SIGNIFICANCE AND EMPTINESS
There’s a group of us, men and women, in black paramilitary uniforms, carrying guns, running along a road in the city at night. Someone gets shot at so we run into an old hotel. There’s no one in it. We run up a couple of flights then through a long corridor to a large room. We turn the lights off and take defensive positions around the room and back down the corridor. Near the end of the corridor, the lights from the foyer just about illuminate the semi-silhouetted figures against the wall, guns at the ready. A couple of spotters stand to the side of the large windows as they try to work out where the shot came from.
“Someone’s entering the building, I think it’s just a civilian,” one of them says.
I’m suspicious “I’ll go check them out,” I say.
I make my way to the lobby. A woman with a long beige heavy coat is walking up the stairs. She exudes grace, her hair is in a 1930’s style, she’s wearing a dark burgundy beret.
I point my pistol at her. “Excuse me,” I say.
“That’s not very polite,” She says
I lower my gun. She walks slowly back down the stairs toward me. As she gets closer she points a gun at me so I raise mine towards her. It happens in a moment.
“What do you want?” I ask.
“Why did you stop me?” She asks
I get the feeling she is going to shoot me. But I’m feeling very connected to her. We’re looking in each other’s eyes. Even so, I am still trying to squeeze the trigger of my pistol, in the dream, I have a hand and it’s shaking slightly with the strain. I’m wondering if the bullet will stop her firing her gun too. It’s imperative that I shoot first but I must do it without her realising what I’m attempting to do. No matter how hard I try I can’t squeeze it hard enough. I hear a gun go off in the distance, I wonder if it’s hers but we are still pointing our guns at each other.
* * *
2018 Universal Dream Studios
A voice over the Tannoy calls out “OK everyone, that’s a wrap”
The woman in the beret hands the gun to the man opposite her who takes a camera contraption from his forehead.
“When does your shift end?” He asks.
“I’ve got a few more hours left then I’m off, why, what are you thinking?” Says the woman
“Do you fancy coming out with me and Dave, we’re going swimming in the backdrop sea later.” He says
“Sure, I’ll see you there,” She says smiling.
The group of soldiers amble out from along the corridor, some are smoking, some are playing with their guns.
There’s a few oohs and ahhs coming from them as a figure comes out of one of the rooms. It’s a Queen Elizabeth II look-alike holding on to her crown and running to get downstairs. “Sorry everyone, it’s a busy day, night, whatever,” she says. She grabs a cigarette from one of the “soldiers”, takes a drag, then says “Thank you sweetheart” in an affected voice then slides down the banister rail of the curved stairway in a side-saddle position, waving as everyone jeers.
* * *
John didn’t want me to do Karate so when I came home I would put my karate uniform, called a Gi (pronounced like the word “key” but with G) in to the boot of mum’s car, which she would then wash for me, ready for my next session a few days later.
* * *
1979 Wilsons School
Mr. James was our art teacher. Art at Wilsons back then was not a priority subject. The woodwork and metalwork rooms were bigger than the art room and on top of that, it was positioned as far to the rear edge of the school building as possible. I don’t think Mr. James was too bothered though. He had a job, he did what he had to do and as long as he was left to his own devices there wasn’t a problem. At one point, I had pushed my luck too far with him so he took me into a side room and whilst giving me a pep talk which involved him wandering up and down the room whilst he whacked a cane against his hand. I didn’t pay much attention to his words, I just heard the thwack of the cane against his skin. As much as people disagree with corporal punishment, I have to say that moment did have an effect on me. It scared me and it did have an effect on my behaviour. Consequently, over the next few months, I started concentrating on drawing and in time he recognised I had a talent. So that one day he barked. “Smith! Come and see me at the end of the class”
* * *
Wilsons School Dinner Hall
I’ve gone back to the dinner ladies to ask for seconds. If there was food left over they were happy for it to be used up. Having spent so much time in hospitals and institutions I had a palette perfectly suited to school dinners so was often asking for seconds. They probably thought my mum didn’t feed me so were always obliging, plus of course, it was a compliment to their cooking.
