This is the fourth episode of the fourth series of Muselings. I talk about confession and read a collection of writing put together towards the end of my thirties.
Marked as explicit on Apple Podcasts because of swearing.
A transcript of this episode is below.
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I’ve been thinking about confession and about how, very often, when I hear someone making a confession, I’ll notice that, at least for part of the confession, the most difficult part, probably, they’ll slip into the second person. They might start by saying “I did this thing… which was wrong or shameful or embarrassing or which I’d like to apologise for” but then, even the best, the most apparently sincere confessors or apologisers, at some point, will start saying things like… “when he said that to me… you just snap, you know? You don’t really think about what you’re doing and then suddenly you’re there in front of all of these people and you make a really bad decision…” Or whatever it might be. I’m just making this up, obviously. And, I mean, I haven’t done a close analysis of this. It’s just something that’s struck me, listening to people. So it may be less common than I think it is. And perhaps there are rules to it that I haven’t been able to identify. But I feel very sure that it happens. In spoken confessions, I mean; off-the-cuff, unscripted, spoken confessions. And I have the impression that it’s a protective device. That, for more or less any of us, opening ourselves up to the possibility of ostracism – which, I think, is what we do whenever we really confess to something – is so painful that, in some way, psychically, we have to shift the responsibility away from ourselves and we have to co-opt the community. We can’t say ‘we’, as I’ve started doing here, because that’s too blatant. We can’t pretend at the moment that we’re making the confession that any and all of us might have done this thing, because I’m the one who has done this thing – that’s why I’m the one making this confession. But we can, I think, suggest that enough of us might have it in us to do this thing that it is, to that extent, a common experience that we can all understand. That second person, that ‘you’, which is, obviously, in English, a more informal equivalent of the generic ‘one’, and so just a slightly less obvious way of saying ‘any of us’, I think it normalises whatever it is that we’re confessing to. Saying, like in my invented example: “You don’t really think about what you’re doing and then suddenly you’re there in front of all these people and you make a really bad decision” is a way of saying: “What I did may not be right or good or admirable but it’s normal. And enough of us know that.” And I think that that’s what makes it possible, a lot of the time, at a very basic level, to make the confession.
I think that that’s what I’m doing with these pieces of writing that I’m putting out in this series of the podcast. But it’s the form that’s the psychic camouflage here. I use ‘I’ and I address ‘you’ but you, who are listening to this, you can’t know whether any of this is literally true. You, because you are sophisticated, know that this is constructed. The spareness, the shortness, the deliberateness of the writing – whether or not you think it’s any good – signals to you that it is constructed. I’m not telling you any of this as a friend over a cup of tea in my kitchen, I’m putting together some ideas and images to entertain you and to set you thinking.
Feel free to disagree with this, by the way. That should go without saying. This is just my understanding of what I’m doing. And, I mean, I suppose this whole series of Muselings is really just me trying to understand what it is that I’m doing, and why I’m doing it, and why I’m doing it like this.
You see, I think that this writing is confession, and that I’m writing about things that I’m ashamed of in a way that allows me to play at being both ‘I’ and ‘you’ in the writing – and that gives you the same permission as you read it or listen to it, incidentally. And then, extra protection, I haven’t made this writing very easy to find thus far. It’s all been online but I’ve forced you to ferret it out if you’re really that interested to read it (and if you know about it at all) so that I feel as though there might already be a kind of complicity between us when you experience it. So that it’s safe for me to put these things on paper – to confess to feelings, really, which is what I’m doing, I think. And then, having done all that, I can also come to it as an observer. I can stand where you’re standing and contemplate this writing, and nod my head, and purse my lips, and frown, and judge, and so on. And the psychic camouflage that this whole process affords me means that, although I still feel ashamed – and I’ve talked about that in previous episodes of the podcast – it’s bearable.
And, by doing any of this at all, in some small, difficult-to-verify way, I feel as though I might have succeeded in communicating and that I might, therefore, not be entirely alone. With these, my feelings.
It’s difficult for me to remember when all of these pieces were written, the pieces that you’re going to hear in this episode – and some of them almost certainly started off life as something that I scribbled on a piece of paper more than a decade ago – but most of them were written in the last couple of years and they were certainly all written in the form that you’ll hear them by the beginning of this year, 2018, which is when I grouped them together and called them Elements of Co-Dependency. I’ve recorded them specially for this podcast. So: in October 2018. And I haven’t done any editing of the text as I recorded them, which was hard. There are 13 pieces in this collection, all pretty short, and you’ll hear that my preoccupation with intimacy and relationships and whether or not I’m a good and likeable and loveable person has not gone away or indeed changed very much at all since I wrote any of the other things that you have might heard in the last couple of episodes of this podcast. Content note: death, suicide, love, relationships, fantasy, family.
