Calm in the chaos

According to the scientists, chaos is a thing of mathematical purity, a creature of shape and form. But some shapes and forms defy consistency and pattern: defiance is a pattern maybe. Some shapes and forms are too complicated to recognise and prefer to roam in dense dark clouds across one’s perception. Daily life can feel like one solid grey blob but there is a consistency and a sense of control to be had, a pattern of sorts. For me it is caring for the horses and the chickens and being at my desk every morning by nine. It is eating and sleeping at roughly the same times and exercising according to the schedule.

And yet still the sense that there is no consistent shape or form pervades everything to the point of malign pollution. Every week is different, every month has some disruption, every year is a new tangle of events. Nothing is predictable and we become passive passengers despite the power of control freakery. There is really no control because everything is subjective, dependent on externalities. Maybe we need the sense of chaos to force a weird discipline, to avoid making it worse. A consistency in the inconsistencies?

The problem with the sense of being ruled by chaos is that as one gets comfy with it. Chaos gets familiar so it’s not so chaotic as it once was and it’s tempting to keep adding to it. Chaos is like a drug and it tempts you ever deeper into reaches where there is no light, no discreet sounds, no shapes, only an intense sense of formlessness. You listen in idle moments to some distant low level but indistinct noise. You know it’s just the overwhelming sense of being out of control, but you have the sense that something like warm wet concrete is slopping over everything. You know you have to move but it’s just so much effort and it’s quite cosy to give in to it all. But you know that it’s just a matter of time before the concrete sets and you’re stuck with no escape. Bound forever in sinister chaos maelstrom you face the horror. The chaos has frozen and binds you to a future where nothing can ever be resolved.

Resolution is how we progress through the days, one to the next. Feeding the cat, lounging in the bath, folding clean laundry, eating pizza, are all resolutions of a kind. But becoming a victim of your own life is part of the intoxication, the temptation ever for more, ever to keep saying yes, yes I can do this, yes I can fix this, yes I will save you. Yes. You just keep pushing harder and this is why people develop high blood pressure and peptic ulcers. This is why people drive into brick walls and holes in the road. Too many thoughts rushing about and fighting for supremacy. You can solve it with drugs and booze and being antisocial. Or you can do it by unwinding the chaos of work, family, children, pets, home, socialising, exercise, shopping, eating, sleeping and the rest, one step at a time. Resolution solves the blood pressure thing, and maybe the ulcers. It also untangles the chaos and washes away the concrete before it sets.

We thrive on change and yet we fear it. We want a full life and yet we yearn for quiet spaces, so much that finding them adds to the pressure and sense of chaos. Travelling is its own chaos but is there anything more restful than being on a long haul flight where someone else is responsible for every aspect of what you are doing for those precious hours of voided existence?

So when someone asks you how things are going, don’t tell them that you’re thriving on the mess, that the puzzling together of daily tasks and the sheer thrill of existence, keep you awake at night. For in those witching hours you make plans for what happens next in your life. For adrenaline junkies there is always another opportunity for a thrill and for chaos obsessives there is always another opportunity to twist the chaos into a new and even more exciting shape. Keep track of the details in the darkness when you can’t sleep. Hold on to the tail of the burning beast that is your wild life and don’t stop twisting it. Twist it into the form you want however intensely you try to pretend that you want a quiet life. Maybe you do want a life of predictability and one where at the end of the day you sigh and doze off watching whatever pap the television is serving. Be passive and drift away or grab at whatever you encounter that is unknown and unfamilliar and hold it fast. It might prickle a bit, but at least you’ll know you’re still alive.

PS This is what the WordPress AI evaluation says of this piece. The italics are why AI still has a long way to go:

The content captures the sense of chaos and its impact on daily life effectively. The descriptions are vivid and create a strong image of the overwhelming nature of chaos. However, the main ideas could be more organized and connected to each other. Consider restructuring the content to create a clearer progression of thoughts and ideas. Additionally, some sentences could be refined to improve clarity and flow. Finally, consider providing examples or anecdotes to support the points being made. 

