short stories

~ What Am I Doing? ~

72545311_10212486707123064_6712229947374567424_o.jpg

~ What am I doing? ~

I was the only ‘gringo’ on the bus – gringo essentially being the South American term for a ‘white western person’. I was heading out of Bolivia into the north of Argentina. I had just spent a couple of weeks with new friends and was hitting the road again on my own. One friend had headed up to the Amazon and the other had travelled to another place in Argentina. And so there I was: back to riding solo down the highway of life, staring out of those bus windows and wondering what chaos and madness was over the next horizon of space and time. However, I wasn’t totally alone. A little old lady had been sat next to me for the sixteen-hour bus ride. She had been quiet the whole way, but as we pulled into a police checkpoint at the border, she started to shift around in an erratic manner. I kept one eye on her while leaning my head against the window. Outside I could see a group of police officers with machine guns leading people into a room to be searched. The old lady continued to shift around nervously and eventually started tugging on my shirt to get my attention. I turned to face her. My Spanish was still pretty bad despite being in South America for about two months already, but naturally I could understand what ‘co-cai-na’ meant. She said it repeatedly before opening her bag and pulling out what looked like a kilogram of Colombia’s finest in a see-through plastic bag. Slightly taken aback by the situation that was unfolding, I stared at her blankly without knowing quite what to say. She then proceeded to grab my backpack and attempt to put the cocaine inside of it. Not wanting to end up banged up in a South American jail for the next ten years, I politely declined the old lady’s advances. I then grabbed my backpack to get off the bus and join the queue of people who were now being led through the police checkpoint.

While in the queue to get searched, I watched the old lady stand in line on her own. This poor woman, I thought. What was she doing? What was she thinking? She must have been almost seventy and it looked like she was on her way to spending her remaining years in some hellhole Bolivian prison. There was no way the officers were not going to find her stash in that small handbag of hers. Not a chance in hell. I felt bad for her but there was nothing I could do at this point. Her reckless gamble had failed and her doomed fate was sealed.

The queue continued to go down and eventually the old lady reached the table to be searched. The officers took her bag and placed it on the table. Another one then went to open it. This was it, I thought. I was about to witness an old lady have the cuffs slapped on her and get escorted off to jail. I stood there and watched the officer unzip her bag, pull out for the bag of class A drugs, inspect it under the lighting and then toss it aside. Then, to my confusion, I watched as the old lady grabbed her handbag back and passed through freely. There she walked: no cuffs, no arrest, no drama. Off she strolled to get back on the bus.

It was only when I reached the table to be searched that I saw the large stash of cocaine behind the officers. There must have been a dozen bags of drugs all piled on top of each other. It appeared that almost half the people on the bus I was on were trying to smuggle bags of cocaine across the Argentine border. The passengers consisted of elderly people, parents and their kids, but clearly that was just business as normal in this part of the world. In a state of surreal shock, I reached the police officers myself where they took one look at my passport, saw that I was a ‘gringo’ and then ushered me through without even bothering to search my bag. It suddenly hit me why the little old lady was so keen to put the drugs in my backpack. She could have got them through after all. Perhaps we could have formed a partnership and split the profits? Perhaps It could have been the start of a bright new career in the narcotics industry? I dismissed the thought and got back on the bus where me and the old lady both sat in awkward silence. I then pressed my head against the window once more, stared out at the passing countryside of those foreign lands and wondered what the hell it was exactly that I was doing with my life…

Fast forward a few hours later and I’m dropped off in a strange town in the middle of nowhere. It was the place where I was supposed to be catching my connecting bus to Buenos Aires. However, with my original bus arriving two hours late, the departure had been missed and I was now standing alone in the dark of night in a shady bus station. I tried to communicate my problem with a bus driver but my gringo Spanish was naturally of insufficient use. Suddenly I was stranded and in a spot of bother. With a gang of men eyeing me across the street, I quickly decided that the best thing to do was to get on any bus to anywhere. Luckily there was one final bus about to depart before the station closed. I booked myself a ticket to a town called Salta. I got on and arrived about an hour and a half later where I booked into a random hostel and proceeded to drink shots of whiskey until the early morning with some Irish guy who was drowning his sorrows after his girlfriend had just broken up with him. As those shots flew back, I stared drunkenly into space and heard that same question once again reverberate around the walls of my skull: what the hell am I doing with my life?

‘What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my life? What the hell am I doing with my life?’

It was a question that went through my head probably more than any other. I was an introspective and reflective guy anyway, but when you got yourself into as many random scenarios as I did, then it was a question that was frequently at the forefront of all mental musings. On this travelling adventure I had already ended up in so many random situations that left me contemplating my own existence. I had just finished university and my parents had wanted me to use my degree and go out and get a ‘real job’. Yet instead of sitting behind a desk and forming a career of some sort, I’d be in some ridiculous situation thousands of miles from home. Evidently South America was particularly bad for this, hopping from one bizarre scenario to the next. At one point I stopped and lived in Rio de Janeiro for a couple of months with a Brazilian girl I had met on the road. We stayed with her family in an isolated suburb on the outskirts of the city where no one including her family spoke a word of English. She had arrived home from her trip but had decided to stay in holiday mindset; this meant we’d spend the days at the beach before going out to get drunk at random parties, sleep in her car, crash at the apartments of some tourists, or sneak up to the rooftop pool of one of the most expensive hotels in Copacabana. At one point we had an argument and she went off with some other guys to her holiday home somewhere down the coast. In my own dismay, I found myself getting drunk at the beach on my own, staring out at the Atlantic Ocean and thinking about the alternative reality on the other side of that water back in the U.K. That alternative reality where I could have been all suited and booted up like a regular member of the human race – where I would be finishing another hard day at the office before going to have a few pints down the pub with work colleagues. My drunken mind imagined it all. The alarm clocks. The traffic jams. The work desk. The shirts and ties. The small talk. The routine lifestyle. The high-street shopping queues. It all went through my head as I knocked back the beers and passed out on a Brazilian beach.

