The Deep, Aching Longing for the Impossible

“Sometimes the desire to be lost again, as long ago, comes over me like a vapor.”
Mary Oliver

Quite early in the process of reading a bit of Housman’s (admittedly forlorn) poetry, I was interrupted by memory: a short dirt road, warmed by a sunny, unblemished sky, tall oaks on one side, fields on the other. The air sweet and thick. Cicadas chirring.

Summer’s end.

Country road, Michigan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I couldn’t stop longing for the impossible, that sunny short road. From Rimbaud: “Ah! That life of my childhood, the high road in all weathers…”1

There is something between the bars of poetry, memoirs, pictures—a pattern lacking common description, a feeling thrown against the backdrop of life. It works your nerves. It is so often mentioned that it bears collecting: this deep, aching longing for the impossible. A place we cannot go or return.

In her most recent collection of poems and essays, Upstream, the ever-contemplative American poet Mary Oliver wrote that she longed “to be lost again, as long ago.” Her words, compelling but opaque, suggest a need for space. Oliver walked upstream—did she find what she sought?

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

English poet A.E. Housman, whose writing sparked my dirt roads, circled Cambridge University on daily walks. A preeminent classics professor in the early 20th century and a less-distinguished poet of longing (he carried a lifelong unrequited love for his heterosexual roommate), Housman took well-paced, lengthy steps marking boundaries where longing could exist.

In periods of acute feeling, such as after his love moved to India, when his longing spilled over into poetry. From “The Land of Lost Content”:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

A place we cannot return to is also a place where we can never arrive.

This impossible longing is further embodied in Doris Lessing’s short story “To Room Nineteen.”2 A woman (who feels achingly familiar)—dominated by the needs of children, family, husband, home, life—lives “in a state of mind she could not own.” She quietly, futilely, seeks space for existence. In a nondescript small hotel, she finds it: perfect nothingness, anonymity. Lessing won’t tell us what her character does in the room; so complete is the hide.

Ultimately, however, as the title suggests, our heroine is ever travelling, never arriving.

Poet John Clare, who, like Housman, wrote without affectation, gazed on a place forever gone and recalled:

Often did I stop to gaze
On each spot once dear to me
Known mong those rememberd days
Of banishd happy infancy
Often did I view the shade
Where once a nest my eyes did fill
And often markd the place I playd
At ‘roley poley’ down the hill

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The place we playd…

The French capture this longing in pitch-perfect phase: Mal du pays.

Homesickness, but more than homesickness, a deep longing for places embedded in time.3 Time is critical, time prevents us from returning. I stood on my road, even took a photo. But I will never return to the road as the child who first saw it. I will never return to the road I’ve kept in memory. That road simply doesn’t exist. The past—what Oliver beautifully termed “as it was long ago”—is no longer.

In her memoirs, novelist Penelope Lively faced the “as it was long ago” with bold honesty:

It is gone, it cannot be recovered. It is swamped, drowned out by adult knowledge. That child self is an alien; I have still some glimmer of what she saw, but her mind is unreachable; I know too much, seventy years on.

Perhaps our burden is to long, yes, but not despair. We might not return or arrive at then and there, but we can always be now and here.

What is Presence? Five Examples.

“Every figure has presence. You can barely have any standing object which doesn’t.”
Barbara Hepworth

Dorothy Parker once compared Hemingway to the Grand Canyon.1 Indeed, there is something about Hemingway. Something in his writing, his journals. He was the kind of man who climbed stairs to write and was captivated by bullfights. But what was he like?

In her inimitable style, Parker responds: He was grand. Hemingway had presence. Presence is strongly felt and broadly defined.

Modernist British sculptor Barbara Hepworth saw presence in every physical thing. Maya Angelou saw presence as something to learn and perfect. I define presence thus: To the question “What does it feel like to stand next to this person?” presence answers, “It feels grand.”

