The question – what would it have felt like to have lived? It is the question that drove Marion Milner to challenge the practices of her life at the age of 26, and begin to write her diaries that led, in the end, to her books A Life of One’s Own (1934) and An Experiment in Leisure (1937) and then, at the age of 40, to begin work as a psychoanalyst. But psychoanalysis was only ever for Milner a tool to that thorny tangle of the human experience, never the sole “cure” or means to make things better. Her book On Not Being Able to Paint (1950) for example combines her own self-analysis, artistic theory, psychoanalysis and a simple love of life to explore what it might mean to have lived in one’s everyday practices.
It is a good question. What would it have felt like, when one throws oneself into the future, looking back on one’s life, to have seen there a life well lived? A life well felt? It would have felt as if the life you had lived (are living now) would be full of love, and achievement, and that you would have found purpose in practice through listening to one’s own desires, rather than listening to the “mass-produced hand me down mythologies” as Milner called them of popular culture. Most of all, it would have been a life lived according to one’s own images and myths, not the myths of others. It would have been a life found through experimentation and present-moment-mindedness, not through strict adherence or, as Lauren Berlant puts it, “too much sense of a future”.
So it would have felt like:
- always doing both ordinary and exceptional things aligned with one’s values
- making things real in the world out of the ideas you have for them in your head
- doing things consistently and in a focused way, so that it felt that, while you were working on that thing, it was all you did
- developing strong, close bonds and relationships with people that are both lifelong and comfortably and happily social, and nothing more, as the situation demands;
- understanding that grief and loss are the payments we make for love and commitment
- making a difference and seeing those differences
- making/building a home, like Paris and Andru and their ecosocialist farm in Galicia
- receiving recognition for the things one does; being excellent at those things
And, so, which of the above are intrinsic and which are those driven by the social world, or, more to the point, the social self?
My friend did a Tarot reading for me on Saturday night. It was my birthday. We were having some Cava and getting ready to go out to dinner. Tarot for me is a language of imagery and mythology that is so open to interpretation that it allows one to reflect on where one’s life is at present, what is going on. It is not predictive nor does it provide symbolic answers. As with all imagery, such as dreams and advertising, the interpretation is what counts, is what is created between the world and the reading (or querant, as is the proper term for someone making a query, an archaic and lovely word in itself). When approached like this, with clarity on Tarot as merely a set of representations, saying Tarot is meaningless is like saying the media is meaningless; which is why you should never trust anyone who suggests the academic practice of media studies is a mickey-mouse degree. They are denying the whole world of representation through which power is created and imposed.
So, the key card on which my mind has lingered, certainly in relation to this question, was the Four of Pentacles. It is a card of control, of holding on to what one already has so tightly that it blocks the energy for anything new to come into one’s life. It is about the opposite of generosity in one’s work, the giving away of oneself into the work and into the world. It is the opposite of the list above.
No, that’s not true. It is not the opposite. Sometimes it is right to focus on what one has, and to work with it, than always be casting the net around for something/someone new.
My life at the moment, and for the past couple of years, has been one of temperance, of stability, of staying put, of taking less risks, of evolution not revolution, of working hard, of keeping and making things of what I already have, rather than reaching for the new. This has been true in most areas of life: work, creativity, relationships. I’ve been single for well over two years. I’ve worked on one project, to completion (my PhD, which is in fact two projects, really, the creative novel and the critical element). I’ve stayed in one place in one job. In one flat.
I’ve grounded myself a little. I’ve held on to what I had. This has brought me a lot: reduced debts, the completion of a novel and a move towards a more creative life. But with all things, the repetition of one set of actions (holding on, focusing inwards) leads to energy blocks and stagnation. It is how I have been feeling–stuck, blocked, lacking the confidence to move forward. But also not quite yet understanding how to move forward or what this stagnation means, or what generosity might mean in this situation.
Generosity came from my friend’s response to my question–what would it have felt like to have lived? For her, it is about the letting go of anxieties, and making real–leaving fantasy behind–of the things she wants. For me, it is about finding ways to give more of myself. As one commentator puts it, if there were any symbol that encapsulated the cliche of “if you love something set it free” then the Four of Pentacles is that interpretation. (okay, okay, there’s a modicum of symbolisation in Tarot… but it’s still consistently useful for me, living, as I do, in this world where symbols and representation mean something, often everything).
