I was cleaning up my desktop while avoiding writing my column, and I came across this old photo of Jerry. It’s him at the vet’s in July 2014 after he’d been hit by a car. Not pictured is his big shaved bottom, which took the impact. He came to the Waikanae SPCA as a flea-ridden stray when he was about five (though, his age is a guess). I often wonder what his life was like before. I feel jealous of this other life he must have had. Sometimes I imagine his old family turning up and he runs towards them, overjoyed – like in that video with Christian the lion in Kenya, in the 1970s – then they pick him up and bundle him into their car and speed away, brakes screeching. Jerry turns eleven soon. He’s just a really good cat.
My childhood sweetheart rang. We hadn’t spoken in twenty-five years. He said, ‘Also, I am seeing somebody else now.’ It was as if we’d been in the middle of a conversation, as children, and he’d only just remembered to mention it now.
My whole body started to tremble. I said, ‘Can I speak to her?’ but he told me she couldn’t come to the phone because she was out getting a haircut.
A wave of grief rose up in me. It was the thought that this person had hair, hair that needed cutting, and presumably also then a whole head with a brain inside it, and a body that was alive. She was a whole person, and I was not.
After the phone call, I sat in a chair, sobbing, and tried to eat a long raspberry bun. I had read that when you’re feeling down you should eat, and this was all I had. The bun was delicious, but eating it was a miserable experience. It grew larger and larger in my hands, and my mouth seemed to keep changing its location, until eventually I was just smashing the raspberry bun into my face, hoping some of it would get in. I had the sense that my childhood sweetheart was watching me trying to eat and feeling relieved at his decision.
I was riding my bike to the train station, because I was going to catch the train to New York City. I had a dog with me. The dog was very big but was old and very sick. I was carrying it in a large white sling around my front, like a baby. I was also towing in a trailer all the things we would need for the trip, such as dog food and medicine. The dog was well-behaved, and I could sense from the dog which streets I should take for the fastest route to the station. The streets were empty as we rode along together, and I kept thinking how relieved I would be when we finally got to New York and could unpack and sit down. When we finally arrived at the station, the attendant looked at me with the dog in the sling and said, ‘The train that goes to New York City rides through this station too fast for anyone to actually get on. I just thought you should know that.’
I didn’t know what to do, and wondered if we should just continue the trip by bike. I looked into the dog’s eyes. I could tell that it wanted to go home, and suddenly I felt angry. ‘I care about you,’ I mouthed, with no sound coming out, ‘but why didn’t you tell me before that you didn’t even want to go!’ We started riding back home, and once again the dog showed me the best streets to take for the fastest route.
A couple of years ago a friend asked me, ‘Are you someone who is easily contented?’ I don’t know why I’ve always remembered that question. We were sitting in a bar next to a window and the sun was shining in my eyes. I can’t remember what I said. I think I was conflicted, because the question seemed to be about whether I wanted things to change or stay the same. Afterwards I cycled home, ate a big dinner and got into bed with a book and felt completely happy then fell asleep.
I walked into the lounge and immediately forgot what I was there for, so I said what I always say when I forget, which is, accusingly, ‘What the fuck was it?’ A song by Guillaume Teyssier called ‘Shadow Dancer’ had just come on the stereo. In the video for the song, two French guys (one of whom is Teyssier) wearing shiny bomber jackets saunter into a classroom and give disco lessons to the students. I don’t understand why Guillaume Teyssier isn’t more famous. Every so often I google him and see if there have been any developments in his career, but there never have. In the lounge, I thought of the bomber jackets and suddenly I started dancing. It was the usual dance which I have been doing for twenty years. A series of rippling, bubbling movements, sometimes a geyser, sometimes a jug coming to the boil. The last time I’d done this dance was perhaps a year ago, and it took more effort than I remembered. Then, as I was dancing, I thought of a line in a James Brown poem about dancing, from his most recent book. The line is, ‘Her body made a kind of qwerty motion.’ Thinking of the poem took me out of the moment and I was suddenly incredibly embarrassed. I stopped moving around. I remembered what I was in the living room for. Nail clippers.
