Mary Oliver; Loving the Work

Many years ago now, when I was struggling to understand the limits of my responsibility towards people who were sad or suffering, my therapist gave me a poem to read by Mary Oliver.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old rug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations –
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.

I thought it was a wonderful poem that fulfilled literature’s brief, as formulated by Chekhov, that ‘a writer should not provide solutions but describe a situation so truthfully that the reader can no longer evade it.’ I promised myself I would read a great deal more Mary Oliver, but it wasn’t until this year that I finally bought myself a copy of Dream Work, her collection from 1986.  A short while later, I read that Mary Oliver had died, and as is so often the case, a wealth of articles followed that told me a great deal more about her life than I had previously known. What I read was a depressingly familiar story of a woman with immense talent, transmuted into tangible success, who was nevertheless regularly disparaged by the critical elite in the poetry world. So it was for reasons on a number of levels – personal gratitude, solidarity of the sisterhood, and a strong belief that Oliver’s poetry expresses a way of living we desperately need to embrace if the 21st century is to become survivable – that I felt I wanted to do some critical justice to her work.

Mary Oliver was born in 1935 to a sexually abusive father and a neglectful mother.  You would not know this from her poetry which seeks not the release of the confessional, but the relief of turning one’s attention elsewhere. Walking in the woods of Ohio while reading Walt Whitman was her route to escape and renewal. She became fascinated by nature, by self-expression, by the spiritual life. When she graduated from high school, she decided to take a trip to Edna St Vincent Millay’s home in Austerlitz. There she met Edna’s sister, Nancy, formed an immediate friendship and moved in, for several years, to help sort out the late poet’s papers. She went to live in New York and then, on a return visit to Austerlitz in the late 50s, met the photographer, Molly Malone Cook, who became her life partner. The two women lived for the next forty years in Provincetown. Quietly. Unobtrusively. Just getting on with things.  Oliver published her first collection in 1963, won the Pulitzer in 1984, won the National Book Award in 1992. None of this went to her head.

For Mary Oliver’s poetry was – is – a practice of devotion as much as it is – unarguably – an art. ‘If I have any lasting worth,’ she said in a rare interview late in life, ‘it will be because I have tried to remember what the earth is meant to look like.’ If you’ve ever read any Mary Oliver, then you will know that a profound, vital attentiveness to nature is the foundation stone of her work. In Dream Work, the subject matter might be turtles or marsh hawks or starfish or clams, but each receives a portrait of startling vivacity and insight, one that understands the nature of its being. Oh wildlife, you might say to me. Well, lots of poets write about that. What makes Oliver special? And it’s hard to put into words, but I’d say it’s because the looking and the attention matter viscerally to Mary Oliver. It’s not about being clever with words. It’s about finding a way for the poet to be plugged into the main circuit of the universe.

Every morning I walk like this around
the pond, thinking: if the doors of my heart
ever close, I am as good as dead.

This comes from ‘Landscape’, and expresses with characteristic simplicity and directness the bond with the world that breathes through every word of her poetry. But can you guess where she takes it? This is what happens next:

Every morning, so far, I’m alive. And now
the crows break off from the rest of the darkness
and burst up into the sky – as though

all night they had thought of what they would like
their lives to be, and imagined
their strong thick wings.

I think what Mary Oliver understands is the extent to which we are earthbound animals with dreams of going beyond ourselves. For me, her poems only reach their full potential when humans, and their unbearable humanity, get bound up in them too. Oliver’s poetic patience, her attention, never flinch even if faced with brutality or futility. But unlike so many other poets (and yes, Ted Hughes, I’m looking at you), the violence of nature is only a fragment of the whole, and not necessarily the most important part at that. Oliver taps into the dignity, self-sufficiency, tenacity and grace of the animal world, and she remind us how close our dreams of self-extension are to these other attributes, how much we desire them, how maybe we want them even more than power and violent conquest, but gave up on them as being too difficult, too subtle for us, a long time ago.

