A Roman Column
of the Day
At the end of the day, after all the chores have been done, the windows and doors have been secured against the world and the nocturnal scents and sounds shut out, all I want is a moment of quiet to curl up in bed with a book.
At the end of the year, I want to do the same. But crowded December with its busy last two weeks of the year's closing is a hard time to find even a moment for myself, much less a book to curl up with.
For me, and I'm sure this is true of other women too, this is a very demanding period of the year. It's a juncture where too many festivals and festivities jostle to be celebrated. It's a time when Christmas, Eid and New Year celebrations join hands with the arrival of children and their friends for holidays, making it a chaotic and bristling season of social events, people and obligations. Yes, it's a season to be jolly tired indeed, especially if like me, you are solely responsible for the observance of festivities in the family and community.
While I finish my overdue translation project, prepare the last lessons for my students before university, or 'uni' as the Italians call it, closes for the holidays; do the grocery; cook and bake ahead for the dinner party I am planning on Boxing day for a combined nod at Eid, Christmas and New Year, (as well as my kid sister's birthday, continents away); buy last minute gifts, and attend all the social events from now till January the first, I am just watching the dates melt on the calendar. It’s a tapis rolant, a moving platform hurtling me against my will towards a new year, whether I am ready or not.
Stop! I want to get off. I want to wander off into an hour-less, timeless moment, to drift like a dateless scrap of newspaper on the dipping wing of a breeze. I want to just sit on the steps of this last month, draw a deep breath and watch the setting year like a kite floating away over trees and clouds. I don't want to hear the noise of firecrackers and champagne corks and human voices shouting and screeching meaninglessly. I want to hear silence. In fact, all I really want to do is fall into a short version of a Rip-van-winkle sleep on the 30th and wake up fresh and renewed on the first morning of the brand new year. I love the morning of the first of January. I just want the illusion of starting afresh, and I want it without all the clutter and fuss of the weeks past and especially the evening of partying that precedes the birth of this new day. I must be getting old, but the truth is that I have always felt like this. But I never got to listen to my heart. The social pressure of celebrating the New Year noisily had to be followed like strictest religious injunctions. Yet, I have always only desired peace and quiet on the 31st, and a meditative and peaceful New Year morning. This has never happened. It won't happen this time either, I know. My friends will not hear of it. But, at least, there won't be a party at my place like there was last year, since I am not in a party spirit this year with the aftermath of the natural disaster in the mother country still fresh on our mind. This time the party is elsewhere, and we are obliged to attend. Still, I can look forward to coming back to an uncluttered and orderly home, where I don't have to de-party the place but can go and sit at my frosty terrace windows and look out at my wintry garden, sip the first cup of tea of the crisp New Year, and pray for peaceful and creatively fruitful days to come. And I can't think of a better way to do this than by being in the company of some of my favourite writers.
I pick up my scrapbook of favourite quotes, a mixed bag I collect from time to time to pick and taste from, like a box of assorted chocolates for the soul.
My craving for a silent moment reminds me that I come from a sex whose natural habitat has been silence, no matter how 'noisy' their worldly lives. "The history of most women is hidden either by silence, or by flourishes and ornaments that amount to silence," Virginia Woolf said once. Ah! Those feminine 'flourishes and ornaments', I want to leave for a brief spell all these gracious gestures towards domesticity, family and society, which I cherish but which create such a din in my life. To return to the refuge of books and writing in a quiet place, is all I ask, so the hollow of my self can fill up again.
Ray Bradbury observed: "We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out." I agree, Ray, but the trick is also to have an appropriate when and where to do the tipping! Ray continues: "Sometimes I think I understand everything. Then I regain consciousness." The only place where I can be unconscious or un-self conscious is when I am writing. "Write the truest sentence you know," Ernest Hemigway advises, "Eliminate every superfluous word." Point taken, Ernest, but what about the superfluous duties and obligations that I cannot eliminate to have a few moments even to write this column much less a true sentence of the book that I am neglecting? Hemingway wags his finger: "Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is. The beauty of writing... and life... is working with what you have, through revision and practice, polishing as you go."
Thank you. It’s a timely wisdom. Now to have the energy and strength to carve out some extra time for myself in which to be true to my own writing self. The 48 hour day might have to be expanded further! Can it be done?
"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage" says Anais Nin, whose diaries are a treasure house of what she calls 'emotional algebra'. "The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say," she said once. But I loved this woman for what she said about perception. "We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are."
True, but what about the business of finding time and a bit of personal space, if not 'a room of ones own'? "To write is to descend, to excavate, to go underground," she explains. So, digging into the depths of my soul I find something. Is it my lost self, a forgotten sorrow, a memory of time past, and of people and places revisited? Whatever it is, it brings a tear and a smile into this moment stolen from my crowded day. Robert Frost explains: "A poem begins with a lump in the throat."
So, I'm glad for the sadness and nostalgia. It's part of the essential emotion of feeling and thus a tool of writing; it’s a necessary part of the creativity that 'begins in delight and ends in wisdom', as Frost himself once said. Dorothy Parker in a similar but witty vein said: "Four be the things I'd been better without: Love, curiosity, freckles, and doubt. Four be the things I am wiser to know: idleness, sorrow, a friend, and a foe." About the first category she later remarked, "Keep the freckles, toss the self-doubt." I would add, toss out the foe by making him your friend.
But 'idleness': who will gift me this? Who will allow me to stop time in its tracks, burn calendars and clocks, so I can finish this column in time and also await the New Year with peace? "The aim of every artist," Faulkner whispers, "is to arrest motion." So I'm on the right track even if I'm only dreaming.
Borges smiles enigmatically: "We have these two ideas: the belief that dreams are part of waking, and the other, the splendid one, the belief of the poets: that all of waking is a dream. There is no difference between the two." Jorge, there are hundreds of things clawing for my attention right now and all I want to do is read and write about, and live in this splendid poetic world of dream-awaking. But, I guess, right now I need to dream up another waking world, where instead of dreams I can be content with a reality of slow motion and simple joys. Maybe I am trying to say what Albert Camus said more elegantly: "But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads." And then, "If, after all, men cannot always make history have meaning, they can always act so that their own lives have one."
Mon Cher, I'll be content to have just my day have meaning, forget my life or my even my year. 2007 has been a difficult year and I hope the next will be smooth, fruitful and if not full of meaning, full of harmony. I end this column and hopefully this year with a prayer for peace and joy and a dream of harmony, beauty and love for everyone. A Happy New Year all!
(R) thedailystar.net 2007