Such existential thoughts carried on as I left South America and arrived in New Zealand almost one thousand pounds into my overdraft. Arriving to a country on the other side of the world with no money was pretty outrageous, even for my standards, but by this point I was totally lost in the wilderness of life, accepting that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but just trusting myself to the winds of fate and circumstance. That wind picked up and within a few weeks I was working in a kiwi fruit packhouse, living in a town of a couple of hundred people and renting a house with an eclectic mix of humans which included two guys from Chile, my English friend I had met in Australia a couple of years before, and my sister who was coincidentally travelling in New Zealand at the same time. Days were spent packing boxes of kiwis at a frantic rate as they poured like a tsunami from the conveyor belt, before heading home and sharing a bed with my sister in a freezing cold house in the middle of winter. It was a strange scenario to say the least, and naturally I still had no answer to that pressing question that lingered in my mind.

As that two-year backpacking trip finished and my life went on, there were times where I felt that I was beginning to realise what I was doing with my life. What was happening; where it was going; what it was leading to. Those times included coming home and thinking I was going to stop the travelling and settle down. It included times where I went back to university to study – where I eyed up career options as a journalist or copywriter and began to plot some sort of routine that would lead me safely and smoothly into old age. I should have known such things to be nothing more than mere mental musings. I’d go from having a plan to be hiking alone and writing poetry in the Himalayas. To hitch-hiking around Iceland. To raving beside an erupting volcano in Guatemala. To sleeping on a park bench in Slovenia. To walking across Spain in the midsummer heat (the most defining ‘what the hell am I doing?’ moment definitely being when me and four other hikers spontaneously decided to hike through the night, getting drunk off bottles of red wine before passing out in a farmer’s field). By this point I had learnt to go with the flow of whatever it was that was enfolding and even enjoy the comedy of my own chaotic existence. Hell, I even started to revel in it, smiling and smirking to myself in the most random of scenarios, stopping for a second and soaking it all in while the mess and madness unfolded around me. To some degree, I had managed to rewire my brain to living totally in the sheer anarchy of the moment.

I guess my most recent ‘what am I doing with my life’ moments came travelling in Europe. I had just flown back from Asia to meet my Dutch friend Bryan and head to Corsica to do a two-week trek through the island. However, our timetable wasn’t quite right and we had about three weeks until the snowy conditions made it possible to hike. Consequently, we arranged to travel through Switzerland and Italy in the meanwhile. Taking cheap buses in between destinations, we stopped and stayed with random friends we had each met travelling; we bummed around in cities getting drunk in bars and parks; we stumbled around famous historic sites such as the Colosseum or the Vatican while cracking inappropriate jokes about history and culture. Bryan was like me in that he also regularly questioned the bizarre situations and scenarios the path of his life had led him to. We had been through a similar journey in life and were both highly philosophical about our own unconventional existence. This sometimes caused us to ask that question simultaneously as we walked down the streets of Rome or Florence, or when we drank beer on a random street corner and observed the human race like we were on safari. It was a very existential time of my life, even more so than usual, and ultimately we came to the conclusion that it was probably best that two manic minds like ours didn’t share paths for too long. Seemingly we were both a bad influence on each other’s lives. When I first met Bryan, he was a clean-cut guy, only having a couple of pints of beer each time we went to a bar; but now – partly due to the influence of myself and partly due to the crushing weight of the world – he was now an even more keen drinker than I was. I thought this would be a good development, but both of us being keen drinkers was a recipe for disaster. I was suffering from insomnia at the time and there was a moment every night where we would both think about being sensible and getting a good night’s rest. Then one of us would hint about going out for a drink to which the other would then utter the trip catchphrase: ‘why not? we’re on holiday…’ Next thing we’d be stumbling out again into the wilderness of the night, getting messed up and sneaking into VIP areas in clubs, before waking up the next day, staring at the hostel room ceiling and wondering that same old life-defining question…

What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my life? What the hell am I doing with my life?’

I thought about it all those times on the road and I think about it now while I am writing these words, living alone in a new city, getting by off medical trials and agency work, not knowing what I’ll be doing in a few months’ time – whether I’ll be back out on that road or trying to write another book. It is a thought that has made itself at home in my head, but it is also a thought I think I see in the eyes of everyone around me too. I see it in the look of a businessman waiting in his car at the traffic lights. I see it at the look of a woman pushing a pram up the hill. I see it in the look of an elderly person drinking alone at a bar; in the look of a cashier in a store when they have a second to think to themselves. Sometimes I think I see it in my parent’s eyes too – in my father’s eyes as he’s doing the dishes or my mother’s eyes as she waters the plants. I have this suspicion I can’t shake that it’s all a big conspiracy and no one really knows what the hell they are doing. We all just try to follow and fake it, to go with what is expected of us by others and society, but deep down in every man or woman’s heart there are those moments of staring into skies, mirrors and spaces that are often as empty as the existential space they feel inside themselves. Perhaps that is a space that will never be filled no matter what we do or where we go. Sometimes I think I know what I’m doing, but that delusion quickly passes and I return to that bus window or solitary shoreline knowing that I am hopelessly lost in the dream of life as ever. Lost in the cosmic ocean of space and time. Lost in the woods of human existence. And accepting that, I find a sort of faith to keep walking wide-eyed through the wilderness and accept whatever it is that life brings my way. Deep down, no one really knows what the hell is going on, and the ones who do are normally just a divorce or redundancy or midlife crisis away from having their illusions totally blown to pieces. Life at its core is just pure mystery and madness, so why not just accept that? Why not go with the flow? Why not just sit back and enjoy the ride? Hell, go one further. Put the pedal down, wind down the windows, stick your head out into the wind and enjoy this random and chaotic trip of a lifetime.