‘You do not have to be good,’ runs the first line of one of her most famous poems, ‘Wild Geese’. ‘You do not have to walk on your knees/ for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting,/ You only have to let the soft animal of your body/ love what it loves./ Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.’ Nature, Mary Oliver understands, is our Home. It is origin and end point, it is sustenance that is both physical and spiritual, it is allegory and information. If the world were not exactly as it is, we could not exist exactly as we are, and it is only the monstrous egotism of man that obscures the nature of our dependence. But if we are completely a part of the natural world, then what we see outside has something to tell us about who we are inside.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

What the critics who underestimate Mary Oliver fail to understand is that her poetry does not ask the reader to analyse it, but to live it.

***

I don’t know about you, but every morning lately, I seem to wake to a world that is a little more crazy, a little more corrupt and unethical than it was yesterday.  It feels like the end of times, or at least the far extreme of an argument pushed to its limits. The argument is, I think, one for selfish capitalism, its components are certainly those of narcissism, venality, grandiosity and intolerance. In the confusion that this has created, I offer Mary Oliver as a kind of North Star by which we might orient ourselves again.

Mary Oliver was not interested in fame or riches, or the spoils of power and influence. No wonder those literary critics were disdainful; she eschewed the great game they were playing in which they decided who was in and who was out. I often wonder whether Oliver had read the psychologist Alfred Adler, who was writing about a hundred years ago with astonishing prescience about the courage we need to find to be normal. Adler believed that we were all longing to be extraordinary in order to overcompensate for early wounds, early fears, and that we equated in consequence being normal with being incapable. This was a dangerous position, Adler felt, because when the project of being exceptionally good failed, then we were tempted to make the leap to being exceptionally bad.

Mary Oliver knew something about this. The poem ‘Shadows’ opens with the lines

Everyone knows the great energies running amok cast
terrible shadows, that each of the so-called
senseless acts has its thread looping
back through the world and into a human heart.

The poem is about the difference between the damage human beings can do, and the damage caused by natural disasters – ‘I mean/ the waters rise without any plot upon/ history, or even geography.’ Oliver writes. ‘Whatever/ power of the earth rampages, we turn to it/ dazed but anonymous eyes, whatever/ the name of the catastrophe, it is never/ the opposite of love.’ The quality of cruelty in the human world is of a different order, rising so often out of the failure of the desire to be exceptionally good, which curdles into feelings of hatred and envy. Though I think we may have created a category of catastrophe that neither Adler nor Oliver imagined, in our new, radical uncertainty about what good and evil look like. But both had the same solution to the problem – and that was to focus consistently on the work we were destined for, the work that is intrinsic to being alive.

Adler believed we had three main tasks to undertake. These are the tasks of friendship, of love and of work. In each case we must attend to learning and understanding what constitutes service to the community, what loving another person means, and what our individual purpose might be. Adler was very firm about the dangers courted by intruding upon another person’s task. (For this reason he was completely against parents ‘helping’ their children to do their homework, but I digress.) The point here is that these are the tasks that are given to each and every one of us to accomplish, and it is not doing those tasks that blights our experience of being alive.

Mary Oliver has an even neater formulation. As far as I see it, she rolls all three tasks into one: ‘To pay attention,’ she wrote. ‘this is our endless and proper work.’ Oliver had a very special kind of attention in mind, and she defined it when writing about her partner, Molly Malone Cook, after she died. She described how:

watching M when she was taking photographs, and watching her in the dark room, and no less watching the intensity and openness with which she dealt with friends, and strangers too, taught me what real attention is about. Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness – and empathy – was necessary if the attention was to matter.’

I think, if I read her right, that Mary Oliver is advocating a way of being that is the complete opposite of how we often live today. She had no interest in insecurity, pride, the relentless tracking of threat, the indulgence of competition. Her poetry invites us to turn ourselves outward, away from the demands of the ego, and be profoundly attentive to otherness with compassion and curiosity. And here I bring Adler forward again. The attention we give in this way is not supposed to be extraordinary, and it is not intended to intrude on the tasks of others.  Mary Oliver did not try to save the world; she simply undertook her work of being a terrific poet. She was clear, repeatedly, that salvation was was a problem for the individual. In the poem ‘Dog Fish’ she wrote:

And nobody gets out of it, having to
swim through the fires to stay in
this world.