On this occasion, though I decided to show one of the dinner ladies a poem I had just written. Instead of saying “What a load of crap”, which it was, she started showing the others there and saying how sad it was. “Oh, that’s beautiful Simon,” they said. Even now I can, shamefully, remember the start of that poem. It was a poem about looking for somebody to love me, someone to fill a hole inside me. I think it started “This poem is to somebody, but to nobody it seems, I write with all my heart this time to the person of my dreams”. It would take years for me to realise the significance of those words, maybe that’s why the dinner ladies reacted as they did. It was not a good poem but it struck at the heart of many peoples’ dilemma. When it comes to relationships, the elusive romantic illusion that we yearn for and what relationships are like in the real world is often very hard to come to terms with.
* * *
If mum was to hug me I would wince and move away. By 14 I was very much detached from home life. It was not a place of great connection, even if mum and John’s acts of kindness did exist they were largely unappreciated.
Life was beginning to take place outside the home, there were familial connections with others, such as Scott and his family, or my mum’s cousin Paul and his wife, Ann. There was also another couple who entertained me who were neighbours and were also called Ann and Paul. There was karate, there was Peter who shared an interest in tropical fish with me and other friends too. But for all of that, there was a feeling that something was missing. At the time, I thought it was because I didn’t have a girlfriend, but that was just a dream.
* * *
An Italian Café Eastbourne
I’m chatting to a friend over a coffee who I’ve bumped in the café. She’s waiting for her husband.
“I’m reading Nietzsche again,” she says.
“Why’s that?” I ask
“I don’t know, maybe it’s to make my mind work in a more focused way. I did my degree in Philosophy” she says
“Sometimes people read philosophy because they are trying to find answers to things,” I say
“Yes, that’s true” she nods.
“I don’t think philosophy or religion can fill you with meaning,” I say “Because feeling meaningful or buoyant is a feeling. If you don’t feel it then the question is “Why don’t you feel it now when you did previously?”. And that is probably something not related to philosophy or metaphysics.”
She’s looking at me and glazing over a bit. I am on a roll so carry on regardless.
“Yes, not only that,” she says with a look of “finally” on her face. “A lot of people do philosophy or psychology to try to solve their own problems as well, but they won’t find their answers there either,” she says.
“It’s funny,” I say, “I applied to do Psychology and Philosophy at Leicester University but went to art college instead. What I needed was psychological help which I got through therapy”
“Did it work?” she asks
I do a gesture of presenting myself as a perfect specimen.
Chapter 27 came about because of this accidental meeting of our minds.
* * *
Most of my friends and their parents were sympathetic when I told them about the arguments between John and myself. Of course, they were only getting my version and they probably knew that too. So, when I told one of John’s close relatives that mum was secretly washing my karate suit, she decided that instead of going to mum first and maybe sorting out the issue in some way, they would go straight to John who was predictably very angry. Consequently, a big argument ensued, at the end of which mum persuaded John to give me a chance, especially as over the last month or so, my behaviour had improved, which she put down to going to karate lessons. Whilst the truth was out, and in some ways, things were resolved, the fracture between John and mum was even bigger than it had ever been.
Mum was angry because I had not been wise enough to keep my mouth shut. Still, she agreed that she was very surprised this relative had grassed her up too. From the outside, it’s easy to see that secrets and lies can often cause bigger problems in the long run. But sometimes it’s better to lie, especially if you’re a secret agent of course.
* * *
2018 Universal Dream Studios
As the woman, the soldier and David drank cocktails by the sea, her eyes caught David’s for a moment. They longed for each other. Her phone bleeped so she looked down at it.
“So did you hear what happened to June?” the man said.
“Hold on, I’ve got one coming up.” Both men looked down at their books.