A prison visit

The women were gathered around the steps in the creeping cold of a November Saturday, waiting for a heavy black door to open. The shadowed air was damp and clinging. False lashes were wilting, tight blonde pony tails were limp. A handful of long black spirals, laquered and permed had lost their spring. Only the botoxed lips and the fingernail claws were holding up. Some of the women were holding small children, some had slightly less small children in pushchairs. Some women were pregnant, a desolate cast to their faces. Jolly grandmas with lots of missing teeth were making jokes and smoking. Grim faced male friends and brothers kept their faces tight and unnavigable. They waited at the foot of the stone steps, slightly apart from the women and fidgetting from foot to foot.

In front of them all the high flintstone walls of the prison tipped forwards against the sky, looming and threatening to fall and engulf them at any moment. Somewhere inside their men were waiting, some keen and impatient, anxious to discuss what would change when they got out. Some were bored and unrepentant, disinterested. Some were annoyed that visiting hours, the visiting 90 minutes, coincided with the footie on the telly.

Behind the thick locked door the black and white uniforms, faces carved, colourless and set were waiting. And the keys on long chains, the security cameras, the registration forms, the sniffer dogs, weapons and id scanners. The curious atmosphere of routine boredom and habitual watchfulness. And time, flaccid and loose, moves patiently along the confining walls and corridors, leans lazy against hidden ceilings, hides in corners and under the furniture. It distorts the days and nights to create a new continuum.

The loneliness of the women, their patience and confusion, their anger and fear keeps company with time’s distortion. Inside in the waiting rooms, it is too warm, too close. The hovering testosterone of angry young men blisters the air and pock marks our sights and conversations. The slow tango that happens most Saturdays is not a scene we want to see, to share. It’s not a scene we can truly share with the regular visitors, or with their children. But we try to do it anyway.

We all go through the complicated security, sadly simple for the women who do it every week. We all put our stuff in lockers and throw tissues and chewing gum in the bin as instructed, because they are not allowed. We all go through the scanners and let the sniffer dogs do their thing. We all listen to the stern warden who tells us that smuggling drugs into the prison will get us a long prison term. Her voice is strict but also bored and as she calls the names of the women who can go through to the next stage, she jokes about not needing to repeat her other reminders. They try to laugh politely except the granny who guffaws and declares,  “alright darlin’ we got it first time around”. Except that the man they are visiting, did not get it the first time around and now here they all were coming to see him again as he waits out his fourth term in prison. Petty thefts and drugs and some violence. He didn’t get it in goes one to four, so five when it comes may be his chance to make a change. All a mistake, granny says.

A little boy of four or five smiles through all this and plays on the floor with the toy farm and its plastic animals. He asks his patient mother endless questions and she answers soft and indulgent, makes him sit beside her and holds his hand tight. He asks me where I live and I tell him and I ask him where he lives. He asks his mum and she tells him and he tells me with a proud smile, rolling the name of his town around his mouth for the first time and then again as he laughs through the word. He repeats it and repeats it and I laugh and his mum tries to laugh too. Tries hard to crack her golden face and stop the welling eyes from overflowing. She reaches for her little boy and folds him tight against her shoulder and he laughs and laughs as her tickling fingers caress him. He has no idea that he’s all there is to keep her from screaming her fear, her loneliness and her shattered belief that it wasn’t meant to be like this. And it wasn’t. It never is.

Tokyo turmoil

There is no sense of turmoil in Tokyo. I just like the alliteration. From our hotel room window we see the Tokyo Tower, its lattice painted in bright stripes of red and white against a glowing night sky. Our bathroom has a toilet with a prewarmed, cushioned seat. Like most of the toilets we sat on in restaurant and office facilities, it has an intimate washing system with clear pictograms for ease of use. Some of these toilets even have an option to play music, intended to cover up embarrassing noises. I never tried the music thing because that in itself is an embarrassing noise.

It’s part of the clean clean clean and safety ethics Japan is so well known for. Safety at all costs except for the mad cyclists heading towards you on the pavements, no matter how narrow. They blatantly disregard the cycle lanes and no one seems to mind, except the untrained tourists leaping out of the way. The cyclists barely even slow down and it’s as if they’re in another world. This is understandable as in the bits of Tokyo we visited there is a lovely sense of calm, which gives the impression that Tokyo is quiet. And compared to other cities, it is. That the people are so kind and polite and considerate only adds to this sense of an unspoken gentleness in the place. Even the light in late summer is gentle and caressing.

