2 August 2016
I haven’t read a good book recently. By that, I mean: I haven’t been consumed by a book. I haven’t gotten sucked in. I haven’t gotten captivated. I recently read Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole. The story was captivating. It drew me in. But there, I’m talking about the narrative. I’m not describing the soul of the book.
I’ve been wanting a book like The Book Thief, like the tiny thin volume of “Antarctica Stories” (Regions of Thick-Ribbed Ice by Helen Garner) that made me swallow them whole because I couldn’t tear my attention away from them.
For more than a year, A. has been halfway through reading The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. My dear E. in Edinburgh and I have been reading through some slim non-fiction nature volumes (by some, I mean one, but the pattern is set in my head now), not unlike this one.
But this one. Oh, this one.
I haven’t gotten to the actual content yet (clearly I’ve stolen it off him). Nan Shepherd has written Twelve short essays about the Cairngorms:
One: The Plateau
Two: The Recesses
Three: The Group
Five: Frost and Snow
Six: Air and Light
Seven: Life: The Plants
Eight: Life: Birds, Animals, Insects
Nine: Life: Man
Eleven: The Senses
The book fits nicely in my hand. It’s soft, it’s pliable. It’s short. I know I can get through it swiftly – probably in one sitting.
But so far, I’m not even finished with Robert Macfarlane’s introduction.
Partially, this is due to the quality of the introduction. He’s treated it like a personal essay, as well as a contextual piece. It has its own endnotes. Partially, this is because I fell in love with Robert Macfarlane in a bookshop when I picked up his book on walking.
And partially, this is because almost everything he says in his introduction sparks an association in me which is more fruitful than the linear reading.
I’ve very frequently said: a book may be made to read linearly, from the start to the finish, in one narrative arc. But that’s not what I’m made for. I’m made for so much more than that. It’s been my excuse for cross-reading, for having a book of poems, essays, short stories on the go at the same time as a libretto, a novel (no, three novels), a memoir. At a pub in Redfern a few weeks ago, the bartender jokingly called me “a literary floozy.” I don’t necessarily deny it. I have worn my stack of bedside books as a badge of honour.
But recently, like I wrote in the past entry, I’ve been dealing with an upsurge of anxiety. It has come into my brain like the worst kind of static. It surges through my body like a tightening – like constriction and unstable vibrations at the same time. It is an earthquake of shaking and noise and dissonance, and I’ve had a hard time keeping it at bay and funnelling it where it needs to be redirected.
Yesterday at work, my mind was busy. Busy is not bad. Busy is okay. But when the weight of busy becomes too prominent, busy can trip over into anxiety. Not anxiety about the work. It’s not really anxiety about anything. It’s more: a familiar common muscle, a bad habit, something that has gotten reinforced, and then cracked open, and then healed, and then sometimes resurfaces in times of stress again. It’s not anxiety about the work. It’s just a pattern, a reaction that has gotten triggered recently.
I meditated on my lunch break, and just started writing, straight out of the meditation:
Monday 1st August – 14:06
So many thoughts. Just slow down. Let them crowd in, wash over you. Let them come in like wave upon wave, because the ocean doesn’t stop for anything either – there are just tides, and constant movement.
You are only riding on the surface right now, which is why there are waves and waves one after the other. You are being pummelled by the gift of plentitude. You can’t take a break and a breath yet in order to prioritise, in order to process or make order of any of the ideas.
You need to dive down. Don’t feel claustrophobic. Beneath the surface, the water is just like sky (there’s a great quote about that in Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Lacuna about that. Read it. Dive back into that book).
This diving deep can be in a natural, open air space if you need it to be, if you need to feel the air around you. But once you dive down deeper, the rip tide isn’t pulling you under. The waves are still there, but they don’t dominate your vision.
What is just a little bit deeper than this experience?
What emotions, thoughts, insights, are floating just a little bit deeper than this moment?
Just a little bit deeper.
You can only follow one thought at a time in order to really follow through fully. Each day: pick a thought.
Each day, for each job, for each section, for each hour: pick a thought to follow. Pick one book to read. Pick one letter to write. Pick one priority.
Make a list, make all the lists. The lists can still be there – make a list for the week, and keep migrating things off onto each day. But each day, each moment in time, there can only be one focus.
