Woken from sleep by the intense itching of a mosquito bite on the instep of my foot. Agony in a minor key, unable to stop myself from reaching down and scratching. The tiny high whine of the mosquito hovering above me in the darkness.
Went through to the bathroom and searched for the old standby cure of my childhood, Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia in a dark blue glass bottle. My mother told us to dab it on mosquito bites, sunburn, pimples, cuts and scrapes. I was told to swallow a chalky mouthful once a week to help my skin stay unblemished because otherwise I would not attract a husband. To keep ‘regular’, all of us children were dosed with cod liver oil masked by molasses each Saturday morning. The large tarnished tablespoon used for measuring out doses and the way the taste lingered stays with me. If we had a temperature, there would be brandy to break the fever and then a teaspoon of Marmite to build us up. My mother had no faith in disprin or doctors.
And now I have no Milk of Magnesia, no cod liver oil, no brandy or jar of Marmite on the bathroom shelf, no brass-bound medicine chest at the back of a capacious pantry.
Eventually I soothed the itchy bite with a dab of sticky pink Germolene, went back to bed and lay in the dark just following my mind into the solid block of sensation as I do each day in sitting practice, noticing how the itching sensation would become unbearable, increase in ferocity and then lighten, diffuse. The tickling of a fly on my forearm, the eyelash pricking a corner of the lid, the desire to yawn — all worth close attention in sitting practice. There is nothing that doesn’t matter. After a while, my hands rigid at my sides,the itch would ease for a few seconds, soften and just ebb away. Then I found myself thinking of something else entirely and when I brought my attention back to the itching it was hardly there. That daily effort of meditation slowly turning into a tool for coping with physical aches and pains, the understanding of how my own skittish mind works, what it shies from and what helps me hold steady.
Woken again by the voice of a character in a story that lies unfinished on my desk. I turned over and closed my eyes, but his voice kept talking, demanding a response. Got up, made tea and sat down at my desk, began writing. The uses of insomnia, the way a plot snaggle or a discontented character will not leave the writer alone. How I resist endings, my dread of closure. And all narrative has an unfinished quality for me, I want to come to the last page and find another book within the book waiting for me, want to write the last line, pause and then go on with what has not yet been told, the story behind the story.
‘Were it not for those terrible nights of insomnia I would not write’. Kafka suffers from the day, his job, his family; he writes to discover that peculiar absence which unbinds time from itself, that disarticulation which breaks him from the chance of even beginning to write words on the page. Writing is a pseudo-task, the simulacrum of a project: you can’t complete what does not even allow you to begin and you can’t begin a task which seems to require that you relinquish the very possibility of setting out.
How to understand the strange drama of writing, this demand which sends you on a great detour before you ever write a line? Kafka’s letters, notebooks and diaries allow him to mark time with respect to the absence of time, to find himself just as he begins to lose himself; they save him, but what can we expect from them but despair? As soon as he writes, he is lost. And when he writes about losing loss, when he writes about writing, his loss is redoubled.