‘You need to think, and thinking well is the hardest thing in the world to do.’
—Vivian Gornick


‘Paradise’ by Cecilia Parades; image via Lens Culture


I was sitting on a balcony above a sea of heads, close to the edge, looking down on a lit stage. The speakers were going to come on soon, one after the other, to tell stories without notes or prompts. Good storytelling means being unguarded now. Audiences want to witness people unfurling all of their vulnerabilities so that they seem to bloom right there on the stage. Sitting beside me were two women – I think a mother and daughter – who were making each other laugh so hard they were rocking back and forth and sometimes the knee of the woman sitting directly beside me touched mine. Even though they were sitting right there and speaking English I couldn’t grasp what they were saying. I felt far away, and getting farther. Something wasn’t right. I felt as though my brain had sprung a leak and sense was draining out; I was draining out. I remembered how, the previous week when I was over in London, I was at my brother’s flat, and a plumber was there trying to find where a leak was in the water pipes. He started prying up floor tiles in a corner of the house, uncovering dirt and metal bits underneath, and as he was crouching there the back of his pants slid down and exposed this amazing, picture-perfect view of his butt crack. At the exact same moment there was a flood in the kitchen, water bubbling up, rippling brazenly all over the floor. The plumber, James, leapt up and hitched up his pants, and shouted with delight, ‘There it is.’ (He’d been here for hours, searching, and talking to me, and just before he finally left he shook my hand and said, ‘Come back to England!’) Anyway – I wished I, or someone, could find where the leak was in my head, let it bubble dramatically for a moment so that we could shout about the volume of stuff coming out, and then plug it, even temporarily, at least until I got off this balcony and wove my way through the crowd, out of this event, towards a benzo and bed.

When someone came onto the stage and started introducing the speakers, I couldn’t understand what it meant whenever the audience laughed. The speaker said something like, ‘And they will discuss whether the South Island is, in fact, another country,’ and there was a laugh that sounded weirdly geological, like a hunk of cliff falling into sea. Maybe I was still just jetlagged. That was likely. Nothing bulldozes your sense of humour, nothing hollows out social niceties like jetlag. But maybe the joke was unfunny, actually, and what was I doing back here?

Every place is a bad place to get depressed but an arts festival seems to me like an especially bad place, because all around you people are making a deeper, better sense of things while your basic comprehension is curdling and souring. Most other people are appreciating truths. They are being stroked by wit, story, grace. But you’ve lost the sensitivity to feel these strokes. In some sessions at a literary festival it’s like the audience is having a collective, slowly gathering orgasm all around you while you lie there cold. I remember a friend telling me about a yoga class she went to once, where the instructor got annoyed at her for apparently not following instructions, so made her sit on the floor for the remainder of the class. ‘So I just had to sit there motionless while all these beautiful people did yoga around me for an hour.’ A literary festival can feel quite a bit like that sometimes, I think.

When I fall off the balcony, I thought, I’ll fall through the air and then onto the people underneath, and I’ll feel their bodies against mine, their clothes, their hairdos. Thinking this, I wasn’t afraid, just resigned. It seemed to me like something that would happen in one simple motion, like a kid losing a scoop of ice cream off their ice cream cone. I knew I wouldn’t jump off the balcony, because I didn’t feel like I had any volition in me, but I thought I would soon lose control of my body and it would tilt slowly towards the edge, without my willing it, and then like a cicada husk it would let go and drop. I was drawn to the simplicity of such an event, though writing it down now really disturbs me.

