‘ It was about being true to the very stuff of life, it was about trying to capture, though you never could, the very feel of being alive. It was about finding a language. And it was about being true to the one fact, the one thing only followed from the other, that many things in life – oh so many more than we think – can never be explained at all. ‘ Graham Swift ‘ Mothering Sunday’
This , then , is what I have to bring today. The closing sentences of the book I have just laid down. It did not disappoint. Within its narrative Graham Swift refers to one of my storytelling heroes – Joseph Conrad – who himself has an interesting comment on storytelling, whose quest was ‘ by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel — it is, before all, to make you see. That — and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there according to your deserts: encouragement, consolation, fear, charm — all you demand — and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.’
And the overriding sense I am left with is how fiction gives us permission to be most fully ourselves. I cannot imagine being the me I am without having encountered the characters and the writers I have met throughout my days. Science is mastering many of the facts , we are illuminating the darkness, but only dimly. Science is the first to corroborate how much is still unknown. A particle acts differently dependant upon it being observed – does this strike you as prescient on the human condition? We are and simultaneously are not the person we imagine ourselves to be. The codes we observe do not rely merely on the context of our time and culture, but also on our perception of them and of the fluctuating circumstances. That is confusing, much easier to narrate to you a true account of behaviour which shows how I hold personal codes of truth and loyalty , of fidelity and duty to be central to the person I am and yet act in complete opposition to them, choosing to end one marriage to a wonderful man , and father of my two sons because I had walked blindly into a new relationship where I felt at home. Not even a choice. And reader – I married him.
I haven’t learnt enough just from the handful of people who are present in my life, or who have been there in the past – they are priceless, but they do not bring me the breadth and depth of experience which helps me to understand I can forgive myself for frailty, for impatience, for laziness, for ineptitude. Because I am not alone. Because growing up is not just trying to imitate some version of being human handed down by parents et al, it is about encountering the various selves you inhabit, and allowing yourself not to be intimidated or frightened by them. Listening to voices from elsewhere can somehow bring you closer to knowing how to be your own.
In ‘Mothering Sunday’ Graham Swift practices his alchemy – his narrative is from a woman and it has one of the most authorative voice of being woman I have encountered. He is masterly in how deftly he practices this – the small sentences slipped in that are the ‘tell’ of what it feels like to be 22, free, single, and enjoyably bruised by sexual encounter ( not in a violent, abusive way). On removing from the scene, she mounts her bicycle ‘ slightly sore where she met the saddle’ .
I imagine the novelist’s challenge to himself – inhabiting not only the woman’s pysche at 22, but also later on – in her nineties and remembering. I imagine him imagining the reader – me – enjoying his playfulness, his zest for finding the right word, the correct tone, the piercing stab of the dramatic.
The point I am making, albeit clumsily is this – we need stories to remind us not how to live, but that life is mystery. Inexplicable paradox is what exists around us and about us, and the navigation around this mortal coil is facilitated by the storytellers, the magicians, the soothsayers, the lyric writers, the graffiti artists, the dramatists, the teachers.
There is now such a thing as a bibliotherapy – the art of listening to someone’s personal dilemnas and furnishing them with appropriate bookwear. (bookware?) . Such a stance should please me, but I am contrary enough to find something unsettling in it. Something proscribed – but then why not – we go to doctors, why not book doctors? I have a healthy disposition to challenge anything that is ‘good for me’ , and have only just discovered the heady delight of sucking up oranges. Now I evangelise about oranges. And for me they are the only fruit. I still have a long way to go.
I leave the last words to a woman author of impeccable skills, Marilynne Robinson, author of ‘Housekeeping’, ‘Gilead’ and others you may want to discover.
“While you read this, I am imperishable, somehow more alive than I have ever been.”
