Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

It is, I say, the happiest I’ve been: For a single, mid-life season to be out of doors all day, open to the elements and whoever comes, and in the official role of writer-in-residence after two years of writing without an audience and roaming the Downs, wondering what on earth had possessed me. Yes. The happiest I’ve been: To be, a little while, the spirit of a place, haunting my favourite part of a town I wasn’t born in but might just belong to now, through effort. I’m thinking here of poet Ted Hughes’ beautiful letter to his growing son, hoping it is true:

The only calibration that counts is how much heart people invest, how much they ignore their fears of being hurt or caught out or humiliated. And the only thing people regret is that they didn’t live boldly enough, that they didn’t invest enough heart, didn’t love enough. Nothing else really counts at all.

It was bold, in middle-age, a late starter at swimming and writing both, to put a little table by the side of a lido and begin. To come back again and again and show how much I love this place, and with no plan for what I’ll do when it shuts.

It was bold too of a few, then dozens, then hundreds of pool-goers to come over and share their soul stories. I’ve received confessions of unrequited love and unrealised dreams; listened to passages of poetry or prose that people know by heart but have never said aloud before. There have been: tears; coincidences; friendships at first sight; visitors who asked for minutes but then stayed beside me as the morning passed into afternoon. Other people’s children have brought their colouring things over and spent quiet half hours lying on their tummies by my feet.

Swimmers have travelled from other lidos to do laps and be photographed by the swimming-pool library. Sunbathers have let themselves be challenged and changed by the sight of me at work: ‘There you were, dressed in a way that enabled me to imagine you as a woman from a more ancient time, some older being who knew what it was to focus on something important…You helped me to step into a space I often don’t give myself permission to occupy,’ wrote one woman, then a stranger, now a friend.

Writers have visited, gifting their books. Artists and sculptors have come to look over the material side of this mile of longhand, which I myself find monstrous or beautiful depending on my mood, the weather.

And all the time: the water, the flint wall, the hornbeam trees that the pool-keeper spent three weeks freeing from ivy seven years ago so that they are tall now in a way hornbeams aren’t as a rule.

Connection. Nature. The happiest I’ve been.

So nothing could account for the savage loneliness that blew through me in this last full week. I said it aloud with a few folk. Sounding it out. Depth-testing. Oh, you hate endings, remember they said, knowing me. And I do, so I kept quiet after that. Forced myself to kneel to yet another  blank line of 150 ft, thinking it might only be a deep fatigue – the sort a channel swimmer gets, when they sleep though their arms keep moving.


Hey Tanya, hope things are good and I am wondering if we might be able to do 12 on Thurs rather than tomorrow? x

It was my photographer, reminding me of an arrangement I’d forgotten. Our first sessions had been wildly successful – got us both picked up by an arts & fashion magazine run by creative types half our age, more – and this was a late season follow-up.

I was about to check in with you about this: I’m having a tough week – things going so well interest-wise that I feel a bit like a stripped wire…I’m sure we can do some more after end of pool-season if not before because of your work… Sorry for short notice. x

I sent the message then sat blank a while, staring at the scroll, the water. Though I’d only known him in passing before this season – parents who shared a nursery run and a few children’s parties years back – I felt him now to be someone deserving honesty.

Worried that my last one sounds ungrateful – I do want to do more work with you (it’s been high point of project) I’ve just hit a bit of a low this week unexpectedly…The way the pool looks after a rowdy bank holiday – litter-strewn, untidy – is how I feel when encounters with folk have been a bit too intense or boundary-pushing (and that is all part of the work & what I wanted to explore – not an unforeseen side effect). What I didn’t foresee was the savage loneliness that has got hold of me this week & which makes no sense as I’m surrounded by interested/interesting people as never before. Complex – haven’t found words for it yet.

There it was. Loneliness. Stone in the shoe, lump in the throat, grit in the gut lonely. I got cross at myself. Now I’d be left owning it, and getting no response, or the wrong one again. Idiot. A season free of all the professional responsibilities of my husband and friends, and I wasn’t completely happy. Fool.

This is what came back. It’s long, but worth it, and this whole piece up to now is only a setting for this lapidary thing. Wise words on loneliness from Mr Whyte… he writes me. (The poet and philosopher David Whyte this is: We discovered a shared love of him when I was submerged in the pool with my headscarf on, trying to look authorial while Steve photographed me from all angles, flattering and not). Wise words:

Loneliness is the substrate and foundation of belonging, the gravitational field that draws us home and in the beautiful essence of its isolation, the hand reaching out for togetherness. To…make aloneness a friend is to apprentice ourselves to the foundation from which we make our invitation to others. To feel alone is to face the truth of our irremediable and unutterable singularity, but a singularity that can kiss, create a conversation, make a vow or forge a shared life. In the world or community, this essential singularity joins with others through vision, intellect and ideas to make a society. 

Loneliness is not a concept, it is the body constellating, attempting to become proximate and even join with other bodies: through physical touch, through conversation or the mediation of the intellect and the imagination. Loneliness is the place from which we pay real attention to voices other than our own; being alone allows us to find the healing power in the other. The shortest line in the briefest e-mail can heal, embolden, welcome home and enliven the most isolated identity. Human beings are made to belong. [Consolations, Whyte: 2015]

Read that again. Loneliness is the hand reaching out for togetherness. Loneliness is the place from which we pay real attention to voices other than our own. The shortest line in the briefest email can heal, embolden, welcome home, enliven…

This is what has happened. What I call my Wild Patience might equally be Wild Longing. Because what are these absurd, alluring pool-length scrolls and my public tending of them, if not longing made material? And it is my wish  – embodied so fully that I’m down on my knees – to create that sense of belonging for myself and those around me.

Heal, embolden, welcome home, enliven. All of that – and more – has happened for me and others on the far edge of this unlikely setting for a brief and unrepeatable season.

5 thoughts on “Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer

  1. Tanya thank you. Thank you for the welcome you gave me when I journeyed to Pells from N London and arrived to be met by name by you. When you saw me bent over my notebook and pen and said, ‘ah so you’re a writer too’ we connected in a way I had not expected and I sped away worried I was being moved to the edge of tears. Thank you for the magic of that sunny July day, and thank you for helping to immerse me in Pells.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I didn’t know, Claire, that what I said resonated with you this way. I’m glad it did though. There have been lots of tears this season & all to the good. Hope we can meet again poolside, and at your lido this time, and soon. Thank you for your kind comments about the project.

      Liked by 1 person

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