The other night I was struck by lightning. The summer storms sweep up toward my house from the valley behind the menhir shadows of Nimbin Rocks, like a Groke on a rampage, all grey flying sheets and vast threats.
I was standing in the kitchen idly wondering what I would do if I were hanging from a cliff-face threatened by ravenous tigers above and ravenous tigers below, when the lightning hit.
Lightning at very close range really does go CRACK, a massive machete-edged CRACK, like the sound effects in a Marvel comic. The difference is that to replicate the actual aural impact of a lightning strike, especially one in your kitchen, you’d have to magnify the sound effect by about 800 000, and then compress it into a slice of ruptured air about a nanosecond thick. Then when it’s packed good and tight, ignite it.
In that instant of blistering light and noise, the lights in the house went out, all the pots hanging on the kitchen wall simultaneously rang and were then instantly damped, the modem and the printer in the corner were both fried into extinction, and my body went ZAP – and sparked with something like static electricity that seemed to want to find its way out into the world through my teeth. The house was plunged into darkness while everything outside instantly went brilliantly white and transparent.
But the very strangest thing is that as the lights went out and the interior of the printer melted and the world lit up like Hiroshima and my teeth crackled, I thought, ‘Here we go again’.
In the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy a bowl of petunias is suddenly called into existence above the planet of Magrathea, its appearance a random by-product of the Improbability Drive used by the starship Heart of Gold. As the petunias plummet into the planetary atmosphere, they think ‘Oh no, not again’. If we knew why the petunias thought this, Douglas Adams remarks, we’d know a whole lot more about the universe than we do now.
Likewise if I myself, in bowl-of-petunias mode, knew why I thought ‘Here we go again’ while apparently inhabiting a lightning strike, I’d know a lot more about myself than I currently do. It is of course possible that I was having what I privately call a Hanif Kureishi Moment. A couple of years back, making a celebrity appearance at one of the writer’s festivals that pullulate across the world, Kureishi said, apropos a continuing course of psychoanalysis he was undergoing, that he had once found himself alone in a hotel room in the middle of the night on his knees, in tears, and convinced that he had turned into a dolphin.
Many years ago an old friend of mine, an eccentric, charming and sometimes incandescently brilliant man, a Greek and Latin scholar, a lover of the films of Miyazaki and a player of French-Canadian fiddle tunes, told me that I was someone who always burned his bridges behind him. This habit of burning my bridges, he said, was perhaps some blockheaded strategy of change, a desperate attempt at reinvention. But I always saw myself as burning the bridge that was already impassable. Either way, I suspect he was right. People who love Miyazaki and can translate Sappho never lie.
I wonder if the lightning strike – as that little ‘Here we go again’ thought scurried away like a cockroach in the beam of a torch – was what in fact brought to mind something that happened to me when I was seven or eight. I was walking to school. It was winter. I had a scarf around my neck. And all of a sudden, for no apparent reason that I can discern, I understood that I was an ‘I’ and could think about myself. I spent the rest of the day being fairly amazed and slowly understanding how truly criminally boring and depressing it was going to be to grow up, and furiously sending urgent thoughts to my as yet non-existent adult self, a habit I continued for several years, messages that repeated over and over, don’t forget, don’t forget, don’t forget.
My adult Christmases too, by chains of association, always used to remind me of that moment. Christmas made me feel like the future would never happen anyway and the past was just a dream. Christmas appeared on the horizon and I’d think, ‘Am I here again? Didn’t I just leave here? I hate Christmas, it sucks, why am I back here?’ I have always assumed that it’s a not uncommon experience among the adult population to awake on Christmas morning thinking something like ‘bugger it’s here again’. Why am I visiting my partner’s weird family? Why is that cousin always adjusting his underpants? Why is my novel still not finished? Why am I not eight years old? Why am I broke again? I wish I was drunk.
A whole lot of Christmases ago I was visiting some relatives. It was Christmas morning. The fun stuff had already happened early. My daughter had opened all her presents: a ton of Barbie stuff from various Grandmothers and about eighty books from me. It may also have been the Christmas that her putative godmother, Linda Dement, gave her a stainless steel penknife and a small wind-up plastic dancing penis. I can’t remember.
Anyway, my eccentric Greek and Latin friend had given me a copy of the New Testament, printed in the original Greek. I believe it was a kind of joke. He is about as religious as a Totoro. I could read Classical Greek a little. So I sat down with a Liddell and Scott Lexicon and started slowly making my way through Matthew. I had all the time in the world. Christmas morning, as everyone knows, is usually about fifteen times as long as any other comparable period of time. Terry Pratchett came up with the concept of L-Space, meaning Library-Space – the impossibly large space contained within a tiny bookshop, a shop the size of your kitchen, but in which it is still possible to become hopelessly lost. I would like to submit X-Time, Xmas-Time, a time which supposedly measures a span of hours measured in single digits, but which somehow seems to extend for weeks and is as featureless as the Nullarbor.
So, I got as far as Matthew 5. I am not a Christian, and haven’t a spiritual bone in my body. And no, I did not have a religious epiphany from which I emerged beatifically experiencing the special joy of Giving At Christmas. I finished on the line ‘Makarioi hoi ptokoi to pneumati’ which is usually given, somewhat piously, as ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’. I translated it as ‘Blessed are the spiritually wretched’.
Christmas is never as redemptive as it claims to be. Of course Christmas-philes might argue that it could be love that’s redemptive, or forgiveness, but it’s more likely, I think, that redemption is beside the point. Perhaps we have thought too much about redemption because we want an out, an excuse, a possible triumphant return to former scenes of humiliation. I was a Prick, but now look at me, I am Good and Wise. I have Learned and I have Grown Up.
Anyway, as spiritually wretched and unredeemable as I may well be, on Christmas Day, as per last year, it’s quite likely I’ll be sitting in front of a TV with my daughter, contentedly watching her choice of Chinese kung-fu movies and eating ice-cream. Perhaps I’ll think of all the blogs I’ve posted at Overland this year, blogs like threadbare rags of washing on a clothesline, blogs unfortunately never funny enough or redemptive enough, but happily remember, as I discovered when I was seven, that I am an I that can think on itself.