We visited an enormouse equestrian park called Baji Koen and  located to the west side of Shibuya, a major commercial and financial centre in Tokyo. Baji Koen was originally built in 1940 and lately upgraded for the 2020 Olympics. The facilities were then repurposed and refurbished as a smaller stadium and park. The park has graceful and immaculate lawns where toddlers can totter with no risk of landing in a muddy puddle or of finding something disgusting they might insist on eating. The grass is close cut and perfect for little boys practising their rugby tackles. Girls can swan about in complicated clothes without fear of tripping over. There is also a vast arena for showjumping and dressage and a racetrack, where we watched the ancient art of Yabusame – archery on horseback. No one fell off and of the four contenders the girl was much better at it than the men, one of whom almost did fall off several times and didn’t shoot a single arrow. Yabusame was originally a martial art, but it morphed over the centuries into something spiritual and then something competitive. Riders and horses seemed to be having a great time doing it. Equine visitors can avail themselves of extensive luxury accommodation at Baji Koen and there is probably a hotel somewhere nearby for the humans. It’s all very lovely.

That’s hardly surprising because Tokyo and probably Japan too offers incidental beauty everywhere you look. From the people and their carefully curated clothes, to the parks and green spaces, signage and the food, the focus is as much on the quality of appearance as on the quality of the thing itself. Grubby, rough and untidy doesn’t rear its head. Even a serving of truck stop soba noodles, made of buckwheat and served cold, has the food set bang smack in the middle of their bamboo tray thing. The accompaniments of dashi (broth) and chopped spring onions are carefully placed for optimal symmetry.

The many bizarre and challenging foodstuffs were for a vegetarian more intriguing entertainment than options for nourishment. That is, apart from the weird and unfamiliar vegetables that the Tokyo people didn’t seem to count as vegetarian possibilities. A main dish that does not exclude meat or fish, means there is no vegetarian food available. Except that potatoes with cheese, truffle fries, and rice and salad, noodles, beans and tofu are just fine, especially when you add fried tempe and some of the weird vegetables as a side.

Everything we came across in Tokyo was all about the details: warm damp towels before and after meals, special holders for spent teabags, complex soap and lotion options. And the diverse cooking methods matched to the huge range of foods, including an incredible diversity of dried foods. From the details included in a humble pot noodle to small packages of unfamiliar pickles, the array of foods and their nuances is astonishing. The dried additions for miso soup and potted noodles tell only a tiny bit of the tale. Used to tasteless Ramen packet noodles the enormity of noodle options was almost overwhelming. A single pot can contain everything required to make a divine noodly dinner. There are dried herbs and spices, dried meat or fish of various species and things to me unrecognisable. But they’re probably identifiable to the noodle connoiseur from the picture on the package. Either way there is no lack of choice, whatever your fancy.

The focus on helpful details and convenience spread to the clarity and sense of onstreet parking. There is not a lot. Mostly it’s not allowed except for temporary purpose like getting people into the car. Instead there are lots of small (think four cars) offstreet paid parking lots. That the streets are so clear of parked cars, at least in the districts we saw, is a major reason why Tokyo feels so unstressy. You don’t see congestion on the streets, although you do on the many motorways that traverse Tokyo. But people do not walk there. Despite being one of the most crowded and densely populated cities on the planet Tokyo is a walking city, with busyness confined to the highways and the extremely efficient train systems. 

The districts we were in, Minato and Shibuya in the main, were trashless with no overflowing bins or rubbish in the gutters. There were indeed hardly any bins at all except for recycling purposes. The Tokyo people just don’t drop litter, they take it home instead. It’s part of a sense that people take responsibility for their actions, for how they interact with one another and for how they share their space. There is a softness and assurance without arrogance or complacence. The softness sort of hums in the background, like the birdsong you hear in the most unexpected of places.

Procrastination or worse

It’s Thursday morning again but there’s still no blog for the website. Oh no! Staring at pirouetting leaves and the battered fade of autum roses isn’t helping. Through the rain jewelled windows the chickens are visibly despondent. Bedraggled, they are scratching at the mud unsatisfied that it just slides aside to leave momentary striations and their feet wet and dirty. Those with feathered ankles and toes are especially displeased. The worms are hiding from the intense wet dumping onto the ground so they are too deep for the chickens to reach. But they scratch at the ooze nonethless. A pair of magpies hovers on the fence, waiting for a hen to lay or for little Lavender to relinquish her post so that they can get to the feed hopper. Lavender is very fierce and the opportunistic magpies are lazy chancers who dare not take a risk. And overhead a sulphorous sky shifts under autumn winds that are too warm. Sitting silent and empty, trawling a reluctant imagination.

