On Books, Reading and Loneliness: the Unholy Miracle of a Trinity
It was through reading I became aware of loneliness, loneliness as an oddly comforting thing. When I was younger with my life unused, I spent hours reading, unaware of time as anything significant. I was lonely in a way I couldn’t identify, chalking up my feelings of isolation in this big world as no extraordinary experience. I liked reading about people and how they managed ordinary emotions, like joy and grief, like love. The sole binder between those worlds and myself was in what they felt and not entirely what happened to them. When characters died, I applied the same unfairness I felt about real life extinctions too, like all the people they had left behind were expected to go on with their lives. In those particularly painful moments, I experienced the reemergence of all my losses in neat chronology, the order of their appearances somehow now with intent- like I had to survive the death of my mother in order to manage other lesser degrees of loss that followed. The sustained note of my heartbreak over these make-believe worlds was altogether pure and grounding.
My loneliness in reading and with stories was dignified, too. Not once did it seem like something without value or utilised to chase the hours. More like it anchored me to my own world, made me awaken to the facts of my life with an added responsibility- one I was never sure of, one that could flip on itself in the time it took to flip over to another page. Still I read books and magazines, read the bulky newspapers my father bought after church, their pages wide and letters so tiny, like distant pebbles. I read poetry, short stories, and biblical narratives of people who went through extreme sufferings before the hand of God fell upon them. I wanted to rummage through anything I could find as an alternate world in order to keep mine going.
It was also through reading I had experienced a strange hurting, a hurting that was manifested deeply inside of me but with no bearing on any act done by myself. I would feel a great weight dislodge - from something I’d just read - and move in a single direction, aimed to make me uncomfortable. While reading, I would cry. I would hold things in my throat, my chest expanding violently with threats I couldn’t possibly understand or control. I never understood this when I was younger, my reaction to reading- it embarrassed me, made me feel incomplete and irresponsible, but now these feelings live with me like the memory of my name, like an understanding that may never become inactive.
One evening, many years ago, I thought of my life in attempt to take stock- to know where I lacked and the areas I could withhold; to know the distinction between my failings and quick winnings. Then I was living abroad, still with the many, small comforts of the diaspora life:, like the ability to reflect on socio-political happenings back home with a degree of remove, to confront those events with shame and gratitude, a flush of contentment though not openly confessed. From wherever you are, looking back home is to look at the things you have escaped.
But what I thought of that evening wasn’t entirely home or what I fled from but of myself, the story arc of my life, the simple and extreme noises in my head, and the country inside of me that felt caged. Anyone who ventures into such an act of reflection is setting themselves up for a magnitude of feelings, and mine came in form of a raw ache, like a physical confirmation of failure. I did not like the outlook of my life. I could feel untold stories shake violently inside of me; feel the frequencies of my visions, the possibilities I thought I ought to possess by virtue of my intellect. Yet what stood in front of me was a nothing, a vast emptiness staring back at me as if in dare. The insides of my hands was nothing too, just random lines cutting across each other, folding over a glass of liquor. I poured myself some more drink. I listened to music. I checked my phone for access into the lives of strangers. I waited for the feeling to pass.
In the days to follow, I braced myself for my anxiety over that evening to turn into some sort of resentment and then to blame but it never did. Which made me feel nestled in a controlled measure of safety, like I was neither in a violent rain nor in the warmth of home, but was standing underneath an awning simply waiting for the rain to cease. I read some more, reading myself into a form of security, acknowledging though slowly that my aliveness was the only viable currency to love and pain, to success and failing and by the very nature of that, I was exposed to everything and at once.
It is a habit I am only now wearing off, like forgetting the particulars of a failed relationship- one of reminding myself that there are things we will understand and there are things that do not belong in our thoughts, and attempting to efficiently manage both will always foul the air.
Every time I read, it seems to me like I have departed my life, left everything owned and owed. The fortitudes of a good book are the fortitudes of a good friend, though it seems unlikely to exact what is a summary of my favorite quote from E.M Forster, solely because I have read many, many great books for which to have its numbers replicated in friendships is, I suspect, to have amassed quantity over quality relationships. But there is a handsome satisfaction in recognising the utility of language, the generosity of words, which is that it always reminds us we are not alone, not isolated in our sufferings or feelings of inadequacies; however convinced we are of this thinking by way of things going on in our lives, the people who leave us or fail to love us. What a strange thing it is to write, to make manifest the many visions of aliveness in ways that are potent. What a lovely thing it is to read, to find myself, my life, all of my worries going on somewhere, quiet and loud, messy and organised, to find it again and again, going on still.