Truth as of a City
A man may be in as just possession of Truth as of a City, and yet be forced to surrender.
Religio Medici, Thomas Browne
Admiral Booth lived his last years in the area of London known as World’s End, an apt place for a man who had once rowed out onto the Thames in order to avoid having to declare that he resided in the city, and who now wished to end his days in obscurity. At the end he was nursed by his companion, Sophia, who all assumed was his wife, the Admiral swallowing down his last spoonfuls of milk and brandy. It was only some time after he died that the residents of World’s End found out that the old man who had shuffled around in a naval greatcoat was no admiral, that his name was not Booth.
I have stayed inside lately, as I suppose we all have. It has felt best to just stay out of the way, and while I know this is the direction from government for most of us (and how unsettling it feels to type those words), I am not sure everyone feels this way. As I look out my window people are still milling about, buying their daily newspaper, tinkering with their car, pushing a child on a bike. And so beyond the official guidelines, and beyond my reservations around how quickly the world has fundamentally changed, it just feels right to be home. An exterior life already feels peculiar. I have always been happiest at home, I think. And obviously now, more than ever. It is the only thing that really makes sense. And I’m not even sure of that.
The garden is still there, something that anchors me to the past and whatever future there might be. The bulbs are springing up, gifts from my autumn self. I thought the tulips might not work, but they look pleasingly alien next to the equally peculiar cordyline.
A lawn to be mown, a bed to be weeded, shrubs to be pruned, until the garden re-emerges from its winter state into something resembling what it might be in the coming months.
I cut back the dogwood. I was sad about this, as the bright red shoots have brought me great joy throughout the last few months, a weird alchemy of nature where they seemed to shimmer and glow most of all in the worst weather, when colour and light and life are needed most, yet in such short supply.
But cut them I did, as this is my investment in the future. The newer the wood, the brighter the bark. I needed to cut everything down and have faith that there will be new growth, new light, a recovery.
A placed some of the cuttings in a vase, brought the vase into our home, a reminder of a past, a promise of what is to come. The bark is duller, but still red, except for a few moments each afternoon where the sunlight through the window catches it all just right.
It is funny how different an enforced lockdown must be, as opposed to a self-appointed one. There is a psychic toll, a constant hum of worry, or just uncertainty. What next? A question that presents itself in all manner of contexts, which in turn means it is very hard to settle to anything.
This isn’t the exile of finally writing that novel, learning to paint, working on core strength, getting to grips with baking, learning that language or whatever else one might ideally have in mind when given a stretch of time to be filled. Right now, it feels like the focus is just getting by. Cooking a meal. Watching a cosy sitcom. Listening to a favourite song. Nothing too taxing. Seeking out comfort. Any kind of distraction from wondering what now is home, work, society, whatever else. And what will those things be.
My hands are cracked from all the washing of them. I want to capture and remember these little details, how it really is to be alive now, before it gets swallowed by any grand narrative. While many are going through, or are about to go through, a tortuous time, for many more of us we just have to find a way to lean into the strangely banal heroism of staying indoors. I chose a good year to keep a diary.
I am very lucky to have a large to-read pile, mainly very generous gifts from a recent birthday. I am dipping in to them. I hope I’ll have the time and concentration soon to read more. Flicking through social media pages feels necessary, to know what’s going on, but is draining. Books are a refuge.
I read some pages of Thomas Browne. A voice from hundreds of years ago helped to settle me, made me feel part of a longer story rather than just an oppressive present. I found myself rereading passages, struggling through the meaning, but eased by a voice that glides, reassures, yet questions, a balance between faith and reason.
He quotes the latin, Certum est quia impossibile est, “is is true because it is impossible”. This is in reference to his faith, if I have read it properly, that true faith should be based in the impossibility of it all, that if it stood up to reason then it wouldn’t really be faith. And I guess, as such, that is what gives faith its strength and its power. It is beyond reason.
It feels like we are living in deeply unreasonable times, in the sense that it is hard to make sense of anything, where little is clear, where hour by hour life can fundamentally shift. My outlook on the world frequently jolts in an unlikely direction, a kind of vertigo. And so I feel compelled to cling on to something, so I can re-orientate, get my bearings, or at least slow this lurching feeling. I suppose that is a kind of faith, an acceptance of the impossible, an establishment of some kind of truth.
I knew this was coming, but only in the sense that I knew the unknowable was coming.
We have had bread delivered, beer too, so the essentials are in hand. The sky is the most beautiful blue, a blue I have not seen for a long time. I am with my family. These simple pleasures are the most powerful. I have faith in what is most important, I have to have this faith. What is love, if not faith? What is hope, if not faith too?
The beer is called Anchor Bay. If you are to walk along the stretch of the Thames after which the beer is named you will likely come across a petrified forest, understood to be thousands of years old. As I drink, I ponder all that has passed since those trees first appeared out the earth. I settle on a scene of them, already it petrified form, overlooking the final journey of the Fighting Temeraire, as it made its way from Sheerness to Rotherhithe, it’s glories behind it, its final course set.