God knows, somebody has to.

 

 

 

 

short stories

~ Coming out as a Weirdo ~

alone-beanie-boy-569169

~ Coming out as a Weirdo ~

‘You march to a different beat. You know it. You’ve always known it. You hear the things they don’t hear; see the things they don’t see. You feel something different when you stare into those skies and walk down those busy streets. And it’s that moment when you stand and face out into the great unknown, and you feel it calling you away into the wild. The adventures. The wonders. The dreams. The magic and mystery. Don’t shy away from it any longer. It’s time to stop hiding who you really are. It’s time to stop dwelling in a life which doesn’t fulfil your soul. Accept you are destined for something more than another standardised existence. Break free from that crowd. Emerge into the light of your truest life. Move fearlessly forward towards the shores of your own destiny. Ruthlessly pursue your unique passions and gifts. Be bold. Be different. Be beautiful.’  – Ryan Millward.

In this life there are few experiences more initially terrifying than exposing yourself to the crowd. Than showing them all that you are not one of them. That you are different, abnormal, odd – a little bit strange. Since we were hunter-gatherers on the plains of Africa, human-beings have thrived off social acceptance and fitting in with the tribe, and doing something different from the rest is the sort of thing that can install great anxiety into people. It’s the sort of thing that causes people to put on a mask and hide their true face. It’s the sort of thing that can cause some people to spend their entire lives going through the motions just to please others and fit in, and not be judged for being different. For not being regular in the sense of tradition and expectation. For not being ‘normal’.

Since as long as I can remember, I never really considered myself a normal person. Yes, I know we all have our individual quirks, but beyond that I knew something was dangerously different inside of me from a young age. At school I found myself a chronic daydreamer, escaping into alternative realities in my head that were more pleasing to me than the bland scenes that surrounded me. While the other kids played and chatted, often I stared out of those classroom windows envisaging myself becoming some sort of bird or animal. When I was five, I went around my neighbourhood collecting the wrappers of a specific chocolate bar after some older kid had told me they could buy a ticket to Australia if only I had enough. At one point I used to pretend I was a stuntman for Hollywood and went climbing dangerous things with those imaginary cameras shooting. And that’s not to forget my little phase as an undercover spy, which, admittedly, is best forgotten for legal reasons.

I guess these sorts of mental musings were typical of childhood, and something I thought maybe my eccentric mind would grow out of, but in secondary school I found that my weirdness stayed with me. Again, I didn’t really understand a lot of things the others did and preferred getting lost in the wilderness of my mind. Because of this, I wasn’t good at finding my place in the social ladder. Whatever group I was a part of, I was still the outsider of that group; an awkward tag alone. Still, I guessed I wanted to have some friends so I suppressed my madness and eccentricity to a degree, although occasionally it bubbled out in the form of me becoming a MC rapper, or declaring that I was going to take a vow of chastity all of my life to see how people reacted (definitely not the smartest decision to make in an all boy’s school, admittedly).

As an adult my weirdness only increased. At this point you were supposed to be preparing yourself to become a normal civilised member of the human race, working 8-5, interested in things like careers, mortgages, marriage, furniture, television, cars, credit ratings and talking about the football over a few pints down the pub. Still, all I truly cared about was doing creative things and going on insane adventures. I wanted to climb trees and talk about the universe. I wanted to share ideas about existence and create works of art. While people were more interested in starting careers, I only had eyes on travelling in foreign lands. Naturally, this led to me still being known as the black sheep anyway due to me never going on holiday with any of the others, but always choosing to instead fly alone to some random country like Ghana or Peru. By this point, I did actually have a core group of friends at home, but I was still known as the eccentric traveller. The outsider. The misfit.

I guess that internal pull to get out into the world and do something different was my subconscious calling me toward some sort of personal purpose. While on these adventures and talking to fellow misfits, I gradually began to realise that I was never really destined for the regular life of the socially accepted citizen like my friends from back home. But naturally that was a scary thought, so whenever I was home, I hid my true alien nature and tried to suppress who I was. I bit my tongue. I pretended that I was going to pack it all in eventually and return back to normal life, starting a career and doing all those super official adult things like driving a car and getting a credit card and pension fund. Surrounded by people who I was on a different path from, I started to feel social anxiety for the first time in my life. I put on a mask and, even though people considered me weird anyway, they really had no idea how deep my madness went.

