I still gaze at the beloved as she sleeps and see a stranger

Michael Harding: In relationships I find out who I am, not who the other person is

Michael Harding: In parts of the garden where even the beloved does not venture, I find a presence. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Michael Harding: In parts of the garden where even the beloved does not venture, I find a presence. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

I have decided to take a rest for the summer. Yesterday I sat at my desk for the last time and checked the inbox, knowing that the world will go on without me, even if I don’t open the computer until September.

Trump will probably continue in the White House. Women in Indonesia will continue to slave long hours in factories that provide Ivanka Trump with clothes for her brand. At home Arlene Foster will certainly continue to do her best for the nation. The south of Europe will bake in the heat, and Leitrim will be drenched. The world will continue to be channelled by Sky News as an endless soap opera of disintegration and disaster; dispatches from a glum universe. But at least by switching off all screens I can step back from the daily feed of bad news that churns in my stomach.

Before leaving my desk I read a letter from a man on the other side of the lake. He had read a book I wrote and knew that sometimes I stand in my garden looking at the lake and feeling sad. He said he was on the other side of the lake and often stood at his front door and felt the same way. He conjured up an image of me in my garden, and him on his porch, with five miles of water between us, both of us standing in the same existential solitude.

“Who goes there?” Hamlet asked, when his father’s ghost was close

I sent him a message saying that when the next full moon rose up I would stand under the trees and think of him and hope that he thought of me. We would both exist in the moonlight for a brief moment, sharing the same unease, as we looked across the lake wondering about each other.

“Who goes there?” Hamlet asked, when his father’s ghost was close.

It’s what we all ask when we hear a knock on the door, a sound in the night or a curtain moving in the hallway. That mysterious other is the anchor of our conscious mind. And we are constantly drawn towards it, either through fear or love.

Mysterious stranger

In the intimacy of family life I am drawn to others because they define me and know me, like the beloved or like the cat. And living with either wife or cat is a journey of discovery. In relationships I find out who I am rather than who the other person is. Even after 33 years, I still gaze at the beloved as she sleeps and see a stranger no less mysterious than on the night we first began. With each shared journey to the supermarket, I learn who I am, rather than who she might be; because other people waken and define us.

Considering how attractive other people are, it’s difficult to understand why anyone would long for solitude

Young people never fear strangers, unless they are trained to do so. They dream of being loved. They dream of some mysterious other opening the door and surprising them with joy. So they fall in love, grow old, and become wiser with every new accommodation they must make to the ordinariness of things.

And considering how attractive other people are, it’s difficult to understand why anyone would long for solitude.

Except that in solitude there is another call. A deeper self. A singular secret and special other whom even the beloved will never know. It is an other who is alive only for me, and calls only to me. It is the presence of an other that opens when I abandon the hum of the world; when I abandon the cacophony of anxieties that stream from a thousand sources of crazy news. It is the presence of an other that rises when loved ones leave me alone for an hour or a day or forever.

That’s what I find in summertime, in parts of the garden where even the beloved does not venture. A presence. In shaded places where I stand and gaze at the lake. At grey clouds on the mountaintop. At flag irises on the ditch. At horse tails growing high. A presence I discover when the house is empty and the screens are turned off.   

In those moments I can sense an other gazing back at me. As if there actually was someone over there across the lake, in his existential garden, living every moment of this solitude with me. And then I know I am on a holiday, or in a holy day, as the presence of an other beyond all perception watches me; a presence that invites me to some communion of surrender among the foxgloves, in which all my sorrows dissolve.

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