As I write, Nergal the cat is sleeping in a perfect circle of snoozing contentment. I wish I could go to sleep as deeply and quickly as she can. Sometimes, her ears are up for a while, alert to every sound: a car shooshing by in the rainy street below; or, muffled laughing from another flat. Yet, soon, her ears lie flat against her head, her tail curls around to the tip of her nose, and there is the smallest snoring sound. No need to stay alert. No worries.
One morning not long ago, I woke up and immediately felt so tired I wanted to go back to sleep again. Then, I thought of the words ‘get up, think, write’. I knew it was me telling myself what to do and there was nothing supernatural advising me. Yet, it had some of the force of magic. Or, at least, it felt like what I imagine a ghostly voice would feel like, if it spoke to me, on an otherwise ordinary, sunny morning.
The actual words: get up, think, write are mundane. Practical. Not at all magical. So, where does the magic come in? I think it came from a realisation that I would know exactly what to write but only when I started to write it. For the words to appear on the page – abracadabra, pulling a white rabbit out of a hat, I would have to start writing. And then, as if by magic, the ideas would appear.
So, bleary eyed, and wondering if I was mad, I stumbled out of bed and went to my writing desk and opened a notebook and began to write. Yet, already, the magic which had come to me in a half-dream, had begun to fade away like morning mist. I now had no idea what I was supposed to say. So, whatever it was I had to write, I could not rely on magic. I would have to do some work. And maybe, if I was lucky, find my way back to the magic.
Much of the fear in my adult life makes about as much sense as an old horror movie. Glaring monsters, dripping slime, as they emerge from misty swamps. Large, scowling, growling creatures moving towards me menacingly. And yet, except in nightmares, it’s not monsters I see. Instead, it’s the sense of a monster I feel– nearby. The sense of a monster, big enough and real enough to swallow me and this world and everything in it. It feels like the same terror we have and later laugh about – from movies, stories, and from feelings which come out of nowhere. The same dread prickling at the back of my neck, as danger approaches in utter darkness.
Fear has evolved in people as a necessary warning, but fear is also a liar. It tells us we need to be afraid when we do not need to be afraid. Fear can instantly fill a room with a movie-set jungle. Vines forever reaching out to suffocate every space and stop the breathing of any unfortunate person who assumes it’s real, and not just a movie.
My fear is sometimes like a horror movie pretending it’s real. And then, it fades away; and, through the vanishing vines and trees I see again real streets, real people, real hope. I walk and cycle and see the open countryside again. I find wild forests, the closest thing we have to real jungles, and there are no monsters. And I write and somehow, as if by magic, I know what to say.
Recently, in Pitlochry, I walked along a path of dancing tree shadows, with Isobel; and, through the branches and leaves, we saw bright stars of sunlight bobbing on the water, and when we looked up we saw a high, green glow. Like healing. Like hope.
Lately, I spend little time with monsters, and I have moved back into the light of caring about other people. I’ve become strong enough to speak out in support of them, and help a little, here and there.
I watched a TV documentary about naturalist Chris Packham the other day. He has Asperger’s and it has shaped his whole life. He was bullied at school. As an adult, he thought seriously about suicide three times – once in 1987, and twice in 2000. Eventually, through a love of nature and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject, he became a TV presenter. In the documentary, he spoke in a very moving way about living with Asperger’s, and how it should be viewed in society. Immediately, I felt that his words were also relevant to other, sensitive ways of being in the world. He said – it’s got to be seen as a gift; not what you can’t do, but what you can do. I love that idea.