The cheerful Christian teleologies with which I grew up had the self on some kind of graceful trajectory towards knowledge. This might not be communicable in the language to hand nor even available in the fixed-term agreement of this life, but it would, we inferred, nonetheless arise. This expectation I carried into the apostasy of early adulthood unchallenged. Retrospectively, I see how readily it was elided by the world of the liberal arts in which I was immersed. Knowledge, self-actualisation, accommodation of, maybe even mastery over, one’s considerable limitations: these were the Protestant pathways that were also trammelled by atheists aplenty, even atheists like me whose scholarly topic was, more or less, ambiguity itself.
This is the kind of hindsight to which one may not easily attach a hashtag, but there it is. I am 40 now (old enough to be expressed as a number rather than a word) and find my inner life a series of murky interconnecting hinterways which do not readily give up much insight. The excellent fact of the birth of my children made the readily-retrievable narrative self no long a mind-sustaining exercise but a hobby which was given up with sleep and haircuts alike. How quickly functional introspection atrophied and how quickly a kind of weary puzzlement took its place! Some part of my thinking that was previously so very developed is now, colloquially, abundantly wasted.
Parenting for me is a string of pressured moments in which one must continually get over oneself, to get to the moments of transcendence that also exist. The linearity remains, in the form of the things one must do before the next thing: teeth and hair to brush, socks and shoes to cajole on feet that believe the lie of warmth the double-glazing brings, the motley tumble out the door under press of schedule. Toys to clear, laundry to fold, dogs to dandle before one can sit down and pause in preparation for the next resuming. The self-care that is at present the advocated mode of mental wellness becomes at home a gentle ignoring of one’s own whining child. 40 I may be, but within are a range of historical Mes, and they’re ready to complain.
I am a long way from earlier sorrow-bearing states. It is mercifully impossible for me to be lonely. (This is practical as well as existential and includes the need frequently to remind others that I don’t like being poked in the eyes, nose or throat.) Aimlessness arises in senses almost wholly practical: this laundry, or that laundry? The floors or the bathrooms? My schedule I make my own as fully as any semi-finalist in a singing show. At the same time, routine grinds me under its well-buffed heel. It is not so much that I do not have time for my own thoughts, it is that I do not have time for the extended stillness out of which such thoughts might arise. Where once germinated metaphors now is a space for something else: compost maybe, the site of unused ideas only partly sprung.
This modest graft is a condition of a swathe of lives, of course, and it stands to reason that those forebears who laboured for their survival might assume put off until the end of their days the conditions of their insight into their own souls. But I am also a writer who misses her facility and the former conditions of her mind. Who labours in there now except one who requires food, sleep, who is wedded to her to-do list and the waning tread of her second-hand shoes? I don’t know, but I hope to hear from her sometime soon.