And look! look! look! I think those little fish
better wake up and dash themselves away
from the hopeless future that is
bulging towards them.

And probably,
if they don’t waste time
looking for an easier world,

they can do it.

***

Back in 1938, three years after Mary Oliver was born, Sartre made literary history with a character who, staring very hard at a tree, and its root in particular, nearly drives himself mad. The problem with the tree root is that it resists definition in the mind of the male protagonist. Whatever words he chooses to describe it, those words are not precise enough, not satisfying enough, and in this battle between vocabulary and veracity, the real threatens to win. Roquentin risks going eyeball to eyeball with existence and out of this terrifying struggle the doctrine of Existentialism was born. And a bleak, loveless doctrine it is too, exhorting mankind to have the courage necessary to live in an alien and meaningless world, taking responsibility for the overwhelming freedom of being alive. What would Existentialism have become, I wonder, if a poet like Mary Oliver had gazed at that troublesome tree root instead of a short, egotistic, entitled, male philosopher? It would still have been about full presence in the moment, but significantly, it would not have been about the battle for mastery.

Existentialism can be read, I think, as an exhortation not to be exceptionally bad in a world that is indifferent to our attempts to be exceptionally good. It has its chip of a heart in the right place. But it could not free itself from that desire for overreaching heroics. Camus came a little closer to fundamental acceptance in his myth of Sisyphus. Describing how the gods condemned Sisyphus to roll a giant rock to the top of the hill only to have it roll back down every time, Camus said that we must imagine Sisyphus is happy. He meant that the smallness of life might have its pleasures, even if he wasn’t quite sure what they were. When I look at Sisyphus through Mary Oliver’s eyes, I wonder whether he rolled that rock to the top of the hill again and again because he loved the magnificence of the view.

What if we were to swap overreaching and dominating and achieving for living alongside and paying attention and reflecting? What if we understood the enormous power of nature to be something we might respect? What if we realized that grandiose ambitions are precisely what keeps us away from doing the real work of being alive? And where we are right now, at this point in history, isn’t this meaningful humility something we can’t afford NOT to try?

If you notice anything
it leads you to notice
more
and more.

Any anyway
I was so full of energy.
I was always running around, looking
at this and that.

If I stopped
the pain
was unbearable.

If I stopped and thought, maybe
the world
can’t be saved,
the pain
was unbearable.

 

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The Temporary Gentleman

the temporary gentlemanJack McNulty, the hero and villain of Sebastian Barry’s novel, The Temporary Gentleman, which tells the story of a doomed marriage in the first half of the twentieth century, is not the first of his kind to love his wife in a fatal fashion.

No, he has illustrious literary ancestors that include the haplessly persistent Chevalier des Grieux with his Manon Lescaut, and Charles Bovary whose terminal dullness and inability to give his wife, Emma, any emotional satisfaction leads to her sex-and-shopping fuelled rush to the grave. What’s perhaps most interesting in all three cases is that a showily gorgeous prose style is supposed to balance things out in the man’s favour.

If the story is told beautifully enough, the reader will forgive all? It’s an interesting equation, and one that crops up time and again. I think Edgar Allen Poe may have to stand up for some of the blame, having declared in 1846 that ‘the death of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.’ (Though I’ll let him off the hook for Manon Lescaut which was written just over a century earlier.) This is essentially the impetus behind Barry’s latest novel which is narrated by Jack McNulty towards the end of his life, as he contemplates his marriage to his late, troubled wife, Mai, and begins to perceive maybe the glimmer of a suspicion that he carries a heavy burden of guilt for her tempestuous life and her untimely demise. It was a question that I struggled with time and again across the pages of exquisitely crafted prose: how much did the beauty of the writing compensate for the utter frustrating stupidity of the irritating, denial-ridden, drink-sodden hopelessly oblivious Jack?

