Virginia Woolf on Sickness

Painting of Virginia Woolf by her sister Vanessa Bell.

As I sit home from work today sick, I’m feeling a little useless. But the congestion in my chest, which, this morning, caused a sharp pain unlike any I’ve ever felt with this type of sickness, in all my years of sinus and congestion type infections (I’m good for at least two of these illnesses a year, and lately it’s been more, probably because of kids)–this pain and congestion demanded I stay home and rest. So in my forced uselessness, at some point in the morning, I remembered the Virginia Woolf essay, “On Being Ill,” which I read not so long ago in grad school. Though healthy when I read it, nonetheless, her take on the mental state we assume in sickness resonated. She addresses the sort-of limbo we find ourselves in when given permission to do nothing all day. We remove ourselves from society for a day or two, which is an odd situation for a working, fairly responsible adult and parent. We’re not sure how we’re supposed to feel. Well, rather than try and wrest from my virus-addled brain a substantial blog post, I decided to have Virginia Woolf speak for me. The following is an excerpt from that essay. Enjoy one of the greatest writers ever (and my personal favorite!):

“There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional) a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. . . . [The] illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears . . . where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you–is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest, tangled, pathless, in each. . . . Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed–to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work by day together and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases. Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time in years, to look round, to look up–to look, for example, at the sky.” (1925)

Virginia Woolf knew much more about illness than I, suffering as she did with extended bouts of depression, but isn’t there something in that passage that anyone who’s ever stayed home sick from work can recognize? I loved it immediately, because I’d never seen anyone write about this type of thing. You’d be doing yourself a favor to read the entire essay, and while you’re at it, read a few more. You simply can’t read too much Virginia Woolf.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

Commuter Blues: Two Sides to the Long Drive

Detail from a John Chamberlain crushed car sculpture

A long commute can be nice. What I consider long is thirty minutes or more, which is what I graduated to when we moved from the urbs to the burbs. My morning drive morphed from three miles into twenty-seven. Indeed, when it was only three miles, I’m not sure I even qualified as a commuter. Doesn’t the term imply a lengthy drive? Anywho, what a drab topic, right? What can happen in that thirty-to-forty-five-minute haul is the real meat of this blog post.

Within that climate-controlled space, my tires a coarse whisper on the pavement, more music at my fingertips than was ever possible at any point in the history of the world, and the solitude inherent in traveling solo—within that space, I’ve written poems; I’ve witnessed the condensation of a bison’s breath on a frosty morning; I’ve seen cascades of ice clinging to walls of limestone, and sky so wide that eighty miles-per-hour felt more like flying than driving. Significant passages of my Masters thesis were hashed out on Interstate-65. All that time alone with my thoughts was bound to produce something.

However, there’s a different side to the commuter life: I’ve also seen a windshield covered in blood; a woman sobbing so hysterically I wondered how she could drive; and wide swaths of rolling pastureland cleared of trees and leveled for the construction of office buildings, whose utilitarian aesthetic insults the natural beauty it replaces. The other night, I was jarred by the sight of a fully-lit construction site, not far from where I drive past the two bison every day. What an incongruity in a place that otherwise would be supporting cattle. Now they’re abusing the night sky, too, I thought.

Yet I know accidents happen, and hearts get broken. I know we need office buildings. I know that, as a family who moved south of town a few years ago, we’re partially responsible for the progress that is disrupting the landscape. All one can really hope for then, at the end of the commute, is that transcendence outweighs dullness, and that beauty reinvents herself, after she’s taken a hit. For mortality is always on the road with us, and sometimes he rides our bumper.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

Pickle’s Record Store Reboot

We spent a couple of days in my hometown of Union City, Tennessee, doing Christmas with my parents and brother and his family. On the way to visit my aunt yesterday afternoon, I took an indirect path through Graham Park. I spent many childhood and teenage hours in that park, from collecting tadpoles and playing tee-ball to skateboarding and meeting girlfriends (my first real kiss came on one of those playgrounds, and it was the awkwardest thing imaginable). Every corner of Union City seems to hold some kind of memory. No matter where I drive, memories come at me with unexpected, bittersweet clarity. This onslaught of memories got me thinking about a part of my thesis where I mention Pickle’s Record Store. Many may remember Pickle’s, but I suspect just as many have never heard of it, especially those of younger generations. So here’s an excerpt in which I’m writing about the poet Rilke’s idea that we have an obligation to create meaning in the world by “saying” things. In other words, by writing about Pickle’s, I give it more life than it would have otherwise had–immortalizing it, in a sense. Poets “say” with words, painters “say” with paint, musicians “say” with their instruments, et cetera. Here goes:

“Rilke makes a compelling case for the world’s need of us: like us, it is perishing, but it has no voice with which to proclaim its existence. A thing’s existence soon ceases, and if we don’t “say” it, there will be no record it ever was here: “More than ever / the Things that we might experience are vanishing,” and they vanish because whatever resides within a thing “outgrows it and seeks new limits” (DE 9.44-5, 48). Nature lets few things outlive their usefulness. Today’s strip mall is tomorrow’s weedy outcrop. But what if people congregated inside one of that strip mall’s shops, like they used to do at Pickle’s Record Store in Union City, Tennessee, twenty-five years ago, listening to reggae, partaking in a certain substance associated with reggae (so go the rumors), and generally being the kind of scandalous cool that only kids in their late teens can be? At that time, the store’s owner was something of an icon among a contingent of Union City High School’s juniors and seniors—possibly not the kind of man many parents would want their kids hanging around, but that only fueled his anti-hero status in their kids’ eyes. The shop is no longer there. The space is not a weedy outcrop yet, but Pickle’s has been replaced. Generations of kids are growing up in Union City with no memory of the old record store. It was a unique place in a city not known for such subcultural enclaves. But it met its end, as all things must do. Nevertheless, I have performed it a great service. Here, in this same paragraph, I have transformed Pickles Record Store by giving meaning to what would otherwise be a forgotten rectangle of retail space. I’m not saying that whatever replaced Pickles has no meaning, but that Pickles has had its life extended a few years by my inclusion of it in this essay. It may not be immortality, but it is more life than it had before.

“Sharing memories of defunct record stores is a base form of transformation, I admit; the meaning created is sparse. No great contribution to the arts has been achieved. But what matters here is that the memory has been “said” at all. Pickle’s may not achieve immortality from my effort, but I know of at least three who will read this essay, and they will know that Pickle’s existed, which is more life than the store could ever have expected.”