2 thoughts on “The stuff of Life”
Oh my God, Anne,
Your posts have never revealed so much of what is going on in your life. I understand your pain, because I have been there. My husband and I suffered through 4 years of utter hell because of one brief infidelity of of mine. Even though he later admitted to his own infidelity to me, though I was pregnant with out own daughters. In his mind, it was okay for him to have done this to me because he was drinking then, and therefore not responsible for his his behavior. I, quite literally, dragged him to his first AA meeting. And he never touched alcohol again. But when I was most vulnerable–sober for more than a decade–I succumbed to the mystery of chat rooms online and met an experimental physicist online. I live in the outskirts of Chicago, and it happened that he visited the Fermi Lab, very close to where I lived, quite frequently, only a 15 minute drive from my home. I considered it a miracle that I had stumbled into an almost free dance program at our local community college, taught by Gary Flannery, who had studied classical ballet, but gave it up to work with Bob Fosse on Broadway in NYC. I was in his dance studio 20+ hours/day, 5 days/week. That was in my late thirties/early forties. I had put in my sweat euquity. I was in the best physical condition in I had ever been in my life. My affair with this physicist lasted about 6 weeks. I met with him, I think, 4 times. He was two years older than I was, but he devoted his free time to exercise. He was, as we Americans say, ripped. My first encounter with this man was also the first sexual experience I ever had with someone new, without the social lubricant of alcohol. This included my husband. It was the first time I ever had sex without alcohol in my life. I found it very difficult to apologize for my behavior, because I am honest. At the time, my husband was yet again unemployed and overweight. It is didn’t sit well with me, while I was feeling so “on top of my game.” It didn’t help, at all, when my husband disclosed that he had had an extramarital affair when we were married and I was pregnant, twice, (Our daughters are 14 months apart.) My husband insisted that his infidelity didn’t count because he was a drunk at the time. He told me that his AA sponsor had approved with this admission and “amends.” I’ve been lto literally thousands of AA meetings since 1985. I know better. My husband’s sponsor would never have approved this disclosure. Making amends specifically states that amends need not be made if such amend injures the party or parties one makes amends to. This devastated me. His infidelity lasted for years, not months. No matter. He was a drunk way back then. It didn’t count. My own infidelity lasted for several months. Most of that time was via chat room. My husband and I worked through it, but it left an indelible mark on our daughters. And I am the bad guy to this day. My husband’s last words to me, with our entire family present, were, “You could have loved me more.” I went into shock. I don’t know who else heard this, and I don’t want to know. I do know that I was my late husband’s primary and his only caregiver for four sad and lonely years.
Daughters worship their fathers. I knew far more about their father than I would ever disclose to them. I will let them have their Hero.
Younger people have such a hard time seeing or feeling what life was like for their parents. I wish you all the best. Please keep on doing what you do best. Creating works of art so that we can share them with our loved ones. I sent out one of your cards just yesterday, to my dearest SIL
You are okay. You are good. You are a child of the Universe I love your stuff!
Thank you for reading my little “widow” rant.
All best, Janet
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That is one heartfelt disclosure Janet! Our lives are closest to the bone when we are honest with ourselves and in our dealings with others. My heart goes out to you , hearing those last words. I think you loved as well as you possibly could. Just a postscript to something you said about your daughters having a hero – i respect where you are with that, but you are the one person who knows the complexities of the dynamics, and when they are adult they may question some of that. Working out our parents relationship and our place within it is fundamental to how we see ourselves – it has taken me the last few years to reestablish a more realistic relationship with my father, and he has been dead for fourteen years. My mother has unwittingly fed me stories of my fathers behaviours which fostered a feeling of disappointment with him as a man and as a father. Recently I see that her lens has been more skewed than I was allowing for. I never needed a hero, I needed a father – even after he had died. After their separation thirty some years ago, my mum has never really rid herself of the bitterness or taken any of the responsibility for the marriage ending. I don’t blame her for that – it has been a struggle to live a single life for her in her senior years. But i truly believe honest relations lead to compassionate understanding.
thank you for your kind words on my creative endeavours! I work at art because it helps me make sense of a world spinning ever more erratically.