As a man passed by with one of those camera devices strapped to his forehead, the woman looked at him, squinted her eyes very slightly then turned her head away from him. As he walked by he kept looking toward her then looked away too. Then the guy wearing the camera shouted, “It’s ok, he’s gone”. She waved a thank you at him and went to continue the conversation when a fleet of alien spacecraft flew over.
“Never a dull moment hey?” She said.
* * *
There are many different styles of karate. Normally a style comes about because a student of one style becomes very successful then, either because the teacher they followed dies or there’s a disagreement between them, they branch off. From that point, variations of the original techniques will occur over time so that eventually there are distinct differences. For instance, the master who created the style I had joined, Kyokushinkai, studied under one of the main proponents of karate, Gichin Funakoshi, who had brought it out to the public in Japan and later to the West too. In his version of Karate, Shotokan, the “ready” position of a fist is held close to the hip whereas, in Kyokushin, it’s held closer to the armpit. In Shotokan, as a step is taken forward the foot sweeps in an inwards arcing direction whereas in Kyokushinkai it moves as if it is on a railway line, straight from point a to point b. There are valid arguments for each of these variations. Like most ideologies, religions or political position, the main reason we choose them is rarely based on logic alone, but on time and place. It’s where we find ourselves at a particular moment in relation to their availability. If anything that is the biggest factor to most people’s choice in following one doctrine rather than another.
You might think advertising is there just to convince you to buy something you haven’t already got but does it not also reassure those that have already purchased the item, it serves to tell them they “made the right choice”? The same is true within the martial arts world, practitioners tend to believe whatever they are doing is the best, but the truth is far more complicated. The developer of Kyokushin Karate, Masutatsu Oyama, in which he held a 10th Dan, was also a 4th Dan in Shotokan Karate, a 7th Dan in Gōjū-ryū Karate, a 4th Dan in Judo and studied Taikiken (A Japanese version of Tai-Chi Chuan), which has its foundations in the more spiritual orientated “softer” schools of hand to hand combat systems. The point I wanted to make was that often, high-grade martial artists choose to study various methods of fighting rather than just one.
* * *
There were two symbols sewn to my karate suit. The first was the Kanji, a calligraphy, which was written vertically near my left chest area (no doubt placed near the heart on purpose). Unbeknown to me at the time it was shaped like a Samurai sword safely held in its scabbard. It wrote out the word Kyokushinkai in Chinese letters. Although it literally meant Ultimate (Kyoku), Truth (Shin), to associate or join (Kai). A better way to understand one of its meanings would be within the context of the Japanese Samurai code of moral principles, the Bushido, in which it can mean “one discovers one’s true character through struggle”. So, for instance, one way to interpret it could be, through ultimate tests, one finds the truth about one’s self or the process of understanding something. Most of us want to test ourselves to find out who we really are. Even Billy Bragg, who was more of a non-violent type of writer fighter, wrote: “a virtue untested is no virtue at all”.
The second symbol was the Kanku. This was sewn on the left sleeve halfway up the upper arm, which was lucky for me considering if it had been lower down I’d have had to grow my arms longer. Zen monks would put their hands together with an opening between their thumbs and their forefingers so that they made a circle that they could look through. They would hold this hand position up to the sky and meditate. This same position is replicated in one of the Kyokushinkai karate katas (a kata is a bit like a dance, or set of steps in which techniques can be practiced). The Kata is called Kanku-Dai which means sky gazing, from the characters Kan 観 (view) and Kū 空 (sky or void). There are lots of other meaning ascribed to the symbol such as the outer circle represents continuity or cycles of life as in Taoism, the smaller circle in the middle represents the universe, and the graphical representation of the hands represents strength where the wrists are and peaks where the fingers meet.
The reason I wanted to spend so much time on this was to show that within karate, a discipline that appears initially to be just about fighting there are other depths that most of us feel connected to too. After all, do we not all look to the stars through our limited field of vision, and wonder what it’s all about?
I knew the poetry I showed to the dinner ladies was somewhat lacking in, well, poetry, but in every move and turn of karate, there were lines and verses that resonated deep inside me.