Just like you can only watch one TV show, one movie at a time, try to choose one project, one idea to follow.
Let it lead you. Let it unpack itself into your life. All of your ideas are like travellers moving through hotel rooms – getting all the experience, but never unpacking, never staying, never settling in. Be like Jack Kerouac, even when the going is crazy, who still had time to sit down and reflect and pin some thoughts down to paper.
Try having a one-track mind. Just for an hour. See where it will go. See where it will take you.
Ruminating on the future? The future unravels like a carpet in front of you. Know that the richness you seek is already inside of you. You don’t need more (more books, more money, more space, more ideas, more presents, more letters, more events, more achievements, more products, more goals) in order to embrace this plentitude.
You need more presence. You need to be in more conversation with spirit, with soul, with the depths below the surface.
Just watch all the craziness as it swirls around you, but don’t hang onto it. Take your hands off. Let it pass. Let it go.
It is not yours.
This anxiety is not yours.
This chaos is not yours.
Similarly, these goals you are building, these achievements you are experiencing: these are not yours.
If you hold onto them and present them to other people wrapped in a bow, you will always have to be the one shepherding them, the one who brings them to other people’s attention. If you grow them up, and let them live, give them their own existence and let them go, they will grow legs and arms and commune their own way in the world. Your name may or may not be attached to them. This is not an exercise in ownership. This is an exercise in how things grow and evolve. This is an exercise in contributing to the world. This is not about possessing things. This is not about medals or congratulations.
Take the idea, shape it, make it, let it go.
Take it, shape it, make it, let it go.
Take it, shape it, make it, let it LIVE.
On the way home, I stood at the bus stop in the rain and deleted all 16 books from my “currently reading” list on Goodreads. I put them back on “to-read,” and added them to “partially-read.” The progress will be saved, hopefully, so I can remember where I am. If not, I’ll just go back and read through until it stops sounding familiar.
I started to dive deeply into “The Living Mountain.”
I started to build out all the associations in my head, to follow them simply, one by one. I stopped myself from rushing through the slight volume.
‘The Cairngorms were once higher than today’s Alps, but over millions of years they have been eroded into a low-slung wilderness of whale-backed hills and shattered cliffs. Born of fire, carved by ice, finessed with wind, water and snow, the massif is a terrain shaped by what Nan Shepherd – in this slender masterpiece about the region – calls ‘the elementals.’ (ix)
I’m jealous of her innate knowledge of the Cairngorms. I love hiking. I love mountains, and rivers, and lakes, and trees, but I can’t name any of them. I read nature-writing and I feel like my baseline knowledge is incomplete: as a writer, as a naturalist, as the person I am, I want to know more. And it’s this trap of competency and knowledge that pushes me into all the areas. I have interest for more content than I could possibly consume. I am not a walking encyclopaedia, nor should I strive to be. My highest skill-set is in the connections and relationships between things, identifying patterns, bridging disparate ideas, holding a space for cognitive dissonance, distilling concepts, articulation. I have to remind myself: you are not inadequate for failing to be the “facts person” for each of your wide range of interests.
‘Shepherd was localist of the best kind: she came to know her chosen place closely, but that closeness served to intensify rather than limit her vision.’ (x)
‘Again and again, Kavanagh returned to the connection between the universal and parochial, and to the idea that we learn by scrutiny of the close-at-hand. ‘All great civilisations are based on parochialism,’ he wrote finely:
‘To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.’
Shepherd came to know the Cairngorms ‘deeply’ rather than ‘widely,’ and they are to her what Selbourne was to Gilbert White, the Sierra Nevada were to John Muir and the Aran Islands are to Tim Robinson. They were her inland-island, her personal parish, the area of territory that she loved, walked and studied over time such that concentration within its perimeters led to knowledge cubed rather than knowledge curbed.’ (xv-xvi)
I have mixed feelings about the scale of Shepherd’s scope. I admire it, to be sure. I appreciate her keen eye for detail, before I’ve even read one of her observations. I’m still getting all of this second-hand through Robert Macfarlane, and Neil Gunn, and comparisons to Patrick Kavanagh.
But I’m deeply jealous. And that’s because, at the heart of things, I know I’m not a localist.
