“Now, I don’t know much about the sea, but I do know that’s the way it is here. And I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head….”— Primo Levi, A Tranquil Star
Simmering, solitary, stone alone on rocks half jutting from the Atlantic, facing bottomless sky.
I feel most at home now in these vistas, the same settings in which I felt overwhelmed to the point of fear as a child.
I am grateful to still have a home and a job, and be able to give to those who do not have such safe harbors, yet I cannot think of another physical space that is not fraught. I cannot believe it is cost-free for any of us to see our communal spaces, inside and outside, as places we no longer comfortably occupy together. Danger lies in merely breathing the same air; different wounds lie in not being able to.
I first noticed the transformations by day, as my professional community began to identify ways to minimize what must be done in human company and ascertain what can be accomplished alone and at a distance.
It quickly became apparent that it is hard to physically separate the humans who carry out a process or purpose from each other without eliding the humanity of what they do.
This is not restricted to our occupations and avocations. What do we all lose once it may be lifesaving not to sit in sustained silence with someone who is grieving, bereft, not prepared to speak? When the colleagues are missing from collegial problem-solving, the give-and-take of people with different life and work experiences at a pace that permits contemplation before setting course? How do our responses change when we do not have time to envision less immediately-evident possibilities, or even lighten a discussion with humor, when we do not have the luxury of letting our minds wander as far as they need to in order to regroup as an experienced team to tackle what is at hand? What do we lose when we need to come up with answers whose critical feature has been elevated to contact-free speed?
What do we all lose when we can no longer offer a hand or shoulder or an unbarricaded face to someone in physical or psychic pain? When we can only offer up an electronic voice to be held up by a stranger to, at the mercy of an internet connection, whisper into the ear of a dying parent? When a frightened pediatric patient cannot read the kindness of the shrouded caregivers trying to assist her?
Without the noise and energy of the sheer presence of more than a handful of people, now spread out like thumbtacks in spaces meant to hold connected communities, it is not just the people who are absent. And when we are reduced to action, to business itself, to the in-and-out tasks we must still perform, we are forced to contend with our unadorned selves. How we proceed is limited by the absence of comradery, of the shared history and understanding and burdens of traumatic work and other collective pain.
Into this continuing, exhausting breach, we may be accompanied by our own insufficiently tended demons, cast into excruciating relief because they are now our only constant companions.
Given the existential perils the world faces, my losses are of little moment. Still, they limit what I might have been able to put out into the world. I realized, for example, that I seem to have lost the capacity to write non-fiction about loss, which at its best someone else might then identify as communal, not something that need always be suffered alone, as I do now, adrift from communion and companionship among those whose earthly presence I did not understand I had grown so much to depend on.
Now I am only relatively confident of my identity as the green eyes above the mask and suit jacket. But even on those occasions when we physically assemble in some form, usually somewhere on the spectrum between resignation and terror of attendant risks, masks allow us to conceal so much.
Sheared off from the corpus of each of these communities, I have discovered it is nearly impossible to understand my omnipresent self. My capacity for memoir, such as it ever was, seems to have escaped me this year–problematically, because that is the stuff of this blog.
(If you have been with me here for awhile, first, thank you from the bottom of my still aching heart. And second, I apologize for the exponentially increasing spaces among posts.)
There seems no point in writing about life apart from anyone else. In retrospect, it seems telling that the last time I was able to write about my family immediately followed the small, masked, stringently-separated gathering of family members at my father-in-law’s September funeral. There I finally could share space with family, although I could not hug, or even closely approach, my own son after his reading for his beloved Papa.
Yet in these same strange times when non-fiction seems incapable of being instructive, writing fiction has become so easy as to be unsporting. Unreality composes itself at the keyboard. I am but the fingers which hunt and peck, rapid-fire, to generate stories.
At the age of nine I lived an isolated life as a less-than-welcome American in Meudon, Hauts-de-Seine, where I read Agatha Christie and Edgar Allen Poe and tried my wee hand at crime fiction, very loosely speaking. I used blue felt tip pens to replicate rigid typeface within brightly-colored fabric-covered sketch books. My inspiration was tertiary: fiction by authors who, as far as I can now tell, had no professional experience, and possibly no significant life experience, with violent crime and its detection and consequences.