Hmm, still not sure.

So, if you are a veteran of Sebastian Barry’s books (which I was not; this was my first) you will apparently have come across Jack already in other stories in which he has been a bit-player. In this novel we begin in 1957, with Jack a ‘balding, ageing Irish ex-major’, hanging about in Accra in Africa, afraid to go home to Sligo. We’re aware pretty early on that back he is going to have to go, as the local authorities have caught up with him for a spot of gun-running. While he waits in limbo, knowing he must leave but unable to shift himself (a pretty common state of affairs for our man), he begins writing about his past:

Maybe now when I think I am understanding, I am instead mistaking everything, but at least I am perceiving something in the place of the great fog that has persisted through my life. A fog that no light apparently could properly pierce. There is a great mountain, and high ravines, and great danger, but the fog says nothing about that, the fog only talks on and on about itself. It is not interested in any fashion in clarity, naturally. But now and then, the fog disperses, and in little gloamings of clear light I seem to see the figures, my parents, Mai, my children, standing or sitting, talking, prosecuting you might say their lives and days.’

When he was a young man in University College, Galway, training to be an engineer and a hard drinker, Jack fell in love with Mai Kirwan, a ‘woman replete, laden with gifts, musical, athletic, clever as a general’. She also happens to be a leg up the social class and therefore out of his reach, theoretically. But Jack displays unusual persistence, and aided by the early deaths of her parents, persuades her to marry him. A teeny clue that something might be up is given when Mai flees the wedding ceremony and runs in the drenching rain to her parents’ house where Jack will find her, half-demented, telling him she ‘wants to go back’. Jack decides to carry on as if nothing odd has happened, and when Mai is given her parents’ home by her brother (a gift that hints at a broader family awareness of the couple’s fragility) they do seem to live the high life in it for a while. Until, that is, the bank manager comes to take away the deeds and the furniture to pay Jack’s gambling debts. We have kept pace with Mai’s awareness of this situation, and so it comes as much of a shock to the reader as to Mai, who rushes upstairs to her hidden bag of coins, convinced she can save the day, only to find it empty, too. They move to more squalid housing, Mai falls victim to post-natal depression, Jack essentially runs away to fight in the Second World War (entirely unnecessary for him, being Irish) in order to escape the situation at home and Mai takes to drink. Jack has already provided an effective example in how to drink, after all.

Oh it’s not like he hasn’t been told. Mai’s friend, Ursula, summons all her courage to make Mai’s mental state known to Jack (‘Whatever you can hear of this, pay no heed, pay no heed.’), and the doctor tries to take him aside too: ‘”Might I just make the observation that your own drinking is very considerable, and not a help to her, especially if you would like her to stop.”‘ To which Jack replies: “‘Well I only drink sociably to be sociable,” I said to my discredit. I think I must call that a lie.’ So what we have here is really a portrait of denial – knowing that is firmly pushed to one side – and also a portrait of guilt. Jack repeatedly tells us how much he loves his wife, and he behaves as if mystified by the collapse of their relationship into abuse and drunkenness, but running through the narrative stealthily and quietly there is this undeniable chain of events and consequences that reveal the ugly truth.

But if Jack can’t help but reveal his guilt, the reader can’t help but be impressed by Barry’s writing. He is a quite brilliant producer of metaphor and simile. Describing his own father in the best clothes he could find to attend the funeral of Mai’s father, Jack says that ‘he looked like one of those old photographs of executed train robbers in America, put out somewhere as a warning to the frontier populace.’ Just a casual description of the days after the monsoon rains have stopped in Africa tells us ‘the mosquitoes are now in a fervent of happiness and hang about everywhere after dark like a crowd of cornerboys in Sligo’. And two of the most striking passages in the entire novel concern extended, extraordinary descriptions of war bombings, both of which spare Jack his life. The first opens the novel, when he is on a supply ship heading out to Accra which gets torpedoed; many good men go down but by sheer luck, Jack survives. The other is when he is training men in bomb disposal in Yorkshire. A random air bombardment destroys the building they are training in, a supposedly safe place for them to be, and kills his company of men, while Jack sits in the bar with a pint of beer.

