“facilis descensus Averno:
noctes atque dies patet atri ianua Ditis;
sed revocare gradum superasque evadere ad auras,
hoc opus, hic labor est.”
“The way to Hell is easy. Night and day the gates to Hell’s black kingdom lie open. But to retrace your steps, to find your way back up to the daylight, that is the hard work, that is the real job.” (Virgil “Aeneid” Book VI, 126-9)
“The readiness of mind is all” (“Henry V”)
The tip of the iceberg
Is our social self.
“Good afternoon and how are you?”
How little of others we ever see,
In the interests of normality!
The fears and hopes we dare not show,
When arranging self for public view,
“Good evening now and how are you?”
Stay in the ice that lies below.
Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Ratty from “The Wind in the Willows” make strange bedfellows, but they start this part of Anne’s story together. ‘Strange bedfellows’. Never mind about these bedfellows being strange, the whole expression is strange enough. It sounds odd to us today but some time ago it was normal at inns and in hotels to have to share a bed with someone you did not know. Take ‘Three Men in a Boat’, for instance. That was published in 1889. Harris, George and J are looking for a hotel room one night in Datchet and having been turned away from two full hotels they go to a beershop. The owner says ‘ There are only three beds in the whole house and they have seven single gentlemen and two married couples sleeping here already.’ We have three men to a bed already.’ Think of ‘Moby Dick’, which was published earlier. Before starting the voyage Ishmael (“Call me Ishmael”) has to share a room and a bed with a strange harpooner, Queequeg. In those days you took pot luck as to who was your bedfellow. But back to the point. Peer Gynt and Ratty make strange bedfellows here.
Peer Gynt sat peeling an onion. “When shall I get to the heart?” he asked, as he took off the pieces. Here we peel off one layer; we go behind Anne’s happy smile, but there are many more layers, and we never reach the heart of Anne or of Harvey or of anyone else. But we shall try to go under the smiling surface that we see in the photographs. Say, “Cheese” and everyone is happy. But we shall go to the layer below.
On Sundays at school many years ago Henry went caving in the Mendip Hills. These were not the show caves of Cheddar with their lights and handrails, but real caves. These were caves that began as a smallish hole in the rocks with mud and grass around the entrance. Henry would light his carbide lamp and then he squeezed through the wet rocks of the entrance and left the light of day. In these caves there are dark tunnels, narrow and hard to follow, there are many unknown passages and then comes the turning back. That was the work, that was the job, finding the way out, going up and out again into the sun, up and out into the blue sky of a summer afternoon.
As for Ratty, we follow him up and down his river and into the wild wood, but few of us follow him in his quest in “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. What was it? A vision of the truth? A glimpse of what is behind everything? That part of his story is harder going than the daily life of River Bank, the whims of Toad and the boating with Mole. This part of Anne’s story will also be hard. We see her, in part, but it is always in part. We do not even see ourselves fully. So it’s darkish, but it’s not all dark. How did she manage her life? Well, she tackled it. We all have to tackle it, don’t we!
‘If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces.’ That’s Portia for you, and, of course, Portia is right.
But the best advice in the world, even Portia’s, would not have helped Anne. Her own advice to herself was good, but how could she follow it when every hour threw up a new worry?
The day did not come easily to her. After waking up she sat on the bed, looked in front of her and feared the day ahead. There had been a time when she had woken up feeling good, looking forward to the day, feeling ready. But that was a long time ago. How old was she then? Seven? Eight? That exuberance had long gone; it was just a part of childhood. Strangely, just once, quite recently, she had woken up and she had felt just like that again, happy to be starting a new day. It was as if her body had been too quick for the worries of her mind. But the enthusiasm soon went and it disappeared under the weight of the hours ahead. She felt inadequate. How to manage the day? How to manage the next hour?
“OK, Anne. First dress, then have breakfast, go through the humdrum mechanics of the morning, then face things. You’ll sort it out. It’ll be OK. It’ll be OK.”
