Monday, 14 November 2016

In which we plant a tree


I think you would like your tree. It's outside an old shared house that you lived in, the one where you played hide and seek with the landlord when he came for the rent. It's an oak, not an ash. I know you wanted to be an ash but I think you would understand that we couldn't plant an ash because of the problem with ash die back. You should understand; you planted trees for the last couple of years of your life, just on Thursdays and Fridays. It gave structure to your week and a regular income. You enjoyed the camaraderie and the being outside in nature, though you hated getting up early and the restriction of your freedom. You were a man who needed to be free. 

It was something both of us have struggled with in relationships, this desire for intimacy and the need for autonomy. Living with partners hasn't worked out well for either of us and you weren't sure you could do it again now. I wasn't sure that I needed you to, although I told you that I was sad to think that by spending my life with you I might never have that again. It was a work in progress. 'I just know that I want more of you,' you used to say. The last time we discussed living together was when you'd come with me to look at a house that I was considering buying, the house that I am now living in. We joked that if we lived here together, you could have a camp bed in the cellar or a hut at the bottom of the garden. No character from fiction reminds me of you so much as Hagrid and a hut in the garden would have suited you fine. When we got back to mine, we discussed it more seriously and considered the idea that you could keep your own place (you would have needed a workshop anyway) and sleep there occasionally but spend most of your time with me. It was a compromise we were both happy with, perhaps the compromise that we would be living with now, if you were still living. Just in case you are wondering, living without you is no kind of compromise at all. 

I remember discussing your need for freedom early on. We were in my campervan. I'm not sure if we were even a couple yet. You said that sometimes you found relationships difficult because you had things that you needed to do. 'What is it that you need to do?' I asked, wondering if it was something I could accommodate (I struggled with the partner who needed to play computer games and watch TV and the one who needed to go up mountains). 'I need to make things!' you said with obvious delight. And I beamed at you. The need to create is a need that I totally get, it's just that I use different tools. 

It was an interesting assortment of people that assembled in the park on Saturday to plant your tree. Many of them were the same people that congregated at your funeral. I have never in my life seen such a broad spectrum of society at a funeral; millionaires side by side with makers and hippies, battered campervans parked next to sports cars, tracksuit bottoms next to cashmere coats. On Saturday, we wrote messages on tags and planted bulbs around the base of your tree then held hands in a circle and remembered you. I think of the stories people told later and imagine their heads full of those memories as they stood there, gazing at your tree and remembering the different aspects of you: 'mullocking' Paul, stripping pipes out of derelict buildings; Glastonbury Paul, attracting crowds with a loud-hailer, wearing nothing but a cardboard box; Blacksmith Paul, showing countless friends and family the alchemy of metal; tree-planting Paul, who could lift and dig and banter while he worked. To most you were a friend, to some you were a brother or father figure. To me, you were something else. You were the centre of my world. As I stood amongst the crowd of people who knew you, in some ways I felt more alone than ever. The centre of the circle was just a tree and the people in the circle are not really my circle. No-one remembers you the way I do. No-one knows what we shared. I felt again all the same old insecurities, imagining that your friends must look at me and think that it could never have worked, that it must have been a casual thing. We know that it wasn't. We know that it did work. We might not have looked it but we were so alike on the inside. 

Aa people shared their memories later, I saw aspects of the Paul that I knew though and aspects of me too. 'He was a man you could tickle,' said one friend, which made me laugh, picturing you laughing with me as I pinched your cheeks 'like Auntie Ethel'. 'He was great at crosswords,' someone else said, and I saw us one Saturday, holed up in a cafe, racing to fill in the grid, blissfully content together. 'When he went on holiday, he just packed books,' said your sister and I remembered myself as a child, trying to ram just one more book into my bag. 'He would give you things that he thought you'd like,' said another friend, and I thought of all the things that you gave to me and the things you gave to my kids, even though they didn't know you. You were endlessly generous with your possessions and your time. The last thing I remember someone saying was this: ''The thing I loved about Paul was that he made his own way'. I smiled and nodded. 'That's why I loved him,' I said. 

Today, I found myself mindlessly looking again at dating profiles, not because I'm ready but just because I was trying again to imagine loving someone new. I swiped left over and over again on Tinder until there was no-one in my region that I hadn't discarded. It all seems so hopeless. Everyone is unique of course but there is no-one like you. I don't want to spend my time with someone whose profile shows them holding a pint, or standing by a fancy car or bungee jumping off a mountain. I don't want someone who watches TV or plays football. I really don't want one of those people who doesn't take life seriously; we're just not going to get on at the moment. I want a man whose face lights up when he thinks of making something, who delights in words and clouds and derelict buildings. I want a man who doesn't worry about what other people think, who is full of love and kindness. I wanted you.

At the end of the day, I read a bit of my blog to the people who were left at the memorial to you. It took some courage. I wondered, as I often do, if your friends thought I'd lost the plot, reflected that I probably have. 'I worry that people think I'm weird,' I said to your friend as he was leaving. 'We're all weird,' he said. And I thought then that maybe people do get it. Maybe it's the thing all of your friends have in common. They all walk their own unique paths. I am reminded of the list of Dr Seuss' 'Rules to Live By', that I used to have stuck to my office wall. The last one feels fitting:

'We're all a little weird and life's a little weird and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with our own, we join up in mutual weirdness and call it love.' 

Our mutual weirdness was the best. I don't know if I can ever find that kind of love again but I download those quotes again and realise that I am still left with the others. They can still be my rules for living. I stick them back up above my desk:

Be who you are and say what you mean, because those who mind don't matter 
and those who matter don't mind. 

(Who cares if writing a blog about you is weird?)

Today you are you, that is truer than true. 
There is no-one alive that is you-er than you.

(The me I am is the me you loved. I'm ok with that person.)

You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in whatever direction you choose. 

(It is still true. I just need to choose a new direction.)

I can't go where I wanted to go, but I can speak my truth and walk my own path, as you did. I don't know where the path will lead me but I know that sometimes I will walk to the foot of the oak tree and imagine that you are moving like the wind in the leaves.  

In the end, you were getting tired of the tree planting and the moving people and the odd jobs. You wanted to make things again. 'Break free, Blacksmith!' I said to you the night before you died. You did. You are a free spirit now. And so am I.