong – probably by remaining out in the park too long on a summer’s day, or by travelling across London to a museum on my own without anyone being told I was going – and I was consigned to my room to think about what I had done and regret my actions, I would settle down into a different activity, and spend my time doing those things which I enjoyed most. I would read, I would write short stories, sometimes I would just sleep for a while. In later life, when being locked in to one area was not a punishment but a necessity, I used the time to write letters and, again, to read. These were my things, the things which couldn’t be taken away from me. And if there was no book, no pen and paper, I would compose in my mind, over and over again until I had it off by heart, and could write down my thoughts when the obstructions had been lifted. There was, and is, always an alternative. We do not need to miss what has been taken away, when we can use that time to enjoy what still remains.
Small consolation in the first instance, and I am sure that the loss has already been mentioned by other people around you, not necessarily in a friendly manner, but that shouldn’t be allowed to get to you in any way. We, as adults with a far broader knowledge of the world than some of those around us, and a far broader knowledge of ourselves, can turn adversity into advantage. Seneca wrote:
Uncertain ills torment us most
and I think that applies as much to your worry that you will lose friends through the loss of this one means of communication. But, as I wrote earlier, if they are real friends, they will still be there, because that is what real friends are for. I’ve seen it too many times that someone falls into disgrace – mainly through a loss of income – and all the friends who were there because he or she could compensate them for their time disappeared in an instant. Or, as in your case and so many others, those people who were there when you were, but suddenly became puritans when the hammer fell and you were taken off.
I am going to have to start taking more interest in my garden soon; I can hear the neighbours mowing their lawn at the moment and it acts as a sort of warning more than a reminder. My own garden is so overgrown even the cat doesn’t want to venture there, but now and then I can pick a few blackberries to eat with my evening meal. In my defence I can say that I have been cleaning the front yard, which is paved over and only has two small strips of earth on either side, and removing the plant life and moss which have clung to whatever hopes of success they might have harboured, and forced their way through the cracks between paving stones. Since this is the side which can be seen from the street, it is of greater importance: not that someone comes to my house from the town council and points out that I am ruining the first impressions our cyclist tourists become when they hurry up this street towards the centre of town. A few years ago I had a letter from some high and mighty bureaucrat about building waste waiting to be transported away from the front yard – I had just knocked two rooms into one and the remains of the dividing wall was still there – and I was ordered to get it removed within a very short period of time or face a fine. There are advantages to not being seen in this town, although enough people who insist on sticking their noses in where it doesn’t belong.
Always someone with a little bit of power that they just have to exercise in order to feel alive, or even useful. When they don’t interfere everything runs smoothly here, and we’re all quite happy with the neighbourhood, even if we don’t exactly mix and meet up all the time. Everyone has their own parcel of land, their little castle in the centre of their lives, and that is enough. Those are the things which are important, and these small-minded individuals can’t take anything away from us if we don’t want them to, if we just keep what is most important to us close to our hearts, where it cannot be found, cannot be assessed, cannot be taken away.