When I started writing this, I was thinking about “not feeling safe”. I don’t feel safe. I’ve never felt safe. There’s always been a cloud. A foreboding. A feeling something bad is about to happen. It’s a tightness in the chest. A pang in the gut. An elusive breath. Safe is a fiction. An illusion of privilege. The confidence of knowing “it’s all gonna work out”. Safe is an adjective, the rich-people adjective, for the poor-person’s verb, survive.
If we met in the wild and you were inclined to ask “how are you?” I’d instinctively reply surviving. It sounds innocuous enough, even jovial, but surviving is a contraction of the weather-beaten “surviving but not thriving”. A glib aphorism about life. A short statement of truth, that sits somewhere between drinking my own piss, and cutting off my foreskin with a pair of scissors. Life on a spectrum of discomfort. A rainbow of unease. Stepping stones that leap from mildly nauseating disgust, to agonising self-destruction.
I’ve tried pinning it down, finding that moment when my surviving began. The blue sky before the rain. But I can’t! I don’t remember a time when it wasn’t raining. When I wasn’t getting soaked. When the ground beneath my feet wasn’t a quagmire. When I didn’t have to heave through the mud. When that mud wasn’t sucking at my shoes like some non-Newtonian goop.
I try dealing with this goop by staying busy. Develop an idea. Start a project. Learn a skill. Research a screenplay. Glue a collage. Pontificate a confession. Each new task is a brick, another sandbag against the impending floods. But the rain keeps falling. It’s always pouring. The river keeps rising against the dam. The storms that came with redundancy didn’t help. Neither did the monsoons of lockdown. And the bilging drains of unemployment, have done nothing but soil the rising floodwaters.
When you stack sandbags to protect against the flood, you pack ’em tight, and build ‘em high. If you do that for long enough, you construct a well. A pit to keep the water on the outside. It should be a place of safety. Instead it’s a place to drown. Imagine, you’re at the bottom of that well, rain beating down. Each new drop is a splash closer to the crown, a drop nearer to breaching that wall. Before you know it, you’re up to your chin in water, wishing you had gills, wondering how you’ll survive this time?
Surviving is a handicap. A way to exist in spite of the hardships. A way to keep going despite the ordeals. You survive the days. Decades of days. Hoping it will all work out. Experience tells you it won’t. How could it? All the jobs I’ve ever know are temporary, short-term, insecure. Plans for the future are a joke. When the places you’ve lived are the same. Temporary. Short-term. Insecure. Look forward. Take action. Be a man! Take a chance. It’s easy. Make a plan. But you’re trapped by the deficits that forever loom large, when every penny is temporary, short-term, insecure.
I can hear the safe proclaim “hardship is a privilege for everyone”. Struggle may be a universal, part of the human condition, but the safe misunderstand the survivor’s hardships. So much of what happens is beyond individual control. If you doubt me, think back, to the who and the how, to the time when you were taught to stand. Now take a beat, tell me, how did that prime your mind? If you listen again to the rains coming down. Do you feel it, can you hear, the showers softer sounds? Those suffering in safety, have their hardships kissed clean. Make the bold choice. Be heroic. Know that you’re seen. Life’s less traumatic when you have safety at hand. Metaphorical winches. Figurative hoists. How hard is it to escape harm’s reach? Stand up. Take your time. Get back on your feet. Now imagine again, wind back and think, remember the hole. Was it easy? Did you stack the wall high? Did water reach up to your chin? Now think about surviving with a cup not a winch. How does eight fluid ounces compare? Do you remember the feel of water flooding in, the disasters, the panic, the hardship it brings? Now tell me, I dare you, go on and try, how safe and surviving compare?
The world consumes. Everything competes. Consider the toll of surviving. The first thing you’ll notice is crippling fatigue. You’re tired, worse than tired, flat out, empty. Can you recall when cassettes were the thing, the batteries would always run out? The motor would struggle, scrape tape across metal, dragging voices to a drawl. Now imagine that drawl as a constant refrain. The effort, physical effort, it takes too exist, is that voice dragged, taxed to the hilt. This fatigue ferments doubt, self-doubt, loathing makes you think, is it possible, to do the impossible, and succeed? So you bob and you jump, doing whatever you must, to stand bipedal like a human. But it’s hard to know hope, when the lifeline’s a rope, wrapped and tangled, tight round your neck. No doubt the hemping would ease the unease, hurrying your premature fade out. But when there’s no sleep til… you’re angry, thunder angry, rain on molten rocks. A thug, scared and screaming. Scum, apoplectic with rage. Forgotten bomb, primed, left decaying. Surviving ain’t noble, it’s a life, not a lifestyle, a hardship you’re forced to endure. If survive is the action, and “not feeling safe” is the message, it’s received loud and clear on repeat.