I tried to write an essay about ‘New Zealand’s terrible year’. I was not happy about it – the year, obviously, or the essay. I kept telling myself, you will figure out how to describe it. Halfway through writing it I realised I wasn’t figuring it out and wasn’t going to, because it was impossible and because I should not have agreed to write the essay. A feeling of dread came over me, then panic, and I thought, I shouldn’t be a writer anymore. Then I said out loud, ‘Don’t be so dramatic. God.’ Then I thought, Still, though. You think about that.
A big blackbird was sitting in a relaxed, almost spreadeagled way on the fence outside my bedroom. I wanted to take a photo of it. When I moved, I saw the bird’s eye swivel towards me and seem to widen as it saw me sitting on my bed in my dressing gown while the sun outside was shining, and the bird straightened up and flew away.
When I think about happiness, which I am doing because it is New Year’s Eve and unavoidable, I think of it in kind of a mocking way, telling myself off for wanting it. You can’t just wish for happiness, because happiness isn’t a place at which you arrive and then can stay. And the more you strive for it, the more elusive it gets. As far as happiness is concerned, the best you can hope for is to catch it for a moment, like a tail wind. It’s just logic. When I’m saying all this, my inner voice is both jolly and defensive, like a sunburned man on holiday about to lose his temper in the car. But I’m no longer satisfied with the knowledge that happiness isn’t something to be achieved and that I have to embrace my unhappiness first. I worry that it means that it will always be like dancing to ‘Shadow Dancer’ – for a few seconds my moves are impressive, until I remember that they’re not.
For Christmas my mother gave me a book called Words on Words: Quotations About Language and Languages. When I was struggling with the essay I turned to the chapter ‘Writing: The nature and functions of writing; techniques of successful writing’. I read: ‘Writers, like teeth, are divided into incisors and grinders.’ (Walter Bagehot.) I put down the book and googled types of teeth. Walter Bagehot had left out the canines, premolars, wisdoms. Regardless, how was the statement meant to be helpful? I read, ‘No iron can stab the heart with such force as a full stop put just at the right place.’ (Isaac Babel.) I didn’t think it was right to equate punctuation with murder. I knew the statement was hyperbolic, and I was being disingenuous. But I couldn’t get past it and I still can’t. A full stop will never have the force of someone stabbing someone in the heart, not even close. Then I read a French proverb: ‘Where paper speaks, beards are silent.’ What the fuck.
I have never been less sure of anything.
At high school I remember a friend said that a good title for a novel would be ‘And She Went’. I agreed, it would be a good title, because it indicated that the character was decisive. The last line of the novel, we agreed, would be ‘And she went’.
One of my problems is I often have just a small scene that feels kind of meaningful, but it’s not a story. It’s barely an idea. I’ve thought I’d like to write about learning to ride a horse. More specifically, about being carried away by horses. Being carried away by a horse feels like something that should mean something and that I could write about. My mum and brothers and I all learned to ride horses together in Te Kūiti, and at different points each of our horses panicked and carried us away. I have a memory of being carried away by my horse, Alicia, which went galloping along a ridgeline far above the teacher’s, Mrs Bakewell’s, house. Alicia cleared a couple of fences and then went sort of clambering, monkey-like, up a steep hill – her legs seemingly unstoppable, like one of those military robot dogs – while I clung on to her back, instinctively lying myself down on her neck, screaming. I saw the small riding paddock in the distance, with its brightly coloured jumps made of barrels and logs. My brothers, my mother and Mrs Bakewell were standing down there. I remember rolling down the cold wet grass, so I must have unhooked myself from the stirrups and thrown myself from Alicia.
And I remember watching my mother being carried away when we were on a trek near Piopio. It was one of the most terrifying moments of my life to see her disappearing into the distance on the back of the horse. Then she, too, threw herself from the horse and rolled neatly, like Indiana Jones, along the ground.
I wrote to my brother JP to ask about his experiences falling off horses, and he wrote about an event at a gymkhana. His horse – rotund, black with a white star on his nose – was named Sparky. ‘I remember falling off Sparky repeatedly as we attempted to canter over a series of small wooden logs set in the ground. The crowd were keen to see me succeed, and it seemed to become an important test of character (though I can’t remember to who) that I perform this event satisfactorily.’
