Bridal Bed, chapter 1

So it’s Shakespeare’s supposed birthday and death day, and I have no witty, well-researched piece to post. What I do have is the long-suffering first chapter of the sequel to Rival Poet.

Yes, there is a sequel. Three, actually. The problem is… well, funnily enough the problem is kind of summarised in the very chapter I’m posting: tired ambition and the drudgery of everyday life that squeezes every ounce of fun out of you. In a way it feels comforting that my imagined protagonist once felt the same way, even though I made it all up. But it never feels like making things up when I write. I only follow dictation, I just set down what the movie in my head tells me to, and when it’s out there, it’s real to me.

As real as a relationship that no one can agree on: did he love her, did he not? I have my own answer, and it all starts in 1582.

Chapter 1

He first saw her in a graveyard. Among the headstones and the rain-blackened trees, on the darkest day of September, he saw her. On a day when his ink ran dry and his words were dust in his mouth, that’s when she appeared.

Like the angel he hadn’t known he needed.

It was a Sunday, the one day of the week he was able to breathe. Four years had passed since he first began toiling in Goodman Field’s odorous trade, and most of that time he’d spent shackled to the tannery, acquiring skills he didn’t want. But once a week, he had a few precious hours of freedom, and the graveyard was as good a place as any to spend it.

There was probably some stupid rule about not drinking beer in such a hallowed place, but what the priest didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.

“I came up with something new,” he mumbled, ripping chilly weeds from around Annie’s headstone. “You want to hear?” His voice sounded strange in the silence. Too alone, somehow. Too loud. He rubbed his forehead. Tiny pieces of grit scraped his skin and he wiped his face with his wet sleeve. “It’s not much, but I thought you might find it funny. The little love-god lay asleep… No, wait. The love-god lying once asleep…”

Fine rain settled on his skin and moisture from the ground seeped into his hose. He stared at Annie’s moss-eaten name, trying to remember. He must be really exhausted if he couldn’t locate his own words in his mental library.

“Little love-god.” He snorted. “Is that even a good phrase?”

He didn’t expect an answer, of course. Not from a dead girl. But talking to Annie beat talking to anyone else. The non-answers she gave him were more intelligent than anything that made it out of Goodman Field’s mouth. Besides, saying the lines out loud helped him think. The damp, chilly air also helped him think. The stolen mug of beer certainly helped. Actually, just about everything but the urine-infested tanner’s house was helpful.

The love-god lying once asleep…” he began again, but stopped and sighed. What was the point? These orphaned lines never made it onto paper. No one would ever read them, let alone hear them. After ten hours of wielding a beaming knife, his gimp hand couldn’t even lift a quill, and if he ever broached the subject of poetry with his family, that strained old look would come over their faces. As if they dreaded the subject – as if they thought he still nurtured hopes of university.

Ridiculous. They’d crushed that right out of him and no mistake.

Rearranging his aching limbs, he leaned against the headstone. It was cold and sturdy: something unmistakably real in the misty fairyland of the graveyard. In a strange way it was even kind of comforting. He was about to close his eyes and relax when he caught a movement at the corner of his eye: a woman, moving through the rustling leaves by the gate.

Crap.

Getting to his feet, he wiped the dirt from his hose, but he couldn’t do anything about the splotches. The woman’s eyes flitted over him and he averted his gaze. It was painfully obvious that he had been sitting on the ground – or it looked like he had pissed himself. In fact, given the beer mug at his feet, that was her most probable conclusion.

Clearing his throat, he made a final attempt to address Annie. “The love-god lay in blissful sleep,” he muttered, “when fourteen nymphs came tripping by…

It was no use. Why did he persevere? Why couldn’t his mind just leave the words alone and let him crawl to an early death in the fumes of the tannery? Why couldn’t he bury his memories like he had buried his sister? All that dead and festering ambition – what was it good for?

He looked over his shoulder. The woman was standing in front of a grave, her shoulders hunched in apparent sorrow. He remembered when his own wound had been new – when every breath he took felt stolen from the dearly departed. There hadn’t been any room for poetry then.

A band of nymphs came tripping by…”

He frowned. The presence of another mourner distracted him. The poem would have to wait – or, most likely, join the other scrapped fragments that littered his brain, never to be fully forgotten nor fully realised. Unborn, untethered, unseen. Never to be baptised in the font of a printer’s ink. Especially not Dick Field’s.

Irked by the thought of his childhood enemy, he shivered once and started walking towards the gate. Wet leaves squelched beneath his feet, trying to suck him under, to make him join their deceased ranks. As he passed the mourning woman, he quickened his steps so he wouldn’t have to greet her, but he couldn’t resist a furtive glance. There was something so… odd about her. Against the grey backdrop of headstones and trees, her skin was a flash of lightning. She should be sunkissed and crinkly after a summer of working. She was obviously a farmer’s daughter, and yet her features had something of the haughty noblewoman about them.

As if he had any idea what noblewomen looked like. The few he had seen had been too far away to afford any deeper analysis.

Stopping just inside the gate, he looked back. The woman stood with hunched shoulders and bowed head in front of a stone that was overgrown with ivy. Her hair was pulled back in a loose bun, but a few strands had slipped free. Stirring in a slight breeze, they made her face look dead by comparison. As if she had just stepped out of a grave of her own.

Will hesitated with his hand on the latch. Was it heartless to leave her without saying anything? Then again, what could he say, stranger that he was, to make things better? If someone had died, he didn’t possess the skill to bring them back. Meddling could only make things worse.

Aware of being watched, she glanced at him: a forbidding scowl, a challenge: What do you want? Embarrassed, he turned to leave – but stopped again. They had made contact now. It would be rude to just go. She would think he was a weirdo. She would go home to her family and tell them what an insolent man she had seen in the graveyard. Or worse, she would paint him as a simpleton.

Walking back the way he had come, Will paused at a respectful distance. Making his voice soft and low, he asked, “How are you?”

A stupid question. Her whole appearance screamed grief.

Squaring her shoulders, she looked up, but not at him. She stared into the foggy distance like one searching for a lost ship. “Do we know each other?” Her voice was a husky alto.

“No.” Will shifted his weight. “I’m sorry, I thought I’d…”

Her eyes swerved to him. Blue like nothing he’d ever seen. Blue like Dick’s eyes were blue, a dangerous colour full of superiority – but also sadness. Or was that just his poetic mind searching for soulfulness where there was none?

“Who was it?”

Her eyebrows dipped briefly. Then she looked down at the stone. “Oh… He was my father.”

“I’m… sorry,” Will tried, grimacing at the phrase. But that was what you were supposed to say when someone had died. I’m sorry. She must have heard it hundreds of times. Will certainly had, and each time it meant less. Perhaps it was better to say nothing. Perhaps the useless formulas were just an escape from awkwardness, a soothing of the conscience: if you said the words, you were rid of a debt owed to the griever.

“Um…” The sound of his hesitation shivered in the premature dusk. “How long has he been gone?”

“What?” Two patches of deepening scarlet appeared on the woman’s cheeks, like roses flowering in the snow.

“How long ago was it… that you… lost him?” Will gulped stupidly. She frowned at him, as if he had touched on some terrible secret. Blushing, he gestured at the grave.

The woman’s jaw set. “A year. Why?”

Will tried to breathe in through a sudden tightness in his throat. He should go, but her face held him prisoner. Her hair was so dark, and yet her skin was cold and pale – like a lily in twilight. His gaze slipped to her lips: a startling rosy-warm hue in the middle of all that solemnity. Like a summer bird in the dead of winter.

