Villette and Remembered Kindnesses

I finished Villette the other day and I am still processing my powerful experience. Tracey finished it yesterday and we exchanged some intense emails about our experience of the book, what struck us, what moved us, and how speechless the book left us. In a way, it is far more complex than Jane Eyre, and although Jane Eyre has the passion and eroticism that Villette doesn’t, which was my original hook into Jane Eyre, Villette has a power all its own. I cannot think of another book like it. It is completely modern, a psychological novel. As a psychologist, I would put Charlotte Bronte on a level with George Eliot and Dostoevsky. I can’t quite gather my thoughts yet, they are too scattered (I am a slow processer), but one of the ongoing themes of the book, which Bronte NAILS, is the feeling of scarcity and deprivation (not in terms of material things, but emotional things). And not only what the feeling is like, but what the end result is. How scarcity can make you ravenous. How when things are scarce, you have to be careful not to gulp down a full meal because 1. You could get sick, and 2. There might not be another meal for a long long while. Whatever you eat, has to last. No oasis for another 1,000 miles. It warps you, that kind of deprivation, you are forever marked.

This has been one of the themes of my life for the last couple of years. In 2009, when I was suffering, I was finally able to put my thoughts on these matters into words. That’s the clearest I can put it (with the understanding that I was still very much “in it” at that time, although November was when I started to emerge from the fog). 2009 was a terrible year. For my family. For all of us. I cracked up in June. The next four months were a yawning abyss of acute awareness of deprivation. I lay in bed aching with it. It was a madness. There was no other reality. In so many ways, so many ways, I am blessed beyond measure. I have an incredible family, great brother and sisters, a mother I adore, and a tribe of incredible friends. “What is she complaining about?” Well, the human heart doesn’t always make sense, and loneliness hits even the luckiest of us. It becomes a THING, in and of itself. And the more you are aware of it, the bigger it becomes, until it is a monster that has overtaken normal life. At least that was my experience. In looking back, it was a madness. I know that. But I don’t dismiss it. It was very real and in many ways I will never be the same again after 2009. C’est la vie.

Villette made me think of all of that. There is a section where Lucy Snowe waits for a correspondence to begin with Dr. John, who had promised to write her letters. It is the most human (and perhaps adolescent) of hopes: will he email? Will he call? What will he say? And, most important: will it be enough? She opens his letters fearfully, knowing that whatever he says cannot meet her need. It is not that she is passionately in love with him. Villette is more complex than that. It is a book about loneliness, and the havoc that loneliness can wreak. If those of us who were lonely had been loved a little bit, maybe we wouldn’t be so weird, so prickly, so marked.

But it is Bronte’s constant description of deprivation, and the need to make a little bit go a long way, that really struck me. I have been writing about this for a couple of years now. I stopped in 2010, once I got better, because writing about this stuff is akin to summoning it. (A theme in my play, come to think of it.) You don’t want to toy with stuff like this. Let it lie. Be thankful that the monster was vanquished. Don’t tempt fate. But I still remember those days, when I became someone I completely did not recognize, that my friends did not recognize – and it lasted for so long. That was the worst thing about it. Three months into it I thought: “Well. This is who I am now, I guess.”

