A new year and it’s always tempting to see it as a blank slate on which everything will be written beautifully. New year follows hard on the heels of all those Christmas letters summing up the last year of friends, sometimes with pictures of the appealing destinations visited. And, for me, the liminal space between the midwinter feasts and the turn of the year is a time I take to reflect on the journals of one year and the hopes and fears of another. What story do I want to become?
I was thinking about all of this and reading May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude when I came across an essay by a writer and artist who lives in the Welsh Marches. He was writing about the mists there and how they change the viewer’s perspective, linking this to the intense training in observation that he’d had at art school.
From which perspective
Perspective had been exactly where my musing was taking me. Reading friends’ Christmas letters and reading my journals for 2023, I was conscious of how the experiences and emotions of any given year, month, day, hour… are so dependent on perspective.
Yet so often we feel pushed towards telling the story in a way that heightens the peak experiences or makes us look just a little more shiny. I don’t mean that the letters or journals are false, but that we are primed to put the best spin on things, to not bring down the mood. When people ask how we are, the polite answer is rarely—well, actually there are some really terrifying challenges in my life right now.
And, even if we are blessed with family and friends who we don’t have mask with, we will be constantly aware of when and where we can be more open. This isn’t even always a bad thing—having boundaries we choose and a sense of appropriate places and people to be vulnerable in and with is healthy. But sometimes we tip into that place where we feel like we’re performing even to ourselves.
Virginia Woolf recognised this in a diary entry
Melancholy diminishes as I write. Why then don’t I write it down oftener? Well, one’s vanity forbids. I want to appear a success even to myself. Yet I don’t get to the bottom of it.
There has to a somewhere—with a trusted group, that one confidante, or in the pages of a journal—where we are vulnerable and honest. There has to be somewhere that we do get to the bottom of it, even if we then find there is another beneath that…
And part of this honesty is surely that life is not all shiny, but it might also be that it’s both/and…
The unshiny truth
In her Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton was alone and facing deep depression. Early on in the time along she writes
For a long time now, every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation. But the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self. I have written every poem, every novel, for the same purpose — to find out what I think, to know where I stand.
[…] My need to be alone is balanced against my fear of what will happen when suddenly I enter the huge empty silence if I cannot find support there. I go up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour…
She writes movingly of her ‘inner storm’ and how she finds herself simply enduring because there is nothing else to be done. A nd when, slowly, things seem to change for her, she is not sure she can trust the change. And yet in the midst of the self-doubt, and without needing any shiny gloss on her writing life she is also about to say:
So much of my life here is precarious. I cannot always believe even in my work. But I have come in these last days to feel again the validity of my struggle here, that it is meaningful whether I ever “succeed” as a writer or not, and that even its failures, failures of nerve, failures due to a difficult temperament, can be meaningful. It is an age where more and more human beings are caught up in lives where fewer and fewer inward decisions can be made, where fewer and fewer real choices exist. The fact that a middle-aged, single woman, without any vestige of family left, lives in this house in a silent village and is responsible only to her own soul means something. The fact that she is a writer and can tell where she is and what it is like on the pilgrimage inward can be of comfort. It is comforting to know there are lighthouse keepers on rocky islands along the coast. Sometimes, when I have been for a walk after dark and see my house lighted up, looking so alive, I feel that my presence here is worth all the Hell.
The unshiny truth for Sarton was that being true to herself, with all the doubts and internal struggle, was meaningful and chosen. It didn’t need dressing up any more than that.
And its shiny mirror
Sometimes the unshiny truth has a shine all of its own: the honesty, the vulnerability, the being true to the self. And sometimes the unshiny truth lives in the same moments as another perspective—one that is filled with light and laughter.
On those occassions when I write a letter to friends catching up on our year I always know that I could tell two opposite stories and both would be ‘true’. I could list the books written, the trips taken, the successes and new ventures of various members of my family. The picture wouldn’t be false, but neither would it be whole. Or I could write about health challenges, losses, fears, the days when everything unravels. I, and I suspect most of us, could pen a ‘true disaster’ from any given year. It wouldn’t be a lie but neither would it be the whole story.
Living and writing both/and
Our lives are so much more often forged in paradox. For me, the truth is that 2023 was a horrific year and a wonderful year. Some years will tilt more one way than the other but even the worst will have their exquisite moments of love and wonder and even the best will have their passages of pain and sorrow.
The deeper truth, though Christmas letters may well not be the best place for telling it, is that it’s the collision of the shiny and unshiny moments that make our stories interesting and meaningful and worthwhile. And it’s also the case that we when live in the crucible of paradoxes, which is not always the most comfortable place to be, our perspective changes. We find, like May Sarton, that the hardest of experiences might also be spaces where we come to a deeper self-understanding. Or, like the artist in the Welsh Marches, we begin to see new shapes and patterns in the mist.
Whatever story you want to become this year, whatever story you want to write this year, here’s to its paradoxes.