The existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre famously said ‘Hell is other people’. The quote originated in his play No Exit with the scenario of hell being trapped for eternity in a room with two other people.
This quote came up in a recent Zoom conversation I had with an old friend. He immediately responded with the opposing claim that ‘Heaven is other people”. My friend is an urbanite who lives in a fashionable part of a big city and spends his days in restaurants, theatres and galleries. Although I used to enjoy that kind of lifestyle years ago I’ve since voted with my feet and moved to a village in a remote part of the UK. Here I prefer the company of wild birds and animals to people and I limit my social interactions to mostly online. I have turned into a recluse for sure!
So I kept thinking about why some of us seem to need people more than others. Which category do you fall into? Are other people hell or heaven to you or a bit of both? Is it simply a matter of introversion or extroversion or the conditions of our early childhood?
I was an only child and spent time in an isolation hospital at the age of three. So being alone feels safe to me. My happiest memories revolve around nature and my wonderful animals. Not people. My parents were unhappy dysfunctional people and I have survived two marriages to men who turned out to be abusers. This is a common experience. We often talk of humans being a social animal but just look at how many notable people became happy recluses in the later part of their lives:-
Brigitte Bardot, Carl Jung, Marlon Brando, Greta Garbo, Michael Jackson, Caryll Churchill, Paul Cezanne, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Scargill, Brian Wilson, Marcel Proust, Yves Saint Laurent, Harper Lee, Michelangelo, Stanley Kubrick…
So who are you? Do you prefer a mad social whirl or talking to trees? ARE OTHER PEOPLE HEAVEN OR HELL?
The cries of curlews hang silver in the morning light my heart glides
Each year we have curlews nesting on the ground in the back field where cattle graze. Each year chicks are lost to predators including cats, buzzards, foxes and owls. One year the farmer ploughed up the field nest and chicks and all. The parent birds work so hard to protect their offspring. Night and day they circle around emitting a raucous warning cry. Sometimes they dive bomb me in the garden but I don’t mind although those long sharp beaks look a little scary! I worry about those chicks. But some must survive and in the spring when I first hear the beautiful curlew call I am filled with joy.
This weekend I discovered the most marvellous novel that I’d never heard of before. Its called The Wall by the Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer, first published in 1968. Although classified as science fiction and ecofeminist it is really a profound philosophical meditation on solitude and the relationship between humans and the natural world. It contains beautifully intense descriptions of the close bonds that we can form with animals without being sentimental. The story is set in the Alps and recounts in diary format one woman’s struggle to survive in total isolation. The mysterious transparent wall that appears over night is a metaphor for the divisions between us all in a time when we interact with screens more than other living beings. The book was ahead of its time in anticipating many social and environmental issues we struggle with today. The Wall is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read and I would absolutely recommend it particularly if you are a person with a love for animals and nature.
Do you ever wonder why some people seem to lead charmed lives whereas others, no matter how hard they try have nothing but bad luck? Some say we make our own luck. I think this is true only up to a point. The truth is shit happens to good people. And what about the expression, to have the luck of the devil? Or the good die young? Many of the most beautiful, intelligent and kindest people still end up getting cancer or being killed in a car crash by a drunk driver. In fact the most terrifying things are beyond our control and that is why humans have invented religion. For protection.
The ripple effect takes place when one massive disaster befalls a person, eg. a serious illness, war, an abusive parent, and this leads to other negative consequences. More and more bad luck follows like a chain reaction, eg. illness – loss of job – loss of income – loss of home – loss of friends or partner who don’t want to associate with someone they label as a loser – loss of self esteem which leads to bad decision making, depression and even more bad luck.
Too often in our therapy obsessed world we end up blaming the victim. Therapists may suggest we are the ones who need to change, we have distorted perception, wrong attitudes, etc. Is this necessarily true? Or were we in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person? We employ this weird magical thinking…..did your house flood because you are a negative person or because it was built on a flood plain by an unscrupulous builder. Yes, we must take responsibility for our own lives but we are not to blame for everything. I was once told by a so-called friend that my disability must be due to my evil actions in a previous life! You’ve got to laugh! And this woman was a teacher working with disabled children!