Much of what I experienced was the normal grief following a huge loss. I haven’t written about that, and I don’t plan to. But that’s one of the things no one can prepare you for, when it comes to grief. How disorienting it can be, how all-encompassing, how often it doesn’t even feel like sadness. It acts as an ambush. It lies in wait. It messes with essential things like TIME. I didn’t even know which end was up for that entire year. My three-month-long (to the DAY) email relationship with a certain actor – a man I had taped up pictures of on my wall when I was 12 years old – which began immediately following our loss – put me into a state that Charlotte Bronte describes so accurately that I could barely get through those sections of the book. I had basically summoned him to me, by writing about him on my site, and when he appeared, I was thrilled. It was a ray of sunshine in the terrible sleet storm that was my life at that time. And not only was he nice and sweet, but he kept writing. The correspondence took up my entire life. To give you an idea of the sheer volume of what was going on, in the three months that I knew him, he emailed me 450 times. That’s over a year’s worth of emails in 3 months. I can barely remember any of this now. My blackberry buzzed literally all day long with emails from him. My blackberry buzzing woke me up at night. An email would come in at 3, 4 in the morning. It never stopped. My writing about him on my site unleashed a flood of vulnerability in him. He told me his life, he sent me pictures of his dog, his car, his apartment, he sent me the papers he wrote in college, he told me I “made his whole past look different”, I guess you could say we became friends. He told me everything. I told him everything. If I had been in any way normal at that time, I never would have let it go on as long as it did. It was too intimate, too much, I was too swept away by it, but I was in mourning, I could barely read at that point, I could barely watch a movie. I had written a script, that was all I could do. He got himself involved with that too. As a surprise, he bought me the Final Draft Screenwriting software, so that I could work faster and more effectively. He invested in me. I would never let something like this go on for as long as it did without some kind of in-person meeting, or at least a phone call. This is Rule 101 for Online Dating. Don’t email too much before you meet. Anyway, who cares. I’ve never written about any of this, and I don’t even remember much of the correspondence now. What on earth could he have been saying to me for 450 emails? WTF? I was a sponge. It was pure scarcity operating. (I told my cousin Mike, “I operate primarily from scarcity” and he wanted me to copyright the phrase as quickly as possible.) Only scarcity would make someone behave like that. Only a person starving in the desert would react the way I did to the correspondence. And when he revealed himself as completely unworthy of one more moment of my time, instead of being filled with righteous anger at having been so used (which I was) I felt the vastness of the deprivation I was operating from, I became aware of the scarcity to such a degree that it exploded to 100 times its normal size, and everything got insanely out of whack for 4 months until the fever passed. That is my best explanation for what happened. I am still sorting it out, and the essay about the whole experience is yet to be written. I’ll write it eventually. I had to wait, because my desire for revenge for a while was so acute that I had to literally hold my hands back from the keyboard, fearing what I would say. Because I knew how easy it would be to totally annihilate him. He had left me with so much evidence. It took superhuman strength to hold my tongue. I did keep a running list in a notebook though which made me feel awful awful good. But I think I’ve got a clearer head now.

Especially after reading Villette. What I just babbled on about, is what the entire book is about. It’s not a pleasant read, and there is no easy answer. No “perfect mate”. The best we can do is muddle on with our damaged selves in hand, hoping that someone out there won’t mind someday how damaged we are.

During the height of that mad time in 2009 – June to August – I started a series of essays on my site, called “Remembered Kindnesses”. I don’t know why I was drawn to do so, but I remember one day just starting. I think I was trying to create my own life-preserver. Trying to remember myself back into joy and connection. (Writing this down makes me feel ungrateful because I do have such extraordinary friends, and I know I worried my family very much during this time. I was not alone. But that’s the way monsters like this operate: they block you from goodness.) Writing down these stories helped me.

I thought I’d post links to them here.

The first one I wrote is very long, and has to do with Michael (who should need no introduction to regular readers). I have to say, I tried to re-read it just now and I am amazed that I even let that onto my site. I am not being disingenuous. It is the saddest thing I have ever written, and I don’t remember writing a word of it. I can barely get through it now. But I will say this: it is honest. I wrote it from an honest place, and I meant every word. Michael has always been someone who makes me happy. So that’s what I wrote. Poor Michael. When he read it, he immediately reached out, “Baby, are you okay? What’s happening?” In a cold world, someone “showing up” matters. He also said, “I love it when you tell the Internet that I am a good lay.” Hysterical. There is the well-documented fact of his ego to take into consideration.

The second one in the series I wrote on the same day as the Michael one (which amazes me, yet again). After the Michael piece, I am surprised I had anything left to write. But no, I went on to write another piece. I was desperate, obviously. I needed to write. The second piece was a current story, something that had occurred a couple of days prior. I had a moment of precarious parallel parking that I wanted to remember. And now I am glad I wrote it down, because I remember so little from those days, but I certainly remember that!

About a month later, when things had really gotten bad, when I could no longer go to work, I wrote another piece, about my first communion, and also a man my family met on the side of the road when we were in need. It’s a simple piece, pretty blunt and straightforward, which – in retrospect – surprises me since I was doing so poorly in July. Writing helps.

