Transition

Tomorrow I turn 40.

There… I’ve said it!

For months, it’s been there, creeping up on me, peeking out from behind the corners of my consciousness, shimmering silver from beneath the receding black, etching a bit deeper into the smile lines. On the one hand, I’ve been dreading it, thinking, “Oh shit, here we go with this interminable passage of time thing. Twenty-two years since I left school? Seriously?” And on the other hand, I’m thinking, “Wahey! Hold on for the ride!”

Now, as I sit here in the final quiet hours, contemplating that today is the last day of my 30s before I tumble headlong into a new decade, the transition just feels arbitrary. Indeed, part of me rebels against the societal expectation that I should be feeling or doing something BIG. Counting the passing of days as meticulously as we do is so uniquely human. Yet, like New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, I do sometimes wonder if birthdays were constructed to encourage people to consume. But equally, I know that if I don’t acknowledge this in a way that feels meaningful to me, I’ll regret it. Arbitrary or not, tomorrow I turn 40 and I need to process that fact in a way that makes sense to me, even as a flotilla of memories travel like logs down the river of my mind.

And so I write. I write because that is the way my soul makes sense of life. I write as I’ve always written – throughout my childhood in my little red school notebook, with poem titles like “Rover” and “The Flaming Immortelle”; throughout my angst-ridden teenage years when I was desperately trying to define myself by the externals of good looks and good grades; throughout my 20s – the thrilling journalism years – when I did it for love and a living even as the panic and anxieties of life grabbed me by the neck, before the diamonds inside the anxiety finally started to reveal themselves; throughout my 30s as I settled down in a new country, started a new career and a new way of life, loved deeply and lost bitterly… each time being turned inside out by the transition.

In my heart I carry all those people I’ve been before. I’m all those versions of myself, four decades of transition.

And speaking of transitions, as I turn 40 I can also feel myself shedding parts of my personality that are no longer serving me. For example, I was recently chatting with a friend about how people – ourselves included – often put up walls around themselves. I later mulled this over well into the night, and by morning I felt a palpable shift. The part of me that tries so hard to connect with people that aren’t open to connecting – work colleagues, acquaintances, neighbours or supermarket cashiers – fell away. I realised with total certainty that it’s not me. If someone isn’t open to connecting when I approach them with a genuine smile and real interest, it’s not because I’ve said something offensive or done anything wrong, it’s just walls. And just like that, I stopped caring so much about what others thought of me.

It was like stepping a little further into my true self, a little bit wiser, a little bit stronger and calmer than I’ve ever felt, a little bit closer to my calling in life, whatever that may be. It was like I suddenly recognised the freedom I had all along to choose how I “do” life.

Tomorrow I turn 40.

There is a pang of grief as I let go of a familiar number; a twinge of trepidation as I wonder what lies ahead. But mostly, surprisingly, I feel joy, gratitude and excitement. I have much to be thankful for. I’ve survived the challenges of my twenties and thirties and now know how to stay true to myself and what I hold dear. And that’s something worth celebrating as I continue to experience, to feel, this glorious thing called LIFE.

So farewell dear Thirties. Now bring on the next adventure!

Advertisements

All that remains…

I found out a little over a year ago that my late grandfather liked to write. It is a failing of myself that I had never thought to ask.

It came up in casual conversation with my great-aunt, whom I’d dropped by to visit over a busy Christmas schedule in the Caribbean. I love Aunt Helen, who helped me land my first job in journalism and who, despite her years, is still a formidable force to be reckoned with in the field. I was telling her about my job in IT and how I’d been keeping up my writing through my blog and with the occasional piece I write for various publications, including hers. I don’t even know if she knew about this blog; the Internet is not something too much in her frame of reference. Telling her about the IT, I almost fell asleep myself. But her face just lit up when I talked about writing.

“Oh, your grandfather always knew you were going to be a writer, just like your dad.” I woke up immediately. What? My grandfather died when I was 11; the last thing on my mind the last time I had seen him was what I would end up doing with my life. (In retrospect, the only thing on my mind when I was 11 was, “I hope my parents don’t find out how often I masturbate.”) How in the world did my grandfather ever imagine that this particular grandson, out of so many, would end up writing?

“Your grandfather used to love writing. He said it made him feel calm.” My grandfather was a politician, holding several cabinet positions during his career. The only writing I imagined him doing was writing speeches. But his sister was talking about what he wrote in his spare time. “He raised four children, so he didn’t have much time, but boy, whenever he had time, he loved it. He was very funny. He just never had time.” I was stunned. Did anyone else in the family know this? “No, he kept it rather quiet. It was just one of those things he loved to do, like gardening. It relaxed him.”