All of these pieces have titles, by the way, but, somehow, I think it’s nicer to come to them without having those titles at the very front of your mind. So, in the written version, I’ve put the titles at the end. There’s a list of them. For the podcast, I’m going to give you all of the titles now so that you can forget them. I mean, I feel as though it works differently in audio, in that, having the titles here at the beginning means that you can make a note of how far through the episode we are right now and then you can jump back to remind yourself once you’ve heard all of the pieces, or you could jump back each time you listen to any one of them, depending on how you want to do it, and that way you won’t risk hearing something that you haven’t heard already, is what I was thinking. I’m not sure whether or not that really makes any sense. And then, of course, if you don’t want to know the titles at all, you can always hum to yourself for a moment or two now because they’re as follows: 1 is Too Big For Our Bodies, 2 is Fertile Dream Field, 3 is Shoe, 4 is Call Me Sometimes, 5 is Planting, 6 is Inside, 7 is Fruit Fly, 8 is Lesser Failures, 9 is Waiting, 10 is Entanglement, 11 is I Do Not Deserve You, 12 is A Tiny Rose Jewel, then there’s a gap and then, finally, 13 is Understand (A Fantasy).
You might need to go somewhere quiet to listen to this because quite a lot of it is at the edge of what might be considered audible. It’s also possible that some of it is on the wrong side of that boundary. For which, apologies. This is story time for those of you who like to be whispered to. And that’s partly because I think the pieces sound good like that and partly because, in general, I never like to make very much noise and I always feel awkward talking to myself at a decent volume when I think I might be overheard by my neighbours and so on. Just recording this, now, is excruciating.
Anyway. This is Elements of Co-Dependency. It’s just over 25 minutes long altogether. Please listen to it however you like.
Last week, after carrying some heavy shopping up to my flat, I noticed that the tip of the fourth finger of my left hand was numb. Not the whole tip, just the off-side edge; the edge nearest to my left-hand little finger. I gave it half an hour but it did not improve and I started to wonder if I would ever play the piano again.
Over the next few days, it seemed, little by little, to get better. The feeling returned in fits and jumps and, while I cannot say that it is entirely normal now, I can, at least, no longer prick it painlessly with a needle. It is as if teams of workers, inside my bloodstream, have been replacing the sections of damaged nerve with material of a very slightly inferior quality. This is the somatic body, of course, and, at the age of thirty-five, I suppose I should be getting used to it.
Still, I did some piano practice today and I was not aware of any great deterioration.
I have tried to share this experience with my friends but they have shown no interest. This seems to me unfair. It seems to me that we all of us congratulate ourselves on our own small victories. As was once said by one or other of us on the occasion of a heartbreak or the conquering of some vaguely destructive habit: Our feelings may be small, but our bodies are smaller.
We all of us deserve sympathy.
Here is something that you should know about me:
I am a fertile dream field. You only have to throw out the suggestion that we meet and I will grow that into a beast with roots to pierce my torso and branches to smother my senses. So we cannot be friends. When you try, later, gently, to suppress any part of the dream tree I have created, you cannot help, because you are clumsy, but rip the whole thing out, leaving gouges in my body that do not heal.
You do not realise, because you are insensitive, that what you think of as meaningless banter is a blizzard of seeds, each of which will take root and shoot and grow until my mental landscape is a forest of possible futures that feature me with you. And you, meanwhile, go home to your better life, and the thorns on my branches get caught on your coat, and you rip out the trees as you leave.
I cannot forgive you for that.
You thought I would be a fun puddle to splash through.
But there’s more than a foot of mud at the bottom of me.
So we struggled.
And I got your shoe.
(I will find you.)
If you had to choose somebody and you had one minute to ask them something and they had to tell you the truth – even if they didn’t know the answer, they would have to tell you because those are the rules – and you could ask them what are chickens made of or why is everybody so pissed off and they would have to tell you, who would you choose? I know it sounds stupid but it’s pretend so it’s allowed to be stupid. It’s like… you have a card and it gives you the right to one question and the other person has to answer it or else you can ask them to do something and they would have to do it. Because it says so on the card and everybody has their own card so they all know the rules. And it doesn’t matter where in the world you come from because everybody would know about it. The point is, who would you choose, if you had to choose? Would you choose someone really clever like Einstein or the Pope or would you choose your downstairs neighbour who always knows which day the bins are collected? You could ask them anything. Seriously. Anything at all. You could ask them what do I have to do to get rich or why can’t people make honey or why, if everybody else grew up, did I get left behind. Or you can ask them just to smile when they see you, or to jump in a circle, or to keep their cat indoors. And it’s important, because it only happens once, and then you have to give your card back, so you have to make it count. So who would you choose? If you had to choose, who would you choose?
