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!

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The Guest House

I was away on the weekend so didn’t get around to my usual blog posting. Some old friends invited me to the dedication of their baby daughter,  the most gorgeous thing ever. (Alice, if you’re reading this when you’re much, much older — if you still have that smile of yours, well… mankind lies at your feet!)

The poem The Guest House by the Persian poet and mystic, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī, was read by her dad at the church and it reminded me a little of “On Joy And Sorrow” by another Persian poet I like, Khalil Gibran. This got me thinking again on The Beauty Of Sadness, more so later that evening when I received sad news about the untimely death of an old schoolmate. Perhaps you too can find some meaning in their words…

THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Rumi

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

ON JOY AND SORROW

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your
laughter rises was oftentime filled with your tears…
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.

– Khalil Gibran

A poem – maybe a fragment, maybe the whole…

I couldn’t sleep last night. And then in one moment as I was hovering in “that place between sleep and awake, the place where you can still remember dreaming” some words began to take form. So I grabbed pen and notebook and here we are:

INSOMNIA

Is this the trick
Fate plays on the bored minds
and bodies,
tantalised by feelings of
newly revived sensations?
Minds,
confused by thoughts and
questions rebounding off each other
from sheer number?

I may leave it there or it may develop more…  As Derek Walcott once said, “If you know what you are going to write when you’re writing a poem, it’s going to be average.”

The Beauty Of Sadness

We live in a society obsessed with the concept of happiness. We’re constantly prodded with questions: Are you happy? Why not? Why don’t you do something to make yourself happy?

Happiness seems almost to have become a product. Our highly industrialised and celebrity culture has taken lifestyle branding to a level where many of us have internalised the images we see to the point of viewing our lives and experiences through a media filter. As one character in the movie The Joneses explains, “If people want you, they’ll want what you’ve got.” This mediated view of our lives then begins to define our concept of happiness.

The consequence of this is a disconnect.  The media-fuelled ideal of happiness leaves little room for exploring our other emotions and truly connecting with others and the world around us. Sadness and other “negative” emotions are perceived as unnatural and malignant. The melancholy are often treated as ‘abnormal’ and encouraged to do whatever it takes to stop them feeling that way. Sometimes this means using anti-depressant drugs or other substances to physically change their mood.

True, we all want to achieve our ideal of happiness. True, also, there are those with genuine emotional problems who need clinical help and even medication. But what about those people who embrace and experience the full spectrum of emotion? Do their life experiences — which may provide joy but also supply pain and suffering — make them better people? Do all our emotions not have equal validity? If so, why are we so down on being down?

Some years ago, I was lent a book called Swallowed by the Snake. It compared dealing with sadness to an old Indian story of a village that was being terrorised by an enormous snake that continued to carry off its inhabitants and eat them. A young man went into the jungle with just a knife and a bag of rice. He was swallowed by the snake but rather than fight it, he allowed himself to get accustomed to the darkness and confinement of the snake’s belly — and slowly cut off pieces of the snake from the inside until he had worked his way through and into the light.

What I gained from the story was that there is no real quick fix, no way to fight sadness. All we can do is work through it. Only then are we truly able to appreciate the beauty and treasures of those moments of happiness that came before and since. The French poet Louis Aragon expressed it thus:

Light is meaningful only in relation to darkness, and truth presupposes error. It is these mingled opposites which people our life, which make it pungent, intoxicating. We only exist in terms of this conflict, in the zone where black and white clash.

So it’s not merely the moments of sadness or happiness that define our lives: it’s the conflict and opposition that does so, and how we respond is what brings out our real character. Sadness, after all, is an unavoidable part of the human experience. We all taste it — relationships turn sour, possessions get stolen or lost, loved ones die. Loss is the inevitable consequence of attachment, so if we are unwilling to feel the extent of our emotions we build walls around ourselves. Subconsciously, we know that forming a new attachment could bring us future grief, so we avoid real connection.  Instead, we accumulate wealth and possessions or learn to be impressive in other ways to attract false friends, but it doesn’t address the problem.

Living consciously through sadness and finding its beauty gives us the courage to be open to the world and all its hidden dangers. It’s the fear of uncomfortable feelings that causes so much anxiety and depression. Embracing our emotions and learning not to resist them or judge them allows us to process the events of our lives.

This often gives us the opportunity to recognise our inner strength. Out of sadness we can be inspired to be better. Not that we should actively seek it out, of course, or revel in being morose. In fact, it’s understandable to recoil. But when the low moments of our lives do come, we could also grit our teeth, bear the trauma and say, “Yes, I will grieve. Life is unfair. Now let me figure out what I can do to ease the pain.” That may involve reaching out and connecting with others. As we do so, we encourage and fit into each other’s lives. Thus, in adversity, satisfaction can be found in relating to and serving one another, building relationships either temporary or lasting, and finding a useful role to perform. We dig the trenches together.

Some of the worst experiences of my life have always been made into fonder memories when I think back to those with whom I shared those moments. Maybe it’s the Shackleton phenomena (the British explorer stranded with his men on the South Pole) — even in seemingly hopeless scenarios, there can be beauty and heroism in a shared struggle.

The thing is, we’ve been taught to hide our sadness from others, and eventually we learn to hide it from ourselves. So we never learn the skill of simply experiencing it for what it is and letting it take its natural course — it pulls at us all our lives, driving us to try harder to achieve our media-driven ideals of happiness, when all the time the sadness is there, waiting for us, offering us an alternative path which allows us to go with the flow of our emotions, instead of resisting all the time.

If we follow that path, the inevitable discovery we make is that our emotions dissipate and integrate as we allow them to be. From that follows peace of mind, which is the real reward, the real happiness we crave.

Many of us mistake the absence of sadness, or the presence of excitement and external stimulation, for happiness. But the real thing is a much deeper thrill — that of being truly alive to this cruel but beautiful world.

There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness. –  Carl Jung