Winter in the Wilderness: Poems to Light the Way

It has been difficult recently to find our way through the days in this strange elongated time of not much happening or changing, even while the world keeps on spinning and making demands of us. I think that is what has brought the idea of the wilderness to mind. But of course 2020 is not the only time we have been there, and in putting this little collection of poems together I have been thinking about what I might myself have needed when I have got lost or stuck in other ways. I am hoping this is a collection I can return to in future, not because it enables me finally to make sense of everything, but because it might give me some thoughts I can work with when I’m not sure where to look next.

I am aware, too, that this month is the season of Advent. This is something I have never fully celebrated in the traditional way, though I often find myself at this time of year wanting to be able to dip into its attitude of waiting and hoping, or wondering and inwardly preparing. As a concept it can feel closer to where I am at than what we get at Christmas, which is the glorious fulfilment of a story that you either have to enter into as a complete vision of the world reborn, or somewhat ignore as a narrative that in its very completeness might feel like just too much to take in. A few of the poems below, then, do speak to the place that such a season can bring me to, although I have steered away from making this a collection about Advent and tried to widen it out further, beyond the themes of faith and belief. 

In the rest of this post I have made a start on thinking about each of the poems, but I will also be sharing some readings of them over the next twelve days, so do follow along with me either on Twitter (@sanityandgrace) or Facebook if you’d like to hear them read aloud. 

1) Among All Lovely Things My Love Had Been, William Wordsworth 

There is excitement to be had at this time of year, as we play the game of spotting the best Christmas lights that we can see as we travel around town at night. But I love how in this poem our attention is drawn to the more humble glow-worm, though Wordsworth’s joy in discovering it does not seem to be any less. The scene, too, is not picture-perfect; it is a stormy night that brings out the earth-bound creature, and yet the storm does not hold any real power to dampen spirits here. 

2) Let my first Knowing, Emily Dickinson

This feels like another love poem, though I am not certain what kind of being is being referred to as ‘thee’. I like the poem better for this openness.

3) Abide with me, Henry Francis Lyte

Henry Francis Lyte wrote both hymns and poems, and though for us these lines now come coupled with the tune by which we know it, the words do hold a particular resonance when taken more slowly or allowed to stand on the page. I like the combination in the five different verses of a deep sense of need, along with a confidence in the one who can meet that need. There is also proportion and an idea of scale: everyday realities are exchanged here for a larger reality in which the threat of darkness, temptation, ills and death can only by met by trusting in someone who is more constant and who survives beyond all of these things.

4) In Memoriam A. H. H., 67 – Alfred Tennyson

Though Tennyson is here addressing the friend he has lost, it is as if the poem finds a way for him to still feel connected in the present to one who in more than one sense now resides far away. What I find hopeful here is that Tennyson is able to experience at least for one night a settled peace, allowing him to sleep, and that this keeps him in time for once with the natural order of things, which in itself is a mercy: as the night precedes the dawn.

5) To my small Hearth, Emily Dickinson

Light here is in itself a kind of salvation, and it seems to arrive unbidden, bringing with it a change that could almost be permanent. 

6) The Old Woman, Joseph Campbell

This is a poem in which stillness has its value. Instead of winter being a time when things are simply dead, here it becomes instead a time to shine. What has been done in the past is sufficient, and there is now no need to “do” any more. 

7) Shadows, D.H. Lawrence

In this poem God is both known and unknown, and the way in which he is known and experienced is continually in flux. But unusually, here, God is in the shadow as opposed to the light: it is as if he participates in the same seasons of shadow that Lawrence goes through, and to which the earth itself is subject. While life itself moves through phases of pain and trouble, the shadowy element brings a kind of cushioning that is able to preserve body, soul and spirit until ‘new morning’ comes. 

8) In Memoriam A. H. H., 124 – Alfred Tennyson

These lines tell a story that can feel almost impossible to tell or to identify for oneself: of what it can feel like to come up against the threat of losing one’s faith, or whatever it is that gives a person that sense of the world holding together. But the lines also give ear to something that only poetry seems to have the right kind of space for. The voice of the heart speaks up, and for a time, within these little stanzas, what the heart says is enough.

9) The Birds begun at Four o’clock, Emily Dickinson

This is not strictly a winter poem, since dawn begins much later at this time of year, but I have included it nonetheless because of what it has to tell us about things of wonder and beauty going on without our awareness, even when many of us may still be ‘asleep’. It is a poem that carries a reminder that there are tremendous forces of life at play, even within the spaces that we physically occupy in the world, and that human life is not the sum total of all that there is. 

10) Light Shining Out of Darkness, William Cowper

These lines might risk feeling too easy, and it could be tempting to gloss over them. But I do, personally, want to retain the possibility that there might be a natural law or pattern at play that is higher than my own understanding can reach. ‘God is his own interpreter, / And he will make it plain.’ 

11) Winter Rain, Christina Rossetti 

I can often associate the rain with dreariness, especially when it is so frequently cold and dark at the same time. But there is none of that here, and as the lines of Rossetti’s poem run on, they compel me to feel that in fact, the more rain the better.

12) The Oxen, Thomas Hardy

This is a poem to come to when the old traditions feel worn out and spent. It revolves around an ‘if’, allowing that the hopeful bit may never be realised, and yet in that ‘if’ there is still always the chance that as the year rolls round again, old feelings might once more be revived. 

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay 


The Art of Being a Toddler

‘For a moment she gazed fearfully at the cliff. Then she got bored. The cliff, the sea, the rocks: They never changed, never moved. Boring. A dog appeared. “A dog!” we both said.’
– ‘The View’, Orhan Pamuk

I suspect there is an art to the business of being a toddler, so this little entry is an effort to celebrate that, in between the inevitable moments of quiet despair in which I wonder how life turned into quite such a mess of battles. 

Detecting, Copying

Suddenly, she thrusts into the light a quirk I didn’t know I had. “Right,” she will say, as we turn to go up the stairs or move onto another activity. This is an announcement: we’re doing this now! It also means: I’m choosing to make this happen. Now, of course, I can hear the echo from my own voice and realise this often arises from my eagerness at leaving the house or finally managing to do something. It sounds so much better in her voice; she’s rather stolen my trick of confidence! 


This is the talent most often on display: finding what I didn’t realise was there to be found. The odd curled-up, once-wriggly “worm’ (a tiny version of such), knocked to the very edges of the kitchen floor by our passing feet, which she greets with delight: “oh, a worm!” A feather on the grass, but not just one feather only: each feather is a reminder to look out for more. And stones: mostly they need to be small enough to fit in the hand, but they can be as tiny as they come. Any new location or destination offers a chance to look for stones. They look as if they had been waiting all along for someone who knew just what to do with them.