I asked her if she had anything in storage that he had written. “Oh, no, I don’t think that ever occurred to him. Honestly, I think he would have been a little embarrassed. I don’t even know if your father ever even knew.” She paused. She is getting on in age, and her hands shake. Her signature always looks like an ECG readout. “But he always knew you would do something like that. He saw it in you when you were very young. You’re just like him, you know.” She then asked me if I wanted any of the black-eyed peas on the table with my lunch. I declined. Black-eyed peas are vile.

************

One time, I came home from university abroad, somewhat depressed, for those vague, completely stupid reasons people get depressed in uni. It was a lovely day, and I was supposed to meet my father for lunch to watch some cricket, so I drove to his office.

Barry, a guy my father worked with for more than 20 years, saw me pull in and told me Dad was stuck in a meeting away from the office and wouldn’t be back for half an hour. We chatted a bit and then he told me I should just wait in Dad’s office until he returned.

The first thing I noticed there was a picture of me and my siblings, all flashing bright smiles. Then there was a picture of Mum, that photo I knew he loves so much, and next to that was, to my shock, my most recent article for the Guardian. It was surrounded by several others. In fact, my father, a former journalist himself, had almost covered his desk with his son’s newspaper clippings. I sat quiet for a moment, then grabbed my backpack and headed out to my car. I’d wait for Dad there. I didn’t want him to see me seeing all that at his desk. It would have been embarrassing for both of us.

************

A few months ago, I did a reading from my Dad’s newly-published poetry anthology. My brothers and sisters were all there with my parents. While I was up front reading, apparently some women in the back of the room were carrying on a conversation. (I can never hear this when I’m on stage; I’m too busy concentrating on not urinating on myself.) People talking during a reading is nothing unusual, or even bad; readings are, on the whole, pretty boring, and I’m sure what they were talking about was far more interesting than whatever I was blathering about up front.

But one of my younger sisters would have none of this. She stood up, walked to the back, crossed her arms and stared at the chatty Cathies. “AHEM! Excuse me, but my brother is reading from my Dad’s book right now, and you need to be quiet. So be quiet!” She stared at them for another 10 seconds or so, then turned back around and sat down next to my father.

From what I’m told, they were very quiet from then on.

************

I was talking with a friend recently about my writing, specifically, the minute details of my life and of my family’s life I have included in this blog. Then she brought up something that, once again, I’d never even considered: “You ever thought just how fascinated your grandchildren are going to be reading your blog? It’s going to be like a time capsule.”

Imagine that. Imagine being able to read about your grandfather’s life, and his times, from when he was in his mid-20s and 30s and 40s. His fears, his hopes, his dreams; by the time they read these, they will know the ending of the story in a way the author does not. They will have a tie to their roots, a little sliver of understanding of what has helped make them who they are.

This was never the intention, but, truth be told, that might be one of the greatest gifts this blog could ever give, if I can keep it going.

************

When you strip it all away, we are lonely and confused and, all told, rather pointless. Our constant bluster must be amusing to whomever created this universe; nothing we do is important. In 90 years we’re all going to be dead, and whatever we have created during our short time here will be forgotten. Everything I’ve ever written, anything I’ve ever done, will, eventually, be the dead sea scrolls, relics, strange curiosities easily dismissed.

At the end, all we really have is family. We have the people who know how we used to cry whenever we lost a big game, how we would get scared and crawl into bed with them after listening to jumbie (ghost) stories, how we never could pronounce the word “denominator” without stuttering over the third syllable. They’re the people, the only people, who are with you at the beginning, the middle and the end. They’re the only people who, honestly, really matter. Everything else just occupies the time, gives us something to do.

My family is the reason I’ve been able to do anything, and they will be my only legacy. That’s just fine with me. I couldn’t ask for any better way to go down in history.

Jamie Sherwood* is a pussy

*Not his real name, of course...

A friend was telling me the other day that her boyfriend, Jamie, sometimes cries around her.

This was rather stunning to me, and I told her so. Your boyfriend just cries? Like, when he’s upset? She was confused by my questions. I think her perception was that I was feeding her some sort of macho bullshit posturing, mocking him for being sensitive. She was partly right, of course; I did think he was kind of a pussy. (And still do.) But I was more befuddled than anything else. The guy just cries. Seriously?

