Most of you have no idea who I am, and will never meet me, and can never test the truth of anything I say. I can present myself as a shining shimmering angel, a warm and cosy granny, or a grouch, a saint or sociopath. I can dissemble and fantasise. If I said that this morning, with the beach crusted by snow, I had broken the ice and gone for an early morning swim, some of you would believe me.
You have no way of knowing. And yet, you read on. Isn’t that strange? Do you read trustingly, or cynically? Is your claptrap-radar working overtime? I hope so. I hope you’re not reading uncritically, soaking it all up, unseasoned by discernment.
In lockdown I turned to reading contemporary novels. After scrolling through articles like ‘The 100 best books of 2020’ I chose six but they’ve been so dire that I’ve deleted them all. What a waste of time that was! There was something dishonest and formulaic about them. I want a writer to make me say “Me too! Me too!” with the excitement of recognition, or gasp with delight at an unexpected thought, or lose myself in a heady new world so that I step out of mine and into theirs. None of them got anywhere near.
And now, of course, I’m trying to remember the last time a novel did this for me; I think it was ‘The God Of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy. In her writing I discovered a childhood in Naipaul, the delightfully complicated personalities of two young sisters, their family, the smells and sights of India fifty years ago. I think the first paragraph of that book is the best I’ve ever read in a work of fiction, ‘May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.’
How I wish I had written ‘fatly baffled in the sun.’
Arundhati Roy showed me a world I don’t know. That’s magical.
There are about 8 billion people on this planet right now. In our daily conversations we talk about our world as if it’s simply that – one world – when it’s really 8 billion worlds, 8 billion experiences of life. Writing is our attempt to share our experiences with others and to catch a glimpse of theirs. When writing succeeds, it’s thrilling. Skin on skin, visceral belonging, like waking in the night and feeling the presence of another soul, unseen in the dark, somehow sensing another heartbeat. Good writing can take us almost there, good writing says ‘You are not alone. Reach out a hand. Here I am.’
You’ve seen QR codes?
Well, the most complicated of these can store 15,000 pieces of information, according to the arrangement of black and white spaces, and this means that this one QR code can have 2.817960879631397637428637785383222308241674912977296×104515 applications. I don’t even know how to say that number (but thank you, google!) although I think the x means multiplied and the tiny numbers mean multiplied several times. With a huge number like this, does it matter?
So, one small lumpen block of black and white squares has millions upon millions of ways to arrange and rearrange itself. How they are stacked and placed, and the shape and size of the spaces in-between, makes each one recognisable and unique. Amazing. Now think of the 8 billion human souls in the world at this moment, and consider all their different genetic and physical, racial, cultural, sexual, environmental, medical, familial and political influences… each one unique, each internal understanding of the world shaped by so many different external factors…. don’t they all add up to 8 million different worlds? My husband and his siblings were all born in the same house to the same parents but George remembered childhood as cold and stern, Jean remembered it as warm and lovingly chaotic, Billy considered their parents to be perfectly correct and saintly, and John felt the family was claustrophobic. Why such different memories? When Jean was born their parents were young and hopeful, excited by parenthood, but when George was born their father was a big fish in a small town, too busy to be a father, their mother was worn out, and by the time George was a teenager one brother had died, their parents were grieving, disappointments had soured small triumphs, money had become master, life had changed. Which view of the sibling’s world was the true one? All of them and none of them.
That’s what writing should reveal to us – that we are all subject to a thousand influences and so we are all wonderfully the same and all amazingly different, that life is dazzlingly rich. There’s a saying that we shouldn’t judge someone until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes, but the truth is that we never have the right to feel superior to anyone at all, because we cannot ever, ever, walk in another person’s shoes. You cannot ever know what has made me who I am today. You might have a few ideas, and if you’ve read my autobiography you might have some insight, but you can never see the world as I have seen it, just as I cannot know your world as you know it.
But writing can bring us closer. That’s the thing, that’s the great exciting possibility for any writer to keep hold of; whether it’s fiction, biography, scholarly thesis or poetry, good writing will always bring the writer and the reader closer. I can give you a glimpse of my world so that maybe you will feel less alone in yours.
