You asked me once, and I could give no answer,
How far dare we throw off the daily ruse,
Official treacheries of face and name,
Have out our true identity? I could hazard
An answer now, if you are asking still.
We are a small and lonely human race
Showing no sign of mastering solitude
Out on this stony planet that we farm.
The most that we can do for one another
Is let our blunders and our blind mischances
Argue a certain brusque abrupt compassion.
We might as well be truthful. I should say
They’re luckiest who know they’re not unique;
But only art or common interchange
Can teach that kindest truth. And even art
Can only hint at what disturbed a Melville
Or calmed a Mahler’s frenzy; you and I
Still look from separate windows every morning
Upon the same white daylight in the square.
And when we come into each other’s rooms
Once in awhile, encumbered and self-conscious,
We hover awkwardly about the threshold
And usually regret the visit later.
Perhaps the harshest fact is, only lovers–
And once in a while two with the grace of lovers–
Unlearn that clumsiness of rare intrusion
And let each other freely come and go.
Most of us shut too quickly into cupboards
The margin-scribbled books, the dried geranium,
The penny horoscope, letters never mailed.
The door may open, but the room is altered;
Not the same room we look from night and day.
It takes a late and slowly blooming wisdom
To learn that those we marked infallible
Are tragi-comic stumblers like ourselves.
The knowledge breeds reserve. We walk on tiptoe,
Demanding more than we know how to render.
Two-edged discovery hunts us finally down;
The human act will make us real again,
And then perhaps we come to know each other.
Let us return to imperfection’s school.
No longer wandering after Plato’s ghost,
Seeking the garden where all fruit is flawless,
We must at last renounce that ultimate blue
And take a walk in other kinds of weather.
The sourest apple makes its wry announcement
That imperfection has a certain tang.
Maybe we shouldn’t turn our pockets out
To the last crumb or lingering bit of fluff,
But all we can confess of what we are
Has in it the defeat of isolation–
If not our own, then someone’s, anyway.
-From Stepping Backward, Adrienne Rich
I meant to write a post rather than post a poem, but I have been awake since midnight, on and off, with a migraine, a cluster-headache, an I-don’t-know-what, and can’t remember my words. I have had those kinds of headaches for years, but only at night, and by day I forget they ever existed, except in the tiredness, except in the fog. Probably less a forgetting, than a dismissal: I do not want to add to what can seem to me to be a loud and incessant Chorus standing on the stage next to me reciting All the Things Wrong About You.
Yes, I did just describe myself as a Greek Tragedy.
I met with Kerry and Veronica yesterday. I arrived feeling physically and mentally shattered but I left feeling better about myself and my work. I left feeling supported and capable. I was, am, ever shall be, supremely grateful for it, because the damned confirmation report (I have still to complete) had felt like a millstone around my neck, dragging me and my PhD down with it. I’d lost momentum, I’d lost confidence, I’d lost my sense of the value of my work. They made me laugh, they commiserated with the pain-in -the-arseness of the report, they gave me a few quick and easy jobs to do before I go back to it, and they reaffirmed, in their questions and in their interest, that there is something worthwhile in what I am trying to achieve. When they asked me if the meeting had been helpful, I stumbled through my answer, and I felt they deserved a better one, so here it is: Yes. Supremely. It wasn’t just helpful, it was meaningful and it was kind.
Which brings us back to the poem. As the pain has improved, there has crept into my feelings about myself, about this autoethnography, a sense of shame, of self-reproach, of judgement, about what I think I should be capable of by now, how much better I should be. It’s complicated – isn’t everything? – but when I read Adrienne’s poem this morning, I could see something of what has been nudging at the edge of my consciousness for months, ideas I have felt but not been able to articulate. Important ideas on loneliness and expertise, on vulnerability and shame, how they relate to my experience of pain and of autoethnography both; ideas I will detangle futher on another day, when I have more time, when I have more brain.
And oh, look. Seems like I wrote a post anyways.