Perhaps, at the end of the novel, it’s these two scenes of near-misses which stick with me more than the unsurprising decline of his marriage. Why is Jack’s life saved? Is the message of the book that we keep being given second chances until, finally, we manage to see ourselves clearly? Or is it that existence is driven forward by an arbitrariness touched with cynicism, that good men die while the wasters live on to continue creating havoc? In this beautiful, enraging novel maybe it’s that question that ultimately makes it more than the poetic rendering of yet another unnecessary female death.

 

My Experience Is Not Your Experience

I walk into the supermarket. I know exactly where I’m going. I head to the shelves of books for sale and start flicking through them, trying to ignore the glare of the neon lights that fills my peripheral vision. And as I flick through I come to a conclusion: they all sound exactly the same. I call it the deadpan first person present. You know what I mean. Short sentences. The occasional long lyrical one thrown in to prove the author can do it. It’s pitifully easy to write. And quick to read. And I absolutely loathe it.

Gah! Yuck! Awful! Where on earth has it come from and why has it taken over mass market fiction so completely? This year I’ve had a lot of this sort of contemporary fiction sent to me and I’ve found myself increasingly unable to read it. It puts my teeth on edge, like vinyl wallpaper and crepe dress fabric. It’s a very particular and personal response, though, as I’ve never come across anyone else expressing the reservations I feel. After a lot of thought, I realise that what I dislike is the lack of musicality in language like this; which essentially means no affect to the words – no deep-rooted emotion. Oh it says a lot of stuff, and often it’s used in thrillers to talk endlessly about the crisis the female protagonist is going through, but it’s language which is dead behind the eyes.

Well, for me it is. As I was thinking about why I disliked it so, I realised that the world has changed enormously when it comes to reader response. When I read up about it in college, it was stuck in the realm of theory, because no one really knew what readers en masse thought. Nowadays, with millions of blogs and sites like Goodreads we’re awash with the opinions of readers of every shape and size. And what becomes clear is how bizarrely picky we are.

Not long ago, I was at an author event where Sophie Hannah was speaking. She told us about a reader who had come up to her and tackled her about a detail of one of her books. In it, the protagonist had driven a car three weeks after a caesarian section. Given that no one could possibly drive for at least six weeks after such an operation, the woman said, it had put her right off the book. Oh, Sophie Hannah had replied, really? I drove two weeks after mine.

If I ever visit Goodreads, it fills me with terror for the human race, for much the same sort of reaction. I remember reading a review of Curtis Sittenfeld’s novel Sisterland on it. The reviewer had had a complete tantrum over the fact that a character engaged in a sexual act fervently wishes her partner would hurry up. Whoever would do such a thing? the reader fumed. How impossibly rude! She had hated the book after that, given up on it and put it aside as a badly written novel. It was an extraordinary response in many ways, not least because the character in the book is committing adultery at the time, and whilst she enters into it willingly, she is assailed by guilt as the scene progresses. All the context for this event had been removed when the reader read the passage; some idiosyncratic trigger had been sprung and irrational but powerful feelings had taken over.

I think to some degree or other, no reader can really escape this sort of reaction. It’s very human – and equally human to blame the book rather than our own crazy emotions. The greatest incidence of such trigger responses seems to be around this issue of likable or sympathetic characters. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve read reviews that bewail ‘horrible’ people in books that haven’t struck me as horrible in the least. And I’ve read enough books myself with characters endlessly justifying their behaviors (which annoys me) or responding in ways I think are odd, to know I do the same thing.

