My Greatest Enemy

For many years I have had but one great enemy, forever present, lurking in the shadows and whispering darkness. Impossible to shake off or lose, adept at finding me at my weakest and most vulnerable, possessing cunning and intelligence matching my own, the scales evenly balanced.

I am my own worst enemy; whether by sabotaging chances of success through fear, powerfully procrastinating, or prize-winning doubt, I can bring about disorder and despair with ne’er an outside influence.

It is so easy to talk the self out of doing something. If I do not share my ideas, goals, and plans with others, who knows when I have completed these, but myself? And I can always tell myself a change of plan was for the best. Sometimes I’ll even believe it.

Wick river sunset. As I’ve said before, they tell you (whoever They are) not to take too many sunset photos, it’s cliché, it’s better to experience without taking a photo. Hmmm. I’m not sure about the logic of this; I can remember the sunsets I take photos of, remember what the air smelled of, the temperature, the birds who sang, the drop in the wind. The photo serves as an aide-mémoire. The photos to accompany this piece will all be of sunsets and the Golden Hour.

Many of the goals I am working toward at present are internal, things that need to be done before I can open my arms to the world once more, building, constructing the self.

If you’ll pardon the extended metaphor, imagine, if you will, a car (but see here for further car-related discussion). If you are a driver (I am not) then you know the risk of having no breakdown cover. If you are on a short drive then you may get away with it; if you increase that journey’s length, you increase the risk. Imagine you are taking your vehicle on holiday, perhaps for a thousand miles or more. The risk of mechanical failure is greater, and it becomes increasingly sensible to also know how to change a tyre, or effect minor repairs. Now, imagine you are taking your vehicle off-road somewhere. Off-road and abroad. Off-road and abroad and many miles from civilisation. Off-road, abroad, miles from civilisation, for a year, two. You get the idea. Knowing how to repair and maintain a vehicle in these circumstances becomes essential.

I am that vehicle.

I need to understand how I work beneath my hood/bonnet, memorise my operating manual. I need to know what oil to use, what fuel, what spares to carry, how to maintain my engine, how to overcome any malfunction — be able to strip myself back and repair, from the ground up. To work at full capacity over this coming decade, from who-knows-where, has required me to take a long and hard look at who I am, how I have arrived here and how to proceed in this dream we call life.

The bottom photo is the sun setting behind Skye, the Black Cuillin to the right. The top photo is the following dawn from the same position, the sun rising from behind the mountains of Knoydart, Scotland.

There is no quick fix. No “one weird trick”. The process has not been comfortable, whether psychological introspection, or physical manipulation and reconditioning. It is tough but essential. I am in this for the long-haul; the rest of my life, to be precise. And, the thing is, as I intimated last week, few people actually know how long they have left. I am sure you have noticed, or known, people who have been told they only have a year to live, or a few months. From what I have seen, many of them seem to wake up from a deep sleep and fit a whole life into those final weeks. Not existing, but truly living, even when terribly ill. Seeing things they’ve always wanted to see, doing things they’ve always wanted to do.

By accepting we are going to die we should, in theory, start to live more. Why leave it until we are told when we are likely to expire? No more inane television to pass the time — no more “passing the time” at all, we should be filling it. No more mediocre, when excellence is just a leap or two beyond, no more damaging people in your life, just those who want to know you for you actually are.

The summer up here in the far north of Scotland has been atrocious, the worst I can remember. When it hasn’t been raining and windy it has been overcast and dull. Days that have started out with a hint of promise have lied, changing direction and disgorging further precipitation, or covering all in thick cloud or mist. Yet it has not really bothered me. Or not as much as it once would have done. We have had a few sporadic days with sun — and these have been welcomed with open arms, bare legs, and fresh air in my lungs.

As I state in my “About me”, I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, and have done for a long time. Dark winter nights, whilst I love them, do not love me. The best cure I have found is to get outside as often as possible, especially if it is sunny. Ironically, when I used to smoke I used to see more sun than after I quit, one benefit hand-in-hand with a crutch. This summer has been like that — I realised I had to be flexible with plans, get out whenever there was a break in the rain. This is not a bad thing and serves as a good example of how I am building myself to succeed. (I am also now hedging my bets and taking fish oil too… Always good to have a backup plan.)

I won’t be here forever — and this time I am talking about my physical location, not death. Instead of looking to and fixating on the (relatively minor) negatives, as I have been known to do, I am now constantly trying to locate the positive. It has been a conscious effort, one that began with utilising an old diary from 2009, with the same days on the same dates as 2015. Every morning, as part of my morning habits (I will return to habit inducing, and creating a morning schedule on another occasion), I would write down one thing I was thankful for. Whether it was a person, a memory, an item, or a thought, it all went into the diary. To find the joy in life is something so many forget — taking only what is forced upon them, the macro, what they are told to love. It is easier this way, to see the little things can require bending, waiting. But they are worth it in the end — every single thing is made of tiny building blocks in one way or another, and we often forget this micro scale.

This photo was taken at one minute to midnight, up here in Caithness. Clear nights in summer are wonderful (as long as you have thick curtains).

Here in the far north the summer may have been terrible, but everything is still so very green because of it. All the plants are happy with the mild temperatures, perfect for growing, for sending down roots, putting out seeds. The old wives — you know, those who tell the tales — they would be saying that nature knows a hard winter is coming. Looking at the increasing severity of El Niño, I think the old wives may have a point.

There are many things I have to be thankful for, living up here at the end of the line.

Finding the way. Sometimes there are no sign posts or maps. Sometimes we must trust in our own sense of direction.

Thankfulness, introspection, conditioning.

And I am happy with what this year is teaching me. The more, and deeper, I look, the more I see. As I state above, it has not always been without pain, sometimes very uncomfortable, sometimes forcing me to question whether I was on the right route — but it will all be worth it. In many ways, it already is.

I now know my enemy, as I have never known him before. And knowledge is power.

To conclude, many years ago I did a project on the role of Merlin in literature, looking at works by, amongst others, Thomas Malory, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Nikolai Tolstoy, and Mary Stewart. ‘The Crystal Cave’, by Stewart, is still a favourite. One theme running through this novel is that of power and, especially, taking power where it is offered, where it arises. This stuck with me, impressionable youngster that I was, the idea that power is neither good nor evil, it simply is. Merlin had a large influence on the youthful Alex, far more so than Arthur.

But Mary Stewart was right — it is foolish to turn aside power, to block our ears and blind our eyes to possibility. It is better to approach life with senses open, projecting on all sides.

Sunset over the river, west of Wick, Caithness. This is always a magical time of day, when colours seem to paint themselves to perfection.

I can walk fast, cover miles quickly when I need. Yet I sometimes prefer to walk at what I call woodland-pace. It is a rhythm as old as the trees. You walk softly, carefully, listening, looking, nose sifting through the scents countless millions have forgotten or never experienced — those of the deep woods. There are other senses too, those even fewer people utilise. Walking at woodland-pace uses these — if, for some reason (a reason perhaps not obvious at all), something makes you want to pause, to wait, then this is what you do. Sometimes there is nothing, just a feeling of being watched, but sometimes this power repays your belief; a movement ahead resolving into a doe and her newborn fawn. Or a twitch in the grass becomes an adder shedding her skin. A leaf flicking in the wind draws the eye to the tawny owl in the shadows above you. I have experienced many of these things — things that, without listening to a voice we have been conditioned to forget, I would never have noticed. I know myself now better than at any time in my life, I listen to myself, keep a careful watch. Feel.

And by learning, listening, feeling, I know I can move forward stronger and more capable — a capability that can be shared with others.

An enemy has finally become a powerful ally.

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