Skinning

i.

I fear the thoughts I can get locked into; today, it was having my skin peeled from my body, bit by bit. I had just eaten two bacon rolls.

I was in a cafe, deciding what to do, when all of a sudden I had the impression of something clamping, pulling, then tearing my skin away from me. It was a brief thought, but an uncomfortable one nevertheless. But like all uncomfortable thoughts it soon became apparent to me it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon.

The image itself clamped to the inside of my brain and stayed there. My skin began to crawl. I wanted to shake it, to shake the image entirely. But its cycle had begun. I looked around me at all the people and thought: do they think things like this? Or are they simply thinking about their coffee?

Small metal clamps would pinch at me. Thin chains would then pull them away from my body. I would watch the skin stretch and then thin out. It would become taut and then it would start to tear at one corner, before slowly the tear would get larger and larger until a whole continent of flesh had been pulled from me. I shivered at what the bloody mess might feel like beneath it. A long, broad sting.

I imagined cold wind against bloody muscle, the creeping pain and shock building and building. I thought of flaps of skin tossed away before more was pulled off. Awake the whole time I would see my body go from the pale pink of skin to the pus-filled red of muscle freshly exposed, sinewy and shining as if covered with water.

No matter how hard I tried I could not let the thought go. I tried leaving it altogether by reaching for a book, but no, that didn’t work. What if I could take the thought from the physical horror of the present to its root instead – surely, it had a root? I just needed to take it somewhere other than where it was.

ii.

The cold sensation against exposed flesh felt familiar, as if I’d experienced it before. As a child I’d fall over all the time, but had I ever actually torn that much skin in a fall? Enough that I’d know that sweeping gesture of a breeze that moved like fingers along exposed flesh? Not that I could remember.

Then it struck me. Fifteen years ago or so my family were staying in Venice for a long weekend. Dad was a guest speaker at some conference or other, and the family got to go along for the ride. We didn’t stay in Venice proper though, but just across the water on the long thin finger of the Lido.

The ocean side of the Lido was a long, white beach. There were big waves one day and the sun was shining bright in the deep blue sky. My brother and I spent hours in the water. I obliged my mum’s calls for putting sun lotion on, but only once. It wasn’t uncommon of me to completely disregard any advice given to me. I think I thought I was immortal. Or I was just a prat. Anyhow, no doubt the lotion washed off in no time.

I was a lobster by the evening and in immense pain. After a rough night I awoke in horror. My skin was covered in tiny white blisters. My arms, my chest, my legs, my neck, my face. All covered in blisters. On top of that I felt nauseous and dizzy. There wasn’t anything to be done other than grin and bear it as we were leaving that day for the long drive back to England.

Later on, as we approached the Alps, I peeled skin from my body in palm-sized sheets. There was something disturbingly enjoyable about it. Despite the pain and discomfort, I liked watching the white skin come away from my body. Like peeling the skin of an apple I wanted to try and get the largest piece possible, perhaps even shed all my skin in one go. Mostly it was scraps but sometimes there was the satisfaction of seeing something larger; something I could roll into a squidgy ball on my palm and flick out of the window.

But there was always a thin line between slight discomfort and serious pain. The times that I took off a piece that wasn’t ready yet to come away – now, that was horror. But I felt a curious pleasure on that edge.

And the more I pushed the edge the more I felt alive.

iii.

Was I bored of my life? I could have been reading The End of Eddy or Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I could have been on my phone checking my notifications. There was a thick slice of carrot cake right in front of me that I could have been getting my teeth into.

Instead, I was sitting there wondering what it might be like to have my skin torn from my body in large, wet chunks. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised there was an element to my experience oddly akin to pleasure. Not so much the experience itself, for that could only be immense pain, but the fact that I was thinking it in the first place.

Even though I shivered in discomfort, perhaps there was a part of me that wanted to be locked in to that moment, for want of feeling alive. For want of being on some kind of edge as opposed to the safety of the brown leather sofa that cradled me like I was some kind of overgrown newborn.

I needed to shed my skin. That’s what my fantasy was telling me. Shed something, even if it hurts like hell, and start anew. Feel the pain of aliveness.

