I recalled that in high school drama classes we would sometimes play games of “focus”, in which the winner was the girl who could lie on the floor and stare at one place on the ceiling without giving in to the distractions of the other girls pulling faces and whispering dirty jokes above her. I always won. I acquired a reputation as “focused”, but it occurred to me that afternoon in the bathrooms that what I felt on the floor staring at the ceiling was more like dissociation than focus. The faces and wipers were there, but I wasn’t entirely certain I was. The focus game was really just a kind of exercise in cleaving my mind from my body and floating away, with none of the “mindfulness” or “control” that the drama teacher pinned to my accomplishment when I was eventually invited to pull myself up from my prone position on the floor.
Sometimes I drank just to have the sheer pleasure of weeping without apology, the luxurious, snotty weeping of childhood that can only be indulged, once you’re grown-up, in the most solemn states of privacy. I lay back on my mother’s bed and wept briefly for the voices on the phones. And then a deeper, more expansive weeping for all my former selves in all the photographs splayed across the paisley bedspread. The baby with the father whose nature and temperament she couldn’t comprehend. Then, for the child who wanted more than anything to touch whatever creature would allow her touching. Then, the teenage girl who believed in the romance of all the poems she read, a girl too shy to ever talk about them with another flesh-and-blood person who would have helped make her happy. Anf then finally, with perverse pleasure, for the woman of the year before. For the events that had ushered her in this splendid conflagration of emergency.
The team stood for everything they wanted the country and themselves to be – strong, secure, and mindless.
Certain promises are made to us as children. Only in adulthood does it begin to dawn on us that many of those promises cannot be kept. The promise that the fairy godmother will rescue the protagonist, that the handsome prince will wake us with a kiss, that the wicked will be punished for the bad things they have done.
There are lower-level promises as well. For instance: that there exists a human-scale equivalent of “stationarity”, which will keep the waters from ever rising too high and keep the fires from burning any more than is necessary. That rain will fall and the crops will grow and the tide will ebb and flow along an unchanging shore. That summer will come at the same time every year.
I was just young enough, that year, to still feel the sting of the betrayal that the promise could not be kept. I was becoming aware of the fact that the fires were vicious and the waters would not abate. That the thousand-year storms were just going to keep rolling in.
My mother could not give me a self-contained narrative, particularly not when she was weeping, particularly not when she was drunk. In a narrative there would be a clear ending. The scene would fade to black, the curtain would come down, the paragraph would break.
But our lives contain no line breaks. Our experiences are so frequently unbearable to us because real life is just sheer bloody continuity. The excruciating thing is not to have witnessed the person you love commit, upon your person or another’s, an unforgivable act. The excruciating thing is that time carries on and you love them anyway.
She liked to argue about politics and the law, and she was often the winner of the argument, although I do not believe in the time we worked together I ever saw her change someone’s mind. People’s minds don’t bear changing.
“You know,” intoned Celia Johnson, “I believe we should all behave differently if we lived in a warm, sunny climate all the time. We shouldn’t be so withdrawn, and shy, and difficult.” Which was nonsense, I realized now. Misery thrives on sunshine.
Here’s my review of The Inland Sea
Photo by Violetta Kaszubowska