In praise of being eaten

3monkeyGlennI recall, during my initial psychotherapy training at the Whittington Hospital in North London, the day I had to choose a supervisor. My tutor listed several candidates. He read out their names, many of them sounding exotic to me. He gave us little detail unless a group member enquired further. One name, in particular, struck me …

‘What about her?’ I asked.

He gave me an impish smile, laughed and cautioned: ‘She’ll eat you for breakfast!’

Something inside me said: ‘That’s the one!’ I didn’t know why, except I knew I didn’t want someone who wasn’t able to eat me. I wanted a supervisor who’d take no prisoners; I didn’t want to be spared. I thought only giants eat people for breakfast and, if there are giants, I want one as a supervisor.

I arrived for my first supervision session and pressed the doorbell of a beautifully coloured glass entrance to a large Victorian house. Only then, waiting for an answer, did I think: ‘What if she’s an ogre?!’ The door opened and a tiny woman revealed herself. I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment; I thought, ‘She’s not a giant.’

‘Oh God, you’re so young!’ she said. It was no compliment. Wow! I was being eaten even before I’d entered her house. I was both breakfast and delivery man. Her greeting had taken me by surprise. I stood rooted to the doormat not knowing how to respond.

‘Come in.’ It sounded more like an instruction than an invitation. Her tone was short; I hoped it was just her accent. Inside her consulting room we sat opposite each other. I stroked the hair on my chin. Goatees were fashionable at the time and I’d hoped it’d make me look a little older. It hadn’t worked; she’d seen straight through me. Now my stroking felt more like self-soothing. I imagined she was sizing up both me and her appetite at the same time. My tutor had warned me.

The memory of a green lizard I’d once seen in a glass tank flashed before my mind’s eye. Next to the lizard lay two flesh-pink, blind baby mice huddled together on a tea-plate, their short breaths in unison anticipating their fate. At the time, this scene unsettled me. Now, however, the image is empty of drama and emotional charge; with the clarity of calmness I see only two mice, a lizard and its lunch.

‘Did you notice you scanned me at the door?’ Her question woke me from my daydream, bringing me abruptly back into the room. I was more curious about the softness of her voice than her question. Then it struck me that I didn’t understand the question.

‘No,’ I replied.

‘You very quickly looked me up and down; you were scanning me. It’s good, it’s a good skill for a psychotherapist.’

Something lifted from my chest; with this she was saying: ‘I will work with you.’ I let out a deep breath as this began to sink in. At the time I couldn’t have predicted this would be the start of a long and rewarding collaboration.

I later discovered that supervisees can be eaten more than once. Perhaps the most memorable occasion came in our second year. I’d inadvertently caused something of a dilemma in an organisation where I was working, and one that my supervisor had ties with. We’d talked it through, I felt relieved; my supervisor would support me. At the end of the session, as I stepped outside she said, ‘I hate you, goodbye.’ With that the door closed and I stood glued to the doormat unable to leave or re-enter. Wow, what congruence! It turns out that two of my most valuable supervision experiences took place while standing on a doormat.

I imagined I was a cat that’d been put out for leaving an unwanted gift on the carpet. I told myself: ‘It’ll be okay, it is okay’; no one gets rid of a cat when it leaves you an unwelcome present, do they? I knew my supervisor well enough to know she’d meant what she’d said, and at the same time something in me was able to trust.

Walking to the underground I began to conceptualise her intervention. The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott would say that for fifty minutes you love your client and at the end of the session you hate them by showing them the door. I was experiencing object constancy with a powerful benevolent other. Hate needn’t kill off a relationship. With this insight I could tell something important inside me was knitting together.

I learned three invaluable lessons: first, being eaten by a giant can make you bigger not smaller; second, to become a giant you must dine with giants; and third, afterwards you have to shit it all out.

Glenn cautions …

Not all those who would eat you are benevolent. You can tell a giant from someone who thinks they’re a giant; they’ve not learned the third lesson, hence the odour of much that comes out of their mouth.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

Don’t do it, Mr Collingwood …

Portrait_002I think I first noticed the man because he looked uncannily like a school teacher I’d had a positive relationship with. It didn’t seem to matter how many times I went to the supermarket, the man was always there. I’d say inside my head, ‘Good morning “Mr Collingwood”’ in that distinct rhythm we are all taught to address teachers by as school children.