He looked at the headstone. ‘R’ something. R… Richard. Richard Gardner, alias something that was hidden behind a vine of ivy. It sounded vaguely familiar. Maybe father had done business with the man at some point. Will considered moving forward to remove the ivy, but decided against it.

“What’s your name?” he dared to ask instead.

The woman pursed her lips. “Why should I tell you?” Almost immediately, she looked contrite. “I’m sorry. It’s just… What’s the point of names? They’re just words. Like… promises.” She made a resigned gesture at nothing in particular. “Air.”

A shiver that had nothing to do with the cold crept down Will’s spine. “And yet words make up our whole reality,” he said, against his better judgment. This was no Master Jenkins, educated in the world of ideas. If he waxed philosophical, he would only confuse her.

Sure enough, she gave him an odd look. “What do you mean?”

Will shook his head. “Nothing.”

“You had a point. Tell me.”

He frowned at her, but she only looked back with that serious look in her eyes. Solemn, even. “Um…” he stalled, shifting his weight again. “Well, words are… For me at least, they’re important.” He meant to stop there, but she waited for him to go on, and the silence grew unbearable. “They sort of… frame the world. Like pictures. They’re a structure we imprison reality in, so we know where to look.” Grimacing at his ineptitude, he tried again. “I mean, they’re sort of the glass we look through, to see the world.”

“A glass, and a frame,” the woman summarised.

“Well…”

“Like a mirror.”

He hesitated. “Well…”

“And even though the mirror shows the world, it can never be a perfect reflection. Because it’s the opposite.” She turned back to gaze at the headstone. “What you thought you saw, or heard, was the complete opposite. And whatever you wanted to see outside of the frame… the words hindered you. They forced you to look in that deceptive mirror.”

Will didn’t feel the cold anymore. His skin was buzzing like summer bees. His head was clamouring. Remember, she’s just a woman, he admonished himself, but he couldn’t keep quiet. “And yet a mirror shows the world in a truer way than anything else we have. It’s a truth, if a bit skewed.”

“Is it?” Her eyes glittered in the drizzle, as if a ray of sun had escaped from behind a cloud and been caught, sparkling, in her irises. “Maybe noblemen’s glasses are. The spotted piece we have at home…” She trailed away, and the sparkle died. “Yes. Maybe it was accurate at one time. Maybe I believed what was actually a truth, but then it turned into a lie.”

Will had no idea what they were talking about anymore, but he didn’t care. In fact he didn’t care if he was even part of the conversation, as long as the woman went on murmuring her opaque soliloquy under the grey sky. Her words were a natural kind of rhetoric, an echo of Virgil, if rough like a farmer’s hands. It was a speech of opulence and calluses, of jewels in dirt.

“What truth?” he dared to ask, and at once the well ran dry. He saw it in the way she drew herself together, the way her body closed.

“Who are you here for?” she asked.

“Oh, er…” Will closed his eyes briefly, searching his mind. “Annie. My sister.”

“How awful. Was she young?” The woman looked at his face. “Yes. Of course she was.”

“It was a long time ago,” his mouth assured her. “I still talk to her, though.” He stopped, embarrassed. What did he mean by such a confession?

“Yes…” Her eyes lost focus for a moment. “I sometimes talk to my father, even though he died a year ago.” She snorted softly. “A ‘year’. Another word that we’re just supposed to believe. It’s real, it’s a fact. But what does it even mean? It can mean anything.”

Will nodded. “A year is a mathematical category,” he said, eager in a way he hadn’t been for a long time. “Made up of months, or weeks, or days, however you want to look at it. That’s the calendar, set down for us by our forefathers. But as an experience… a year can be the blink of an eye or an eternity of grief.”

The woman made a face. “That definitely rings a bell.”

A moment passed, and then the bone-numbing doom of the church bell rang out across the graveyard, and they both jumped. Gasping a laugh, the woman glittered at Will again, and the transformation was like something out of Ovid – from sombre pallor to a swarm of butterflies, all fluttering for him.

“How appropriate,” she giggled, stern woman banished as if she had never been there.

Will was unable to battle an idiotic grin. “God smiles on our conversation.”

She snorted. Then she dropped her gaze to take in his bedraggled appearance, the mud on his breeches, his unshaven chin, and uncut hair that lay plastered to his temples. His fingers twitched with the need to defend himself, to explain why he looked like a vagabond, but before anything remotely intelligent could surface in his turmoiled mind, she said, “I’m Agnes. Well, to my family I am.”

She held out her hand. It was narrow yet plump, and very cold when he took it in his. He hardly dared press it for fear it might break, and yet there was a strength in there that belied its apparent frailty.

“William,” he whispered his full name, wondering at the absence of surnames. As if they were both characters in a poem or a play, no need for familial demarcations or proof of respectable descent, just two people in a graveyard touching hands, touching eyes.

“Well, I’m sorry, I have to…” Agnes gestured at the gate, and Will’s chest contracted in secret panic. Don’t go. A pale smile was all he got for his wordless plea. Powerless to stop her, he followed her with his eyes as long as he could see, but she never once looked back. Agnes Gardner alias something or other. Will’s heart lurched in his chest. Stay out of it, you fool.

But of course he knew he wouldn’t.

 

 

The Ditzy Rebel planning system

Planner peace… it’s not just a pipe dream. I’ve finally found the Holy Grail that combines the bullet journal with the Getting Things Done system – with an added dash of rebel tendency strategies. The key for me was separating the planner from the “grand ideas” parts of the system, because trying to cram all my visions into one book was just… no. Not possible.

So that’s how I came up with a self-contained three tier system for 1) day-to-day planning, 2) more long-term dreams, and 3) crazy-ass scribbles.

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The video below explains all this in detail with a concrete example at the end, but the short version is that the big A4 “messy books” contain all my random scribbles and drawings and almost diary-type brain dumps about things that pertain to my teaching, my research, my home projects, and my creative hobbies. In the two smaller A5 “maybe books”, I gather all my ideas in someday/maybe list form. Finally the black A5 “master book” functions as my planner, with a calendar section, weekly spreads, and lists of projects and next actions.

The point of the system is that there are binding threads connecting all these books, and I don’t write any good ideas on random slips of paper or in loads of different notebooks that get lost or forgotten – no, it’s all in the self-contained three tier system where each book has its own theme with different project areas that are separated and signified by tabs in different colours.

3. The messy books (A4)

(Yup, I’m starting from the back, with number three, and saving the numero uno master book for last.)

So two of the messy books are for work. The port red one is for teaching, and the green one is for research. In these I jot down messy ideas concerning courses I teach and the studies I conduct. I could use ordinary, ugly, cheap notebooks, but these Leuchtturm ones actually make it more fun to work, so I think the expense is worth it.

To keep track of where I’m writing about what, I use tabs in different colours that signify different courses and studies. That way when I get an idea for something new, I can just turn the page and start writing, bullet journal style, and still have a structured and easily navigated book.

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The other two messy books are for home. The black one is for duty type projects like car maintenance, paperwork, and renovation. The blue one is for creative projects like writing, photography, and social media, and that’s where I plan out my books and brainstorm videos like the one below.

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2. The maybe books (A5)

The maybe books are for more structured lists of ideas, a place where I go to see if there are any good ideas I feel like acting on. This is where the system becomes an actual system, because the maybe books correspond to two messy books each. One maybe book is for work (port red) and contains someday/maybe lists for both teaching and research, so it combines the ideas I brainstorm in the port red and moss green messy books.

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The other maybe book is for home (pink), and it contains someday/maybe lists with ideas that pertain both to the black duties messy book and the blue creative messy book.