If you asked me, I think I’d probably choose my sister, or one of my friends from school, or somebody I don’t see so much of any more.
And I’d ask them maybe to call me sometimes.
You find me planting a desecrated daffodil bulb in my small rooftop garden because it is the anniversary of the last time I had sex. There is now a decent bed of these corpses, rotting quietly where they are, never putting out so much as a pale, worm-like root to test the earth around them.
Last week, I met another of those skinny, sensitive boys who are too much like me, except that they have more sense and better manners. He smiled at me twice while we talked and I was suddenly aware of all the hair that blocks the drains of my desires.
When we said goodbye, I went to hug him and he flinched.
And he never texted me back.
I wear my imperfections on the inside.
Like my parents, and their parents.
If you get too close to us, there is a stench of dreams that have never been taken out and dreamed.
We are joints fresh from the deep freeze: loneliness comes off us like vapour and sadness drips unacknowledged from beneath our clothes. The floor is always sticky where we have been standing and the air around us curdles and cringes.
But we know, when we look up at a cloudless sky, that behind the blue lies a black that should be filled with golden light and is only peppered with dots. We note the vast emptiness of space and the unimaginable improbability of life and the ultimate purposelessness of human endeavour and it seems to us brave and beautiful that we can see things as they really are. We know that, one day, the last star will burn itself out.
We see other people struggle.
We wonder how they bear it.
We smile and smile and we never ask for help.
He seems to be enjoying himself on the other side of the room, so I’m over here flirting with you. Which isn’t fair on anybody. But, you see, I have nobody to write love letters to and they only grow mildew in my head.
And you have told me that you are a scientist, so maybe you can answer some of the questions that I have. Like: Do fruit flies come free with bananas? Because, whenever I have bananas in the house, I always seem to have those flies that live with the discarded skins and flurry out over the kitchen if I lift the bin lid. Also: I’ve heard that the brains of identical twins diverge in the womb, so, theoretically, could one of them end up with a larger penis?
There. You may not have been sure that I was flirting with you.
I am. I’m serious.
Not about tempting you back to my hotel room and taking your number in the morning. Just about forcing you to like me for half an hour now that the man to whom I’ve mortgaged my self-esteem is spending time with other people.
And listen. Oh, sorry, did I touch your knee? You really do have the most radiant smile. But what I wanted to say was: Tell me more about your research because I’m really into science and I want another opportunity to batter you with my charm.
If I could have one wish…
But there is no point in even asking.
You are so very, very nice. And I am a cloud of flies, filling your space because you were foolish enough to lift the lid.
Over there, rotting gently in his own slough of self-loathing, on the other side of the room, is the only reason I’m even here.
Some nights, I have a pain that throbs in my chest and it is fear and anger and hatred and grief and I think that, if I were to take it out and show it to someone, they would laugh at me. They would tell me that I was being childish. They would tell me that it was nothing to lose sleep over. They would tell me that there are people who deal with far worse every day. And I would have to agree. I would have to go back to bed with my pain and lie awake and hurt and wonder how all those other people have the strength to keep fighting.
Grown-ups, it seems, breathe through the pain and fulfil their commitments and don’t make a fuss and say nothing that cannot be met with a reciprocal tale of unthreatening misery.
“Oh dear,” we say. “What are we like?”
And then there’s my family. I come from a family that believes that, if we don’t see or say something, it cannot cause harm. We are wrong, of course, but it is a tenacious belief.
And, some days, lying in the bath at noon with the radio on, listening to a dramatization of a story by Edith Wharton or a situation comedy from the 1990s, I wonder what all this is useful for.
I would like to achieve something. The weeks slip out of my life surreptitiously and, as they do, I am aware that there are no great successes to point to as justification for my existence. There are only lesser failures. And even those are spaced ever further apart.
I am lucky and I know that.
On days like these, I give thanks that my skin does not let in the water.
You tell me that I have cartoon eyes.
You say they sparkle like someone in a manga.
But, if I stare, it is only because I am waiting for you to become attractive.
You do not seem to have come across my kind before.
You look at me with like in your eyes.
Later, when I find that my lungs won’t work by themselves, I am alone.
I lie awake as the freight trains clatter through the night outside my window
and I supervise every inhalation,
until the sun comes up
and my neighbour’s cat starts crying.
And I can smell the shit beneath my skin.
If you had managed to scratch me, it would have oozed out onto the sheets
and we would both have known who I am.
I am trying to save you from entanglement in my own emotional incoherence and you say: Do you ever think of anybody except yourself?
You say: Why do you never write of love? You only ever write of need.
