I know I always pick on Facebook, but I really don’t like the showing-offiness of that platform. I haven’t completely abandoned it, because it did help me to reconnect with some long-lost school friends, but I visit it as little as possible.
Afright from a nightmare where my mother once more
waxes satirical about my weight,
I shake off the sludge of family binds and turn
to my friends in the blue glow of pre-dawn screens.
That’s the way we do it now: no calling, no comfort
Last night I dreamt that I had met up with an old friend of mine, whom I haven’t seen in ten years or so. I see her occasional updates on Facebook, but I don’t know much about her anymore or how her life has turned out. It’s important to make that clear, that what follows has little bearing to reality.
In my dream, she was turning cartwheels in a nature reserve somewhere in Valais. [How do I know it was there? Well, some lovely St. Bernard puppies were playing with her in the field.] When I remarked how happy and content she seemed, she turned to me quite seriously and said: ‘Don’t judge by appearances. You have no idea. I have to take strong painkillers for my back pain, follow my husband around to all sorts of different countries and I’ll be a franchisee, for heaven’s sake!’
So then I became all competitive and shouted at her: ‘Call that trouble? You should try being me, unemployed, divorced, got a rejection every single day last week – no rest even at the weekend – plus I’m not sure I can keep a roof over my head?’ [N.B. This is an exaggeration as well.]
The woman who was feeding the St. Bernards and cleaning out their litter boxes [yes, I know that’s for cats, not dogs, but in dreams nothing quite makes sense, does it?] turned and said: ‘You should try being my sister: her husband was killed for protesting against the dictator, her child has cystic fibrosis and can’t get treatment in their country, and she has been waiting for two years to get vetted but is now rejected by the US and has spent all her money on the application process.’
I don’t remember if the puppies then licked all of our faces to make us feel better, but I awoke soon after and started wondering what my friend was up to and why we had lost touch (our email addresses kept changing is one reason). Meanwhile, the barrage of world news is relentless, while my mother’s idea of support and encouragement is to phone me regularly to tell me how overweight I am and how discriminated women over 50 are when looking for a job (I am not yet 50), while my father gets me in a panic about the political situation in Romania. Private and public depression and stagnation intermingle, or, as Rebecca Solnit puts it, so much more eloquently than me:
One of the essential aspects of depression is the sense that you will always be mired in this misery, that nothing can or will change. There’s a public equivalent to private depression, a sense that the nation or the society rather than the individual is stuck. Things don’t always change for the better, but they change, and we can play a role in that change if we act. Which is where hope comes in, and memory, the collective memory we call history.
So how do you keep going under the circumstances? With some great books and beautiful quotes, of course. (Motivational wallpapers not included, but here are some pictures which cheer me up.)
When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgement. (JFK)
So much world all at once –
How it rustles and bustles.
The joy of writing:
The power of preserving
Revenge of a mortal hand. (Wisława Szymborska)
Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art. (Andy Warhol)
Poetry changes the poet and, if you do your job rightly, it changes the reader. What’s being composed is me. (Gwyneth Lewis)
Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good. (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
We must accept finite disappointment but must never lose infinite hope. (Martin Luther King)
Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism, then, does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good, that it may prevail. (Helen Keller)
A failure is not always a mistake. It may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying. (B.F. Skinner)
It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and destruction. The hope I am interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It is also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse one. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings. (Rebecca Solnit)
As far as I can see from here almost everyone I know is trying to do the impossible every day. All mothers, all writers, all artists of every kind, every human being who has work to do and still wants to stay human and to be responsive to another human being’s needs, joys and sorrows. There is never enough time and that’s the rub… creation depends as much on laziness as on hard work. (May Sarton)
When I first moved to London, I was shocked at the state of student accommodation (at least for my college). However, I was very lucky to find a spacious room with a bay window in the beautiful neighbourhood of Golders Green. I lived in the house with my landlady Betty, who was then in her 70s, but whose love of life, humour and vivacity placed her somewhere in her 20s, very close to my age.
Betty told me so much about her life, her family, about being Jewish, about war-time in Britain. We shared a deep love for films and music, for literature and for laughter. She gave me so much companionship that I never felt lonely in a big city and foreign country for a minute, even though I was going through some personal turmoil at the time. She gave me so much and all she asked in return was that I keep my non-kosher food on a separate shelf in the fridge from hers.
I only lived in her house for 8 months or so, before I set off to do my fieldwork abroad, but we remained friends. I introduced her to my future husband, then to my children. I kept moving around and kept inviting her to my new homes, but she was getting more and more reluctant to travel. We kept in touch sporadically via phone and birthday cards or Christmas and Hannukah. She was not on email, of course, and I gradually lost the habit of letter-writing. Fortunately, I did go to visit her in 2011, just before relocating to France.
This weekend I received a small card in response to the Christmas/Hannukah card that I had sent to Betty in December. It was from her sister, Sybil, to say that Betty had died peacefully in her house in Golders Green in the summer.
I find myself writing through tears. Tears of sorrow for the loss of one of life’s great originals. But also tears of guilt that I have been so bad at keeping in touch, that it took me so many months to find out about the death of a friend. Ah, yes, the usual excuses apply – the distance, the busy-ness, the cost of international phone calls – all those easy little white lies that slither off our tongue like maggots.
But when it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than your friends, than the people you love. Make time for them. Because some day it might be too late.
Bless you, Betty, and thank you. It has been such a privilege to know you. RIP.