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The tabs in the maybe books correspond to the tabs in the messy books, so that for example, a pale purple tab signifies writing in both the maybe book and the blue messy book. This way I can easily find anything to dow with writing and easily flip to the right spread.

1. The master book (A5)

Finally, it all comes together in actual planning and carrying out of tasks in the planner.

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This is where I keep all my current and time specific projects and tasks. Nothing goes in here that isn’t important right now or within the next month. No grand ideas, no long-term dreaming, just the day-to-day deadlines and appointments, notes for meetings, and brain dumps that will be irrelevant once I process them and turn the page.

Want to know more about how the system works and how I combine the Getting Things Done system with bullet journalling concepts? Please watch the video below, where I explain all this in more detail, with an extended example to show you exactly how I use the system in real time. The video contains references to my books.

 

From the pinnacle to the pit

I heard you were a poet. But a poet of no words? (Shakespeare in Love)

As a writer it’s always strange when you find yourself unable to express something verbally. It’s as if your go-to toolbox has been misplaced. As if the screwdriver that worked fine yesterday no longer fits.

My stories are emotional turmoil processed by time and structured by hindsight. I can seldom express anything if the impact is too recent – like now. I sit here trying to verbalise yesterday’s experience at a Ghost concert, but I’m strangled by too much… something (can’t even find an appropriate noun).

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Me nineteen years ago. Strangely prophetic.

To describe this concert, I have to borrow from myself. Last summer I wrote some fan fiction because the new album totally fucked me up, and those words still ring truer than anything I could write today.

The lights explode into being, like the first day all over again: it’s the parting of light from darkness and the celestial dance that started then and hasn’t slowed down since. The music soars, guitars and keys and drums and bass, and the light splashes on Special where he crowns the stage, ghastly and glorious. As the auditorium erupts in screams, he holds his arms out to them, embracing them all. He’s a beacon of darkness, a charity for the hopeless. And when his voice resounds through the air, it’s a sizzle down Papa’s neck. Special isn’t just singing, he’s pulling his soul out with an iron fist, ripping his heart from its cage and holding it aloft, dripping darkly, like a sacrifice.

Papa shudders in equal parts horror and euphoria. He’s never seen him in action, never witnessed the transformation from flesh to flame. From the back, Special looks like the incarnation of Papa’s every desire. The shafts of light cut themselves on his dark silhouette. A platitude comes to mind – that the smallest light can banish any darkness. Well, look at this. You can shine the brightest lamp, but it only takes one man to stand in front of it and cover the world with his shadow. Everywhere he goes, the spots follow him and are devoured. Where he plants his feet, he slices through the beams. Nothing can get past him.

Special pauses in his singing, holding the microphone to his chest and staring out at the crowd. He knows. He feels it too. What Papa and he only dreamed of, what they planned but didn’t see the full scope of – it’s now conceived. It’s born and growing in the world. When the masses out there open their throats in praise, when they sing Special’s words back at him, it’s more than an invocation. It’s the realization of the impossible. A sea of lonely creatures coming together, truly coming together for one purpose. Yes, they talked about the dominion of the world, of an infernal new era, but this is that era not only nascent but adolescent. Special has become a demi-god. He has them in his fist, and they’re delirious to be so trapped.

(Scriptures of Abundance on AO3, enter at own risk
– it’s adult and blasphemous and bloody)

So… yeah. Ghost. Six years ago we saw them in a small venue closer to home, we stood ten metres from Papa and could have touched him. Last night we squinted at a tiny figure on the other side of a hall in Stockholm. Bigger, more lavish backdrop, bigger better lights. Everything turned up to eleven. From a perfect seed, this perfect flower. Two and a half hours of musical generosity. The heat of flames in an unapologetic celebration of life and death.

There’s nothing like lyrics about death to make you feel alive. When an entire hall sings “While you sleep in earthly delight, someone’s flesh is rotting tonight” it kind of makes you realise that no one in there is dead. For all our collective romanticising of the Grim Reaper, every one of us is still here, still on this earth – but we won’t always be. And isn’t that one of art’s ultimate goals? To make you feel alive and mortal, to make you grab what you have in the moment because the moment is all you have?

But it’s so goddamn lopsided. Yes, you can sing your throat raw and clap and scream and even write gushy fan letters if you’re so inclined, but in the end the communication is very one-way. I wish there was some way to reciprocate, you know? As I expressed it to my husband, “I feel like a dog that tries to lick your face when you pet it, just because it wants to give something back.” To which he replied, “Oh, okay, like – yes, hello Tobias? My wife wants to lick your face.”

Which is only half true!

It’s just… you want to convey that age-old fan feeling that a piece of art makes an actual, concrete difference in your life. That your soul would be less without it. That when a fictional stage character tells 14 000 people he can see through the scars inside them, you feel personally addressed. That you can hear something quintessentially Swedish in the music and it makes you ridiculously proud. And that when he uses Neil Peart’s phrase “plateau of untouchable” in an interview, you want to shout, “Yes! I can quote the entirety of Beyond the Lighted Stage too!”

But today, of course, I’m crashing. A “See Naples and die” feeling. The post-gig blues from hell – literally. Questions about what I’m doing with my life, why I’m not in a place where I feel as limitless as I did during Faith or Year Zero.

The euphoria of last night is a blue memory now, a thing of the past, something that almost never happened. Now there’s just us and the desolate waste and the rest of our lives, and nothing but our own hands and minds to till the land we don’t recognize. No authorities, no one to go crying to. No one to tell us what to do. What you can’t make for yourself you’ll never have.

That was always the message, wasn’t it?

But now it’s true, now it’s here. This is reality now. The dance is our own. We invent the steps even as we tread the ground, even as we test the firmness of earth that may give way at every turn.

You’re the conductor now.

(Before and After on AO3)

As the cardinal would have it, “this is the moment of just letting go.”

But I can’t let go, and so what remains but to engage in some symbolic consumption in the online merch shop?

Something new

Those who have read my latest novel, Chains of Being, may have picked up on my kind-of-goodbye at the end of the book. I even co-opted my friend Shakespeare to deliver the message, complete with a modern day wizard metaphorically breaking his/her staff. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The ending is almost unspoilable, because it’s so complex. Whatever I say about it won’t make sense until you read it.

But anyway, the goodbye is real. I’m leaving m/m romance. At least I think I am. I’ve said my piece. Which is kind of sad, since I never got around to writing the fifth Pax book – the whole point of writing the other four! – but there’s nothing left to say. Well, there is, but I’m not feeling it. I have to feel the stuff I write, or it comes out clunky.

Which brings me to… something else. Something new. Something that will probably never become anything, because I’m writing it mainly for myself, but yes, I’m definitely feeling it. 🙂 It’s not that all my words have dried up, just the ones tracing the fates of Michael and Jamie and the others. The words that fill me now have to do with… uh… well, planners. Ha. I’m switching from gay romance to my love story with journals, how’s that for a twist?

And even though I’m content with it staying a weird little apocryphal story, I miss being able to put it somewhere. I’ve entertained the idea of making it fan fiction, but I’m afraid that particular fandom doesn’t exist (one woman does not a fandom make).

So. Ta-daa. I’m putting it here. It may end with this one post, or I may add to it when inspiration strikes, I don’t know.

And with this underwhelming intro out of the way, let’s make room for…

The Assistant

Anatomy of an obsession

Today is all about his arms and neck. He’s wearing a t-shirt, perhaps to help me. Pen in hand, I keep my eyes on the gentle sinewiness of his forearms, on the angle of his shoulders. With each sweeping motion of his baton, extensors bunch and flexors yield. His fingers pinch and spread, as if unwilling to belong to the same hand.

