“I make myself a cup of coffee, walk upstairs to my office and do what all great writers must do…” – Clive James
Clive James, one of my favourite writers, his narratives are magnificent, his observations acute and full of wit, in answering a question about his writing life, a question about the writing process, answered thus, “I get up in the morning, make myself a cup of coffee, walk up the stairs to my office, stare out the window and do what all great writers must do, absolutely nothing.”
It’s hard work doing nothing, and one should not have to apologise for any of it. I was once asked what my hobbies were. I replied that one of them is “thinking”. Little did I know how much opportunity I would have for that rather prescient response to come into full flourish. Certainly, if doing something includes cleaning up after yourself or fulfilling basic employment tasks, doing nothing is probably not to be embraced as a mantra, or adopted as some kind of lifestyle trope but when it comes to freeing the mind so one can create something out of, well, nothing, doing nothing has much to recommend it.
The other occasion doing nothing has much to recommend it is when one is recovering from brain surgery, has a brain tumour, or indeed, has had a brain tumour. Otherwise known as rest, it’s what the brain, from time to time, is required to do in order to not only create something but regenerate to a point of useful function. To that extent, in a twist of wicked irony, having a brain tumour, even better, having it removed, having to have the operating system almost completely rebuilt, offers up even more opportunity to do precisely that.
Allow me to explain a little further. On occasions, indeed quite often, that is, at numerous times during every single day, it becomes necessary, absolutely necessary, to stop. To Just Stop. And in the stopping, which is not to fulfil some glorious artistic calling, to feign injury or illness while the yet to be washed dishes lay in wait, and not to conjure a reason for having a nap, it’s to just rest the assaulted brain, knowing that it beats along with the heart and requires some space of it’s own.
The trauma inflicted by surgery itself can reflect badly if we don’t recognise the little signals it is sending us, but, if we obey these little signposts, they bear witness to the wonderful place obeying them takes us to. At times the culprit is just the noise, the gathered din, the circuitous arguments, the serpentine conversations. Nonetheless, it’s an opportunity to embrace the nothing, it liberates like doing something can never do. Having to excuse myself because my damaged brain is in information overload, my having to retreat to a corner, a soft chair and a cushion and just rest, delivers something more than a concerted effort to continue can ever provide.
It’s the opportunity that I may never have availed myself of had I not had this interruption. This time of year too, Christmas, the time to rush, panic, indulge, run around, naturally, almost by definition, provides the opportunity, at least it should, to do the opposite, to stop, rest, reflect and think. To do nothing more than think. What a privilege.
This is the place that having a brain tumour has forced me into, although I never shied from it beforehand, to spend as much time as is physically required so as to dwell in the peace that is there if I wait for it. Who’d have thought?
I had to, recently, recuse myself at the last minute from an engagement I was looking forward to. My friends, who very graciously accommodated me, enquired as to whether there was anything they could do. I told them that no, I was fine, what they could do was simply understand, nothing more, nothing less.
Priorities, such as pleasing people, are set aside, not neglected but postponed, while the brain re-establishes itself. When I need to stop I need to do it immediately. Stop, straight away make my egress from the mise en scene that presents itself before my eyes and retreat so that I can gently arrive back into the midst of the theatre from which I retreated. And in so doing, a surprising Shakespearean comedy begins to unfold, everyone else stops as well, arguments come screaming to a halt. People look around, in silent acknowledgement, that something has just happened with which they cannot contend, discussion has ceased and disagreements are rendered irrelevant as acceptance creeps in that one of the players has caused a momentary break in play.
A collective intake of breath completes the picture, a glorious compilation of all our thoughts and utterances measured with a single stroke, a summoning to abandon prejudice, judgement and the straining at gnats and the swallowing of camels to just be in that moment, revelling in the one person who caused it, being here to enrich our lives by their mere presence. There are times when the critic reads too much into what the artist is trying to convey and likewise with judging the person who needs to take a break, it’s not a statement of impudence or disrespect, it’s merely an outpouring of what is in the soul, the need to merely rest, to pay the brain the respect it deserves.
I don’t feel the need to placate anyone or anything and it’s a message to anyone who needs to do the same for whatever reason, regardless of whether you’ve had a brain tumour. People need to understand, not that I have any need to explain it to them, nor an obligation to appease, that my brain, like theirs, is a powerful yet fragile organ that needs continuous nurturing.
When this occurs, it’s useful to recognise what is happening, it’s not simply some poor sod who has had a hard time and needs to sit down for a while, but a liberated individual attempting to come to terms with their new, sometimes painful, often confusing but ultimately glorious world and who has perhaps, within the pain and confusion, stumbled upon a secret, discovered a gift that is worth keeping. That’s not nothing.