Sitting in our favourite cafe in Budapest, Poharszek, on the last day of November, before leaving for the night train to Munich, I gazed up at an elegant apartment block opposite. The late nineteenth century building has a beautiful doorway; a huge arch of glass covered in wrought iron.
At the top of the building, someone was switching on lights in an apartment that spread across four elegant windows. The only view was of beautiful globe light fittings and the amber glow of the lights. Yet in that moment, I’d invented a whole life within that flat.
What is it about looking in at other people’s lives? This was the merest glimpse: lights on a freezing evening in winter from which I conjured comfortable sofas and fluffy blankets, stimulating books and soothing music. I summoned a life of elegance; cultured, intellectually rich and harmonious, all from a few lights and shadows.
In Venice a couple of months earlier, out walking with my husband, we’d glimpsed an apartment overlooking a canal and bridge. The walls were richly coloured. There was a cat in the window. Tiny details. Yet enough for us to picture a bohemian life, artistic and joyous.
Looking in is particularly alluring at night. The contrast between the evening dark and the lit room draws eye and imagination. A stacked bookcase, a deep indigo wall, a plum velvet curtain, a candle or a cat and we can conceive whole lives, often replete with qualities we’re yearning for. In my mind these lives are always filled with intelligent conversation at lively dinner parties, endless time for baking bread, tranquil evenings reading and creative endeavours.
What is at work in these flights of fancy?
We are story-makers
We are, quite simply, a story-making species. As Ursula Le Guin puts it:
One of the functions of art is to give people the words to know their own experience… Storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want
Storytelling helps us to see what we value. In a world awash with information, it’s story that touches on truth, on what counts in life, on what makes a life. Looking in and making a story about the lives we hardly glimpse is pure fiction and deep reflection. We’re not spying on people, but sifting for metaphors and connections that tell us about life in general and who we are and want to be.
If the story we invent is one we also aspire to live, one we admire, then by ‘looking in’ we also have a moment of transcendence. As we look in and conjure a world, we expand our vision.
In Existentialists and Mystics: Writing on Philosophy and Literature, Iris Murdoch says of literature (and the same is true of story):
Art is mimesis and good art is, to use another Platonic term, anamnesis, “memory” of what we did not know we knew… Art “holds the mirror up to nature.” Of course this reflection or “imitation”” does not mean slavish or photographic copying. But it is important to hold on to the idea that art is about the world, it exists for us standing out against a background of our ordinary knowledge. Art may extend this knowledge but is also tested by it.
Literature stirs and satisfies our curiosity, it interests us in other people and other scenes, and helps us to be tolerant and generous.
Making up stories from the merest fragments is not mere fantasy, but a way of shifting perspective, inhabiting a larger world and diving deep into imagination.
We are aspirational
In finding this moment of transcendence and letting the imagination play in the realm of ‘not ourselves’ , we also touch another profound aspect of how we constantly stay in process rather than ever imagining we have arrived.
At its best, looking in and imagining lives of charm and grace, is not soul-rotting envy or mind-numbing fancifulness but is an act of hope and expectation.
Looking into that top floor apartment on a cold November night and on the verge of a long journey with overnight travel and early morning changes, I was the outsider. The journey in the opposite direction a month earlier had now been smooth and I was anxious about connections and getting up at 5.30. (I am not a morning person.)
The metaphor of my imaginative flight was a powerful one. I was the traveller and foreigner looking in on those who belonged, who were settled and at ease. But on the other side of the glass, perhaps there was someone looking down from that cosy window and thinking:
Those people are on an exciting adventure while I am stuck in one place, going through the same routines, always looking at the same view from this place I’ve grown too accustomed to. Ah, to travel and see new things, it must be a life of intellectual richness and invigorating encounters.
There is more to this than the dismissive cliché of the grass being greener on the other side. There is more to this than simply being perverse and never satisfied.
In winter, we long for summer. We think about hot skies and green places to walk by streams. In summer, we yearn for winter, dreaming of log fires and curling up with hot chocolate and a book to lose ourselves in.
We certainly don’t want to be always dissatisfied or never able to delight in the moment. We absolutely do not want to write our current lives off as shoddy and not enough. But without going down these paths, these imaginative cravings can tell us something about the need for harmony in our lives.
We are seeking harmony
All this imagining and aspiration, all this longing for one thing and then another; for summer then winter, for being settled then travelling, is a way of hand-writing our lives.
As writers we know that our work needs rhythm and harmony. The sounds we use in each sentence have to support what is being said and give the piece harmony. In prose as well as poetry, every syllable we use has resonances and how we link these resonances is what gives a piece of writing harmony.
Consonants stop the air flow and create boundaries. Vowels are open and needed to make a syllable (certainly in English). They are the movement of a word combined with breath Syllables hold the sounds together
The same is true in writing as in life. We love the day because we have the night to contrast it with and vice versa. I love to travel. On that journey back from Budapest the dated little sleeper couchette was magical. Falling asleep to the rhythm of wheels on the track and the soft tinkling of the metal hangers in the compartment was strange yet lovely.
I don’t think I had any deep sleep. I drifted in and out and for a while sat watching fields of snow and snow-laden trees speeding by, somewhere in Austria. The journey was enchanting even when the next train was ‘re-organised’ and I had to persuade the Deutsche Bahn staff to let us onto an earlier train so we wouldn’t miss our connection from Stuttgart to Paris.
On a gorgeous morning, the first day of December, we passed beautiful villages in Germany, the sun low and watery, too heavy with winter to climb any higher than the trees. The sky was pale; blush-grey and whisper blue, clouds touching the houses with winter-breath, the fields were frost speckled and the roofs steep, ready for snow.
I love to travel. But I also love returning home and having months when I don’t leave the area where I live. To be among familiar books and objects. To cook in my own kitchen. To ease into the rhythms of our quirky house perched on a hillside in North Wales, is a deep pleasure.
We are looking in to look out
Valuing the other times does not have to be a way of not dwelling richly in the present moment. It is not a way of being ungrateful for this life, now.
Instead it can be
- a way to spin stories that feed imagination and life
- a remembrance of a wider or alternative vision
- a way of discovering our hopes and expectations
- a nostalgia for the future that keeps us looking ahead
- a way of going with the rhythm and harmony of life.
Call to become your story
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If you would like to explore becoming your story further, I’ll be launching the first in a series of mini-courses to inspire, encourage and support your writing through the seasons of 2019, Diving Deeply into Your Story, begins at the end of January with a 4-day intensive online journaling retreat: Writing the green blade.