There is no light. No thought, just impressions and distant ideas that won’t come into focus. What about a review of Andrey Kurkov’s Jimi Hendrix Live in Kiev? Fine except that the book patiently sits unread and full of promise upstairs somewhere. Its probably lost in a screedump of books, but no one knows for sure. Jimi Hendrix Live in Kiev’s supposed to be good. All the dutiful reviews from people who want to please the author say so. They all name check the magical realism, the vodka, the affection for Lviv and its history. And reference to Mr Kurkov’s dark humour is of course mandatory. All well and good, so set to and read the book. But there is a problem.

Getting around to reading Jimi Hendrix Live in Kiev might take a little while because Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees was unexpectedly dull. Not agonisingly so, but still this is not something to be said out loud. Great long stretches of not much happening. Great long paragraphs to get lost instead in wondering what the point was. It the sort of read where the mind wanders off elsewhere and yet pages later the general gist was still there. The bits about life in the grey zone were somehow incomplete. The bits about bees and their behaviours made a much less powerful a contribution to the story than they might have done. Undeveloped social metaphors lost in a wash of sometime very lovely prose and clever wit. Getting around to reading Jimi Hendrix Live in Kiev will happen, but not yet.

Procrastinating still. Or worse, more boredom setting in. Boredom might be nature’s aid for passage through the winter months and their darkness and shadows. The sense of loss and hopelessness might back off, if boredom’s in the ascendent. Maybe. Boredom’s not worse. But in truth it’s neither procrastination or boredom that sees this week’s blog so laggardly. This week has slid away like the chickens footprints in the slurry. Time’s lines have disappeared without trace, a reminder that time is the most slippery and most precious of foes.

Hydra stark

Bats, cats and kittens and smoke in lines of sullen purple. They cross the sun setting sky. It’s getting darker now and the bounce of the waves and the noise of the wind are slowly quietening. The bats keep the mosquitos at bay and the cats hang around, less afraid and keener to settle. The kittens sing their mewling harmonies, the Fledermouse choir in full squeal and squeak. And Fledermouse’s little body is catching up with his enormous ears, and they appear diminished. Together, bats, cats and kittens and we watch the carbon creased sea at dusk and see it soft and buttery at dawn. In between, it’s fine crosshatching shifts and twists the stream and stirs the shadowed blues, indigos and blacks. Turquoised and bleached white under a sea taxi’s urgent churn.

The last two days have been days of low cloud and mist, the torpid air sliding steaming hot beneath it. It’s a concoction of rain, for rain. Rain on the water, water in the air. The sky lies heavy, overcast, lethargic and lazy. Damp and soft the air resting on indolent bodies draped on the rocks by an idling sea. We step carefully along the rocks, some nimble, some slow, careful and cautious not to fall. Even someone Paul said is agile as a bank safe makes it to the water. Big splash. We swim crazy far or float toes up or stare down into the deep, snorkelled and goggled to watch the many fish.

Above water the wind is shouty and jazzed, keen. On the shore we see the waves shatter and fray and we hear the sea’s many voices, cacaphonous as they slap at the rocks in some secret dance or unrecognised ritual. Wave shaped whispers or sudden splashy shouts on a rising wind. No sign yet of the goose feathers floating on rising crests. But they are coming soon as the air begins to chill and the winds grow resolute. The summer is drawing to its close and the sea’s changing shapes tells us this. It is time to go.

Hydra stasis

The sea is back to being full of serious boogywoogy. Under winds intent on taking us all some place else, we strive to stay in place. No change. The crashing music of the breezes and currents. The waves’ white topped feathers run in too many directions for rhythm. Indigo and agitation contrasts with the bone white and milk of the sea a few days ago. On one of those days we powerboated across the blue churned waves to small coves for swimming and around empty islands for peering into caves, timid to get too close and risk the rocks. The excitement of it, unceasing adrenalin all day long, left us hung over and swaying. In the evening after our long climb up the many slopes, steps and ragged paths, I had to hold onto the kitchen counter to keep my balance. The lilt and drift was still there in the morning after wild water dreams and exhaustion only slightly less taut.