On the stage the writers were speaking about – and it’s daft, how appropriate this is – ‘altered states’. Vivian Gornick spoke about the blinding power of infatuation. ‘In essence, Daniel was something of a sociopath,’ she said of one of her husbands, ‘to whom I nonetheless remained married for four of the most dramatically confusing years of my life.’ Carmen Aguirre spoke about a play in which she was acting, and in which she encountered a ghost – formerly a lighting technician, they thought – who turned the house lights up, blinding her. Jeanette Winterson’s mother, horrified at her daughter’s reading habit, said, ‘The trouble with a book is that you never know what’s in it until its too late,’ and later built a roaring fire from Winterson’s books. Tusiata Avia spoke about the cherry-sized brain tumour that sometimes makes her feel as though a sparkling gauze has dropped over her eyes. And then, after telling us about that, she seemed lost, and admitted she didn’t know how to put all of the strands of her story together. ‘I don’t have an ending,’ she said, ‘so I’m going to leave you with the mystery.’ She just stood there, and that was enough. Something was starting to happen as I was listening. I didn’t feel the jubilance that other people in the crowd clearly were feeling; I wasn’t as moved as some of them were; but I felt less far away, or at least that I had stopped moving away, that a warmth was clotting the gap. It wasn’t that any of the stories were really dazzling. It was that hearing a single, strong voice was quieting the bad ones in my head. The full sentences were slowing the sense of fragmentation I had been experiencing. Maybe I should say something about the ‘healing power of the arts’, but it was much more basic than that. I think I just needed someone to talk to, and listening to stories tricked me into thinking that I was.

Over and over again, the next few days, that happened. The feeling of being about to let go would overcome me. Then some small thing would pull me back. When I passed someone in the crowd who used to be a close friend but who no longer is, I slunk away feeling awful; but later I heard Vivian Gornick speak about the first time she experienced joy while writing, and I felt better. I watched Ann Goldstein, who seemed so anxious, her hands in a small nervous bundle in her lap, gradually becoming more open and fluid as she spoke about translation, as though the conversation was strengthening her a little.

Through some rare privilege I was able to meet Vivian Gornick herself. I didn’t think I should go, being in an altered state, but I went anyway. Elizabeth Knox and I met her to take her to dinner with some others. I said how much I had enjoyed her talk earlier that day, and that she was the reason I had come up to the festival, and she touched my arm and called me sweetheart, and she would disapprove of this cliché, but my heart sang. During dinner, at one point she said, trying to decipher Elizabeth’s accent, ‘I don’t understand what you just said.’ She turned to Jolisa Gracewood who was sitting next to her, to translate; Jolisa duly did. ‘But,’ Vivian said, bewildered, ‘why would you say “e” when you mean “i”? I mean – you’re educated people, right?’ She was joking but I loved her openness about her confusion, and her resolve that, actually, our accents didn’t make sense. None of our explanations seemed to touch her; she just accepted that she was on the outside here. The night culminated with us singing the New Zealand national anthem at her, across the table – I was so embarrassed I had to pinch the bridge of my nose while I sang – while she looked at us all with this deep, almost beautiful confusion.

About ashleighlou

Person, usually on bike
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62 Responses to Balcony

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Great post Ashleigh.

    It should be said that we were singing the National anthem to Vivian Gornick to help her understand how horrible it was (she thought we were exaggerating till she heard it).

    Liked by 6 people

  2. annethecoach says:

    Wonderfully written. I felt your states of mind with you as much as one can with another. Thank you Ashleigh.

    Liked by 10 people

  3. thesmilingpilgrim says:

    This just got uploaded to the front page and it showed no comments and hardly any likes. I rushed to the page to be the first one to comment! And already by the time I am here three other people have discovered it.

    Just goes to show how great that writing is. Within a moment I couldn’t even get first on it 😉

    Liked by 7 people

  4. James H says:

    I enjoy your style of writing and will look forward to more. I can definitely relate to this

    Liked by 4 people

  5. wazirnama says:

    Good Read!
    Loved your line” In some sessions at a literary festival it’s like the audience is having a collective, slowly gathering orgasm all around you while you lie there cold.”
    ‘The altered state’ for me is an accommodation where most humans casually resign most of the time when the utmost attention is required! I think it is a form of rebellion from the sub-conscious demanding a different tone to the present environment. The altered state in an art gathering would mean being submissive to the indulging antics of the artist which another indulging human has difficulty to adhere to. Then, even when they unfurl their vulnerabilities, one tends to fly away in one’s own, folding the legs and looking away in self oblivion.

    Liked by 6 people

    • wazirnama says:

      All the people who liked my comment here can go to my page and read my blog on the same thoughts. Love to hear your comments on the full blog i wrote after being inspired by this one!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I really likr yout writting style
    , I need this, I enjoy your description of the exsperience combined with mental imagery.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. gapawa says:

    Life is odd! Great vulnerable post:)

    Liked by 5 people

  8. Soban says:

    Great Work Ashleigh.
    Absolutely Brilliant!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I could feel the swirling emotions and sweaty palms just as if I had been at that same exact place at the same exact time. I’ve constantly had a similar cycle of thinking and fear of losing control in the present and conscious state of things. Good read, I would love if you could check out my writing as well and give me advice, critique, etc.

