Well, what an extraordinary time we are living through. Please believe me when I write that I hope – and so sincerely – that this finds you and your loved ones well, safe, and healthy. Life feels very hectic in our home, where we’ve been in total lockdown for over a month. Never have I found it more difficult to tend to my own garden whilst holding the reality that what lies outside of it is in total, tragic collapse. I know I am not alone in expressing how difficult it is to verbalise what is going through my mind and heart at the moment; the incessant news updates, interrupted by panicked meltdowns (and not just from my children), have made thinking clearly a distant memory. Recently, however, after a conversation with a dear friend, I sat down for a few hours, and tried – so arduously – to get something other than garbled panic out of my mind. The result is both below and published as a part of The Navigator, a new series of writing The Point People is creating throughout this crisis. I hope you can feel some of these sentiments, too.
Below my thoughts, you will find the latest issue of Marginalia, which will now be a more frequent occurrence. The newsletters will be shorter, but I will be sending them more often; I am finding that nothing calms me more than the perfect poem, melody, or work of art.
I would love to hear what is helping you get through this time. Please hit reply and let me know; I am always excited to hear from you, and would especially love to during this time.
Sending you much love,
Medieval monks, I heard recently, believed that the world was a book, and that moments of transcendence – what I imagine Virginia Woolf would have called “moments of being” – are those rare, wholly ecstatic, and sublime flashes of light that allow us to read a few lines before it all goes dark once again.
It is often said now that the world – our book, if we continue with this monastic train of thought – has indeed gone dark (“I hope you are well during these dark and uncertain times,” reads one e-mail; “The lights have come off,” offers a headline). It is as if humanity is experiencing a prolonged total eclipse – “the sun,” as Annie Dillard wrote in her stunning 1982 account of an eclipse, “was going, and the world was wrong.”
The world being wrong is a sentiment I am, at the best of times, completely overwhelmed by. The irresolvable tension between the sublime and the everyday gnaws away at my soul, often leading to tortured admonishments that tell me how little I know of how to live a good life, or how impossible it is to derive meaning from daily existence. These extraordinary moments, when you can read those few, sacred lines, when the world comes alive and you can feel the life quivering inside it, are – so much of the time – inaccessible to me. The words of Lily Briscoe, from Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, often circle around in my mind:
“To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have – to want and want – how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again!”
I am aware of how easy, or clichéd, it is to say that I will now hold dear all that this radical suspension of normal life has exposed as meaningful, but that before was veiled by the numbing effects of habit. But this, precisely, is what I am now holding in my heart: some of the most melancholy moments of this tragic time happen when, like in a vivid dream, what has been lost appears (it is right there!) and yet you cannot reach for it. Our friends are in front of us, two metres away, perhaps, while they drop off a batch of homemade pasta, or a loaf of freshly baked bread, or, even, a glorious pile of books, and yet we are unable to touch them.
The impossibility of fulfilling our deeply held longing for those tiny, ordinary, daily intimacies – even, perhaps especially, with strangers – is one of the many losses that illuminates the inseparability of dailiness from the ecstatic. They are not, as I was utterly convinced they were, opposing forces. There is always, it feels right now, a quality of the sublime – that longed for “moment of being,” when the world is a book you can read – in the everyday.
Yes, the world is a different, and in so many desperately tragic ways, a darker place than it was only a couple of months ago. But as with everything, there is a crack – and through it, the light gets in, enough of it, even, so that we can read what this moment might be trying to tell us.
1. Because I mentioned both Virginia Woolf and a total eclipse of the sun, it is only fitting that I include a magnificent letter she wrote recounting her experience of witnessing a total eclipse of the sun. How fitting these words are to our current moment:
“We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment; and the next when as if a ball had rebounded the cloud took colour on itself again, only a sparky ethereal colour and so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down and suddenly raised up when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly and quickly and beautifully in the valley and over the hills — at first with a miraculous glittering and ethereality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. It was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. This was within the power of nature.”
“We had seen the world dead.” Does that not just punch you in the gut?