* * *
At 14 I started writing poems, the first one I wrote was inspired by one I’d read in a newspaper about Elvis. Although I tend to cringe at most of the “poetry” I wrote during this time, and this one was no exception, nowadays I find it hard to understand what drove me to write them in the first place. Most obviously, they were probably cathartic and possibly I thought that if I was suffering then maybe the rest of the world could suffer too by having to be subjected to this rubbish. Mum would often say, “They’re very deep” which roughly translated as “What the fuck was that about”, but I would have still taken that as a compliment. As the months went by I wrote enough poems to fill a hard-backed exercise book, which one of the kids at school decided to draw a skull and crossbones on. Even that filled me with pride, so I left it on.
To help me carry my poetry and sketchbooks I acquired a holdall which resembled the official karate sports bags that people had at the karate club. I couldn’t afford one of them so in order to let the world know I did karate I wrote BKK British Kyokushinkai Karate in capital letters using Typex type correction fluid, which I have to say looked rather incompetently written, but to me, aged 14, it looked very professional. I’m sure that one day we’ll find a hormone that causes delusion, and when we do we’ll realise that teenagers are full of it.
A few months later one of the other boys at school photographed me doing some karate moves. Given I had only been practicing it for about 9 months and had just got off the first white belts on to blue belt I think we can safely say it was rather grandiose of me to be doing any kind of demonstration, but I was besotted by karate, it was my every waking moment and the guy taking photos was just practicing his photography skills. To be fair, he mainly wanted to photograph me breaking some tiles with my arm, which he did, and then he got me to jump off a bench and do a flying butterfly kick (both legs going out sideways). In the photo, I looked like a plane coming into land which was apt because a few weeks later I was brought down to the ground when I overheard a couple of the other karate guys at the club saying “Did you see Simon’s photos? He’ll be ok, as long as there’s a bench nearby?” But it was a good lesson to learn, in the adult world, pretense is not looked upon well, sadly that still didn’t stop me carrying my photo album of karate photos in my bag of tricks. A pleasure many an unsuspecting stranger would have forced upon them at any opportunity I’d get.
These days I have Facebook and my website and this to show off on, so that saves me carrying a bag.
* * *
When I look at teenagers I often see them a bit like cockatoos, lots of plumage and strutting. I had no confidence in how I looked so I probably thought I could be attractive in other ways. But the thing is I don’t think a lot of what I was doing at that point was about attracting girls, it may have been more about trying to gain some self-respect via the respect of adults. I knew that compared to other kids at school I wasn’t as academically capable, I also knew that in the world of karate I was nothing, but for my age I was quite good at drawing, and to my mum I had a talent for poetry (which I didn’t), but I could feel that being good at things might get me some of that respect I thought I needed.
Raynes Park Karate Club
Shihan Arneil 7th Dan (He’s now a Hanshi, a 10th Dan) used to teach kids on a Saturday morning. This day he took us out to the field.
“Take of your Gi tops,” he said
So, we all folded our tops as we had been taught and tied our belts around the rolled-up garment. He then took us through one of the katas.
“Listen,” he said, “You can’t make your gi make a noise, now can you? You can’t try to impress people with a trick. You are like parrots who have lost all their feathers. All they have is their song”
* * *
1987 Tavistock Mrs. H
Mrs. H: “So, you’re feeling very regretful?”
Me: “Yes, I feel awful. I know people say we shouldn’t regret anything”
Mrs. H: “Why shouldn’t we regret things, surely that’s a motivation to improve ourselves?”
* * *
Perhaps I was more attuned to wanting to feel significant because I could keenly feel the lack of expectations from others due to my disability. On the bus from school one day, I had passed two old ladies who I sat behind then overheard saying that it was such a waste of time sending me to a good school like Wilsons as I would never be able to do anything useful with that knowledge. No doubt such low expectations would have got to me, but after meeting my father many years later I could see it was in my DNA to want to feel significant in the world (disabled or not). It’s easy to see it as precociousness, and no doubt it was, but that energy or drive to do well in the world is both a cause for good and ill in many people, not just someone with a disability. Even at 14, I understood that others saw my disability as the main drive and influence in my life whereas I saw it as a part of who I was, but it certainly wasn’t the only influence involved.
