By Nuala O’Connor
“Hope is more crucial than ever in these pandemic-clouded days. My radar is always up for a new way to find it, and this, from poet Seamus Heaney, popped up in my Twitter timeline the other day: ‘. . .hope is something that is there to be worked for, is worth working for, and can work.’ A thought to cling to in these strange days.”—Nuala O’Connor
Perimenopausal anger frequently takes me by surprise. The hormonal swill it comes from feels like an alien starburst in the galaxy of my body. I snarl, I rage, I want to disappear to some place – an island – where no one will speak to me or touch me; I want to close my borders to the world. The guilt that follows one of these hormone-fueled outbursts is gargantuan. How can my family stand me? But this anger, though unexpected and unwanted, is real and feels more alarmingly present as the years pass. I just wish the rage didn’t smother me, fog up all rationality, kill all hope.
A kind of wild forest blood runs in your veins, Mary Ruefle says in her essay-poem “Pause,” and though she is perhaps being metaphorical, my blood actually does fizz through me when I’m agitated, it hisses through my body’s network of vessels like a demented messenger. But what is the message it wants to give? That old age awaits? That reproduction is over and I’m free? That I have entered new territory and this place is one I’ll have to navigate alone? That this is where invisibility begins?
over my sleeping self float flaming symbols of hope. So wrote e.e. cummings and I take his words to bed with me each night—a mantra, a soporific sentence to lull me into calm: over my sleeping self float flaming symbols of hope.
When the hormonal madness is waterfalling through me, there are things that can comfort. A room empty of other people, especially if it has a wide bed and old windows. Exploring a city alone is a great self-soother, the freedom from coming to conclusions—except with yourself—about everything that’s in front of you. Stretches of water, marine or otherwise, are soothing. A forest walk, heckled by the squabble of pheasants, ditto—something in their crazy bark is cheerful and, therefore, acts like a balm. Green fields bracketing swathes of golden rapeseed also calm me. Silence, particularly the quiet after city-noise, thrums in my ears and calms me, an unexpected joy.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers wrote beautiful Emily Dickinson, that purveyor of verses tight as corset lacing, intricate as basketweave. Why the special emphasis on hope, dear Emily, why those inverted commas? I always stop to wonder, to interrogate that, so that I slow down enough to meander through the rest of the poem and appreciate hope’s unstoppable nature, how undemanding it is, in Emily’s world.
The determined nonchalance of a brindled pigeon in Santa Clara, Lisbon, reminds me of my one-eyed black cat, Nora Barnacle, at home in Galway. Far away in Portugal, I’m shocked at the bulge in my throat, the leak from my eyes. Am I one of those women now, an actual cat lady? What about my husband? What about my kids?
It’s nothing to do with the cat, of course; it’s to do with absence from home, and raging hormones and longing in general. Perimenopause has me up-turned from crown to rump; I can’t seem to feel, or see, or think, roundly. Thoughts fuss and fidget in my head, bashing against one another like so many wasps in a jar, and I don’t know whether I should come or go, go or come. Often the fog feels impenetrable and I give up and concentrate on untaxing things until it passes. But that’s hard when you’re miles from home and working, which, for me, means I’m in the middle of performative work, like a conference or festival, and there’s little alone time.
What I do know is, that when lucidity returns, I’m in a tunnel that is narrow, enclosing and long. Will I be 10 years going through it, I wonder, when all this pausing is said and done? More than 10? It’s a lonely place, this underpass from fertile, energetic being to whatever awaits. And though, generally, I’m happy in my own company, these days, when I’m alone, I often feel lonely, I want companionship. When I’m with others, I crave to be alone. There is no place to just be. I rummage around, not sure where I want to settle, other than not in the spot where I am.
But a body in flux is still a body and it still has to be lived in. It still must carry you alongside the people you live with, and through every tunnel, too, and onward, one hopes, into a place of light.
Salvadoran writer Manlio Argueta writes in his novel One Day of Life, “Hope also nourishes us. Not the hope of fools. The other kind. Hope, when everything is clear. Awareness.” I feel aware, even in the peri-fog, but not clear. Clarity only comes when the fog lifts, but it’s nebulous, it slides from my grasp as fast as melting ice. I’m not sure it’s true clarity anyway, it may only be insight buoyed by good humour. Awareness as wishfulness.
On a group writer exchange abroad, I and a fellow introvert sit alone and apart at the back of the coach. The other writers cluster at the front, chatting. Part of me would like to join in, another part is too drained to muster yet more words. Trips away from home have become increasingly hard as I hurtle towards full menopause. I am truculent, narky, ill at ease in the company of other people who are mostly strangers to me. I feel awkward and unable to bend myself to the needs and expectations of others.
