She knew she should really be social. She knew she should go into the dining hall, but to her it was like a lion’s den. Literally, when she walked into it she felt like she was walking into a lion’s den, the fear in her heart and the pounding in her chest were as dramatic. She had been to that place, but it was terrifying. The high vaulted ceiling which magnified every sound and the other teenagers who she really should try and make friends with, but who she could not understand, who frightened her, for no apparent reason, but after many years of reflection, perhaps because they were too overwhelming for her: their fast conversation, where she couldn’t make out half the words, their social hierarchy, which was determined more or less by the laws of the jungle, and at which she sat firmly irrevocably and eternally at the bottom, right underneath everyone else. So here she sat, rooted to the spot, gazing at the walls, the white walls. Her soul was stretching out on those walls, reaching out for someone, reaching out for a person, humanity in general, but all it could find was cold hard stone. Words echoed around and resounded in her head ‘chrysalis’, ‘singularity’, ‘supernova’. Would she ever be able to blossom and become a butterfly or would she die an old woman, still as unfulfilled and spiritually small as she was now, and her soul spread out like a supernova, but an empty supernova, which was never really a successful sun or universe. ‘You have to go to the people, because the people will not come to you’. She went into the bathroom, which was also all white, eerily white, and blank, like she was. And the corridors were also all white. The white corridors which she haunted like a white ghost, a shadow of a human being.
This is a poem Eleanor wrote when she was in school:
Teach Me How to Play
Teach me how to cry again
Teach me how to pray
Teach me all the games you know
And teach me how to play
Tell me all the jokes you’ve learnt
Explain to me their mirth
May I laugh in your company
May I have a second birth
Sing me all the songs you know
Show me how you dance
I want to learn them all you know
And join you when you prance
Take me down from Calvary
And put me in your midst.
I want to relish all your smiles
I want to start to live.
The German gym teacher smoked, but otherwise she was very friendly. She approached Eleanor one day and offered help. She had seen the situation and found that previously, in similar situations, she had been able to help friendless individuals. All the previous girls she had helped had noticed some subsequent improvement in their quality of life, as a result of her intervention. Eleanor agreed to the gym teacher’s intervention. After all, she had nothing to lose, they were all of them strangers anyway, and nothing, no matter how strange, could possibly make them more distant towards her than they already were.
It was the end of the gym lesson, time for lunch and the big discussion. Eleanor sat with her bag packed and ready to escape, back to the wall. This was it. She stared at her feet, unable to move. Now of course was the most inconvenient time possible to freeze and feel sick, but she couldn’t help it. She just wanted to get it over and done with. There was a hammer banging on the inside of her head, the sort of sensation one gets when going to bed and trying to sleep straight after a fairground ride whilst drunk. To see it all as a bad dream was clearly the best option. This could not possibly be real. It could not possibly have come to this. Yet he who is in desperate need is unwise not to ask for it.
She felt relieved because she did not have to do anything, the German gym teacher did it all for her. She was very open and honest about the situation in a way that Eleanor could never have been. Then all she had to do was wait for the girls’ response.
At first there was silence. Then finally they spoke. The ringleader was the first to speak. Tall, muscular and intimidating, she said that it was too late. Unbeknown to her, they had all already formed all their social networks, which were full and complete to overflowing. They did not have space, there was no-where to accommodate her. Others said perhaps she would find friends at university, which at the time was 3 years away. The teacher tried to defend her, tried to impress upon them how hard everything was that Eleanor must be going through. She tried to impress upon them the harshness and cruelty of their statements. But Eleanor herself was mute, much as she wanted to, she could not speak. She was frozen. She could not say all the things she wanted to say. It wasn’t just anger she wanted to express, it was deeper than that. She wanted them to understand what it really meant to be her, how they made her feel. It wasn’t really compassion she wanted, because compassion on its own doesn’t solve anything. It was help. She wanted them to teach her how to connect with people. She wanted them to make allowances for how difficult she found it. She wanted them to really understand the situation, what was going on, and undertake practical steps to solve the problem.
She understood that the love of peers, contemporaries, colleagues was conditional, but she had not appreciated up until that moment how conditional. It appeared that the reason they did not love her was because she did not expose herself enough to the media. They felt she should listen to songs on the radio, watch movies, find what she liked and deliberately exaggerate that taste, become a caricature of herself to stand out against the background, and become interesting to others. She found this idea of exaggerating ones tastes to form an identity quite interesting. It was a bizarre way to define the self, less interesting and personal than the dreams she had of helping people, even sainthood. It was only later that she would come to realize that before being able to help people one must first learn to relate to people, and that the vast majority of people do in fact do this through a great deal of the media. Apart from the information overload, what prevented Eleanor spending any significantly large amount of time engrossed in the media was that she was tired of being a mute person who only received input. She wanted to output into the world. She wanted to write books and paint pictures that other people would see. She did not want to listen. She wanted to be heard. It was only later when she became more confident and felt she was achieving something in her life that she felt able to listen to the radio and the television. Then the unproductivity of these activities no longer disturbed her. It was more something calming, a relaxation, an input to balance all the output in her life. It seemed that unless she too spent so much time absorbing vast quantities of media information in a world that was already informationally so overwhelming she would not, could not possibly be interesting enough for them. She could often not remember to pack everything in her schoolbag, or even find it, let alone the names of famous people or who was doing what on which programmes, or the times of popular television programmes. Getting the TV timetable and co-coordinating it with her poor sense of timing was too much to cope with. But they did not, could not possibly understand this, because no-one had ever explained it to them.