Sometimes I’d meet ‘Mr Collingwood’ in one of the aisles; on other visits I’d see him, almost hunkered down, in the far corner of the car park, close to the railway line – my favourite parking spot.

When someone looks familiar, I think we signal something to the other person – perhaps we radiate a connection in the unconscious that they respond to.

Over the warm summer months it felt comfortable striking up a non-verbal, nodding acquaintance. When you see someone often enough on a regular route or passage, you begin to notice things about them. What I observed about ‘Mr Collingwood’ was that despite his slender frame he was always eating, but there were only ever two things he consumed: a large baguette pulled straight from the bread rack, cellophane wrapper rolled a little way down as he consumed it; or a family size bag of salt and vinegar chipsticks. Both the baguette and the chipsticks were eaten in a very similar manner – thumbs to the back of the packaging and fingers to the front. He would tilt his head down to a fixed position and then the packaging was raised close to his mouth as the food from within was consumed. It took a few observations before I was certain, but it became clear that bread was eaten inside the supermarket yet the salt and vinegar snacks were only ever eaten outside. In fact, the more often I saw him with the savoury snacks, the more I noticed he ate the sticks in a manner reminiscent of a horse with a nose bag, munching up the hay.

I’m not that certain how many times I actually saw ‘Mr Collingwood’ and I’m not sure how quickly I realised he had mental health issues, but we were exchanging a few words by the time the clocks went back in autumn. We never went beyond an ‘It’s warm today …’, ‘For the time of year …’ type of conversation, but it seemed appropriate, safe, friendly – respectful, even.

Shortly before Christmas, on my journey to the supermarket I was overtaken by a police car. At the roundabout, which is the entry road to the store, I could see, close to my parking spot, another police car. The traffic quickly began to back up at the railway crossing and it was clear that a late middle age man, stripped to the waist, was in major distress in the middle of the track. Those with mental health problems need to be treated sensitively and it is incumbent upon police officers to respond in such a manner. Being the first at a scene like this you’d hope the officers had extensive training in how to calm a situation and deal with the distress. But how can this really be expected of a service that was created for very different purposes? I took a look at the officers. They were young and I’m certain trying to do their best, but watching the scene from the car park it was apparent that every time a uniformed figure approached and shouted out to the half-naked figure, a wave of distress racked the figure’s body. He repeatedly raised his hand then smashed his fists on his body like a man boxing an internal shadow he was trying to rid himself of. I looked around for ‘Mr Collingwood’ and my heart leapt; for a moment I didn’t catch my breath and then a tear pricked my eye. It was poor ‘Mr Collingwood’ who was on the railway line. I pushed myself forward for a few metres and talked to the female officer closest to me.

‘I wonder if I can help?’ I asked.

‘No sir, we have to keep you back this side of the line,’ she replied.

‘I know this man a little; I’m a psychotherapist.’

What the hell am I saying!! This isn’t my line of work anymore. I’ve not worked in a hospital department since 2004.

‘We have called for an appropriate medical professional sir, if you could just stand back please.’ And I watched as three other officers tried to herd ‘Mr Collingwood’ like a farm animal.

I’ve not seen him since at the supermarket; I miss our nods and acknowledgements of the simple things we’ve noticed of the day. I hope you are well ‘Mr Collingwood’, I hope you are well.

 

Duncan suggests …

… talking to people in the world as we pass through. Little acknowledgements or kind words can be important connections for us all.

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

Religion of the undead

3monkeyGlenn‘You said your last therapist thought you’re mad.’

‘Yes,’ Daniel replies.

‘How so?’ I ask.

With a heaviness Daniel replies, ‘Umm … You know what zombies are?’ His eyes are intense.

‘I’ve seen zombie films,’ I retort. I don’t think this is the answer Daniel wants.

