Fertile Solitude

Screen Shot 2017-11-27 at 17.14.11Death brings its own surprises, not always pleasant. A recent bereavement has brought with it a series of unfortunate consequences. A promised legacy has not materialised and this creates unbearable internal tensions of guilt, rage and abandonment.

Long before modern psychology awakened us to our own interior furniture, Rainier Maria Rilke wrote on how great sadnesses transform us and bring us closer to ourselves. Sadness has a way of penetrating to the bottom of the glass, to reach into and beyond comfort zones, shaking them.  He writes “That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.” We are creatures of order. Satisfaction is only guaranteed when the explanations are neatly bookmatched surrounding the facts and corralling them all into their proper places. Loose ends are disturbing.

Rilke’s classic Letters to a Young Poet is among those very few texts that can be read as if they carry an almost scriptural authority. In the century since its publication, his reflections and encouragement have proven timeless and timely, in countless human lives – a wealth of enduring ideas. Long before modern psychologists extolled what some call the ‘creative benefits of fertile solitude’, Rilke explored the value of melancholy as a clarifying and focusing force for our own interior lives. He turns his gaze to the vast swaths of life we spend completely opaque to ourselves, the Johari window of unknown unknowns, and writes to a young aspiring poet over a century ago with piercing insight:

“You have had many and great sadnesses, which passed. And you say that even this passing was hard for you and put you out of sorts. But, please, consider whether these great sadnesses have not rather gone right through the centre of yourself? Whether much in you has not altered, whether you have not somewhere, at some point of your being, undergone a change while you were sad? … Were it possible for us to see further than our knowledge reaches, and yet a little way beyond the outworks of our divining, perhaps we would endure our sadnesses with greater confidence than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.

Almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension that we find paralysing because we no longer hear our surprised feelings living. Because we are alone with the alien thing that has entered into our self; because everything intimate and accustomed is for an instant taken away; because we stand in the middle of a transition where we cannot remain standing. For this reason, the sadness too passes: the new thing in us, the added thing, has entered our heart, has gone into its inmost chamber and is not even there any more, — is already in our blood. And we do not learn what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing has happened, and yet we have changed, as a house changes into which a guest has entered.”

When the moon crumbles and the stars fall like sparks, injustice, breathed in like foul air, clogs our soul and blisters its walls with its harsh, unreasoning burning.  Only time alone will assuage the scorching and calamity.

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Auf Wiedersehen. Etc.

It didn’t take long. Air France is comfortingly familiar and the mid-flight sandwich fresh. Paris was soggy and overcast and Birmingham crisply, optimistically cold. A rental car that was so new that the interior still smelt strongly of the showroom, with unfamiliar buttons and switches and voice recognition. I just floored the accelerator and drove on the rev counter, trying to remember not to change gear with the door handle.

Many years ago, the hotel where I stayed in Rugby used to host Rotary dinners and Conservative Club meetings, a leisurely watering hole for the well-heeled, waistcoated, golf-clubby types who used to bray discreetly behind their Gs and T. The bedroom was a cupboard with a TV the size of a handkerchief and contained, of all things, a vintage trouser press.

The town seemed changed, but subtly – the twin bifurcations of Sheep Street and High Street were still there, but the shop fronts were tedious 70s, gloomier and  uninteresting, lacking the optimistic ebullience of Windsor, the great rival. Some were abandoned altogether, all being presided over with pomp and order by the majestic oaken presence of the Oriel gateway to the School, four hundred and fifty years old this year. Girls – we had none of that when I was there – clad as if for a dressage competition, were a novelty as they swished their long skirts at lesson change, passing in and out with the easy familiarity of extreme privilege.  A notice pointedly reminded the hoi-polloi that their malodorous presences were not permitted inside the hallowed Georgian portals.

A long, grey, sleek Mercedes-Benz hearse, containing four gentlemen of similar height dressed in morning clothes and a tiny, cheap-looking coffin plus a few flowers, majestically eased its way out on to the highway, traffic respectfully stopped by the massive dignity of a top-hatted funeral director. A short ride to the crematorium. However tastefully such places are tricked out, there’s always a whisper of  Auschwitz or Dachau about them. A minister with lugubrious, spaniel eyes, a soft, infrequent smile and a slight speech impediment got things under way. His slight glossal elision was made worse by a badly mixed sound system operated by a cheerful moppet at the back. “All creatures great and small…”were both occupying the pews and trying to sing it. Family – five step family plus me – to the left, everyone else, the curious, the half-blind and the not-quite-familiar to the right. I forgot to count; fifteen perhaps, some looking at me with guppy eyes as if wondering what had happened to me. Who were these strangers? Eulogies, prepared by those who knew and mercifully left more or less unedited, were read by the minister. The usual exaggerations and half-truths.

Somebody had the stellar notion that the proceedings could most conveniently be concluded with a chirpy little Rodgers and Hammerstein number from the wildly successful postwar musical ‘South Pacific’, racial overtones notwithstanding. They did things differently in 1949. The juxtaposition of the curtains closing with dignified slowness and the strains of ‘Happy Talk’ will stay with me…

I didn’t hang around. What for? But, I was the last to leave – there seemed no rush. There was a sad sort of clanging in the back of my mind as I said ‘so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye’ overlooking the fields in the crisply silent afternoon, finally exhaling.