Is that why I write this blog? For the illusion of closeness? Possibly. Do I write it because I am (shush, whisper this next word) lonely? Yes. Absolutely. Listen, my life is full of joy. Underpinning everything, like a rock-solid foundation of pure gold stretching down to the very centre of the Earth, I have joy. But there are tough days too, rough days, when the loneliness seems unbearable, just too much to live through, bleak and abandoned days, when there’s no one to talk to and no one to understand, when all I want to do is stop the pain, any way, absolutely any way. When no single sod cares and all this ‘brotherly love’ stuff seems an empty mockery, and I am so angry and alone.
When I stand in the dunes some mornings (and boy, it was like being carved in ice today) I’m able to thank God for the earth beneath my feet, the sea, the grasses, the sky, space, galaxies… the mind goes on and on… I thank him for time, for eternity out of time, thank him for thought, thank him for love and laughter and friends… and seeing Percy and Pip and Pico chasing birds I thank him for small dogs scampering after sleek crows. And on other days the beach walk is like trudging down a wind tunnel while being sand blasted by an industrial turbine, and then my gratitude is in a different key, but somehow it’s still there, uppermost… thank you for the breath that’s being whipped away from me, for the air that’s choking me, the salt that’s blinding me, the wind that’s fighting me…. thank you that when I sing your name into the roaring air it soars up and up and no one hears my cracked old voice but you and me. Exhilarating. Some days I’m not tuned in and then I just womble along, peacefully enough but empty headed, watching the waves and thinking nothing, aware that God loves me even on these woolly days, barely dreaming a sweet half-prayer here and there. Some days there’s pain and I’m dizzy and clumsy footed, and the tinnitus is unrelenting so that all I can manage is a desperate plea for help. And sometimes, my friends, some mornings I’m wrestling with feelings and thoughts that are nowhere near God, critical, frustrated, depressed, rebellious or more often… here comes that word again ‘lonely‘. Yes, often lonely.
If I can fool you all and be the person I want to be when I write, why am I admitting that sometimes I’m defeated? Why don’t I present myself as successful, victorious, surrounded by like minded souls? Because good writing is honest. And because, like me, many of you are lonely, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Don’t be ashamed. You’re in good company. Jesus experienced everything that we can experience in our lifetime, and that includes loneliness; No one knew what he knew, no one faced what he faced, he was a leader and leadership is lonely, he was forever teaching and guiding and that role is lonely, he climbed the mountains alone, he prayed alone, he knelt in Gethsemane alone, he was alone on the cross. Our God, our perfect God was often alone and I believe that often he was lonely. Led by the Spirit, forever united with his Father, even for him there were times when he wept, and on the cross he called out ‘Why have you forsaken me?”
Loneliness is not numeric. It can thrive in a crowd, a church, a family, a marriage. The busiest people can be lonely, the funniest liveliest people. Alone-ness is geographic, but loneliness is not.
But enough of bleak, bleak, down and down because loneliness is also a choice. If you’re lonely you have a special place to stand, and that’s with God. And he is the answer to loneliness. Relax, I’m not turning into Pollyanna and I know you may not have a beach to thank God for, or a sea to paddle in, but maybe you have a kitchen sink to stand at and a window to look through, a picture to gaze at…… so focus on some small thing and thank him for that. It won’t be easy but the thought will grow. You know those days when I can’t thank God, when I can’t praise him? I don’t leave the beach until I can. I don’t leave the beach until I can thank him for the day he has given me, whatever it holds. That’s something I’ve learned in just this last few months. If we turn to God, we discover that we are not alone. No magic wand, we might still feel alone, but we know that we are not. And there’s comfort in that. Turning to him, especially when we least feel like it, confirms our knowledge, confirms our faith, reminds us of who he is and who we are. Thanking God dispels loneliness. It does. It doesn’t come easily and it can be a bit exhausting, so that when I get back in the car to drive home I sit there for a few minutes to recover…… but
Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion for ever. Psalm 73
I hope that a glimpse into my world has shown you that if you’re lonely you aren’t alone. You’re not peculiar or unwanted or a failure.
I hope you know that God loves you, whoever you are. Right now.