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Simon Beard

The Elephant: A Self-Portrait

‘The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began
Now far ahead the road has gone
And we must follow if we can
Perusing it with eager feet
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet
And whither then I cannot say’

I have always found this poem from the Lord of the Rings very satisfactory as it covers in 8 short lines how I feel about life. I like to think that I am always travelling on some journey, be it a physical journey or a spiritual one, and that I have no choice but to continue on this journey until I meet my ‘larger way’. Where that is I do not know, but I think it is there up ahead. Pictures, songs and stories about movement and journeys fascinate me. By this I don’t mean ‘travel writing’ or even adventure writing, but things which carry the feeling of progress and movement in them. And yet, though I feel constantly on a journey, I am also aware of the larger way ahead, and that I am only preparing myself for that great thing at the moment. Hence why I feel empathetic with Frodo at this point, as he does not know the half of the journey that lies ahead of him, but is still travelling inexorably towards it.

When I was younger, I had very grand plans for what this journey might be. I remember that when I learned of Jesus I said to my mother that I thought perhaps I was sent by God, at another time I told her that I thought I was here to help give people freedom. Unfortunately, now that I have grown up and realized that I was not alone in thinking these things I have become somewhat less ambitious. I often tell people now that I think my goal in life is to live so that were I to look now upon my future life I would think that it was worthwhile. I would rather not give up my youthful optimism completely after all. I also think that my views of what I am here to do have been altered greatly by my growing sense as a young adult that I need a partner in life. I know I am not somebody who could feel comfortable facing the world on my own and I feel vulnerable sometimes in so far as I am lagging behind most of my peers in terms of adult relationships. I am not sure anymore that if my journey truly started if I would want to progress until I felt more comfortable in terms of my relationships.

Unfortunately, the very feeling of being on a journey has not helped me build stable friendships and relationships. Whenever I move on, I feel as though I must truly move on, leave what has happened behind and take up what is new. Thus, for example I have largely left behind what I had at secondary school in terms of my friendships and my feelings, even though I have only been at university for a year and a half.

Photo of Simon in Merton Gardens
Me in Merton Gardens, spring 2005

I am having to write this late at night, because that is when I come alive. Ever since I can remember I have been staying up later than was good for me, and finding it hard to get to sleep even when I decided I should, so the time after everybody else has gone to sleep has become very much my time.

I have always been very hungry to create things, and not just anything, but particular things. I have an idea in my head of a completeness, that speaks both of me and of the world around me, and it is this sort of thing that I need to create. I obsess about things like the outfits that I wear and the books and CDs that I own, read, display and listen to because I feel there is a perfect way for these things to be, and I work until I feel perfection is reached. For example when I think about music I think about groups and genres of music which are filled with links, influences, rivalries, shifting personnel and histories and I feel the need to comprehend these groups as a whole rather than just one song or even one album or artist. A Christmas present from an aunt 2 years ago of a CD by a blues musician called Blind Willie McTell has set me off on a musical journey which I am still walking. This journey has taken me across a bizarre landscape of music and history, from the American rural south of country blues to the hip hop studios of New York and mod London. It has been as interesting for what it has missed out (the Rolling Stones, the 1980s and gangster rap) as what it has contained, but somehow it feels complete and I like to walk it. This sort of exploration and creation of a world within our own world feels much easier late at night when I will not be disturbed, than during the day when noise and other commitments seem to get in the way.

What interests me about these things that I create is that in many ways it is the creation that matters, not what I have created. When looking at music the individual songs and albums are fun to listen to, but what I want to do is much more to move through music, listening to something for a while and then moving on, perhaps coming back to it later if it is good. When writing poetry I will obsess about the construction of a poem until I think it is done, and then I will throw it away, or, if I keep it, not hold it in high regard. This sort of behaviour makes me feel compulsive and obsessive about things, but I also feel that there is more to it than this. I am lucky in that I am able to support these obsessions with both my time and money. I don’t think it does me any favours that I do this, but the experience is fulfilling and it is my hope that someday something I make, a poem or a song or something will fit into these worlds somewhere: it would be nice, though it is not one of my major goals. I do worry about how I will survive when I leave university and have to make my own living though.

I love to write poetry and take photographs, I don’t necessarily find this easy, especially with my emotional and physical problems (which I will talk about later), but it is something I enjoy doing. I also like to draw but again find it very hard and rarely draw more than cartoon stick figures and write more than short rhymes. However the need to feel I am creating something that fits in the world keeps me doing these things, and hopefully getting better. Essays on the other hand don’t feel like things which I can create. I feel so constrained when I am writing an essay, constrained by the title, by the academic landscape of that topic, by the empirical evidence I have to work with, so I really find it hard to be creative with essays and rarely enjoy writing them. I also tend to get into trouble because I want to write essays which are largely collections of my own thoughts and opinions, but this is not academic so I don’t get good marks. However I love my subject and will read, think and talk about the topics I am studying feverishly, even if at the end of it I find the essay almost painful to write and do not do a good job of it. This is one of the many paradoxes I am yet to resolve about myself, but then I am still growing so I don’t let it worry me. I doubt if this is of any real importance, but it has become a big thing in my life.

One of the reasons I am having to admit that I find these things difficult is that there are several things about me which are ‘disabilities’. I use this word in quotes not because I disagree with it, but because different people have different ideas about what it means and I don’t really want to use it as more than an identifier for what I am about to talk about. Whether these things are really disabilities or not I will leave for you to decide.