    Liked by 5 people

  10. emrldrex says:

    Nice work there

    Liked by 4 people

  11. dennyho says:

    I saw the ice cream scoops gently falling through the air to the people below. Your descriptions are velvet; soft and worn with age and wisdom.

    Liked by 5 people

  12. Wow. It is kind of magical, excuse the cliché, that as time progressed you felt better. That even though you sat cold and alone, somehow someone was able to move you.

    Great post! I wish you well

    Liked by 6 people

  13. Really enjoyed your post! Great Work!

    Liked by 5 people

  14. Iriz Chan says:

    With so many distractions, it is indeed hard to think well. You got some great experience there that leads to this great post. Nicely written. Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  15. itslaurelyo says:

    love it!

    Liked by 5 people

  16. bryansthoughts says:

    Great post! I enjoyed it.

    Liked by 5 people

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  18. writegill says:

    Pithy and pointed – thank you!

    Liked by 4 people

  19. Wonderful writing. Absolutely love it.

    Liked by 5 people

  20. maddy1528 says:

    Very well written. I really enjoyed it. You’ve made the experience come alive and that’s beautiful.
    If you like poetry, you may check out my blog.

    Liked by 5 people

  21. Oh my goodness, you write beautifully. Thank you for putting me inside your head.

    Liked by 5 people

  22. Beautiful post and so well written.

    Liked by 4 people

  23. Nice post and well written

    Liked by 5 people

  24. evelynnfray says:

    An experience I’ve had many times. Thanks for sharing so beautifully- I don’t feel so bad having those outsider moments now! : )

    Liked by 4 people

  25. merealized says:

    Beautiful post

    Liked by 4 people

  26. love says:

    Woooow great photography

    Liked by 4 people

  27. Danika Reid says:

    Your writing is beautiful and engaging! Loved seeing the way your mind likens situations to past experiences, either your own or borrowed. I look forward to reading more of your work!

    Liked by 5 people

  28. hannahkenway says:

    Thank you – beautifully written, observed and felt. I have recently been diagnosed with high functioning autism and so much of what you experienced resonates with me. I feel a kind of disconnect in a variety of situations, perhaps most fiercely in this kind of group experience – music festival, big social gathering. I’ve learnt to keep grounded by finding some kind of physical sensation to provide an anchor point. I can remember it being quite alarming as a child, but I’ve never actually floated away ( or jumped off a balcony) so it’s no longer too traumatic! Looking forward to reading more.

    Liked by 5 people

  29. I love how genuine you are about where you are emotionally. What I took from this article is that, during times when we’re most lost and confused,we are in a state of discovery. And it’s not always the loud thud of an epiphany. There’s beauty to be found in the subtlety of our most cherished discoveries. Great read!

    Liked by 5 people

  30. hearteyesite says:

    Great post!

    Liked by 3 people

  31. brezuchetto says:

    Nossa eu nem tinha notado q era uma mulher muito bom

    Liked by 4 people

  32. John Aaron says:

    I really enjoyed this. Anyone who has felt depression will likely experience an “aha” moment reading this, since you’ve so eloquently put into words and mental imagery exactly the nuances of being in an altered state.

    Liked by 6 people

  33. jaadweb says:

    Awesome Post

    Liked by 3 people

  34. pinkBanana says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed your post Ashleigh.

    Liked by 3 people

  35. Parvathi Vijay says:

    An awesome piece of work and your style of writing is too good. Looking forward to seeing more of these.

    Liked by 3 people

  36. Wow you’re such a great writer.

    Liked by 2 people

  37. Biro Jasa Perijinan says:

    great posting

    Liked by 2 people

  38. great writings great writer

    Liked by 2 people

  39. for the love of reading check out
    and i am sure you will not like it but love it

    Liked by 1 person

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  41. kroko says:

    You are so great! I love it very much..


  42. UAE Visa Information Center says:

    Good Job ….


  43. palak97 says:

    please check my blog and let me know what you feel about it 🙂


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