Every now and then I scribble. I note similarity and difference, minute changes from yesterday. I document positions where there’s room for pain to creep in. He wants to know if he’s risking fatigue, if he’s conserving energy or not. In my bag there’s a book on anatomy for reference – his anatomy, not some generic encyclopaedia. It’s all in my handwriting, and today’s statistics will come in handy at his next physiotherapy appointment.

I draw a quick sketch of him for good measure. Scratch, scratch, scratch, lightning-quick. It’s not meant to be art, I just want to capture that habit of his where he leans forward too much, putting pressure on his lower back. I know why he does it. He wants to engage the orchestra, to compensate for his elevated position, but that bending is not a good idea.

Beneath the drawing I jot down one of my trademark analogue hyperlinks, a page number and a date – in pink, to signify ergonomics. Then I pull out a third book from my bag, the one for questions that can wait, that need the perfect moment or he’ll retreat into his shell. It’s a book for the sensitive issues I can’t just bring up out of the blue during one of our talks. It needs tact, perhaps even wine and darkness – a softening of walls I can’t always achieve, especially not on a Monday.

Maybe after the next concert, if it’s successful? Maybe then I can gently probe that age-old sore: his self-chosen exile among the exalted ones, his withdrawal to godly status from whence he’s spending the rest of his life trying to escape.

One fateful decision in his youth, and an eternity of years to atone for it.

He keeps insisting in interviews that the distance doesn’t exist, but his body tells another story. It constantly seeks to bridge that chasm. It pushes him to breaking point just to make a connection.

As I put the Book of Questions back in my bag, I wonder if I’ve made a mistake, drawing the sketch in the NowBook where he’ll see it, but it’s too late now. I can’t erase it, because I do nothing in pencil, only in ink. Nothing that’s recorded can be undone, and I would never tear out a page.

It’s all part of the chronicle. It’s why I’m indispensable.

Because my books are a labyrinth only I know my way around. Anyone else would get lost in its seeming randomness, but not me. I draw the lines, I create the itinerary. Where I point, he goes, and where he points, they all go. I’m the Ur-conductor, the puppeteer in the wings. Nothing exists without my say-so. I’m on the telephone lines, the broadband highways, always on the prowl for the next event, the next memory-to-be.

I’m the taken for granted one.

It sounds awful, but it’s not. If you can’t take your assistant for granted, what good is she? He lays his life in my hands and forgets about it. I’m an invisible force, like gravity, pulling him where he’s supposed to be. I live and breathe his days. I dream his appointments, I know the outcome before he’s even shaken hands. There are secret wormholes leading from the main calendar to project pages and task lists and maybes and preliminary dates and references to binders and folders and Internet pages. Structures with built-in protection against World War III, because I don’t just write on paper: I rearrange my very neurons to match him. Even if I lose the books, I can recreate it all from memory. Hook me up to a printer and it’ll spit out the very same pattern.

 

If you’re looking for something Bechdel-worthy, turn back now. I won’t have a single thought that doesn’t have to do with him.

 

But I’m not in love. That’s not what this is. And yet it’s just as strong.

We’re never taught how to feel anything but romance, are we? Strong affection scares us with its nebulosity, with its sudden appearance out of nowhere, its refusal to stake out a predictable path. Because what do you do with a love that’s unconsummatable? How do you keep a person in your life without marrying them?

Have your sister marry them?

Well, I don’t have a sister, and it’s not a wedding that’s going to keep this man tethered to geography. It’s control.

So I watch him. That’s what I do. Like a fly with a thousand facets all tuned into this one object, I see more than anyone else can. He knows the music, he sees the thread beginning in the watery overture of Das Rheingold and ends in Götterdämmerung, he knows every pin-drop pizzicato on the way, every thin fluty trill. But with all his conscious thought bound up in Wagner or Brahms or Prokofiev, what’s left to know himself?

That’s why I forsake a life of my own to document his. I’m the behind-the-scenes girl, and he’s not only on the scene. He is the scene.

Biographers may understand some of it. Historians burying themselves in tax documents and the dinner habits of some long dead king. My king lives, but I know what he had for dinner.

I was the one to order it.

 

Stalker’s job hunt

How I managed to worm my way inside that most sacred of sanctums is anyone’s guess. I can list the details, the preparations, the being at the right place at the right time, the white little lies. But none of that is the answer. The truth is, no one but me could have done it.

The answer is as vague as I am.

It’s something to do with my blandness. My ability to mimic life – to become who they expect. Who stands on the doorstep of budding fame, thinking they’ll be welcomed? A reporter, perhaps, or someone on the payroll. A receptionist, a liaison. An assistant so inconsequential it’s no wonder they don’t recognise my face.

One thing is clear. Nobody knew he’d be big. Nobody cared to trace his steps, because what would they do with the information?

I knew what to do with the information.

 

A TV programme from the early years, before. It’s in his language, but it doesn’t matter. I watch and rewatch like I always do, no subtitles and no help except his face. It looks almost angry, but not quite. Stern?

The scene shifts to someone else and I rewind, look again. Haughty. Is that it? I don’t think he realises. He’s only being serious. He’s only talking about something he feels strongly about. Trying to make a point, to get something across. Staring intently at me, the recipient of his earnest gospel. The good-as-deaf girl who hangs on every word in the hopes of understanding… something.

Once more the camera cuts to the other guy and I rewind. Again Aleksei looks up and relaunches into his sermon. What’s he talking about? Music, that’s all I know. I catch a Bartók here, a Suk there. The rest is shrouded in mystery. But I rewatch and relisten until I can mouth the sounds along with him. Until the data I’ve gathered is enough to build a 1:1 replica of his life.

 

I stalk him. That’s how I get the job.

And one day I’m there. There there, in the same room, breathing the same air. Single-minded focus has finally paid off, even though a thousand different outcomes would have been more probable. After meeting his gaze in countless film frames, I don’t meet it at all. I’m a shadow in the corner, just feeding on the atmosphere, on the swirling of dust motes – because they swirl this way and not that, and I read the pattern like a meteorologist of the soul.

“So how does it feel?”

It’s the first time I hear him addressed in person. I don’t miss a beat. I’m already re-watching it in slow motion, recording instead of experiencing – my secret, if there is one.

He looks up, caught off guard by the question. Too personal? Too familiar, too everyday on a day that’s as far from everyday as you can come? He smiles, a stiff smile to conceal sudden unease at being the centre of attention. Just now he revelled in benign dictatorship, the focal point of an entire hall, basking in applause like one born to it… and now, body rigid – held in check by a love-sick tuxedo and a shyness that’s inseparable from pride – he wants to disappear from his own party.

“Uhm,” he stalls, making a joke of it. Doesn’t want to answer, because where’s an answer that can simultaneously honour the enormity of success and the banality of just doing what you do? “Er…”

“The moment won’t come again. This is your chance to put into words what it feels like to have brought down the house for the first time.”

I can see him deliberate with himself, search for a feeling that’s possible to describe so people understand. Stalling further, he opens a can of beer just so he can look down. Shadows slide up his cheekbones to shield him from prying curiosity, but he can’t hide from me. I read the shadows as well as I read the light. I see the twitch of muscle as he wavers between condescending smirk and self-deprecating grimace.

Then he straightens up again and faces the man – like a soldier, shoulders squared. That’s how much energy he spends on this one question, this one social confrontation. His lips curl into a semblance of contentment, and he says, “I’m happy.”

