I know people who choose to live in forests – with forests, that is, rather than with humans. I am one of these whenever I am able, though I recognize a balancing urge also, to interact in the world of people, thoughts and ideas. So, internet connection, car, art studio, city streets cloth face masks for me, too.
My ex is perhaps still friends with what seemed to me to be an alarming number of men who have ended up in the eddy of inherited? houses they could not afford to maintain, or had no desire to. Each room filled with stuff piled on top of stuff, the whole house and yard choked with stuff so that they are left with only a corner of the old kitchen to live in. Perhaps a different kind of forest, thick and impassable with once-useful things.
Amazing, these worlds that exist outside of what’s considered acceptable in our wealthy consumer culture: old blankets repurposed as blinds to cover windows, yellowed wallpaper and institution green paint left to peel, rusted coffee tins full of square nails and lost tools on top of old newspapers piled two feet high. Some who live this way have dogs, some have books; they all know things most people haven’t considered.
Others I know live on boats and work in solitary construction jobs, are friends with their faraway daughters who visit occasionally, but regularly. They yearn for Scotland, and home.
Some, widowed, sit in a room at a retirement lodge and practice naming the people in the dresser-top photos. When he turned ninety, one friend of mine told me that being in such a place was like being asleep all the time until someone came to visit. He’d been a musician, passionate in connection and love. As a widower in a care home he existed in a kind of almost-death, waking into life and memory only in the presence of an other.
Through injury or illness, some of us exist in a vegetative state. Non-responsive, but physically stable and alive. Some stay in this state for years then emerge, slowly, achingly into interaction with the world.
Neuroscientist Adrian Owen writes about his research into the this liminal place of being alive and yet not in his 2018 book, Into the Grey Zone. It’s been a good thing to read in these strange times, and I agree with The New Yorker review: “Strangely uplifting…the testimonies of people who have returned from the gray zone evoke the mysteries of consciousness and identity with tremendous power”
I’m wondering if these extremes are what we fear, we who live connected to others through children and jobs, the exchange of goods and thoughtful engagement with community and neighbours. To be alone without external interaction, to forget how and who to be, with others. Fear is a great blocker of insight and greater awareness. In our fear of forgetting, what do we miss? What do we not notice?
Ondaatje’s The English Patient; Trumbo’s Johnny Got his Gun are just two of many stories that have fascinated me – both crafted around disconnection from our senses and our memories. Do we identify memory with Self? I am the person who did and felt these things. I am identified by what and whom I can remember.
What a mystery then, that though he had no memory left, my Dad in his last days was still fully present with me, still communicating, responding, as the person I know.
Swing forward twelve and a half months to 8am on this quiet, wet Monday. I’m in the place I’ve been coming to meet myself every morning for many months now. Here is where, pre-dawn, I gather my thoughts with dreams from the night before and put them on the table in front of the third-floor, east-facing window.
As the light seeps slowly into the world so my thoughts and rememberings return to me in different shapes, intertwined. If I’m still enough, If I keep my willful, active self at bay, I can give them form in some appropriate language – words, or pictures, or sounds. I think this morning it will be my cello I go to, to play them through and out.
We are afraid to be alone with ourselves, maybe. To be unwitnessed by another human is to be without an important anchor of external self-reference. He thinks I’m funny, she loves my smile, they like my work…. I feel permanently fragile in the loss of these warm things. I miss the quickness of laughter, the lift of an eyebrow, the intensity of a lean-forward response. I miss body warmth and touch; I miss the complexity and resonance of in-person humanness.
#StayHome is a difficult gift, but a gift nonetheless. The isolation challenges me to be fully here, by gum, without worry or anxiety about how important I am, what I do in the world, how others might respond to me, what I’ll do next. I have no idea about any of these things, after all, nor control over which way the world shifts, since what I remember the world to be is no longer what it is. I can only bear witness, show up into my creative space, respond in whatever way feels right, and stay as open as possible to change.
In these morning moments with the table and the dawn I feel more like dad seemed in his last days – absent to my measured, measuring self, maybe, but entirely and fully present to wonder. Curious.
There, a breeze in the sway of the birch, heavy with catkins. Leaves pushing open at the tops of the big trees. A busy chatter of sparrows and starlings. The through-wet-glass blur of the house across the street.
A seagull angles southward.