I don’t cry. I just don’t. It’s not because I’m some tough guy, or because nothing affects me, or because I just lack the ducts. Crying is just not something I do, and I’m not even sure I would remember how if, God forbid, I actually had a reason to.

As a child, I used to cry all the time. If my sister was making too much noise, if my mum made me eat black eyed peas, if I was bowled for a duck, anything was grounds for loud, relentless wailing. My parents weren’t quite sure what to make of me. I seemed like a relatively well-adjusted child, albeit one who tended to attract too much attention to himself, but for some reason, I would cry over anything. My father was the most bothered by this; it’s hard to brag about your honour student son when you have to drag him screaming from the shopping centre because you wouldn’t buy him the toy he wanted.

And then, out of nowhere, I just stopped. I think it’s probably genetics. We’re not a family of criers. I could count the number of times I’ve seen my mother cry on one hand. I think part of that had to do with her job. When you’ve been a nurse, you’ve seen so much sadness or pain on a daily basis that you almost have to desensitise yourself to it just to stay sane. And my father? I’ve only seen him cry once, at his mother’s funeral. We were following the hearse to the graveyard, and, out of nowhere, he just exploded in a brief, violent spasm. It lasted about three seconds. I was too shocked to talk. He wiped his eyes immediately, collected himself, sneezed and mumbled something about “this dust irritating my bloody sinuses.” And we never spoke of that again. Which was, you know, just fine with me.

In the last 14 years, I have cried twice. The first was at my grandfather’s funeral, my father’s father, just a week before I left for London. I had actually stayed rather composed throughout, taking questions and comforting my mum, who actually seemed more distraught than my father did. I was doing fine until I walked up to the casket. The physical resemblance of my father to my grandfather is almost uncomfortable; Dad looked like a younger clone. And I guess I look like a younger version of my father. I stood there, and thought about my father lying there, and then me, and then my son if I ever had one, and I just lost it. My mother started crying too. But, then, like my father, I collected myself, embarrassed, and didn’t cry again for 10 years.

I’m proud to report that I never cried after I split with The American, the one I’d been certain was The One — no small feat, if I say so myself, because I was quite traumatised. After I dropped her off at Heathrow, for her flight back to New York, I headed back toward my home in Surrey on the M25. On the radio came Radiohead’s 1997 song “Exit Music (For a Film),” or, as my mate Richard calls it, “music to kill yourself to.” If there were going to be a time to break down, that would have been it. I was alone. Thom Yorke is screaming in agony. My life had just swerved sharply in an entirely unforeseen direction. But I didn’t. I just sighed and drove home and drank, for about nine months, actually.

It was at the end of that nine months that I cried for the final time. I was in the Caribbean, about to fly back to London, and some friends and I, quite sad I was leaving, decided to spend a beautiful Sunday late afternoon at the beach. Somebody — I could never remember who — produced a bottle of babash. I’d never tried this West Indian moonshine rum before, and it has quite a fearsome reputation, so I was a bit hesitant. It blew me away. A few sips later I was hugging everyone and telling them how much I loved them, saying things like, “We are the only two fuckers on the planet who understand, man.” We walked into the ocean, and laughed and danced and howled at the moon. Somebody lit a little fire, we all grabbed drinks and sat around in the sand. I was in the middle of a sentence about what life was like in London, and how I missed my friends in the Caribbean, when all of a sudden Stacy’s face went sullen.

“David? Oh, David, what’s wrong?” I told her nothing was wrong, I’m fine, I’m just trying to tell my story. “Oh God… I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do?” Stacy, what are you talking about? Jeez. “You’re crying. Why?” I had no idea what she was talking about. She took my hand and guided it to my face. It came away wet. And I suddenly realised there were tears streaming down my face, and that I appeared to be sobbing uncontrollably. I turned to Stacy. “Whoa,” I said. “I am crying. Crazy.”

I have not drunk babash since, and, um, I can’t say I’m in much of a hurry to again.

So why don’t I cry? I don’t know, actually. Maybe I am trying too hard to be a tough guy. Maybe I’ve become so shallow that nothing can affect me at anything more than the most peripheral level. Or maybe, just maybe… I don’t really have all that much to cry about.

These days, I think the only way you could get me to cry would be to kick me in the groin while peeling an onion under my nose. This confluence of circumstances happens so rarely, however, that I feel I should be safe for a while.

You pussies!

Parents rule!