Life, she thought, must be so simple for other people. They get up, throw on a few clothes, enjoy a good breakfast, plenty of Kellogg’s and perhaps some bacon and couple of eggs, off to work, radio on in the car, don’t take work too seriously, get through the morning easily, a pleasant lunch with a beer or two, then back to the office, more work, a cup of tea, then back home. Or did they have to fight, as she did, to get into the right frame of mind before they could start? Did they too have to force themselves to concentrate their thoughts, to feel good before they could tackle things?
Ah yes, the poem is right. An awful lot stays in the ice below.
We shall follow Anne now. We shall remove a layer of the onion.
Let’s take her day.
7.00 – 8.30
Her alarm went off at 7.00 and woke her to wondering what the day would be demanding her to do. Then she made a cup of tea and had a shower. Just making a cup of tea helps. Thank God for the humdrum things that you can do with an empty mind. By following the routines of washing, cleaning her teeth and brushing her hair she could relax and postpone facing what had to be faced. Then she sat on the edge of the bed. “Right, prepare yourself. Think ahead. What’s on the menu? First, a seminar at 9. I’ve prepared everything for that. Then a couple of lectures. Then, this afternoon, I must finish my essay. I must finish it today. Then, tonight. A walk, then supper. Can I do it? Yes, I can.” And, feeling right (and she had to feel right), she went towards the bedroom door. ‘No, I can’t go out. I can’t go out.’ She had to retreat to the corner of the bed and begin again. She had to be “in the right frame of mind”. She had “to see” her morning clearly. On bad days she had to go through this routine two or three times. Sometimes she cheated with “I’ll feel better later” or “I’ll start, and it’ll come alright later.” This was a way of fooling her mind, and in this way she could at least get out of the room, have some breakfast and start out on the day ahead. Using one strategy or another, with the demands of her thoughts satisfied or postponed, and her fist clenched in defiance, like a tennis player on match point, she left her room and began her work. “For the rest of the world,” she thought, “it must be so easy. Why is it like this for me?”
Sometimes she managed to leave her bedroom fairly quickly, after only three or four minutes’ of sorting things out. But then, as she rushed to her car, a thought would hit her, a Parthian shot from the back of her mind. And this thought would often be one of the most difficult thoughts to combat: a worry about worrying. ‘Listen Anne, this worry that you’ve been through is wrong; you shouldn’t be worrying. You should do nothing in the mornings except have some toast and a cup of coffee, and get out of the house.’ Then she had to quieten the worry about worry before that too became a worry, and sometimes there followed a whole series of moments of multiple self-reproach. Anne thought of the two mirrors at school in the common room back at school. They stretched from the floor to the ceiling and were in old gilt frames and they faced each other. Parts of the mirrors were aging and showed yellow stains. If you looked in one mirror you saw an image from the other mirror that reflected the first and so on. One image inside another. This spiralled away ad infinitum, the image becoming a little smaller each time. The same spiral existed with her multiple worry about worrying.
“OK. The start was bad, but what matters is the day, what matters is what I do, what matters is what I produce.” In the end she finally managed to have a clear mind, and go fairly calmly to her seminar. Poor Anne! She was drained before she began. The work itself seemed child’s play after all this.
Too much thinking; yes that was it. “The pale cast of thought.” Isn’t that the expression? Anne sympathised with Hamlet. Life stretched before her, but, like Hamlet’s, it was a life “sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.”
Yet sometimes she had moments of great strength when she could see ahead clearly. Life seemed so easy then. It was just a question of getting on and doing things. There were no thoughts to hold her back. These moments, these easy days, were too few; still they gave her encouragement. At these times she had a brief insight into what she could do, if given half a chance.
The day continues
11.00 to 11.30
After any stop Anne had difficulty starting again, like the engine of a reluctant lawnmower that has to be kept running. After a break there was a block which prevented her from getting down to the work she had just left. She stopped for coffee at around 11.00, and after coffee she had to find the will to continue once more. Sometimes the solution was to divide up her work into smaller chunks. “I’ll do this job, and then that one, and by twelve o’clock I’ll feel better” This meant that she could at least begin to work again. The problem was not the work in itself. Once given the OK by her mind, she knew that she could do it extremely well. The problem lay in feeling “right”. The difficulty was being able to start.