Truculence is, of course, defense; it’s swallowing whole paragraphs of argument. It’s vast irritation with shouty, me-me-me types. And interrupters, a breed that gets my goat rather swiftly, those non-listeners, those hark-at-mes. I dislike smugness, too; I’m put off by those who openly delight in their own ideas and achievements. I more naturally gravitate towards silent people; they always have more to say that’s of interest to me. They talk little and say much. My kind of company. Hence the back of the coach.
This business of no longer enjoying tranches of time away from my family is to do with “the change” as much as introversion, in the sense that it’s to do with mortality. At 50, I realize there is finite time left to spend with my husband and kids and it feels uncomfortably wasteful to squander hours away from them, when I could be at home, enjoying them.
If you join all chinks of hope together, they make a necklace that can’t be broken writes Jude Higgins in one of her beautiful flash fictions. What a joyous concept: hope—wearable, unassailable hope—as adorning armour, as accessory.
I sometimes disregard years of my life as if they didn’t happen, as if I achieved nothing because at this moment I feel like I’m not achieving much, or as much as I’d like to or expect. I choose to forget all the good I’ve done, while the bad things stick to me like so many burrs. Memory is a fickle dramatist, she replots and recasts as she pleases.
The fact is I’ve achieved, and done, plenty. Maybe the issue is in the whole concept of achievement, that competitive spur to do better and better, more and more. I’m trying to learn how to do nothing. I find it exceedingly hard. After a lifetime of doing, and a brain that doesn’t seem to know how not to whirl and loop constantly, I need to learn stillness. Virginia Woolf described her head as a hive of words that won’t settle. My hive, too, buzzes and bleats, reminding me of all that has not been and may never be. Again, this is to do with weighing the years left against the years already gone. Did I squander my “wild and precious life” as Mary Oliver would have it? Is there time to do more of the good stuff?
Tonight, once more, I’m a stranger in a stranger’s house, in a tiny midlands town and a B&B that’s decorated in late ‘80s green-n-peach. It’s day one of a period that might or might not have showed itself, my cycle is now so impossible to predict.
I prefer my own bed on Day One. And Day Two. Day One is unpleasant, at best. I worry about sheet stains, about mustering friendliness at the literary festival I’m here to work at, about public weeping. Tiredness pulls me like the rubber on a sling: taut and long, a forced drag through my body. And my mood puddles, it won’t be contained or raised. I want to be at home.
The morning of Day Two sees me in a stark breakfast room, empty but for a Mr. Horseman and his on-the-spectrum daughter who, when she learns I’m a writer, tells me loudly that Robinson Crusoe is the best book ever written.
“What are you doing here?” she roars.
“Teaching poetry,” I offer.
“You’ll surely teach Oliver Goldsmith,” she bellows.
I’m not worth talking to when I say that Goldsmith is not on my agenda.
Back in my B&B bedroom I Google “The Deserted Village” and revel in its melancholic rage:
And, even while fashion’s brightest arts decoy,
The heart distrusting asks, if this be joy.
My German teacher taught us a Hermann Hesse poem Im nebel, “In the fog,” that I instantly loved. I was as lugubrious as a teenager as I am in adulthood. Hesse wrote, Seltsam, im Nebel zu wandern!—tacking on that oddly exuberant exclamation mark. Strange, to wander in the fog! I repeat this line to myself often, trying to make sense of the dayfog and nightfog that characterize my mind. My thoughts spill and loop but often seem to be outside my grasp, as if there are two brains in my skull: one intent on narrating, the other on living. Both of them foggy, but active.
Day Five and the fog lifts. I think, I wish I could feel this clear headed and calm always, though happiness does feel like a form of hysteria to me—a jangling nerviness tends to accompany any joy that I feel. I’ve learned to accept, and sort of enjoy, a high, but I still stand back in wonder from it: do other people feel this sort of cheerful equilibrium often? Pretty consistently? For me this balance is a teeny post-period window, a few days of plateau that soon gives way to sheer cliff and down I go, sometimes with a gradual slide, more often at a breakneck plummet. Maybe anxiety is the fear of joy, not the absence of it.
In the film The Shawshank Redemption, the main character, Andy Dufresne—wrongly convicted of his wife’s murder—says, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.” A new mantra to carry me through: Hope never dies. Hope, for me, wavers often. I profess myself finished some days, too deep in the well to bother to climb out but, when I’m genuinely honest with myself, I see the roundel of light above, the slender fragments of hope that sail along the skyline.
Thank you, Andy Dufresne, thank you indeed for the sweet reminder. I will repeat your words to myself often as I negotiate my way onward through the peri-fog. Simply this: Hope never dies.