Why pot?

Asked why I teach pottery, for a short film documentary by students from the local college, I found myself recounting my two or three ‘stock’ anecdotes:

‘The potter digs up the lump of inert mud, and by creating a pot, imbues it with his creative energy and gives it a ‘tension’ that holds the energy. The viewer or recipient sees the pot, immediately or long after it was made, and receives that energy. In some way, the creative energy of the recipient may also be stimulated by the experience.’

‘The new student comes to the pottery with a view that they’re not going to be any good at it and they’re not ‘creative’. I say that I will show them that they can make pots without a lot of training and that everyone is creative, they just have to find it in themselves, and I can help with that. This works, and after a few sessions, the student feels proud and uplifted by achieving a creative goal.’

‘For me, art is a form of communication, and pottery is a very immediate and ‘visceral’ language, compared to, for instance, abstract painting. It’s all about form and texture, about a sensuous process. If the potter feels something, his pots should express that. Even if they don’t know it, the feeling people get from their favourite cup has been communicated by the maker.’

Ok, but when asked about what gives me joy in making, I admitted that I don’t really feel that much joy. I had to reconsider what I’d said about communication and transfer of creative energy in light of the fact that I’m not feeling that joy. I still want to rise to the task of teaching. I still want to receive the affirmation from the fulfilled student. I still want to see the growth and development in the people I teach, but I no longer feel (or at least temporarily do not feel) joy in making, and I need to know where that went.

There must be a wider context. You can’t assess one aspect of your life when it is so greatly influenced by the other parts. So what’s going on? What’s getting in the way? There are questions which need to be answered.

Why create art if you do not feel the drive to create? Why try to communicate through it if you haven’t got something meaningful to say? Who do you want to create for? What do they want from you? But so many artists just to ‘show up at the page’ and work through it, day by day in a devoted way. Dig deeper and find the meaning.

We’re living in a world where there’s such shit going on, where the level of destructive influence overwhelms that peace we associate with the creative process. It’s tempting to succumb to fear and loathing, to be paralysed by internalising the news, swallowing the effluent. It’s tempting to drown it in drink and TV and chores.

What takes priority in a life-stage where it’s more of a struggle to maintain currency and value? Work or making? Is it indulgent to slip into the pottery and ‘play’ when there’s ‘real’ work out there to be done? Surely these negative forces which surround our ‘practice’ can be used. Surely they can be channeled. Why does it feel like defeat at the hands of…?

Time to respond to the clarion call: Just get up, get out there, and make the fucking pot. Get off the fucking pot… Stop gazing at your navel and work at it!

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If you see her, say hello

At eighteen, Joe decided to take a gap year after his ‘A’ levels, and he got a job working as a porter in a small and backward South London hospital for several months in order to save some money. Living at home was claustrophobic and depressing, but he was working long shifts in the operating theatre, and spending his evenings in the local pub with school friends similarly taking their year out. After eight months, he’d saved some money and wanted to see the world before going back into education. He saw a small ad in the paper for overland tours which sounded exciting, so he bought a ticket and boarded a bus to India. He’d been toying with a summer in the Greek islands, just as his elder siblings had taken some years earlier, but opted for the Budget Bus from North Totteridge to Delhi in six weeks (price £55), because he craved the exotic, and was traveling alone.
Moving from country to country and culture to culture, he shared the 1950s St Trinians-style coach, and the taste of freedom, with thirty other young travelers. The route into Asia was a hangover of the slow-fading sixties hippy trail, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, a well-trodden path. The Beatles and the Maharishi, Tim Leary, The Naked Lunch, On The Road and so much more formed the backdrop to the journey. The experience was overwhelming, both culturally and medically, and after only three months, half the intended time, he was forced to return to face quarantine for typhoid over the summer. After losing three stone in three weeks in a campsite in Delhi during the monsoon, he’d had to fly home to find treatment. He spent that summer in London and had recovered adequately by September to take his place at university.