Daniel continues, ‘Zombies are brain dead; they feed on the living.’ He scans my reaction, then continues.

‘Have you seen Romero’s Dawn of the Dead? These people barricade themselves into a shopping mall, then zombies break in and wander around the shops; the survivors have to pretend to be zombies – it’s the way people have become.’

‘It’s a comment on consumerism?’ I ask.

Daniel looks disappointed. ‘It’s a metaphor, not a comment.’

‘So you’re saying some people are zombies?’ I clarify.

‘You read Nietzsche right?’ Daniel asks. I nod. ‘People’ve become Nietzsche’s last man; they seek only comfort, they don’t think, they dislike and fear the “other” unless they’re subjugated, kept behind a big wall, or Brexited away … This is what zombie films are about. No one’s immune. Christians think they are; they don’t realise they’re already zombies. Christianity is the religion of the undead.’

‘Say more,’ I urge.

Daniel sits forward. ‘Nietzsche understood Christianity wouldn’t die with the death of God; instead it would flourish, because, at it’s heart, it’s nihilistic. It can’t affirm life because it devalues it; it values only a belief in an afterlife. And so it breeds ressentiment towards life.’

Daniel pauses for a moment, then continues, ‘You’re thinking “He’s mad” aren’t you?’

‘Yes I am. You are mad. You’ve come in here and said “People are zombies”, “Christians are the undead” just as Nietzsche’s mad man entered the market declaring “God is dead”. You’re doing just the same. By your own point of reference, and Nietzsche’s, you’re mad.’

‘Huh. Yes I suppose so. But do you think I’m mad?’ Daniel insists.

‘Not in the clinical DSM 5 sense, but yes, in an informal sense, the way most of us are.’

‘So you agree that Christians are zombies, nihilists?’ Daniel asks.

‘Well I don’t know about zombies … but yes they’re nihilistic. Though I wouldn’t include Jesus in that. I agree with Nietzsche about Jesus, he described him as “the first and last Christian”. So Jesus is the exception that proves the rule.’

‘Hmm interesting,’ Daniel ponders, ‘Do you think Jesus was mad?’

‘How could he not be? Though I think he knew he was. Knowing how mad you are makes all the difference,’ I reply.

‘Do you think Richard Dawkins is mad?’ Daniel asks.

‘You tell me.’

‘Yes in a sense; when he attacks religious people it’s clear he doesn’t see how much in common he has with them; he wants to convert them. He picked up on this idea about memes, and said that religion was a sort of meme or virus. That’s similar to what I’m saying, though people seem to think Dawkins is brilliant. He thinks he has the cure; he doesn’t see how he’s just spreading a different strain of the same virus.’

‘You’re quite invested in what people think of you,’ I reply.

‘Aren’t you?’ Asks Daniel.

‘Yes to some degree; mostly not. Being yourself inevitably invites criticism. It’s a small price.’

‘You’re not mad,’ Daniel concludes, ‘You’re a bit odd, but you’re not mad.’

‘I am mad.’ I point at the space on the sofa next to where Daniel is sitting. ‘Three months ago I worked with a talking chimpanzee. She sat right there.’

Daniel looks at me as though seeing me for the first time.

‘Look, there on the rug, that’s a squashed mango stain – she dropped fruit peel and skins on the floor and stepped on them when she got up.’ Looking at Daniel I add, ‘If that’s true – and it is true – tell me I’m not mad.’

Daniel blinks twice, blurts out a high-pitch laugh and says, ‘You’re nuts! … So tell me about the chimpanzee, did you cure her?’

Daniel is humouring me; he doesn’t believe what I’ve said.

‘No, I don’t cure chimpanzees, or humans. Both are terminal conditions; there’s no cure. She did appreciate the fruit though … And our work together isn’t finished.’

Daniel looks up at the wall. ‘You should have one of those signs – you know: “You don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps”.’

‘I might do that.’ I smile, ‘You’re a sensitive man Daniel. You’re creative and you care deeply. I see it’s a struggle to express that. We can explore anything you want. How does that sound?’

Daniel solemnly nods his approval.

