I’ve got a question mate.
(Alfie and I are hashing it out, an hour in.)
What you been doing for the last fifteen years.
My brow furrows and I mull over a nut-scratch. For dramatic effect let’s imagine I’m in a dressing gown nursing a White Russian. Couldn’t really tell you bro, I say. I think about it often. The title of this piece, a take on Socrates’ claim on his own ignorance, is not strictly true.
I do things.
I wake up in the mornings, I make myself a coffee, I take in the world around me, I water my plants. But yes, I am perhaps a source of jealousy to friends who aren’t bigger fans of their desk jobs.
I’ve eaten, prayed, loved. I’ve wept and squandered, I’ve risked, been brave, a coward, I’ve known regret, taken a chance. Given everything and seen it crushed. I’ve supported Spurs. I probably do more than I give myself credit for. But seeing as for years I couldn’t confidently answer the question, what do you do, it has been a source of existential angst.
There’s a beverage here, man
The Dude, Big Lebowski
I’m getting better. More gravitas in my words. More weight. I’m a writer, I proclaim. Got a website, writing a book, podcast in the mixer. I then leg it to the loo and lock myself in.
I wanted to write some take on this conundrum for a while, but also realised it is sticky. In today’s western clime of being defined by your profession, by the sacrifices you make in order to afford the life you choose (or don’t), to talk about not doing much is just not cricket. It’s almost in bad taste. But what defines us, in the end.
What we do.
Or who we are.
Everyone is a unique cocktail of influences that went into their own melting pot since the day they came into the world and before, in the womb, and before that through those pesky fucken stone-washed genes. I grew up in strange circumstances, but also, and unlike my cousins who were in the same position, not ingrained with the idea of doing.
If I could afford it, said my father once, I would employ someone to tickle my feet. My mother would groan and get on with her business. He vaunted above all literature, art, the subject of being alive, my mother preferred a life lived through action. My brother works harder than I do. I was at the shallow end of the dream pool.
Maybe I’m just fucking lazy, I said to a mate once.
You’re the least lazy person I know, he replied. Probably in reference to my psychotic feats of endurance. Lazy is a bullshit word, my therapist elaborated. It masks deeper concepts. Fear of rejection, fear of failure. We don’t begin, seeing as we’ll find it all too painful. So that was it maybe, too little consequence if I didn’t man up and take my place in the Circle of Life.
I remember working in advertising and having a terrible boss, and my thought was literally I don’t have to be here. Why am I here. The trouble is, as Alfie put it, experiences with dickhead bosses are valuable. What probably happened to you, he said, is that instead of leaving that at work, you went home and became your dickhead boss. He manifested in your head, and never left.
Explains the cruel monologue I lived with since my 20s.
Here’s a question.
What would a squirrel do if it didn’t have to squirrel nuts. What would its purpose be. Would it consider the majesty of the branch it had just run down, the richness of the leaves reflecting the light, dancing patterns, the smell of the air after rain. Or would it sit there counting the nuts. Maybe I could be the guy in the Mont Blanc ad, with the shoes, I thought to myself.
Vibing out with a journal n shit.
In another incarnation you were a Chinese farmer, said Alfie, don’t beat yourself up about it. Why do I write this shit, I think to myself, why bother. I suppose writing gets it out of me, a strange type of therapy, and yet I’ve u-turned on this one ten times. Scared of it coming across as some ludicrous sob-story, some silver spoon bullshit.
I don’t envy you at all, said my therapist. People underestimate how hard it is for those in your position. And yet it’s the opposite of hard. It’s too easy. And that might be worse than hard. We want challenges, we want coal faces. I mean we also want Ben & Jerry’s and box sets and cuddles. But all after a hard day’s work.
For the man who does not work there can be no leisure.
The guilt I carried, whose source I couldn’t quite locate, was a continual tap-tap-tapping at my temple, a reflex hammer prodding away for so long at my dome that I just got used to it. There I was telling Guy about a girl I was talking to who was curious about my 3pm baths. So, I said, I ended up explaining I was a rich prick. He looked back seriously, like I’d offended him. You’re not a prick, he said. Pedalling my way back home through the night it was strange how much I needed to hear it.
What most friends and acquaintances suffer from is not a lack of money, but a lack of time.
The one thing hardest to buy, the one thing friends, now with jobs and kids and email inboxes, get far too little of. The one currency I have more than any. If my worth is based on that parameter, call me cash rich. I have briefcases full of recently minted hours.
So what am I doing with it. Well these days, I’m an around the clock philanthropist. I give it away. I saw a postcard on a revolving stand in a gift shop one December. The most generous gift you can give anyone is your time. That’s me. The Bill Gates of tiempo.
I may not have gone where I intended to go.
But I think I have ended up where I needed to be.
Sitting in a tent chugging Pimms two years ago, Bournio looks at me and goes… It doesn’t even matter what you do with your life now. You were literally put on this earth to make people feel good.
I think I might think about that line most days, it might’ve been the most necessary thing anyone has ever said to me. The spark to the flame of some fire that crackles contentedly in me right now, leading me blindly towards some final destination. Some knowledge in me that all I need to do is follow.
Deathbed regrets involve the same thing always. People. Wishing you’d spent more time with them, wishing you’d told them how you really felt. If you break it down and strip it back, the only thing that matters in this world is be a good person. Spread your fingers out like a harry potter wand and shoot tiny sparks of good vibes into the ether. A smile, a wave, a glance. I mean in the end what are we even here for.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
There are many ways to be in the world. The Inuits, the Amazonian tribes, the Maori, the Yogis who meditate for 40 years in caves, your cat. In Berlin they have a custom, you do not ask someone you meet ‘what they do’. It is bad manners. You ask them ‘what interests you’.
To be of service, that interests me.
It took me a minute. But in the end, it seems to be what I’ve by chance evolved in those dank hours of idle afternoons, an ability to talk to people on their level. They tell me their lives in detail. Twice a week I meet friends of friends I barely know, and we hash it out. The coolest communication in the world. The Hackney Healer. Lol. Life begins at 40, said Jung. Everything else up until then is research.
Sitting here writing this, I’m sat behind a desk in the reception of an art space in Greenwich, helping Alfie out for two days. I take the post, chat to the clients, navel gaze and write this. I even made a pack lunch. A funny thing, doing something, even when I’m not doing anything at all. I’m not used to it. A rare thing, not feeling that guilt.
He offers me a more permanent post.
Nah bruvs, I got work to do.
Nietzsche said he who has a why, can bear almost any how. What if you had no why. Ever. The how would take on less importance. You’d have to find a why, rather than have it served up to you through necessity. And then, along some distant day into the future, when the why came along and said hello, here I am, it would be pretty exciting.
Out in the outskirts of Madrid, a man is busy at work.
53 years it’s taken, and he’s still going.
If I start now I’ll be 92. Justo Gallego is 90. What cooler thing have you ever seen anyone do, ever. The man who single-handedly built his own cathedral. I’d be down with that.
I’ve written this line before.
The happiest people in the world are those who have been released from some sort of shackle. Free from the shackles of what, I ask myself. Of needing to feel bad about things, because it was what I thought I deserved, because deep down I was sure I was a bad person. Some childhood bullshit. And being sure of that, I sieved everything through the same lens, all of it, money crap included. Who knows.
Something like that.
Also, who cares.
I am not what has happened to me, I am what I choose to become.
Life begins at 40. Here I am, three months off.
There is work to be done.