Hydra is known for its many cats and a programme of neutering keeps the numbers in the port down. But here in Kamini there appears to be no such plan and we have frequent and regular visits from a small family: mother (not much more than a kitten herself), aunty (we reckon) and four tiny elastic kittens. They arrive whenever there’s a whisper of food scents, plaintive voices and tiny little pink mouths opening to show off white teeth like needles, lining their little pink jaws. One, Fledermouse (yes, mouse not maus), has ears larger than his mother’s and a coat of hillside shades, except the hillsides are the greys and drear of a cold climated place rather than the ambers and terracottas of this island. They’re all in similar garb, some stripey like tabbies and some grey and black blends, and all with spotty tummies and striped stockings on their dainty legs. The kittens steal food from each others’ mouths and their mother washes them violently to compensate for rejecting them when they try to feed. Sometimes they play fight, sometimes she brings them a mouse to share. They play writhing twisting games and fall to rest without realising it. Like us.

From atop the final steps we watch the sunsets, always so sudden here. There is no lingering, just a solid martial descent below scar strewn clouds towards shimmering distance. The sea melts into coppers and aubergine stripes soft and dragging. They melt across the sky slowly expanding into night. The sea we still hear now hushes to the land, bringing us all slowly to sleep.

Hydra static

We’re on the island of Hydra once again. We never go anywhere else when we come to Greece and yet each time our experience of this tiny island is different. This time it’s just us, no family, no friends, no one else joining us, no one to see off at the ferry. And this time learning Greek and to practise motoring about the island in a powerboat. We’ve got the licenses, so now’s the time to put the training into action. Not sure how it will go. Bump bump on the waves a given, but hopefully not bump bump splash. Man over board!

What else is new? Nothing and all of it. We’ve spotted a new buzz of beehives grazing the stipled hillside. They sit halfway up with slender terraces holding them in place in case they have cause to slide. In the early mornings across the amber dawns we hear an excessively keen cock crowing. He reminds us that we want to stay asleep a little longer. And once we manage to blur out his crows there is the tap tap tapping of a building project just below our studio. The project is a grey stone house with a tidy pair of Roman arches and a soon to be completed pitched roof. The workers tap in regular rhythms, each nail whacker managing different numbers of strikes with his hammer. They speak in broken English across several languages, but besides English we only recognise Albanian and Greek.

Throughout the day we are treated to the whine and squeaks of a lonely dog and its token toy. The Huskey dog has pointy ears that touch at their peaks and white rimmed eyes. The eyes and the tilted head implore us to entertain her every time we peer into the pen to check she’s got water. Her conversation, at first annoying, is repetitive enough to be somehow reassuring. We hear her above the wind and through the stillness of the air, the heat and the cool of nighttime.

And the sea. Under strong winds its glorious bounce and embrace were sometimes too tight. Now that the wind has dropped the sea’s languid rise and fall seduces, tempting us ever further from shore, to ever further depths. We swim along the shore searching for an octopus and her garden, or out to the safety buoys. Beyond the buoys the sea taxis surge rapid and reckless between the port and the many bays along the island’s eastern coast. They go beyond occasionally, following pleasure cruisers and rented yachts that rely on motor power instead of the wind. Perhaps these sailors are afraid of losing control of direction and speed. Next stop Cyprus?

We climb hundreds of steps and more steps every day to reach our little cubby hole set high above the sea. Our window frames our view of the sea and the roof of the dog’s house and through the window pass the echoes of the sea taxi engines and random voices in the night. They float along on the shh shh shh of a susurrous Saronic sea. It sounds softly slow, sensuous in the night. And we are together.

19th Wedding Anniversary

This is how it started. On that day nineteen years ago I jumped out of bed frantic talking, talking, talking all the way out of the house and along the track to the feed store. “I’m late already. I’m already late. I don’t believe this. What happened to early? It’s already after six and I’m already late. Where’s the sun? Why’s it still so dark? Oh, shit look at the sky, look at the bloody sky. And it’s really raining. It’s raining on our wedding day.

And I’m taking too long doing this, why are all the feed bins empty now, why didn’t I think of this yesterday when they were already nearly empty. And why is it raining so very hard?”

