The Fear of Being Interrupted

“I hunker down with my radio and a few balls of twine, in case I want to tie something up. I let the cabin get very cold, and I rejoice in my good fortune. Sometimes, a spider will descend on its hideous wet thread and threaten my hard-earned disinterest.”
Leonard Cohen

Nurturing hard-earned disinterest in the superficial, abandoning our immediate needs and finding scope in what Mary Oliver calls “the eternal,” takes enormous effort. We must abandon pressing needs, ignore threats, and generally suspend our self. But the reward is glorious: time slows, and we melt into true emotional comfort and creative flow… perfection.

In this wondrously creative but indeed vulnerable state, even the slightest interruption feels like an attack. A force barraging down on us, yanking our soft self apart. The interruption is so great even the fear of it primes anxiety. Like standing too close to the train tracks, an engine rattling in the distance.

London Underground, Notting Hill Gate Station. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I first heard of this “fear of being interrupted” in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s estimable memoir Ruined by Reading.1

I contracted a phobia for which there is no name, the fear of being interrupted. (It may also be why, as I grew up, I came to prefer reading late at night, when the intrusive world has gone to bed.) Sometimes at the peak of intoxicating pleasures, I am visited by panic: the phone or doorbell will ring, someone will need me or demand I do something. Of course, I needn’t answer or oblige, but that is beside the point. The spell will have broken.

I underlined these words so firmly I tore the page. Schwartz put words to feelings and visualizations to fears that I and other writers, thinkers, and ponderers have long felt. Poets Mary Oliver and Rainer Maria Rilke. Writers Zadie Smith, John Steinbeck, and Annie Dillard. And, of course, Canada’s most famous monastic, Leonard Cohen.

In “The Luckiest Man in the World,” Cohen writes2:

Saturday night really is, as they say, ‘the loneliest night of the week.’ I hunker down with my radio and a few balls of twine, in case I want to tie something up… Sometimes, a spider will descend on its hideous wet thread and threaten my hard-earned disinterest.

A spider threatens our thoughts? Why are our thoughts so fragile? Because they aren’t real? Don’t memories and thoughts exist whether we access them or not?

London Underground Tracks, Earl’s Court Station. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Perhaps not. Recent neuroscience research argues that memories are not (as we imagine) file cabinets; they are actually formed anew once we call them up. Not only does this mean memory distorts truth, but it also means the effort to have a memory is rooted in creativity, not in rigorous thinking.

Creativity requires safe soil. This self, the one that floats sublimely free from immediate needs… we are vulnerable, angered, even disoriented. We form hides and protective walls. And most dangerously, we fear. Schwartz continues on her interruption:

The spell will have been broken. In fact the spell has already been broken. The panic itself is the interruption. I have interrupted myself.

We interrupt ourselves, indeed. In John Steinbeck’s Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath, 1938–1941, the fear of interruptions, specifically people needing him, unnerves him completely:3

Irritated today. People want to come see me next Monday. Can’t be. Just want to sit. Day not propitious. […] I’ll try to go on now. Hope to lose some of the frantic quality in my mind now. It’s just like slipping behind at Stanford. Panic sets in. Can’t organize. And everybody is taking a crack at me. What time, want to use me. In aggregate it is terrible. And I don’t know where to run. Ought to go into the wild somewhere but I am needed here. Got to calm down.

What Steinbeck sought, French travel writer Sylvain Tesson achieved: complete solitude in the “wild” to explore his own mind and being. During his self-imposed isolation in Siberia, Tesson seeks solitude, gains it, and, in a moment of rage, loses it.

From his diary The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga,4 that moment of interruption happens when his sanctuary, a lone outcrop on the lake’s edge, becomes the place that “Russia’s nouveaux riches fawn like groupies.” Specifically, snow mobiles. Tesson is devastated, embarrassed, and angry: “What I came here to escape has descended on my island: noise, ugliness, testosterone-fueled herd behavior.”

Devastated. How resonating. Being interrupted is more than losing thoughts or to-do lists. It can feel like we lose a part of ourselves. Or worse, that part is destroyed.

London Underground Tracks, Perivale Station. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

When I began writing, I had to explain to my husband that the slightest chirp could pull me down from my thoughts and land me hard on the ground, creatively broken. I can’t ask him for silence in our own home, but I can ask him to not need me during certain times. He tries. But even now, I see him turning his head to get my attention, wanting to talk…

It seems unreasonable, and at times it is, but this need from others will stunt many of us who long to connect with unspoken parts of ourselves rather than freely given parts of others. My introversion is a sort that I don’t mind being around people—in fact, I love it—I just can’t be needed and creative.

We can relocate to the woods (Oliver, Dillard), the mountains (Cohen), Siberia (Tesson), or a cramped studio in Notting Hill (myself), but the intrusive world is beyond our control.

What we can control, however, is how we regain focus once lost. Right? That perfect uninterruptability.

The Abounding Similarities Between Tea and Poetry

“It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”
Kakuzo Okakura

On a bright corner between Piccadilly and Green Street Stations sits my favorite London destination: two neighboring purveyors. To the left, Fortnum & Mason, department store and tea merchant since 1703; on the right, Hatchards, inimitable vendor of warming poetry (and other books) since 1797.