Quickly they seemed to tire of the whole talk show atmosphere, and asked Eleanor to say something. They seemed to think it was unfair that they were doing all the work, that they had been asked to raise a finger before she did. They asked her to speak, but she still could not say anything. For months, for years after that point, she would remember that moment and wish that she had. Life is often that way. It deals us many opportunities, but blink and you miss it. They did not allow her enough time to respond. Another minute, even another few seconds of silence would have done it, would have broken fear’s hold on her. She would have thawed enough and least to speak, even if it was only with a shaking voice and eyes gazing at the floor.
Perhaps again, it was something less like an electra complex. At the time she believed that God was using this image to give her a message, that the man who had this physical appearance would be the man with whom she could read and sing and pray. Whilst many physical qualities of her imaginary man were desirable, the paleness was not. So she deduced they were more like markers, the signs by which she could find the man she would most easily and best be able to relate to on a spiritual level. She would often wonder, and implicitly believe, whether this was not a preliminary connection to her soulmate, the love of her life, who she would meet one day. He would be shy too, but he would rescue her from this shyness, and she would rescue him. And together they would manage to encourage each other to go out into the world and con
Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors? Out they toddled from rugged Avila, wide-eyed and helpless-looking as two fawns, but with human hearts, already beating to a national idea; until domestic reality met them in the shape of uncles, and turned them back from their great resolve. That child-pilgrimage was a fit beginning. Theresa's passionate, ideal nature demanded an epic life: what were many-volumed romances of chivalry and the social conquests of a brilliant girl to her? Her flame quickly burned up that light fuel; and, fed from within, soared after some illimitable satisfaction, some object which would never justify weariness, which would reconcile self-despair with the rapturous consciousness of life beyond self. She found her epos in the reform of a religious order.
That Spanish woman, who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind. Many Theresa’s have been born who found for themselves no epic life wherein there was a constant unfolding of far-resonant action; perhaps only a life of mistakes, the offspring of a certain spiritual grandeur ill-matched with the meanness of opportunity; perhaps a tragic failure which found no sacred poet and sank unwept into oblivion. With dim lights and tangled circumstance they tried to shape their thought and deed in noble agreement; but after all, to common eyes their struggles seemed mere inconsistency and formlessness; for these later-born Theresa’s were helped by no coherent social faith and order which could perform the function of knowledge for the ardently willing soul. Their ardour alternated between a vague ideal and the common yearning of womanhood; so that the one was disapproved as extravagance, and the other condemned as a lapse.
Some have felt that these blundering lives are due to the inconvenient indefiniteness with which the Supreme Power has fashioned the natures of women: if there were one level of feminine incompetence as strict as the ability to count three and no more, the social lot of women might be treated with scientific certitude. Meanwhile the indefiniteness remains, and the limits of variation are really much wider than any one would imagine from the sameness of women's coiffure and the favourite love-stories in prose and verse. Here and there a cygnet is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind. Here and there is born a Saint Theresa, foundress of nothing, whose loving heart-beats and sobs after an unattained goodness tremble off and are dispersed among hindrances, instead of centring in some long-recognizable deed.
George Eliot-Prelude to Middlemarch
This poem is written about my friend whose dream it is to work with women in the shantytowns in Latin America.
Tonight I will go out on the shantytown
And walk the streets of this city.
I do not pretend to be a saint
Nor will I ever be.
Tonight I will see the run-down buildings
In the inky, smoky blackness
See their beauty
See the children run to play
On the rubbish dump
And beg at the break of dawn
And I will be deeply happy.
I do not know why there is beauty
But if there were no shantytown
Would love shine so brightly?
I will go alone, or maybe
I will take someone with me
A good friend, a companion
For all that weighs on my heart,
Makes it weary
A broken heart too is a beautiful thing.
I do not pretend to be useful.
I will relish in my uselessness
I will accept it
But remember Mother Teresa
With her drops of water
In the ocean
Maybe where you walk
Feet of angels go behind and before
And do the work for you
Maybe I am not entirely useless
Maybe there is something I can give
An embrace, a cup of cold water
And maybe there is something I can take:
Confidence, companions, love.
