My friend asks me how I am feeling.
Not, “How are you?” “Fine,” will not do as a reply.
My friend has asked a few times before. I am not avoiding her. The genuine answer is, “I have no idea.”
But that will not do either.
And so I sit in an armchair, pretending to watch television. I reach inside. Two things occur to me instantly.
The first is that I have not done this in a while. Quite a long while. I don’t know how long, but then this is about feelings. It feels long.
The second is a reminder of why I stopped doing this. The first feeling I encounter is sadness.
It’s always been there. At least as long as I can remember emotionally. When I reach inside, I find sad. Black sad. A darkness made of sadness.
And this is where I start to falter. I’m good with words, alright? Words have always been what I do. But instantly words start to fail me. “A man is not sad, he is morose,” said Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society. “Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavour, laziness will not do.” But I deliberately choose the lazy word “sad”.
It’s like “nice”. It is a mediocre, beige kind of a word. Weak. Expressionless. This dark sadness is not depression, it is not intense. I am not about to burst out crying or slit my wrists. It is just ever there.
I can guess at why it is there, but that is not what my friend asked me. She did not ask, “Why are you?” She asked, “How are you?” In fact, she has deliberately asked me to bypass all the logic I normally apply in these circumstances.
It is why I have chosen to write in the present tense – to pull myself into the present and not analyse. That’s not what this is for.
The sadness feels like a layer. I doesn’t feel like there is sadness all the way down. It’s not a mask above other feelings, but rather a kind of go-to emotion. The first thing I encounter on the way down. As I go down, the darkness becomes thicker, the sadness more profound, but… well, does it sound crazy to say that, as the sadness becomes denser, so hope seems to shine brighter in the distance? Distance is the wrong word. Through the ever-thickening mist.
I stop and re-emerge. Up through the sadness and back into the world of senses. The TV is still going, my partner sits next to me, oblivious to what I am trying to do.
Beneath the sadness is hope. I know it is there. It is what comes through when asked how I feel about people. My first response will be something cynical about sheeple and how average IQ descends the bigger the sample, but for those prepared to call me on my bullshit there lies a layer of genuine hope. I love people. I believe in them. In us. We are capable of… well, we can do things like Christmas. Not overweight saints in red pyjamas or saviours in mangers… not even giving of gifts and the celebration of renewal that lies at the heart of midwinter… I mean smiling at perfect strangers walking towards you and genuinely wishing them a merry Christmas. For that one day, you mean it! And so do they! Hope. Hope in who I am because of who we are.
The sadness inspires inaction, anxiety, depression and drinking. Beneath it lies the hope that spurs me to action and smiling and the will to excel. I think there is also a little fear of failure down there, which may account for the layer of sadness above it, but now I’m starting to analyse again.
I can only do this at certain times. Often – more often than not at the moment – there is a layer of anxiety that simply will not allow me to internalise, to look within, at all.
The sadness is complex, deep, dark and multi-faceted. There is an honesty to it too that means I don’t necessarily want to be rid of it, nor do I necessarily see it as a bad thing. It is just there, an integral part of who I am. It is made of regret, of failure, of missed opportunities and unmet expectations.
I chose the title of this piece from the the song by In Flames. The sadness is where the dead ships dwell, where voyages ended sunk beneath waves of failure, where ships that never left the harbour rock gently, chained to the quay because I was too scared to set sail. The spines of sunken dreadnoughts, tattered sails flapping listlessly in the dank, stinking breeze; haunted, rotten skeletons loll in cages that swing from yard-arms; the black see swells and subsides with the rhythm of the slow, hypnotic heartbeat of Cthulhu below, dead but dreaming. This is a watery graveyard, the crescent moon shedding weak light through clouds like shredded sails to reflect lifeless and cold on dark and fathomless waves.
But I belong here. Yes, the obvious metaphor of failure in the wreckage, of the layer that keeps me from hope. It’s laughable it’s so fucking corny. But here I stand and here I belong and here I feel at home and even at peace among the rotten wood, long-dead pirates and half-submerged, keeled-over hulls. I am out of the world of my senses, and that is rarely a bad thing when I am alone. Senses are boring. No poetry.
So, my friend, here I am. Where the dead ships dwell. That’s as far as I got this time.
Will you hold my hand if I can find a seaworthy vessel, board it with me? Can you? Is this a journey we must all travel alone? We once sailed together. Shipmates. From the listing decks of that dreadnought with the tattered sails and the rotten corpses we dove and swam for different shores so long ago. Think we could try again for hope? Is that even really what exists beyond this?
I’m waxing lyrical, which means I’m finished.