Rearranging, Repurposing

This seems to be one of the main tasks of life. Mummy has her jobs, and I must find my own out of whatever has been left behind / made available. The tins, for example, can be taken out of the cupboard and positioned in a nice semicircle. The pans can be pulled out, and used as containers for anything small enough to form a collection inside: potatoes, onions, treasures from the garden and magnets from the fridge. But it doesn’t end there: there is always life in this game, and it can be begun again tomorrow as if it had never been completed.

Revising the Command System

This has happened so gradually and surreptitiously that by the time I realised how unprepared I was, the process was well underway. But though I can’t say I enjoy trying to reverse it, it does make me smile to note the sheer mastery of the thing. Her latest phrases, “Get it,” and (my least favourite) “Fetch it,” show a command of language and its purposes, at the very least. 

Interestingly, she knows, already, how not to put herself in a position of weakness. Though there often seem to be multiple reasons why she doesn’t want to get into the highchair, the fact that once she is in she can’t safely get out again by herself must be high amongst them. Likewise with the trolley and the car seat. But this instinctive assertion of self does give me pause. It is what I feel I have doggedly forgotten how to do, frankly, and perhaps this is all to the good in an adult universe where we have to find a way to get along. Perhaps much of the time, self is not the thing that most needs asserting: there are other things that we individually represent. And yet something about seeing this untamed, fresh-hewn instinct enacted in front of me reminds me of what I found also in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. While the consequences seem unsightly, it is possible to determine to be someone who doesn’t back down.  

Setting the Pace

I came across a sentence unexpectedly in a book that put things into place for me somewhat. The comment was simply made that toddlers prefer to take things slowly. It made me stop short because it doesn’t often feel like that: it feels like there is constant energy and activity. But I notice now that the energy is directed towards the doing itself: there is little focus on getting the thing done. So we can do as much or as little of it as we want, and take as long as we want over it, because time is not an issue. As R.S. Thomas says in his poem ‘The Bright Field’: life is not in the ‘hurrying on’, ‘it is turning aside’. 

Listening, Always (though not in the way one might have planned)

That evening, there was a tempest in my head, but as far as I know, no real indication of this in my expression. She reached over from her highchair, and started stroking my arm with her thumb; real, genuine stroking. “It’s OK,” she said, repeating herself, as she’d heard me do so many times before. A few minutes later she spoke of “feeling better”, patting me in various places and noting that I’d been “stressed”. I had no particular sense that she knew what I was thinking, or that this was an early sign of empathy in action, but rather that it occurred to her, almost on a whim, to give me some special treatment all of a sudden, much as she does for her cuddly bunny. All that listening she has been doing has built up to something in her, I realised, and here it is, re-forming and coming together. But it is miles away from what I thought I was telling her to listen to, and certainly when she is asked to listen it could go either way. 


At this stage, we are not quite two. The toddler years have just begun. 

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Strange but instructive things about early motherhood

So much of what is written about motherhood aims to be helpful and thereby explanatory. But the things I have found myself thinking most about are the bits that feel strange, the things you couldn’t have calculated for and that you wonder what to do with. Over time these have gathered so frequently in my mind that I couldn’t do otherwise than write about them at this point. In the process of writing, I hope to find what it is that the strangeness might, at the same time, teach me.

  1. Being subject to your body

I don’t mean the bump, although that is an obvious manifestation, and the obvious does help to make it sink in. What I really mean is the way your body communicates with what you might have thought of as you. The messages are no longer advisory; they have become urgent, almost at times veering on threatening. Food and drink are no longer pleasant pastimes. I am more used now to the feeling: if I don’t eat something in the next two-to-five minutes I’m going to be sick. Similarly at the commencement of breastfeeding: food is no longer a joke to be taken or left. All of this can feel a bit shocking in a culture which, to me, encourages us to think we are in control of our bodies and can bend them to our own will. But on one such desperate occasion I had a thought (an obvious one) that helped me. Your body is not serving you alone any more; it is keeping someone else alive. It’s life and death; you suddenly understand that in the early days of a newborn. This is a bit more difficult to get your head around in pregnancy: it doesn’t look like much has changed except for the weight. But I’d like to think there could be a little more compassion and understanding in our culture, in place of the wry smiles, for new mothers at every stage even in their apparently incessant eating. Two years on, the memory of the kindness of the question: “are you OK?” still sticks in my mind as a group of us waited patiently for a typically long-delayed wedding reception to begin.  

…feeling a rush of milk, she hurried to the nursery. This was not a mere guess; her connection with the child was still so close, that she could gauge by the flow of her milk his need of food, and knew for certain he was hungry. (Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy)

2. Humans need daily adjustments

There is so much talk of the benefits of routine for babies, and step-by-step suggestions of what to do if you’re having problems – with sleep, naps, feeding and all the rest. But in moments of vexed frustration when I’ve felt trapped in a cycle that I can’t quite end, the one thing that has brought relief has been to remember that I’m dealing not just with a baby, but with a human. The recommendations and guides would have you believe a baby is a comprehensible, airtight thing, a concept that begins and ends. It actually gets quite hard to think outside of this box. And yet: when have humans ever conformed to such an idea about themselves? I don’t sleep to order myself – the time that it takes me to succumb can vary quite a bit – and I have had many nights as an adult (pre-baby) when I haven’t slept through, and have longed for company, a hand or voice in the dark. Equally, sometimes, somewhere to lie down is enough. We are as various as the world around us: the weather, the moods of the sky, the shifting winds and colours of the earth, not to mention the landscapes that exist often hiddenly on the inside. If only I could have the good sense to remember that this must be just as true in the early years. 

3. Expectations and loneliness

You know, of course, that there’s a risk of being lonely. In fact you probably plan for it. But when it comes to it, it never feels as simple as matching a solution to a problem, and I wonder if there is a key here somehow in how we address loneliness more widely. To begin with, it feels as though the need would be met if one could just manage to see some fellow mothers, people who are in the same rather topsy-turvy boat. But I noticed as time went on that everyone, by necessity, ends up fashioning their own boat, in their own distinctive way, so that that sense of being united by a common experience can start to dissipate. Similarly, I sometimes expect that once the right person is there, it will be possible to talk about the things that bewilder me when I’m on my own, the things that have built up in between. But then when we do meet, our attentions are often so crowded by mutual wonder at our respective babies, and the antics that come with them, that the present becomes enough to take account of. It’s good to talk, but conversation isn’t a magic bullet, and it doesn’t always reach the places we need it to. It’s one reason why I am so glad of mothers who have written about their experience, not just today, online, but also on paper, at other times. Though it can be easy to forget it in today’s media, and marketplace, motherhood is not a new, reinvented or modern concept.