My friend Ryan was one of my good friends from secondary school and probably the closest person I could relate to in the pain of wearing a mask and hiding your authentic self. He had suppressed his sexuality since his teenage years as many gay people in their youth did. I guess it didn’t help that we went to an all boy’s school too. Most people naturally suspected he was gay, due to his camp nature and the fact he fitted in so well with groups of girls. Even though we all suspected it, he never came out as gay. We lived in an age where it was more acceptable than ever to come out, but still, for many years he hid his true nature out of not wanting to face the daunting spotlight of the crowd. I didn’t know the true extent of this until we were at a restaurant over dinner with friends in London and he reminded me of our hike up a mountain in New Zealand. It had been over four years since the hike, but he reflected about it as we drank together at the table. The hike was just a couple of weeks before he finally came out via a video on social media. I was totally oblivious at the time to the storm that was raging inside his head as he prepared to expose himself for being different than the rest. But he told me that it was on the hike where he decided he couldn’t hide who he was any longer; that he decided he was going to come out and reveal who he really was. Seemingly, it took him to go to the other side of the world, up the top of a mountain, to finally feel free enough to take off the mask to the daunting crowd.

While he told me about the struggle of wearing a mask and hiding his true nature, I reflected on myself and my own alien ways. He said holding it in was like holding your breath and I resonated a lot with that in terms of my own identity. As everyone around me walked down the aisles of conventional life, I had to hold my real nature in. I had to pretend I was interested in a standard existence when really I knew I was in conflict with society at my core. I didn’t care for what I was supposed to care for. I didn’t see any personal value in my expectations and cultural traditions. Even very basic attempts to fit in left me anxious and depressed. The act of writing a CV and applying for jobs I had no interest in only my heart rage and rebel against it all. As life went on normally around me, I often felt hopelessly alienated and misunderstood. People with good intentions assured me I’d find my place in the mould of society, but I guess I knew in my heart of hearts that I was an alien, an outsider – a weirdo.

The thing that kept me sane while experiencing this alienation was expressing myself via an artistic form. Over the years I had discovered that writing was my main talent in life. I could express myself with writing words better than I ever could when I opened my mouth. It was like there was a whole ocean of thoughts in my head, and when I spoke it was like trying to drain that ocean through a bath plughole. It was a hopeless task, but when my fingers touched those keyboard keys, suddenly I had the ability to pour everything out; suddenly I could send tsunamis of thoughts out onto the page. Writing was my ‘thing’ so to speak, and I knew that I had a lot of poetry and prose in me that I wanted to share. The problem initially was, whenever I wrote things with my name attached to it, it was often a restrained and frustrated affair. Burdened by the thought of other people’s opinions, I wrote from the ego and not from the heart, obsessing over what my peers, parents and friends would think of the mess that filled my mind. Still, I knew I had to express myself and eventually it got to the point where, like my friend Ryan, I could no longer hold it all in. At one point I decided I was finally going to write from my heart about how I felt about life, myself and society.

At first, I used the anonymity of a social media blog to hide my face; to not have my name attached to what I was writing. I created a concept ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’ where I posted pictures of random strangers walking in nature with some sort of internal, introspective reflection about life or society. I made it look like the quotes were from different characters, when really they were all the thoughts and words that I had stored away inside myself for many years. It wasn’t that I was ashamed of what I was writing, it was just that, like my friend Ryan, I wasn’t ready to expose myself as the misfit I was to the stern-eyed crowds of culture and convention.

Nonetheless, the relief of not having my name attached to it worked and allowed me to finally write out everything I had locked away deep in my heart. Out it all came in a prolonged burst over a year or so. Declarations of my weird, alien nature such as:

 “One day in this life you realise you are infected with the condition of being an outsider. The symptoms are revealed to you gradually. As you walk the neighbourhoods of normality you realise your heart yearns for something else. Stability and security only give you a feeling of sadness. You have no interest in the contract of life offered to you. As you stare at the rows of houses and green lawns and shiny cars, as you look up uninterested at career ladders before you, as you stare wistfully into space in the supermarket queue, you gradually begin to realise that something isn’t quite right about it all. Every ounce of your being rejects the things you were told to desire. What gives you fulfilment simply isn’t available in their stores or on their menus. You have no interest in material riches or status. Their television shows and newspapers are toxic poison to your mind. You are allergic to their conventions and expectations. The suits and ties don’t fit you. What is important to them, to you seems meaningless and trivial. In your world adventure and exploration and art rank above all else. Yes, accept it: you have the alien madness – the condition of being an outsider. You are infected…”

And:

“Yes, the more I stood there on that hill and thought about it, the more it seemed this was the destiny of someone like myself. The cards had been dealt and I knew deep down in my flesh and bones that it was my fate to sail alone, to get lost in the mazes of my own mind, to dwell in solitude among those mountains of madness. This was how it was; for some reason I would never fully understand, this is how it was. I guess by now it was just a matter of acceptance: a matter of accepting that I was a lone wanderer – a matter of accepting that I didn’t belong. I guess by now it was a matter of accepting the fact that no matter where I went in this world, I would always return to those hills above the cities, standing alone, staring up into the skies, looking for something – anything – to come and take me home.”

And let’s not forget the delightfully cheerful:

“In a world of steely-faced executives and agents, I felt like a castaway soul stranded in the dirt, chained down by gravity and government – trapped in a cage of slowly decaying flesh and bone. Since I was born, I often felt homesick for a place I’d never known; homesick for a place I’d never been. In the worst moments I gazed up into skies above thinking that maybe my species was somewhere out there beyond the neighbouring solar-systems and stars. After all, there was an endless ocean of galaxies and worlds out there, but somehow I had ended up in one full of things I just didn’t understand. The situation was strange, but what else could I do? Where else could I turn? Where else could I go?”