* * *
At 14 I had become aware of the importance of significance in the adult world and was also conscious of an emptiness inside me. It’s not surprising that people call their partners “significant other”, especially in a world where the notion of a well-functioning partner is seen as the main route to happiness. As children, we hear “And they lived happily ever after” repeated on an almost nightly basis, but as most of us come to find, our relationships generally do not automatically bring happiness. In fact, for many, they stir up deeply uncomfortable feelings and often a painful experience. The expectations around relationships are so high that it is no wonder that many of them flounder. I often joke that the new version of the wedding vow “For better or worse” has become “For better or forget it”. But at 14 I was sure that being in a relationship would solve all my troubles and life would feel complete. In a way, I probably held on to that myth emotionally through my whole life, even if I was aware logically that it wasn’t true. Indeed, when I first started writing this I was desolated at the thought of losing Monica and later, Miss Lovelight, worrying that I might be alone for the rest of my life. That isn’t to say that companionship is not a large component of things that tend to help us feel happy, but to see any single component as a panacea is probably not realistic for most people.
* * *
I’m in a restaurant in Cardiff with Monica. The waiter is a short stout Italian man in his 60’s. He’s making me a Zabaglione.
“You know?” he says, “When I came to Britain over 40 years ago, I had no expectations and I have had a wonderful life”
He pours the zabaglione into two long-stemmed glass dishes.
“There” he smiles proudly
“But you know” he sighs “My children, they expect everything, and they are never happy. If they get something they don’t appreciate it, and if they don’t get something, wow, then we hear about it.”
I didn’t know whether to expect it to taste ok, but luckily the alcohol dealt with any disappointments I may have had.
* * *
2018 Universal Dream Studios
David looks at the woman, “Hey, Sylvia, do you ever wonder how big Universal Dream Studios are?“
Sylvia: “It’s all in the creator’s mind, it doesn’t have any dimensions in the sense you’re thinking about. If he wants a new planet or a galaxy, it’s there immediately.”
David: “Yes, I guess you’re right, but still he must be in a space, how big is that?”
Sylvia: “Who said he’s in a space?”
* * *
Peter who was the kid I’d gone to Butlins with, shared an interest in tropical fish with me. We had grown up together because our mums were friends but now in our teens, we would meet up independently of them. Sometimes we’d go to the tropical fish shop together. We’d then have to get back to our homes within a certain time so the water didn’t get too cold or the air wouldn’t run out in the sealed plastic bag. It must have bought out our maternal archetypes as we’d have to nurture our new pets, keeping them close to our chests all the way home.
On other occasions, we’d go swimming together and, for the life of me I can’t understand how it came about that we would travel all the way to Crystal Palace Sports Centre, especially when we had other pools much closer by. I think one of the things that drew us there was that in the train station there was a way of crawling past a panel and getting into a part of the building that was abandoned. It was if we had entered a dream world or a film set. We could climb down to where the tracks had been and play on the lines, only worrying about the possibility of a ghost train coming, which at that age was indeed a probability. We could look at the old signs and posters and feel the presence of those who had frequented this place. It was empty, but it was full of ghosts to us, it was truly magical.
* * *
Sutton Market, Sutton.
There was a big market at the bottom of the high street in Sutton. Sutton was the nearest large town to where I lived. Like most outside markets there were lots of stalls where a very wide selection of goods were sold. I would often end up talking to the guy who owned the leather goods stall, his name was Jack and he’d come all the way from Ascot to Sutton to sell his wares. I had gone to him originally to buy a belt with a big buckle, the kind Elvis wore in his later years. The one I chose had written on it, “The Right to Bear Arms”, which no doubt I thought was slightly “post-modern” given my disability. What was special, to me, about this stall holder was that he had seen Elvis perform at a couple of college concerts a few times before he’d got famous. “You know,” he said in his slightly Anglicised American accent, “Elvis wasn’t that special at that point, it took him a while to develop into what you know as Elvis, to us he was a lot like the other kids performing”.