The decision to take the trip to India had been a watershed. In making it, Joe had cut the already thin emotional ties with his childhood home, and looked to his future. He was struck by the apparent indifference of his parents to his intrepid journey, as he set out alone with his rucksack and bus ticket. It was easier to make the grand statement about independence than it was to grow up overnight. In many ways, the culture shock of the trip, let alone his health scare, was compounded by the separation. Like a steam engine uncoupled from its tender, his momentum alone would not drive him forward, and on the journey, he stoked his furnace with all manner of fuel.
When he returned, it was clear that Wimbledon and all its associations were part of his past. In his Pashtun pajama suit, a rolled Kelim rug his only luggage, he crept back into the house, unannounced and exhausted. Only his father was there, and the house was cold. His parents were already looking to separate and his older siblings were all living away by now. He felt like the soldier in The Soldier’s Tale returning, long forgotten.
Joe had applied to Sheffield, city of his birth, for a BSc in psychology, because he’d studied biology and chemistry for ‘A’ level, and he wanted to move into something that didn’t echo his school subjects, something more cool. His elder sister, Jane, was studying psychology at Cardiff, and she seemed to be loving it, despite her baby son being looked after in London by their mother, Dorothy.
He was delivered to the halls of residence, on that first cold October afternoon by Dorothy, with a car full of his teenager’s belongings. She was silent on the journey, not because she was deeply saddened by their parting, but because she was also embarking on a new life alone, and leaving Joe’s younger sister, Lizzie, with her father. He was the fourth child to leave home, and so he was unceremoniously left to his own devices as soon as he could unpack the car into his room in the men’s wing. Ranmore halls were bleak three storey accommodation blocks, set in the grounds of a large estate, somewhere on the edge of town. Joe did his best to personalize his room with the books and records he’d brought, wishing all the while that he had a guitar to lean in the corner.
He had in mind to display himself in words and images like a young peacock, in the hope, held for several years, of attracting his first mate. An all boys secondary school, a shy disposition and next to no experience of girls left him little ammunition. India had taught him about many things, but sex was not one of them. He had a folder of sketches, and some carefully chosen quotations, written on bits of paper, Bluetacked to the wall, from Nietsche: “Is man merely a mistake of God’s or God merely a mistake of man” and Sartre: “Art is optimistic. Suffering is justified as soon as it becomes the raw material of beauty.” He chose a selection of Dylan and Neil Young albums to be strewn ‘casually’ across the floor. His yellow, grey and black spined Penguins, colour-coded on the shelf over the desk, bore testament to his literary aspirations, and supposed maturity, while two Picasso prints, Guernica and The Blue Lady, told of his artistic temperament. Now all it needed was a good-looking girl to adorn it.
The next day, he spent in the students’ union, signing up to a couple of societies: folk music and drama.
“Hey Man, why don’t you come along on the pub crawl for new members tonight?” said the bearded student behind the table in the union canteen had frizzy orange hair down to his shoulders and wore a denim shirt under his Afghan coat. The straggling wool of the mountain goat or sheep from which it was made smelt unpleasant. “We’ve got Long John Baldry coming in a couple of weeks and Planxty at the end of term.”
The Folk society met every third week in Ranmore Hall Bar for an ‘open mike’ evening with local bitter and an earthy clutch of enthusiasts. After the first hour of the first (and his last) session, and after four pints of Sam Smiths Bitter, Joe took to the mike for a rendition of ‘Where have you been all day, Henry my Son”, to which he had already forgotten the words, and which turned out to be a favourite of the society.
Drama was much more of a success.
“Hi, my name’s Rob, and I’m Chairman of the Drama Soc. If you join, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll meet the most attractive women in college, and get stuck into participating straight away, if you get me,” he enthused.
“I’ve never acted on stage. Does that matter?”
Joe decided on the white lie, in order not to set himself up, though he’d had bit parts in a couple of school plays.
“Nah. If you can’t act, you can always work back-stage. It’s fun and there’s loads of women backstage as well.”
That was just the right thing to say. Joe signed on the dotted line, paid his membership sub and agreed to attend a series of improvisation workshops, starting the next day. Rob outlined the plan.
“Well, man, they’re designed to engender trust, which is important for working closely with other actors. They’re all about free expression, and we work a lot on improvisation, voice projection, that kind of shit.”
What he didn’t say was that they were also meant to provide a suitable opportunity for second year male students to get off with ‘fresher women’. Rob himself was a muscular, square jawed post-graduate engineer. He’d been through a lot of fresher women in his time, and preferred the loose relationships of the drama soc to the intensity of the few women in his engineering faculty.
The workshops took place in the university theatre, a converted church, behind the union, which gave the whole experience an air of authenticity. Rob was an excellent tutor, and the majority of freshers attending were women, which meant he had worked hard all day to talk them into joining.
The fact that Joe was a year out of school and had travelled, that his hair was longer and his stories more extensive than those of other boys in the workshops, conferred status on his naivety. Games included ‘trust exercises’, where attendees paired up and one of each pair called to the other across the stage, who was blindfolded and expected to run towards their calling partner. This resulted in several minor injuries and a lot of laughter. Another involved the group forming a circle around one student who, eyes closed and standing at attention in the centre, was supposed to fall backwards or forwards, to be caught by those in the circle. The distracted or weaker members of the circle were apt to fail in their catching duties, resulting in more minor injuries and more laughter. Whatever this did or didn’t do to engender trust, the first afternoon session generated immediate friendships. As these were theatre workshops, there were also voice exercises, stage whispering to practise enunciation: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York” and various ‘Peter Piper’ tongue twisters.
The focus of the workshop each day was a series of improvised mini-dramas.
“Ok, so Joe, you’re a taxi driver, standing at the late night tea stand, and Nick, you’re the tea guy. Jane, you and Jenny, you’re a couple of toms looking for business.” And off we went into our reverie, smirking and stuttering our way through ten minutes of improvised drama, which normally petered out or ended in scuffles.
Jane was a slim, dark eighteen-year-old London girl, with large brown eyes and long lashes. She liked to lead the improvisations, with quick-witted repartee and a flare for the dramatic gesture.
Nick: “Right, that’ll be three bob, mate.”
Joe: “Come on you old git, one cup and a slice, that’s two and six.”
Nick: ”take it or leave it, mate.”
Joe pays imaginary coins across the counter and sips from his empty cup, making slurping noises to signify the heat of the tea.
Jane: “Hi lovey, got a light?” she sidles up to Joe and touches his arm. He looks into her eyes and there’s a slightly over-extended silence while he tries to concentrate on the scene.
Joe: “What’s your name then, beautiful? I haven’t seen you here before.”
Jane: “Why, it’s Dolores. What’s yours?”
Jenny: “Oy, keep yer hands off of ‘er ‘less you got the fiver.” Jenny lays on the accent like Eliza Doolittle, and she’s much more edgy and aggressive than Jane.
Nick: ”What’s your problem tonight, Patsy? Business a bit slow?”
Jenny: “An’ you can fuck off an’ all, Cyril” Jenny is really getting into her role, and pretends to throw Joe’s hot tea over the counter at Nick, but instead, sprays Jane and Joe with the brew. Jane, in shielding herself from the imagined shower, steps in close and wraps her arms around Joe’s neck.
“Oh dear! I’m all wet!” She gives him the biggest smile.
“Wow! I’m sure I’ve got a fiver here somewhere.” Joe’s arm slips gently around Jane’s waist and he leads her into the wings, stage right.
*
It was clear after the first day that the spark between them was strong. Rob had also paired with Jane for a couple of exercises, mostly as a way of demonstrating one or another game, and especially those involving physical contact. Jane was quick and funny, and she loved to perform. It was obvious she would go far in the drama society as a leading lady, and Rob was not the only ‘old lag’ who watched her with interest.

