Miserere

The only Miserere Beckett has ever uttered is for those burdened with the compulsion to write, the only liberation he is interested in is from the oppression of language.

A. Alvarez, Beckett

Upon finishing (for the second time in a decade, i.e. since my BA dissertation) Alvarez’s little tome on Beckett, here a few (barely) summarising thoughts I seem to have somehow scribbled down while reading:

In Beckett’s world, what the mind seems to want is to immobilise (as much as possible) the body in a state of quiet despair, removing from the human duet the corporeal voice, so as to focus entirely on the mind’s voice, for whom there is no greater spur to keep talking than to hear itself speak.

Thus, with a defunct body finally retired from the attempt to make itself heard, one is locked inside purgatory with that which, unlike the body, will never die, not, at least, of its own accord: the endlessly, vigorously chattering mind. The mind who whips up the past again and again, adding to it only more and more frantic strokes, muddling and tangling its concerns.

The body’s quest, if it is allowed to have one, is easily vanquished, extinguished by its own fruitlessness.

The mind’s quest is indefatigable; because the mind does not lie outside itself, will not allow itself to believe itself bound to the corporeal, it is stuck and rewarded with permanence at the same time. Its quest is nothing but to simply keep going, keep talking, fulfilling itself as it formulates itself.

Who knows if this is true, but it seems that Beckett constantly renews an attempt at vanquishing this need (which is abstract, born from the psyche) by destroying the form, or the container (the form of the novel, for instance), reducing it to the bare necessities before crippling it further with more and more intense constraints, like those he imposes upon the bodies of his heroes, legless, kneeless, incapable of forward/upward movement, buried in bins and heaps of sand.

The need to go on does nothing but go on and on.

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After that hiatus

After a long period of not really writing, not immersing myself in writing, I become shy around it.

I’ve spent two months with other people’s writing, other people’s ideas, while making very little space for my own. And now my own writing feels like an alien gesture, something that would make me laugh if I walked in on myself doing it. So I tiptoe.

I’ve become afraid of doing the wrong thing. The act of writing, right now, is no longer carefree play, and my momentum or sense of purpose is so easily broken. Writing is external, a turning-inside-out of the mind’s parts, and because I am conditioned to assign greater authority to external assessments of me than into the way I feel about myself, I worry that the more I put out onto the page the more this material will collate into unflattering image of myself, increasing the chance of me messing up in a way I cannot ignore.

It is then that it becomes more important than ever to remind myself of the permission I have to mess up, to be sub-par, to throw out the idea of a standard in the first place. Returning from the pressure to achieve, dialling back to a state of play and permission to be playful, is hard work. What makes it hard is that it often doesn’t even feel like legitimate work. Alongside my return to the act of writing strolls an unwelcome sidekick: a deep and condescending voice telling me that the part of me that wants to play is the part that’s lazy, seeking an excuse not to have to make an effort. ‘I’m your critical spirit,’ says the voice, ‘and I am here to protect you from the part of you that’s naive.’

But that voice is not a writer, nor is it aware of the amount of good play does me, how kind and rewarding it feels to act without needing to be perfect, to do things without needing to achieve something, and how sad life would be without that feeling of ‘I don’t know what comes next, but I can’t wait to crawl in this direction and find out on the way.’

Quadrat 1 and 2 (Beckett)

Another old favourite, rediscovered this morning.

[“Description: Cloaked, cowled figures wander in patterns to rhythm instruments.” *as well as the rhythmic shuffling of their own feet*]

This piece, more pared down, dare I say, than most of Beckett’s other stage work, opens up [in my mind] an enormous amount of space for reflection on a) choreography b) rhythm c) geometry d) the progressive disappearance of those others we connect to [co-trot with] – and as they one by one walk off stage are we then condemned to persist in our patterns as if the others were still with us rubbing the stage floor with their feet?

[Then, I think about beehives, and about six corners instead of four.]

Be all that as it may. Aside from the existential, it is mainly choreography this piece has made me think about, and I’m someone rapidly made to feel at odds with the unspoken choreography of busy public spaces.

Fever.

I just finished a diary entry which basically amounts to how badly I wish I were a Coen Brother. I don’t really, of course, because I’d miss being in this girl body, with the mind I grew into, and I’d miss being an only child, being thirty, being , and and and.