One day I brought an oil painting to him I’d done of Elvis. It was still a bit wet which pissed him off when he got some on his clothes. However, he was so impressed he tried to sell it on his stall. It didn’t sell though, but when I’d come to check on its lack of progress, he would get me to mind the stall for him, a chore he would pay me for with items from the stall. In a way, it was my first job and I liked the feeling of being accepted and useful.
One day I told him I hated “Punks”, or something like that. He looked at me for a moment and very seriously said: “Hate is a strong word, you must always be very careful about using it for a group of people. It’s how the Nazis got people to agree to kill millions of innocent people. Don’t let me hear you say you hate people again, ok?” I was a bit taken aback and nodded. But his words have never left me. Nowadays I say “I have a bit of an issue with such and such” but we all know what I mean.
One cold day he got me to try selling a box of cheap plastic belts by calling out something like “Come and get your cheap belts here”. I only managed to sell two of them. He probably had hoped I might get some sympathy sales, but the belts were just so rubbish that even I didn’t stand a chance. Whilst I was doing that my mum’s sister-in-law walked past, stopped and said hello. I was proud to tell her I was working in the market. (Kind of).
It was a very cold day and after my brave attempts at selling rubbish, Jack gave me a sip of brandy. I didn’t like the taste but my whole back went hot. I’d never experienced such a sensation. It was yet another introduction into the secret world of adults.
When I got home, John started telling me how ashamed he was that I was working in the market, that I was mixing with the lowest of the low. “I better not find out you’re working there again otherwise I’ll cut your pocket money, do you understand?”.
“There’s nothing wrong with people who work on the market” mum said indignantly.
John stormed out the room.
“Don’t take any notice of him, he’s had a bad day at the bookies and he’s had a couple of drinks. If he cuts your pocket money, I’ll give you some” she whispered.
I did continue visiting the market and given it wasn’t technically a job I’d socialise a bit, help a little, get given some food and drinks. Slowly, over time I stopped going there as much. Then one day Mr. James the art teacher barked at me to see him later and it was then that he asked me if I would like to try Life Drawing classes at the local college.
“What, with real naked models?” I asked in shock
“Yes,” he said, obviously wondering if he was making a mistake.
“Yes, that would be great”
And so, a couple of weeks later I enrolled on to the Sutton College of Liberal Arts Life drawing Saturday morning classes and from then on I definitely didn’t have time to work at the market anymore.
* * *
Sutton College of Liberal Arts (SCOLA) Life Drawing Class
Right next door to Sutton Library, and joined by internal doors, was Sutton College of Liberal Arts. As I entered the building there was a reception area, then a staircase up to the first floor where the canteen was situated, and then on the next floor, there were the art rooms. When I walked into the art area a scruffy man with curly hair and a big smile of yellowed teeth asked what I was there for. I nervously said “life drawing” so he pointed me to a doorway at the end of a concertinaed dividing curtain. I went in. There were a few people in the room sitting on little wooden contraptions, which I’d come to know as donkeys, sorting out their sketch pads and pencils. The teacher came up to me smiling and gently asked if I was here to do life drawing. I said yes, and she asked me where I wanted to sit. “I prefer to sit a desk please”. So, she helped pull a table into place and put a chair in position. I got myself ready. The man in the room next door was being loud and funny but our room had a serious solemnness about it. I was obviously in the real art room.
There was a changing cubicle in the corner of the room from which a woman came out in a blue dressing gown. I started to feel a little nervous.
“Hello class,” the teacher said very calmly. “My name is Melody and I am going to be your teacher for this term. In a minute, I shall pose the model. I would like you to draw what you see and I shall come around and help those of you who wish to receive help.”