I remember thinking this was a great anecdote, but then I didn’t know where else to go with it.
I don’t mean this to sound like a joke, because it’s true – I’ve had a lot of sex dreams these past few nights. They are not normal sex dreams. In one, I was wrapped in wet muslin because in the dream people had a sexual fetish for cheese and were trying to form me into a kind of cheese. I was trying to stay calm, and keep an open mind out of respect for others’ predilections, even though I was struggling to breathe through the muslin. When I woke up, I was grumpy with myself for having these things in my head. How did they get there? I didn’t care if there was a simple explanation.
On Christmas Day my oldest friend and her mum and I were swimming in the sea. There’s always a moment in the sea when the sky looks very huge, almost glamorous, like a beautiful face on a cinema screen. Then my friend shrieked, ‘What the fuck was that’ and immediately I felt it too – a thick bed of slime under my feet. Awful. The slime felt old, somehow. It had been there a long time. How far did it go for? Impossible to tell! The water was brownish, cloudy. There were just too many things you couldn’t see. We paddled back to the shore and walked up the beach in our togs. We all hobbled back to the car, dusted off our feet, and went.
I was reading the weekend newspaper when I came across a story about a prolific writer who had started a petition. Tens of thousands of people had already signed even though the petition had only started the day before. The petition was titled: ‘Petition to convince Ashleigh Young that she is not a peacock.’ The wording was something like: ‘We are sick and tired of Ashleigh Young pretending that she is a peacock. The fact is, she is not even a bird. She is a homo sapiens. We have evidence. She has been allowed to get away with this for too long.’ As I read the article, I felt a terrible, sickening feeling of guilt, and I knew that finally I had been found out, but I also felt a keen loss, somehow, knowing that I couldn’t behave like a peacock or any kind of bird anymore.
This morning I hurt my hand from punching a wall. My upstairs neighbours have been noisy – stomping and crashing – and I feel like I’m coming a bit unstuck. I could have punched a pillow, but no – it was a wall or nothing! My neighbours must think I’m insane. So I am finally starting to look for somewhere else to live.
I wish I could make something better out of the fact that I hurt my hand punching a wall. I wish I could call it art. But no. It was very ordinary and idiotic.
To try to calm myself down, I decided to go and get a massage. But I didn’t enjoy it because the whole time I was seething about my flat situation and my fool hand.
I started thinking about all the times I’ve laid on massage tables. I wondered why it was that I’d started going to see massage therapists in the first place. There is something inherently silly about massage. (I wish there was a different word for it, too. ‘Massage’ is now too loaded with Weinsteinian tones. ‘Rub-down’ is worse, and ‘manipulation’ or ‘palpation’ sound too medical.) The silliness seems to come from the way that someone is touching your near-naked body with warmth and tenderness but in an essentially therapeutic, totally non-erotic way, often in silence or while asking about your weekend plans. It takes a while to get past the silliness. At the same time massage is deadly serious, because of the intense focus on the body and the ways in which it’s disintegrating, and the knowledge that this practice has been going on for millennia. Your animal body, one in an infinitely long line of animal bodies. Alongside the physical specificity of it, there’s something abstract about the process – maybe the hope that you’ll just ‘feel better’, that being touched will relieve you of whatever dread or worry you have, for a few moments. It’s a hope of being comforted, which must be the oldest hope we have when receiving physical touch.
The first massage I ever had was after the Christmas rush one year when I was working in retail. I was strung out and over-peopled and my legs hurt. I decided to book in, for a treat, to a cheap place. The massage seemed okay, but then every so often the therapist, a soft-voiced spiritual man in shorts, would raise his hands and start sweeping them back and forth through the air above me. ‘Just clearing the energy here,’ he’d say apologetically. It didn’t feel like anything, though it seemed like the air was getting a nice massage. Over the next few years I’d go back every so often and have my air massaged. I don’t know why it took me so long to realise that it was bogus – or something that helped only if you truly believed in it – and there was something soothing and lovely about the experience anyway, lying in a darkish cocoon with a bit of oil on, like some veg under a grill. So even though I didn’t believe in the energy-clearing stuff, and it was even a bit tedious, I really liked the feeling of being outside of time. It was a feeling that – a bit like after a daytime movie – when I emerged back into daylight, something would have changed. Not just something, but everything. I could’ve taken a nap instead of paying the thirty-five dollars. But there was also something about offering all your issues up and then leaving someone else to it. Like those people who pay storage experts to come into their homes and throw everything into bin bags. Then the people come back in and start accumulating crap again. Massage is a bit like that.
