‘Good luck and believe me, dearest Doc – it’s better to look at the sky than live there. Such an empty place; so vague. Just a country where the thunder goes and things disappear.’
Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s
by Olaf Hajek via Animalarium
As a kid my favourite way of describing an empty place was to liken it to a hollowed-out log. “The room was as empty as a hollow log.” “He sometimes felt that his brain was as empty as a hollow log.” I had this Beatrix-Pottery notion that hollow logs, always warm and dry and with hedgehogs or badgers living in them, were sprinkled liberally over the countryside. On some level I must’ve known that my own countryside, the King Country countryside, doesn’t really have hollow logs, or badgers. It has soggy pongas and mossy rocks and leaf-clogged streams, and any actual logs have strategically fallen to block the path of humans. Inevitably, when exploring my hollow log simile, I would be writing a story that I intended to “send away”. That is, to submit for publication. To the NZ School Journal. I would print out my story from the MS-DOS program, illustrate it, staple it up into book form, and send it off to the editor. (“Dear Sir/Madam, I am eight years old and this story is about a horse called Comet.”) To entertain myself during the long wait for my letter, I’d visualise the editor (brown suit, tortoiseshell glasses, man) opening the envelope. The ready-made book slides onto his desk: what’s this? The Adventures of Comet. He begins to read, tracing a finger down the page, a smile slowly spreading across his face. He reaches for the phone. “Margaret? Cancel all my appointments and get me the number for Ashleigh Young!”
Anyway, back to the hollow log: it’s hard to describe emptiness. Absence, hunger, thirst, homesickness, withdrawal … anything that’s defined by a lack won’t go quietly into words. How can this be, when as a feeling, emptiness is so full? The English language needs words that better describe emptiness. Or maybe that’s the point of not having any. Or maybe that’s why we have metaphor.
Never say about anything, I have lost it, but say I have restored it. Is your child dead? It has been restored. Is your wife dead? She has been restored. Has your estate been taken from you? Has not then this also been restored? But he who has taken it from me is a bad man. But what is it to you, by whose hands the giver demanded it back? So long as he may allow you, take care of it as a thing that belongs to another, as travellers do with their inn.
– Epictetus, The Enchiridion
The other day I started reading a little handbook called Enchirodon by the philosopher Epictetus (55-135 CE), who was born into slavery in Hierapolis, Phrygia (present-day Pamukkale, south-western Turkey). The book was written by one of his students, Arrian, since Epictetus couldn’t read or write. It’s been called the first self-help book in history, which is an anachronistic idea I guess, the self-help industry not yet in full flight back in the 100s, but some of the advice (or more accurately the stern instruction) he gives has reverse-echoes (?) of 21st-century enlightenment gurus like Eckart Tolle and Paulo Coelho and uh, the Dalai Lama.
Epictetus was a Stoic: he held that we have ultimate control over our emotions and our responses to what happens to us. “Remember that foul words or blows in themselves are no outrage,” he says, “but your judgement that they are so. So when any one makes you angry, know that it is your own thought that has angered you. Wherefore make it your endeavour not to let your impressions carry you away. For if once you gain time and delay, you will find it easier to control yourself.” In a way this is the foundation of cognitive therapy.
A few days after Epictetus, I was reading Notes from a Dragon Mom by Emily Rapp in the New York Times (thanks to Jolisa Gracewood for tweeting a link to it). Rapp describes having an eighteen-month-old son who probably won’t live beyond the age of three, because he has the rare genetic disorder Tay-Sachs syndrome, for which there is no cure. “We will not launch our children into a bright and promising future, but see them into early graves. We will prepare to lose them and then, impossibly, to live on after that gutting loss. This requires a new ferocity, a new way of thinking, a new animal.”
What made perfect sense to me on my first reading of Epictetus – that we should be always prepared to relinquish our worldly possessions, that we shouldn’t begrudge people for dying on us (“If you would have your children and your wife and your friends to live for ever,” he says, “you are silly”), and that we have ultimate power over our reactions to terrible things (“Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things. For example, death is nothing terrible … the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing”) – all of these ideas became null and void after reading the piece by Emily Rapp. They now seemed to express some awful, uncompromising hardness. The stoicism of Epictetus would never allow for a broken heart.
I think the “new ferocity” that Emily Rapp describes goes beyond stoicism. It’s an almost ruthless, ever-changing acceptance of death. When I first read the statement “Never say about anything, I have lost it, but say I have restored it”, it was rather beautiful – liberating even – and reassuringly circle-of-lifeish. But Rapp made me see that such a formula doesn’t really work hard enough. You can acknowledge that your loved ones don’t truly belong to you, and tell yourself that you haven’t truly lost your world. But a person needs to become a dragon to live with that, not become stone.
by Fred Tomaselli via Animalarium
… after he came into my life I forgot the evening star; I did not need it any more. But it was strange. When the Chinaman who came to the door with birds to sell held him up in his tiny cage, and instead of fluttering, fluttering, like the poor little goldfinches, he gave a faint, small chirp, I found myself saying, just as I had said to the star over the gum tree, ‘There you are, my darling.’ From that moment he was mine!
– Katherine Mansfield, “The Canary”, the last story she wrote before she died
The yellow canaries that live at the florist’s in Herne Hill remind me of my old pair, Theo and Cleo. Cleo’s finest moment was making a getaway as I tried to transfer her from the big aviary to the little cage so that I could scrub out the aviary. This was a delicate operation that involved me climbing into the aviary, trying not to gouge an eye on the multi-tiered perch, and throwing a teatowel over each bird. Theo was safely ensconced in the cage, but Cleo was the younger, nimble one; she refused to be swaddled. As I lurched around the aviary with the teatowel again, Cleo spied a gap behind me and hopped out the door. When I turned around, teatowel at my throat, she was in the walnut tree. Cleo in the walnut tree, cheeping. I couldn’t believe it was happening. It was like seeing your teacher at the supermarket for the first time. Then she was flying over the bush, the massive green and grey trees, chortling joyously. A droplet of yellow against the Old Man’s Beard. She would die out there with the moreporks and the possums, and Theo would die alone. Feeling wretched, I put Theo in his cage on the lawn – as bait.
I don’t know whether she just got bored with her freedom, but she came back. She swooped in and perched on a fence above Theo. She looked down at him coolly and they cheeped at each other for while. Then, like a monster, I swung the teatowel like a lassoo and got her in one. Next thing she was being shuttled into the cage.
She was a good bird. Her grave, marked by a Popsicle stick now surely long gone, lies next to Theo’s, near the walnut tree.