Scuttling along in too-big clogs, falling off their wooden edges unbalanced on the uneven ground and carrying the manger I kept up a persistent muttery mumble, trying to calm matters down and to ignore the rain: “It’s fine, it’s not that late, I can still get showered and have my hair in curlers in plenty of time for my hair to dry by eleven” and scurrying up to the gate she hooked the manger onto it, and gave the Grey Horse a sudden and unexpected pat. Much alarm and headshaking, and a suspicion that she really was quite as mad as he had always believed, the Grey Horse stood back from his breakfast. I sighed, “oh don’t be so silly” before reaching out once again but this time much more slowly, to gently pat the Grey Horse his good morning. Kissing his chaff dusted nose I said: “enjoy your breakfast”.

Back indoors the peace and calm one might expect so early on a Saturday morning was completely absent. Instead there were a dozen or so Swedish relations, long lost friends and teenagers, munching their various ways noisily through a host of breakfast stuff: teas, juices, coffee and the rest. The scene of formless mess only added to the surreal and thunderstruck sense of the day. I couldn’t imagine how the day had suddenly turned into chaos so very soon. Tea at least was already made, so grabbing a mug I hurried upstairs to the shower, barely noticed.

At least the shower was hot. The battle for the hairdryer was about to commence between Hannah and Matilda, both of whom had already showered while I was getting drenched in the rain. When I got out of the shower, only mildly less hysterical, the plan had been to put my hair in curlers and to set the hairdryer on them. I had had in mind a cascade of blondish reddish curls. “We’re nearly finishing Mummy. We won’t be long. Your hair dries quicker than ours”. Gorgeous girls 13 and 14 years old, bubbling over with youth, beauty and innocence still, and in a moment so precious still ours, still our lovely little girls.

So OK. OK. I gave give up on the idea of leisurely drying and cascading glory and concentrated on the dressing bit of the morning. Suddenly everything, even the simplest part of getting ready seemed too complicated to manage. No room. No space, just a blind, fearful panic, wondering where Paul was and whether it was all as mad for him, tangled up with the business of breakfast and all those visiting Swedes. Unlikely somehow and I imagined him serene and slightly excited on the outside, cool, calm and in control and probably quite oblivious to the raging skies beyond the kitchen windows.

Outside the weather was worsening with each passing moment. Lights on indoors in July in the morning? Whatever was happening. The thunder rolled, the girls kept squeaking and fidgeting and I sat down in the corner still in my dressing gown and wondered what to do next. Fortunately someone else was there to egg me gently on to the day’s next steps. I was not alone and true to the traditions of brides and maids of honour, Joanne serene, calm and moving slowly into the room gave me a sudden and loving hug. “It’s the day! Today’s the day. Are you alright? Have you had anything to eat? There’s still toast and tea. Paul’s taking care of the rabble downstairs. All you’ve got to do is have your tea and relax and get dressed. Isn’t it fantastic!” I held her hand tightly and said in  a tiny voice: “Why’s it raining? What’s with the thunder? What’s happening?” And Joanne laughing “all of nature’s getting up and getting ready, so come on, what are you doing?” And with a brusque and bossy “Get your mother another cup of tea and a biscuit”, Joanne pushed the morning machine into gear, sat me down and started getting to work on my hair.

It’s been 19 years and they’re all hovering around my head still. The joys, the less-than joys, the amazing experience of seeing our children grow into such wonderful people. Thank you to everyone who made that day so memorable and thank you to Paul, Hannah, Morgan and Matilda for giving me such a fabulous, joyful and loving family.



She watched him silent as sipped his coffee, wondering how it started. With a pulse growing louder? With an idea of passion suddenly occurring in his head or heart? Not in his heart. The heart was surely irrelevant for this. Was it an idea of something lost or yearned for? A recurring image or focus of desire? And as she watched she saw him shift in his chair and thought of a steady heartbeat rising; she thought of more, much more.

She could picture him alone somewhere away from this busy café with its noise and coffee stink. He was somewhere else reading on a sofa, or waking up in his bed, lying on a beach all alone perhaps. Tall and lean against a faded towel hearing percussive waves, feeling the sun’s heat fade as the beach emptied of people and the sand began to chill.

