Choose your own apocalypse: On walking Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year

Those of us who have crazy parents don’t get to choose the apocalypse we are born into. Whatever it is our parents fear- be it bombs, the middle-classes, nuclear holocaust, public transport, germs, bad table manners, being shown up- gets transmitted to their kids, and we, as their children are forced into living their perception, their as-if existence. I lived the the jungles of Costa Rica and in the suburban, homeschooled deserts of Arizona where my parents could feed their schizoid worldview in peace. Keep the kids away from schools, from churches who didn’t have the right theology, from brain-dead institutions, from ignorant neighbours who didn’t agree, from the spying government, from supermarket loyalty cards that might track our canned bean choices. We never choose which delusions and paranoias will be our inheritance: our parents get to decide who we will be frightened of and how much we hate the outside world, how armed we shall be when we leave the (sometimes literal) bunker. If we’re lucky, if we choose to do the work, we might slowly come to realise we can disarm and there was no need for (the sometimes literal) bunker and rifles and (sometimes literal) self-defence lessons by ex-Chilean army officers. At some point we might come blinking out into the sunlight to discover that the apocalypse never really happened- but what do we do with the rifles, the memories of the bunker, the synapses that can’t be pruned, our reptilian knowing. What do we do with our unchosen apocalypse.

Choosing to walk an apocalypse is maybe a weird decision for someone who claims to have lived through her parent’s own personal one, and who generally hates that genre of film and writing. I can see that. I have chosen to read and re-read a text and walk particular bits of the city that bear an uncanny resemblance to the textures of my childhood. But maybe it is that quality in the writing that draws me to it, the voice that masquerades as journalistic reporting although it trades more in fantasy than in facts. I want in on Defoe’s hysterical, fevered apocalypse, saturated as it is with screams and boils and melodrama. I infinitely prefer it to the pared down, austere one of Mcarthy’s The Road. Defoe gives me permission to play- the Plague of 1665 is mine to take, because he made it his, first of all: the crazy religious language in Journal of a Plague year, the descriptions of infected houses having a foot-long Red Cross painted on their door and the words, ‘Lord have mercy on our souls,’ painted, in my imagination, in scarlet and maybe over a lintel or something. I imagine the claustrophobic screams of terrified plague victims who are quarantined to pest houses and their own rooms. That was the word my mom used to use when she would send us to our rooms. ‘Quarantined.’ ‘You are quarantined to your room girls until you apologise.’ I love the long, internal theological debates the narrator gets himself into about providence and should I stay or should I go with spurious capitals and labrynthine syntax and no punctuation for miles. The indignity of mass graves and plague pits, the despair, the evacuation of the city, the isolation and mistrust. My mother would pray to god before we drove to the air-conditioned supermarket to buy packets of pasta and mincemeat and bags of apples, pray for protection, for a safe journey and successful shopping, addressing the angels to keep charge over us, especially Michael the archangel, and then she’d smoke a cigarette or two at the steering wheel to calm her nerves.

When I walk the narrow alleyways described by Defoe with others like I did on Sunday, I get some control over the apocalypse. I get to choose this one and how I interact with it. I’m not a victim of circumstance anymore, I get to have a little bit of control, I get to make some decisions. And I got to do it with friends, as an adult, on my own terms, one foot in my own imagination and memory, playfully. And maybe this is the logic of play therapy, when I practice psychogeography like this. The thing that I fear is the thing that is transformed, through play, into something that I can use for for the development of my own identity-to add psychic weight to my soul. Because this is a way of claiming my own past, of stepping into the heart of pain rather than denying my history or disavowing that story or numbing my feelings about my upbringing. Walking the plague allows me to go back into the trauma but at a safe distance. I did not get to choose the flavour of apocalypse my parents put us through- and it changed and shaped my psyche and palette for melodrama and language and religious fervour in ways that are still surprising me. But perhaps I could have some say in how I choose to play with my history. This is grown up play. This is proper make-believe for thirty somethings. And I love walking the city like this, and I’m grateful other people want to come play with me.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

I’m deeply grateful to Anna Hart who transmitted, through her walking practice, how valuable reverie and dipping into internal, subjective space is during a walk. Before I joined her weekly Kings Cross walking club in 2015, I thought psychogeography was largely a fact-saturated affair, consisting mainly of turning attention outward toward the city in an frenzy of objectivity. Her monthly silent walks cured me of this notion and taught me how rich, how satisfying it can be to pay attention to imagination and not just buildings and shared histories.

I’m also deeply grateful to Michael who asked on Sunday’s walk, ‘So, why do you want to walk the plague?’ Great question.