“Two Turning Forms” and other work by Barbara Hepworth. Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Sidney Lumet on Katharine Hepburn

Director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network) recalls the first time he met Katharine Hepburn:

When we first met, on Long Day’s Journey into Night… I stepped through the doors of what seemed to me a fifty-foot living room. She stood at the opposite end of the room and started toward me. We’d covered about half the distance when she said, ‘When do you want to start rehearsal?’ (No ‘Hello’ or ‘How do you do?’) ‘September nineteenth,’ I said. ‘I can’t start till the twenty-sixth,’ she said. ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because then,’ she said, ‘you’d know more about the script than I would.’

Michael Peppiatt on Francis Bacon

Peppiatt, a journalist and writer, became Francis Bacon’s key biographer in the 1960s.

A small man is sitting just behind me on a stool by the bar, talking in an exaggeratedly posh, camp voice and waving his cigarette holder about. He is oddly dressed, in a stained sweater and ancient trousers, with his head nestling in the upturned collar of a grubby shearling jacket. I don’t remember seeing him come in, but now he looks as if he has always been there, as if he were the pub’s mascot, addressing his running commentary to the whole room rather than anyone in particular. I recognize him right away … I edge closer … and blurt out my request for an introduction.

“Two Turning Forms” by Barbara Hepworth, Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Stephen Fry on Emma Thompson

Fry and Thompson became friends and co-performers in the well-known comedic troupe, The Footlights, during their Cambridge University days. Fry on his classmate:2

She seemed, like Athene, to have arrived in the world fully armed. Her voice, her movement, her clarity, ease, poise, wit…well, you had to be there… This girl was really something. Medium height with a perfect English complexion, she was gravely beautiful, extraordinarily funny and commandingly assured by beyond her years. Her name, the programme told me, was Emma Thompson.

Maya Angelou on her mother

In Letter to My Daughter, Angelou writes about her mother helping her give birth.

She crawled up on the delivery table with me and had me bend my legs. She put her shoulder against my knee and told me dirty stories. When the pains came she told me the punch line of the stories, and as I laughed, she told me, ‘Bear down.’ When the baby started coming, my little mother jumped off the table, and seeing him emerge she shouted, ‘Here he comes and he had black hair.’ … When the baby was delivered, my mother caught him. She and the other nurses cleaned him and wrapped him in a blanket, and she brought him to me. ‘Here, my baby, here’s your beautiful baby.

Douglas Adams on the Rwandan Mountain Gorilla

In 1988, Douglas Adams, beloved creator of the The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, joined zoologist Mark Carwardine on an excursion around the world to find endangered species.Their encounter with a Rwandan mountain gorilla bears mention.

The feeling I had looking at my first silverback gorilla in the world was vertiginous. It was as if there was something I was meant to do, some reaction that was expected of me, and I didn’t know what it was or how to do it. My modern mind was simply saying, ‘Run away!’ but all I could do was stand, trembling, and stare. The right moment for something seemed to slip away and fall into an unbridgeable gulf between us, and the gorilla, meanwhile, seemed to notice that we had been busy photographing its dung and merely stalked off in to the undergrowth.

“Idol” by Barbara Hepworth, Hepworth Wakefield Collection. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

What is presence? Whatever it is, it is not embellished or fancy. It isn’t persona.

Presence is real, surprising, and generous.

Theater legend Anna Deavere Smith wrote a wonderfully enlightening book called Letters to a Young Artist encouraging young artists to find their strength and nurture that of others.

She defines presence perfectly: “Presence means you hold your own space, control the space around you, and sometimes welcome others into it.”

As Deavere Smith abounds with presence, she shall have the last word:

I saw a man in New York City in the late seventies kissing trees on a regular basis. Of course, such an action is bound to attract attention, but presence is not merely the attraction of attention. When he kissed a tree, it took my breath away. He was an older man with white hair. It was his level of commitment that gave him presence.

Do Things Exist Where They Are Buried?

“Death means you stop being, you cease from thinking, or feeling, or wondering, and at least you’re lucky in that you don’t have to worry.”
Jorge Luis Borges

We do not tolerate nonexistence. It is a question of place. To exist, something must be somewhere. Originally, “exist” means to be placed. Most of the time we exist in our body. This is comforting.

Death mangles this comfort. If we are in a body and that body folds or collapses or ceases, where do we go?1

Charles Dickens is buried in Westminster Abbey. I’ve stood over his stone, given him an earful about his female characters. Something of him is down there. Thomas Hardy is there, partly. His stone is next to Dickens’.

