It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone. The fine art of doing nothing in particular, also known as thinking, or musing, or introspection, or simply moments of being, was part of what happened when you walked from here to there alone, or stared out the train window, or contemplated the road, but the new technologies have flooded these open spaces. Space for free thought is routinely regarded as a void, and filled up with new sounds and distractions.
I finally read Rebecca Solnit’s essay last week (prompted by Denise and Keri). I’ve been thinking about it ever since. She writes so well on the rhythm of the recent past: the newspaper being delivered in the morning, the excitement of the post arriving, the news arriving via radio and television at appointed hours – a rhythm that was once so familiar. I used to wonder at my grandparents growing up in a world without cars, without television; now I know that my children wonder at me growing up in a world without home computers, without mobile phones.
I now feel under-equipped if I walk out of my apartment without my mobile phone, but I used to travel across the world with almost no contact with the people who loved me, and there was a dizzying freedom, a cool draught of solitude, in that.
In 1997, when I was nearly 19, I flew to Hanoi where I spent six months teaching English. Then I traveled round Australia for three months. I spoke to my family twice during that time: once from Vietnam on Christmas Day, once from Australia on the anniversary of my father’s death. Instead we exchanged letters. My mother numbered each of hers, and often they would arrive in clusters of two or three; or sometimes one in the series would turn up weeks after its successors. I kept lists of letters sent and letters received at the back of my journal. This sounds so unlikely now, so preposterous to those raised on email and Skype and text messaging, that I almost can’t believe it seemed unremarkable. But, yes, there was a dizzying freedom in it.
‘Nearly everyone I know feels that some quality of concentration they once possessed has been destroyed,’ writes Solnit. And I know what she means. Certainly my cooking suffers from my attention wandering from the pan to the laptop on the worktop every few seconds. My children are used to burnt fish fingers. We’ve all been with friends who aren’t truly there because they’re so consumed by the rectangular screen in their hand. She’s right to point out the dangers, to remind us that our endless communication can give the illusion of connection while it keeps us from truly connecting, even with ourselves.
But to me, it seems that reminding ourselves (again & again) to be present, to pay attention, to not be distracted is always hard, and has always been hard; this isn’t simply about technology. I have the same unfocussed desperation when someone is trying to lead me from a book shop as I have when I’ve plunged Alice in Wonderland style into the endlessness of the Internet. I think of the opportunities. The ability to learn things, find things. I wouldn’t want to go back. I am here typing this. You are there reading it. There is a small miracle in that.
Solnit’s reference to ‘moments of being’ took me back to Virginia Woolf and her idea of being and non-being. And then, inevitably, to Google, which led me to this short essay, which led me back to my own bookcase, and to Mrs Dalloway fetching the flowers: a moment of ‘being’, of presence and attention, of intensity and awareness. What a sentence.
And then, opening her eyes, how fresh like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays, the roses looked; and dark and prim the red carnations, holding their heads up; and all the sweet peas spreading in their bowls, tinged violet, snow white, pale – as if it were the evening and girls in muslin frocks came out to pick sweet peas and roses after the superb summer’s day, with its almost blue-black sky, its delphiniums, its carnations, its arum lilies was over; and it was the moment between six and seven when every flower – roses, carnations, irises, lilac – glows; white, violet, red, deep orange; every flower seems to burn by itself softly, purely in the misty beds; and how she loved the grey white moths spinning in and out, over the cherry pie, over the evening primroses!
Iris reticulata ‘Edward’. I’m unbearably proud of them. It’s as if I’d invented the whole bulb & spring thing. But they are exquisite. And mine. Three terracotta pots on my shady kitchen windowsill with two tiny pots of crocuses between them. I marvel at them every time I walk in there. ‘Take a picture of me, Mumma,’ said the Moose as he watched me set up yet another iris photo shoot.