2. To continue with Virginia Woolf, I cannot stop reading Hermione Lee’s gargantuan biography of her life. I am about a third of the way through, and even more deeply in love with how brilliant, complex, and utterly extraordinary Woolf was. She so lucidly captured the shocks, horrors, and joys of simply existing as part of the human race.
3. I am feeling every line of this poem right now, particularly: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like wild geese.” And remember, during this time of people showing just how productive they’re being during lockdown: “You do not have to be good.”
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver.
4. My sons and I are addicted to making tiny zines (they’re so easy!). Every morning, we write a story based on a letter from the alphabet (for my youngest son). Often, I will make some on my own for them to go through, usually about something I’ve read or watched, or what we did that day – so far, we’ve made some on The Beatles, Virginia Woolf, and Picasso. I’m sharing them on Instagram.
5. Nick Cave delivered the most perfect response to one of his fans, who asked him what he plans to work on during this time of enforced isolation. The man is a treasure:
“For me, this is not a time to be buried in the business of creating. It is a time to take a backseat and use this opportunity to reflect on exactly what our function is — what we, as artists, are for.
Saskia, there are other forms of engagement, open to us all. An email to a distant friend, a phone call to a parent or sibling, a kind word to a neighbour, a prayer for those working on the front lines. These simple gestures can bind the world together — throwing threads of love here and there, ultimately connecting us all — so that when we do emerge from this moment we are unified by compassion, humility and a greater dignity. Perhaps, we will also see the world through different eyes, with an awakened reverence for the wondrous thing that it is. This could, indeed, be the truest creative work of all.”
6. I’m staunchly secular, but recently I have found myself praying. It felt crazy, until this, from Nick Cave (again) came through my Inbox:
“A prayer provides us with a moment in time where we can contemplate the things that are important to us, and this watchful application of our attention can manifest these essential needs. The act of prayer asks of us something and by doing so delivers much in return — it asks us to present ourselves to the unknown as we are, devoid of pretence and affectation, and to contemplate exactly what it is we love or cherish. Through this conversation with our inner self we confront the nature of our own existence.”
7. Before the severity of the virus hit, I was on a good run of reading. I adored Jenny Oddell’s “How to Do Nothing,” a gorgeous, urgent, and timely critique of the insidious forces that compete for our attention. Drawing on art, critical theory, and ecological thinking, she beautifully redefines what we think of as productivity, and offers us a new way to connect with the world. There is no better moment to read this book.
8. I practically inhaled Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, a truly riveting and extraordinarily crafted book on The Troubles in Northern Ireland. While the book centres around the unsolved murder of a mother of ten, Keefe has this unbelievable power to seamlessly zoom in and out of the conflict, illuminating both the large and small of a long and bloody war.
9. Soho Theatre has made the first iteration of Fleabag – the one woman act with Phoebe Waller-Bridge – available for streaming. You can can rent it for a small donation, the proceeds of which will go to charities dedicated to supporting those most affected by Covid-19.
10. And, as always, a quote from my commonplace book. I keep thinking about this one. In the midst of World War II, Virginia Woolf urges her husband, Leonard, to listen to one of Hitler’s speeches. He refuses to, continuing to work on his garden, the irises from which will flower, he says, long after Hitler is dead:
“I will end … with a little scene that took place in the last months of peace. They were the most terrible months of my life, for, helplessly and hopelessly, one watched the inevitable approach of war. One of the most horrible things at that time was to listen on the wireless to the speeches of Hitler — the savage and insane ravings of a vindictive underdog who suddenly saw himself to be all-powerful. We were in Rodmell during the late summer of 1939, and I used to listen to those ranting, raving speeches. One afternoon I was planting in the orchard under an apple-tree iris reticulata, those lovely violet flowers. … Suddenly I heard Virginia’s voice calling to me from the sitting room window: ‘Hitler is making a speech.’ I shouted back, ‘I shan’t come. I’m planting iris and they will be flowering long after he is dead.’ Last March, twenty-one years after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker, a few of those violet flowers still flowered under the apple-tree in the orchard.”