These days I need reading glasses. I can’t see what’s in front of my face, as they say, and so on they go, the rest of the world receding into a blurry backdrop, Putting on glasses is a ritual. It’s like the raising or lowering of a veil, or the laying of a table, perhaps the other-worldliness of submerging yourself in water (suddenly, baptism makes a lot of sense). The dropping of the needle, the scratchy moments before the music begins, a marking out of a sacred space.
Picture a Zen meditation class in Highbury, where some white middle class Englishmen in medieval Japanese robes explained that, within the confines of the space this room, there were no shoes allowed. More lifestyle enlightenment, I thought, in a lifestylishly smug way, quite pleased with myself. Tut tut. The romantic nostalgia of these posh quasi-monks made me feel like an extra in a sixth form staging of “The Seven Samurai”. On reflection, and after wanting to run them through with a big sword, I appreciated the “otherness”; once fully clothed, now barefoot in Islington.
Before beginning a solo performance, pianist Cecil Taylor danced across the stage towards the piano, pausing, circling like a vulture, raising a talon and sharpening his beak before almost attacking the instrument. Let’s face it, it’s not much different to the popular pill popping, the purpose being broadly the same, but like a lucid dreamer he can snap out of it if he wants to. Turn on and off the supply of whatever is taking him under. I envy him. That night he basically didn’t give a shit what we thought. A silent titter seemed to waft around the audience, but the next hour saw them drawn in to that same space, his space, leaving their seats dizzy at the close of the journey. So, in that game where you have to choose one, my superpower would be that lack of inhibition. That willingness to leave the real world. Whilst everyone else is flying above the clouds and reading minds, I would simply dance myself a little mimed story in a purple tracksuit.
Rituals clear space, stop time, focus the mind and the body. Religions are useful primarily for this reason, enforcing their strange and arbitrary timetables, sunrise and Sundays, days of rest and of celebration, a dash of incense here and there. The nearest I get to that is to close my Facebook tab before writing a blog. And that will be open again pretty soon. People would get more done, and with better focus, if they had to get up a ladder to post on Facebook.
It used to be different. In student days, I would break up the routine by watching “Neighbours” at 1.30. It was hardly a call to prayer, but it did the job, my daily shift of practice and essays divided conveniently in two by the shattered dreams and emotional love stories of future Australian celebrities. I was the turning over the LP of my otherwise formless day; side 1 and side 2. A neutral space, a cerebral no-man’s land. And needless to say, the repeat of “Neighboirs” at 5.30 was strictly off limits., my own personal heresy.
These altered states remind me of what Margaret Atwood talks about in one of her lectures on writers and writing; the double. A writer who writes, and a writer who does the dishes, two halves of a single body. The writer who lives, and the one who lives on after that life. The hand on the keyboard, or the pen, like the dropping needle, is a sign that he or she is somewhere else, or someone else. And perhaps the writing and the reading, playing and listening, are one in the same state.
So there’s me and there’s my musician. My playing side is bold, carefree, mischievous in a temporarily suspended time, a guest in a hotel where someone else does all the housework. And when he’s finished, after the applause (let’s be optimistic), the somewhat anxiety-ridden, earth bound chap that lurches and lumbers through life, me, takes over.
Nowadays we have access to these ritualised states very easily, but it’s difficult to go very deeply into them. I am writing this on a tube train, on a so-called phone. It’s very rare I call people on it. But if I want to write something on it, preparation time is almost non-existent. It’s about five seconds. Open app, click pen and paper shaped icon, begin. It even suggests words you might consider before writing them. Without a thought in my head, there is a guarantee that some words will appear. With one eye on the stations, trying to notice if someone needs my seat, I’m not under yet, still in the real world. But soon I’ll have my glasses on, and if I want to I can look over the top of them, an action which causes my eyebrows to be involuntarily raised in an apparent gesture of superiority. I hope the other passengers don’t notice. But I’ve arrived at the station and, with no time to pack my glasses away in their case (the other end of the ritual), they hang perilously tucked in the neck of my shirt as I pick up my bag , caught walking in the increasingly small space between real and imagined worlds. Mind the gap and all that.