The few words she has exchanged with this woman Frances, known only by sight after all from the nursery school queue, are the merest tips of icebergs. (‘Cafe Society’, Helen Simpson)

4. What distance can do

It feels as though she spends quite a bit of time hanging onto my legs, balancing on my hip, or with her hand in mine. That’s how physically close we are day to day, and probably how it has been for many of us especially recently in lockdown. But there’s a kind of loss of awareness that comes with this, and I am grateful for those moments when I am caught off guard, espying her across the room or in someone else’s care for a little while. It’s like a sudden aha moment: being able to see this person for who she is. Sometimes there is an element of suddenly being able to feel an emotion with regards to her that I almost haven’t had space to feel before, or at least for a while. In little ways, the distance helps, indeed feels necessary to the relationship itself.

5. You are still you

Discovering this, after what might feel like the loss of it, is supposed of course to bring reassurance. To allow ourselves such reminders is what we are encouraged to do. But when putting on what Liz Berry in one of her poems calls the ‘uniform’ of motherhood has involved such an apparent transformation, there can be a twinge of disappointment (at least there has been for me) in coming to the realisation that underneath it all, you still carry the person you started out as. The same habits are there: habits of mind and thought, and ways of doing things. I am a little freer from them – I can potentially choose to shut them off when needed, as I have had to do – but I am not free. I know, too, that here begins the story of the kind of mother I will become: one which I will try to direct where I can, but which also will unfold out of and beyond me. It will not just be for me, or for one part of me, to write.

Thinking about this post has made me realise something else. You have to find a way of working out what motherhood means in your head. It’s not just about the doing; it’s also being. The being is now and forever.

Photo by Jenna Christina on Unsplash

New favourites: yours and my own

For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.

(from The Toys, Coventry Patmore)

We are in what feels to me like a year of transition, between age 1 and 2: where the markers at the opening and close of the year are clear, but the path between them is not. The changes are rapid, and nothing is fixed forever yet. 

At the beginning of the calendar year, I wanted to commit to making a log of the little things, month by month, for as long as I could manage. We’ve made it now to six months – albeit with some flagging towards the end. This is a record of how my daughter is discovering for herself her favourite things, before casting them away and finding something new. But it is also a reflection from us as her parents on our own favourite things about her: on what she does and how she does it.

I hope this has some relevance even if your attention is not taken up much of the time with little people. On some level I am also trying to explore what it is to be in the world, and to be in love.


i) There has been a succession of three favourite books this month: Not So Silent Night, its solid pages given over to the noisy animals of the nativity, Car Car Truck Jeep, sung to the tune of Baa Baa Black Sheep, and Who’s That Scratching at My Door, about a boy who has plenty of toys but wants a real playmate. Each book must have had a reign of about a couple of weeks, during which time you would have it read again at any opportunity. It’s lovely to see how you will often sit back content once you’ve got one of us to start reading, letting the story simply unfold before your eyes (and ears). 

ii) One of your favourite pastimes is to pursue the cat who is a long-time resident at grandmother’s house. But your interest in dogs – of any shape, size or colour – is not far behind either. At first I thought this was to do with coming across creatures who seem to be on your own level (closer to eye-level, and harbouring similar kinds of energy), but now I wonder if it is the other way round, and more that you feel able to speak their language? ‘Woof woof!’ you call, in a gentle whisper.

iii) It’s funny how the ‘firsts’ that count aren’t always the ones you had expected. One of our favourite discoveries over several weeks has been that you are now ready to give us a hug. You lean in and extend your arms around us, knowing now exactly what a hug is for. And it comes in the most casual of moments, and not necessarily for long, but it is certainly deliberate, chosen. There is something to understand here about intimacy: it has a slow build, but once it is established, it emerges freely and easily – not through the big, significant gestures but more often in the day to day postures of living.


i) You have taken to studying things en masse, to see if you can pick out individual things: the array of different birds spread across the inside cover of A Busy Day for Birds, the pattern of little pictures on one of your old hats, or the woodland creatures on your wallpaper. It is so easy for me to gloss past things but you remind me to take a second look:
Yet take another look and you may bring
From the dull mass each separate splendour out. 
(from ‘Dream and Thing’, Edwin Muir)
Incredible, really, that you can transform something from ‘dull’ to a ‘splendour’ just by looking, isn’t it?

ii) Your affections are shifting and now there are occasions when a toy will receive a big cuddle: as you hold it tight against your chest and rock slightly from side to side. For those few seconds, your award of attention is total. 

iii) It is so exciting to hear you verbalise a new word for the first time. It feels as though you pick your moment, when suddenly the word sounds like a thing to you. It happened the other day when you were marshalling together the unlit tealights. Grandpa offered to help you count them, but when you got to ‘two’, you stuck on it, and for a while afterwards everything was ‘two’. It must have felt great in your mouth as you kept repeating it with that long drawn out “ooh?”


i) You’re much, much more choosy about your books now and quite a few of the old ones don’t get a look-in. But the board book version of The Gruffalo is having its moment. We wander in a rather pedestrian way through the pages meeting various animals who fail to make much of an impression. But when we reach the last page a smile slowly spreads over your face as we come to a picture of that creature about whom we know much less. Is he friendly? Should we be scared?

ii) You’ve been practising your wave for a little while now, but I think the gesture is starting to take on even more meaning for you. Often you don’t wave until the person has gone, or hung up the phone, but then you will call out ‘byee’ with great fervour, as if you’ve caught just the right moment. It seems less about communication and more as if we’re playing a game and this is the pose you strike when the music stops. 

iii) You must recognize many words now, but it’s a thrill to get an insight into just what those are. Often you will point to an object and make a sort of generic noise for ‘that’ or ‘there’, but if we ask you to point to something first we can find out if you already know what it is / if you know the name for it. I normally start with “can you see a …” but I’ve been amazed at some of the things you’ve identified for me in response. The world is coming alive again as you assign each thing its place. 


i) You know the names of the things you love, and bunnies in all shapes and sizes are generally greeted with an exclamation: “booies!”  “bweez!” – or something akin to that. I wonder if it’s anything to do with the fact that the cuddly bunnies we have look much more person-like than some of the other animals on all fours. Certainly today you were keen to waggle some of your chopped apple in the face of your favourite bunny, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he/she was soon to be offered tea.

ii) You use your fingers creatively: to tickle our backs, which is apparently where we are most ticklish, or to feed us whatever you have suddenly decided to turn into food. It must be such a delight to be in command of reality in these moments. It is your turn to be the rule-maker, except that here, for now, there is no judgement.

iii) Never mind learning a language, sometimes you’re content just to tell us what you think in your own. Your chatter has all the intonation of matters that are at once serious, engaging and not to be refuted. Not for the first time I have the sense that you know it all before we’ve even attempted to teach you.


i) These two new words have changed everything. Now that you’ve started to say ‘story’, there is not a time of day that doesn’t offer itself to be filled with a reading. And it starts as soon as you’re up. But of course it makes sense that the other word you’ve taken on is ‘again’. The ending invites the beginning.

ii) Your hands have acquired another new skill, as Daddy provided you first with a pen, and then a set of crayons to draw with. But when you decide it’s time for “drawing”, the paper often cannot be provided quickly enough, as you seize your chosen colour and make ready. Then, just as quickly, it is over and complete, and I find myself rather envying you your ability to be satisfied with your work in a matter of moments. 


