The Testing Tree

Someone asked me recently why I read, and why I write. For me, those are the two ends of the same piece of thread. I do it in order to come to a greater understanding of myself. To read and to write is to understand ourselves more, and to realise that many others have felt as we have. F. Scott Fitzgerald said it first, or maybe he just said it best, “that is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” Others have gone before us, and have felt all the happinesses and sadnesses and all the melancholy that we think is so uniquely our burden.

The epigraph at the beginning of Kate Di Camillo’s The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane is an excerpt of Stanley Kunitz’s The Testing Tree. I have it memorised:
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking.
it is necessary to go
through dark and deeper dark
and not to turn.

It is Kunitz who tells me so beautifully that pain is necessary. That the only way to grow is to endure hardship, that a heart that has never known sadness will never truly appreciate how good it is when life is all sunshine and warm breezes. Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life tells me that “the only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.” To harden myself to the world is not to live, if Malick is correct. Emily St John Mandel in Station Eleven says, “[life] was very difficult, but there were moments of beauty. Everything ends. I am not afraid.” It is through the words of others that I have learnt to find the beauty in life.

I have these little notebooks that I nearly always have on me, that fit into my wallet (the Notes app works in a pinch but its so much less romantic). In them I write whatever comes to mind: beautiful lines to use in a larger story, moments of reality I want to remember, quotes I like, memorials of times in which I felt really and truly happy. I’m onto my 7th now, the first one started in Aug 2018 on my travels.

To write is to open yourself up. To crack open your ribcage, tear out your heart and put it on a museum pedestal for everyone to look at, to examine. To try and to convey thoughts and feelings and emotions with mere words.
In my first notebook, on the fourth page, I wrote:
Love and friendship and happiness and human connection. The strive to not only analyse and understand but also summate. The desire to both comprehend and articulate these most basic tenements. Basic in that they are at the root of all things. They are definitely not basic in that they are easy. To create something that affects people. Something that will resound. Staying in their heads for days and days … I want to change them.
To make yourself a gallery, a testing ground. Here is the way I have experienced life. Here is how it has broken me. Please learn from it.

I flip back through them constantly, remembering how I felt in those instances, or what moved me at that time in my life, the things I thought were worth penning down forever. To read through them is to see how I’ve grown, how I’ve changed. To be able to recognise what moves me, and if it should. To look back on myself and decide if I’m happy with the route I’ve taken, with what it’s made me.

I love to write, even if it sometimes pains me. I like to learn from myself. And for others to learn from me, if they so choose. Even if it is the most basic lesson: I am not alone in this. Others feel as I do. I will survive this. It will make me more beautiful.
And to emulate the gift that authors before me have given me. Kazuo Ishiguro said in Artist in a Floating World, “when I am an old man, when I look back over my life and see I have devoted it to the task of capturing the unique beauty of the world I believe I will be well satisfied.”
And I think there’s a quiet courage and dignity in that.

We must all go through dark and deeper dark. But we must learn from it. Maybe others can learn from it too.

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