There are small moments that must be filled. They open and expand while waiting in doctors’ and dentists’ offices; in long, slow moving grocery check-out lines; or in those few, empty moments before leaving the house or office for another destination. Staring into space is my favorite pastime and generally fills up all the minutes given (and much more), but there are other waiting times when my spirit needs a gentle pick-me-up without doing much conscious work.
That’s when I open the Photo Album on my phone and start scrolling. I discovered this delight quite by accident while lounging in my therapist’s waiting room one afternoon. I was feeling flattened by living with PTSD and other health issues, and I wanted muster up a little hope before I went into my session. So in a despondent, weary way, I opened up the photo album app. To my surprise, I was greeted by pictures of flowers, landscapes and book excerpts that I had busily taken days ago and had already forgotten. I scrolled back farther and it was much the same, mixed with pictures of friends, family, pets, and friendly dogs I had met on my walks.
I discovered my photo diary which had been my pocket all this time. “I never travel without my diary,” Oscar Wilde wrote. “One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” It still holds true; nothing is so interesting as what we took notice of days ago, weeks and months ago, be it written in a journal or snapped with a viewfinder.
As days spin into weeks, months, and years, it is hard to catch hold of any kind of underlining rhythm or purpose. A photo diary offers a kind of consolation. There’s nothing sublime there, it simply marks changing seasons, interests, travels, and friendship. But perhaps on the difficult days where everything is too much including our own thoughts, a photo diary is a moment of gentle release. The lightness of ephemerality eases the heavy load of living.
“But life itself is short, and so you are terribly agitated by everything that is eternal.”
–Eileen Chang, On Music
There are moments in time where the past overlaps with the present. Sometimes referred to as “thinning of the veil,” they are strange, illusionary moment when one season passes into another, when the silvery full moon shines its brightest, and when firelight flickers warmly in the cold night.
Right now in the Northern Hemisphere, the darkness is overtaking the days of light. Icy winter is just beginning to finger the edges of autumn’s beauty. The first frost came a few days ago and over the weekend, I awoke early in the morning and was greeted by the sight of downy snowflakes falling weighted from a heavy sky.
As the days grow shorter, I catch glimpses of color and movement out of the corner of my eye. I can’t say what I’m seeing exactly—perhaps it is the corners of autumn on the wane, the earth shedding its summer glory before it falls still. Perhaps I’m seeing the fast flicker of days as they shorten, when sunset comes around 5PM instead of later hours.
Whatever it is, I feel the shift and though it’s a cycle I’ve witnessed my whole life, there is something unearthly about the shift, as if something strange is lurking in the off edges of the exchanging cycles. There are tiny spaces in the exchange, little windows that open up into another world and as the darkness lengthens, perhaps it is the past that grows a little clearer, a little nearer.
Earlier sunsets and later sunrises means more darkness and with the dark and external stillness arises memories and with memories, the dead rise up. The dead is our own past, old and gone versions of people and ourselves which are still living. What people have been to us, what they have done to us, what we ourselves once were, lives in the murky shadows of memory and as the seasons change, one foot treading precariously before another, time slides a little and anything is possible.
There are many stories that deal with these strange moments in-between worlds and time.
One of my favorites is Still She Wished for Company by Margaret Irwin, first published in 1924. It deals with the lives with two women, Jan in the 20th century and Juliana in the 18th. The two women never fully see each other, despite their ability to see the past and future, but it is Juliana’s brother, Lucian, that travels through time between them. Jan first encounters him on a stormy afternoon on Hill Street, London. She takes shelter under the doorway of an old, preserved 18th century house and as the rain pours down, he appears near her side. The book follows and explores their strange relationships.
Another book about curious women existing in that magical land in-between words is The Brontes Went to Woolsworths by Rachel Ferguson. The three Carne sisters live in pre-war London. One is a journalist, one a young actress and the last is still under the care of a governess. They make up stories as they have done since they were very young, one particularly long lasting imagery saga about a real life judge they read regularly about in the papers. When they meet the judge’s very real wife, problems ensue and during a dark night, two of the Bronte sisters appear on their doorstep. Take a guess which two.
And of course, any list about the stories that deal with past impinging on the present would be incomplete with The Turn of the Screw. One of Henry James’ most popular short stories, The Turn of the Screw is narrated by a very young and sweet governess who isn’t entirely sure what she is seeing or what is going on with the two children she looks after. The three (including a housekeeper and a few servants that are rarely mentioned) live in a great empty house but after a short while there, the governess begins to see lone figures in what should be empty spaces—the top of a turret, in front of a drawing room window overlooking the lawn, by the side of a still pond. She is never able to catch and speak to them for they always disappear and slowly, she gathers that these figures are not quite human nor, is the rumor, were they that human when they were alive neither. What follows is questions of belief, what is real and what is not, and the end plays out the consequences of her decisions.
Earlier than James’ spine tingling story is The Christmas Carol, a ghost story that largely takes place at night by the master of Victorian ghost stories, Charles Dickens. His lesser known Ghost Stories are a delight. The characters in his haunted tales travel through dreams, moonlight, firelight and meet all sorts of ghosts and other sorts of beings. My favorite “The Queer Chair” occurs when man dozing at night realizes that an old, quaint chair in his room has come to life and they have a long discussion about the future near the warmth of the fireside.