For a moment I wonder if he’s said a word in his own language, because I don’t recognize it. In his mouth it sounds different, as if he’s using it wrong. But no, the man nods and looks satisfied. And perhaps happiness does play a part in what goes on under that mild-yet-mocking exterior, but it must be dull compared to what he’s really feeling. I hope he goes back to his hotel room tonight and tells the notation paper the truth.

“Good,” the man says, letting Aleksei off the hook – leaving him free to take a gulp from the beer and a drag from his cigarette.

Yes. He smokes. A habit that will be entered into my book in an ink that bleeds through the paper. It will be allowed to drool unchecked through otherwise pristine pages until it dwindles of its own accord.

His eyes narrow as he inhales. For a moment he looks smug, almost arrogant. A move for the camera, for his audience. But as soon as the attention shifts to someone else, his eyes flick down into introversion. Shielded by soft lashes, no longer required to play the role of himself, his face sheds years as he breathes out a thin stream of smoke: a white fusion of all the answers he didn’t give – the thousand million possible combinations of syllables that could have summarised his feelings better than “happy”.

But no one is interested in those million combinations, and he knows that better than most. He hasn’t said so, but it’s obvious. For every person like him there comes a time in their life when they stop angling for the right words. After years of hooking the prettiest descriptors, the aptest metaphors, they allow those silver-slick perfections to slip away unused – because in the end, who will hear them?

I think he learned his lesson rather late.

 

Are you happy?

I never ask him about these things. The art of music is the art of knowing when and where to be silent.

But I take note. I have a book where I detail his fluctuating moods, invisible as they might seem. He’s the taciturn, stoic kind of man, even at his most affable. Some might think he doesn’t have moods at all, just a constant kindly reservedness, a hands-off smile of placid contentment. But there are shifts and shades even in his indigo twilight. Rippling moon shadows and faint starlight, purple paling into grey.

I write them down like statements, as dry as the meetings in his calendar. Item: a confused frown. He doesn’t understand why the horns have trouble following his lead. We’ll discuss it later. From my vantage point at the back of the room, I can see how his orders to them look different from those he gives the cellists.

He doesn’t agree with these analyses of mine. “The orchestra is a single beast,” he likes to say. “I can’t cater to them individually, I treat them like the team they are.”

And yet when he turns his eyes on a section or an individual, they feel like the only person in the room.

 

The first time I prove myself is banal, fleeting. He’s about to look for something to drink. He’s been talking to the concertmaster and his throat is dry. A tell-tale movement in his hand, no more than a twitch, but coupled with a sticky-looking swallow it’s plain as day.

When he registers the need consciously, he turns to see the glass of water already by his elbow. His eyes flit to me, just a moment of recognition, and then he drinks. Thinking nothing of it: once can be a coincidence, after all.

But over time the evidence stacks up. I hold his life in my hands as it spirals into chaos. I’m his one safe port in the gathering storm. I’m not paid – not yet – but one day he’ll wake up in a cold sweat and realise that he has to, or he’ll lose all semblance of control.

 

“So tell me. What is all this?”

I look at the table between us, at the myriad printouts and post-its and ripped pieces of paper that comprise my job interview. Lined, squared, dotted, plain. Yellow and white, some pink. Black text in Courier, Times, Georgia, Garamond. Months, days. Boxes to tick or to fill with text. There’s a computer with ten browser tabs open, there’s a tablet full of apps and a phone calendar with dates filled in. Ideas scattered across platforms, to do’s and quotes and feelings, has Mister Lanois answered yet? and maybe if Miss Nakamura says yes to a collaboration I can send her this folder.

I can already sense a collection of threads. There’s an invisible hierarchy, and all I have to do is put every item in its logical place.

“It’s…” I fumble for the words to convey that I know what I’m doing. But I can’t summarise his life in a sentence after having looked at these scraps for a mere minute. Is that what he expects?

“It’s a tree. No. A spider’s web. But not a two-dimensional one. It has strands that begin at the centre and continue in other dimensions.” I give a sudden chuckle. “It’s a brain.”

The look he gives me is sceptical, amused, affectionate. I shut it out to save myself from a white-out – that dreaded explosion of synapses that leaves my head a box of stark bright emptiness.

“So I need several books for this,” I say as I turn my eyes to the table again. “I’ll use one central book, to gather all loose ends. The ‘now’ book.” I nod to myself. “The NowBook.” It settles in my mind, finds its form. “And from there will stretch many strands that end up in other books – like hyperlinks, only it’s all analogue.”

“Analogue?”

“Yes.” Firm. There’s no other way. My head can’t wrap around cyberspace. “And I’ll need another book to track outside contacts. OutBook. But with a duplicate list in the NowBook, colour coded with page references. And another one for ideas that may go nowhere, but they pop from your head like gunfire and I need to catch them. You never know when you’ll need them, probably never, but they need to be stored. And then there’s a YoreBook and –”

“My book?”

“No, YoreBook, for memories. Emotional retention content, possibilities to do with the past. There’ll be emotion and memories in the NowBook too, but only insofar as it’s relevant f–”

I mean to go on, but his fingers on the table straighten slightly and lift from the surface. I fall silent. When I meet his eyes, there’s surprise in them.

“How…?” he begins, then makes a face and cocks his head. “How do you know? How do you just… know?”

“Because I’m not living,” I reply. It sounds weird, so I try to rephrase. “What I mean is, if I don’t interact with anyone, if I’m only focused on the system, I can see everything. I can decide where everything fits in relation to everything else. It works in silence and withdrawal. I work in silence and withdrawal.”

“And you see… ‘everything’.”

I shrug. “Everything to do with you. I won’t be able to help with the orchestra.”

He laughs. “Well, no, because that would make you superhuman, wouldn’t it?”

I frown. I don’t know how to respond to that.

“But why are you interested?” he asks. When I don’t answer at once, he adds, “You have to be interested to do this kind of work, don’t you?”

“Well…”

“Interested in me.”

I don’t move a muscle. Whatever my facial capillaries think they’re up to, they can think again. “Not in that way,” I say tonelessly. “Yes, it’s an obsession of sorts, but the focus isn’t our relationship, it’s your life. I’ll spend my days concentrating on your every move, but you’ll never think about my presence at all. If it works out, that is.”

“Sounds very lopsided.”

I throw one look at the scraps between us. “Which will fit right into the pattern you already have.”

His cheeks bunch in the kind of non-smile I’ve learned to steel myself for. He’s going to politely let me know that kind of analysis isn’t wanted.

But when I hold my breath for the inevitable, he hesitates. Then he lets out a breath – he’s been holding his too – and it becomes a chuckle. “You already know what I’m going to say.”

I look down into my lap. “Sorry.”

“I…” There’s movement as he shakes his head. “I should be repelled, but it’s exactly what I need. To not have to say anything. To have someone just know.”

I nod. Of course I already know this too.

“Well, consider yourself hired.”

I reach out to swipe the collection of scraps and notebooks into my bag, but he misinterprets the gesture and tries to take my hand. Our eyes snag in each other and I spill an awkward laugh. Our hands hover, like rival hummingbirds, for a too-long moment. Then he grabs mine and squeezes it with a smile. A warm smile, or a warm hand, or both, I’m not sure, I can’t separate the impressions. For a moment I’m too there to know what’s happening.

And then, as if he senses the threat, he lets go. “Thank you,” he says, and now his tone is the one he uses with the orchestra. I miss his other voice, and I miss the touch of his hand and his very presence before he even stands up and dons his coat. Long, long scarf, it should take an age to wind about his throat, but he’s done much too quickly and off he goes with his big long strides, marking this day as over.

