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let that sh*t go

There are many things that bring a smile to my face ~ a cat chasing its tail, a bumble bee bumping dusty shins against an early blossom, a toddler so intoxicated by its new-forged omnipotence that universal laws demand it must fall over to retain cosmic balance ~ but one of my most favourite acts takes place on Berwick's Quay Walls.

Now, lemme just say Julie Andrews doesn't list this amongst her favourite things. In fact, not many people would. You see, it involves excrement, something not usually associated with humour unless it's on a night out, too many drinks, one dodgy jalfrezi and happening to somebody else.

And really, I think this is an important distinction to make. Poo isn't intrinsically funny. However, its context often is. Who doesn't have a hilarious bowel-themed anecdote with which to hold an audience enthralled come any shot-fuelled get-together? I'll armwrestle anybody who says they don't. Mine involves a dinner party featuring stilton and vermouth sauce. Neither my host nor I knew quite how demanding ~ and immediate ~ dairy intolerance can be. But I like to think we all closed the evening having learnt a thing or two.

So while the subject of this post is pretty gross, its context I find a consistently reliable source of chuckles. Indeed, it is so consistent that if it were to ever stop, I would feel a small pang of regret at its ... er ... passing.

Y'see, when Mr Kip and I take the air along the Walls, we often find circles chalked on the paving. In the centre of each colourful ring beckons a mummifying finger of dog poo. Sometimes, there's a series of ever-decreasing chalk circles tracking dogs that, stiff-legged multitaskers that they are, feel no need to stop what they're doing as they relieve themselves. The end result is not dissimilar to an Antony Gormley installation, only on a smaller scale and no gift shop.

Obviously, the artist (let's call him Barksy for convenience) is a resident pushed to his limit by heedless dog owners feigning ignorance of the fact that darling Pongo moonlights as a disgusting crap-dumping agent from the darkest, stickiest regions of excremental hell; that their family ball of winsome fur is actually a pumping station for unprocessed sewage.

While Pongo here doesn't care where he drops the kids off, his owner absolutely should. So I get it. Barksy's sense of impotence in the face of his hall floor getting waxed AGAIN to a deeply unpleasant patina has driven him to take the only action he feels available to him. Shaming by chalk.

No, I agree. As revenge goes it is a little weak, certainly no John Wick, but we all have to work with what we have and chalk is cheap, easily accessible, and conveys a deeply sarcastic ~ some could argue scathing ~ cheer. I mean, who hasn't felt chastened by a jolly mauve dick on a brick wall? By circling these noisome poos, Barksy is successfully conveying a tut, firmly pressed lips and crossed arms ~ the globally recognised body language of a Brit wanting to telegraph an apocalyptic level of hate.

Of course, there are weak points inherent to any good revenge plan. Here, vengeance will only manifest if the owner returns back the way and the rain holds off. Still. Take a bow, Barksy.

There are two reason why Barksy's guerilla shaming makes me smile.

  1. It's a sure sign warmer weather is on the way. These circles bloom in sync with the blackthorn and grape hyacinths.

  2. It reminds me how little control we have over anything ...

... Or do we?

In Mark Manson's The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, there's a section in Chapter 5, "You Are Always Choosing", which discusses responsibility and fault, and our tendency to conflate the two. He calls this the responsibility/fault fallacy. Responsibility, he says, is not the same as fault. Fault inhabits the past, responsibility lives in the now.

By simply bagging and binning the poo, Barksy could take matters, quite literally, into his own hands. But he doesn't, because why should he? It's not his fault. It was the fault of the thoughtless dog owner. But here's the thing: yes, the dog owner was at fault for leaving a mess for people to step in, but Barksy is responsible for his own frustrated sense of powerlessness. He has power but doesn't recognise it, choosing instead to claim the moral high ground, to remain blameless. To be fair, I'm sure most of us would do the same.

Another example: I fizz myself into a tooth-grinding lather when people park their cars outside my house, engine idling, music thumping, while they run to the coffee shop across the road. So bloody thoughtless! Olympic levels of self-involvement! The utter narcissistic douchnozzles!

Hang on, though. I chose to move to a town. I chose to live on a road with a coffee shop. I chose a house with windows one loud cough from collapse. Really then, my reaction to people and cars and coffee shops is my responsibility. Yes, inconsiderate air-polluting cock wombles are to blame for the noise, the fumes, the vibrations. However, the proceeding apoplexy is entirely mine.

So we can see that through the choices we make, the values we choose, we create our own reality. The first two of the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism don't even try to sugarcoat things. In brief:

  1. All living is suffering (eg. birth, illness, ageing, death, grief).

  2. Suffering is caused by desire.

Such as my desire to live in monastic silence in the middle of a town.

This is how exhortations to "let that shit go", usually illustrated by a sloth high on the good stuff, have proliferated across the internet. To be free of suffering, we just have to laugh! Shrug it off! Go about our day! What could be simpler in this age of quick fixes and short-term thinking?

Well, how about cryptic crosswords or algebra or hacking a foreign government agency? While letting stuff go smacks of entry-level enlightenment, we most likely trip on the responsibility/fault fallacy straight out of the blocks. Our attempts end up poor facsimiles of the real thing, because underneath still smoulders resentment for our parents, the school bully, that arsehole boss, an uncaring partner, the ignorant dog owner, the driver in need of her caffeine fix. We suppress our frustration, smother our needs, and plaster a smile across the cracks of our unmet desires. That shit is very much not let go, no matter the parabola of that bright and breezy rictus grin.

To acknowledge our complicity in our own suffering is hard. It's so much easier to blame other people for the whole kit and caboodle of life's dissatisfactions. But remember the words of Mark Manson? Fault is in the past tense, responsibility in the present.

By getting wise to all the ways we self-sabotage and contribute to our own unhappiness, we can start making better decisions. In fear of repeating myself, yoga, qigong, meditation, therapy, art, dance, all these practices gently cultivate our ability to notice. Notice our thoughts, emotions, behaviours, patterns. I wouldn't be so glib as to suggest becoming aware in this way will automatically enable us to let shit go completely. It's taken a lifetime of deposits of varying stickiness to get us to where we are now, after all.

But I think, with steadfast commitment, it's possible to arrive at a starting point from which to move away from blame towards responsibility. Towards peace, calm and contentment. And even if we can't quite break our attachment to our suffering enough to bag and bin it, we can at least mentally circle it in bright chalk, guiding ourselves to step around it.

And this, this makes me smile.

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