For many, today marks the first Sunday in Advent, and, whatever our faith or none, experiences of longing, expectation and hope are common to all of us. This is how the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an anti-Nazi campaigner, executed just two weeks before the concentration camp he was held in was liberated, puts it:
The celebration of Advent is possible only to those who are troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.
Sadly, longing can be all-too easily debased by consumerism, but the feeling of searching for something, of reaching beyond ourselves, or of straining towards a new vision, runs deeper than any list of material wants. And such longing particularly resonates with this dark time of the year, when we begin to notice the days shortening and strain towards the light’s return.
There’s a beautiful film set in Northern Scotland about a woman with a teenage son. The woman has recently been bereaved of her husband and is also anxious about her ageing mother. On the day The Winter Guest takes place, the sea has frozen and ordinary life is stilled. In addition to the protagonist’s story, other stories are intertwined: two elderly ladies who watch the obituary column and attend all the funerals; two schoolboys who can’t get to school and spend the day on the frozen beach sharing their views of the adult world and how it is shaping them, and the protagonist’s son, who has a romantic encounter. In one scene, the protagonist’s mother, played by Phyllida Law, watches from an upstairs window as her grandson encounters the girl. She says out loud, though he can’t hear her, that he should take care with this girl because she has a ‘face that wants’. Then she says to herself — ‘but we all want. I want yet.’
Longing and desire are human. They are signs of being alive. But what can make a huge difference to this longing is what we focus it on. What are the subjects of our longing? Love or power? Healing or control? Becoming a new story or hanging on to the old one?
Longing as loss
In her extraordinary book, Letters to Gwen John, the artist Celia Paul talks a lot about longing and often in association with loss. Some of the loss is about attempting to process events with her former lover and the father of her child, Lucian Freud, and how this shows up in her art. Some of it is about the intricacies of her artistic process
Working from memory infuses painting with a sense of loss, of nostalgia; the brush marks are less urgent than if one were working riskily straight from life: the energy when working from memory is dreamier, more wistful.
How similar this is to writing. The tone of a piece written in the moment is very different from one that looks back on events and grieves and wonders. Yet so often such distance can give a piece of writing immense depth and resonance, revealing meanings that we are too close to see or process in the time when things were happening.
My prose poetry collection Stale Bread & Miracles explores my difficult transit through church ministry. The early years were marked by threads of misogyny, the battle for ordination and the church’s apparent shock at dealing with issues such as maternity leave. Yet these same years were also years of support, solidarity and communion with others within the faith who walked the path with me. Later, after a series of serious workplace assaults, the attitudes of some within the hierarchy were dehumanising, yet others—often those I’d ministered to or people in the parish who didn’t come to worship but nonetheless felt themselves connected—were beacons of light and hope.
During the events I journalled endlessly, but I couldn’t write anything that was public or accessible for many years. The events took place from 1997-1999, and it was another ten years before the book appeared. Writing the past changes what we write. There is a good deal of subjectivity in any writing, but in writing at a distance after a great deal of processing there is the openess to a gentler sorrow in relation to what has been lost and a different sort of clarity that is no longer marked by rawness.
Longing as looking forward
It is rare, perhaps unheard of, to come across any life that has not experienced grief. And so some of our longing in life is backwards looking—not only regrets, or perhaps not at all, but the wistful acknowledgement of flaws and losses—what Bonhoeffer calls knowing we are ‘troubled in soul’.
But the advent season is also about looking forward. This might not be the easy part for many of us. Living in a world of ecological disaster, political and financial uncertainty, Covid as endemic (if not pandemic), and injustices of every kind… how do we look forward? How do we write our longing and loss into something of beauty and hope?
The answer will be different for each of us and will also be affected by whether we see ourselves as being on faith journeys or not. Looking forward to something greater to come was an article of belief for Bonhoeffer facing execution, but whether we share this or another faith, and whether we consider that humanity has already foreclosed its future ecology or that solutions are yet to be found, right now, in this moment, there is always hope; there is always love or the possibility of it; there is still life.
And as writers we testify to this in the stories we write. I recently received a copy of Camilla Reeves’ new poetry collection, What I Tell Myself At Night. It’s an exquisite example of longing rooted in loss, but also longing for a new story. Charting her husband’s terminal illness as they ‘stare / hand in hand into the abyss’, the grief is palpable, but what marks the collection as vital is the determination to turn towards the future. The steps may be tentative and slow, but they are taken because the poet understands that honouring her husband’s life must include both grief and valuing being alive. In the final poem Camilla writes of a visit that becomes a pilgrimage with her daughter on the date that would have been her husband’s birthday. Things don’t seem to go well until they climb a hill overlooking a beach:
then June sun coming out
and, if only for a moment,
finding myself again
Celia Paul, facing the imminent loss of her husband, writes about this looking forward in terms of making truthful art:
I think about how I want to live and paint truthfully. I think about the words that the great writer John McGahern wrote: ‘the best life is life lived quietly, where nothing happens but our calm journey through the day, where change is imperceptible and the preciousness of life is everything’. I think about Paul Cézanne’s words: ‘is Art really a priesthood that requires the pure in heart, who completely surrender themselves to it?’ I think about how to reconcile living and valuing life while at the same time renouncing it, and how it might be possible for me to tame and curb my longing, anxiety and loneliness by knowing when a painting is done or a person has left, knowing how to move on purposefully, without resignation, but with peace.
So often longing is a disquieting emotion. It can make us restless. But in that restlessness we are prompted to move on to the next part of the journey, discover the next story. As the poet Robert Hass puts it
Longing, because desire is full of endless distances.
Longing as process
Like Auden’s traveller in the poem ‘Atlantis’, we may never get to the final destination, but the journey can still be full of wonder, love and hope. And as writers, this sense of never being quite there, of always having the next poem, the next story, the next vision to capture in words is as thrilling as it is unnerving. The desire to dig deeper as we write, the desire to capture an image or a moment, the desire to witness to some aspect of life, can motivate and inspire us.
And if it seems to us that longing to write the perfect sentence, the perfect essay, the perfect poem brings us no nearer to feeling we’ve achieved it, this is absolutely fine.
After all, longing can be thought of as a sign that we are alive and engaged, that we are listening to the world and remain full of awe and vision. The gap between the story we are and the story we want to become will always be aspirational as long as we are truly alive. As Phyllida Law’s character puts in A Winter Guest:
I want yet
As the world moves towards the shortest day and we feel the pull towards hibernation and stillness (at least in the northern hemisphere), perhaps we can use some time to ponder on what we long for—not with an eye to acquisition or ‘making it’, but with a heart that balances its griefs and its joy for life, now and in the future.