I loved having my arms and head stroked when I was little, by my mum as she watched Coronation Street; I would become stupid with pleasure. Maybe a massage rekindled that same feeling of safety, and of gleaning little bits of comfort from someone, like a tree that ends up covered in bits of wool after an itchy sheep has visited.
‘We see our skins as hides hung around our inner life, when, in so many ways, they are the inner life, pushed outside,’ Adam Gopnik wrote in a piece about the science of touch, and I’ve always felt that to be true – being stroked in a loving way made me feel much calmer and happier. Gopnik says the skin is basically like living inside a really tall eye or a big ear. But touch is the first sense you develop as a human. And maybe it is more immediately central to our emotional lives. The neuroscientist David Linden writes in his book Touch that there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ touch sensation: ‘by the time we have perceived a touch, it has been blended with other sensory input’ that tells us what it means: whether the touch is soothing, distressing, playful, reassuring. I hadn’t thought about that before but of course it’s true.
I started trying to get massages whenever I could. These early massages showed me where all my bad spots were – you could tell they were bad if the therapist kept going back to them – and the more conscious I became of my bad spots, the more massages I wanted to get. Rather than just going around ignoring my body, like in airplane mode, the whole thing was starting to reveal itself as a more complex operation. I got my glutes elbowed in brightly lit studios with Easy Listening up loud and the therapist telling me all about his triathlon training; reflexology massages where a young woman pointed to a wall chart and said the reason the arch of my foot was sore was because of my sluggish digestion; massages where my face was stroked intently with a piece of stone; massages where I had fingers shoved in my armpits; massages where I was asked to visualise my feet being bathed in a healing yellow light; a stomach massage in which I thought I could *feel the shape* of my intestines; massages that were so painful I saw stars and heard bells ring; massages where I hated the background music so much that I came out more bunched up than when I went in; massages that were so pleasurable that each of my cells seemed to wake up and I felt like a beautiful glowing exotic snail. Context is everything with massage (and all touch): if anyone but a massage therapist touched me in these specific, problem-solving ways, it would be weird(er).
Most of the therapists I met had worked in different jobs – physio, yoga, nutrition, teaching, even law – before getting into massage therapy. One woman played in a death metal band. One guy had all of his marathon times printed out and stickered to the wall so as you climbed the stairwell into his studio you passed all of his progressively shorter times, and motivational slogans, then at the top was his goal – a sub-2.5-hour time. He was the only massage therapist I’ve met who had no sense of humour. My favourite therapist was a young sporty woman who also struggled with anxiety so we talked about things that helped. We both rode bikes and hated a strong northerly wind and were both always trying to give up coffee. She also gave incredibly painful massages. Have you ever had your adductors massaged? It’s like stingrays; do not approach and you’ll be okay.
At this time I asserted that a massage was only truly good if it was painful. ‘The good pain,’ I would say to friends, and announce proudly that I’d almost blacked out. These painful massages were always ‘sports massages’, where you were trying to loosen up whatever poor muscle you’d ravaged by lifting too-heavy weights or running too far or just sitting at your desk. It was always strictly unnecessary to have done this damage to yourself – but on a sports massage table, whatever you’d done to yourself was deemed necessary (it’s sports!) and the pain, therefore, was necessary. I went through several sports massage therapists who started out giving me the level of pain I needed; gradually they came to seem too soft, so I would move on to a tougher, sportier therapist until I outgrew them too. If you didn’t bruise – pointless! If afterwards you didn’t walk around feeling completely out of it, like you were made up of all of those little dots collected by a holepunch, and if you didn’t lurch around insisting ‘I needed that’, then you might as well have just poured a bag of autumn leaves over yourself.