‘But if you eat fruit in this room you can use the bin like a normal person.’

Glenn recommends …

… reading his earlier blog Chimpanzee on the couch; it might help you make more sense of this one.

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

Dachaigh is where the heart is

Portrait_002I remember sitting down in my analyst’s office for my first session and thinking ‘I’ve come home’. It was during a time when I was actually very homesick.

It wasn’t just that much of my family and many friends still lived in my birth city; it was that I craved the geography, architecture and personality of my home. I missed the friendly nature of the people I grew up around, and I longed to hear the burred Rs of the accent that had once been my own and the dialect and colloquial phrases I had once used, but that, now, no one around me understood.

Of course the home of the therapy chair was an internal home. My therapist was rather reminiscent of my beloved and by then long dead uncle, George, and in that positive transference, therapy home was giving good soil to grow from.

Therapy home was the space of the Jungian analysis.

As young as 4 years old I had many philosophical and existential questions to ask: ‘If there is a God who lives in heaven above [the spiritual home for Christians, the then-predominant religious dogma of mid-century Britain], then why, since we’ve just started landing on the moon, don’t we go through heaven on the way?’ I’d lie awake at night trying to fathom out what was at the end of infinity (an experience where there is no home – as there is no destination to arrive at – at the end of space or time), and then, after my pet dog died within months of George, I worried about death and worried even more about why I couldn’t remember what it was like before I was born (before there was a place to exist and experience as home).

I was in my early 30s when I finally sat down to begin my process of individuation in Jungian analysis. I knew that the adult versions of my early childhood questions would have to find answers. In the space (my therapy home) the existential questions needed exploration as urgently as the troubles of belonging.

Now, more than two decades later, I sit with people on the same journey for home. The search presents itself in myriad forms. The presenting condition defines the terms of the search but the location of the internal and external home are at the definition of the voyager. I have often felt the greatest of satisfactions for the people I’ve worked with in helping them on the quest across the psychological and physical seas to their home.

My journey home that began in therapy more than twenty years ago was a great struggle to reach at the internal level, but I did, after many years of twice-weekly searching, find a place of comfort, knowledge and some sense of peace. However, the process of needing to return to the physical home has remained, calling stubbornly and loudly across those decades. I wrote about my dream diary in an earlier blog post (‘You know the answer’) and so I’m aware that my deeper self, my unconscious, has been demanding this move for the last few years.

Attached to my window is a very special piece of glass. I’m looking at it as I write. The sun shining through it casts a sublime cobalt blue shadow on the top of my desk. It is the cobalt blue glass that Bristol is famous for. Etched into the glass is the word ‘dachaigh’ – Scots Gaelic for ‘home’. And so the glass tile is my personal symbol for home, since combining dachaigh from the Scots half of my family with the blue glass of my birthplace brings those parts of me together.

So now my house is sold and the people I work with in my practice have been informed of my impending move. Many of those who work with me in my physical consulting room will exchange that home for one in the virtual world of internet-based therapy.

And with regards to this site, a new home for old friendships (with the other two men of the blog, my dear colleagues and friends Jim and Glenn) I realise some of the ways in which the 21st century alters our experience of home. The main home for the friendship of three men with a blog will convert to these posts – our shared place for reading, writing, conversing and sharing. This blog connects me to that home.

This site is formed from part of my journey, as it so deeply reminds me that home is a community … dachaigh really is where the heart is.

 Duncan suggests …

… listening to In Praise of home by Rura

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

The verificationist

3monkeyGlenn‘How can you know anything?’ Peter asks.

‘How’d you know when you know?’ I reply.

‘Good point. But then you just go round in circles.’

‘Ripples on a pond,’ I suggest.

‘That metaphor doesn’t work; ripples emanate from the centre.’

‘Could that be knowing? Finding the centre, the origin?’

‘Maybe … That’d be convenient; you’re free associating, right? Isn’t that what you therapists call the Royal Road to knowing or whatever? Anyway aren’t you suppose to know about knowing?’Peter replies in an accusing tone.

‘I’m not that interested in knowing,’ I reply.