I moved onto the carrot cake with gusto and soon lost the thought.

Tense

Why is it that some memories seem to want to continue to exist in the present tense whereas others fit comfortably into the past?

I wonder if it is something to do with whether conclusions have been made or not. There are memories of mine that feel fully rounded, and like any finished product can be passed on or put aside. But others are vague and require revisiting, often right from their source. They call out to be inhabited again, reworked and relived. Living is of course done so in the present tense.

There are active memories: memories of movement, of taking a walk somewhere, of swimming in an ocean. Others are more static, like a view across a valley, no doubt isolated between two forgotten active memories. How you got there, how you left.

Who can resist the temptation to dive back into an active memory again? To climb back into that childhood adventure and take part in it one more time. I throw the baseball to my brother. The sun is going down but we keep throwing until the ball is a dangerous blur in the dusk. When we are done we walk home in moonlight. Soon we are out on the deck drinking iced-lemonade and dad is smoking a cigar. My arm aches and I like that it aches. Can we do this again tomorrow? 

Other memories may require diving back in, yet the wish to do so may not be quite so tempting. There is the possibility that a memory requiring an active, present tense participation is perhaps a memory of something not quite processed on a psychological level. A trauma might be easier to visit from a distant and safe past tense, but in order to fully engage with it, in order that it might be overcome or fully integrated, would it not suit to live it again, in the present tense, but from a place of safety? Later that evening I put down the phone, and as I walk down the stairs I try to compose the right words, but what are the right words? She killed herself, I say to my mum at the bottom of the stairs. I feel that the words come from someone other than me, like I’ve been split in two. 

I enter a memory in present tense when I simply can’t remember the whole thing. It feels like the best way to draw things away from the forgotten shadows by being there. As close to them as possible. It feels a little like archaeology.

There is something, however, that feels a little restrictive for the reader when faced with present tense. And a little unreal, contrived even. Hold on, the reader might think, this is not happening right now because if it was, it wouldn’t yet be written. Often, I write a first draft in the present tense, but then edit it through so it reads in the past.

When I sat down to write To the Pines I had these characters in my head, and the sense that a story existed there. But the only way to find the story was to chip away, and that meant inhabiting the story and its characters, as it happened, in present tense. And that’s where I chose to leave it.

Dillard Days

i.

I don’t have much time. I’ve stared the wall over and now the day, or at least, the light of day has passed. Now the dwindling decline, long past the hour of creativity. There is a car lurching outside. I wonder who mans or womans the wheel, but I don’t really. I couldn’t care less. All I have is the bare wall I’ve bored with my gaze all day and the computer screen filled with half-finished documents and a deadline for a not-too-far-in-the-distance dissertation that I haven’t got the heart nor muster nor thrust to write. There’s just the long blank white, that I have wretched upon, again and again the day through.

ii.

Now that the sunlight is a memory, and returns only tomorrow for another go-around I have nothing but the darkness falling, the darkness staying, nothing but the darkness now to turn my mind to and hope to some extent it carries some other shade I can nip myself into, burrow a little space for to burn some hope, to hold my hands around – to warm, to feel. It’s been a while since I wrote anything of any sense, nor anything that was even half-good; and this feels like only reaching, reaching for that goodness and that clarity that always feels beyond, somewhere in that vacant space, somewhere in that long white wall beyond the foot of the bed.

iii.

I am in bed, have I said that? I’m lying in this bed, duvet over my legs, quite warm. I’ve been here for hours. And I’ll be here for days, forever. I don’t know you Annie Dillard but I know enough to know you as a truth person – when you said that how we spend our days days is of course how we spend our lives, I felt I would carry that around forever. And forever I have, but it’s been more a noose to me than a call to arms. As the day splits beyond its zenith and I’m lying in bed staring at a white wall, my fingers unmoving above the keys, I see only that my life is spent like this because my days, my days are, my days are spent like this, and your ever-so-perfectly-spot-on truth reminds me I’m sleeping through it. Soon it will actually be time to sleep, but I won’t. I will only breathe the air dying slow.