Walking back from the theatre Jane was animated.
“That was amazing, don’t you think?” She gesticulated wildly “I loved the one where we were made to lay with our heads in the other’s lap and have them rotate it.”
“Yeah, it was so hard to relax in someone’s hands and let them take the weight.”
He could still feel the warmth of her scalp. “You were great at it though.”
“Who’d’ve thought someone’s head could be so heavy?”
“Are you accusing me of having a big head? It’s all brains you know.” He laughed, wanting to just stop and kiss her in the street. “What’re you doing tonight?”
“Nothing much. You?”
They agreed to meet in the refectory at seven and spend the evening listening to music. Jane rolled her own cigarettes and Joe thought this particularly cool, so he would be trying to get the hang of that, among other things, and learning to inhale of course.
As the week progressed, they paired up for most of the workshop games, they began to touch more, to share private jokes, explore each other’s pasts and exchange cherished possessions. Each exchange told something. Each was a gift laid on an alter.
“Do you want to borrow Steppenwolf? It’s one of my favourite books. Have you read The Glass Bead Game? He won the Nobel Prize for that I think”
“Can I take Blood on the Tracks and listen to it this afternoon? I’ll bring it back tonight, if you’re around.”
And later, they lay close on the built-in bunk to listen to Dylan’s new album.
“ Oh God, I love this track. Turn it up a bit. He’s such a great poet . . . pass me the sleeve. ’Say for me that I’m all right, though things get kind of slow.’”