Our drawers of odds and ends have to be emptied out time and again as you sort through the random cluster of things. For once, the euros and dollars that may never recover their purpose as currency have a use, as you gather up all the coins into a box, and tip them out again. Perhaps when you tire of this we will need to make a new musical instrument …

Some final bitesize thoughts on what I am learning:

  • life adds up to something; though it can feel like we have done “nothing”, this is never the whole truth
  • paying attention is worth it, and is its own reward
  • though as adults/parents we are forced to question this day by day, the world you inhabit is enough. You are making something of it with every step. 

Image by Pezibear from Pixabay

A Meditation on Simple Things

In the past few months things have been drastically stripped back. Where we have come to expect choice, variety and preference, these have been replaced all of a sudden by a narrowing of options: we must rely on what we can get. But in the process I’m sure it’s highlighted how complicated our lives had become, and the lengths to which we were prepared to go to satisfy what we had become accustomed to identifying as our desires or needs.

All this has made me want to connect to something tangible, the consistency of which has survived longer than the inventions of our own generation. I began to look out for those things which have brought humans pleasure, solace and sustenance over the centuries. For tangible things are still vitally important to the human schema. We are not just beings of spirit, but beings who need to be able to reach out and touch the world of which we are a part.

This is my own little list of ‘essentials’. 

I am not so interested in the breath as a placeholder for neutrality. But I do like how it provides a sign of the function of the whole. William Wordsworth writes of ‘the breath and harmony of music’: that which holds it together, and sustains each note and phrase. The breath is the architecture. It is the simplest, most constant and most flexible part of the composition. 

I imagine that bread looks and tastes different depending on where you live or where you come from. This has probably long been the case. But its meaning must be the same: it fills the hole that hunger has left, and it is good for sharing. The dough or the loaf must always be broken into pieces or portioned out so that there is enough for everyone. It is a wonderful gift, keeping us linked to the earth and to the grains which it nourishes into life.  

In Imtiaz Dharker’s poem ‘Blessing’, rain can only be imagined: ‘the small splash, echo / in a tin mug’. The noise is what is missing in the time of drought. The sound of rain must be one of its great pleasures. Sometimes pattering, sometimes drumming down onto the earth. Rain reminds us of all the happenings outside of our own control. It commands the space, before withdrawing again. And the best times, I think, are when we least expect it. 

In Emily Dickinson’s poem the everyday is no less remarkable for being everyday: ‘I have seen the Sun emerge / From His amazing House / And leave a Day at every Door …’ In Greek mythology, the sun god was represented as emerging with the dawn on a horse-drawn chariot to ride across the expanse of the sky. Without this image in mind, we may perhaps be less inclined to look to the body that is doing the bestowing for any sense of company or intention. But Dickinson helps us to feel this bestowing once again, as if on one occasion she was able to observe it all anew: with eyes that could be genuinely amazed.

Candles have become a luxury item now that we no longer need them to see in the dark. They captivate now with the scents and colours that have been added to the wax. But the image of a flame in the darkness has an enduring resonance. A single flame flickers, and wavers. It is alive and moves. It bends, and remains steady.  

Colour lends meaning to what we see, but it is also a gift in that, like music, it does not have to denote a particular meaning. The colour of a flower for example simply shines forth; it is part of its identity. In the same way, colour speaks to me of choice. Its very existence gives us a reason to be creative, while choosing between different dyes, paints, crayons or inks, or picking clothes, flowers or food. To be in possession of colour is to know a kind of richness. 

I am trying to think as widely as possible: the tin bath in front of the fire; the ritual baths that are used for instance in Judaism or Hinduism; public baths; open pools and rivers. Across time, people have found a way somehow to honour the body’s need for relief and immersion in this other element. Surrounded by water, there is not an awful lot that can be done, except to move, to be still, and to be.

It is a detail such as this that brings the literary text of the Bible to life for me. In the preceding verses, the whole cast of Jacob’s future life has been set in motion as a result of the directions of his father Isaac. But then Jacob embarks on a journey to Haran, and because the sun sets while he is on his way, he stops at the place he has come to, ‘took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep.’ Who knew that pillows were so important? Clearly we have been needing a place to rest our head for about as long as we can remember. 

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

Locked down and shut in, or locked in and shut down

I want to write about the impact of this on feeling, or the ability to feel. The circumstances may be different (comparing amongst ourselves, or, alternatively, with the severity of what has been experienced at other times or in other places), but I think the effect may be similar in kind. I’ve thought of three examples, among the best studies of such a predicament.

I want to know: how can I get myself out of my own inner lockdown, but also how can we help others? How are we going to carefully come out of this?

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

For Jean-Dominique Bauby, locked-in syndrome was a medical condition in which he found himself trapped after suffering a major stroke in 1995. Like Oliver Sacks’ accounts of the patients whom he treated for neurological conditions, I find Bauby’s story incredibly resonant, even for those of us who have not experienced anything approaching what he suffered in the last years of his life. 

After awaking from a coma, paralysed from head to toe, the only function that is left to Bauby is that of his left eye, which he is able to blink. He uses this to communicate that his mind is unimpaired, and ultimately is able to translate his thoughts, by blinking to select letters of the alphabet to be re-formed into words. 

Bauby receives much love, help and support in the months that follow. But there is only so much that anyone on the outside can do. The gift of the book he has written is that it gives an insight into how he kept himself alive, beyond what the medical profession could do for him. He has to choose what to do with his mind: 

A letter from a friend, a Balthus painting on a postcard, a page of Saint-Simon, give meaning to the passing hours. But to keep my mind sharp, to avoid descending into resigned indifference, I maintain a level of resentment and anger, neither too much nor too little, just as a pressure cooker has a safety valve to keep it from exploding.

It is not just about recalling moments of beauty, or thinking of cheering things. That is a big part of the project of survival, but it is not the only aspect. Bauby also has to be honest with himself, because what is at risk here is the slippage into ‘resigned indifference’. That, too, is a protective mechanism but it stops the life-flow even more than the physical paralysis could do. Instead, there is vital and active self-control here, for both resentment and anger are emotions which, left to themselves, feed themselves and grow. Bauby needs them to do their job, and no more.

I am thinking about the energy available to Bauby too. The effort that it must have taken to blink his way steadily through these communications must have been exhausting. But at the same time, emotions are a kind of energy, and he needed to keep these activated, whether good or bad, to buoy him up; to help him maintain that ‘level’ that he mentions.

