Reading reminds me of why I love to write.
Of course, not all books are equal, neither are our former loves. Often those first big atmospheric reads are first loves that stay with us for a lifetime in ways that are hard to explain in words.
As a little girl, I cowered under a candlewick bedspread to read late at night at my grandparents house from the ‘abridged’ faux-leather volumes of titles offered by the Readers Digest on the shelves of the spare room. It felt a little bit naughty, reading those grown up books, looking for secrets…
I remember reading ‘Wuthering Heights’ in my teens, in my bedroom with its thin framed windows no defence to the lashing of the wind and rain, in a small cottage sunk beneath hills cradled in the palm of thick chestnut woods. I read from my single bed, aged fourteen or so, occasionally shivering and glancing at the window, wondering if that was Cathy was there. I loved that book and it was very good of Kate Bush to sing about it.
When I was nineteen, I drove from Johannesburg through the Karoo to the Cape in South Africaand stayed a night in the colonial outpost of Matjiesfonteen. I spent the night in what had been author Olive Schreiner’s bedroom, in a little white weatherboarded annexe, and I read there her book ‘The African Farm.’ I stayed awake all night to read it.
‘The full African moon poured down its light from the blue sky into the wide, lonely plain. The dry, sandy earth, with its coating of stunted karoo bushes a few inches high, the low hills that skirted the plain, the milk-bushes with their long finger-like leaves, all were touched by a weird and an almost oppressive beauty as they lay in the white light.’
I had the most tender and awakened feeling that night, with the words of someone long dead in my head. I have that feeling now when I write. It’s a tingling, a childlike apprehension of being close to, loved by and cared for by something immense and hidden. The only words that have ever come close to it are these by TS Eliot which I remind myself of when I begin to write:
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
It is a feeling that is far removed from the day to day aggro of paying the bills or filling the car with petrol, though it can occasionally touch us and feel our collar in those moments too. I had an old friend, dead now, who used to step outside last thing at night and say goodnight to the stars. Sometimes I can be at the petrol pump, and be a million miles away. When I read, and when I write, I bring all of that other space into the small space of the present moment and the page.
Part of me is still there in the Karoo with Olive Schreiner in my head. She will never know me, but I knew her.
It makes me think of the last thing Raymond Carver wrote to his wife Tess;
‘I’m grateful to you, you see, I wanted to tell you.’
It’s that feeling that guides me as I sit down write; gratitude, I guess.
I wonder what you want to say and to whom? Perhaps when you go to bed tonight with a wonderful book, in the still of the night when it’s just you and the author, you’ll think about it for a moment and shudder to know that someone so far from you can be so close to you.