Discover more from Jeanette Winterson: Mind Over Matter
SUMMER SOLSTICE 2022
Longest Day Shortest Night
I am sitting in my kitchen at 10 o’clock at night writing to you.
How are you?
I know its been 3 months since I last wrote. A lot has happened to us all around the world. The world is the small place where we live - your kitchen, my kitchen - and then there’s the globalised snow-globe of a world, continually shaken up and disrupted, whether by trade, or wars, or politics. In the kitchen, we’re putting food on the table, and trying to hold things steady. Outside, it’s anybody’s guess. A lot has happened since we last sat down together.
How are you?
It’s a simple phrase: How are you? Unpack it, and there are so many subtle suggestions in there. In English, it’s a shortening of ‘how are you doing/going?’ In French, the simple ‘Ca va?’ holds the idea of movement, because it uses the verb ‘aller’, ‘to go.’ ‘How’s it going?’ Old-fashioned Brits used to ask ‘How do you do?’ In England that became ‘How do?’ ‘Howdy!’ in the USA.
How are you… managing at all? How are you… surviving this? How are you coping?
Even with money and freedom these are difficult times to be alive. As the money dwindles and freedoms disappear, ‘how’ gets harder. How can I feed my kids? How can I pay the bills? How are we going to survive?
We don’t know other people’s stories, but we know our own, and we know how hard we try, and we know what we deny, just to get through the day. We know we lose it, sometimes, too. So when that jerk irritates you, when then car cuts you up on the road, when one more person demands one more thing, ask yourself of the other: : ‘How are they doing, today?’
People are not doing so well today. And some of us can cope better than others.
Toddler-rage at any age is becoming the behavourial norm. That doesn’t make it normal; it’s a sign of civic dysfunction. Trump. Putin. Bolsonaro. Orban. Fox News. Anything with Rupert Murdoch attached. The UK Government. The method is Scream. Shout. Blame. Or DARVO: Deny. Attack. Reverse Victim and Offender. We live in this psycho-drama every day. It’s tiring. It’s undermining. It makes us callous and confused.
So let me ask you: How are you being? Not doing, or going. Being
How are you being you? Have you had to make adjustments? Are you keeping yourself together? Can you distinguish between what the world wants of you and what you want of yourself? The you that is a performer. The you that can come off-stage? Can you come off-stage? Are you OK with who you are when no-one is looking? Have you got any time to be who you are, or are you being somebody for others, all the time?
Do you recognise yourself?
A lot of questions, but, like I said, we haven’t sat down together for a while.
I’ve done a lot of doing, these last 3 months. Looking after friends who were suddenly, unexpectedly, seriously ill. I wanted to be there. just there. I went and did a TED talk in Vancouver in April for the TED conference. I had that TS Eliot centennial lecture to give, in London, and a teaching term to finish, and all the stuff of life and work, and I wasn’t sure if I would come back here, because I still don’t know if ‘connection’ is part of the problem or part of the solution. That is, so much has been damaged by social media, and it’s not clear to me yet if this is just the dystopia of early days, because we haven’t figured it out, or if humans can’t live well in a deluge of posts, ads, insta, doomscrolling, buzzfeeds, likes, and yes, even Substack.
I don’t know. But here I am.
Being. Doing. And it’s the Solstice. That is, the sun standing still, or seeming to, on this, the longest day in the calendar for the northern hemisphere. If you are in the southern hemisphere, this is the shortest day. But that’s real connection. The world is connected today - and there’s nothing the world needs to do - just to be.
The balance between being and doing is hard. We are obsessed with doing - and when we are not doing, we are looking at our phones, which is the doing that has replaced being. How to build a self ? How to find time to reflect? Time off has become the exercise class, self-improvement, a trip to the therapist, a vacation where the to-do and to-see list is longer than anything we manage in a day back home. It’s exhausting. Is it still possible to sit with your back against a tree, or on the riverbank, or go for a walk, or a bike ride, without your phone? To read a book without checking your messages? Is it possible to be quiet? Is it possible to be?
Tonight is quiet and still. In the old days our ancestors would have lit bonfires to encourage the sun. To stave off the dying of the light. Life is short. We should feel that we have lived, that we have achieved something, whatever that means to each one of us. Self-respect. Achievement. Endeavour. Those things are important. Trying your best is important. I work hard. So do you. I guess we work too hard.
But there’s more. And that’s the being of you. Who are you tonight? Any night? Do you know that person? Is she a stranger in the shadows? Is he a lonely twin? You can meet yourself anytime you make the time.
Some nights there’s time to walk outside. Some nights there’s time to let the natural world in. Sounds. Silence. Dark. Even in the city we can find it. And these summer days when dawn is here so early, don’t miss it, even if it’s just once, to be there before the world wakes you. To be.
The Solstice, and the days that follow are a time for you to be. It’s nearly midnight. I’m going outside. There’s a candle in the window and I won’t blow it out. You’ll know where I am.
How are you?