I wonder, in this context, what our own version of Bauby’s eye might be. Perhaps, in fact, it is still a kind of eye contact: allowing ourselves to meet someone else’s glance even when it is easier to pretend they’re not there. Allowing ourselves to witness the life that is visible to us just beyond our own threshold. Willing ourselves to acknowledge it even when it is perplexing and painful. 

A Tale of Two Cities

Doctor Manette is introduced to us at the point at which he is about to be rescued from his imprisonment. For nearly eighteen years he has been in solitary confinement, not knowing what has become of his little daughter, who will by now have grown. He has suffered without accusation or trial. 

In every aspect of his being, Doctor Manette betrays the effect that this treatment has had on him. His voice ‘was like the last feeble echo of a sound made long and long ago. So entirely had it lost the life and resonance of the human voice, that it affected the senses like a once beautiful colour faded away into a poor weak stain.’ In the extreme, this is what happens when parts of ourselves go unused, for a long time. He has so little left that there is nothing to replenish that echo, to set the sounds ringing again. 

With the help of his daughter, who is part of the rescue party, Doctor Manette does recover something of his former self and activities when he is brought to safety to England. But much of the novel explores the threat of Manette’s trauma resurfacing, given that we learn he will neither talk about those lost years, nor can he later recall how he recovered from them. His friends, those who look out for him, worry that although he doesn’t talk about it, these experiences are often on his mind, but that he is afraid of opening up the subject for fear of what might thereby be unleashed. 

Sometimes, he gets up in the dead of the night, and will be heard, by us overhead there, walking up and down, walking up and down, in his room. Ladybird has learnt to know then that his mind is walking up and down, walking up and down, in his old prison. She hurries to him, and they go on together, walking up and down, walking up and down, until he is composed. But he never says a word of the true reason of his restlessness, to her, and she finds it best not to hint at it to him. In silence they go walking up and down together, walking up and down together, till her love and company have brought him to himself.

There is something very moving about these repetitive motions in the novel’s account of Doctor Manette. When, later on, he suffers a relapse, he returns to the work with which he had occupied himself in the prison: making shoes. The work is a habit to which he clings, providing him with a kind of mechanical order where there is no order, and a sense of purpose and action where there is no human fulfilment or interaction. Dickens shows how careful we must be in trying to correct these anomalies of behaviour, even if they seem to be unhealthy. There is much care, above, in the way Doctor Manette’s daughter simply accompanies her father in his walking up and down, without questioning it. Her intuition is right: it is not the time for challenging or probing the habit. Her father’s deepest need is for the balm of ‘her love and company’, which he had lacked, among many other things, for so long. And she communicates this not through talking, but through accompanying him many a time, ‘in silence’, through his distress.

Dejection: An Ode

Coleridge has been hearing the notes of the throstle, and gazing at the sky’s ‘peculiar tint of yellow green’, but keeps coming back to the same conclusion: 

I see them all so excellently fair, 
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are! 

And at the close of the following section of the poem: 

I may not hope from outward forms to win 
The passion and the life, whose fountains are within. 

Within, there is only ‘this dull pain’, ‘a grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear’. Who can say what this pain or grief is about? It seems to have become so familiar that such a question is past relevance. The only thing that matters now is that it is present, and weighs heavily. It is a ‘void’ without shape or form, unlike those ‘outward forms’ that Coleridge so wants to be able to connect with. 

It is interesting that the poem is entitled ‘dejection’, because actually that word doesn’t appear in the body of it. Instead the word that is repeated a number of times, within, is ‘joy’. I don’t think this is meant as an answer to the dejection, but it does serve as a direct counter to it, coming from another angle. Coleridge calls joy ‘this beautiful and beauty-making power’ and it is as if he uses the poem to awaken joy, calling upon it as a reminder, making a claim upon it. It is as if this invocation brings the musical excitement of joy back into the poem, and so this is what Coleridge wishes upon his friend in the last verse: ‘With light heart may she rise … Joy lift her spirit, joy attune her voice …’ Joy is the connection-maker, the necessary link between within and without, which we must try to wish upon each other.

Image by christels from Pixabay

Music for Our Time

When everything is a bit monotonous except for the bad stuff, it pays to find something new. But for me I think the best way I can realize this is by making an effort to look into what is already available, that predates me and my concerns. Of the pieces that follow there are a number of which I would already have been aware, but I hope that thinking about them in this light will deepen the way I engage with them, not only now but also into the future. 

  1. ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ by Aaron Copland

(recommended recordings: by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra)

It was hearing this again that prompted me to write this post. The sound of the timpani and the trumpets offers a signal that everyone should fall silent for a moment. But this is not as a sign of respect for the bigwigs or royal heads of our society. This piece is dedicated to those who do the jobs that at other times might be beneath our notice. Writing in 1942, when the U.S. had just entered World War II, Copland was inspired in his composition by a speech given by then-Vice President Henry A. Wallace, who said: “the century which will come out of this war […] must be the century of the common man.” Copland would later echo the same sentiment, saying, “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.”

2. “Comfort ye” from the Messiah (Part One) by George Frideric Handel

For over two hundred and fifty years these words have been sung. We are familiar with the overarching narrative and the celebratory peaks that come with it. But it starts with “comfort ye”, and “speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem”. Noël Bisson notes in his listening guide how the ‘slow moving strings’ that introduce and precede these words ‘immediately create an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity’ for the entry of the solo tenor. In a way it is another version of the signal given in the fanfare above: “pay attention,” “give us your ears,” but here not through command but soft entreaty. Matthew Henry, in his 1706 commentary on the biblical text, writes: ‘Comfort you, comfort you —not because the prophets are unwilling to do it (no, it is the most pleasant part of their work), but because sometimes the souls of God’s people refuse to be comforted, and their comforters must repeat things again and again, ere they can fasten any thing upon them.’

3. ‘Humming Chorus’ from Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini

This piece could not be more unlike the sound I tend to associate with opera. There are no words, there is no exaggerated vibrato, and no obvious excitement. But the melody, and its delivery, still seems to tell a story. Kate Hopkins comments, on behalf of the Royal Opera House, that ‘the melody and its repetitive, lulling accompaniment are as simple as a lullaby.’ Perhaps this is what a lullaby for adults might sound like. In an account by Los Angeles Opera, the origins of the chorus are explained: Puccini had been entranced by an uncharacteristically long moment of silence featured in a dramatic production of Madame Butterfly. Butterfly, a Japanese geisha, has been abandoned by her American naval officer husband, Pinkerton, but now holds an overnight vigil, awaiting his return. There is an optimism here that is soon to be shattered by the arrival of Pinkerton and his new wife. Optimism is often beautiful in its frailty. And yet it survives, too, in so many different forms, as this piece I think illustrates. 

4. ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams

In her article on the work, Vanessa Thorpe reports that it actually dates from the day Britain entered the First World War, when Vaughan Williams was holidaying on the coast, and walking the cliffs. There’s a great sense of space in the music, I think, which feels good for us at this time. But there is fullness too in the accompaniment that the orchestra provides to the violin. We are not on a lone journey here, but a part of the world that we observe. Prior to the walk, Vaughan Williams was inspired also by the poem of the same name written by George Meredith (published in 1881). It is a long one, but the lines below were among those included on Vaughan Williams’ manuscript:

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup,
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes;

5. ‘My Life Flows On’ (How Can I Keep From Singing)

This is a nineteenth-century hymn, and the version by Audrey Assad (which I like) retains the Christian framework, but others also have adapted a few of the lines to their own taste, in adaptations that span the genres of folk, blues and Celtic music. I find it encouraging that the song has this versatility which enables people of different persuasions to find life in it. But there is a reason why I include a hymn here and I suppose there are two things that I like about this traditional form. One is that, as is the case with the Psalms, hymn writers never seem to forget that life has its trouble, and in fact that this is often why we need to sing. I find the acknowledgement in this form often feels honest without being depressing. The second thing though which I really like is how a hymn provides a structure to belief (even in its very straight, regular rhythms) and how on some level it doesn’t matter whether I feel able to subscribe in that moment to it or not. Presumably people with much stronger faith would be disappointed with me here. But I just love how the song carries on regardless. A song can leave me with my feeble and perplexed brain gloriously behind, and I get to listen in. Wonderful. I hope that’s what heaven sounds like. 

6. ‘Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude’, from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses by Franz Liszt

I wanted some piano music for my list, but not something that I was already so familiar with that I knew what to expect from it. This piece is much longer than the others I’ve noted, so there is some opportunity for further listening than I would normally be doing. It references a two-volume collection of poems by Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), and in both the poetry and the music there is an attempt to point towards a divine presence in all creation. But in a quote from Lamartine which prefaces Liszt’s work, there is also a reflection on how we experience time when our sense of the world is in flux: 

When barely on my brow a few days have slipped by,
It seems that a century and a world have passed;
And that, separated from them by a great abyss, 
A new man is born again within me and starts anew. 

7. Theme from The Mission (1986), including ‘Gabriel’s Oboe’, by Ennio Morricone 

(recommended recording: conducted by Morricone himself)

The music here lifts even whilst it expresses a kind of beauty that is allied to pain. It’s one of the most emotionally intense pieces in this list. And yet it is ok if we are not quite sure exactly what is being expressed. Writing for ABC (in Australia), Dan Golding reviews the narrative of the original film and the place of the score within it, but at the same time suggests that the music has taken on such a life of its own that it can be taken on its own terms as quite distinct from it. He acknowledges that you might well not know the story behind the score: ‘For many, there is simply no association to dwell on while listening.’ I don’t think, in this case, that this is a cop out. 

8. ‘Stay Alive’ by José González

(for the 2013 film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty)

In an interview for Vogue, Gillian Sagansky asked: ‘Would you describe your sound as more melancholic or hopeful?’ González: ‘I know I’m producing music on the borderline between those two emotions, and I always try to have a hopeful twist underneath. I know a lot of people think my sound is melancholic. Towards the end of the song I always want to convey a sense of hopefulness or at least anger underneath the melancholy. It’s hopelessness that I’m trying to avoid.’

So much of this song speaks to me of depression. I find it a most comforting companion piece. Sometimes we need to stay muted, but to know that there is also a rhythm persisting in the background, and that there will come a point when we’ll feel able to meet it. Stay alive, friends.

9. ‘Deep Peace of the Running Wave’, / A Gaelic Blessing by John Rutter

(recommended recording: by the Cambridge Singers with the City of London Sinfonia)

Anything by John Rutter is a treat. But ‘peace’ is I suppose what is most needed. And yet whilst I like that repeated refrain in this piece, I do have a funny relationship with the words here which almost seem to mean less the more the music takes over. It starts with a kind of groundedness though: those unchanging characteristics of the ‘running wave’ and ‘flowing air’ which manage to withstand the forces of human turmoil and invite us, in turn, to stand still. 

10. ‘Over the Rainbow’, for the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

Lyricist Yip Harburg said that when he was trying to write the song, he had in mind a little girl who “had never seen anything colorful in her life except the rainbow.” That is what the song stands for, I think: a reminder of the thing that seems out of reach except that we have at some point managed to catch a glimpse of it. There are many well known versions of course, and some that are in frequent circulation, but just now I’m minded to turn to Frank Sinatra’s 1944 recording. It is light and misty, and good for transporting us out of where we are to quite another time, which is really what this song is all about. 

Image by Photo Mix from Pixabay 

Five Thoughts on Loneliness

This might seem a bit premature as I realise we as a global community are only at the beginning of a long road. But I started writing this post to deal with the crushing sense that the thing I have been working to escape, or deal with constructively, is just about to overwhelm me. So I’m digging in, thinking back and taking hold of what I have – my own experience – to see what I can make of it. 

Lying, thinking
Last night …
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody, 
But nobody
Can make it out here alone. 
from ‘Alone’, Maya Angelou

Lonely, save for a few faint stars, the sky 
Dreams; and lonely, below, the little street
Into its gloom retires, secluded and shy.
from ‘The Little Dancers’, Laurence Binyon

Times we hear nothing but the sound 
Of our loneliness, like a cracked bell 
From fields far away where the trees are in icy shade. 
from ‘All of Us’, Kit Wright

  1. Recurring doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same

There are perhaps certain times in many of our lives when loneliness predominates, such that we feel it a lot of the time. It’s not just circumstantial, but the feeling might hang around a particular set of circumstances. Living alone, or losing a partner. Having a job that cuts you off from ordinary kinds of social contact. Moving to a new place, or finding it difficult to establish friendships. 

Sometimes this improves with time, but to me it feels like the prolonged bouts of it can stick in the memory as something that you would hate to have to repeat. And yet the very memory of it can make it feel as though it is part of you. The risk, of course, is that loneliness can become ‘chronic’ – the term researchers might use for it. 

This is where I have to remind myself, on this occasion, that a feeling doesn’t tell the whole story. So: it returns, and there is a part of me that says ‘I know this, and I really don’t like it. Let’s get out of here.’ But another part of me is aware that things are somewhat different to how they were last time. I’ve learned a bit more about how to be. So whilst the threat is there, and I don’t expect to be able to avoid it, this is not just a case of straightforward repetition.   

2. It doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong 

Loneliness is punishing but that doesn’t mean it’s a punishment. This is confusing because enforced isolation often is used as a punishment, and perhaps this gives us some of our first or most deeply held ideas about loneliness. ‘Go to your room.’ ‘I don’t want to hear from you until you’ve had a think about what you said.’ Or if you’re really bad: ‘Lock them up and throw away the key.’ 

