Stopping, for a moment

Something inside of me has always wanted to be on the move. Running, cycling, rushing from one activity to another. This part of me is the motor which kept me going – year after year, through ordinary days of work and living and many struggles, including hundreds of marches, alongside millions of other people. We were trying to end wars and poverty and generally make the world a better place. The same motor which helped me to do those things also gave me the strength to try as hard as I could, for a lot of years, to help thousands of individuals with their problems – with money difficulties, or trying to stop an eviction, or helping someone just to survive. I will always feel grateful that – as I grew older, and the motor powering me through life grew older, it never broke down entirely, despite a few times when it seemed overloaded and jittery, and I became very tired. Once, in November 2019, the motor decided that it needed a long rest. I was initially resistant to this idea. I was too busy being busy to rest.

Motor: “Listen Harvey, I have to take a break. All this work you’re doing, helping people, and caring about everybody, and rushing around, I understand it. I get it. But you’re just one wee guy in Dundee, you can’t change the world as fast as you want to, and you can’t save all the lives you want to save. You have to let me rest for a while. If you don’t let me rest, I can’t get you through the next stage of your life. I’m not stopping forever, but right now I am breaking, so I need time to fix. Okay?”

Me: “Okay motor, I understand. But I don’t think I can stop. There’s too much I have to do.”

Motor: “Harvey, my old friend, you don’t have a choice. You see all that twitching you do throughout the day? That’s me starting to break up inside you. So, this is not a negotiation. I am going to rest for a while. Be patient. You’ll be fine.” From that moment on, it felt as if something inside me had switched off.

More than a year later, I stood at the kitchen sink, washing dishes. I felt ridiculously happy that all I had to do was – have my hands in warm water and bubbles, and wash dishes. I looked up and saw the blue sky, and then I looked down into the garden and saw Nergal prowling about in the long grass, pretending to be a tiger.

I‘ve always been fascinated by moments when nothing much seems to be happening, but if you stay quiet and calm, you start to realise that everything is happening. The grass and trees and flowers are all incredibly busy, using sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide to live. It’s called photosynthesis – a great word I first heard at school. I’m distracted from that thought by seeing twitching in the long grass down in the garden. Nergal is pushing her nose through the leaves of grass, and glaring – from left to right and back again. I think it’s a perfect impersonation of a tiger. Okay, a very small tiger, and she’s not really stripey. And I remember a biology teacher at school, a woman with a long, weary face, who thought I wasn’t listening to her, because I was drawing a motorbike on my jotter, and she shook her head and said I would never pass an exam. So, I passed the next biology exam with high marks, just to prove her wrong. And zooming back to the kitchen sink, I notice how the curved surface of each soap bubble in the basin glows with its’ own rainbow and a tiny reflection of the kitchen. Like a child, I say out loud: “Cool!”

I’ve not finished with using the motor inside me to power me through a lot of activities and thinking about a lot of things.  Nowadays, I try to pay more attention to the signs from within. Sometimes, the motor will say: “Oi, Duke, you’ve been typing without a break for too long. Lift your eyes from the screen.” Usually, I’ll take a break. I always try to listen, because I’m very grateful the motor never completely broke down, and it did fix itself.  And the advice the motor gives me is always right. In fact, an optician told me the other day – I should take a 20 second break from working on a computer screen every 20 minutes. It’s just so easy to keep going and going and then do too much. But I’m learning how to do things differently. Taking moments to rest. Writing is one thing which has become so important to me, it’s hard to stop. Almost every day, when I’m not watching reflections in soap bubbles, or looking after Nergal, or interacting with other humans (which I admit I’ve always found a bit difficult), I’m writing. Posting out stories to magazines in Edinburgh, London, or to a competition in Australia. But whenever I need to, I try to rest.

If this world wasn’t so full of worries which we have no control over, I think that me and Nergal and Isobel, and everyone else I love, would be able to stop and rest any moment any of us needed to. Of course, it’s not like that. Not everyone gets to rest when they need to. Children in the Gaza strip deserve a lifetime of rest after the horrors they have faced the past few days, horrors their families have faced for years. When I was a child, I saw some of those terrors from a great distance on a TV screen, and even then, I felt tiny slivers of shrapnel had somehow flown out of the screen and into my heart. And I felt guilty every time I wasn’t there to help. I think that’s why I, like so many other people, decided to spend decades being on any frontline we could find. For me, it was workers’ struggles, fighting fascists, fighting racism and other injustices, and above all – standing by the most vulnerable people in Dundee, trying to get them through the trauma of battered lives. So, the other day, when I saw the people of Glasgow turning up in huge numbers to surround a police van and stop the deportation of two men, it was like the motor inside me revved up and let me know where its’ energy comes from, where it has always come from. The living inspiring examples of human solidarity which rise up again and again, and always will. The motor inside me needed to rest so it could get me through days like these. Other frontlines. Other struggles. Writing about them. And sometimes resting, so I can also notice rainbows and other moments shining and reflected in soap bubbles.

Harvey Duke

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