The Boy Who Tamed The Sea

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At 5:30 am, on any morning I can handle it, I’ll slip out of the dark mouth of my covers and creep through the silver light of early morning. I’ll pull the curtains of my room back a peep, just enough to pick up my little Buddha statue of flaky, glittery chrome and set it down on the chest of drawers in front of me. The flakes of the cheap ornament rub off and engrain themselves along the lines in my palms as I settle like a drizzling mist upon my meditation cushion for zazen. I light a stick of incense and it glows, peels and crumbles before me as I sink into my cushion on the floor and try to scrub my mind back to the still lakes and flawless mirrors alluded to in the Zen tradition. I am aware of the limited time I have before he wakes up, and so I try to rouse myself from the agitated slurry of my early morning mind-swamp and pare it all back to the abstract rudiments of nothing-like impressions I usually mistake for a clear mind; these will do for the short of time.

Eventually I tune into something like a clean channel I can bear to sit within. Disparate sounds and sensations reach my radii of observation; the intermittent clicking and droning of the boiler, the nattering peeps and meeps of little birds outside, the creaking of council house timber that resembles the throaty groans emitted deep within the rocking galley of an old ship. I am trying to take all of it in with a purity of reception that avoids the encroaching whispers wriggling their way through the joinery of the vessel; the walls of my mind creaking in the churn of restless attention.

The message is always the same — “kill yourself”. But this is okay.

I’ve heard this one for years, loyal to the day in and the day out. It’s persistence is almost admirable, and at the lowest of ebbs it is almost comforting to lay beside, like an abusive lover you’re infatuated with, from dusk till dawn, till vice versa. A single, incessant whisper whose permanent residence has worked against its message; because I’m still here. But it’s the other voices that get to me, all of those that impose their warped perceptions of pains past and present upon me. Those bitter shipmates that have catalogued their grievances and raised their choruses of mutiny from discontented whispers to excoriating, lacerating howls. “I’m trying, I’m trying” I think I’m saying aloud, as the voices begin to rush in. My face hurts and my throat aches and my breaths feel like they are smothering my heart beat. My attention has drifted and my mind is like a storm; no clear lakes for me, apparently. I try to hold on to some object of focus, but then another voice:

“Calvin…Calvin? Can I go downstairs and watch Youtube please?”

He’s awake. Isaak, my stepson, is up early again. Sometimes this saves me. Sometimes it makes things worse. I tell him yes. Yes it is okay to go and watch things on the computer. I remember that I promised to take him to the park today, but the chorus in the bowels of the ship works as a kind of masochistic overture that I can only hope to get up and walk away from, still immured as I am in its trouble. I can walk away, and I do, but I have to take the storm with me.

I dress, wash and then collect Isaak’s clothes from his room and bring them down. I make him breakfast and try to get him to eat it, then try to persuade him to dress, then implore him to go and brush his teeth. He leaps and snaps at the air excitedly between each stage, rambling and then forgetting himself, wandering off and coming back. When he comes down after pretending to brush his teeth I send him back up to the bathroom to try again and his jumping turns jittery and defensive. I set out one ten and one five milligram tablet of methylphenidate hydrochloride for his ADHD; today it is also a part of my terms and conditions regarding access to the park. He’s happy to accept these on their announcement, while we put on our coats for the long mid-morning, budget-preserving walk. My acknowledgement of his agreement is a mixture of grunts and sighs, as another voice coarse and vital grows to speak inside of me, at me, only to die with its knowledge irretrievable, as if this were its solitary statement of purpose all along.

Walking down the road, Isaak and I are like a contradiction in terms. A blonde sparkler crackling in a light blue jacket, a tall tree limb sagging from a dark coat. The convergence of a nine year old’s flighty nature with the bubbling tension of his condition makes Isaak a character of upward motion, of near skyward assent. As he skips down the road he imitates the calls of birds, kicks at verges of grass, and charges towards cats as their expressions of suspicion vindicate the haste of their retreat. My walk is like the skulking pursuit of a hearse behind an exulting champion or a fog advancing on a delirious cheerleader. Every now and then Isaak rushes back to report that the two worms on the pavement we’re about to pass are actually two parts of the same worm that has been unjustly attacked by something, or that when crows cry like this caw caw they are trying to talk to you and you must answer like this caw caw so lets do it right now caw caw. I always try to make the right sounds in response, without undue exertion.

