Last summer – before this column began, and in some ways the reason this column began – I found myself walking barefoot down Tottenham Court Road, in central London, whispering to myself, “I am done, I am done, I am done”.
And I was done. I was done with a lot of things. I had been – as many of you know – a carer for a long time, since before I left university. I had not been away from a hospital for longer than a fortnight in that time, and I had been fighting with – or fighting for – the NHS every day, for more than two years. I was not winning on either front. I was, in fact, not winning on any front. I had given up almost everything to be a carer, and I was not – and this isn’t false modesty or a plea for praise – even doing that well anymore.
I was done, in other words. When this happens to carers, they call it “burn out”. Though I don’t think I thought about it in those terms: I thought about it that day simply as I am done. There was nothing left of me to give, and something had to change. And something did.
This is, I think, why I like Carrie Fountain’s poem, Yes. You can read it here, and I suggest you do – I think it’s funnier and pricklier and altogether better than I make it seem in this column. But this column has always been about reading poems personally. This column has always been about using other people’s words as a road map to understanding yourself.
And so, this week, I’m using Carrie Fountain’s beautiful, sad, funny, spiky meditations on having a baby to understand my own feelings of being done. I am not done with the same things as Carrie Fountain (or her narrator; either or both). I am not done with boys and cigarettes and parties; I am not done with grad school and poetry classes and ESL. I am not done because of babies.
Saying "I am done" isn’t a magic spell, but giving yourself permission to try to be done with only daydreaming – to try to live for now, the way you want to live – feels like one
But I get it. I, too, am done. / I am never going back. I am almost moved out; by next week, my old flat will be painted bright white and empty and ready for some new person – hopeful and excited – to claim as their own. My old Tube stop will recede from bright prominence back to a handful of little letters on a line I never ride.
“Where do you live?” someone asked me at a party at the weekend, and I told them my new address, marvelling the whole time that it seemed to be me saying it out loud, and it seemed to also be true. I have a new fistful of keys; a new fistful of doors to open. They have different shapes in my pocket; a different weight.
When I see that night on the street I will / drive past and never even glance over, Fountain writes, and I’m trying. I am trying to get used to the places in this city where things happened to me; I am trying to get used to ambulances screaming past without thinking, for a split second, "Oh god, is it him?" I am trying to be able to walk past all the hospitals without glancing over and wondering who is looking out of those windows now; trying to reclaim the parts of the city that were lost to me because I have been so very sad in them. I am done, or would like to be, with losing things.
I’m done, I suppose, with my old life; or really rather with my old way of living, which was less a way of living than a way of hoping that someday, somehow, we might be permitted to live again. And I am done, too, for the most part, / with the daydream of after, Fountain writes, and adds: I am after for now.
This is not a happy ending. I don’t think I believe in endings in real life; the world keeps turning, after all
Saying “I am done” isn’t a magic spell, but giving yourself permission to try to be done with only daydreaming – to try to live for now, the way you want to live – feels like one. Or it did to me, in any case.
Carrie Fountain (or the narrator) switches the heater on to help the baby sleep, so that she can finish her poem; I am going, when I finish this column about her poem, to make a carrot cake. The kitchen sounds like typing and rain. We have radiators and a tablecloth. I am after for now. / For the most part.
This is not a happy ending. I don’t think I believe in endings in real life; the world keeps turning, after all.
The past – hands caked with dried mud, head shaved clean – will always try to follow us, inescapable. It’s like the rough beast in the famous Yeats poem, slouching towards Bethlehem. It’s like the coyote from last week’s poem following you home. Carrie Fountain and I, we’re both writing about it, safe in our warm homes. We’re both remembering what it was like. You can’t escape the past, not really, not forever. I can’t scrub out the last years of exhaustion and fear, and I wouldn’t want to. They are the foundations of this time; this now. I am done with that part of my life, and on it I have built everything that matters to me.
No – this quiet, scholarly domesticity is a happy middle, or a happyish middle, or a happyish middling pause in the wildness of being alive. And that, I think, might be all any of us can ever really ask for.