On the final evening of Freshers’ Week, after the last improv workshop and a few drinks in the Ranmore bar, they went back to Joe’s room with their new found friends, Nick and Jenny, to listen again to music. Though drinking in the bedrooms was forbidden, Nick had bought a naggin of vodka on the way back from the theatre, and they’d shared it from Joe’s tooth mug. By now, everyone was rolling cigarettes, and Nick brought out a tiny silver foil parcel of hashish. He’d scored it on his first day in the union bar – which seemed very sophisticated for a first year, but Nick was already 20, almost a mature student, and he seemed completely at ease. He pulled the gate-fold sleeve of Yellow Brick Road from the table and licked the glue on three Rizzlas to make a large joint, which he filled with rolling tobacco. He singed the small black lump of dope with his Zip lighter, and crushed the corner into powder, which he sprinkled onto the tobacco, without spilling a grain.
“I got stoned in Kandahar” Joe felt he had to lay down his marker. “I didn’t smoke then, so I just swallowed it. Afghani Black. About the size of a sugar lump.”
“Whoa…. That must’ve set you back a few quid.” Nick lit the joint and inhaled deeply. “This little baby was a tenner.”
“Nah, not in Afghanistan. It was pennies I think, ‘cos someone gave it to me. On the border, they offered to make me a pair of flip flops out of a slab of it the size of my shoe sandwiched between two pieces of leather. Trouble was, if you walked across, the guy who made the shoes would tip off the police, who’d throw you in jail and give the stuff back to him for the next dumb tourist.”
“Cool.” Jenny was pretty. She’d taken to Nick that first day, and the two of them were already inseparable. His age had been his winning attribute. In a room full of eighteen year olds, the twenty year old is king.
The air was thick with smoke, and they were all quiet as Dylan sang Tangled up in Blue and The Jack of Hearts. Joe moved to open the window to let in the cold night air, hoping that the smell of dope wouldn’t linger in the morning when the cleaners came around. Nick decided he and Jenny needed privacy for their increasingly explicit fondling, and dragging her from the bed, he took the dregs of the naggin and they left.
“That’s better. Just the two of us.” Jane was pretty stoned.
“Yes. No prizes for guessing what they’re getting up to.”
“No. Shall we see if we can work it out? An improvisation without words?”
“Mmmm, sounds fun”