Also, if I were to choose someone else to be, I couldn’t really choose. The whole point Continue reading

Twenty-Three

On Sleeplessness and Things that Help*

A writer friend of mine recently complained of an inability to fall asleep due to a restless mind, so I decided to compile a list of *a few things I have tried that have helped me. I have had insomnia on and off for a lot of my adult life, much of it related to stress as well as the consumption of caffeine, although it’s hard to say which of the two is the underlying issue; my bet is on stress, personally.

So here they are: feel free to pick and choose, but bear in mind that most of them are long-term commitments rather than quick fixes. Most of them are directed in particular towards people who sit a lot, stare at screens a lot, and worry a lot, aka writers.

  1. The first one is obvious: cut out caffeine.
    Doesn’t have to be forever, but an abstinence period of one to two weeks could help you determine how much of an effect it has on your sleep patterns, and also give your body time to readjust to life without stimulants. I know it’s rough [especially if, like my friend, you’re working on a novel and need all the cognitive resources you can get] but after a week you may start to notice changes in the quality of your sleep, as well as your ability to concentrate without coffee. If you can, give it a try.
    However, good news: there are other things you can do.
  2. Meditation.
    Yes, I know. But seriously, it works on many levels. There are several apps out there that will teach you a basic technique (mostly learning to focus on your breathing and letting any distracting thoughts run by without dragging you away from your focus) and allow you to track your progress, remind you to do it every day, etc. As with most things, building a routine is key. The thing it has done for my sleep is that I am becoming better at detaching myself from the strong pull of my thoughts, especially late at night, when obsessive thoughts crop up claiming we have unfinished business and that I need to hear them out. Hearing them out would take hours and hours, and turn into a cycle that would generate even more anxiety. What meditation does is teach to focus on something else, something that isn’t thought-based, so that you don’t feel so prey to your mind and the things it comes up with late at night. In turn, this allows you to fall asleep more easily, to allow the mind to shut itself off when the body is tired, and to go to bed without being afraid of the hours you might spend lying awake cogitating.
  3. Unrelated psycho rant (because what would I be without those).
    Speaking of the cogito: this may not apply to my friend, or to anyone else reading this, but another thing meditation brings with it is a kind of relaxing about what might be termed an ’emotional addiction’ to over-thinking. This is something I experience when I have had a day that didn’t feel particularly successful or productive, and I begin to not only compare my own achievements to others but also to feel like I am fighting against the clock, trying to make use of my time at all times. What this does at night is that I allow myself to over-think, allow my mind to churn, and tell myself that it’s a good thing, that it’s important, because my mind is doing all this work, be that work on a story I’m writing, or an essay, or working through possible ways of having a conversation I’m dreading, or simply arguing with someone else (or even myself) in my head. It all feels like work, and it also feels like it is somehow proof that I am smart, because I have this big brain that whats to keep going, keep producing these thoughts, rather than going to sleep. But the fact is: this isn’t an indication of intelligence, or of a productive mind, just of restlessness leading to exhaustion. In fact, the day after I’ve lain in bed ruminating, I usually feel something akin to a hangover.
  4. Preparing for bedtime.
    I know this can be hard to do if you’re already stressing about wasting time but hear me out: combined with meditation, this has had the biggest effect on my relationship with sleep. If you can give yourself a couple of hours before bedtime, that’s plenty. Let’s say your bedtime is at 11.30: ideally, you’d start getting ready by 9.30. By getting ready I mean a series of things, one of them being letting go of work and crossing over into relaxation mode. This can be surprisingly hard to do, especially if you’re a student or have work that is intellectually demanding or comes with a lot of responsibility. It can take a while to convince yourself that the best thing for yourself (and for your work) is to take a time out right now and rest – it almost seems easier to say to yourself that you just need to do more.
  5. Morning pages.
    This is a practice I’ve heard referred to by different names (a friend who works in herbalism called it ‘brain-draining’ – although, don’t worry, the effect is meant to be the opposite of draining. It is something like the writing version of meditation in that it requires some focus and dedication; it is also best done right after getting up if you want to feel its immediate effect on your day.