However, only his body is there—his heart is in Dorset. Where does Hardy exist?

We do not tolerate nonexistence. We even carry the load of bearing witness so things that are no longer can still exist, in some way.

When C.S. Lewis lost the love of his life, “H.,” he suffered deep sorrow not knowing where she was. He writes in A Grief Observed:

Where is she now? That is, in what place is she at the present time? But if H. is not a body—and the body I loved is certainly no longer she—she is in no place at all.

Lewis, a devout Christian, was not appeased by his faith’s post-death assurances. He needed an H. to exist empirically. To be placed.

Faced with the voids of nonexistence, we, the living, exact certainties. Certainties like stones, graves, internment, prayers, moments of silence and flowers for companionship. We shout to the universe: “Look, I exist, I do these things empirically! You may have Dickens, but you don’t have me!”


Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Near our home in England, there is an old stone church, an old stone graveyard, and an old stone entitled (can I use that word?) “Ellen.”

Ellen existed empirically a century ago; now, her body is buried with her family. I visit Ellen often (we are simpatico, that she spent a life turning her head at the same word I do). I approach her stone, give a spry wave, announce my existence.

Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, Thailand. Graves for WWII prisoners of war during Japanese occupation. I imagined Alec Guinness there. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Last winter was horribly cold, and one night I visited Ellen. Something in me worried she was cold, too. Wait. Is a person underground? What is she doing under there? Was she trapped in the casket? Was she trapped in her body? Was she cold? I returned home, shivering.

I didn’t visit her for a while, and she slipped from my thoughts until recently. I was reading Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, a wonderful book on the hollow post-death absence. A family loses a mother and is visited, besieged rather, by a large testy, maternal crow. It would have to be a crow, wouldn’t it? To fill the hole left by a mother? The crow fixates on the family and acts as a sort of Mary Poppins “I’ll stay until the wind changes” guardian who plugs the lack of “mom.”

I considered Ellen. And felt sorrow.

We buried my grandfather this month. Interred him. (Can I say that? Can I say he was in-terrified?) I am interrified without him.

I suppose he exists in Michigan. And in my memory, so deep in memory I forget he’s in Michigan. That will change. Grandpa existed fully to my dad, to me less, to my daughter even less, to such an extent that she will have only her version of my memories. Her children, merely their version of her version of my memories of a man that once existed.

The more abstract truth becomes, the more we return to things we can touch and feel and see. Like gravestones, plots of earth, photos.

But, do these things give us comfort?

Lewis considers:

I remember being rather horrified one summer morning long ago when a burly, cheerful labouring man, carrying a hoe and a watering pot, came into our churchyard, and as he pulled into the gate behind him, shouted over his shoulder to two friends, ‘See you later, I’m just going to visit Mum.’ He meant he was going to weed and water and generally tidy up her grave. It horrified me because this mode of sentiment, all this churchyard stuff, was and is simply hateful, even inconceivable, to me. But in light of my recent thoughts I am beginning to wonder whether, if one could take that man’s line (I can’t), there isn’t a good deal to be said for it. A six-by-three-foot flower-bed had become Mum. That was his symbol for her, his link with her. Caring for it was visiting her.

We left popcorn and donuts in Grandpa’s grave, in case he gets peckish. He won’t eat it, but it was an act of caring, of connection.

Jorge Luis Borges said death means we stop being. Maybe he was right, maybe death is the exact moment of nonexistence. Maybe that is why we fear it so. Or maybe we cease to exist when no memory of a memory of a memory of us remains. When there is no more sorrow.

From Wendell Berry’s poem “The Meadow”:

In the town’s graveyard the oldest plot now frees itself
of sorrow, the myrtle of the graves grown wild. The last
who knew the faces who had these names are dead,
and now the names fade, dumb on the
stones […]

Fulham, England, empurpled by morning light, wonderfully tucked in. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Would that be so bad? To not exist, to be utterly forgotten, and to have no one suffer my absence? I do not long for death, but once dead, I long to fade quickly from memory and sorrow. To the place where strangers visit my stone, wondering “Who was this Ellen?” and then turn home, calmed.