Sharing my writings with the internet world, I immediately felt rewarded. I discovered that my words could actually influence and even change people’s lives. I soon started to build up followers, shares and reactions to my posts. I received messages of gratitude and great emotion. People poured their hearts out to me, a stranger, via internet messages. Hearing that intense feedback, I felt gratified for sharing the chaotic contents of my mind. I always knew what I had to share was real and needed to be shared, and the response to my writings clearly validated that.

Eventually I had the idea to attach my name to it by compiling all the thoughts I had written on the blog and putting them into a book. This would be the point where I would proudly own up, take off the mask and show that it was me – Ryan Millward – that was the writer behind the pseudonym ‘The Thoughts From The Wild’. This was the sort of thing that installed great anxiety into me. What allowed me to write so purely was having this alter ego, and attaching my name to it only caused stress and strain in my mind. People would finally be able to see on printed paper my name along with the deepest, darkest and most private thoughts of my mind. It was initially hard to do, but my desire to be a writer and publish my stuff was too strong and I soon found myself creating the book, putting my name on the cover and sharing it with friends, peers, relatives and anyone else who asked a little about my life.

After the book was finally published, I had effectively ‘come out as a weirdo’ in my mind. Something that terrified me for years, was soon shown to me to not be so bad after all. Some people naturally distanced themselves from me, but many others bought my book, congratulated me and even told me they resonated with a lot of things I had said. Now that many people knew I was on a different path, I felt a lot more relief and freedom in what I could do with my life. Some people even gravitated towards me in my new state of being. It seemed that many normal people liked to have weirdos around to make them feel relaxed. If they were surrounded by ultra-serious, conventional people all the time than life became a drag. Hell, I even made new friends from my book. On one occasion I was travelling in Switzerland and ended up meeting up with a woman who had come across my blog online. She invited me and my friend around for dinner before going out for drinks. While listening to someone living in a different country tell me that my words actually mattered, I felt a strong gratification for sharing the contents of my heart. Like my friend Ryan, my life improved dramatically the second I took off my mask and revealed my true nature to the crowd.

As my life went on and I prepared to write my second book, I found I could write and express myself easier than ever. I didn’t even need a pseudonym any more to write down and share my most private thoughts. Like my friend Ryan had said, it was like finally being able to stop holding your breath for so many years. The sense of relief and freedom was enormous. Coming out as a weirdo had worked for me and I would now walk the streets and wonder how many other closet aliens and weirdos were out there hiding their rugged and real face. How many adventures were denied because people were too afraid to walk away from the crowds of conformity? How many great works of art were not made public because people were too scared to share the contents of their souls with this society? The thought of it stayed with me and I stared at the faces of those in the crowd wondering what weirdness and madness lay hidden behind their eyes. I thought of all the great writers, poets, painters and adventurers and explorers that went to the grave without ever coming out as being different from the rest. I knew that there were definitely more of the strange ones out there, hiding their secrets, suppressing their voices, feeling the things that I had felt before I took the leap. That leap wasn’t being taken, because ultimately the part of the brain that craves social acceptance of the species had overpowered the gentle, pure nature of the heart and soul. The thought of it made me sad and inspired me to keep on writing away, to shake some feathers and stoke some fire in the hearts of the wild ones out there. To stop people going to the grave without ever having the courage to be their genuine selves. To stop people from missing out. To stop people from never truly experiencing the unparalleled joy of living a life of authenticity and spiritual freedom.

As humans we will always crave social acceptance; it is hard-wired into our brains as a survival mechanism. But a life of hiding your true authentic nature is nothing short of torture and is arguably a life not lived at all. Everyone has their place in this crazy world, even if it is on the sidelines being considered ‘strange’ or ‘abnormal’ or ‘eccentric’. Coming out as a weirdo was the best thing I ever did, so if any fellow misfits are reading this and are still trying to find the courage to be their authentic selves, then my advice (and I’m sure the advice of my good friend Ryan) is to go forth and take the leap of faith. A new adventure awaits. So throw away the mask. Shine your light. Wear your colours. Write your words. Scream a little with whatever sets your soul on fire. Walk fearlessly forward to the lands of your own destiny. Ruthlessly pursue your unique gifts and passions. Be bold. Be different. Be beautiful.

short stories

~ Natural Decay ~

~ Natural Decay ~

I was back home in England, it was a spring morning and I awoke with a rare sense of optimism for the day ahead. The sun was shining through the window, the flowers and trees were in bloom, and the sound of playing children could be heard from the street below. I went out to my apartment balcony and breathed in that air of new life. Ah yes, what a glorious day it was to be alive, I noted to myself. I then went to the toilet to take a piss. As I went about my business, I stood there and stared into the mirror. A little baggage under the eyes, but all in all not too bad. It was after a second or two that I saw it. I leaned it a little closer to make sure it wasn’t a trick of the lighting or something. But no – there it was. No way of avoiding it. In all its horror and terror and consternation: my first ever grey hair

    I took a sharp step back and began to process the situation. I then retreated to my room where I sat on my bed and stared into space, thinking about the gravity of it all. Twenty six – twenty bloody six and already past my best. I thought I was at the height of my youth and strength, but clearly I was already over the hill, on the downward descent into the abyss of death and darkness which eventually enveloped us all. The cosmic tides had turned and suddenly, in a matter of mere minutes, a light spring morning had given way to a dark winter night.

