‘It happens that I am going through a period of great unhappiness and loss just now. All my life I’ve heard people speak of finding themselves in acute pain, bankrupt in spirit and body, but I’ve never understood what they meant. To lose. To have lost. I believed these visitations of darkness lasted only a few minutes or hours and that these saddened people, in between bouts, were occupied, as we all were, with the useful monotony of happiness. But happiness is not what I thought. Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head. It takes all your cunning just to hang on to it, and once it’s smashed you have to move into a different sort of life.’
Unless, by Carol Shields
It is more than a decade since I first read the opening to Carol Shields’s novel but at any moment during those years I could have quoted its first sentence by heart. It spoke to me, yet I had no reason to think it held personal meaning. I appreciated it, and the rest of the novel, for what it was, and remains – the accomplished, elegant, yet understated prose of a writer writing at the very top of her form. Unfortunately, as it turns out, it was also speaking to me of a time in my own life that was yet to come.
In the novel, Shields’s writer character Reta Winter is suddenly stricken when her eldest daughter abandons university and the family home to sit mutely on a street corner in Toronto with a sign around her neck that reads ‘goodness’. And it so happens that I now find myself caught in a period of great unhappiness and loss; weirdly, it is for roughly the same reason as poor Reta.
With this shattering of the lucky pane of glass and the move into a different sort of life, I have begun to wonder whether when we read something and are struck by it, is it because of a subliminal awareness that we are reading forward into our own future? Can novels really foreshadow human lives? Perhaps if the signs are in place years before things go wrong, we might be drawn to literary expressions of the probable outcome. However, I am in a time of muddled rather than magical thinking, and am more than likely wrong about this.
Like Reta Winter, I can find no off-switch for my sadness. Nothing works. Doctors are willing, but it is not depression, and there is no pill that can be prescribed for sadness. The different sort of life Shields speaks of is, for me, a gradual withdrawal from the people and places I once took pleasure in. Friends, even family, don’t know how to respond. The death of a child would be more shocking but the pain would be easily understood, whereas the ambiguous nature of this loss leaves others with no clear protocol to follow.
I am deeply interested in the concept of solace. I keep wondering what the source of it might be, or if it exists at all. Writing is not a solace, nor should it be. I have never seen that as its purpose. I carry on writing because it has become a fundamental part of who I am, though it is fair to say that the crafting of sentences can be so absorbing that there are stretches of time when I am not aware of much beyond the page. But the different sort of life has even changed the way I write. Fiction, once a passion, interests me less, because nothing I invent is as compelling or tormenting as the real life present.
In Unless, Reta goes into a cubicle in a women’s washroom in a Toronto bar and writes on the back of the door: my heart is broken. It’s an impulse she recognises as ‘dramatic, childish, indulgent, grandiose and powerful’, but at once she feels a release of pressure, which she ascribes to having set down words of ‘revealing truth’. I am guessing it is this same impulse that lies behind my recent switch to writing non-fiction — an instinctive move to let some steam out of the boiler before it blows, and at the same time write something true, though not, I hope, self-indulgent.
As I write this it is December, and the Christmas season increases the pressure on most people’s happiness glass. There has been a surge of Facebook posts on the theme of remembering that others may be having a hard time, reminding us to deal kindly with them. The people who ‘share’ these posts are probably dealing with some shattered glass of their own but they are rarely open about it, for the defining feature of social media is its social competitiveness, the relentless way it drives us to be seen to be winning, to be always smiling.
This is a shame, I think. Because it means that most of the time we are dealing with fabricated rather than real lives. It happens because we do not have the tools to deal with people who are grieving. Loss makes us uneasy; we might almost believe it to be contagious, whereas it should only make us mindful of our own happiness, a tool to help us cease taking goodness for granted.
Carol Shields was writing Unless when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It is not too fanciful to imagine that details like the title of Reta’s novel —My Thyme Is Up — hint at the author’s grim prognosis and what she must have been going through at the time. Despite this, Shields described herself as having had a lucky life.
I’ve been lucky in friendship and lucky in love. And, having a lot of the big pieces of life: having children, having consuming passions, intellectual passions. That has enormously enriched my life. There are all kinds of things that I know nothing about, but I always had something that consumed me. So I think I’ve been lucky, and that has given me a sense of happiness.
It is this element of luck that exposes how dependent we all are on the people with whom we share our lives. Without question, if something goes badly wrong with someone we love our happiness glass will shatter. It brings to mind a difficult Buddhist teaching, the concept of Dependent Arising, the truth that must be realised if one is to be freed from suffering.
Every hour of every day, there are people around us struggling — perhaps with frightening medical diagnoses that include invasive tests and procedures, with personal anxiety, and lack, and just about any negative state of being it is possible to imagine. I have no doubt that there are ways to show them kindness that do not imperil our own happiness. We could begin by not seeing openness as a threat. And by resisting the impulse to put so much spin on our social media lives.
So, aside from struggling to understand and adopt the principles of Dependent Arising, what measures have I taken to identify a source of solace? Well, it’s a small thing, but I bought a picnic table. It means I can take my work out into the garden, and when my concentration on the sentences slackens I can watch the wind stir the leaves, and the birds coming down to drink from the water bowls I fill for them. Whatever the state of my day, the birds keep coming and the wind still blows.
When there is this, that comes to be. And where there is a picnic table, sooner or later there will be a picnic. In this simple truth I put my trust.