What it boils down to is, I think, that understanding my experience is not your experience remains one of the hardest laws of reality that we ever have to get our heads around, right up there with getting the fact that people can only give love in their own fashion, not in the way we might want to receive it. When characters in books react in ways that are alien to us, or in ways we think are wrong, or in ways that awaken old memories of hurts and slights, or in ways that are simply not borne out by our own experience, we become distanced from them. They are – quite literally – not sympathetic any more.

Margaret Heffernan in her brilliant book Wilful Blindness, goes deep into the psychological research around this desire for the familiar. We marry people who are like us, we are friends with people who are like us, we search out views and opinions that confirm our own. And mostly, we hate to think this might be true. ‘Human beings want to feel good about themselves and to feel safe, and being surrounded by familiarity and similarity satisfies those needs very efficiently,’ she writes. In one experiment, subjects were led to believe that they shared a birthday with Rasputin, and subsequently they ‘were far more lenient in judging the mad monk than those who had nothing in common with him.’ Trivialities matter. Since 1998, over 4.5 million people have taken Implicit Association Tests that measure bias, and especially the sort of bias we aren’t conscious of having, the kind that makes white doctors friendlier towards white patients than black ones. No point in being complacent – more than 80 percent of us are biased against the elderly. Nobody comes out of this particularly well, even if, as Heffernan insists, we all want very earnestly not to feel these ways.

Well, our book reviews are pretty clear that we are all full of foibles and prejudices, and that we are pretty hard on fictional characters who don’t match up to the internal yardstick. It’s an intriguing thought that books give us one representation of human nature, and book reviews give us another, more revealing, one. Reading is a trick way of looking into a mirror, because we read in the most private part of our minds, well away from witnesses and onlookers. Stories tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the lives in their pages. And what does my own irrational dislike of some innocent writing style say? I’m not entirely sure. But I do know I still have residual fear towards people whose emotions I can’t read, or who are saying one thing while feeling another. I love reading because stories do go beneath the surface, on the whole, they do show you the whole picture. I think I’m irritated beyond all proportion by stories that don’t have emotional depth, while this currently fashionable style is a way of depicting women in crisis who don’t make the reader feel like they’re ‘whining’ or ‘moaning’, which gets a very bad press. But that’s only my reading of the situation… and we all know that’s just personal.

Stress, Creativity and Dancing Kittens

I didn’t mean to take a break from the blogworld – I was overtaken by events, a busy week which culminated in Mr Litlove coming home early from London one day (unheard of) and going straight to bed (even more unusual) with the flu, and he’s there still. Every time he speaks he coughs – well, it’s not so much a cough as the heaving bark of a walrus with a fifty-fags-a-day habit – so it’s been an exceptionally quiet weekend during which I seem to have been auditioning for the role of under-housemaid in the next series of Downton Abbey, endlessly up and down stairs with trays of food. I’m trying to view this positively, as my own little step workout which will have untold benefits to my thighs.

In the times when the bell to the master’s bedroom hasn’t been ringing, I’ve been reading some interesting books. All too appropriately, I was sent one called Stress Control by Susan Balfour, and whilst I’m still in the early stages of it, it seems to me a lot better so far than the average self-help guide as Balfour tries to go deeper and think harder about what causes stress and how we can tackle it. I was interested in the way she talks about holding onto both personal truths and received wisdom in times of trouble. We have to work hard to hang onto a mental equilibrium and soothe our minds, she argues, and I think that’s true. It really is hard work to prevent the mind rushing off into disaster scenarios, or disappearing down the wurmholes of self-pity, resentment or hopelessness. Whereas of course we do have a store of strengthening realisations that have usually been hard-won from other battles with fate. It’s impossible to say what mantra or truth or acknowledgement will work the trick as it’s such a personal thing. But Balfour suggests that such ‘truths need to be polished up and put on display in our lives…we must be proud of displaying our spiritual wealth.’ And that struck home with me as I know I am often indifferent in stressful situations to the wisdom I’ve gained elsewhere. Or perhaps not indifferent exactly, but too distracted to bother with it.