So I don’t start immediately?

But I can start immediately. I pick up a piece of paper and feel it, light in my hand like a feather. Where someone else might sigh in exasperation, I feel like I’ve been given the most precious treasure – one I never really dared believe would be mine. I mean, anyone can be an assistant, if that’s what you’re after. There are countless tools both digital and analogue to organize your life, to categorise your wants and needs according to a logical structure. To have it all in one place.

But for someone truly to be an external hard drive of your life?

You need that extra ingredient.

 

Review

“Uhp!”

That sound, coupled with a pinching gesture, and the orchestra falls quiet. Attentive like trained dogs. What now? What does he want? Who screwed up?

“Violas.” He scratches his neck, weighs his words. If he doesn’t, they’ll come out harsh. He can’t just say what he feels. People don’t communicate on that level. “I’m not hearing the theme, and you’re the ones carrying it here. Can you just… a little louder, please. Okay, figure eight.”

His hands fly up, and with them fly the instruments, settling on collarbones and nether lips. Too late: the pinch reappears. Then: raised eyebrows – ready now? – and down goes the beat again, everyone on board. The hint of a smile is all they get for doing it right this time.

But it’s more than enough. Even for me, sitting in the shadows with my book and my pen, I feel it too. The elusive warmth that makes you cling to what’s almost nothing, but when that almost-nothing touches you, it’s as close to heaven as you’ll get.

You see how it brushes right up against romantic love? But everyone whose hearts are touched by his gossamer approval can’t be in love. That’s not what it is. It’s just so very impossible to live without.

And so we come to the why. Why did I ever dream this dream? Why did I devote my life to making it here? There’s the interview with his mother, of course, but you can’t base an obsession solely on a mother’s anecdote. So what’s the attraction?

His femininity. Amid all that masculine pride and his will of iron is a girlish softness you can’t ignore. Yes, it’s facile to call it by its traditional name. Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should only speak of his vulnerability and his authority without ascribing gender roles.

Let’s see how we go.

So what’s the attraction? His gentleness. Amid all that quiet resolve, the way he demands things without even speaking…

It’s pointless, you see? This is all about gender, even if I don’t say it. The female assistant sweeping a path for the male genius who ignores all other aspects of his life to focus on honing his craft? It’s straight out of Fuck the Patriarchy 101.

But I’m honing my craft too. I’m a genius in my field, the queen of my own kingdom, and I’m the one to tell the story. See how the roles are muddled? I’m the Watson to his Holmes, needed and undervalued, a sounding board without whom he wouldn’t even exist. But I’m also the detective, the observer, the only one who can tell him why he always pauses after a conjunction.

And he wants it. Needs someone to deduct and record, because otherwise there would just be sea surf: a fragile froth that pops its own bubbles, quiet and relentless, a molecular dance that distracts like the magician’s hand until suddenly, it’s over. The moon’s eclipse, the cessation of gravity. One day will be his last, and what I haven’t written then won’t exist.

The irony is, of course, that by then it’ll no longer matter. All this careful collecting of tiny nothings… when he draws his final breath I will burn the lot.

Which is why we have our talks, always with adjoining hotel rooms so I can slip in and out.

 

“So.”

He looks up, almost-smile in place, that human manifestation of entropy. It holds for a moment, but I don’t let his gaze go. Then he drops his pretence – so hard to let go of, even with me – and becomes Aleksei again: not so much resting bitch face as resting demure demoiselle at the Louvre face. How a person looks when they’re completely relaxed.

And beautiful. Let’s not kid ourselves.

“So.” I sit on the edge of the bed, bag pressed to my chest until I realise it’s pressed to my chest. I lower my arms, try to relax like he does.

A genuine smile this time. “How was today?”

He never means me. “You were tense.”

His eyes flick down to my bag of books, but I’m not quoting from them. My notes are too detailed. This is my summary, the succinct soundbite. He doesn’t have time for anything else.

He sighs inaudibly. “So what do I do?”

Imagine a beach, flits through my mind, but he wouldn’t rest on a beach. He would count the beats between waves.

Before I can flip through my mental index for something else, he says, “Never mind. That’s not for you to answer, is it? We’ll take it up with the physiotherapist.”

Or a therapist, I almost blurt. For a moment I even think I’ve said it aloud, but he doesn’t flinch, which he would have done if I had.

“Yes,” I say belatedly. “I’ve made a note of it.”

“Can I see?”

He holds out his hand on the covers. I allow myself one look at it, one mental sketch of those photogenic lines: it looks like an example drawing from an artist’s guidebook. This is how you shadow tendons, this is how knuckles work.

Oh yes. Anatomy. I open my bag and rummage through it, cheeks slightly warm, until I find the NowBook. The drawing, I agonise, but it’s too late to dissemble. He’ll see it, and we’ll take it from there. Maybe the thoughts I had as I drew it won’t be visible in the lines. Maybe we won’t have to have The Talk just yet.

He flips the book open with one thumb on the tab and the other holding the stack of future pages. As his eyes fall on the sketch, he stills. I see his eyes flit over my scribbled notes on height of elbow, shoulder muscles, the correlation between the energy he spends and the energy he gets in return from the orchestra.

Because it’s an equation, make no mistake. He can’t just sit back and relax and expect things to happen all on their own. To some extent he has to break his body to make them dance. I’m not here to tell him to take it easy. I’m here to provide the data so he can make a decision on exactly how much torture is enough.

The book falls from his hands – a short fall to the soft embrace of the sheets beneath. He looks up at me. “Something you want to tell me?”

So he sees. “No,” I stall, even though I know it doesn’t work.

“You know I can’t hold back. Not now. Not so close to the premiere.”

“I know.”

“So what’s this?” He indicates the drawing.

“It’s just a moment in time,” I snap. “How you look. Additional information for your physiotherapist. She’ll know what to do.”

“Yes, she’ll tell me to stop trying to reach them.”

I’m struck dumb. He’s made the connection himself, then? “I, uh…” I close my eyes and shake my head. “She would never say that.”

“Perhaps not. But she’ll think it. She’ll write it in my medical journal.”

“So what? She doesn’t know what it takes to do your job.”

“Do you?”

The accusation is an ice pick in my chest. Winded, I can’t find my voice.

“I’m… sorry.” His voice is soft again. “I just don’t know…”

… how to do this? Well, neither do I. We both have impossible jobs.

He rubs his face, looking weary now. Weary and grey. All the aches and sores in his muscles asking for attention, for sympathy, for a day off.

I’m sorry,” I say. “I could never do what you do, and I wouldn’t presume –”

“Can you watch me while I sleep?”

I fall silent, stunned. It’s an outrageous demand, worded like a suggestion.

“Of course.”

 

Snapshots, fleeting moments. How we met, truly met. A moist paw – his, not mine – and a mumbled name. Since then he’s learned to say his name as if it matters – the way it matters to thousands and counting – but it hasn’t come easy. For a while I was the one to train him. Face to face in hotel rooms, him practicing introductions, me giving advice on eye contact, hand pressure, diction. He tried to relearn his own name, but in the end he gave up even though it helped. When I asked why, he held my eyes and said, “I’m not afraid of you.”

 

Watch me sleep.

I walk over to the stuffed chair with its cream upholstery. Remove his clothes – the scarf, his shirt, his trousers – and sit down. I keep his garments on my lap, still warm from his body. He climbs into bed, white t-shirt and boxers, crisp and clean under crisp and clean covers. All that’s missing is a teddy bear. Pulling up the covers, he sits cross-legged under the sheets and watches me back for a moment. His blue-grey eyes make one attempt to lode my depths, peruse me like they peruse the orchestra, probing for flaws, for holes he can fill with his genius.