     While I contemplated my own mortality, I looked around at my room. I looked around at the walls and the clothes and the furniture. There was just simply no avoiding it. No matter what it was, eventually it all began to decay and degrade and die. The stitching on your clothes. The wallpaper on the walls. The hairs on your head. The flesh on your bones. The paintwork on your car. The paperwork in your portfolio. It seemed we all walked through life trying to create and build and own things, but eventually it all was destroyed by the entropy of the universe which swept everything back into the state of nonexistence, leaving it as cosmic dust floating through the galaxies of the universe. Nothing escaped. The diamonds turned to dust. The skyscrapers turned to dust. Buckingham palace turned to dust. The Queen. Chuck Norris. Kim Jong Un. All of it but transient waves in the great cosmic ocean of eternity.

    In the wake of this conflicting realisation, I gradually began to feel some sort of existential crisis sweep over me. Twenty bloody six, I repeated to myself. Twenty six and already starting to visibly decay. What next? Aching joints? Dementia? A hernia? A sudden liking for the sport of golf? 

     The horror of vividly facing my own mortality for the first time followed me everywhere. Everywhere I looked, I couldn’t help but witness the slow withering away of life before me. I was working in a bar at the time and it was one of those cheap dives where you could get drunk off a tenner. Because of this it attracted pensioners who had nothing better to do but to sit alone in silence, read the newspaper and drink themselves slowly and solemnly toward death. I watched as some men staggered up to the bar, hunch-back and frail, still fighting their fight to have just one more drink before they finally hit the canvas for good. A few of the guys who worked there called it ‘god’s waiting room’. And what a depressing waiting room it was. Full of weary-eyed souls who had worked hard and toiled away all their adult lives; now they were finally retired and able to enjoy their free time, but what good was that when you were too decrypted to go anywhere or do anything? What good was that when your beer belly left you slumped into a seat of submission? As I worked, I couldn’t help but let myself stare at them and think of my own future. Was that to be my fate in old age? Was that what awaited me after working all my life? If so, I should have been making the most of my life now! After all, I was just coming past the prime of my youth and yet, what was I currently doing in my life? Waving goodbye to my prime years while living alone in a dingy apartment, no friends or lover, and serving pints to people drinking themselves to death while daydreaming my life away as I stared emptily into time and space.

     Okay, maybe I was being a little dramatic on my part. All in all, my life wasn’t a total disaster, I suppose. By most people’s standards, I had had a lot of adventure for my years. I had travelled in many countries, climbed mountains, watched volcanoes erupt, had romances with exotic girls, got drunk on beautiful beaches under the light of the stars and full moon. I had even been the first person in my family to go to university (not that my degree had done me any good on the job front, evidently). Still, all of that just wasn’t enough for my restless soul. Though I had done those things, I hadn’t written any of my books; I hadn’t created something that would make me remembered for the next generations; I hadn’t even truly experienced a proper relationship. I had somehow gotten to this age without ever having an actual girlfriend. Clearly I still had so much left to do and see and explore, and time was ticking relentlessly on and on, making me the oldest I’d ever been every single day as I slowly lost my looks and strength and sanity and breath.

      Eventually the horror of it all became too much and I started looking into different philosophies to see if any of them could quell my existential dread. Doctrines like Zen Buddhism, Hinduism and Pantheism seemed to all have some good stuff, suggesting things like the universe being a playing of one great energy, a single divinity where we were all the godhead playing with itself in many different shapes and forms over and over again. We never died, for this energy was eternal, and it could never be destroyed but only change shape into something else. Only our ‘ego’ died, but this was just a hallucination of the mind anyway. Overall it was a nice theory which quelled my dread for a while as I retreated into monk mode, meditating hours each day, gradually feeling detached from everything as an expression of universal energy that was eternal and infinite as the cosmos itself.

      This worked well but after a while the sirens in my mind started wailing out again. Facing those morning mirrors of realisation, I saw the sinister hand of death leaving further marks and blemishes upon me. One day I discovered a couple more grey hairs on my head. On top of this, the wrinkles on my skin seemed to become more visible week by week. Even going out to bars, I realised I was now older than the majority of people around me. To round it all off, my hangovers now lasted two days instead of one. Yes, there was just no way around it. All of a sudden I had gotten old, just like the psychedelic philosophers Pink Floyd had warned me:

“Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain.

You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today.

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.

No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking

Racing around to come up behind you again.

The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,

Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

     Roger Waters had written it correct. Time just passed us by with every year feeling shorter than the last, until whole years and decades seemed to have disappeared in the blink of an eye, leaving you sitting on sofas in suburban homes and staring idly into space, wondering where the hell the time all went. Thinking about that while looking out at those weary-eyed pensioners at work, I decided I still had so much to do. I wanted to see the world more than ever, to climb the mountains and spar face to face with the rugged face of life itself. I wanted to have great love affairs. I wanted to write the greatest poetry of my generation. I wanted it all and I wanted it now! 

     Yes, it was safe to say that I couldn’t ignore that restless desire to live my life to the full, so in the end I abandoned any doctrines or philosophies that gave me peace and decided to rage against the dying of the light, just as the poet Dylan Thomas had once pleaded to his dying father. To me it seemed the only way to deal with getting old. How else did a man or woman realistically face their own mortality? How else did we face the fact that eventually everything we ever felt and did would be lost forever in space and time? I guess for many people that was the beauty of life – its transient nature. Like footprints in wet sand, our lives were so fleeting and fragile – temporary cosmic patterns which eventually succumbed to the tides of transience as they were swept back into the ocean of eternity. And that’s what made it all so beautiful for some people. Just like with my travelling adventures, it was bittersweet and pretty because everything that happened on the road eventually disappeared into the hazy mists of the past as you stood reminiscing about your adventures while pouring pints in a grotty bar back in your home country.

