2021

Other people’s words about … rest, and solitude

She lay down a lot — it became an activity, a way to pass the time. She lay down on the couch, reading. She lay down on the bed and, while the sky changed out the windows, was overcome by memories. She lay down on the dock and listened to the ever-changing motion of the water …

She ate only what was for sale at the farm stand … and scrambled or fried eggs and toast — it seemed like too much work to cook meat or fish, even to make a salad. At night she listened to the radio and drank wine …

She made herself take a daily walk. Once she walked partway around the lake on the path in the woods. Through the treillage of the trees she had glimpses of the expensive summer homes, some of them silent, apparently not yet opened. But at others, she could hear the shrieks of children playing. The next day, toward the end of the afternoon, it was adult voices that floated over to her from an elegant old house, the clink of ice in glasses, the laughter of the cocktail hour. It was hard to come back to the cottage after that, hard to feel her solitude.

From ‘Monogamy’
by Sue Miller

I hadn’t planned to write another post this year, thinking that the words in my last post were enough to finish my blogging year with. But, perhaps like everyone else alive today, I’ve gone on thinking about this past year, 2020. Even for me — one of the lucky people who hasn’t been affected in any material way by the pandemic, beyond being a witness to the tragedies it has inflicted worldwide — this has been a strange year.

In the passage above, Sue Miller is describing the passage through grief that Annie, the protagonist of the novel, takes in the weeks immediately after the death of her much-loved husband, Graham. Annie’s passage, even in these first early weeks, isn’t easy; even the rest and solitude she seeks in the summer cottage she and Graham bought together early in their marriage are troubled.

It strikes me that Miller’s description of a woman seeking solitude and rest as a salve for her grief is a description that transcends Annie’s particular situation. How do you feel, in the wake of 2020? Do you, too, feel filled with grief?

Peaceful, dappled light.

I have grown a little tired of the voices clamouring their joy at the prospect of the arrival of 2021. I don’t believe that the clicking over of the clock from 11.59 pm on 31 December to 12.00 am on 1 January heralds a miraculous change in the world’s fortunes. I see a long, troubled passage ahead of us across the globe, in many spheres, including public health, politics and the environment.

But I do believe, like Annie, in the healing power of rest and solitude, however difficult it may be to come back to that solitude, however hard it may be to feel it. I believe that compassion and change come from considered thought and contemplation. I believe that we have to seek peace in our hearts before we can see it reflected in the world.

And so, along with my wishes to you for a merry Christmas and holiday season and a happy new year, I wish you, too, some time to find peace. And I hope, if you find that peace, that you stoke it and kindle it inside yourself. I hope you bring it back with you into the world, so that change — real change — can begin.

Lately I’ve been reading …

Passage

Other people’s words about … sorrow

… I tried to keep busy. I haunted bookstores, sat in cafés, drinking coffee and smoking. As the weather got colder, I went often to the Gardner Museum — for the humidity, for the scent of jasmine in the courtyard.

But of course, the truth was that I was depressed, and that waiting for me the moment I stilled was a sorrow that filled my time amply with its emptiness, that kept me very busy even as I lay open-eyed on my bed or sat at my desk staring out at the houses across the street. I tried my hardest never to still.

From ‘While I was Gone’
by Sue Miller

You know the kind of depression Miller is describing here, right? It is not so much a clinical thing, requiring medical consultations and diagnosis and treatment, as it is a thing of sorrow, of emptiness, of lacklustre wakefulness. Of restlessness. Sudden, fleeting moments of despair.

I tried my hardest never to still, Miller says, simply. You’ve done that, too, right? — tried to match the sense of endless mental pacing with an equal sense of physical pacing.

Just as there are no diagnoses or treatments, I don’t think there’s any kind of cure. I find, as with so many difficult things, that it’s mostly a matter of waiting the thing out, giving it passage, allowing yourself to see it through.

And that, for me, is where I find the stillness that Miller’s narrator describes herself trying so hard to flee. The act of waiting, of riding something out, is itself paradoxically an act of stillness. Sometimes, just knowing this can be enough.

The world out there.

And then there’s always the matter of looking up, every once in a while. Of reminding yourself that there is a world out there, to which you will return. In a moment. In an hour. In a few weeks.

In time.

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.