The 21 Soul process (which I am re-engaging with after six weeks away, finishing the PhD) is about this–how to live in generosity, how to give away more of oneself through loving engagements and creative action. The reason why it is not clear to me how to do this, is because I’m afraid. It’s not that I don’t know how, although I may not be crafted or practiced at it. No. The knowledge is there… (it is, it is, it is… about… aaargggh…! I can’t articulate it! bloody language… bloody fear…). I am afraid of losing what I have to gain the new. Afraid of what? Rejection. Not living up to the ideal image I have of myself. Afraid of loss and commitment.
Ah, and yet, and yet… those are the prices you pay for loving and for creativity. This is the point of the Four of Pentacles, then. Am I willing to pay the price for a life that felt as if I had lived?
Or, moving away from the pecuniary metaphor, moving away from my well-practiced defences of using my intelligence to hide my fears, why am I not willing to be vulnerable?
There you go. You always know when you’ve said something true and painful when that feeling begins to move again in one’s chest. Towards tears, often, and towards release. Why am I not willing to be vulnerable?
Because, in truth, and Milner knew this, as do those people who get to the end of their life and who have not made their life’s goal to be surrounded by material wealth and security, but to be surrounded with love and feeling, those people know that they were vulnerable, made themselves vulnerable, and lived anyway. Created anyway. Loved anyway.
Or, to put it another way. I will feel as if my work and writing are true to me when I make myself vulnerable and put that vulnerability into the work. It is no good simply wanting, as Henry Miller did, to “create myself in my writing” if there is no courage to actually create.
I once read Franz Kafka’s 267-word micro story ‘Resolutions’ a hundred times and was absolutely certain that I could write a whole PhD thesis on it, rather than the 5,000-word essay* I was tasked with during my Masters Degree. Having just read Marion Milner’s On Not Being Able to Paint, I’m almost certain I could spend the next ten years exploring its text, rather than simply referencing it in the PhD chapter I’m about to write. But good. That is what an object of study is meant to do: fascinate, bewilder, absorb.
Last night I created another found poem. It’s the largest yet, 40cm x 50cm, made up of four roughly A4 pictures and two articles, one from the London Review of Books on an architect from the 1930s and her work and life in Paris, and one from the New Scientist on physiognomy and recognising character in faces.
The process was a long one but worth it. After cutting the two articles into segments, which took a few hours, I then laid them all out, which took about another hour, so I could then begin to assemble the poems. I did this one at a time, looking for the pieces that would go together. This disassembling and then reassembling differently really teaches me a lot about language, phrases, emphasis, and the found nature of language, and also of its essential construction. As a writer, I find it an incredibly invaluable task. At the end, for the last poem, there weren’t many words or phrases left, or not that many that gave much ‘depth’ – rather, just very sparse words or phrases. And I had to construct from these. That I could still do so taught me about what I had left to work with, and the power of individual words together. The poems become, strangely, much deeper the less ‘depth’ or pre-built in meaning the cut out phrases held. Continue reading
I feel anger in the face. It feels like a setting stone, very hard, very unmovable. It’s just below the skin, but it’s visible, like a face through a net curtain at the window. Below that, there’s frustration, and below that, fear. Fear, but not in being afraid of being hurt. When hurt happens, it never feels quite as bad as you expect (except if what hurts, you never expected). Rather, fear of being unable to change, fulfil potential, learn. Fear of making the wrong choice. Fear that I don’t have the strength, that the life I want (‘want’—the certainty I want to be attached to, I suppose) is always just out of reach.
Yesterday (Tuesday) morning, I felt bereft.
Sunday had been a great day—running, socialising, drinking, not really caring. As Pema Chodron might have noted, if she had seen me, I was blunting the edge of the difficulties I was feeling with easiness, alcohol, escape.
Then Monday was hung-over, a day of little achievement, except a good hour or so at the allotment and a bit of editing on the novel (so, some achievement) and then in the evening leaving drinks for a good friend, at a performance of her boyfriend’s short play. Another friend was there. I felt out of place because of her—hardened, uncomfortable—even if I was able to chat, be friendly, ‘normal’. An explanation follows. That night, they carried on for drinks, I went home. It’s easy.
Then the next (Tuesday) morning I felt stiff (from the running, and the alcohol) but also hardened by an anger directed towards this person and the feelings she stirs up in me. I was doing my usual morning writing, putting down on paper why I felt so tired, figuring it out, admitting that it was not the day of drinking or the PhD or anything else that was leaving me weary. It was the incredibly draining anger I was feeling—targeted at her, I first thought—leaving me weary, and all of the concomitant acts that such anger/fear leads to, such as overworking, not listening to the body, drinking too much—although this is very rare these days—ruminating endlessly on bitter tastes. I was writing about this and trying to find a better way to live a life with less of this draining energy, of what to do about this person, of committing to a writerly life, when this popped out of me: Continue reading