She sounded and looked a bit like a character from a Jane Austin novel. She had long brown hair tied back in a bun, her features were very delicate, everything about her seemed considered. She had a serenity about her, which was like something I had never come across before. In a way, she was everything I was not.
“Carol, if I could get you to lay down here please.” She said.
The model took off her dressing gown. My eyes passed over her, then something unexpected happened. I suddenly lost all interest in her as a sex object. There was no feeling of titillation, just a feeling of wanting to get on with the drawing.
I still have that drawing somewhere, it wasn’t very good but it showed promise and somewhere in that first session Melody and I made a good “student teacher” connection. I was not only struck by her demeanour but I could tell she had a lot to offer in terms of technical expertise. I was filled with respect for her and I think she had a real desire to help me develop.
As the model got up from her pose I could see some deep indentation in her chest where her fingernails had rested. They were a message from her to us that no matter how hard we looked, there was a whole universe unraveling within her, within the stillness portrayed before us.
* * *
1983 Chelsea Art College Foundation Life Drawing Class
I very rarely ever felt anything toward the models in my life drawing classes although that didn’t stop me trying to chat them up given any opportunity, but this time, in this old room though, with the autumn light hard upon the walls, I was immediately struck by something about the woman modeling for us.
I sat on the floor, my sketchbook on my lap, trying to capture whatever it was about her that was stirring in me. There wasn’t enough time, there never could be. After she went I felt a sense of loss. A few days later she was posing clothed for another of our classes. I wanted to ask her if she’d like to meet up, maybe for a coffee, I even wrote that on a small piece of paper, but, uncharacteristically of me, I knew it wouldn’t be the right thing to do, so I didn’t do or say anything about it.
A few weeks later she was in the canteen so I asked if I could join her. We got talking and as the conversation developed I realised that she was very political especially in terms of Women’s and anti-establishment issues. By the time we’d finished talking, I was almost petrified. One wrong word might have been my last. But still, the conversation had rolled naturally and so we arranged to meet up at her squat in Brixton for dinner one evening.
After that we saw each other a few times, just as friends and then one day she told me she’d met a man, who she felt was “the one”. By then I no longer had any aspirations that we would ever get together. In terms of politics and intellect, she was so much more advanced than I, so I had let go quite early on in our friendship.
A year or so later I was at a friend’s house and we were talking about life drawing when my friend’s uncle said “That’s strange, I’ve just read a poem about someone with short arms drawing a naked model. I’ve got it with me, do you want to read it?”
As soon as I set my eyes on the page I could see the model’s name on it. The poem spoke about the feelings she had had when we first met. How she had felt my desire, and felt the contrast of her beauty against my imperfections. At one point, she described my finger as “horrible” and because of that had, understandably, not wanted to show me the poem. When I called her to tell her I’d seen it I think she felt a little ashamed but of course, I was bowled over by having a poem written in a book of poetry about me. As you can see I’m easily bought off. But then with lines that spoke of my breath being on her face, and her flesh being stirred, who could blame me.
* * *
Within months of starting life drawing classes, I realised that when it came to Art I would be able to compete on an equal footing with others. In terms of karate, even if I had fantasies of having success in it, I understood I had limitations. There would always be the possibility of teaching it, but that would sit too neatly with the saying “There are those that do and those that teach”. That saying would weigh heavily on my mind as I got older. So much so that I was determined to work professionally in the subjects I taught in too. It wasn’t that I didn’t respect full-time teachers, but for me personally, I think I would have thought others would presume I couldn’t work because of my disability, so my only option was to teach. The idea of being measured with a different yardstick because of having a disability would be a big issue for me in my life. So much so, that in many sphere’s I would hide my disability because I would rather fail than have gained something because I was disabled. That isn’t to say that I wouldn’t come to recognise that in some ways society offers less opportunities because of having a disability and therefore getting help is appropriate at times. But generally speaking, I felt it would be better for me to be judged by the same terms as everyone else.