And so, after the week of moving inexorably towards ‘the moment’, and when the night was dark outside and the wind blew sensuously, they made love, after a fashion. For Joe, it felt like surfing the perfect wave, surfacing after a high dive, something that had been thought of, dreamed of, for years. For Jane, it wasn’t something new, but it was nice.
Later she sat naked next to him, propped up by his pillow. He closed the window, turned down the volume on the stereo and re-started the second side of Blood on the Tracks.
Laying back against Jane’s leg, basking in the feelings of his conquest, but not wanting to talk about what had happened, Joe let the music seep into him.
“I love how he writes lyrics and his voice is great. It’s all over the place and he’d never win a singing competition, but you’d know him anywhere.”
Jane sang with the record “‘We had a falling out, like lovers often will.’ Will we?”
“Will we what?”
“Will we have a falling out? Now we’re lovers. Will I go to Tangiers? Maybe have an affair with a Bedhuin?” Ever the drama queen.
“That’s nice, just when we’ve met and you’re talking about going off and leaving me for some guy in a Kaftan.” Joe knew she was teasing, but his insecurity was close to the surface.
“Jealous? Mmmm . . . that’s kind of cute.” She laughed, stroking his hair
“What?? Cute??” He raised himself on one elbow, turned and scowled at her. She ignored him and continued to sing.
“I always respected her for doing what she did in getting free.”
But Joe wasn’t letting that one go.
“That’s the last thing I am. Cute is for lapdogs! So you want a lapdog who respects his mistress. . . ”Either I’m too sensitive, or else I’m getting soft.” Strange how the lyrics seemed to mirror their thoughts.
“Do you think I should get my hair cut short?”
He was staring at their bodies in the wardrobe mirror. It was the first time he’d ever really looked at a naked woman. The first time he’d had more than a surreptitious glance at one, anyway. That didn’t count the pornographic images in his friends’ magazines at school. It was a wonderful moment. One he thought, then, he should commit to memory in every detail and hold dear for the rest of his life. The man and his woman, relaxing after making love. After sex. Intercourse.
“Why would I care how long your hair is if I was off tripping down in Fez or somewhere with my new Bedhuin man?” she said, and his mind drifted back to their conversation.
“I bet he smells like a camel. How do you like the smell of camel?”
“Do you think Dylan was in love with her?” Jane’s mind was wandering again.
“Who?”
“His sad eyed lady of the lowlands? I read he’s so rich that he’s got houses all over the states and he keeps a different woman in each one.”
Joe wanted to get back to his India adventure. It was the most important thing he had ever done, until now.
“I once ate camel steak… in Kabul – not as nice as buffalo though. ‘Sun down, yellow moon . . .’”
“It’s like all great loves have to end in great heartbreaks.” She was drifting back to Tangiers. Joe stared unashamedly at her body in the mirror as she lay back, her eyes closed.
“God you’re so beautiful. It’s amazing. Where did you spring from?”
“I know, I am amazing. Call me Ophelia.” Jane laughed softly.
*
Two days later, it was the start of term. Joe spent his day in lectures in the psychology block, half a mile from the main campus, while Jane spent hers in the Tower Block, listening to her fellow music students performing on their chosen instruments, and herself performing on the cello. The start of the term had fractured their idyll and brought them down with a crash. After a mutual debrief that evening, they were both considering the prospect of spending the night together. Joe dearly wanted this to happen, but recognized the limitations of a night in a single bed, and the early start he had in the morning. Jane was somehow more indifferent to the idea, more fidgety. She hadn’t made the first move towards him when they met at dinner, and had sat between Nick and Jenny across the refectory table, rather than next to him, where he’d held her a space.

