For the past two years I’ve been living with a heightened thrum of emotional complexity.
The greatest survival advice I’ve received came from my occasional psychologist, who reassured me, in a moment of particular stress, that I will not break. Whether or not this is true, it was, and has continued to be, a great comfort. Believing I will not break allows me to bend more deeply than I ever thought possible.
Some days I feel uniquely unskilled at this dual role I am playing as supporter-of-partner-with-cancer and supporter of son-with-autism. What they never tell you, in emotional elementary school, is that it’s all very well and good to imagine yourself a Platonic provider of aid, support, and comfort, but you also need to be mindful of, and prepared for, the effects the swirling complexity have on you, yourself. I’m still here. In other words.
A few months ago I managed to leave the kettle boiling: a carelessly placed plate wedged itself on top of the automatic shut-off switch, and so the kettle just kept boiling and boiling and boiling until I returned, 15 minutes later, to find the kettle hot, angry and depleted.
Sometimes it’s like that. And sometimes it’s not.
All of this has made me more sensitive, in both helpful and unhelpful ways; being attuned and empathetic is great until you find yourself, however temporarily, unable to find your way home. And being more sensitive has led me to recognize renderings of emotional complexity with new eyes and ears.
Two years after first hearing it, for example, I am unable to listen to Ingrid Michaelson’s Open Hands without crying.
Look, there, it happened again.
In this regard I am greatly in debt to British writer and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge for the gifts she’s given us in recent years. Chief among these gifts is the BBC television program she wrote and stars in, Fleabag.
In the fourth episode of the first series, Waller-Bridge’s character, Fleabag, goes with her sister (played by the estimable Sian Clifford) to a silent retreat in the British countryside. She escapes from the retreat and encounters, by chance, her bank manager, played by Hugh Dennis, sitting at the edge of the property.
What follows is four minutes of the best television I’ve ever seen.
Hugh Dennis’s soliloquy is a masterful display of pathos, and one that hits close to home, specific circumstances aside.
Waller-Bridge, sitting beside him, says only seven words in the entire scene, and yet conveys so much otherwise that it is breathtaking.
This scene too I cannot watch without crying.
You can find Fleabag on the BBC, and on Amazon Video, among other places (the music, by the way, is Allistrum’s March from the self-titled album of Irish supergroup The Gloaming; you should seek it out too).
“I want to take clean cups, out of the dishwasher, and put them in the cupboard. at home. And the next morning I want to watch my wife drink from them. And I want to make her feel good.”
I have no greater wish.