‘That’s convenient too.’ Peter smiles.

‘How so?’

‘Well you therapists have “privileged” knowledge. It’s hardly democratic. Sure we can all free associate, but analysts have just that bit more knowledge and insight than us humble lay people.’

‘So it wouldn’t feel equal if we free associated together?’ I ask.

‘No it wouldn’t … But go on – I’m game.’ Peter readies himself.

‘Sex,’ I say.

‘Wow, aren’t you meant to start with “window” or “book” something innocuous? Build up to sex. Start with “mother” perhaps,’ Peter exclaims.

I smile.

‘Ah come on, you’re not going link “mother” with “sex”? That’s too easy! Let’s start again,’ Peter appeals to unknown rules.

‘Peter, you made the link! “Sex” was the first word that came to mind,’ I reply.

‘Hang on … this is meant to be my analysis, not yours. Anyway, I thought I was meant to be the one obsessed with sex! Find your own therapist!’ Peter starts laughing.

When he stops I reply, ‘You said it wasn’t democratic. So I joined in.’

‘Yes, but you’re meant to interpret my words,’ Peter exclaims.

‘I thought we were free associating together,’ I reply.

‘Well what’s the point, if there’s no interpretation?’ Peter appeals to my reason.

‘To be free enough to say whatever comes,’ I offer.

‘Yes, but that’s not the point. It’s not why I pay you; you’re meant to interpret what I say.’

‘Well “sex” was an interpretation. Whatever was going on in that moment the word that came was “sex”. I can interpret an interpretation and then we’re back to circles again.’

‘Okay.’ Peter sounds puzzled.

‘So you brought up payment and why you originally came me to see me,’ I recap.

‘I don’t want to go back there. I want to stay with this, with free association,’ Peter insists.

‘Yeah we’ll stay with free association, but I think your relationship to women is related.’

‘Ah I see, you said “sex” because you want to get back to talking about my infidelity!’ Peter points at me.

‘Maybe. I don’t know. It’s a reasonable interpretation, although you’re assuming my motivation. You assume it’s why I said “sex”,’ I respond.

‘But isn’t that how everyone thinks? Anyway, how does that relate to me and other women?’

‘Okay. So if you see a woman you’re attracted to, you want to have sex with her. You interpret your desire to mean: “I want sex”; on one level that makes sense, of course.’

‘So?’ Peter asks.

‘You see arousal as a “thing-in-itself” rather than what it is; an interpretation.’

‘I assure you when I have an erection it’s definitely an erection,’ Peter smiles.

‘Of course. And it is an interpretation,’ I say.

‘Wait no! My erection isn’t an interpretation … It’s a projection! It’s definitely a projection, ha.’ I can’t resist smiling with Peter.

‘Am I making sense at all?’ I ask.

‘Uh yes … I’m not sure. What’re you actually saying?’

‘Curiosity is like an erection: it needs maintaining. If you’re curious about desire, women, your wife … your marriage, you’ll open up other possibilities. Unlike having an erection you’re responsible for your curiosity. It seems to me when you have an erection you don’t maintain curiosity. So if you see your arousal as causal you blame yourself, and if you see attractive women as the cause you blame them. More circles.’

‘So how do I escape?’

‘Maybe you can’t, at least not on that level,’ I reply.

‘Well that’s not much help!’

‘See it for what it is: a dream.’

‘That doesn’t help either. Wait, what does that even mean?’ Peter asks.

‘Dreams are strange. You’ve lost the strangeness of your everyday life; you can only see “things”. If you become curious about desire, arousal, about women and particularly yourself, you’ll gradually stop objectifying them. You need to stop objectifying everything and everyone, including yourself. Remember the mind is always interpreting; what you see is an interpretation … You need to arouse your curiosity.’

‘Okay.’ Peter nods slowly.

‘For example, if you ask “What’s the point of this conversation?” you objectify it. Instead, think of it as a dream; you then open up endless possibilities.’

Peter lays back and pretends to snore: ‘Zzz, zzz …’

I whisper, ‘Peter you’re dreaming of pretending to be asleep!’