We’re about to move again: just a few streets over, and around the corner. But A. made the joke to friends at a picnic on Saturday: “We’ve been here for a year. We clearly have a hard time living in one house for longer than a year. Or, least be honest, we have a hard time living in one country.”
It was true. And it was funny, to our friends, because it was true. But hearing this echo in my head while I read about Nan Shepherd, I think of all of the places I have wanted to belong to, as a local. To become deeply entrenched in. To know the depth of, not the breadth of. I am a person with a lot of breadth, but I have a longing for all the places where I haven’t stopped and taken root. The areas of knowledge I haven’t dived into, the skills I haven’t pursued. The places I haven’t stayed.
This haunts me. And that has never been more clear to me than now, beginning to read Nan’s intimate knowledge of a place, where I’m not sure I’ll be able to follow.
Obviously, this all makes me think of Iona. With such a small space: it was easy to know it deeply. With such a thin separation between earth and heaven there, it was easy to connect to the land and for it to be irrevocably ingrained on the spirit. It’s one of the only places that feels like a tear in the fabric of time and reality. It holds itself apart, and it is deeply rooted within me. But that feels more like a quality of Iona than a comment on my ability to know a place intimately.
I know that I know people intimately. Isn’t a person their own kind of landscape, their own map and history?
‘Intellectually, she was what Coleridge once called a ‘library-cormorant’; omnivorous and voracious in her reading. On 7 May 1907, aged just fourteen, she started the first of what she called her ‘medleys’ – commonplace books into which she copied literary, religious, and philosophical citations, and which reveal the breadth of her reading as a young woman.’ (xi)
I love the image of the ‘library-cormorant’: it evokes images in my head of Audrey Niffinegger’s Raven Girl. I have often felt the urge to consume books. I talk about them in terms of ‘eating’ and ‘swallowing’ them. I’ve also recently just gone back to my own ‘commonplace books’. I’ve stopped reprimanding myself for the vast spread of notebooks (I’m back to: bullet journal, Real World notebook, Social Media College notebook, daily reflection book, deeper identity book, Word document, and scraps of poetry and quotes in various other notebooks. I also have an ‘idea’ notebook, just to capture the skeletons of all the projects flying through my brain). Now, I just write. Where and when I can.
‘Shepherd is a fierce see-er, then. And like many fierce see-ers, she is also a part-time mystic, for whom intense empiricism is the first step to immanence. ‘I knew when I had looked for a long time,’ she writes, ‘that I had hardly begun to see.’ (xix)
It’s been over a year since I met the idea for my novel. It’s been slow going capturing the idea into my own words, but I recognise it everywhere. I hear it in music, I see its qualities appear in someone else’s poem. I see the narrative play out in the relationships between real-world people. Every time it appears to me, I jot down more notes. I pick a quote at random and write to it from within the story.
This quote about Nan Shepherd is the closest I’ve been able to describe this process so far. I’ve never written a novel before. I don’t know what the writing of a novel is supposed to feel like. But it feels like a chipping away at the block of marble, revealing what has always been underneath, but what only I have been able to see thus far.
It feels like a vision-ing.
I’m reading for Thailand. I’m ready to excavate it. It has been patient enough for me. Now is the time to double down.
‘Shepherd – like Neil Gunn and like the Scottish explorer-essayist W.H. Murray – was strongly influenced by her reading in Buddhism and the Tao. Shards of Zen philosophy glitter in the prose of all three writers, like mica flecks in granite. Reading their work now, with its fusion of Highland landscape and Buddhist metaphysics, remains astonishing: like encountering a Noh play performed in a kailyard, or chrysanthemums flourishing in a corrie.’ (xix – xx)
Yes. I am so ready for this.
Observation + self-reflection + nature + empiricism + zen koans + the spirit = I have been so ready to find this book.
Note to self: read all these people.
That’s enough for today. Part 2 to come soon. Maybe, by then, I will have actually started to read the book, itself.
 I almost wrote “The Sentences” here. Which is kind of a beautiful slip-up. I couldn’t let it get lost in the correction.
 I accidentally wrote “when I picked up his book on [writing]” in my first draft of this post. I almost left it un-corrected, because I feel like exceptional books about walking are always books about writing. I’m thinking of Rebecca Solnit. I’m thinking of Mary Oliver.