So yes, let’s be positive and try our very best to live an honourable life but we are not responsible for all the sins of the world. Call it Fate, call it Luck or God but there are forces beyond our control.
I was whisking up eggs, sugar and cottage cheese last night to make Syrniki (a type of Ukrainian cheesy pancake) and suddenly realised the rotary whisk I was using must be nearly as old as myself. It is still going strong (unlike myself 🤣) I remember growing up in the sixties and watching my mother whip up sponge cakes using that same whisk as I waited eagerly to lick out the bowl. Ooh yummy! When I married at the age of eighteen my mother gave me that whisk along with a load of other domestic paraphernalia, a sort of perfect housewife starter kit. Obviously didn’t work as I divorced seven years later!
What vintage objects have you got in your kitchen that you still use regularly? Rotary whisks are no longer in fashion as most people have electric blenders and food mixers now. I’ve always been averse to gadgets. You spend more time cleaning them than the time you save. I like the tactile quality of a wooden spoon and the physicality of cooking. My other vintage kitchen item is a cook book from 1980 which arrived with my new oven. It contains recipes for 80s favourites such as Chicken Maryland, Cheese Soufflé and Creme Brûlée. I still refer to it often. So…what antiquities do you have lurking at the back of your kitchen cupboards?
I am always astounded by the strength of life force in nature if unhindered by human activity, the pollution of drugs and chemicals. A few weeks ago I cut a couple of branches from my Woolly Willow tree (yes, it’s really called that or Salix Lanata if you want to be formal). They were covered in gorgeous catkins and made a stunning statement in a vase in my hallway. When I decided to throw them out I was surprised to see they had grown roots so now they are destined for a new life in the garden next to their mother tree. Happy trees! I have many different willow trees; scarlet, golden, black, purple, Swiss, a ground cover variety, one that has spectacular black catkins in the spring. It is a wild, windy and wet location and yet they thrive. Branches may break off in a storm but they go on undaunted. If only we humans could do the same.
For the last few nights I have jolted awake every hour or so in panic and anxiety about the situation in Ukraine. My parents were Ukrainian refugees during the second World War and I grew up in England. Throughout my childhood I heard horror stories from my family about what they endured when they fled their home at short notice during the Nazi invasion not knowing where they would end up and carrying only the few belongings they could gather. Today I wept upon seeing footage of Ukrainian families having to run for their lives just like my own family did seventy years ago. I still have cousins living in Ukraine and God knows what is happening to them. I feel powerless to help. My mother’s home city of Dnipro was bombed today by Russia. I am glad she is no longer with us and spared the knowledge of this atrocity. She died three years ago. As a gesture of support and solidarity for the Ukrainians who are now homeless and terrified I am posting my poem ‘Heartland’. It is based on my mother’s story and is one of the poems in my recent book, The Rush of Lava Flowers available on Amazon.
The train is leaving but I am here in a yellow room with curtains of sky. The door is chained from the inside, the lock and the mirror are broken.
The train is leaving and you’re not here. The prints of army boots have scarred the wood I once polished on my hands and knees with melting candle wax.
The train is leaving, I can hear it’s wail. On the sunlit balcony above treetops where the birds have fallen silent, a young boy hangs from a rope.
The train is leaving to I know not where but my cat is hungry, my roses wilt, poor Mishka waits on the window sill and they will not fit in my suitcase.
Will I find you arched across wild waters? Will I see you in the sparks of burning pines? Will you shimmer like an island in an ocean of wheat? Will I smell you in the northerly like the promise of snow or grass that is limpid green? Will I meet you in the white lines in the middle of the road? Will I catch you like a ghost in a speaking mirror? Will I taste you in buttermilk pancakes or tea sweetened with cherry jam? Will I feel you in the blue fur of a cat? Will I discover you folded inside yourself like a secret at the back of my wardrobe? Will I fear you in my dreams of showers without water or scroll you on my screen as a drone follows the River Dnieper Mama once swam? Will I hear you in the trains as they scream through the night?