Firstly and most straightforwardly I have a severe visual impairment. For some reason this is legally construed as blindness, but I have never felt blind. I have no vision on one side which is difficult because it means I often walk into things, or they walk into me, on that side. I also have restricted vision on my other side. My condition is called Peters Anomaly and it consists of a lack of differentiation between the front and the back of the eye which leads to me having obscured vision, somewhat like the effect of looking through smoked glass, so that I can see in about 1/8th the level of detail as other people. The major effects of this include an inability to appreciate most visual art, a reduced reading speed (I can read, but only with the aid of very strong magnification lenses), difficulties in recognizing people and a resultant lack of interest in their identity and difficulties in doing just about anything in low light and high noise environments such as nightclubs when I am effectively robbed of all my senses! I do not have problems getting about as I have developed a good sense of direction, in many ways I view this as my sixth sense, as I am able to find my way around strange environments far more easily and quickly than even fully sighted people. I think this is because I truly think about my environment and am very sensitive to factors such as where those around me are going and what they are doing, as well as building up a good picture of where things are likely to be, based upon my experience. I also don’t have problems doing most personal things, though they are more time consuming. I am slowly learning to cook and live on my own. I love fashion and reading and the other things that I have previously talked about, though I think music is my primary love because it doesn’t require me to use my eyes.

My second ‘disability’ is an acquired dyslexia. This was brought about by my reduced vision and the effect it has had on my learning processes. This has been hidden by the effects of my visual impairment and is still not properly diagnosed. However it is a problem for me because it makes it very difficult for me to learn technical language (including things as simple as people’s names) and to spell, both of which are obviously important for somebody reading for a degree.

Finally, and in many ways for me most importantly, I have gone through various emotional problems in my past that can be characterized as a continuing moderate to severe depression. I have had times where I have really lost my way and had to go into hospital, both for treatment of my depression, and to deal with the things I do whilst I am depressed. Coming to terms with this is especially difficult as it is something that has only recently (in the last 3 or 4 years) become apparent and I am reluctant to say that it is a part of me and not just teenage angst or something equally mundane. However, I am slowly being persuaded as I am still suffering the effects of a breakdown 2 years ago and have depressive thoughts even when I am going through good times. I have had counselling for this and other problems since I was 11, I think some of my friends get annoyed at me for how readily I seek solutions to my problems through counselling or other welfare services, but I have learned that it is better to go through this route than let the problems get out of hand.

Unlike some ‘disabled’ people I don’t mind talking about these things, or being asked about them, something which makes me wonder if I am not something of a hypochondriac at heart! However, especially with my vision, I find that I have to be prepared to tell people about my problems because all my ‘disabilities’ are hidden and I have learned from when I was very young not to let things get in my way, so I don’t. I have been on expeditions to the Arctic, fenced for my school and even won shooting prizes with the navy cadets (all I might add with more than a little help from my friends) so it is sometimes surprising to people to find out how little I can see.

These difficulties and my feelings of being on a journey, or preparing for one, and of constantly needing to create, have led to me feeling special (or peculiar). These feelings are troublesome as I know that some of the things that I feel and believe are common to most people my age, especially those who are in my position; but at other times I feel that there are things about me which I do not find in those around me, and certainly many people have told me how ‘remarkable’ I am, even though they have had a lot of experience with others my age. I like to think of myself as being special, but at the same time I don’t want to delude myself and Oxford undergraduates do have a reputation for getting ideas above their stations! My psychiatrist when I was ill told me that ‘With you Simon, it is always a case of “We ain’t seen nothing yet!” ’, I fear this fitted in rather too well with my own ideas!

Photo of Simon surfing
Me surfing in the Austral, summer of 2004

I have begun to view my current work as trying to achieve balance, rather than perfection, and control rather than happiness. Though it has not been too remarkable, my life so far has been filled with many swings, emotionally and in terms of self-knowledge. The strength of my feelings about creation and journeys has definitely been part of this, but it has also been the effect of my depression and my tendency to become overly dependent on those around me. I am trying therefore to seek some sort of stability, not in my life, but in myself. Looking to the past and the future I have come to see that this is the best way ahead. My happiness can be very great, the picture of me surfing is a picture taken when I was very happy and at these times I feel like a child, which is the way I would like to be. However I feel that I would give up the opportunity of being this happy, or at least happy in this way, in return for some more balance within myself.

I was born in Hong Kong and have since moved to Sevenoaks when I was 11 and now feel I am based in Oxford. Each time I have moved I have seen new things, but have also ended up feeling the need to move away as I had not really felt balanced or settled where I was. I do not feel, however, that travel could ever have really solved this difficulty and instead seek to fit in somewhere. The journey I wish to take is a personal journey, not a global one, and I am sure that were I to find emotional stability and a stable relationship my life would be much more fulfilled. To travel properly, part of us must stay still or we will never make any real progress.

When I was ill I used to compare myself with an elephant. I know that I am big and strong and I always desire to keep moving. I have the strength to overcome my obstacles, though I sometimes think it is not in my best interests to do so. I am not always in control and can go wild, but I am clever and can learn as well. I think that like the elephant I would respond well to domestication, and I think that in my quest for a stable life and strong relationships this is very much what I am seeking. However, I think that like the elephant as well I would not stand being corralled: I am a creature of movement and my creativity will destroy the land around me if I am kept too still, but I don’t let me go too far.

March 2005
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