The Beautiful Atheist
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended; she is bored and tired,
Endeavours to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defence;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronising kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…
T.S. Eliot-The Waste Land
He opened the drawer. Amongst the electronic paraphernalia that spoke of his intelligence it contained a hair band and a necklace. The hair band had on it two flashing horns and the necklace a crucifix. ‘Aha, I wonder what this is…this is my memorabilia from the women I’ve kissed.’ The irony of the juxtaposition of the devil and Christ in that woman who had kissed him, whilst most probably unintentional, was a mockery of the church. However, whilst the wearer may have been unawares of the irony, he was not, and neither was Eleanor. He was all too blissfully, and she was all too painfully aware. That symbols of faith and treachery could be worn in juxtaposition in such a light-hearted manner seemed to Eleanor at that moment a very strange thing. It seemed that to him, these ornaments were trophies of his previous conquests. More than that, they were symbolic of his triumph over the faith that had oppressed him when he was little. She saw the little boy forced to attend mass against his own will and she wanted to cuddle him. Whilst there may have been reasoning with the little boy who was not yet so disenchanted there could be no reasoning with the man she now saw before her, or at least it would be much harder. In that moment, she wanted to be a man. She wanted to have the wit of a man. She wanted to make him see that what he was doing was wrong, but she felt powerless. Was that all she was to him, then, a potential conquest? Did he not value her heart, her mind, her spirit? She knew in that moment of course that the point of his actions was to make her jealous of this other woman, to lose her faith, and to kiss him. However she could not, because this would go against all her beliefs, and everything she stood for, everything she silently screamed for, and no-one could hear. Maybe one day she would find her voice, and then it would be worth it, it would be worth resisting him.
Every time she encountered him her whole body would begin to ache for him. Even looking at him put her in so much pain that she knew could only be eased by cuddling him. Interesting, that desire could be so strong that when blood rushed to the skin it could produce a sensation of vague pain and longing. However, she had to withstand this devilish desire to save him. She knew she could not be just another of his conquests, otherwise she would have lost the battle. She knew that to retain any power in her discussions with him she had to remain distant from him, no matter how much it hurt. Often she would go to the bathroom in his house and pray for strength, pray for the strength to withstand the devilish magnetic pull he had on her. He said she was like a computer with a virus, her faith was the virus. It overtook her mind and destroyed her reasoning completely, according to him. But according to her? Well, according to her, he was 2-dimensional. The ‘virus’ she had could perhaps appear as a virus to an outsider, but really it was a code. She knew that she loved him more than he loved her, and yet she longed for him to change his heart, change his desire, and pray with her. She desired the impossible. It was her heart’s deepest, most unspoken desire. But she did not tell him. Perhaps that was her mistake. But then probably if she had he would merely have used it as one of his parlour tricks to convince her to kiss him.
Then one evening they were standing by a pool table playing pool. He wanted her to lie down on the pool table and kiss him. She told him that her aim was to wait with kissing until she’d found the person she was going to spend the rest of her life with. Surprisingly he admired her in this aim, even wishing her good luck. But he said that she was missing out one very important thing: the male psyche. Apparently, men were programmed differently and could not wait so long with kissing. Upon hearing this she thought that that made sense, he was probably right. It was not until many years later that she realised the wisdom of this statement. Time is so long and life is so short and the heart aches so much for company that perhaps one does not have to always wait for one’s husband, the perfect person, the night in shining armour. Perhaps it is enough to kiss a kindred spirit, someone whom one knows very well, and loves, and has a deep connection with.
I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing
The Waste Land-T.S. Eliot
She took a risk and wrote on the piece of paper what was really on her mind. ‘Will I find true love?’
Then they had to turn over the piece of paper and close their eyes, waiting for the answer to come back from the angels. All she could think of was that line from the Tracy Chapman Song.
‘Let me speak the word that precedes bliss:
love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love.’
It was in that moment that she realised that before she could find true love, painful as it was, she would have to disassemble this conglomeration of desire she had formed in her mind, as if one person could meet that desire. She would have to fight to do all the things she’d always wanted to do, alone. There was no knight in shining armour, no man of her life coming to rescue her. She would have to do all these things alone.
Whilst the mental picture of the girl who waits alone in the white corridor for them to come, for him to come, but who remained abandoned for minutes, hours days, weeks years, for maybe about 13 years is a terrible one. Perhaps there is something to be gained from this pain, this mental picture. Perhaps in a way it is more empowering, more feminist than the one in which the man rescues her. Because sooner or later she will grow stronger, strong enough to do the impossible, the inevitable. She will pick up the courage and the strength to stand and to walk out of that corridor, down the stairs, and face all the things that terrify and haunt her. Sooner or later she will look inside her heart and find it is stronger than she thought, more resilient. Sooner or later, because she is sustained by air and food and water, but longs for company, she will find it, even if only as a beggar who is so hungry but only finds a couple of scraps of food. Because she never had anything in terms of love, she has nothing to lose. She cannot possibly have any less love than she does now, unless she loses even God and is damned, and so she knows that she can bear it, she can bear rejection, because she has bourne something worse for 13 years: not daring, and not knowing, because she was always frozen. In the animal kingdom there are the fight, flight or freeze responses. And all her life she was always the frightened animal who froze. If she can unfreeze, if she can break through those walls of fear, then she can do it, although this, she knows, will be has hard as a ghost trying to transubstantiate, to become matter, a physical body. She has always been a ghost and now she wants
On the inside looking out
The walls will not break down
It should be the duty of the strong to protect the weak
The confident to unfold the shy
They talk too fast they know too much
They do not understand
The invisible shackles
I move to a different place
The air is lighter, the people warmer
I see what I once was
But I have failed
I cannot break down the walls
On the outside looking in