Pain meant progress was being made. On the other side of pain would be relief. Maybe pain meant that the heaviness and immobility that I felt in myself were also being worked out and would eventually resolve. Pain provided a compelling temporary focus. I also liked the idea of being a person who could bear a lot of pain. At my high school anyone who’d subjected themselves to pain – usually just by wearing shorts all through winter – was ‘hard’. I thought of myself as ‘hard’, like a plant that can grow in a salty environment.
I think through all of this massaging I was in pursuit of ‘the release’. Everyone has heard about someone who had a massage and ended up sobbing on the table, maybe even vomiting, after the touch ‘released’ something in them. Something had ‘come up’, and now needed to be ‘let go’. I was hoping the release would happen to me, but it never did. There’s a bit in Tao Lin’s story ‘Cull the Steel Heart …’ from his collection Bed where a character named Colin is described as having a metal rod inside him:
The rod went from his stomach to the middle of his head. It was made of steel and sugar, and had been dissolving inside of Colin for ten or fifteen years, slow and sweet, above and behind his tongue; and he could taste it in that way, like an aftertaste, removed and seeping and outside of the mouth. Sometimes he’d glimpse it with the black, numb backs of his eyes. But what he really wanted was to wrench it out. Cut it up and chew it. Or melt it. Bathe in the hard, sweet lava of it.
Maybe everyone has some kind of inner object, not necessarily a rod-like one. Maybe there is a great variety of objects. I feel something quite heavy and functionless in me, like a kettlebell or a cast-iron frying pan with the bottom burnt out of it. And I wanted it to be released. At the end of that Tao Lin story there’s a weird and beautiful moment that almost seems like a release, for Colin: ‘And every once in a while he would catch himself smiling and laughing a little, and it was those moments right after – as, having lapsed into a fantasy, there was a correction, a moment of nothing and then a loose and sudden rush, back into the real world in a trick of escape, as if to some new place of possibilities – that he felt at once, and with clarity, most exhilarated, appreciative, disappointed, and accepting.’
The closest I came to ‘the release’ was a few months ago, but it wasn’t the vomiting on the table sort, and I’m not sure if it had anything to do with the massage. One night, after getting my head and shoulders and arms rubbed, I fell asleep early and woke up at about two in the morning with a feeling that was on a knife edge between clarity and utter panic. It was a certainty that I needed to change something in my life, and the fear of what that certainty meant. It was just like the last line of that famous Raymond Carver story: ‘My life is going to change. I feel it.’ (I can’t help but read that line as comical even though it’s supposed to be momentous.) I lay awake for ages with my arms over the covers and my eyes wide open and I had a sense of myself as being like a bat, hanging into space, heart pounding, listening and listening for a sign of what to do.
And in the last few months, my pain threshold has gone right down. I’m no longer ‘hard’ but am soft and squishy. I wouldn’t even be able to wear shorts all through winter. In my massage this morning I realised halfway through with embarrassment that the head hole – the bit in the table where you put your head – was damp with tears and snot bubbles. And it wasn’t even a painful massage! It was a very average, swooshy one, like skywriting that disperses straight away. It’s just that my hand hurt and I was sick of myself. But bodies change. My hand will heal. I’ll harden up again and punch the wall again. Or not. If I don’t I’ll still be changing, still seeking new things to punch and new ways to be comforted.
I just came across this terrible artwork of Thom Yorke that I did when I was 16 and it cheered me up no end.
tūī vaunting themselves through the tree
their song drawing
fear off me like steam
making my heart dazzle
like a windscreen
being spattered with bugs
a memory of riding fast down the hill
with purple light streaming into my mouth
and out of my injuries
if I can just watch enough birds it will drown me out
if I can just be overwhelmed by birds . . .
my regrets are beautifully made
and unlike many others we are seeing at this time
I’ll go down
trying to embrace everyone
overwhelmed by the hill I’m regretting my way up again
growing uglier – but fitter, but fitter – all the time
and if I can’t continue
then I can’t walk either
a sparrow pins a smaller sparrow down
to drop food into its beak. Give over, be sat on, be fed,
a song vaunts itself through the smaller sparrow,
it isn’t any use