Another of my favorites is “The Ghosts of a Mail.” A drunk man on his way home decides to take a comfy snooze on the top of a wall overlooking a yard of wrecked and decrepit coaches. He wakes under a full moon only to discover that the coaches are being used once more and goes on to have a wild ride with a beautiful lady trying to escape her pursuers.
Dickens favors the moments between sleeping and waking for his ghosts to appear (his most famous ghost of all Marley can’t resist making his appearance during the ungodly hours) and it is small wonder.
Some of my own most fantastic nightmares, more real than the day, occur when I’ve been dozing off or are just beginning to fall asleep. My mind is in-between places here, not fully in one state nor the other. I’ve seen ghostly sad boys standing by my bed. For decades, my bedroom walls were covered in elegant cursive every morning as I slowly awoke.
M.R. James is another writer that uses the moments in-between sleeping and waking as some of his most terrifying moments. One such story is “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” A professor comes across a strange bone whistle on his walk along the English coast and inscribed on it in Latin are the words, “Who is it who is coming?” As he makes his way back from his walk, he blows the whistle a few times. Nothing happens. But that night his bedclothes rise in the form of a blind man and attempt to strangle him.
Sleeping is dangerous time, indeed. The mind lives in another realm while the body lies prone. And now as the dark and heavy hours approach, we turn on lights and stay indoors. But those strange corners still remain and in-between our waking hours, we sometimes see them.
How to get through a Big Book and have a little fun too.
- Make and eat food mentioned in the book (big books always include food, usually in meticulous detail).
- Read a little bit each day.
- Make a soundtrack.
- Dress like a character from the book for a day. Or a week. Or a month if it really grabs you.
- Ten minutes to kill? Daydream about the landscape or what the characters are seeing as they move through their day.
- Read passages you enjoy out loud. If you’re in the right mood, record yourself reading passages and share it (Instagram is great for this). Include illustrations if you like (thank you, Shirin).
- Whip out a highlighter or some sticky tabs for those great parts.
- Pace yourself and remember, reading gigantic books isn’t a race. It’s about the journey. Might as well bring along snacks, good drinks, great lighting, and enjoy the ride.
And here I am! It’s been a little while but I feel it’s time to rez this little blog and get it clanking away again. Here is a little tidbit from Belinda for your satisfaction:
As part of the glories of summer, the lovely and talented Sarah Marian, the sparkling and coruscant Beth Dunn and my humble self decided to read a book together and Belinda got the pick. It’s been a lazy sort of read with plenty of dawdling but that’s part of the joys of this season. One particular part made me laugh hard over my lunch so I thought I’d share. Here are the principle players:
Clarence (aka Clary) Hervey
Here he is kneeling before lady Delacour, Belinda’s hostess.
sir Philip is off to the left, leaning against a pillar, too dashed to stand
Rochfort is facing sir Philip, nearly completely blocked by that brunette’s head
Mr. Percival is seated at the chess table, contemplating his next move
A quick summary about what happened before erroneously trying to swim from a book-
Clarence and Philip get wasted tasting wines at Philip’s house and then with nothing left to do, they take off for the park, placing bets on who’s the better pedestrian. This is judged by seeing who can walk fastest, staying on the pavement, to a large tree. Philip wins but only because he shoved people out of the way to stay on the pavement. Clarence believes he wins because he stepped off the pavement to let children pass, thereby showing his “real superiority”. Clarence’s friends laugh at him for losing and since he’s doused, Clarence announces the bright idea of swimming in the Serpentine (nasty) thereby beating Philip. Everyone knows Clarence can’t swim and here’s where the fun continues
“You may wink at one another, as wisely as you please,” said Clarence, “but come on my boys- I am your man for a swim- a hundred guineas upon it’-
Darest thou, Rochfort, now,
Leap in with me into this weedy flood.
And swim to yonder point. (note how clever Clarence Hervey is. He poetry slams on will!)
-and instantly Hervey, who had in his confused head some recollection of an essay of Dr. Franklin’s on swimming, by which he fancied that he could ensure at once his safety and his fame, threw off his coat and jumped in the river- luckily he was not in boots. Rochfort began coolly to undress himself under the trees, and all the other young men stood laughing by the river side…
(Let us skip over the part where Sir Percival and Co. come up to meet Clarence due to the fact that he didn’t push aside children. But wait…where is Clarence?)
“Damn it, yes, where is Clary though?” exclaimed sir Philip, suddenly recollecting himself. Clarence Hervey at this instant was drowning, he had got out of his depth, and had struggled in vain to recover himself.
“Curse me, if it’s not all over with Clary,” continued sir Philip. “Do any of you see his head any where? Damn you, Rochfort, yonder it is.”
“Damme, so it is,” said Rochfort, “but he’s so heavy in his clothes, he’d pull me down along with him to Davy’s Locker- damme if I go after him.”
“Damn it, though, can’t some of ye swim? Can’t some of ye jump in?” cried sir Philip, turning to his companion. “Damn it, Clarence will go to the bottom.”
And so he inevitably would have done, had not Mr. Percival at this instant leaped into the river, and seized hold of the drowning Clarence. It was with great difficulty that he dragged him to shore. “
Clarence comes back to life, sans friends but with Sir Percival looking on. I approve of this Maria Edgeworth. Indeed I do.