Peter opens one eye, winks at me and we both start laughing.

 

Glenn recommends …

… ‘The Gay Science’ by Friedrich Nietzsche

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

The unspeakable

Portrait_002‘A Jew killed my baby.’

The words had rushed out and now lay like mustard gas in a trench, ready to choke either of us if we breathed. There was an undoubted toxic nature to what was said about the loss of a child but it felt equally toxic that the allegation, from nowhere, was that a Jew had committed the act.

Throughout my lifetime society has become increasingly uncertain about how it can deal with challenging words and phrases – perhaps even more than challenging situations.

Growing up in the centre of a major city, ethnic strife had been around me. I would even witness race riots and disturbance up close and personal. But my junior school was a safe, close community sort of school.

The first girl I remember kissing – I was 5 – was a Jehovah’s Witness; she mixed well with the Methodist children, Catholic children and Jewish children – although not everyone came to assembly and sang the hymns. Hashtag Morning has broken

‘I wrote a poem.’

I’m momentarily stunned by his voice breaking into my distant memories. In my teens, I had dated a Jewish girl for more than a year. My mind was away again with those thoughts … being at Jewish New Year; playing an extraordinary board game full of Jewish expressions I hardly understood. And in the time we dated, I don’t remember her ever mentioning that she received any anti-Semitic insults.

‘I wanted to read it to you. I want someone to hear it – out loud,’ he says. I’m motionless, perhaps frozen. Why am I so worried? Is it because it might be aimed negatively at a Jewish person? This young man is in pain; I need to listen to him.

Gently I motion that I am ready to hear him. ‘Okay,’ I say. I am listening, but I know I’m doing the equivalent of looking through my fingers at the scary film on the screen.

Within the bitch lies my beggar, the unseen, unheard one I love …’

And I do listen. And it is upsetting to hear the story of how this young man who, while having been unworldly, felt ready to make a choice because of the pregnancy his sperm had jointly created. He felt it right and responsible to take on the role of father. This young man was ready to stand by his partner, to make a relationship that was secure enough and loving enough for a family to be created. This young man was ready to take the step that many are never able to: to devote his energy, his action, for the good of a child, to love the son or daughter, to support and grow together with the mother. His poem drew me close to tears as he sobbed the words. The anger at the Jewish woman, the ‘bitch’ in his poem was a pale disguise for the distraught position every man can feel when a pregnancy is terminated against his own wishes.

I’m no longer worried about the shock of a ‘Jewish baby killer’. The sheer wretched desolation of a man in his mid-40s telling me of the loss he had experienced 27 years earlier is the new unspeakable. In front of me, through the tears and months of piecing together the fragments of story, the 18-year-old’s tale has finally been told.

‘I’ve never shared those words, never spoken them out loud,’ he seems to sigh from deep within his psyche.

The doleful look is frozen on the teenager’s face but I am already sat once again with the mid-40s singleton.

The visiting of prostitutes, the mistrust of partners and the generalising of that trait, ultimately, the tragic inability to connect – even within the successful relationships, even with the kind women – appears to have a place. The tale of this bachelor finally has a narrative. This has been the direction, the goal of which the therapy dyad has sought. But there is an undoubted emptiness at this temporary destination and there are new unspeakables.

He had been so close to everything that society vaunts, pumps out, demands that men and women achieve – the goals of life: a partner, a lover, a child who creates of a couple a family. The child never born, the siblings never created. There is an endless line of loss, thoughts and images that the therapy chair receives.

What he feels, I have just felt, but what he is now thinking remains a mystery that the clock controls.

As the seconds tick, we both know it will not lend us enough time today.

Duncan suggests …

… consulting Brook’s website page ‘Abortion: Advice for men’

www.brook.org.uk

 

 

All rights reserved © Copyright Duncan E. Stafford 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

The source of the Nile

3monkeyGlenn‘So why are you living on a boat on the Nile?’ I ask.

‘Like everyone else here, I’m looking for the source,’ she laughs. I smile.

‘I value the solitude, the heat and being independent. Now though I mostly feel lonely; all I have for company are mosquitos. It’s self-enforced exile. I can’t forgive and can’t be forgiven.’