      Reflecting further back on my travels while pouring those pints and contemplating my own mortality, I recalled my time in Rio de Janeiro. In particular, I remembered two middle-aged men I had met there, both of them of different stances about their individual descent towards death and darkness. One was a forty five year old Greek guy. I had met him in my hostel on Christmas day while drinking Caipirinhas in the reception. We ended up heading down to the beach together to drink some beers and soak in the sun. As we sat and stared out at the blue Atlantic ocean, I listened to the tales of his life. He spoke about how we shouldn’t be burdened by our age, of how it was never too old to travel and try something new. He had just about done it all it seemed: the travelling, the marriage, the divorce, the jobs, the alcoholism. And now, after just leaving everything behind, he was here looking to open a hostel and start a new life in Brazil. 

     “Age is just a number. Of course, it’s a cliche, but it’s true. Don’t worry my friend, you can keep travelling and living the life you want to live no matter what your age. Look at me, I’m proof of that. I was travelling at your age, went home and settled down for some years, and now I’m picking up the backpack again and venturing back out into the world. There is enough time for all of us. Don’t pay so much attention to a simple number.”

      “That’s a nice way to look at it,” I said. “But is there any part of you that regrets you didn’t carry on travelling and living this life while you were still young? You know it’s a different experience at my age, isn’t it?”

      “Not at all,” he said. “There is so much to experience in life and it can all be enjoyed at any age. Take your time. Don’t rush. Whatever is coming to you, will come. Don’t think because you are young you have to do all the adventurous stuff now. Hell, I have met people who went travelling for the first time in their 50s and 60s. Just do what feels right in your heart and don’t worry about doing certain things at certain ages.” 

     I respected his confidence and laid back attitude to age and life. I also respected that he hadn’t let the fact of getting old give up on his dream of opening a hostel. Like he said, there was enough time for all of us, so why rush? Why force things? We could still keep our youthful nature and hunger as the years passed us by. Age was just a number after all, even the grey hairs and wrinkles tried to convince you otherwise.

     It was just two days later I came across a Swedish guy who made me think a little differently. He was more or less the same age as the Greek guy. He seemed like a normal traveller at first, a little shy if anything, but after chatting about life over a few beers at the hostel bar, he started spilling his pain and fear and frustration at his aging flesh and bones.

      “Yeah you know, you are young,” he told me in a bitter tone. “Only twenty-two. You have lots of time to travel and see the world, but when you get to my age it’s not so easy. This is my last trip. I can feel my body wants to have children before it is too late. I want to be settled. I need to find a woman. It is time for me to have children. I can’t resist this urge. I need to find myself a woman.”

     I found his directness about his reproductive desires a little strange to say the least, especially considering that I had only just met him, but I got into the swing of it and entertained his madness. As he drank more beer, his despair and desperation poured out of him to the point where it was awkward for everyone else in the group of backpackers that were also drinking at the bar. No matter what the conversation was about, he somehow turned it back to his age and his broodiness. It made me sad and got me thinking about how I didn’t want to end up like that man, being sent insane by my age as the clock ticked relentlessly on before your eyes. If you really wanted to do something in life, then you needed to get it done before that time ran out and left you in a constant state of panic and anxiety and inner conflict.

     Being forty and having regrets was one thing, but at the extreme end of the scale were the elderly people who were now no longer even physically capable of doing anything about their regrets. In particular I thought of my seventy-year old uncle who I had bumped into walking down a street in my hometown the Christmas before. After saying hello, we started catching up and chatting about life. Eventually I told him all about my travels out in the world from the last years. As I did, I could see a look of bewitched curiosity in his eye, but also one of slight sadness. He went on to tell me how he wished he could do all of that stuff now, and how he should have done it when he was young, but now he was too old and living in an old people’s village which he didn’t sound particularly fond about. “Good on you kid,” he told me. “Go out and do it while you’re young. Retirement is not all it’s cracked up to be, you know. I wish I could do what you’re doing instead.” He patted me on the shoulder, gave a smile and then stumbled off down the street back to his retirement village, leaving me feeling a bit sad about the whole thing to be honest.

     That encounter stuck with me and made me think about how many souls were out there drifting through life, passively letting the years slip them by while idly just doing what was safe and expected of them by peers and parents and colleagues. You heard it all the time: people on their deathbed wishing they had done more, been a little braver, not worked so much, not tried to please everyone else but to follow their heart and trust their own voice through the wilderness of life. Remembering that conversation with my uncle, and the broody Swedish man, I felt that my mind was made up even more than ever that I was going to put the pedal down a little further and experience life at full velocity. Working at that depressing bar in the meanwhile, I made sure to retreat home and get to work on my books as much as possible. I made sure to keep planning my next adventures, to go running in the rain and tell people the things I felt in my heart. I made sure to walk out onto the shores of life and experience its storm full force so that I could soak in every last moment of what it was to exist as a sentient organism, riding a rotating rock of jungles, mountains, rivers and oceans through an infinite universe.

    Ultimately, I guess this insatiable desire to experience life to the max was one of the main reasons I lived my life like I did. At my core, I couldn’t accept the snail’s pace existence of everyday civilian life. I couldn’t accept the monotonous routine, the television culture, the shopping malls, the small-talk, repetitive tasks, and mundane expectations that took the light from your eye and the fire from your spirit. It all seemed like some sort of big joke to me. You didn’t exist for eternity, and yet here you were: a quick flash of existence before disappearing again forever, yet some people used this to plod along through life, burying their inner desires, working all their lives at a job they didn’t like just to come home and sit in front of a virtual reproduction of life until they went to sleep. Then they would use the money they gave their time up for to buy stuff they really didn’t need. To top it off, some people’s greatest dream was to become the head of their work department and boss around a few bored people in a dusty office room. Sometimes it all seemed like a great big comedy act, as outrageous and absurd to me as human existence itself.

