On labour

Other people’s words about … loneliness

Dad’s dying had been like a long labor, the work mostly his, but the experience for me was as profound, as isolating, as the labor of birth. For weeks after my son was delivered, I remember, I was stunned by it — by what I’d gone through, by how alone with it I’d felt, by how astonished I was by it, and by how isolating that astonishment was. Others held my son, admired him. They saw him simply as a big healthy baby. But when I looked at him, part of what I saw and felt was how he’d come to me, that long solitary labor, the amazing combination of agony and release that I felt I could explain to no one else. And in some nearly parallel way, this is what I felt about my father’s death. It was what I returned to frequently, it was privately where I lived, for a long time after it was over.

From ‘The Story of My Father
by Sue Miller

Let me start by explaining (hastily!) that the affinity I feel with the words in the quote above is not because I’ve ever given birth (I have not). Nor, more importantly, is it because I’ve recently experienced the death of anyone close to me, let alone my father, who is a strong, healthy, happy man whose company I hope to enjoy for many years to come. No, not at all.

I am a big fan of Sue Miller’s writing. What I most like is her attention to detail, her scrupulous examination of people’s inner workings — their thoughts, their feelings, their individual senses and perceptions — and the way she then builds on these ‘small’ things to make ‘big’ stories from them. A writer friend of mine who isn’t a fan of Miller’s books once said to me that she feels ‘dead inside’ when she reads a Miller novel. And I get that, actually. I think, in fact, that what my friend dislikes about Miller’s writing is exactly what I like: the precision, the detail, the refusal to hurry over anything, or to be swayed by sentiment or affection or a need for resolution for her characters.

I’ve explored loneliness and isolation a lot in my posts on this blog, but I thought the theme was worth returning to because of Miller’s words here. I was stunned by it, she says of giving birth, by how astonished I was by it, and by how isolating that astonishment was. This, for me, distils the experience of living itself, the realisation that each experience we have, however great or small, however joyful or devastating, is an experience we feel we [can] explain to no one else.

In the last couple of years, whenever I’ve experienced bouts of unwellness or anxiety (or both, combined) that have left me feeling isolated at home, struggling to go out, struggling to get to work or to catch up with people I love, I have found myself, afterwards, return[ing] to those experiences repeatedly in my mind; I have found that those times of illness were, for a while, privately where I lived.

Miller’s use of the word labor here refers only to giving birth, but the passage applies to other things, too, if you reframe it: to the labour of living, of loneliness — yes, to that astonishing labour.

And yet, still, it is worth labouring on.

One thought on “On labour

  1. I imagine birth and death are similar. We struggle to come in and often struggle to leave. I’d like to think that when I die, my spirit will be born into something/somewhere else. Does the soul go on? We won’t know until it’s too late to tell the living.

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