I think subconsciously I carry the idea that it’s because of some failing that I end up feeling lonely. There are, certainly, some shortcomings and some things I could do better, but we have to give ourselves grace. The world is not perfectly ordered to suit us and likewise not everything – especially not a feeling – can be easily ‘fixed’. 

3. It teaches you things

It teaches you that there’s more to the world than what you can see. If one life can go unseen, even for a little while, how much more must be taking place ‘behind the eyes’ of the people filling the houses and streets around us. To gain this perspective might even seem like a gift in the hands of our best writers and thinkers, but it is of course one that is hard-won.

If you can stay open-hearted, the other thing it might teach you is to able to appreciate with a new clarity opportunities for connection with others. I guess we can end up almost measuring the social circles we are in, as consisting of so many people in different constellations – around geographies, interests and beliefs. It can feel very diminishing to find that your own circle is actually very small. And yet some of the most wondrous occurrences can happen outside of these normal circles, on the edges of human interaction – where we don’t expect anything to come of it. Perhaps that is the key.

4. You might feel forgotten, but try to remember someone else

I find it helpful to think of someone who is in a rather different situation to me. This might not feel like imagination, but it is a prompt in that direction. ‘Things being various’, Louis MacNeice calls it: seeing not just my own world but seeing that the world is also inhabited in quite different ways elsewhere. The older person I speak to who is housebound due to her failing sight. The boy in the book whose only family will not visit him in the children’s home. The single mum. There is a way to populate our minds and it doesn’t have to be hard. 

5. The natural order of the day and night is a help

‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years’. I love all those divisions in Genesis: this idea that it is good for one thing to be different from another, for the day to be defined and set apart from the night. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that, and life all seems to blend into one. But thank goodness for those ‘signs’ that serve as reminders to us: not least the sun and the moon, which must also have offered comfort to many a solitary figure throughout centuries past of human wandering. 

Tips and support from other places

From respondents to the BBC Loneliness Experiment: 
“Find distracting activities or dedicate time to work, study or hobbies.”

Advice from Mind, the mental health charity:
Think about things you can do to connect with people. For example, putting extra pictures up of the people you care about might be a nice reminder of the people in your life.
Listen to a chatty radio station or podcast if your home feels too quiet.

The Samaritans have a few different ways of getting in contact and are looking to set up an online chat service in the future:

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay

Meltdowns and Moodlifters

What is the boy now, who has lost his ball.
What, what is he to do? I saw it go
Merrily bouncing, down the street, and then
Merrily over—there it is in the water!
No use to say ‘O there are other balls’ …
‘The Ball Poem’, John Berryman

A child’s cry out in the street, not of pain or fear,
rather one of those vividly inarticulate
yet perfectly expressive trumpet thumps of indignation:
something wished for has been denied,
something wanted now delayed.
‘Tantrum’, C. K. Williams

  … but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.
‘In Memoriam’, Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Seeing her reactions to things brings it home to me at times that whatever I feel, I have to be the adult now. There’s no one else to run to, at least in the immediate present. I have to be that person, for someone else. I have to do it now. 

I can’t say this is easy. I’ve never found it easy to manage my moods, or worked out a way of doing this that I can potentially stick to, despite the fact that they seem to do the rounds and return to me like a dogged shadow. I’m left feeling a bit stumped by these returns, with the feeling sometimes of being back to square one, but without any recourse to those ports of call that I’ve already sought out or dismissed previously.

It’s often only by doing something that I remember that actually there are things that can make me feel better. This comes with an edge of surprise that is compounded by the fact that to begin with, like a child, I just want the help to come to me. I want to be fed, heard or comforted, by food, words or touch. I want to be sung to, spoken to, addressed. I want to hide away and be found. 

It’s actually quite good though to be able to jumpstart things for myself. And I’m learning that these things may just be helpful to my daughter too. She will have no concept, at sixteen months, of navigating her emotions, but that is what we are working on together, and it is my job to map out a path to safety at least by the end of each day. 

So this is a gathering together of some of the things that, for me, do tangibly make a difference:

  1. Going for a walk:
    Getting into a steady rhythm. Registering the difference in the air. Looking at the world in 360° again, after getting stuck looking straight ahead, or just across the room. There are days when the effort of getting ready and getting out falls away almost as soon as we hit the pavement. 
  2. A change of scene:
    Upstairs instead of downstairs. Out of the window instead of down on the floor. Finding busyness in shop windows and city streets, in supermarket queues and lanes of traffic. Leaving the toys at home and going out to play with another, similar set somewhere else. I guess it is a law of nature that things are ever-changing, and perhaps it is hard-wired into us to need to find this in our surroundings? 
  3. Making eye contact, or greeting someone else
    Sometimes this can feel as good as the sense of touch: like a touch on the arm or a hand meeting a hand. Now and then she looks directly into my eyes and a stillness comes between us. I cannot know what she is thinking but at the same time this feels like more than thinking: it is looking in.  
  4. Letting the mess out
    It feels quite good to accept and even welcome the mess. Better out than in, as they say. But why is it? Because then you can see all the contents? I guess seeing it all gives you an element of control, but also of choice: now you can choose what to pick up and look at more closely. You can decide what is of value and what feels rather worthless. And finally you can distinguish between you and the mess: it will not stay like this forever. 
  5. Creating order
    It’s funny, isn’t it, how everyone has their own version of what this looks like, but everyone seems to need it in their own particular way? I use numerous lists, drawers and boxes, but there’s always a point when I give up and let the rest sit. Further down the line, my husband sometimes picks up where I had left off, having given up hope of ever being tidy and forgotten about it.  
  6. Making or crafting something
    It is the small creative acts that bring life to the daily routine. Finding and trying out a new recipe. Deciding how to wrap a present. Building a tower, or making a collection of whatever loose items Mummy has left within reach. I have to remember that it is in doing the apparently non-essential things that I feel more truly productive, regardless of how far I have got down the to-do list. 
  7. Making a tuneful noise 
    My relationship with music feels somewhat like a language that I’ve forgotten how to speak. I must be a very backward person but the technology has changed too quickly over the past decade or so for me to keep up. And it’s not just that I don’t know how to play things; I don’t know how to find out what I like. Most of the technology seems based on the idea that you at least know that: once you can select a category, you’re ok. Well, as a result, I’ve stopped listening somewhere along the way, and worse than that, there are times when I haven’t even noticed. So when I do find ways to let music back in, establishing that point of reconnection feels really powerful. Switching on the radio instead of the TV. Going back to the last song I searched for. Turning it up loud so it’s not just in the background. Singing whatever comes to mind whenever there’s a dull moment. But this is all a work in progress: rediscovering a lost love always is.
  8. Switching off
    This is pretty hard to do, but it doesn’t seem any easier for a toddler, and of course she needs help to be able to do it. I need to switch off when I’m tired, and when I’m bored; when I’m overwhelmed and when I’ve had enough. She needs her nap, but also I think sometimes enjoys the quiet time of looking out of the car window, or listening to the different sounds around her as she goes along in the pushchair. We switch off by switching on to something else: laying ourselves open to the blessed influences of sleep, and the present good.