You say: Love, in your account, never moves out from your body towards another body. You never describe any tenderness that you might be feeling for somebody else. You never give space to any of the things that other people might have a right to expect from you, in return for all of the things that you complain of not getting from them. There is no love in your writing. No trust. No tenderness, except towards yourself. According to your own version of events, you are a closed system. You make it so clear that you have no generosity in you. Why do you never write of nice things? Why do you never write of love? You write about the things that you do not know how to receive but you do not write about the things that you do not know how to give. You do not know how to love. You never breathe out. You are the type of person who holds their breath until somebody pays attention and then, when they do, you sulk at them until they go away, and then you tell them that you knew they never cared. There is no love in you. You are tiring. If people shy away from you, you do not have the right to be surprised.
You say: Some people, reading this, will think that it is all very noble and self-deprecating and they will like you for it.
There is a subset of us who do not know how to feel appropriately. We rip our hearts open for people who never asked to be sprayed with blood.
You, for example, only thought that I would be funny and smart and strange and interesting. You did not realise that I am also a raging fire of need that burns with a white flame to devour your eyes and your heart and the soft places of your soul and your body. You are already tiring of my attention, which takes where it should give, and which is an incessant hammering at your door to make you weep. I have no merit. I do not deserve you. It will get worse than this.
You cannot know what it is like to lie next to you while you sleep. I have my hand on your chest (your hand is on my hand) and I can feel the breath moving in your body; beneath the rising and falling of your ribs, I can feel the beat of your heart; and, later (you turn your head away and your hand slips off mine), I can see the blood jumping in your neck. But there is no sound. You sleep so silently. You are alive next to me and perhaps that is all that you are. You are alive and soft and silent. The room fills with the fear and the shame that I am pushing out of my body but you do not seem to know about it; and, as we move through the night and into the future at 390 km per second, I feel my skin being stripped from my frame; my muscles are torn from their ligaments and my bones, polished briefly to a blinding sheen, begin to vaporise while you lie there breathing, untouched by the passing of time; and my hand above your heart rises and falls in the silence.
I am an old man and still you lie there. And you do not feel what I feel.
I have never been sure that I know what love is but, if it is no more than an explosion of tenderness and fear followed by heart pain and self-loathing, then I have been in love.
And still you lie there, serene and silent, and you sleep.
I do not deserve you.
We are born, we fight, we have sex, we die. Sometimes we are born, we have sex, we fight, we die. Some of us do not even have sex.
What else is corporate life and poetry, what else is love, but the pretence that something else happens to us in between? Nothing happens to us in between. Perhaps, if we saw this too clearly, we would all of us do away with ourselves before even our cigarettes and the salt in our food had the chance to do it for us. Ignorance and uncertainty might be the only things that keep some of us alive. And sloth. And the hope of future sex.
I walk along the grey beach, where worms have pooed effigies of themselves onto the wet sand to demonstrate that they once existed, and I imagine walking into the sea as night falls. The sun sets behind me and, in front, away across the firth, a window catches the light: a tiny rose jewel against the blue vanishing shoreline. I could make for that. It is far enough that I would never know that I had not reached it.
(There is a gap here.)
The things that people do for each other, like getting up for breakfast… I don’t seem to have that gene. I’ve heard that, when you live with somebody, it is considered polite to put their wishes first from time to time. But this makes me angry. It does not surprise me that there are days on which you refuse to talk to me.
What does surprise me is that you do not leave.
Here is a conversation that we had very early on:
You said that you wanted to sleep with me.
I told you that you couldn’t. I said that, when we sleep, we all sleep alone.
You could have left me then.
And then, once, when we were walking through the City, we came across one of those unexpected green spaces. This one had been a graveyard; the stones were piled up around the edge. You wanted us to wait there for a while, sitting together on a bench, contemplating the sunshine. We argued about this and it was with very bad grace that, eventually, I agreed.
And still you stay.
Did you think that I was somebody else? And are you now too proud to accept that you were wrong?
At home, you do not seem to mind that my clothes pile up in the corner of our bedroom, and I don’t remember the last time I did the washing up unprompted.
Meanwhile, you do nothing but put on weight, like somebody who is content.
And… I mean… you look at me as if you have no idea that I am going to hurt you. I have the syringe in my pocket and you keep smiling at me as if you think I am just going to go on making you feel good. Was there nobody else who would take you in? Or are you waiting for me to die so that you can forget the dreams that have tied you to me?
Perhaps I should leave this around the house for you to find. We would argue about it, I expect. But then we would sit down to supper and you would turn on the television to see if there is anything that we both like to watch.
I don’t think I will ever understand.
Thank you for listening. This has been the 30th Museling. There’s just one more episode to go in this series of the podcast and you can find it wherever you found this episode, which might include on the podcast web page, which is muselings.uk. You can also find links to transcripts there. My name is Charles Adrian and I am on twitter as @charldrian.
This web page and its contents © Charles Adrian Gillott October 2020