My parents celebrated their 41st wedding anniversary just before Christmas. Now, obviously, that’s a figure that blows me away. 41 years. Ignoring that I haven’t been on earth that long, and ignoring that I’ve never even been married, just simply let that roll through your brain for a while. 41 years! My parents were married during Watergate, the Thatcher years, and during many more momentous times.. And yet when I see them together today, they’re the same. Mum’s making fun of Dad, he endures the good-natured ribbing with a shake of his head and a grin, and at times they’re just like a couple of kids so comfortable and enamoured with each other you feel like you stumbled across them on their honeymoon.

Now, you might think I’m going to be pithy in this column, a Pip-like Londoner full of cute little snide comments about my West Indian family, how they don’t get it, how they’re getting old and crotchety. But no. My parents are normal, sincere, hard-working, straightforward people who have set an example for me that often sends off internal alarms any time I feel I might be betraying it. In December 2010, I flew back to the Caribbean with my US-based sister to join the rest of our siblings to celebrate their 40th anniversary, and the whole trip served to remind me why I think my parents are so great.

Four examples that immediately come to mind, out of the thousands:

They recognize and enjoy that they have interesting, and sometimes weird, children. A couple years ago my mother was telling me about a conversation she had with someone. She was telling them about her son in London, and her daughter in America, and her other kids,  the paramedic, the teachers and journalists.  Her friend’s response was something along the lines of: “You have such interesting kids. You raised them well and they’re really living their lives.”

I could hear my mother positively beaming down the telephone line when she told me that story. She couldn’t have been more proud if her friend had told her we should run for President. My parents never blinked, not once, when I told them I wanted to be a journalist; they never panicked when I walked away from a steady job to help start up a new newspaper with no guarantee of success or income, and they never blanched (at least not openly) when I decided to move to London, following what must have seemed like a senseless flight of fancy. My parents have never really ever pressured me to do anything other than what I believed in, unless you count eating black eyed peas. Talking to many of my peers, pushed and pressured to become doctors and lawyers and accountants, I gather this is a rare, rare quality in parents. I’m not sure my father has yet worked out how to send a phone text message, but I often feel he has supported this mad dash of mine since before I even knew it was what I wanted.

They’re really just mother lions. As a kid growing up, I could always count on a clip behind the ear from a giant paw when I stepped out of line (which was often!), but if you really want to see my parents’ fangs and claws, just mess with one of their children!

The night before I left, we went out for dinner. A friend of mine showed up who, coincidentally, happened to know an ex-girlfriend with whom I’d not had a very amicable split. This fact was brought up to them, and they, simultaneously, squished their faces as if they’d just stepped in dog manure. “It’s a good thing I never saw her afterwards,” my mum said, “because I would have had a few choice words for her.” To this day, the mere mention of her name draws their ire, far more than it does mine. I don’t even think about it much anymore (really), but they never forgot how much that break-up gutted me, and they likely never will.

They never fail to tell me how much they care, but don’t embarrass me by actually saying it. I don’t think we are a hugely lovey-dovey, touchy-feely family, and I wouldn’t want us to be. I know my parents love me, and vice versa, so we don’t need to go on and on about it. They always pick the right times to show it.

On my surprise trip for their 40th anniversary, heavy snow in London had forced all the major airports to close. They were still closed a few days before my return to London (I was flying back before Christmas), and I was desperately hoping that I might get stuck out in the Caribbean for another week. I could tell my parents were secretly hoping the same and my mum looked quite crestfallen when we realised that flights had resumed just the day before I was due to leave. I was quite gutted myself.

My friends can’t believe they’re as old as they are … and they’re not even that old. My parents married young and they both still take care of themselves (and each other). Unlike me, my dad has all his hair and I probably have as many or even more grey ones than he does (I am SO thankful for L’Oreal MenExpert!) Dad still occasionally gets mistaken for an older brother and Mum has a face at least 10 years younger than she really is. My parents are not decrepit old people; it’s like they insist on remaining as young as possible, and by doing so, they keep me young too.

I am getting to the age now where some of my friends have lost their parents. It makes me so sad, just to think about it. They’ve done their best to fill that cavernous gap, and they haven’t done it the way I suspect I would – depressed months and years of aimless wandering. How? I can’t even begin to imagine. I would be so lost without both my parents in my life. I know that’s dopey, and certainly not very hip. But I love my parents, and simply the privilege of knowing them, let alone being able to call them my parents, is my boundless good fortune, and it’s one I will never take for granted.

Happy anniversary, guys. May you have 41 more. Please.