The innuendo makes me warm. I busy myself with folding his clothes in my lap and placing them on the coffee table. Sometimes I stumble into these things. My thoughts brush it like butterflies’ wings, like the errant question at a museum: what would it be like to kiss one of these statues?

When my half-blush has settled I look up, calm again. He’s lying down now, covers drawn up to his chest, one half naked arm on top of it, hand clutching the sheet. Those hands, those arms are his livelihood. People pay to watch them, but I’m paid to watch. And where they see only the power of the leader, or indeed the pointless flapping of a parasitic prat, I read his lines, the tautness in his bicep and wrist, and I know where he hurts.

“If you want me to reschedule, move it forward so you can get it over with…?”

He rolls over on his back and directs an accusing glare at the ceiling. “I can’t…” There’s a sharp sound that I only afterwards realise is a gasp. “Fuck.”

I flinch. He rarely curses.

“I know I’m driving my body too hard, but there’s no other way. You see them. They need it. They’re this close to sinking into complacency. I’m the vitamin shot. I’m…”

“Alone.”

His lips part, but he doesn’t reply at once. There are no non-digital clocks in here, and yet I can feel the ticking of seconds as the window for non-awkwardness closes.

Then he mumbles, “How do you draw that conclusion?”

“You need connection, and right now you’re not getting it.”

His gaze nails me in blue. “Connection.”

I nod.

He sits up. “Connection. It’s the name I…” He shakes his head. “I haven’t shown you the concerto, have I?”

“Concerto?”

He stares at his hands, and a muscle beneath his eye trembles. “I’m writing a cello concerto. Well, trying to. But there’s just too little time.” He makes a face. “No. It has nothing to do with time. I have no inspiration.”

I wait.

“No ‘connection’.” He chuckles soundlessly. “No one to play it. A cello concerto with no cellist in mind? Impossible.”

I nod. So I have to start looking for cellists. I open a book and jot it down. It gets its own page because it’s important.

 

Important. I even underline it.

 

Not knowing how goddamn right I am.

The emotionally stunted INTP

I’ve read a lot of articles and forums about INTPs and feelings, and there’s this great divide between those who say “I have very weak feelings or none at all, it bugs me when I’m expected to emote or commiserate” and those who say “I have all the feelings all the time and I hate it make them go away what is this I don’t even”. Some of these texts take it upon themselves to generalize about the other group, such that “those who say they are very emotional are probably mistyped INFPs” and “those who say they have no feelings are kidding themselves.”

So. As an INTP with these wildly different data, what do I do? Negate the self-analysis made by fellow INTPs? I wouldn’t presume. Instead I propose that the state of “having feelings” has nothing to do with the MBTI.

Now, I’m not an expert in chemistry or psychology or neurology or any of that stuff, but let’s assume for the sake of argument that feelings are chemical in nature and that the MBTI merely describes how the brain is structured. If this is “true”, feelings can arise in any brain regardless of how it’s structured, but it’s what comes after that’s interesting. When feelings do or don’t occur, how does the brain handle them – or their absence?

Because if there’s one constant in all the INTP writings I’ve seen, it’s that feelings are an Issue. That seldom seems to vary, unless the person is very well developed, lives in a supportive environment, and accepts themselves for what they are. Most of us aren’t so lucky, it seems.

Perhaps the INTPs who report having little to no emotion are happier or at least calmer than others. Their problems arise when people need comforting, or when they’re expected to react emotionally and can’t, because their brains are structured to use logic first and empathy last. They may feel different, as if they’re lacking some vital part when they compare themselves to others, but left to their own devices they’re quite content.

But what about the rest of us? Those who do have feelings, and strong ones to boot?

Man.

We have this set of problems with a very limited toolbox for handling them. Give us a philosophical conundrum and time to think and yay, what comes out is a childlike, excited monologue full of what ifs and weird associations. We’re in our element. We’re asked to use our introverted thinking and extraverted intuition to make sense of the world, and it feels as natural as breathing.

Give us something emotional, and we stumble – because our tools just don’t work very well on that kind of thing. You can’t beat a feeling into submission using logic. Well, you can, but it’s going to come back and bite you in the arse sooner or later. It’s a bit like sawing water – hey, knock yourself out using that saw, but the water is only going to slosh around for a bit and then settle in the same place as before. You’re not going to divide it in half however much energy you spend.

It’s difficult to describe, so I made a sketch about it (because that’s a completely sane thing to do). NB this is my humorous take on it and may not be generalizable at all.

***

INTP feelings – the musical (not really)

Dramatis Personae

Ti, wearing a black turtleneck and glasses

Ne, with her uncombed hair and purple glitter sweater

Si, hair in plaits and a girly skirt

Fe, with pigtails, pyjamas, and a teddy bear

 

Act I (of one)

Ti is sorting Important Stuff when suddenly Fluffy Stuff appears.

Ti: WTF is this? Si!

Si: (watching telly and eating ice cream) Yeah?

Ti: What’s this?

Si: (glances at the Fluffy Stuff) Looks like a feeling.

Ti: (Groans) Oh no. What kind of feeling? I have some boxes here to put it in… Is it positive or negative?

Si: Um… I think it’s positive.

Ti: Okay, well, that’s good then. Won’t be a problem, will it?

Si: Well, no… But there’s something underneath it, look.

Ti: What?

Si: Look, there’s something else connected to the positive Fluff.

Ti: (Pulls at the Fluffy Stuff and different Fluffy Stuff appears) Jesus. There’s all sorts here. I mean, what’s even… Fe!

Fe: (Sucking her thumb) Yeah?

Ti: Is this yours?

Fe: Um…

Ti: Come on, come on, I don’t have all day. What is it?

Fe: It’s these people I’m scared of.

Ti: Christ. So how can that be connected to the positive Fluff?

Fe: Um…

Ti: (Trying to stuff Fluff into box) Shiiiit.

Si: Look, Fe. Just ignore it. You know how it goes: you get nervous, you behave like an idiot, and it all goes to shit. Let it go, okay? Let Ti work in peace.

Ti: (Gives up trying to stuff Fluff into box) Well, this won’t do. Ne?

Ne: (Jumps in, eager to the point of lunacy) Yes?

Ti: I need your help. It’s up to us to make sense of this, yeah?

Ne: (Claps hands) Okay!

Ti: (Rolls her eyes at Ne:s childish glee) So this Fluffy Stuff goes into the positive box, yeah? But it seems to be linked to this godawful thing, I can’t get them to separate, but they should go in different boxes, right?

Ne: Maybe you can link the boxes.

Si: Yeah, like a hierarchy! You love those.

Ti: Yeah, that could work. Okay, so the godawful is a subcategory of the positive, and… what do we have here? But this is… my god, this is about the crush I had in my twenties. Where the fuck…?

Si: Maybe there’s something about this that reminds you of that.

Ti: Must be. But how…?

Fe: Not that anyone listens to me, but while you’re trying to categorize that Stuff, there’s more Stuff coming in. It’s getting a bit crowded in here.

Ti: Craaaap! I have work to do, I can’t keep stuffing this Stuff into boxes!

Fe: So don’t.

Ti: What? Fe, you’re not making any sense. These are grown up matters, stay out of it.

Ne: Okay, but can I say something? This sorting… I don’t know what it accomplishes. You’re only going in circles.

Ti: So what’s your idea, genius?