There was a loud knock on Joe’s door and he leapt up in surprise.
“Oh Christ. Who’s that? Pass me my shirt. You get under the covers and I’ll tell them where to go.”
It was Rob, standing in the corridor in denims and a great coat.
“Hey man. Just wondering if you’ve seen Jane?”
Strange. Joe didn’t think Rob was living in Ranmore Hall. Perhaps he was.
“Oh cool. Is that Blood on the Tracks?” said Rob. Joe was immediately wary of Rob. He’d been openly flirting with Jane in the workshops, and even today, Joe had seen them talking at lunchtime outside the drama soc office in the union.
“Oh hi, Rob. I . . . ”
Jane sat up when she heard Rob’s voice and made no effort to cover her breasts. “Hi Rob. Yes, I just bought it. Great album isn’t it. I’m decent. You can come in. Let him in.” Joe held onto the door long enough to see Jane lift the sheet and cover herself.
“Oh sorry, I’m not interrupting anything am I?” Rob knew full well he was.
Jane grinned “No. We were just listening to some music. What about you?”
“Hey, Jane, I was thinking of going down to the union bar and I thought you might like to come, talk about The Importance of Being Ernest. You know I’m casting it next week. I was thinking of you for Gwendolin.”
The drama soc committee had chosen two plays for this term, and had posted dates on the notice board for casting sessions. Jane and Joe had by then made enough friends in the society to find out that casting was never a totally open thing, and that the best roles always went to ‘insiders’ on a nod. Rob was to direct ‘Ernest’, and there was only one part Jane really wanted.
“Yeah, well, maybe another . . .” Joe tried half-heartedly to distract Jane from the obvious come-on.
“Who’s going?”
“Well, just you and me so far.”
It was eminently clear that Rob was neither subtle nor coy. He had wanted to get off with Jane since day one and here he was, barging into their love nest without a care.
“Look Rob, how about . . . Jane you don’t want to go out now do you? “ Joe began to sound a little desperate, more of a whining child than the man he wanted to be.
“Sounds kind of fun. I’ll need to get dressed.”
“Oh Grrreat!” This came out more as a bitter expletive than was intended.
“You don’t mind, do you?” Jane clearly couldn’t care less how he felt
“Well actually . . .”
Rob’s rich baritone cut across his last attempt to block their plan “I’m only borrowing her, man. Keep yer hair on . . .” And that was that, the beginning of the end, the writing on the wall.
“Give me a few minutes. Meet me down by the coffee machine in ten?”
Jane was already pulling on her jeans and looking for her socks, while Joe pushed rob back from the door in the hope of shielding her body from Rob’s greedy eyes. Jane just smiled and continued to dress.
“Cool. See you round, man.”
Joe slumped back onto his bed and stared at Jane in disbelief. How could she do this to him? What had their love affair meant if she could up and leave at the first opportunity? And what did Rob have to offer that he didn’t? Don’t answer that!
“You don’t mind, do you? I mean, Gwendolin. That would be great and he’s Chair of the theatre group, so, you know, it’d be good to keep in with him. Hey, you could audition for Jack or Algie next week.” Did she really think that would appease him? Frankly, it was an insult. Rob and his fucking casting couch!
“No thanks. Not my sort of thing. I’m not into that bourgeois shit. But who am I to stand in your way?”
This time, the venom was undisguised, and in the space of minutes, Joe’s newfound happiness felt it had been dashed to pieces. More than that, his newfound manhood was withering. He dropped his head into his hands and fought back tears.
“Oh don’t be like that. Anyone would think you had reason to be jealous.”
Blood on the Tracks. What a great name for an album. What an absolutely depressingly accurate fucking song! “and to think how she left that night, it still brings me a chill.”

Being 59

59 should be an uneventful birthday. Forgettable. I had no hopes or expectations, nothing to suggest it mattered. The weekend was taken up with someone else’s 60th, which encapsulated all the horrors and pleasures of marking next year. The party lasted for twelve hours, the drinking for 16. The preparation lasted for three months and the clean-up may not end, as some stains are not removable.

