“There the Loves a circle go,The flaming circle of our days,Gyring, spiring to and fro. In those great ignorant leafy ways.” – William Butler Yeats, “The Two Trees”.
I had coffee today with a new friend I chanced to meet while walking last week. She was walking her dog, a beautiful German Shepherd, when I came along with my Lola. It was freezing cold and we were both bundled to the eyes; nevertheless we stood talking for nearly an hour. This morning she invited me to coffee and we met in a cafe overlooking a quadrangle of sorts, formed by the confluence of no less than five different streets. Well, this is an old city, with 500-year-old pathways that went where they needed to go. Five streets in a cluster is to be expected.
From where we sat by the window we could see: a church, a hotel, a very short street with very big trees, a very long street lined with brightly-colored row houses, and the entrance to a little road leading to my very favorite cemetery. (I love cemeteries. They are like books to me, each headstone a chapter, some of them very sad.)
The wind today is very high, typical for this time of year, and a great many fallen leaves were being twirled in circles, lifted high in the air and dropped. It was a wonderful spectacle of what I think of as ‘dramatic weather’. Hot, sunny days are all well and good, and no one will dispute the glory of lying flat in a summer field watching the clouds go by, the heat of this good earth soaking into one’s bones. I like fields where I can see but not be seen, lying in a body-shaped coffin of rustling grass and hearing nothing but the wind and the faint hum of drowsing bees.
High summer is glorious, a time to be drunk on heat and wine and slumber, but I myself am transfixed by late autumn, the changing moods and wild winds of November. I went walking this morning, in winds gusting to 110 kilometers. That’s about 70 miles per hour in old money. On the way down the path, the wind pushed me, and felt like urgent hands against my back – Hurry up, get going, don’t wait, go go – but on the way back I was facing the opposite way, right into the luscious roar and buffet of it. Weather like this makes me feel vibrantly alive. Today I wanted to spread my arms and open myself up to it, breathe it all in. It absolutely delights me, weather like this. I often laugh out loud. I’m not embarrassed by this. I’ve long ago realized, as the first line of Timothy Leary’s famous prose poem says:
You aren’t like them. You’re not even close.
When I finally realized this, when I at last accepted that I am not and will never be like the majority of people, the freedom was astonishing. I may have laughed aloud; I often do. But it took years, a great many years, to get to the point where I was okay in my own skin. There are times, still, when external conditions and my mental illness temporarily gain the upper hand, and I am wretched. There are times I have taken a knife and done harm to myself – not as a serious suicide attempt, although I’ve been there many, many times, but as punishment. Punishment for what I saw as my own failure, for making things that no one asked for, that no one wanted. It takes a great deal of self-loathing to cut oneself to pieces in that way. (I’m being honest with you here, as honest as I know how to be without hyperbole.) Punishment for not being like them. God knows, I tried. Usually I felt like the outsider, and I was, the stranger in a strange land.
But every now and then there were chance meetings with people who seemed to speak the same spiritual language as I did, people who ‘got me’, who understood everything without having it explained to them – and it was like getting a drink of water after a long time of being so very thirsty. It was like being caught in the rain after spending an eon in the desert. That’s what it felt like. And so I could sit with these people and talk and listen – as my friend said this morning in the cafe, “to foster an exchange” – without the social awkwardness and feeling of displacement I almost always feel when in the company of others.
To be a writer, to be an artist of any kind, is oftentimes a profoundly lonely experience. If I’m working, as I have been these past several weeks, it’s not particularly present to me. Then the day’s work ends and it’s time to sleep or eat or do any of the quotidian things we take for granted, and the loneliness crowds in. I’m luckier than most because I have Paul. I’ve had Paul for 33 years. I might not be alive now if it weren’t for him. (I also have a younger sister who has been one of my best friends and giver of constant encouragement but I’ll tell you about her another time.)
But one’s intimate partner/lover/spouse can’t be everything to you all the time. You do need other people, but I’m wary. I’ve had horrible experiences with ‘friends’ who turned out to be nasty people. I’ve sustained a fair few ‘war wounds’. Here’s the difficult thing, though: in order to create, you have to be open to experiences that might rip you up inside. You have to, as the poet Anne Grant told me once, be willing to ‘write from the wound’. It’s not a nice or easy thing to do, and no one wants to do it, but right there is where you get the best stuff. I won’t lie to you: doing so is hard graft. It’s like being compelled to eat a Christmas pudding filled with broken teeth.
But what my friend and I both realized this morning in the cafe is that these are our better days. Life is now. In all its ugliness and squalor, in all its beauty and joy, here it is. As the motivational saying goes (I despise motivational sayings) “Life isn’t a dress rehearsal.” So yes, there’s hard work and there’s loneliness and a fuck ton of pain, but you know what? You’re alive, you’re here, you get to live in the world. That’s nothing to sneer at. Maybe it isn’t perfect (hint: it’s never going to be) but you can sit in a warm cafe on a Sunday morning and talk to a friend and look out the window where the autumn wind is whirling the fallen leaves, and be amazed at the spectacle.