Ne: (Grins) I have lots of them, actually. Let’s throw some of the Stuff at someone else and see what happens.

Fe: Yes! Let’s do that!

Ti: (Stares at Ne and Fe) Are you insane?

Ne: Actually, insanity and genius are very similar.

Si: No, no, no, wait! Remember that one time in 1998 when we threw some Stuff at someone? It didn’t end well.

Ti: Exactly. You’d all do well to listen to Si. She knows what she’s talking about.

Ne: But she’s boooooring! If we listen to her, nothing will ever change.

Fe: Yeah, we have to do something. Otherwise this Stuff is just going to accumulate.

Ti: Accumulate? Fe, use age-appropriate words please. And no, we don’t throw Stuff at other people. That’s just not happening. Jesus, it’s obviously up to me to not fuck this up. We just need some order. Not this crazy ball of Fluff.

Ne: (Snorts with laughter) Actually it kinda looks like our thoughts.

Ti: (Gives Ne a look) You’re seriously comparing feelings to our thoughts?

Ne: (Shrugs) Crazy ball of Fluff, crazy ball of thoughts. Same difference.

Ti: (Shakes head and mutters) And whose fucking fault is that?

Ne: Oooooh, look, actually this bit looks like a plot idea! What if we wrote a story about a conductor who’s homesick and meets someone from home, and then…

Si: Yeah! Maybe we could use that old story we never finished? The one with the socially inept professor…

Ne: … or that short story we published that really sucks, but if we flesh it out…

Fe: … maybe it’ll be like therapy, and then we can publish it and people will read it and understand and…

Ti: (Slams fist on table) See, this is why you don’t get to make the plans! I’d be a fucking genius if not for you crazy people. (Goes back to sorting Fluff) So anyway, this goes here, and it’s connected to this, and…

Fe: I just don’t see how this is helping. It’s still the same Stuff, even if you put it in boxes. It doesn’t change anything.

Ti: It changes how I see it. If it makes sense, it can stay.

Ne: And if it doesn’t?

Ti: I don’t fucking know, do I? It’s not my fault these things turn up.

Ne, Si and Fe: (Laugh)

Ti: What?

Si: It’s you!

Ti: What?

Si: You’re the one attracting all this Stuff.

Ti: What the hell are you saying? I’m logical. I categorize. I don’t give a fuck about Fluff.

Si: But it’s the same thing every time. The thing that gets you going.

Ti: What?

Si: How did they put it in that show you like? “Sherlock has the brain of a scientist or a philosopher, yet he elects to be a detective. What might we deduce about his heart?”

Ti: …

Si: You see a chance to understand emotions and you go completely gaga.

Ti: … Gaga?

Ne, Si and Fe: (Nod)

Ti: (Looks at Fluff) Help…

Ne: Okay. (Takes Fluff and strews it all over the place) Look. That’s not so bad, is it? Now let’s take a portion of this and give to someone else. If it works out we’ll take it from there. Si, you have some good phrases memorized, yeah? Some self-deprecating jokes?

Si: Absolutely. I have a whole library.

Ne: And you, Fe, you can check so it doesn’t come off as too crazy or offensive?

Fe: I’ll try.

Ne: Alright. Ti, you can go rest for a while. Let the rest of us deal with this. There must be someone out there who can tolerate this Stuff, yeah?

Fe: I never lose hope.

Ti: (Pours a scotch with trembling hands) Si, you want to watch Wire in the Blood later and analyse face journeys?

Si: You betcha.

 

Perfection

For stationary addicts, perfection can be confused with an empty planner. The pristine page – symbolising a whole, untouched year – is so daunting that you hesitate to put a blot on it, because what if you ruin it?

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Well. I propose another way to look at perfection. And obviously I’m operating from the assumption that there is such a thing as perfection, even though I know that can be debated. But we’ve all experienced something we felt was perfect – a day, a movie, a piece of music – but that perfection isn’t universal, or valid for everyone. It’s not an objective fact – it’s a subjective fact.

Which, you know… aren’t they all?

But let’s not go down that rabbit hole today. I’m just here to propose, on the third day of the western new year and the cusp of breaking all those resolutions, that perfection isn’t a new beginning. It’s what comes at the end of a messy process full of dead ends and mistakes. You don’t put pen to pristine paper and produce perfection from scratch. Nothing grows out of perfection – it’s perfection that does the growing: it’s the end product, and it literally needs some shit to give it life.

Take a flowering apple tree: it didn’t spring into existence from a perfect void. It grew from dead leaves and dirt.

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So why do some of us view the emptiness of infinite promise as perfect, rather than the end product? Because we haven’t put our (imperfect) stamp on it. We haven’t ruined the thing with our less-than-stellar Stuff. We haven’t yet revealed our new 2019 life for what it is – “a mingled yarn, good and ill together” (All’s Well). Perhaps it feels messy and wrong to fill a pretty book with pain and confusion side by side with euphoria and hope.

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Is that the problem? That the book only seems pretty until you fill it with your ugly handwriting and your slightly non-noble thoughts? That the year looks promising until you’re a few days in and you realise you’re the same person you were in 2018, with the same insecurities and baggage?

Well, you can’t fix a shitty self image in a day. But maybe you can get somewhere in a year? Maybe it’s not in January we should judge ourselves, but in December? At the end of the year, when the planner is all filled out, maybe that’s when you’ll see the beauty of it. Maybe your ugly handwriting improves in hindsight, when every page is covered in the same illegible scrawls, making the whole thing a kind of abstract pattern.

And maybe a string of bad days can take on a new and beautiful meaning as you look back on them and realise that holy fuck, you actually survived that!

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Fernweh, homesickness, and the ever-elusive Here-and-Now

The Germans have some smashing words, Fernweh being one of them. Fern = far away, distant, and Weh = pain or woe. It means that you’re homesick for a place you haven’t necessarily been. Very Sturm und Drang.

I experience something similar, or in between, with England and Wales. Neither of them is my country, and yet… Gah. If Britain were a person, it would be “the one that got away”. It’s always there, like an evil siren, pretending to be something it’s not. Calling to me with memories whose silver nitrate sheen has nothing to do with truth. I know my image of the place is very different from the reality of living there, but there’s no accounting for childhood impressions. You feel what you feel.

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But I can also get homesick for the place I actually am. Filled with yearning for the present moment. When something is so overwhelmingly good in a banal sort of way, and yet impossible to handle or reach or know what to do with, because feelings are unwieldy beasts and my brain is too small for their limitless nature. How many times have I asked myself when I’ve actually been in England or Wales, “How do you wrap a whole country in your arms? How do you hug this sceptered fucking isle?” And the answer, of course, is that you don’t. You can’t. A country is vast, and you are small. We’re not built for it.

Except… we are. Humans, for all their flaws, have one redeeming feature: artistic expression. Through this one divine spark, we can touch something like the truth.

How do you embrace something that’s a thousand times bigger than you? The only way is through music, through writing, through art. You don’t try to hold it for longer than it takes you to play it, describe it, or paint it. You accept it, and let it wreak its havoc with you because really, there’s no alternative unless you want an ulcer. Life is a fleeting moment of euphoric dread. Those who feel it deeply can touch fingertips through the very best of us who have the gift to make it tangible.

”Is it not strange that sheep’s guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?” (Much Ado About Nothing, 2.iii).

For me it’s always Elgar. The man whose auditive paintbrush is dipped in the misty green of rolling English hills. Who somehow looked into my soul before I was born and wrote the music that described my homesickness for a place I can never call mine.

And they say INTPs are emotionless machines!