I can’t help wondering whether 59 is well beyond one’s ‘natural life’. In the wild, or even in the middle ages, this would be considered a ‘ripe old age’, rather than just over the mid-point.
I’m dizzy with the thin air. I’m overflowing with emotions, which are unswitchoffable. The slightest hint of schmaltz and I’m teary. I can’t see anything ahead. It all seems to be behind me. Not least the writing. The achievement of a first, awarded on Friday, marked the closing chapter, not the opening of a new book. Fear. I feel fear that I’m not going to achieve anything as significant again. Not that the result has significance for anyone else. Just the old git doing what he does – setting himself goals and driving to attain them without real purpose. Just trying to prove himself again.
How do you move forward from this point? You’re in the process of being classified. People like/need to pin you to a colour. “He’s depressed. It’s a belated mid-life crisis. He’s not what he used to be. He really never dealt with the abuse. God, he’s so self-obsessed, narcissistic.”
Do you do what they say you should do? “Just turn up at the page.” “Go into the studio and make something you’re proud of.” ‘Keep writing and it will come”.
I felt something about the Kevin Barry method, which suggested the need for daily bowel movement. The constipated man sits patiently on the toilet seat and strains till he shits. Write 500 words before breakfast, without thinking and before doing anything else. That’s the morning pages.
Then take several hours to edit out four hundred, because most of what you say isn’t well said, or isn’t worth saying, or reading. Then spend the afternoon out taking exercise, breathing in the fresh air. Then go back to what you have saved and start to build on it. The foundations are strong enough for cognitive work. Find yourself by the end of the day with three or four hundred words worth keeping. Do that every day for a year and you will have 100,000 words. A book.
I thought this might be me, but I’m more of a stream of verbiage person than that, and somewhere closer to the Stephen King school. Sit and write two to four thousand words. Do that every day for four months without re-reading it too much. Get your 100,000 word draft finished and then start editing.
OK, so before the writing must come the idea. No? Surely you can’t start with nothing?
59 should have been an uneventful birthday, but he woke to find his world had changed. It was not just that his skin was green and scaly. That alone might have been attributable to the heavy drinking, or the fungal infection he thought he’d noticed in his groin over the last week. Nor that when he opened his mouth to thank his wife for her birthday present, he didn’t speak but rather squawked through a beak, like a parrot. That too might have been a hallucination brought on by the partying. It was the horrified look she gave when she turned on the bedroom light to greet him, took the wrapped jumper from her bedside cabinet and turned to him across the quilt.
“Fuck!” she leaped out of bed and ran naked from the room, only to re-appear briefly to check she had not been hallucinating.

59 should have been an uneventful birthday. It should have passed unobtrusively, shuffled by. Instead, it was a monumental traffic accident. A bloody tangle of vehicular wreckage and mangled limbs….

59 should have been. It was. It was in fact the quietest birthday he could remember. In the process of turning his life into a powerpoint presentation full of neat graphics and trend analyses, the liveliness of one’s birthdays is just one more smooth graph showing a Gompertz curve towards zero. This curve slides like a ski slope from the top of the hill, which, in my case was probably aged nine or ten, to the bottom, which may have come, but probably hasn’t – a year in which I die on my birthday perhaps? One in which the level of quietness is deafening.

Empty yourself

The problem with distractions, like painting pots, market research or seeing people…. A friend of mine said “The REAL problem with all that is that keen observation falls away. Keen, precise observation can only take place when alone and when the mind is empty. No matter what one does, true observing is at the center and soul of it…..so after spending hours alone doing nothing, I walk to the forest and see many things that I had not seen this morning…..mind was empty, hungry if you like.”

Instinctively I know she is right, and I feel full to overflowing with food and drink and meaningless petty daily chores. I feel sick with it. I want to vomit so that I will feel empty and clean inside. I want then to walk in the clear fresh air after the rain stops, to smell plants and feel the molecules of air pass through my hands, as I did before. There is a way this can happen. I just have to learn to practice it. The morning pages are supposed to be that way.

Over a few bottles of beer with this friend in the pub, I mentioned the emptying and she reported having spent two and a half years in therapy learning how to empty herself and her advice was simple “Just find a good therapist and get on with it”. But the process seems to me to be risky. First of all there’s the guarded stuff, then there’s the ‘cost-benefit analysis’, which suggests the cost will be high and the benefits indeterminate. Then there’s the fear that deconstructing without reconstructing will leave the workshop floor covered in unidentifiable parts – the motorbike, which when rebuilt doesn’t work, and those extraneous cogs and bolts which are still lying on the workshop floor with no clear function – except to help the bike become functional again.

