Jan Morris

Thinking Again

“The thing is that nearly all of us, old and young, in such shared exhilaration, only want to be at one with the world.”

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her study of conditions necessary for the creation of art, “That the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”

In her last years, months, weeks, and other immeasurably minute moments in the year 2018, Jan Morris (October 2, 1926 – November 20, 2020) proudly shuffled 1000 daily paces through the ineffable Welsh Wales air. A daily routine but was it idleness?

Photograph of Jan Morris, February 27, 2008.
Jan Morris, 2008.
Hardly. Morris wrote: “[I] arrogantly pride myself on my one thousand diurnal paces, come what weather may, and scorn those who stay whimpering indoors.”

With footfall sprang cognition and the walk begat a diary of sorts, published in full glory in Thinking Again.

Day 1

I am a strong believer in the strength of Routine, and conceiving and writing these inconsequential little pieces has become virtually mechanical in itself, like many another petty compulsion. May mother, who was partly of Quaker stock, would never dream of placing another volume on top of her Bible, and pagan agnostic that I am, I still find myself involuntarily touching wood (i.e. touching the wood of the Cross) to avert bad luck. And I don’t know about you, but in my everyday affairs too there are personal routines, edging into such superstitions, that I feel I must honour.

[…]

And this daily diary has edged its way into the roster. It has become a pleasant part of my life – not a duty, nor even a chore, but a happy few minutes each day whenever I feel like it. Whether not it goes well (and I know when it doesn’t), I offer it to my readers, as to myself, with doubts and apologies often, but always with a smug conviction of Routine honoured.

Dandelion. Photography by Ellen Vrana.
“In the welter of botanical encomia, popular at this time of year, glorifying the bluebell, the buttercup, the cowslip and the budding rose, I fail to find a single line or lyric in praise of the dandelion.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Morris’s miscellany of thoughts tumbled onto the page like cut-loose pearls. I’ve scooped up the best and brightest – the most “Morris” – (read more on this remarkable woman in Conundrum her generous offering of self and one of first memoirs on transsexuality) as best I can.

Day 6

Talking of words, have you used ‘algorithm’ lately? It has only recently entered my ken, and seems to be on the make. The moment it enters my reading matter, on the screen or on the page, I am wary: I fear that there is discomfort to come, either because the reading matter is going to be too intellectual for me, or because the use of the noun (assuming it is a noun) portends pretensions to come. It’s a pity, because I like the word itself, with its graceful shape and obvious Arab origins, but alas it is not yet my style.

Dandelion. Photography by Ellen Vrana.
“Here I am to stand up for this grand old botanical character, which for many centuries has provided food, medicine and arcane legend to peoples around the world.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Day 9

It has been a horrible day, as it happens, all cold drizzle and wind and sudden fierce rain squalls, but was I deterred from my daily habits? Certainly not. Just as duty calls me to write this diary, so after a lifetime of travel and challenge I arrogantly pride myself on my one thousand diurnal paces, come what weather may, and scorn those who stay whimpering indoors.

On the other hand, I am constantly astonished, and rebuked, by the variety of people I regularly meet out there as I swagger through squall and blizzard on our seafront. They are often just as old as I am, and all of them are at least as resilient. There are those, of course, who are prisoners of their dogs, obliged to give them their daily exercise, throw stones into the sea for them and play monotonous, footling games that confirm my preference for cats.1 And there are those like me who walk out there as a matter of personal compulsion, or perhaps in obeyance of doctors’ orders.

I seek and gather “walkers about’ on The Examined Life, participants in what what Scottish poet Thomas A. Clark calls the “human way of getting about”. Read more in Robert Macfarlane’s study of humans and the paths they take and Nan Shepard’s beautiful essays of traipsing the Highlands.

Dandelion. Photography by Ellen Vrana.
“At one time of its life, when it is young, yellow and friendly, the dandelion sings a bold bass to the sweet contraltos and trebles of the cowslips and primroses. Later, it veils itself in mystery, and the powder puffs of its virility are silently scattered across fields and gardens everywhere.” Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Day 67

Once again, and surely for the last time, as I approach my ninety-second birthday I am thrust, almost detonated into a relative limelight. This is because the previous volume of these modest meditations has just been published, and to a degree unexampled in my own career, has been publicized! Times have changed in the literary industry, and while the most I used to get when a new book came out was a modest launch party, perhaps, and possibly an ad in one of the literary magazines, this time, my goodness, it feels positively explosive!

Unlike many who reflect during the violet hours, Morris does not wrap the warmth of memory around her shoulders, she is more present in here and how.

“I am really here, alive on the intricate earth under the trees” wrote Annie Dillard of ontological presence in her observation of nature and self. A beautiful companion to Morris.

Day 72

Ha, ha!!! I laugh at the spectacle of myself today! It’s a perfectly ghastly morning here, a howling hurricane wind shaking the old house, storm warnings on the radio, everything rattling and shaking, and outside our windows the trees madly toss. The sea is a grey and nasty smudge, and there is no sign of life out there, not even a huddled cow.

I am all alone, and it is time for me to take my daily exercise: my statutory thousand paces of brisk walk. I have never once failed in this discipline, not once. If I’m away from home, I’ve walked some other route, but always with the same obedience to rhythm and mental music.2

Dandelion. Illustration by Jackie Morris in "The Lost Words" in the Examined Life Library.
“Dazzle me, little sun-of-the-grass!” Illustration by Jackie Morris, courtesy of The Lost Words.

Thinking Again is a diary of being, place, mind, and long, dull, powerful repetitive footstep taking and thought leaving and, in no uncertain terms, kindness spreading, an act of keen interest to Morris.

Day 124

Here’s a lovely thing that has happened to me. When they made my first collection of these diary pieces into a book, I added a dedication, thus:

“For One and All Kindlily (and yes, there is such a word!)”

Well, last night I went into town in a misty, rainy dusk to collect a load of firewood, and as I began to load it up a vague, burly figure emerged unexpectedly out of the half-light to carry it all to the car for me. I don’t know who he was. I didn’t recognize him – could hardly see him really – and when he finished the job he just melted into the mist again without a word. I called after him through the darkness to thank him for his great kindness, and after a pause his voice came back to me there. ‘I try to behave kindlily,’ it said, and then after another pause, more faintly still: ‘And yes, there is such a word.’ Never in half a century of the writing life have I been so delightfully quoted.

“Nighttime walk on a clear night,” notes Morris in one of her day’s captures, “Is one of the largest experiences one can have.” Read more about nighttime activities done in solitude, and in the diurnal-meditative writing of Alan Lightman, the running diaries of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami.

“I am now face to face with dying, but I am not finished with living” wrote Oliver Sacks in Gratitude his last published work. His words have the energy of Morris’s steps beating the same gong: keep on keeping on and somehow arrive at one with the world.

Illustration of Jan Morris.