     Well personally I tip my philosopher’s cap and say: fuck it to all of it. Life is not a rehearsal or a warm up act. It is not some show on television that can be replayed and re-watched at a later date. No, this is it: the real thing, here and now – the cinematic experience of your precious one life in vivid colour. You don’t let this weird and wonderful gift slip you by as you slowly decay away, but you go out and you make your stand. You walk wide-eyed into the wilderness. You let the adventures become scratched into your skin and the sunsets seared into your soul. You let yourself explore your inner and outer worlds to the full. You let yourself be free. You let yourself be alive!

     Yes, feeling that angst for existence in my bones, I thought of that grey hair on my head, of the men drinking themselves to death in dank bars, of my uncle in the old people’s home, of the man in Rio terrified at the of his own ageing flesh and bones. Every last cell of me wanted to rage and rebel against it all. And in the end, that’s exactly what I did. This is why I’m writing this book, I guess. Maybe these words will live on after I die, and I’ll have found a way to somehow keep myself alive in the hearts of others. But most likely these words will be read by a tiny amount of people, and then forgotten. Just like me. Just like you. Just like everyone else eventually.

     Oh well, what else can a man do to escape his own fleeting mediocre existence? Where else can he turn to to stop himself being consumed by the ravages of time and decay? Reckless rebellion, that’s what! Well this is me sticking a middle finger up to death and darkness and the inevitable descent into old age that awaits us all. Time may break me down, the hairs on my head may grey, and the skin may wrinkle, but I will keep on hunting those horizons. I will keep on writing these books, climbing those mountains, travelling the world with eyes full of fire and a mind full of madness. I will keep on fighting the good fight with all my heart and might and blood and guts. The grey hairs can get wither away and die slowly, but this fire inside will keep blazing as the darkness approaches. I guess at my core I’m just too stubborn to go into that good night without a little resistance. Without a little fight. 

Without a little rage against the dying of the light.

man walking toward sun.jpeg

thoughts

~ The Hills Above The Cities ~

~ The Hills Above The Cities ~

“A brain overcharged by absurdity; a soul starving for something real. Another day of menial work and superficial interaction had left me craving a space of solitude. Like I had so many times before, I took myself up to that hill that overlooked my hometown. Standing above that urban expanse with its rows and rows of streets sprawled out before me, I cast my gaze outward and watched the city lights shimmering in the night. There they were: the flames of humanity flickering in the abyss of the universe; the human race floating through space, going about its transient existence. I stood there for a while and absorbed the sight. From the outside looking in, I thought of all those people living in those houses, walking those sidewalks, staring into those televisions and bathroom windows. I thought of the families at dinner tables, the lovers entwined on sofas, the friends laughing together in the bars and clubs and restaurants.

In that moment a great feeling of isolation crashed over me. In vivid detail, I began to realise just how much I was cut adrift, floating uncontrollably further and further away from those shores of human belonging. And no matter how I looked at it, there seemed to be no way to pull or anchor myself back in. It had always been this way from a young age it seemed. The times I tried to fit myself into the herd had torn and twisted me up beyond repair. I simply didn’t understand my fellow species, or any of their customs. I didn’t understand the conventions. I didn’t understand the expectations and traditions. I didn’t understand why everyone wanted to be the same rather than live a life true to themselves. It was all a great mystery to me: the jobs, the media, the school-system, the paperwork, the small-talk, the religions – the monotonous routine. It seemed that I was allergic to it all. In my most desperate times, I did try to fake it, but like an undercover alien with a bad cover story, it was never long before people cast their looks of bewilderment upon me, before they realised that I was not one of them – that I was an intruder.

It’s not that the situation of isolation was completely soul-destroying, of course. There was a great joy to be found in sailing your own ship, in walking your own path and getting lost among your own mountains of madness. Often I felt great pleasure in not being labelled and closed in to some sort of box of limitation. There was a sort of freedom that many people never got to taste, let alone fully explore. But still despite that, I was burdened with the situation of being a human-being, and like all human-beings I needed to stare into the eyes of someone who understood – of someone who recognised me for who I really was. I guess for a while on my travels I looked out for those people, expecting to find them on sunset beaches and sitting wistful-eyed in smoky bars in foreign lands. Sometimes I was even lucky to find one or two, but the interactions were usually short-lived, lasting only a few hours or days at the most. Like captains of two ships briefly passing by in a wide ocean, we stared into each other’s eyes and exchanged knowing glances before disappearing silently into the mist.

Yes, the more I stood there on that hill and thought about it, the more it seemed this was the destiny of someone like myself. The cards had been dealt and I knew deep down in my flesh and bones that it was my fate to sail alone, to get lost in the mazes of my own mind, to dwell in solitude among those mountains of madness. This was how it was; for some reason I would never fully understand, this is how it was. I guess by now it was just a matter of acceptance: a matter of accepting that I was a lone wanderer – a matter of accepting that I didn’t belong. I guess by now it was a matter of accepting the fact that no matter where I went in this world, I would always return to those hills above the cities, standing alone, staring up into the skies, looking for something – anything – to come and take me home.”

hills above cities