I was working on a spreadsheet in my office and it was getting into me like a poison. I was sat at my desk, the air-conditioning was on. I was surrounded by sharp-dressed professionals. I had been working the spreadsheet for maybe only an hour, which in terms of being a real-life working office person is probably nothing, but there it was. My tongue tasted like a busted-open battery.
Here: Information squared into a box. Here: mathematics all done, columned and coloured as you pleased. At a nearby desk a co-worker was playing the radio and some hot new number was playing. The number was so clean and sharp and it just went on and on perfectly chorded, digitized, auto-tuned and bass-thrummed, and this co-worker was humming happily along with it working on her own spreadsheet that looked very much like mine and likely contained very much the same sort of information. The air-con was blowing cool, good lord was it ever hot out, and recently I had quit smoking and was in pretty bad spirits. I turned to the window. Outside swayed the green trees in the wind, the light came through the leaves, and everywhere was green grass and wide pale-blue sky. Out the window the breeze was moving in the trees and I could almost feel the cool.
I sat there at my desk with my spreadsheet, with the air-con blowing, the co-worker with her tinny machine-music leaning open-mouthed toward her screen turning boxes red and blue, and there, suddenly, the first line of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl came into my head:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness
Maybe it didn’t mean that much–maybe I’m crazy. Make any assumptions you’d like about me. I’ve made a few assumptions about you, too. Not saying they’re right. All the same, I’ve made some assumptions about all of us. Here we are: crammed into offices, classrooms, courtrooms. Air-conditioned and ergonomic. We are manning the counter at the grocer’s, the cinemas, the department stores. Nine hours a day minus one for lunch. Armoured in green aprons or sexy-business-casual or slick, chameleonic suits. We are clock-watching. We rise muddy-eyed at eight-seven-six in the morning and we go to the gym and we run, girl, run on the treadmill. We stair-climb the stair-climber. Or: we run out on the streets in the fresh cool morning under the green trees, in the long shadows of the skyscrapers, on the promenade along the water, along the beach where the waves roll blue up the stony shore and hiss pulling out into the sea–but we miss it because we have seen it a hundred times already and we are busy counting burned-down calories. We are listening to headphones instead of to the water.
We quit smoking, we quit drinking, we quit cheating, we quit coffee and carbohydrates. Our blood pressure goes down, our debts go up, we lose weight or gain it, we buy elastic-band trousers, we sit on the sofa, we watch The Apprentice on television.
That day in the office, all of a sudden I wanted to leap up, to shout, to push the computer off of my co-worker’s desk and jump up and down on it until it smoked acrid chemical smoke and glass was pressed irretrievably into the carpet. I wanted to scream: We’ve all gone crazy! We’re just sitting around, waiting to die! Run! Run, for Chrissakes! Away from death, or towards it, but it is here with us in this room right now–breathing hot down the backs of our shirts! I wanted the other people in the office to be excited, or terrified, or overcome, or–
Of course I didn’t do or say any of this–of course not! Who could? And what–be fired? Today, standing up and running out of your job because you are inspired by poetry to go out there and do some real actual living counts as an act of incredibly stupid heroism. An act for which you will, perhaps, be lauded, but rarely celebrated, and almost certainly not emulated. And, like most people, I cannot afford to be a hero, stupid or non.
And so I write stories. When I am faced with smallness and inanity, I write stories. When I am struck down by the catastrophic grief of life, I write stories. When in my belly writhes a nest of snakes because I am overcome with the knowledge that death waits for all of us–well, you go the idea.
I need stories because I want to run screaming from the office every time the radio plays an advertisement for mattresses, for bank loans, for cruises or clothes or cars. But instead of running, I think–maybe the mattress salesman in that mattress shop is, right now, trying to seal that last deal so he can close up early and, before five, just make it to the jeweler’s up the road where, at last, he can pay the last payment on a pearl-topped engagement ring for a girl who works in a donut shop. Maybe aboard the cruise ship in the advertisement, right now, in the dark of the South Pacific, a woman plots to murder her husband. Perhaps the man designing the cars I’m hearing about on the radio is, himself, obsessed with designing ever-safer ones because he was involved in a minor-fender bender in 1992 which has left him with a ridiculous but paralyzing fear of automobiles–I mean, who knows?
Stories, some say, are an escape. But for me they are a window to what is possible. To something larger and more meaningful underneath our day-to-day trivialities. There is a story behind why that guy cuts you off in traffic, behind the girl who takes fifteen minutes to select one cake in a cake shop, behind why we lay awake with our own individual isolating anxieties. Me, though? I have a pretty easy time going to sleep. I open the window so I can feel the breeze. I lay on my back and shut my eyes and focus on the coolness of the sheets against my skin and one at a time I go over all the stories I imagined might have happened that day to the people I saw. I think about someone like me who, sitting at his desk with his clean white spreadsheet, imagines he is descended from a tribe of Euphrates Bedouin.
I don’t think I’m alone here. I hope not. Consider this an invitation. If you are overwhelmed, anxiety-ridden, or simply hungry for more than spreadsheets and bad radio, join me in looking for the stories buried in the strata of the everyday. I can’t make any promises, but it keeps me sane. It is thanks to stories that I am able to get up every morning and go to work; that when the first comes around, it’s okay to just get on with it and pay the rent. It is because of stories that, when I get into bed at night, and the breeze comes through the window, I am able to move through the ritual that enables me to sleep.
Conor Patrick’s debut collection of short stories is now available as an ebook or paperback. Purchase the ebook from Amazon for only £3 and the paperback edition for £5.95. Prices outside of the UK vary.
This post has also been featured by Huffington Post.