“Attend to the day, but aim at the highest good.” Jordan Peterson
The landscapes disappear behind me and so does the secure feeling of home. Just like me the train travels seemingly with grace, while underneath the machinery chugs away struggling to bear the load of the passengers above it. I gaze at the commuters with their devices, newspapers and feeds. I can almost hear the woe of 7 billion strangers calling me to understand their suffering. That used to be how I would start the day, being in touch with the lives of others, but actually putting myself farther away from dealing with my own. Like gazing at a dying star down the narrow lens of a telescope hoping a supernova will give me the answers to life. It is important to know your world and care for it, but how can I serve the people in it if I begin the day influenced by a circus of fear and envy. After a few years of media for breakfast you start thinking like a hammer and every obstacle in your way looks like a nail. Everyone and everything else can have my full attention later, I have somewhere I need to be. Resisting the urge to pick up my phone I instead focus on the feeling of the train rocking, the weight and warmth of my body pushing into the chair beneath me. Wanting for some privacy I close my eyes and take three deep breaths. Beginning at my feet I slowly acknowledge every contour of my body. Moving up and over each protrusion and appendage, across my centre mass and upper limbs, on the way noticing how my clothes hold me in a open hug. I finish with the muscles in my face and the feeling of hair at the back of my neck. Approaching a state of self awareness I no longer feel so triggered by my surroundings. The tedious noises reduce themselves to indistinguishable sounds and their resonances no longer need to be blocked out, but simply pass through me. Am I in the third place or astral field, maybe apart of the ether, in a hidden realm receiving messages from the muse? Here pain is temporary, fear has no grasp and all there is ahead of us is bliss. 15 minutes later I can feel the train making its slow approach and all senses start to come online with caffeine fuelled enthusiasm. With the push of a button the beats of Blue Monday come flowing through my isolating head phones. I can feel the crowd moving in rhythm to every click of my footsteps as we step on to the platform and towards our first taste of chaos, the Barriers. It's amazing how just waiting in a short line can bring out the devil in people. I stop my music for just a moment to take in the grumbles of impatience. It's not healthy to assume what people are thinking, but based on previous experience I’ll have a guess just for fun. Morons! How is this so difficult. Maybe the ten people who were in front of you successfully putting their ticket in and out was an example of how this mysterious machine functions! But no, the best way you’ve come up with to master this situation is to stare blankly at the gates as if the two of you have fallen out of love. Leaving your ticket sticking out of the top of the turnstile pleading with you to take me please, It will open the f-ing doors!!!! Sound familiar ?
There was a time in my life when this would have been my thought process and worse. A sudden encounter of stress, even as slight as this one, would have ignited memories of unsettled disputes and gestures of violence that have been sent my way. I can only assume the purpose of these flashbacks was in some existential way, to find better solutions to them? Or to quote the TV show Quantum Leap ‘putting things right that once went wrong, hoping each time will be his leap home’. But at my worst my brain wasn’t equipped to be at peace and routinely went into full reptilian survival mode, to protect me from unseen forces. Just simply walking in public I would find myself playing out (in my head) some strange Steven Seagal fantasy with colourful martial arts moves to fend off my hypothetical assailants. Sometimes my mind would wonder so far that in any of these situations I could be the victim, rescuer and even perpetrator! But not today. I’ve reached a point where I can think of anxiety as my own domestic smoke detector. Its job is to alert me to any possible sign of danger, but sadly a lot of the time it was just burnt toast. This analogy now makes perfect sense, but it took many years of fighting with people that never existed before I considered drugs and therapy. Now armed with daily mindful activities and serotonin reuptake inhibitors, I am sharp enough to stay out of jeopardy but know in my heart there is no fire. I lift my chin, relax my shoulders and Blue Monday continues. I think to myself, Yesterday is gone, let's enjoy today.