Decades later, I have become more immersed in the memories of such transgressions than I apparently can bear to process. In a handful of sleep-bereft early pandemic months and in the particular solitude of winter’s enduring darkness, some 70,000+ words of what I would have described as crime fiction materialized on my computer screen. The story might just as easily have appeared full-blown as I slept, were I a far more gifted sleeper.
It took a third-party’s eyes on the draft to illuminate this mystery, explaining that she recognized missing pieces of my life–that it was not crime fiction at all, but a biography of intergenerational trauma, still writing itself forward.
It was not that I could no longer write about lived experience but that solitude has made it easier to write from memory’s reservoir, in a different voice that extends it to a heartbreakingly whole cloth, which includes the invisible brothers and sisters who share some of the harsh experiences which transform truth into stories we can live with, in some measure. This non-fictional fiction has become the only way I can bear to commit some truths to words, to expose them to daylight in whatever ways mere language can.
Seachange wrought by the ocean’s battering force can make sharp-edged glass bearable to touch; it can subdue the razored edges of the immense cantilevered stones and jagged rocks I navigate as incoming waves present me with tidepool offerings of reflected pre-dawn light.
Living creatures are different. They may harden against onslaught, or the risk of it. Shock and tumult and the fear of their future repetition, particularly when a traumatic event was impossible to see coming, can elevate the apprehension of another impact into an immobilizing force. Embedded pain may condition our brittle, wounded selves to brace against a next blow, to hold ourselves far too rigidly together, trying not to let the fissures show. But those stress points still change the shape of what comes next.
I am learning that the steeling itself, feeling utterly alone to confront what comes next, can facilitate the next breaks, if not the next breakdown. A greenstick bone fracture heals quickly and leaves no traces precisely because the site of the injury remains so pliable that its residue disappears in the healing. A child’s bones can snap clean through, as one of my daughters’ forearms once did in a short fall from a piano bench when she was three, yet heal so completely that within weeks an x-ray will reveal no trace of the trauma; these greenstick children mercifully will not be imprinted with an expectation that the pain will revisit them.
The pandemic has taught me that all too often I remain on high alert, particularly fearful of the one thing I consciously still fear: harm to the people I love and, who, unlike their father, are still here. “Here” now means out and away, out there. The daughter whose bones healed so seamlessly is on another continent, and I have no idea where and when I might be able to see her again. I cannot hug her or her siblings any more than I can touch my ghost husband’s shoulder.
I find myself incapable of cushioning lesser discomforts by taking care of myself; I push myself until a first wave of percolating back pain becomes something immobilizing, as if ignoring what pains me is mastery and not its opposite: surrender.
Only when I am outdoors at off hours, taking stock of the gloriously unending shore and heavens, do I let myself settle as the waves cycle in, without steeling myself and my aching, surgically-rearranged spine against a next terrible blow.
In these months of transformed community, my subconscious seems to have rewritten catastrophic experience as fiction. In this maelstrom, perhaps the superficially non-biographical has become the comparatively safer place to which my wounds and memories have fled and disguised themselves as something other than my life.
Maybe this is simply a fleeting new voice for ancient communal experience that merely feels like it springs from one’s own lived years. As poet Louise Glück wrote:
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
If at the beginning of this endless year your hope; your belief in justice, or love, or redemption; or your faith itself had fissures, then like score marks on paper they may have left you–like me–more vulnerable to being reshaped in unwelcome ways by outside forces. Without the palpable presence of the multitudes of fellow beings most of us used to walk and sit with and otherwise be among, distractions and self-protective filters of the metaphorical (non-N95) kind are hard to maintain.
But we can still safely breathe in and out to unseen others from where we find ourselves–in love, in any art at all, in service, in food, in flowers, in fiction and non-fiction, pictures, spoken and sung words, old-fashioned written letters, fabric, and photographs taken when the rest of the world is asleep. Even when it deeply hurts to put something out into the world still out there, it may speak to someone who feels equally unseeable.