    In practice, it goes as follows: first thing in the morning (well, you’re allowed to pee and have a drink of water if it’s urgent) take a pen and three pages of A4 paper (I use bills, old bank statements, crappy first drafts of stories, or just an old notepad) and go to town: any thoughts in your head are fair game, just write it all down as it comes to you. If your experience is anything like mine, the first page will be full of statements like ‘I’m tired’ and ‘I don’t want to do this right now’ and ‘It’s cloudy and grey outside’ – but after all that is out of the way something starts to shift, and you become more deeply immersed in the practice: you begin to talk to the paper about connections you’re making, memories that are coming up, or you begin to analyse the possible causes behind any anxieties you’re feeling. For me, this tends to happen mid-second-page. The idea behind the three A4 pages is that you have the space to write past your own inner critic, or the side of you that likes to churn out platitudes (guilty). And then you stop after three pages, because afterwards you tend to become overly analytical or self-indulgent, I guess. Oh, and it’s important that you hand-write it. No typing, not even on a type-writer (you know who you are). For me, the whole process takes about 30min, but then I am a slow writer, handwriting included. Good news: after this, you can resume your daily activities without giving it another thought, and that’s precisely what it’s about: you get some of the stuff that may have accumulated in your sleeping mind out of the way, or some of the churning anxieties about the day to come, so that you can feel like you’ve acknowledged some of it (which, in some cases, is tantamount to dealing with it) without letting it sweep you away completely.
  6. Bedroom.
    Then, there are environmental things to bear in mind: what environment do you sleep in, is your bed comfortable, your room neither too hot nor too cold, yada yada. You know all of this already. Just don’t, you know, sleep in a boiling room, don’t sleep on a pillow made of rocks or dead cockroaches, don’t eat cheese before bed, make sure there isn’t any mould growing in the cracks in your walls. Basic things your parents probably told you anyway.
  7. Herbal remedies.
    Lastly, some of the herbal stuff: Chamomile, lots of it (great if you get stomach aches, too). Not too close to bedtime if you have an active bladder, but a cup or two throughout the evening won’t hurt. Same with slightly stronger stuff like Valerian root or Passionflower, ideally as a tea (because it’s warming and comforting and easy), or as a tincture if you know what you’re doing. With Valerian and Passionflower I usually only have them when I start getting ready for bed as they can make me drowsy.
    A lot of these may not help quieten a restless mind if you’re already wound up, but they will relax you physically, which can help, especially if you’ve had coffee or are buzzed from staring at a screen.
    There’s this supplement I used to take for a while that can help your body process caffeine (I think that’s the idea) – it has an amino acid called L-Theanine in it, as well as a generous helping of Lemon Balm (aka Melissa officinalis). I used to take it when I realised I was really crap at dealing with caffeine and needed some help not getting the jitters from it (I could’ve just stopped having coffee, but at the time that didn’t feel like an option). While the bottle lasted, it was super helpful. The supplement itself is really pricy, but if you ever felt like treating yourself to some fancy hippie sorcery, that would be a good one.
    That said, just having Lemon Balm as a tea would probably serve you just as well. Also: Lavender, especially as an essential oil. Spray that fucker all over your pillow if you like the smell. If not, there are lots of ‘sleepy teas’ that use lavender as one of their ingredients.
  8. Exercise:
    I kind of forgot one but I guess it goes without saying: exercise. Seriously, if you have an overactive mind, the best thing you can do for it is direct its focus away from itself for a while and making it aware of the body for a while. Plus, it will tire out you and leave you feeling less frustrated than if you sat in front of a screen all day. ALK would probably agree with me on this: the best thing for writers is to remember that they are embodied beings every once in a while.

 

I hope this helps anyone, but if nothing else I will have typed out a bunch of advice that I need to take as well, so… yeah. Sleep is good.

Fifteen

[I am currently working on a story that deals with the Body and its place within the Self, and in order not to lose myself in the process I keep a small notebook on the side (of course) in which to go over what is happening from the perspective of my characters, record thoughts or insights they may have.]

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Despite what some religions say, it seems inevitable that the Body outlives the Self -the I- over and over. 

When the body grows old, it remains itself no matter how many limbs it loses, and no matter how many bacteria inhabit its cavities, how much turnover occurs within the cells, the body aims to replicate what it already knows and is. By the time the body dies, the I has dried up countless times and been replaced with a more vital version of itself, plumper, more current – perhaps on a daily basis. We learn so much, so quickly. 

Among the constellation of things that we are, the body is possibly the most consistent, and this is perhaps why it upsets us so much that it cannot be impervious to the effects of living: if, despite its inconsistency, our body is the most consistent part we have, its inevitable mutations become terrifying reminders of the chaos we inhabit.

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