An image is made up of the emotional, the psychological and the visual. I left out the bins on Thursday – one for recycling, one for household waste and between them a large piece of cardboard which wouldn’t fit in either. They emptied the bins and turfed the cardboard onto the roadside where it became sodden. At least now it fits into one of the bins, even though little else will. The image was piteous. My sense of place in that image, like an oversized box not fit to be thrown out, not fit to be kept. The self-pitying misery of that image.

What is the alternative to emptying the mind? Can it be cleared up without emptying – when the workshop is full and needs spring cleaning, does everything have to come out in order to do that? Can it be worked through like some Buddhist retreat process? Heal thyself? OK, so. What do we need to do? Analyse, pigeonhole, compartmentalize, throw out and nurture.

Post-MA routine

The routine is killing my sense of adventure. There are vast plains and forests out there and yet the walled garden is holding my attention. And it isn’t the beauty of the roses, but the endless weeding that is holding me. I tell myself that today I must repair this and maintain that, that I must do right by this person or that. I look into the still pond and see my reflection against a black background. In that image is tiredness and lost hope. In the eyes, a cloud of blindness creeping in. Why isn’t the gate in the wall open? Why can’t I just step through it into the open space again?

The writing took everything. The MA was a huge investment of love and care and self-worth, and when it stopped, the process had been externalized – ever fibre had been refocused on pleasing others, eventually one person. She chose to extract the last drops, and then more. She wanted it to be more than I wanted to give. The stories became overworked, massaged to pulp. The ownership transferred and suddenly it was over, before I could regain them. It. Is that how the public takes the artist’s life away? Is that what the publisher or gallery owner can do? I think she would say that it was a learning exercise, and that she was only doing right by me to push and squeeze to the last. But in the cyclicity which I operate, this is the largest orbit I have taken. The parabola had, at its outermost curve – what’s that called? – a huge slingshot (to quote The Martian) – a multiple of the G forces of most adventures, and the landing has been harder than I can remember. I suppose it’s like many adventures: they end and there is a vacuum in their wake.

Thursday

You talk about the creeping deterioration of our power, our prowess or potency, of our marginalization with age because the world is a young place. You feel that we no longer really matter. But to me, it is the world that doesn’t matter quite as much. I hear of a plane crash, but it happened a week ago. I became angry about Europe’s treatment of the refugees, but then it faded from my consciousness.
There are times when what drives me is enthusiasm for change, or the excitement of the new. And despite all the warning bells about lighting the blue paper, I lean in over the rocket to see why it hasn’t shot into the air. Or worse, hanging onto its shaft as it takes off, only to find that the gunpowder has burned away and the flame has fizzled out, and the rocket is returning to earth under the pull of gravity. They don’t make rockets like they used to. They seemed to rise forever, they seemed to explode more dramatically, and I’d usually turned my back before they began their descent. But now, the paltry little things are barely off the ground before they pop and fall.
The two drives I had for fifty years were the ambition for success and the competitive spirit which drove me to prove myself in the eyes of others. Take away the will to succeed – the desire to be good at something, or to complete something to one’s best ability, and what is there? Without the competitive urge, to better others, where are we? So the external becomes internalized. You are motivated to learn or to understand better. You are driven by the need to please or at least not displease others. The energy becomes one of fear – the fear of failure, the fear of disapproval.
You say that creativity and the creative drive is good for the brain. The drive to create is there regardless of the outcomes – forget success or competition and look at the process. Measure the achievement in terms of the sense of satisfaction or the clean hollowness of a spent force. Is the post-creative daze like the post orgasmic peace? Do we ejaculate our creative force? Does this pleasure warrant the process, or does there have to be a product of our labours – a baby, or at least a zygote?