“She was a complicated lady.” It was spoken with a British accent. I looked up from my work, and the tall woman with long black hair and bangs was smiling at my Virginia Woolf book of essays. I’d seen the woman in Starbucks before but had no idea she was British. Why would I ever suspect that? White people look the same from country to country, except for maybe those from Scandinavia.
Her statement about Virginia Woolf had the ring of authority, or maybe that’s just how I heard it, given her accent. But being an American makes me no authority on Henry James, so why should I assume such a thing of this woman. In fact, I was shocked to learn, from the only other British person I know in real life (i.e., not on social media) that English literary history is hardly emphasized in Britain’s schools anymore. So here’s this thing known as English literature, which I’ve idolized for years, only to find out it’s nearly neglected in its homeland. What the what?! Now I’m wondering whether my new British Starbucks friend has even read Virginia Woolf, or if she simply repeats the line passed down in idle conversation. Perhaps, for her, the name Virginia Woolf triggers the phrase “complicated lady” the same way that Meryl Streep’s name invokes “good actress” from people who never watch her movies—like the goal is simply to talk, whether or not the conversation has any substance.
Maybe I’m wrong. It could be that my new British buddy has a working knowledge of Woolf’s novels, after all—maybe even an essay or two. I will probably never know, because our interactions never transcend the smallest of small talk. Usually I’m so eager to get back into my work that I leave little room for anything more than a hello. And that is okay.
In one corner of the large, rectangular room, cousins in their twenties reconnect, while in another, the parents of those same young adults slip into the easy familiarity–brothers, sisters, and in-laws, all privy to the old jokes and family stories; thoughts of those who’ve gone on but whose presence remains, bittersweetly.
Even if I was a blood relation, however, I’m not sure the easy familiarity would come, or rather, when it does come, it never stays for long. I’m rarely at ease anywhere outside my house or the few coffee places I haunt. Over the course of my thirties, solitude became the preferred milieu, despite a fairly sociable teenage and young adult life. I suppose it was the growth of the writer inside. You can roll your eyes at that if you want–it’s fine. I’d rather you not let me see you do it, though, for civility’s sake. Yet this is something that any artist understands: the necessary loneliness. You reach a point where you either give up the call or accept that if you’re going to accomplish anything of value, artistically speaking, then you’re going to be trudging that path alone.
It’s Thanksgiving night, and I’ve found a comfortable chair with a full view of the room. A few settle nearby–wife, brother-in-laws, father-in-law–those who are naturally close. But across the way is an energetic demographic with whom I won’t share a word the whole night. Some of them, I won’t even make eye contact with. I wonder if they see me as the misanthrope in the corner, which is kind of amusing, but also not exactly how I want to come across. Nevertheless, we can’t control what others think, right? Everyone is friendly; everyone is thoughtful and warm–paragons of virtue, in fact. And I am content to be a spectator, thinking about my various projects, thankful for those I love and for those who love me. I am often alone, but I am never lonely.
Flitting, twirling, and fluttering are words used to describe what leaves do in a strong wind. But not only are these terms limited and worn from overuse, they’re a bit dainty. They could just as well describe a ballerina. By contrast, what happens to leaves in November is more violent: the ones still clinging to their branches undergo quite a thrashing.
Yet any alternative description I can muster is either too wordy or inaccurate: thin, dry wafers oscillating on threads (Wafers? that’s not right; oscillating? too grandiose.); medallions spinning and flashing (too clunky and metallic, though a little poetic); ripples baring their pale undersides at lightning speed (awfully wordy and more suggestive of water). But these are leaves I’m talking about! All my metaphors imply something other than leaves. Do you see the challenge here?
Writing creatively about wind in trees is hard. One could zoom out and take in the larger form, describing how a great tree sways: somnambulantly from side-to-side, as if dragged back-and-forth through water; bowing in obeisance to Aeolus, the keeper of the winds. (Bow is a good way to describe what a bough does in a strong wind—wink, wink.) One could toss about words like bluster and gale. But now we’re talking more about wind and less about leaves.
One could try and capture the sound, likening it to the hiss of a hundred streams, sustained in the undulating branches above. But there’s that recourse to water again. Or maybe a host of small pages flapping in the breeze. But do pages suggest leaves?
The dilemma remains . . .