As the waiter moved to take away the empties, she stared up and away at a different face, murmuring thank you. This face was also handsome in a harried, distracted sort of a way. Urgent, disinterested. She pictured a different mouth widening, a different head thrown back, a different sculpted throat stretched and exposed. She felt herself blushing and pretended to fiddle with her purse. Two images now and she thought she might want to see more in the private picture in her head, to know more. She saw the waiter move towards him as he rose from his seat to pay his bill.

From across the room she watched as he tapped his card. He didn’t notice the waiter and he didn’t notice that she was there. And then the waiter was moving fast and on to the next thing. In slow motion she was getting up to leave and neither man had seen that she was there, had seen her blush or the pictures in her head.

Later lying in her immaculate room on crisp clean sheets she had put on the bed that morning, she lay very still. Soft and cool perfection. Eyes closed she pictured the scene again, elaborating the image, drawing herself slow and deliberately onwards. The story that had begun in the café, the man sipping his coffee, the casual waiter, together they were moving her on deeper into an intense and unknown territory that was her own. Her eyes soon began to widen then close and open again gazing wild, open mouthed and breathing hard, then calming. The cracked and pockmarked ceiling the only witness to her trespass.

“Only the shallow know themselves.” —from Oscar Wilde’s “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young” (1882) 

You don’t know me.

You don’t see me.

You can’t find me.

You don’t know me.

And of this I am certain.

Being old is useful in these days of death and desperation. Death because of Covid and Brexit, stealing lives and lifestyles. Desperation because everyone is so obsessed with being noticed, with being included, recognised, acknowledged. It’s a curious thing this obsession. For those of us who’ve been around awhile, it looks like disease.

The online echo chamber amplifies and distorts, and social media platforms put you, and only you, you, you, you at the heart of every message. Seeing it is mostly boring, if compelling. Being seen is wonderful for those frantic to shine in gleaming limelight and get lost in virtual applause, acclaim. Except that the social media platforms must put all of us at the centre of attention regardless of our mediocrity, so we are none of us individuals just data sets. Yet if the platforms don’t prioritise everyone on some individualised basis, advertisers won’t be happy.

In this saturated and anonymous environment a defined identity is necessary to concepts of self, no matter how arbitrary and divisive. Individual identities must be categorised, celebrated and yelled about, to confirm that we know who we are, that we are entitled to recognition, that we exist at all. Without the platforms and classified identities, we are apparently nobodies. But coming to terms with one’s own ordinariness is part of growing up. Maybe you cannot see that until you’ve finished doing it and only then can recognise the curious paradox that we are all ordinary, and yet extraordinary too. The social media collective thrives on this paradox. Advertisers want maximum engagement and frequency in order to sell more stuff. Definitions and categories provide the platforms with data to help them do that. And we all participate.

But identity is a fragile thing, a thing in constant flux. It is not caged. Identity is vulnerable and frail and it should not be trivialised. Nor should those craving acknowledgement and recognition use identity to bully others into sharing their point of view. Identifying a target to blame for inequalities and unfairness, does not justify attack. Responsibility for being nasty about perceived slights does not go away just because you find someone to blame. The whingers share far more than being victims of generic, universal unfairness. They truly suffer cruelly. White male supremacy, imperialism, sexism, racism, accentism (it’s all the latest rage), genderism (coming to a paranoia near you soon), heightism, fatism, abilityism or some other -ism is the root of their undoing. How about I-don’t-care-ism?

We cannot thrive in a world where a group’s collective identity is considered to matter far more than anyone else’s. Such vanity combined with victimhood stifles interaction and debate. It’s toxic and poisons all chance of dialogue, discussion or inclusion. It excludes those beyond the group, those who challenge the party line, or who step unthinking onto tender toes. Blocking the transmissions we all send out and receive, leaves only static monotony on a single unrelenting channel.

Identity and knowing who and what you are is not about priviledge or advantage. Knowing who and what you are isn’t even a fact for hordes of people. Identity is often a latecomer to the character party. We could call it a very twenty-first century problem, this idea that we all have to be secure in our own identities and that everyone else has to recognise and celebrate those identities. Let’s instead strive for a little more humility, a little more kindness and greater breadth in our world views. Let’s have a little more appreciation of where and how the lines are drawn, so that they mark a point of connection and not of divergence. 

You don’t know me.

You don’t see me.

You can’t find me.

You don’t know me.

And of this I am certain.