Is any of that true? Should I reconsider? Is surviving all my own fiction? How would I know, it’s impossible to prove, it’s all just conjecture? I’m willing to try, reorder the lies, those I tell myself, me, and others. Let’s start with a truth, I think it’s a truth, I don’t know if I’m lying. Despite giving everything, the opposite of not trying, I’ve struggled to realise my ambitions. They slide out of view, only ever seen, done by other people. Is that by chance? Was I always this doomed? Shit, could this be deliberate? Does life have a plan, to convince me there’s no plan, so there’s no point in even trying? If that’s the idea, that would make safe, a massive problem? If you read that and bristle, spitting “it’s all self-pity”, skewed with “the politics of envy!” I’m sure you can see, the irony of putting, efforts and luck on the same footing? As if “strive” and “desire” aren’t what’s required, just to join the party? Does all that happen, has it been done, to obscure another lesson? Those things unsaid, the thoughts implicit, poor people “know your position!” Let that sink in, like the rains pouring in, no hoist to make a difference. Wealth cheats the odds. Softens the angles. Makes it harder for those just surviving. Cities are structured, organised to make certain, the safe are never just surviving.
Can you thrive, when the odds are stacked, actively pitched against you? You could try conforming, believing the hype, that gets spun out as normal? Work hard. Play by the rules. Take heroic actions. Get just enough money. It’s a simple idea that forces, pressures, coerces, people into a life of surviving. We end up chasing, never quite getting, the product of our efforts. Hidden in the hype, lost in small print, is the clause “it will never happen”. The idea you could win, exceed your station, would reverse the “natural order”. What if it happened, you achieved your ambitions, beating all the others. Then how could you be, the rule that proves the exception? You’re poor. Weathered the storms. Bailed yourself out. Triumphed by not drowning. Despite what the safe would have you believe, that makes you pretty effective. Multiply action, by the strings to your bow, and you should be thought of as dangerous. So why does it feel, as if you’ve been hobbled, beat before you even got started. Has your future been stolen, wasted, leveraged, so the safe can keep on winning?
Whoever builds the walls, owns the stage, writes the rules. There’s no place for nature. All culture is nurtured. Every institution. The thoughts in your head. The feelings in charge of your future. They’re all pre-owned, second-hand, passed-down, taught, by those with an interest. The story they tell is younger than the hills, but no older than the cities. People started flocking, murmuring together, to escape nature’s predators. In return for protection, cities offered people, a better way of surviving. The city spread like a virus, multiplying, mutating, dripping down the generations. They banished the night, electrified the light, until they changed what it means to be human. These days we’re running, never quite getting, how this life was crafted. As long as we need, have ambitions to feed, we’ll live out our days in their service.
Culture’s a lie, routinely told. Somehow this is the only way of living? There’s this idea the safe toss about, as a threat, a backhanded promise? They do as they will, take as they want, else starve us of their presence? As an act of persuasion, it’s viciously glib, up there with blaming the victims. They behave like ministers, ancient mystics, magician’s pushing a mark to “want this”. All magic is a lie, a con, sleight of hand, soaked in the art of misdirection. You’re offered a focus. Pick a target, any target, one of the millions, those despicable others, you hate. And while you’re raging, protesting, attacking, the safe set about robbing you blind, corrupting your soul, remaking you in their image. It’s their life we’re living, life in their fast lane, surviving without their means. While they’re living the high life, we’re living our only life, drowning in safe waters.
The most pernicious disease survivors ever caught, is the endless treadmill of working. Ducking and diving, grafting and chasing, for the junkiest junk, money. I don’t think I’m poor because I lack ambition, not even a lack of effort. I’m poor for only one reason, I don’t have any money! How can I, can any of we, escape drowning in safe waters. What if survivors said enough is enough, took to a life beyond safe-racing? Okay, here’s a thought, a radicle idea, what if we chose a life without cities? Capitalism or communism, can take a back seat, they’re the bitterness of a past epoch. We need better ways of seeing, of surviving the dark, without parasites, leeching us poor with their cravings. If we go there, anywhere but here, perhaps we can build a better existence? I know I can’t, won’t keep going, suffering this cycle of drowning. Like it or not, I think we’re all done, I’m out. Let the safe survive without us.
This isn’t finished. I don’t suppose it’ll ever finish. But it’s all there is for now.