in the valley

I have always had days like this. More often, far more often than I would like. So my life’s path has been a crooked one through mountain passes. Some days are glorious, inside and out, and somehow then the valleys, seen from above, look less threatening.

In the valley, though, I usually keep my head down. I stay off the social media. I don’t blog. What on earth could I possibly say from down here? Words seem to die on my lips, and those that don’t simply fade into the darkness. But today I’m going to have a good look around, and see what I can see. I am not sure that it will help me get out of the valley, but having a map might at least remind me that this isn’t the whole landscape.

The first thing I notice about the shape of this internal valley is chaos–a sort of verbal chaos, in which I feel I cannot speak. It isn’t so much that I have no words, but that they’re all tangled up. Like Reepicheep (in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), all the things that I might say paralyze me, and I fall silent. I might pick up a pen, and scribble madly in the darkness: but nothing I say there will ever be read by anyone.

The second thing I notice is the emptiness. There isn’t a soul around. Literally, at the moment, there isn’t anyone around–I am ‘working’ from home. Or at least I will be, when the internal fog lifts a little. But it is more empty than that. There is such a deep aloneness here. From this angle, I can see very clearly the despair that inspires suicide. It’s the most painful aspect of the darkness, the sense of being utterly and completely alone in the universe. I know that from outside, the total disregard for how others might ‘receive’ one’s death looks like selfishness. But from inside, the actual love is absolutely imperceptible. (Here my saving grace has always been my children, even before I had any–but that’s another story.) All those others who might miss me are lost to me already in the darkness.

Usually the emptiness overwhelms me, and I can look no more. Maybe this isn’t a bad exercise after all. The third thing that I notice in the valley, feeling my way along, is a sense of uselessness. I’m not actually good at or for anything. Here I discover the slope I slid down–almost always this is the place I fall in. In the world of social media, instant likes, and numbers of followers, this is a very, very easy place to stumble. It doesn’t help that I have a sought-after spouse. I have four small stalkers, but the rest of the world has absolutely no use for me whatsoever. I’ve lost sight, here, of the things I have done that have not been totally unappreciated, and the things I have been asked to do. I know they are there, but they, too, have disappeared into the blackness: if I did them, they weren’t actually any good; people are just too kind to me to say so. Anyone could have done better. (At the deepest part of this valley, I have no doubt that someone else would be a better mother to my children. Thankfully, I don’t seem to be there today.)

This is difficult, this mapping. This is why I usually shut the computer and find something to tidy. But I’ve started now, and I am too stubborn to give up. The next thing I notice is an eerie sort of timelessness. This moment–or this series of moments–seems isolated from the rest of my life, past and future. If I were to try to remember something that happened even yesterday, I’d struggle. I might be able to recall it, but that person in the past wouldn’t be me, at least not the same me that I am in this moment. As I think back on yesterday–just to try it–it’s like watching TV. I am not in the scene. Whoever it is that I am right now is not in the narrative of my life. Maybe that’s not exactly timelessness. Maybe it’s an aspect of something else.

The something else is a loss of gravity. Obviously, my feet are still on the floor. The laws of physics still obtain. But there is another sort of chaos. I’ve become separated somehow from my past and future, and my words have become jumbled. Nothing is where it ought to be; my thoughts have no foundation, no anchor. I cannot tell, exactly, internally, which way is forward and which way is back. And I cannot ask for directions. If I tried to speak, I wouldn’t say what I wanted: clear thinking is impossible.

This makes me feel slightly crazy. Also a little bit dizzy inside. I don’t know what to do next: this is the final thing, I think. This is the point at which I have to find something to tidy or I will do something bad to my computer. Because I can’t subdue this chaos by writing. I can’t make this darkness lift by describing it. When I was a teenager, this is the point at which I would fling my binder across the room. The rings would burst apart, and the pages of my life story (and some very bad poetry) would scatter around the room. Ah, then the outside would look like the inside, and in collecting and collating all those sheets of notebook paper I would somehow come back to myself.

As long as I can remember, it has been this way. Some days are worse than others. Some days the darkness nearly swallows me up for good. But something always intervenes, and for that I will be grateful. For probably a decade, I finished every single journal entry with the same verse from Ps 42:

Why are you downcast, o my soul? And why so disquieted within me? Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, the help of my countenance                   and my God.

Maybe that’s the thing today, the thing that intervenes. Because I remember, really: I was there in that memory, even if it is a memory of utter despair. This is my story. Even if I can only see that I have often walked in darkness, I can see that I am still walking. And I think maybe, just maybe, I am not alone.


Why I write

Bracketing out all the violence and tragedy in the world just now–of which there is too, too much–I’ve been remembering why I started writing in the first place.  I was thirteen, and didn’t have a ‘best friend’. So I picked up a pen and a pad of paper (I think it may have been pink; I still have it somewhere), and began.

Throughout the long trial that is the teenage years, I wrote. I wrote out of anguish and confusion. I wrote to figure things out, hoping that understanding would make me feel better. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. Sometimes I just became more frustrated. Once I threw the three-ring binder full of all my musings and very bad poetry. It hit the wall and opened up, scattering paper all over the room. Why I collected it all and put it back, I have no idea. It was nothing, just the produce of a troubled head, including some pretty exquisite examples of terrible teenage poetry.

Over the last 30-odd years, I have continued to write. Mostly out of anguish, still. Sometimes because I wanted to reflect on the days speeding past, as they do with young children. I never wrote enough of that: I wish I had written more about their first words and first steps, and the silly things they did. I rely on my faulty memory for all that, and it is no good–a source of maternal guilt (read: anguish). And so I write. It doesn’t always help. But the pen has become my trusted friend over the years, and a blank page can sometimes feel like an open door to a familiar place. After all, I have made myself at home and poured out heart and soul on college-ruled (yes, never wide-ruled) sheets, and books (preferably blank, not lined), for more than two-thirds of my life.

After all that time, I might expect to have above-average self-knowledge. At least. Maybe even excellent self-knowledge. But no: I still pick up a pen to find out what I think, what’s really bothering me. Usually, my soul yields up its secrets to the paper. None of it is earth-shattering: I discover that I am feeling guilty about something I have done or failed to do, or I am worried about something that I ought to do. Occasionally, I am surprised to find that ideas are bouncing around in my head, desperate to make their way to the pen and out onto the page.

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be a writer. So I became a writer. Nobody pays me to do this writing. Only very occasionally do the ideas that escape the confines of my brain make it to publication. Heck, they hardly ever make it onto the blog, even. But that isn’t what defines me as a writer. When I was 17, I went to a writers’ conference held (I think) at Loyola Marymount University. B. Kliban was there, talking about his cats and his surfing. John Irving was there, reading from A Prayer for Owen Meany. (I admit I have still never read the book.) But it wasn’t those that stayed with me. It was the lecture by Richard Mitchell, on the topic, ‘Write for your life’. I bought the cassette tapes. I can still remember the last words clearly, though I can’t explain perfectly how he arrived at them. He must have been telling us something about originality, I suppose, because as he drew to a close, he was comparing the moon and the sun. He finished with, ‘Do not shine. Do not seek to shine. Burn.’ I don’t know whether I burn or not, but I still want to.

I’m still a writer, not by profession so much as temperament and habit. I’m not even really sure why I am writing this on my blog and not in a journal to be shelved and never to see the light of day. Perhaps it is because I hope that someone else will say (even if not aloud), ‘Yes, I know what you mean’. Maybe it’s because somehow, when I write (even if I am writing on a page nobody else will ever see), I find out the most important thing of all: that I am not alone.