November 2, 2012

On Trying to Keep Still by Jenny Diski

To say that the author of this strange travel book is misanthropic is an understatement. She is a traveller who would rather stay home, dislikes a lot of what she does and sees, but nevertheless describes it quite beautifully, and the realness is refreshing.

The theme of the book is her attempt to be in a very still place. She describes three trips - one to New Zealand for an author's conference after which she attempts a retreat to a remote corner of the country, but finds mostly other tourists. The second trip is a two-month stay at a cottage in Somerset, England. This is better but her cottage is attached to the Farmer's house and her efforts to be alone are foiled by the Farmer (she capitalizes this and never gives a name) who worries about her. Her third trip is to visit the Sami people in Lapland in the dead of winter. She thinks in the endless darkness she might find the peace and quiet she's looking for.

I'm a lot different character than the author (she likes to stay in, I love to be out, she likes inaction, I like action), but I could deeply relate to some of her feelings. I like being alone too, and I like her definition of it:

Being really alone means being free from anticipation. Even to know that something is going to happen, that I am required to do something, is an intrusion on the emptiness I am after. What I love to see is an empty diary, pages and pages of nothing planned.[This is my dream exactly] A date, an arrangement, is a point in the future when something is required of me. I begin to worry about it days, sometimes weeks ahead.

Diski is very funny, never more so than when she's describing her thoughts, or lack thereof. Although she prefers to stay indoors, she constantly thinks she should be wandering the moors and thinking, as all good authors do. They suggest, she says, that the busyness of their lives and thoughts covers up a profound inner complexity of being which silence and stillness brings into the open. For me, on the other hand, all the complexity of my outerness appears to be covering up is an inherent lack of inner person.

Years ago a friend told me she resented her children because they disrupted her thoughts. I said that never happened to me. She said, "Well, what do you think about when you're peeling potatoes?" I said I didn't know, and later checked it out. I was thinking about peeling potatoes. Diski says she waits for her thoughts to come, but really there was only: what kind of day is it? Rainy? Sunny? Windy? Mmm. The horses are there, or not there. The sheep are near by in an upper field or not to be seen. My body warm or in need of warming. Tea? Hungry?

That made me laugh out loud, as did quite a few other descriptions in this  quirky book. The three sections don't really hang together, and in the end Diski spends a lot of time on the culture of the native Laplanders. What I like is her honesty and humanness that allow me to laugh at this crazy world and at myself and feel OK because I'm not even as introverted as she is.

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