So, at 15 I could see that I was able to gain a bit of self-respect when it came to drawing and was happy to be deeply involved in practicing karate even though I’d never be any good. Those two directions became important throughout my life. One may be good at something and one may love doing something, even though one isn’t that proficient at it. Choosing which one to focus on become an interesting quandary. In my mid 20’s I would decide to focus on music, it’s something I had no formal knowledge of nor was I ever likely to be successful in, but I thought that the pleasure of doing it was so great that it made it worth concentrating on.
At thirteen I had lots of empty space around me, but by fifteen I was beginning to fill that space with things I could be good at or at least feel passionate about doing. I began to experience the pleasure of living.
In my thirties, I worked in substance abuse centers and could see how a lot of the clients had lives that solely revolved around drugs or drinking. Half the battle for them was to start living again to see the pleasure in life. The thing is though, even when you do that, you will still have to face emptiness and psychic pain at times. There is also a danger of going too far the other way, I mean by “living” life too much to the full, so much so that one doesn’t have time to feel the sadness, loneliness, and emptiness which we must all feel sometimes, even in the best of situations. At fifteen I didn’t turn to drink or drugs, however, either I’d feel depressed and not know how to cope with it or would focus on finding a girlfriend to solve all my problems or worse still get involved with girls I didn’t really want to be with, just so I could distract myself.
* * *
Tavistock Mrs. H 1986
Simon “I hate feeling depressed”
Mrs. H “Do you not think it’s important to feel sad at times? I mean depression and sadness are a bit different. There are lots of different versions of sadness and depression but trying to get away from it could be a bit like not facing something that must be faced if it is to be less dominating. Perhaps it’s a part of you crying out to be heard.”
Simon: “I see what you’re saying but I still don’t like feeling like no one cares, or feeling lonely.”
Mrs. H: “I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Let’s say someone keeps telling you they care for you. Do you think you might still feel those same doubts?”
Mrs. H [Laughing a little] “I think you know what I mean. These feelings are coming from you, from a part that feels like it is punctured, so no matter how much air is pumped in, after a while you will keep feeling deflated.”
Simon: “So, let’s say we find what’s punctured me, will working that out suddenly fix me?”
Mrs. H: “It’s more of a slow process, it’s not so much about intellectually recognising something and then it goes away, it’s not like in the movies. It’s partially about understanding yourself as well as experiencing the relationship with your therapist, me.”
Simon: “I don’t really understand, it’s not like a real relationship, I mean you’re paid to talk to me, you might care a little, but it’s not the unconditional love that I want. I can’t see how that could work”
Mrs. H: “Do you not think it’s interesting that you see me as someone who is like a stone, someone who is just here for the money? It must be hard to feel cared for if you can’t accept there’s any care there? Are you interested in trying to find out why you think and automatically feel like that?”
Simon: “Yes, I suppose so”
* * *
Mrs. H: “Have you ever heard that saying, it goes something like “The knife that carves out pain leaves a vessel for joy to run through”, I think there’s a lot of truth in that. In time, you may come to see pain as less of an enemy than you’re seeing it now.”
* * *
I just looked up that quote, it’s from Khalil Gibran’s chapter “On Joy and Sorrow” from his famous book “The Prophet”. If you can, it’s worth reading. I shall reproduce it below, but for copyright reasons, it might not be here at a later date.
“On Joy and Sorrow” from “The Prophet”
by Khalil Gibran
Then a woman said, “Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow”.
And he answered:
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the self-same well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.
Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the reassure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.”
You might be able to read more here:
* * *
I’m walking through a crowd of people on a beach. I catch a woman’s eye, she looks familiar. I feel an overwhelming feeling of love and pain. I look towards her again but she’s looking away. I feel like she’s scared to look, if she does I know we will be in danger. I decide it’s best to look away and keep walking.
The phone rings and wakes me from the dream. It’s the garage wanting me to book a time for my car to be serviced.
I go back to sleep.
I’m on a bed with a woman. I feel like we love each other. I want to kiss her.
The phone rings and I’m woken again!
“Oh fuck it!” I say, “I might as well get up, I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
* * *