from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

unheimlich (the art of being a stranger)

Some of you will know from previous posts of mine that one of my preoccupations is holding together the apparently contradictory demands of the human heart for both intimacy and solitude. We live on this line, don't we; and many of our dilemmas involve, to a greater or lesser extent, resolving (or not) these twin pulls. Somehow we have to make peace between the two; we need both, we need to honour both.

As someone who's made her way in the world as an adult entirely through creativity, I'm aware that on the one hand solitude is essential for my work (and for my 'recovery' from 'putting myself out there'), but on the other much of the work itself both grows out of intimacy – with self and Other, whether 'Other' is human or another species or even the elemental – and also attempts to communicate with and about my experience of Other.

Apart from my growing daughter's company – which became less of course as she went to university, travelled and then lived abroad, I spent much of my thirties and forties living alone in terms of human company (with animals and the natural world around me). This has meant being able to follow my own sometimes unsociable rhythms, which in themselves have allowed me to create.

So living with anyone else, no matter how lovely, is a big adjustment for me; more especially if that person is not an 'arty type' with an innate and shared understanding of these needs. It's a big learning and I notice my resistance to compromise: sometimes it seems a choice between relationship and my creative life, though of course a relationship can also be creative in a different way.

As a woman, particularly, I am aware that I can be too 'other-related': this is the ancient culturally-approved norm in our post-Judeo-Christian culture, and many women I know pour themselves out in relationship/s and have little to draw on for themselves. There are cycles in these things, and as always it's 'both/and' not 'either/or'.

For a woman, the Goddesses Hestia (tending the inner flame) and Artemis (the wildwoman) need their time, just as much as Hera (wife) and Demeter (mother).

During my Walden Week I was reading with great joy Jenny Diski's book On Trying to Keep Still. I related so well to the passage below; it allowed me to own my difficulty with continuing sustained relationship with another without feeling it was purely dysfunctional.

Although initially this passage might seem uncomfortable, especially if your need for solitude is well-buried (and maybe your partner carries that need for solitude for you?), it's honest.

'[I needed to] spend a couple of weeks travelling around on my own. Far, far away. In transit. A stranger, unwatched by anyone, no one's concern, wandering around or staying still at will... Wandering, not trying to get home... I had a hankering for being completely on my own after the closeness of my life with the Poet in Cambridge. I had a nagging worry that closeness was wrong for me. I missed being a stranger. I thought that strangerhood was where I really lived, and needed to get to it for a while. Quiet, no one else except for other strangers. The very warmth and pleasure of my relationship with the Poet seemed to me to deafen me. I wanted, I thought to myself, to think – meaning not to be connected to anyone – so that I could hear the echoes inside my head. I felt I was avoiding something I ought to be listening to... I wanted unheimlich* – it is essentially what I am always looking for but of the right kind. Strangeness and strangerness without the blank despair. A matter, I decided, of no one nearby to care what I did, and the far far distance.'

Well. I am sure I'm not alone – and anyone who knows the creative power of the imagination will probably understand this – in knowing that in some ways I need to live on the edge of the new, the unknown and the nearly-frightening, which is a loose interpretation of the almost-untranslatable term unheimlich. Unfamiliar surroundings can prompt the opening of new doors in my imagination; this kind of unsettlement – yes, that's a word that might do it – can allow access, somehow, to a fuller well of creativity than a more settled, cosy, comfortable domestic life can usually provide. I need time like this – which is what my Walden Week was about – as a junkie needs a fix. No – as I need water to drink.

* 'Unheimlich' is often translated as the English word 'uncanny' or 'weird', strange. However, the German term according to Freud has two differing meanings in relationship to its root heimlich: one is homey or homely, comfortable, and 'known', while a less common meaning of the root is concealed, secret, or private.

'Unsettlement' or 'strangerdom' I think do it for me. I'd be interested to know if my German-speaking friends have anything to add to this translation (B?)?


  1. I understand what you're saying, deeply. Time out, time alone, time without others who we want to make comfortable and need to fit in with. Oh yes. I too am in a newish relationship (after just a short taste of single life - one year or so) and as much as I enjoy his company, and we work together and separately and respect each others' space, I look forward to his three months of working away from me. I feel the fox in me longing to creep through the undergrowth and do wild things whenever the mood takes me.

  2. Thank you, Veronica. We need to speak of these things without feeling we're being selfish or unloving, don't we? It's hard to shake off the taboos of how we feel we 'ought' to be in relationship.

    For me, the next phase in conscious relationship, I mean collectively, is respecting an individual's need for space without co-opting him or her to meet our own needs so as not to feel lonely etc etc; and not to twist ourselves away from our own nature in order to meet another's needs; and to do this even if it means facing the fear that they will leave us and we will be alone... I wish you joy and juicy love! Rx


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