Naturally there are pieces of advice that also strike me as unhelpful, such as the suggestion that one way to rise above the muddle of an argument is to throw in some observation from outside it, for instance: ‘Just look at that beautiful sky’, which sounds to me like a good way to vex the other person beyond all reason. Balfour says this is effective with tantruming children, though in my experience a tantrum occurs when you go beyond the point of ordinary distraction being enough to divert escalating trouble. But what do I know? Maybe I’ll try it next time Mr Litlove has a coughing fit.

The mind in all its magnificent trickery was also centrestage in Christopher Bollas’s book, Cracking Up. Bollas is examining the constant freeflow of ideas, images and thoughts that race through the mind mostly unobserved. Like rush hour traffic, these mental elements congregate around experiences that have a particularly intense emotional resonance, though often they may be simple things, scarcely worth the charge they give us on first appearances. So for instance, Bollas describes one of these intense moments when, passing a record shop he notices an advertisement for Philip Glass’s opera, Akhenaten. He isn’t going to go in, but somehow finds that he does after all, his mind swimming in the memories of the evening when he saw the opera and all that happened then. At the same time, the mention of Akhenaten makes him think of his son who became interested in Egyptian history when he was about five, how the two of them talked about the school project he was working on, and this takes him on a chain of thought back to his own Greek ancestors and Bollas’s conflicted feelings about that part of the world. All sorts of lines of thought are generated by this chance encounter with the memory of a piece of music and when he has finally bought the record and carried on with his day he discovers in the library that he has momentarily misplaced his glasses. Of course he has: glasses, Philip Glass, the glass of the shop window, the slippery glass of the surface of his thoughts. He finds his glasses again.

We live in this soup of dynamic, ever-shifting mental elements that become dense and meaningful when we are brought into chance contact with vivid parts of the external world, and which then disperse in all directions, often simultaneously, as they spawn various emotionally-charged trains of thought. Bollas talks about ‘psychic bangs, which create small but complex universes of thought.’ This is effectively the work of free association that goes on all the time inside our minds; its effects are felt in how we react, experience and respond to everything around us, for every encounter is caught in a sticky web of associations. It’s impossible to experience in the moment – or at least the closest we come, I think, is when we are still ‘reading’ only the book is face down on our laps and we are staring into the middle distance – but parts of it can be reconstructed in retrospect. And because this is the source of all creativity, I think the more aware we are of the existence of these deep layers of thought, the more sensitive and creative we are as individuals.

Susan Balfour talks about how essential daydreaming is to keep our minds free and limber, and for Bollas, too, the freedom of the mind to pursue its endless avalanches of unexpected signification is an important part of mental health. I think this is also why the internet exerts such a power of fascination. When we begin with quite a respectable and justifiable reading of an online review of a book that looks interesting, which leads us on to author interviews in the Paris Review, and then the lyrics of a song we’ve been meaning to look up and then before we know what’s happening, we’re watching videos of synchronised dancing kittens, it’s like we’re just following the normal patterns of the mind, so normal that at some point the process becomes unconscious. Which is how you wake up, faintly alarmed, to find those kittens bobbing their heads to MC Hammer. The internet is just a vast externalised daydreaming mind. But ultimately it’s a time wasting distraction, the video equivalent of looking at the beautiful sky outside the window, because it’s not your own associations that are freewheeling in space, but the borrowed associations of other people.

Thinking about this brought me (via my own rhizomatic byways) to the conclusion that while freedom of mind and pleasure is a beneficial thing, stress plus a freewheeling mind often ends up in catastrophising. We’re back to that difficult place where it’s hard to prevent our thoughts from delivering us into dark alleyways where we’ll likely get beaten up. The mind needs strongholds, places of solidity which we can cling to while the turbulent stream of thought tugs at our legs. And maybe, the more as a culture we permit ourselves all sorts of freedoms, the less able we are, paradoxically, to make sensible calculations about the risks we run, the fears we suffer. Perhaps stress – in the moment we are experiencing it – is the place where we have to limit our creativity and value self-discipline instead.