Daniel Defoe’s Journal of The Plague Year is published by penguin and is a cracking good read

If you fancy coming on my next walk, you can find more information here

📸 Photo credit: Kat Haylett

Get thou back into the cot: meditations on mutuality 

R at the age of nearly three, has learned how to climb out of his cot. Vault would be a better choice of word: its hard not to admire the elegance, the economy of movement, his physical prowess as he springs up and over and carefully lowers himself to the floor, beaming, still in his sleeping bag. There is no scrambling or heaving or slipping. My heart sank, watching him. I took- in the realisation that he knows what he is doing, it was no effort for him nor an accident.

Nap time is sacred. It is 90 minutes of me time, it is solitude when I read or write or sleep or daydream or paint my nails or have a friend over or think or occasionally write an email. This new development spelled disaster, the end of life as I know it.

I haven’t experienced this feeling of helplessness since he was a screaming newborn and I didn’t know what to do with his screaming newborn body, how to make it stop. Hold it? Put down? Sing to it? Rock it? Feed it? Change it? My son again, momentarily, became a problematic body to solve, not a relationship I’m in.

It took two hours to put him to bed that night, he kept climbing out. Then he didn’t nap the next day or the next as I kept putting him back over and over again for two more knackering hours. In one of my darker moments I indulged a fantasy of cling filming his whole cot and poking air holes in it like a sort of toddler bio-dome. It had become a battle of wills, a zero sum game, his desires pitted against mine. So ugly, so boring, so unnecessary. But I had momentarily forgotten that truth in my panic, and I slipped into the old relational grammar, my mother tongue of a sadomasochistic dyad. I tried to coerce him with my mood, showing my displeasure- to be clear I think it’s important for R. to experience me as emotionally congruent and that means expressing my authentic displeasure sometimes, but not as a tool to control him, to get him to do something I want him to. I felt myself wanting to make him comply. I felt so helpless. It is these moments of self-made disempowerment that I am painfully aware of my capacity to enact relational violence: I feel my desperate urge to snuff out his budding agency. It feels like being trapped in a b-grade western: this town ain’t big enough for the both of us, its either you or me kid. Cue a showdown.

One of my most hard -won adult capacities is having a mind of my own. I know how I think and feel most of the time, and I spend allot of time and effort cultivating emotional congruence. I try to be frank, I prize authenticity in myself and my other relationships. And one of the most joyful experiences of motherhood for me has been watching my son’s sense of personal agency emerge. I have delighted in his physical acts of daring, watching him clambering confidently down hills. I have delighted in his finding of no! his asserting of his boundaries. I have loved playing audience to showing off a mind of his own, when he says the surprising thing, the you-couldn’t-make-it-up moments. And I have trusted him to know his own appetite, when he was an infant and he wanted to gorge or fast at the breast, or as a toddler when he wants three spoonfuls of yogurt and a slice of bread for dinner. I more or less trust him and he more or less makes pretty sensible decisions. My trust of his burgeoning independence, my trust of his appetite and validity of his feelings is what makes it possible for me to differentiate what are limits and what are just power struggles waiting to happen. As Janet Lansbury quotes Magda Gerber, sleep is something you can’t make another person do.

On the third day of our sleep stalemate, I bought a Groclock and explained that we were going to have quiet time every afternoon. I had resigned myself to no more blissful, solitary nap times, but I told him I needed to be able to do some reading and writing and nail painting. The essentials. So he could play quietly or read and I was going to do my own thing ‘by myself’ and his new clock would tell us when quiet time was done. After about ten minutes of quiet play R came and put his head on the sofa where I was reading. He told me he was tired and asked if he could go into the cot for a nap. I was stunned. He asked if he could take the clock with him, which I unplugged for him and he fell asleep clutching- he even had his own sense of how he wanted to use the clock, too. I was astonished at the whole sequence of events.

I’d forgotten that I don’t need to force him to do what comes naturally to him. He doesn’t need me to restrain his body, he knows when he is tired and what to do about it. In my panic I had forgotten to trust him, to ‘take my stand in relation to him,’ as Buber would say. What R needed most from me was not a battle of wills but a genuine offer of a choice so he could work out what to do. He needed me to twist the release valve in our deadlocked dyad by opening up a vista of possibilities in response to his shifting appetite for sleep. By climbing out of his cot and not napping he was telling me he is sometimes in the mood to sleep and sometimes he is not and we needed to find a more flexible way of using that time that reflects his developmental age and capacities. I get it now. He was trying to assert himself, trying to show me he is ready to take responsibility for yet another part of his life. I am so grateful to him for reminding me that controlling another human is never the answer. That trust is always the better relational option, even if you don’t quite know what the outcome will be. That opening up the triadic space in between us by offering choices is always the answer to the riddle of dyadic power games.