When people ask me what I do, I say I push buttons and things move, which is the literal way of describing Theatre Automation. ‘Auto’ operators sit sometimes far from the stage in front of screens and control panels. Much closer to the action are the Spotters, the eyes of the group looking for dangers the many cameras might miss. They confirm that it's ‘Clear’ to move an automated piece of scenery over communication devices (Comms). My advice to anyone considering a career in Auto is DON’T STARE! Figure that one out and you might live to see your next matinee. When pieces of set are moving there's no time to dissociate, the situation calls for absolute attention. You need just the right amount of alertness to foresee problems before they happen, but remain calm enough to not see with panic tinted glasses. Some productions need more vigilance than others, but all departments want the same thing written in the stage manager's report: a 'clean show’.
On the surface it looks easy but that's just when everything is going correctly. We do what we can to keep everything moving, in sync and at the right speed, and it's etiquette to not use the word s-t-o-p, unless necessary. For the Spotters side of stage with their thumbs resting on the Comms button, the words STOP, STOP are as ready as a tightly coiled spring. Because if the moving pieces aren’t playing nicely then the Automation computer alarms will trigger. These range from simple errors eg you are a millimetre off target or more alarmingly all automated systems have now been inhibited ie complete F-ing catastrophe. The origin of the alarms are not always easily found, maybe the processors were overwhelmed with data, the hard drives over heated or the operating system simply crashed due to lack of respite. In this instance Stage Management will stop the show (‘due to technical difficulties’) either verbally over Comms or, if there is any immediate danger, the nearest Emergency stop button is struck. E-stops are round, red and conveniently about the size of the palm of your hand. When it is safe to do so scenery and performers are reset to an appropriate starting point and hopefully the show continues without much delay. These are the situations you get to see who the professionals are, because stress is inevitable but how it's dealt with will set you apart from the rest. Needless to say everyone feels the pressure to keep things moving but ultimately we know we are not machines and human error is a flaw we all have to stomach. And sadly you do need a few stops in your career to be prepared to fix them like a pro. When the show has ended a full shut down may be required to clear any alarms that may have been triggered. The computer windows are closed, the monitors and LED lights fade to black, measures are taken to prevent the issues holding up performances in future and we all shrug and say I might not catch my first train tonight, but at least no one got hurt.
On my journey home is when I start to hear the whispers - drink up, have fun, take a risk and be the pleasure monkey you know you are. That's the influence of the dark serpent we all know and love, the temptress that hisses at our weakest. Always there without invitation, she reminds us life is short and it's time to tip the scales away from my orderly existence with a little taste of darkness. But before I crack open, light up or unwind one question hangs over me like the knowing stare of my grandmother - have you been your best self lately ? If not, what did I learn ?
I realised today that we all start out as amateurs of stress, working towards being professionals in the art of coping. A person must keep enough order to get through the day without incident, but test their tolerance against its opposing force, Chaos. A balance of comfort, stress and then using the boring moments in between as opportunities to think about how to look at the situation differently. By simply being more aware and empathetic to my surrounds I can draw happiness out of the environment itself using merely perspective. With that as my outlook the people on the train platform are never in my way, but maybe, just like me, fighting off their own demons. It's not crazy to think most people are as vulnerable as my children, beautifully imperfect and a work in progress.
I think everyday our destination may end up the same, but how you chose to arrive is ours. Too often our thoughts move quicker than our minds can manage. We do everything all at once and end up finding ourselves somewhere far from this moment. Our wants for the future outweigh our reasoning to ask why we feel the way we do in the present and we also forget the importance of giving the love we want to be given. If our actions can influence a smoother running of the life around us, by simply finding our best selves, then your highest good is not just a courtesy to the world, but your duty. To squander that chance only adds to the chaos and we will all end up colliding, alarms blazing and wanting so much to be reset. If I stumble at the first turnstile and a negative thought takes me down the wrong path, I know at the other end of that curve is positivity that will help me restore the balance. The only way I know to do this is by first taking care of myself, then taking care of someone else and only then am I ready to take on the world. Just like the auto systems every so often, I must switch off or fall victim to the flux of daily life.
Tomorrow I will aim for another day without dissociating, feeling anxious or causing any upset. If you need to stop, then so be it. Reset, move forward and pursue the discomfort with joyful vigour in a place somewhere between order and chaos.