This is once again an extremely sparse post, as I spent most of last week writing like a demon. By Friday evening, thanks to some truly great motivational pep talks from my best friends, and not without incident, I had finished the 7000-word draft and sprinted down to Hertford to hand it in. (Welcome to Oxford, where things are still handed in physically.)
“We all get to the peak together, or we don’t get there at all.”
That was a line from Hidden Figures which we went to see today in order to celebrate me finishing that essay, just in time for the weekend. They screened the film in an unusually small room, which was surprising, but it made for a really wonderful atmosphere , with laughter, gasps, cheers (admittedly mainly E. there) and a generally collegial feel.
I’ve been thinking about that line, though. It reminded me of another line from a long time ago:
“Books! And cleverness! There are more important things—friendship and bravery…”
On first reading, the two lines seem to have little in common, but they espouse a very similar sentiment: there is little worth in status, prestige or achievement if one is alone. It took me a long time to fully understand this, but I did eventually—I have been alone, and I know that nothing is worth anything when one is alone. I’m sure I tried to resist that—after all, is one not more interesting and mysterious when one insists on disappearing without a word or trace in order to retreat into a cloak of solitude? when one spurns warm solidarity and the more difficult things that come with it (forgive my wobbly 1am prose)—trust, and respect? I’m sure I’ve been that person. I do not enjoy being alone in that way, and so I have slowly had to learn that ‘books and cleverness’, and scholarships and prizes and university places, are not adequate replacements for support and compassion and advice when you’re struggling the most. It has been a hard lesson to learn, laden with knocks and blows and all the tears that necessarily accompany the process of letting yourself lean on people only to be let down, but a vital one nonetheless.
I wonder at those who choose to be alone—especially those who genuinely believe they embody the spirit of the lines above, but who keep an invisible laser net around their centremost self. Perhaps they are like the Early Modern figures I have been writing about, where they fear the corruption of their very selfhood if they allow others to come too close. Or perhaps it is a kind of exceptionalism, where they support community building but in their deepest core feel themselves to be a genius unaided by the ingratiating contributions of the baser crowd, a lone wanderer above the level of truly equal partnership. I have known many of these people and have always found it difficult to interact with them on a deeply human level; I cannot properly engage at my word with people who deliberately prevent themselves from giving and revealing as freely and completely as I do. I do not wish to hand over my whole self in exchange for someone else’s curated guardedness. I deserve a fairer exchange than that.
I wonder at these people, but I have never wished to be them. For what? To feel certain of the superiority of one’s solitude, working ceaselessly in aisles of books without name? And yet when I am confronted with these people I inevitably am left with the sense that my molten and glittering self is to them more akin to a faceless doll: that mine is not a self, less than a self, a hueless void onto which a projection can be thrown. If you do not see other people as worthy—truly worthy—of your full and often wanting self, then it follows that other people’s plastic, shimmering, loveable selves mean very little to you, and so you lift and drop the curtain as you see fit. It may be strange to know that other people are a cosmos, an ocean below the brilliant eyes, and yet know your access is barred, but it is stranger still to feel the sharp burn of a broken edge and know you have felt the truth of someone, only to find your grasp turns to dust and realise you are far away from the footing you thought was true.
A wonderful weekend, truly, full of things that prove I am indeed blessed beyond belief, incredibly fortunate in every way. I mean to write about this when I can—I don’t know when that will be yet.
I hope memory plays its part as well as it can be trusted to, and that I only remember excitement and yellow doors, the glee on discovering the hidden quirks of the hotel room, the kiss against the wall and St. Paul’s at night, the sparkling ocean of the theatre ceiling and the clean grandeur of the Kensington pillars—how it looked then and presented itself to be experienced, not the constant detachment and uncertain melancholy that pervaded the days, and certainly not the way I feel right now: desperately sad, quite ready to near enough split in two, moving from room to room to escape the ghoul shaped like myself, that thief of joy and that which is more valuable still—the sense of peace and calm that comes with normality. My precious moments swallowed up in front of me and I, unable to prevent it, in a jar of vapour distilled from incredible unhappiness. An unhappiness caused by negatives: by something that has not yet happened and someone who is not here. But it is not all air: the hurt like a burn, like scalding all of my insides with boiling water, that before and now the blistering, the bruising. Twin clenched fists around my gut where the stone sits and at my throat where the tears hide. […]
Oh, unhappy soul!