When I feel the need to grasp and control and force or wield power over someone, it is normally because I have momentarily lost my faith in our mutuality. By mutuality, I think I mean both of our felt experiences being simultaneously valid, even if they are opposed, and perhaps a faith in the ability to communicate and empathise with one another. Although ‘quiet time’ has looked a little different every afternoon since we began doing it a week ago, and he has tested the limits, trying to work out where the edges are, I have regained my faith in us. We will work this out together. That is the difference. Mutuality is a totally different mindset, a completely different way-of-being-with another person. Nobody likes being told what to do, everyone, whether they’re 3 or 35 prefers to make up their own mind, prefers to creatively find their own way. And I’m grateful to my three year old son for having the confidence to grapple this tricky relational dynamic out with me. I’m lucky to have such a strong willed kid.

Copyright 2018 Diana Smith

For a gorgeous philosophical- poetic exploration of mutuality read Buber’s classic, ‘I and thou’

I am indebted to Janet Lansbury’s thinking about sleep issues and respectful parenting. This is one of her great articles on sleep here:

I am also indebted to Sheldon Bach’s thinking about sadomasochism and triadic space in mother baby dyads which I hope to write about more in depth over the year. His book ‘Getting from here to there,’ has been so important in forming my understanding of these issues.

Confessions of an attention whore 

I first attempted to sit in silence and observe my breath when I was in my early twenties. At the time, I experienced turning my focus inward as excruciating. Feeling my heartbeat and noticing my backbone when I sat still made my skin crawl. Literally and metaphorically uncomfortable in my own skin, I found it impossible to pay attention.

Nowadays, my capacity to pay attention is a pleasure and something I don’t take for granted. It is a hard-won capacity. When I emerged from the physical discomfort, the odours and filth and emotional chaos of my childhood, I wanted to escape my surroundings, not notice them. Bliss, when I managed to find it, was a state of not -feeling. Gabor Mate, an expert on addiction, theorises that addicts use in order to self-soothe and provide emotional regulation they didn’t receive in childhood. Before therapy, I regularly read till I was numb, drunk till I was senseless, drove myself into 12-hour workday stupors and generally didn’t focus too much on anything. The years before I turned 30 are hazy. The one sensible thing I did was turn up at least some of the time to my thrice weekly therapy sessions. I was often drunk, usually late, and I have no idea how many times I called at the last minute frantically cancelling a session because I’d gotten lost en route or stayed too late at work because I ‘need to finish something’, ‘Ah, circumstances conspired against you,’ my wise, hilarious therapist remarked again and again till I understood I had some control, some agency in whether or not I turned up. I was a fragmented woman and I could easily have veered through decades that way, not managing to turn up to my own life.

There is this commencement speech by the author David Foster Wallace called ‘This is water.’ I listen to it sometimes when I’m washing dishes, in fact, I’ve pretty much memorised it. It is like my own personal Apostles Creed. I love it when he gets to the end of the speech with this gut- busting truth: ‘the only really important kind of freedom involves attention… the alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost something infinite.’

I know this truth in my bones. The capacity to pay attention sets you free.

I know that the skilful, compassionate attention my therapist paid me knitted me back together. One of those ordinary violences we do to children is dismiss their need for attention. ‘She just wants attention,’ we say, as if that were not a legitimate need we all have, as if it were not vital to creating personhood. I know firsthand the deprivations that emotional neglect causes, and I know how empowering it is to be heard, to be seen for who we actually are. I understand how it grounds us, how it makes the creation of meaning possible. Wallowing in the compassionate attention of another- be it friend, therapist, partner or parent- makes it possible to step into our own skin, to turn up to our own life, to be present to ourselves. Attention is a pleasure to lavish on others and a pleasure to luxuriate in ourselves.

It is a cheap thrill. So ordinary. So doable. Yet also difficult and skilful. And it is a precious, rare thing. This kind of being-with is golden in our increasingly frenetic, surface, glittering, outcome driven, status- update- and –newsfeed- information saturated technocracy. One of the main things I value having is increasingly difficult to get these days. I really cherish the relationships where attention is free- flowing and given in abundance.

And here is another truth: this capacity to pay affectionate, over-the-top attention to the ordinary, the difficult, the banal, even, maybe the way I ball socks or my own feelings of frustration, or R.’s raging sobs into my shoulder, increases as I claim it. And as it increases, as I take in the beauty, the sounds, the smells, the banal, the difficult: all the ephemera of my my life the way I take in breath, the less I want to numb or escape. I almost never crave television or booze to numb me anymore. I want to feel it all. I want to be here, in this body, in this life.

I choose to lavish my son with attention. I listen carefully to his pigeon-English and bathe him in curiosity while he plays: I try to stay open and attentive while he zooms his plastic bin lorry under the washing and tells me it is a car wash.

I sit still now, sit with my morning coffee on the floor in square or lotus and observe my breath and tune into my thoughts, and I enjoy it.

And this is what I want my son to know: that ordinary life is something that does not need to be escaped from, but that it is a seat to lower ourselves into.

Copyright Diana Smith 2018

David Foster Wallace, ‘This is Water’

Gabor Mate, ‘what is addiction?’ (3:45)

Reveries of a mum on the psychoanalytic couch