Image by Anemone123 from Pixabay

Patterns of feeling and what lies beneath

Rage is the one I have struggled with the most this past year. And I hesitate to write this because it would be better if the feeling were never there, and more comfortable for us all if we could get on without it. But this ballooning pressure has had a big enough presence for me to want to do something about it now, if anything can be done; at least to attempt to find a way of understanding or coming to terms with it. And so I have sat with these thoughts for about a month, noticing how the feeling waxes and wanes, and how time is starting to take effect.

I suppose the first thing to say is that it is hard to manage by virtue of it being so very private. We are familiar with rage being demonstrated in public, but this is usually of a particular kind: many people have great reason to be angry, and are expending large amounts of energy protesting their cause. But the kind of rage I am thinking of is not socially acceptable, and it is hard to find a safe place to express it. 

In the thick of it, in months past, I started off by googling ‘rage and motherhood’, and had to do this several times just to keep myself from going mad inside my own head. The articles I found went some way towards helping me feel that there might be some cause why I was feeling this way; that the various factors at play and the conditions of this new life had led others to find themselves in a similar place. (To name but a few, from my own perspective: think hormones, the ‘mental load’, the immediacy of a baby’s demands, and the changes in role as one’s family takes on a completely new shape). But it has taken me most of the year to register that there had been someone whose writing I’d read in the past, who had a unique ability to get underneath the intensity of it all. It was the perhaps unlikely and much-maligned figure of D.H. Lawrence. 

What I’ve written so far doesn’t fit easily with the image we would like to have of ourselves, nor of mothers – but this is where I need Lawrence, who was so vehement in his call for conventions to be put aside where he believed that they hindered rather than helped the expression of the human spirit. He simply wouldn’t be bound or constrained by the opinions that others held of him and his work. 

And so as I returned to his novel The Rainbow, I found myself recalling a kind of understanding that the rage, and the conflict, starts further back. Although I don’t necessarily mean back in time, even if it does manifest in that way, but rather the sense that certain feelings on this level could have come up before, in another stage of one’s development. In the book, Anna and Will, a young couple, are still only on their honeymoon when the difference between them – as individual minds and beings – begins to show. It is not that there is anything wrong with what they both want, but that they are geared almost to different frequencies. She is ready to think about holding a tea party, when he is not yet ready to relinquish the intimacy that he has newly found with her, in isolation from everything and everyone else. It is not just a difference of opinion about what they should do with their time, but a symptom of a different orientation towards the world.

Driven by fear of her departure into a state of helplessness, almost of imbecility, he wandered about the house.
And she, with her skirts kilted up, flew round at her work, absorbed.
“Shake the rug then, if you must hang round,” she said.
And fretting with resentment, he went to shake the rug. She was blithely unconscious of him. He came back, hanging near to her.
“Can’t you do anything?” she said, as if to a child, impatiently. “Can’t you do your wood-work?”
“Where shall I do it?” he asked, harsh with pain.
How furious that made him.
“Or go for a walk,” she continued. “Go down to the Marsh. Don’t hang about as if you were only half there.”
He winced and hated it. He went away to read. Never had his soul felt so flayed and uncreated.

It seems so petty, and yet the emotion runs deep. She thinks she is the one who has cause to be irritated, and yet the feelings that are described are all on his side: ‘resentment’ turns to ‘pain’ and then fury. And yet still, the moment feels rather ordinary, until we come to the last line and read of the impact on his soul: ‘never’ had it felt ‘so flayed’. Is that whipped? Does the sting of her words feel that bad? I get a sudden reminder here that the soul cannot be the rarefied part of a human being; it is intimately engaged in everything that we see and touch. It is the vehicle by which we know we are alive, in the most individual of ways.

When these feelings are new – ‘never’ had his soul felt like this before – it can be difficult to know what on earth to do with them. Will goes away to read, leaving behind little indication of the raw intensity of what he feels following Anna’s chiding. But how could he verbalise it? What would there be to say? 

Though he couldn’t know it at the time, this scene will form part of an unfolding process between Anna and Will, one that will be marked by recurring conflict and dissatisfaction on both sides. It often seems during this time as if it could all be over between them, or as if what they had together could all be lost and thrown away, though they are still only a matter of days in. How can something that was meant to be so wonderful feel so wrong? How can you make any sense of the two extremes? 

Lawrence’s comments in his essay, ‘Love’, do help I think in making sense of it. The essay also makes me think that without having a concept or an idea of love – one that is flexible and grounded, as well as aspirational – it is so easy to come unstuck. Lawrence’s theory might not work for everyone; some might disagree with it. But I like the idea that it is there to be tested: 

Love is a coming together. But there can be no coming together without an equivalent going asunder. In love, all things unite in a oneness of joy and praise. But they could not unite unless they were previously apart. And, having united in a whole circle of unity, they can go no further in love. The motion of love, like a tide, is fulfilled in this instance; there must be an ebb. So that the coming together depends on the going apart; the systole depends on the diastole; the flow depends upon the ebb.

How painful that ‘going asunder’ can be! And yet viewed as part of that larger picture, it almost seems as though the pain might not be necessary to the whole thing. The flow and the ebb back and forth is what makes the motion timeless, what sustains it, and lends it beauty.

But it takes time for this new pattern to establish itself, and to become apparent. Until the point when you can accept that this is the way it is, the raw feelings can often be overpowering.

What makes it hardest, I’ve noticed, is when the reaction that gets released in you seems beyond your control, when it starts first in your body or blood, and explodes from there. 

Then he came home at night, and she knitted her brows because of some endless contest between them. As he stood in the doorway her heart changed. It steeled itself.

The reaction has become automatic, embedded; it doesn’t seem to be about just one thing any more, or to come from one particular thought. Something changes between ‘she knitted her brows’ and ‘it steeled itself’. It’s that short circuit that often worries me, the sense that you’re back in a loop that you hadn’t chosen to be in. The moment that should have offered a new start, one of my favourite moments in the day – getting back home after time apart – is here suddenly closed down.

For Lawrence, though, these inner disturbances aren’t discrete, one-off events, as perhaps we might expect them to be. It is not as though there are simply good and bad days that can be summed up in this way. Rather, there is a constant flow of feeling that is never stagnant. It is perhaps hard for us to connect with the deep foundations of this idea, given how we are now so reliant on devices that can be switched on and off, and are trained almost as much in tuning out noises and voices as in tuning in. Often it is easier to turn to distraction than to admit to the strongest of our feelings. And I do believe distraction can help, in the short term, when we need an out. But ultimately, we have to allow ourselves to own what is going on in this individual flow of feeling. It is there to teach us, one way or another. 

Image by Public Co from Pixabay