Eventually we get to the park. The lazy eye of an obscured sun sends a few spare rays along the monkey bars and climbing frames that are otherwise soaked in last night’s rainwater or the morning’s dew. Isaak spots a few younger kids trying to strong-arm a sand scoop on a chain to the pit its suspended above and he rushes over to provide assistance. I approach a bench with close enough proximity to the action to convey an adequate sense of responsibility and sit down. The park is not exactly bustling with activity and I prefer it this way. Something is telling me I’m in pain and it’s my fault. I look through my bag to find a book I can immerse myself in as some sort of escape. My face keeps contorting into shapes that seem to want to complement the twisted structures my mind presents; I begin to lightly rock back and forth on the bench while searching. Isaak, amongst the kids in the distance, looks over at me. He doesn’t see me flash a look back but I see that his face is sad. He knows about all of this with me. He is feeling sorry for me but in the moment I can only feel that I’m never enough and a problem for everybody.

On days when I get really bad I dissociate. I become disconnected from what is going on around me and I do things that do not make sense. These can be dangerous moments because I feel like I could do anything without feeling anything particularly significant. When things get really bad for Isaak he cannot express himself and the children gang up on him and the teachers yell at him. It is difficult to watch him bang his small fists against his head again and again and again as he cries. We are at opposite ends of an alienating and difficult spectrum, and on days when things get really bad these ends ignite and my wife — Isaak’s mother — has to extinguish Isaak’s redoubling fires and drive out my black, reclusive smoke. We live in paradox and at counterpoint, along abrasion and amongst confusion. But sometimes it works.

I’m trying to read but Isaak comes running back to the bench. The kids wrestled the sand scoop back from him and ignored his appeals to the futility of their endeavour — the scoop’s chain was just too short to reach the base of the sandpit. Isaak begins to implore me to play with him, upset and alone as he has become. I make the usual murmurs and mumbles that essentially agree as long as we don’t have to spend too long at the park.

“Yeah! Pick me up!” he says, “I am a fire warrior, you are my Phoenix!”

I groan and pick him up, placing his legs on my shoulders, then charge towards the centre of the park. “Yeeeah” he cries out, “quicker, but be safe!”. We barrel along at a rate that would require some pretty hefty inertia to contain it, and we dash between the swing sets and twist and turn around a climbing net and a playhouse, leaping triumphantly over the mouth of the protruding base of the slide. “Quick! To my weapons!” he signals to a line of leafy shrubs and hedgerows adjacent to our position. I obediently soar towards the line and Isaak swings a spare arm out to grab amongst the twigs with an ensuing “ow” and some protest until we realise that we’re going to have to stop and break off a substantial branch, before continuing on with haste. “Tell me what you see” he says, with his new sword in hand. “I see darkness, I see a storm coming…” which is not exactly imaginative but is at least somewhat accurate, as the skies are darkening slightly and some early spits and drizzle make contact with skin. “Yes” Isaak agrees, slightly underwhelmed, before crying out “…but what about that ship?!”

He casts his sword out towards the climbing frame next to the sandpit. The kids in the pit find our erratic charging around entertaining and he calls at them to join him. Through the fog of my mind I begin to see the climbing frame collapse and reform before my eyes to become a vast sloop, surging its way through choppy waters.

“I see it” I say, “and I think I recognise the crew”

“They are the enemy and we will have their ship!” Isaak announces, as the other kids scramble into action and board the sides, parrying the attacks of the invisible men that seek to defend the deck. “It was our ship!” I say and he agrees “we will take back our ship called er…” I try to think of something for him, “…The Black…Pearl” I say eventually, knowing no other historical or fantastical names of pirate ships. “Good one!” he says, “now Phoenix…attack!” and we descend upon the deck as Isaak tears through its distressed staff. His sword’s steel clatters against their own or sends them reeling in terror from my blazing wings of death. He leaps on board with his new crew and overwhelms the old mutineers with the frenzy of his spirit. His fellows cheer him on and a young girl strikes a steel pole with her own stick; which in this world is reported by her to be a young buccaneer chopping her opponents head off, “with blood everywhere”.

Our siege continues until the early afternoon where Isaak is proclaimed captain by his new friends and is congratulated on his success. It’s difficult to tear him away from all of this to go home, but I want it to end on a high note. The threat of rain never actually materialised into anything significant, and the whispering mutineers in the galley have all been slain, for now. As we walk back we find our balance on this spectrum, here for each other.

At 5:30 am, I’ll sit upon my cushion and watch the still lake, reflecting like a flawless mirror in my mind, at least for now.

Written for Write and Raise, proceeds to go to Mind, a charity providing services for mental health. Feel free to donate.

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