I woke when our cat began nosing my nose, wanting to go out. Thinking it must be around seven in the morning as it was so bright outside, I opened our front door to let Nergal trot downstairs. I followed her, opened the heavy garden door, and closed it after she ran out. Back upstairs, I discovered it was only four o’clock. No wonder I felt so tired. Yet, I decided to stay up for a while, in case Nergal wanted to come in for food.
I wandered from one side of our flat to the other, looking out of the windows. From the kitchen window, the sky was dull white with only a faint blue tinge. It seemed to offer the prospect of a boring day, although maybe that was the effect of being tired. I walked to the living room, past the bedroom where I could hear Isobel gently snoring. The sky I could see from the living room window was different. Behind a few elongated Zeppelin clouds, the sky was a lovely turquoise blue, electrically vivid and slightly unreal. It made me think of giant American advertising posters from the 1950s, with pale green cadillacs parked on neat driveways. The sky made me feel it was a day for going places.
The different skies from my windows struck me as something I should make a note of, so I did. I thought maybe I could use the skies as a sort of metaphor. I wasn’t sure what it would refer to. Maybe, it could be something about different ways of looking at life. I decided not to think about it too much. The right idea would come to me, or not.
Recently, I noticed something about feelings. It’s maybe a bit like seeing different skies. I noticed how quickly our feelings can change. One minute you can be as happy as a cat purring. For those who don’t know any cats, a cat purring is very happy. When Nergal sits on my chest and pushes her nose against mine and purrs loudly it’s like hearing the national anthem for the Magic Republic of Happiness. Anyway, a person can be that happy. Then, sometimes, bad news arrives in a letter or in a phone call or a brick comes crashing through your window, and everything changes. Happiness vanishes.
What made me start thinking about all of that? Well, it wasn’t from a brick flying through my window, so don’t worry. It wasn’t even a letter or a phone call bringing bad news. Okay, Mr Duke, then why mention these examples? There is a reason. Let me explain.
Occasionally, I have moments when I feel painfully uncertain. I may be walking down the road in the sunlight, and I suddenly remember I forgot someone’s birthday, or I forgot to pay a bill or to phone someone. I become tense and anxious in a heartbeat, and it’s worse than a normal concern. It can feel like a brick has shattered my living room window. Or it feels as if a phone call or a letter has brought devastating news. It is only when I make myself realise that nothing too bad has happened that my anxiety evaporates. I can feel okay again simply by taking a few deep breaths, or by thinking – wait a minute, what exactly am I worrying about?
Over a year ago, I couldn’t fix that kind of panic. I was stuck in it. The problem originated from all the suffering I had seen, working to help people on the very age of surviving, and I started to feel I had not done enough to help people. For many of those people, a brown benefits envelope coming through the letterbox, or a phone call, sparked terror. It could be telling them that their income would be cut to nothing. Weeks or months of hunger and panic. The more badly those crises affected people, the more it felt to me like a brick flying through my window. Even after I came off work ill, for months – I might see a former client in the street and my old panic returned.
Now, I am much better. I can still feel anxious, but I don’t get stuck there. I can see a different sky very quickly, often in less time than it takes me to walk from my kitchen window to my living room window. And I try to use the experience of healing to help other people to recover. I try to help people to become unstuck, so they can see different skies quickly.
Some days, the sky is dark with clouds and blurred by lashing rain, and it doesn’t matter which window we look out of – the sky looks the same. Personally, I don’t bother much about dark skies or rain – it can be an excuse to stay indoors and read, or sit with Isobel, watching an old movie on TV. Yet, I know that for many people, dark skies and rain seem like proof that the world hates them. Brighter weather may be forecast in just a few hours, but that doesn’t help people who are stuck in depression. Even a brighter day can feel pretty much the same. It’s the weather inside the person that needs to change before actual skies look different.
When I am not anxious or sad and I’ve not been anxious or sad for a long time, I completely enjoy my life. Isobel. A purring cat. Other people. (I hear my daughter Rachel’s voice in my head, saying: “Huh! So, I’m so I just ‘other people’, am I?” Well, I feebly reply, it means I care about you. In my imagination, I am given a glare that could fry a chip at five hundred paces.)
I can also enjoy books when I’m not anxious. I’m reading several at the moment: The Cornish Trilogy, a funny and magical series of novels by Canadian Robertson Davies; The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell; and The Secret Of Life by Howard Markel, a book about the discovery of DNA’s Double Helix structure, which gives Rosalind Franklin her rightful place alongside James Watson and Francis Crick. I have also begun to listen to audio books through wireless headphones. This has a dual advantage for me: I don’t semi-throttle myself with wires, and it’s safer than reading a book as I walk through the streets, where lampposts have a cruel habit of leaping in front of me. A book of lectures on J.R.R.Tolkein was particularly enjoyable recently. It was nearly eight hours long, but no lampposts were harmed during the listening experience.
Of course, changes in the way we feel need not always be as dramatic as thinking that a brick is heading in your direction. Suppose you’re reading this blog, which hopefully you are, and you read the paragraph above. Perhaps, up to that point, you felt mildly interested. I don’t want to overestimate my writing skills. Then you start reading the paragraph above, and your mood changes a little. You may think – oh no, here we go again, Harvey’s going to chunter on for ages about books. Although, I’m not. So, the way you felt may have changed from being mildly interested to a kind of critical disappointment. Let’s call it ‘mild’ too. I don’t like thinking about readers becoming so critically enraged that they chuck bricks through my window.
Perhaps, our feelings are always changing, and most of the time it’s just mild alterations. Small waves approaching a beach and curling slightly and then spreading out slowly as thin foam flows over the sand. Stroking the cat, thinking how happy I am, and letting my feelings spread out thinly as I become sleepier. Usually, there is no tidal wave on the horizon. There’s no sudden roar of large waves disturbing the peace. But, if there is, and if there is a storm, I know the calmness will always return and the fear will go, and the waves will become quiet again – perhaps in the time it takes for a few deep breaths. Or, if it takes much longer, people who care about us can help us get through the storm. People we love can help hugely. And cats. Skies. Books. Or, sometimes, just a few words in a blog.