‘So you punish yourself in exile. How long will you do that for?’ I ask.

‘There’s no way back; I’ll probably be eaten by a crocodile and no one would ever know.’

Her head swivels around as she takes in her dimly lit cabin. It’s tiny, a few brilliant shards of sunlight pierce the darkness through a hatch behind her. I think of mummies cocooned in tombs.

‘Is there anything else keeping you there?’

‘No, apart from my boat, nothing.’

‘What’s your boat called?’

She looks embarrassed. ‘Dignity. You know, like the song …’ – she sings – ‘… a ship called dignity’.

‘I know that song.’ I reply.

‘The man in the song is a street cleaner. He wants to get away. He saves his money for a boat he’s going to call Dignity.’

‘It doesn’t sound like the right name for your boat.’

‘Uh, how so?’ she asks.

‘A ship called Guilty seems more apt.’ I’d not really seen the link before between dignity and guilt; they’re quite similar … I begin floating away on my thoughts.

She interrupts my thinking, I’m back with her again, ‘I see what you mean but you don’t know what I’ve done.’

‘You could tell me.’

‘You’d hate me.’

‘It must be awful for all your care to be taken up with what other people think of you.’

She looks away. ‘Like a ship’s captain I’ll probably go down with this bloody boat.’

‘That’s up to you. Forgiveness, no forgiveness; either way it’s up to you.’

‘Okay I’ll tell you.’ She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath. I feel like a priest in a confession booth – the computer screen in place of the lattice opening both separating and connecting us.

‘I allowed my husband, my ex-husband, to do things, terrible things, to our son.’ Her breathing stops for a moment. Apart from the hum of my monitor there’s silence.

The cabin looks to be closing in on her. Rather than lighting her way out, the sunlight is a chink in her self-created cell.

‘Where were you when he did these things?’

Tears start rolling down her cheeks. ‘At church, for Sunday evening prayers.’

I feel sick.

‘Did you ever tell the priest?’

‘I think he knew. He’d see my son in the morning at Sunday School. He would go on about forgiveness. I don’t think he believed what he was saying, maybe he did, in any case what the hell does the Church know about abuse or forgiveness.’

I wonder if she’ll ever have any peace. With this thought my peace is gone and I feel priestly again. I can feel the tension mounting in the ether somewhere between her cabin on the Nile and my home in Cambridge.

‘So, what do you think?’

‘About what?’ I reply.

‘About what I’ve done, what I failed to do as a mother? What else?’

‘It is awful and yes it’s hateful. Did you know at the time?’

‘No, not consciously, I knew something was wrong … You think what I did was unforgivable, I can tell?’

‘You want to know if I forgive you?’

‘You wouldn’t tell me honestly.’

‘You don’t know, you’ve not asked. I don’t think you want to know.’

‘You’re avoiding the question.’

‘You haven’t asked the question.’

‘I know what you’d say: “I’ve got to forgive myself first”, blah, blah, blah; that’s a dodge too. What I’ve done is unforgiveable, that’s it. Anyway what’s your problem with forgiveness?’

‘It’s self-absorbed. It has nothing to do with your son. Besides that it won’t free you.’

‘Wow! You really don’t like me very much do you?’

I smile. She replies, ‘Okay, now you’re going to tell me that it’s not important whether you like me or not. Come on, really?’

She’s right, it’s an uncomfortable question, I can’t avoid it; ‘I don’t forgive you; your son won’t forgive you. You’ll never forgive yourself, your ex-husband, the priest or the Church. And you’ll never forgive God.’ I give these words time to penetrate her cell.

I add, ‘You don’t need forgiveness; it’s about finding a way to live with the pain.’

She looks sad, then a smile, ‘The priest won’t like that.’ Then letting out a deep breath, her voice now coming from her diaphragm, ‘If that were true I could come back to England. I’d have to sell the boat first.’

‘Maybe you could give it to the priest for dispensation?’ We laugh.

‘You could just leave it behind.’

Glenn recommends …

The Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche

 

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