After lunch the re-start was the same, but worse. Beginning the afternoon had always been difficult. Sometimes she retreated to the toilet to sort things out. The loo! Thank heavens for the loo! Thank goodness for the privy. A private place for thought. For Anne, it was the only place away from questions, away from people, away from the phone and away from any demand of action. She could lock the door on the world. If you added up the daily minutes, how many hours of unhappiness had she spent there? And, she wondered if there were others like her. How many people had retreated there to think, to recover, or to cry? (Well, it is ‘el retrete’, ‘the retreat’, in Spanish, Harvey had once told her. How apt!) How often had Anne gone there to feel right, get OK, clarify things and sort herself out before the next challenge, the next job.
3.00 to 4.00 pm
For years, even at school, the mid-afternoon had been the worst part of her whole day. Three o’clock to four o’clock was a trough. It was the doldrums of the day. It was the dread, dead hour from 3 to 4. The energy of the morning had passed, and the calm of the evening was yet to come. At three in the afternoon, life seemed to stretch ahead, forever. Anne always made sure that she had some solid work ready to fill this hour. When 4 o’clock came, and perhaps with it a cup of tea, it was like cycling downhill; it was easy, there was no need to pedal; it was freewheeling downhill until the evening.
Going home was bliss. She left the faculty library, stepped outside, and heard the door close behind her with a gentle swish. Then she breathed the free air of the street. The day had been faced and completed. She had done well. She had met difficulties and she had resolved them. Now there were no immediate demands. “Just find your bike, Anne, and cycle back to your room.” If she arrived in time, there was the comfort of “The Archers” (though it was so short) and the pleasure it gave her of listening to people battling with the practical problems of life, so earnestly, while she seemed to be struggling with the universe.
On a good day the evening was OK. It was cooking pasta, making a salad, listening to Radio 4 or to records of Mozart. On bad days she longed for the safety of the 9 o’clock news. Thank goodness for the news and for the uncle-like newsreader. Things fell into perspective with the events of the day. How could she bother about her worries when there was famine in the Sudan, or a multiple accident on the M5 motorway? How could she feel so low when there was such suffering in Guatemala? It was, she told herself, selfish indulgence to worry. (She sometimes wondered what the attraction of the news was for everyone else. For her it was a haven, but for the rest? Why were people so interested in catastrophe and disaster?) After the news it was easy. The day took care of itself until bedtime. But it would all start again tomorrow: facing people, doing things, throwing herself into challenges, committing herself to one task after another.
The worst days were those when she never managed to cut the cord and forget herself. On those days she never surfaced, never got out of herself, never really got stuck into her work. She sometimes went through a whole day and was never able to lose herself entirely in either work or pleasure. It was as if a plane starting on a long flight never left the ground but taxied the whole way to its destination. On those days the only way she could get through was by using the temporary solution. “Forget it, Anne. Get this article/ letter/ phone call done, and then think about the next thing after that.” This postponement of concern could, at worst, go on all through the day, and she progressed in hops from one task to the next. She never really started, like an Oxford day in mid-December that never really gets light. These days of worry sapped her energy, though luckily she usually reacted to them, and the day after a bad day was full of committed bustle. What annoyed her most was the fact that she knew she had the ability to do so much. She was “firing on three cylinders” to use a phrase of Uncle Henry’s, although he was referring to his old Morris Minor, not to her state of mind, which thankfully he knew nothing of. How well we disguise ourselves! She felt that she could achieve great things if only she could give herself completely to the business of each day. If only! If only! “Wishers were ever fools!” She was never totally productive; a part of her was always being held back. Given a free hand, what might she do? Who knows! We are what we are, warts and all, even those invisible warts, the warts of the mind! Without them nagging her, she could do so much. As it was, she had almost finished her degree and was on course for a first.