A month after that, I re-posted something, an essay I had actually written years before about a boy I was in love with when I was in the 4th grade. This was the piece I read at the Cornelia St. Cafe this past winter.

I haven’t written another essay in the Remembered Kindnesses series since 2009. I have thought often of those pieces, but I haven’t re-read them. (Well, the last one I have. But that one I wrote long before 2009, so it doesn’t emanate with the bad juju from that time.) I tried to get through the Michael one, and I almost wanted to unpublish it. Again, poor Michael. But he said some things to me in response to it that were a balm to my soul at that time. He gave me another perspective. The worst part about these “remembered kindnesses” (which was part of the bad juju going on) was that I felt alone in my memories. I alone remembered things. I wish I didn’t remember, if I was going to be alone, etc. Selfish, yes, but depression is very selfish. Michael, though, told me what he remembered, and told me what it meant to him, and so I felt that the memory was shared. It was something I had WITH him, not all by myself.

Here are the four pieces from my 2009 Remembered Kindnesses series, brought to my mind during the reading of Villette:

Remembered Kindnesses #1: Michael

Remembered Kindnesses #2: Parallel parking

Remembered Kindnesses #3: Jesus Is Gentle

Remembered Kindnesses #4: Keith

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9 Responses to Villette and Remembered Kindnesses

  1. Julie says:

    I love Villette; it is my favorite of all the Bronte novels. Every time I read it, I am swept away by the intensity of Lucy’s emotions and how Charlotte Bronte was able to convey them so completely. One of my all time favorite lines from a book comes from Villette, actually.

  2. sheila says:

    Julie – what’s your favorite line??

  3. Catherine says:

    Julie, is it the potato line?!

  4. tracey says:

    You are brave, my friend, and this is a brave post. You always amaze me.

    I have more to say to you about Villett, but like you, I’m slow to process. But again, it blew me away time and time again how Charlotte Bronte knew you and understood YOU. Your hearts are in sync. Kindred spirits, I do believe.

  5. milt says:

    An interesting novel by Charlotte Bronte is Shirley, which she wrote before Villette. It’s about the beginnings of the Industrial revolution and uprisings in the Yorkshire textile industry.


  6. Julie says:

    Well, more than a line, really a paragraph, but to shorten it a bit:
    “I believe madam sermonized herself. She did not behave weakly or make herself in any way ridiculous….It is especially true that she possessed a genuine good sense which is not given to all women nor to all men; and by dint of these combined advantages she behaved wisely, she behaved well. Brava! once more Madame Beck. I saw you matched against an Apollyon of a predilection; you fought a good fight and you overcame!”

    Maybe a funny line to relate to so strongly, but I feel that this is really more telling about Lucy than Madame. I think it shows how deeply intense Lucy’s feelings could be, I really do think she could have fallen in love with the doctor but she refused to allow herself to. So obviously, she would recognize and approve of Madame behaving so sensibly. I didn’t especially like Madame as a person (she is very self centered) but I know the feeling of thinking you’ve met a nice eligible guy but then you find out he’s already taken or just not interested.

  7. sheila says:

    Julie – WONDERFUL. Thank you so much for coming back to share! I love your thoughts!

  8. Kate says:

    Okay, I just finished Villette myself. Oh, it was so beautiful. There is the awareness that to be liked, to be LOVED, just a little bit, to have even one friend in this world—that was enough. At the end of 2009, when my own life was barely a mist of grief and numbness, one thing penetrated. Our community choir was singing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and as I had been to one rehearsal before the world as I knew it ended, I continued, somehow. The first inklings of solace I had came from the words to the text, especially these:
    Wem der große Wurf gelungen,
    Eines Freundes Freund zu sein,
    Wer ein holdes Weib errungen,
    Mische seinen Jubel ein!
    Ja, wer auch nur eine Seele
    Sein nennt auf dem Erdenrund!
    Und wer’s nie gekonnt, der stehle
    Weinend sich aus diesem Bund!

    Lucy well expressed how it felt to find that one other soul she could call her own. And really, her painful anguish along the way made the recognition all the more sweet. What a powerful book!


  9. sheila says:

    Kate – how moving.

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