Let’s wander.

Fortnum’s presents like a dream. Billowed drapes, exquisite shop windows, costumed attendants slicing fresh nougat. And small, idiosyncratic collectibles like silver jam spoons and porcelain bears, tucked under glass panes. In the back, past the sweets, jams, honeys, curds, biscuits, chocolates, and sumptuous nougat, are the teas. A wall of canisters. An inventive tower allows (olfactory) sampling of the proprietary blends. The names are poetic:

Earl Grey: “Simple and stimulating”
Fortmason: “Perfumed and subtle”
Lapsang Souchong: “Delicious and smoky”
Russian Caravan: “Light and nutty”
Chai: “Spicy and exquisite”

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“Poetry is balance of things opposed.”

Who said that? Coleridge? It must be, for it was Coleridge’s own “Kubla Khan” that slaps us with contradiction.1 He artfully builds paradise with lines like “stately pleasure dome and scared rivers,” crossed by “fertile rivers” and teeming with “giant gardens bright.” Then, harshly, he ignites that lingering doubt—this cannot possibly be real—and destroys everything with “All should cry ‘Beware! Beware!’”

Nothing is the ultimate balance.

Coleridge can be a bit nutty. For a softer, more internal warmth might I recommend “Pleasures”2 by British poet Denise Levertov. An old favorite. I love how the right margin undulates in soothing harmony;

I like to find
what’s not found
at once, but lies

within something of another nature,
in repose, distinct.
Gull features of glass, hidden

in white pulp: the bones of squid
which I pull out and lay
blade by blade on the draining board –

tapered as if for swiftness, to pierce
the heart, but fragile, substance
belying design.

Read it aloud and tap as you go, find the syllables to stress; they are hidden, difficult. They don’t keep to the breaks. There is a delightful something hidden, something simple and stimulating.

Teapots made by Richard Brendon. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Tea has elegance too, in its proportion: hot liquid, cool pot. I hold empty pots to my neck in the summer. Tea to milk (I prefer milk), steeping. And even in the production: a simply plucked leaf, wilted, bruised, oxidized, shaped, and dried, all in proportion. I left with 250g of loose Russian Caravan, smoky and salutary.

An old favorite. Delicious poems await. Tea and poetry. Onward.

Hatchards, once you skoosh past the throngs of tourists, the stacks of best-sellers, and the queue for the till, opens to a large, beckoning interior. Lit shelves, dark wood struts, an ambling staircase.

First, a wonderful sip of Wodehouse (Hatchards has a lovely collection), a stir with Romantic verse, and finally, a selection of Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Traveled.3

Fry cautions: “You can never read a poem too slowly.” He urges a pause, how delightfully British. “Keep calm…” and all that.

Something stirs. A contradiction. Few cultures celebrate tea as extravagantly as the British, how Graham Greene remembered in his memoirs: “The silver pot, the tall tiered cake-stand, like a Chinese temple, two kinds of bread and butter, white and brown, cucumber and tomato sandwiches cut razor-thin, scones, rock-buns, and then all the cakes…”4

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Indeed. Yet, it is a culture that rejects indulgence often—from preferred weather-oriented conversation staples to the “Keep calm…” (and do-not-indulge-emotions) mantra. Yet, indulgence in tea and poetry. Why?

Drink tea. Read poetry. Do both indulgently?

In our modern life, there is much need for pause. Although random pauses accomplish little, specific pauses, between moments of stimulation (usually negative) and response, accomplish everything. Someone steps in your way, cuts in the queue, snaps; we can respond (usually negative), or we can pause.

We not only pause, we saturate that pause with comfort, thoughtfulness, and meaning—feelings created by tea, poetry. A reflection on those rich pleasures and the joy they bring… Will we be more likely to find empathy, patience, kindness? Our better selves?

Might we even find “purity and harmony”?

Those aren’t my words; they belong to Kakuzo Okakura, a Japanese scholar and cultural critic who wrote The Book of Tea in 1906 extolling the aestheticism of tea and the delight of the poetic-minded pause.5

It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

[…]

The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence and linger in the beautiful and foolishness of things.

Drink tea. Read poetry. Find something, possibly your best self.

In Praise of Slowness and All Things Snails

“And the snail, the peaceful bourgeois of the narrow trail, contemplates the landscape.”
Federico Garcia Lorca

Run, rest, run…yet, how often do we consider pace? A snail’s progress has much to offer. Their even pace has defined our notions of movement and fired our imaginations. (Notwithstanding their wonderful absence of feet.)

We don’t see many snails at our third-floor walk-up. When I found a mottled shell, occupied, in our window box, I was elated. She (snails are hermaphrodites, thus I felt her gender was my prerogative) arrived by way of herb pots, the black mint and marjoram. We nodded acquaintance, I showed her around.

Carefully, very carefully, I slipped her onto a spoon. Ah yes because a snail is not a slug in a shell. A snail without a shell or even a punctured shell will die. Shells are astoundingly light and delicate.

As we went, she absorbed the sights, moving her head, squirming in the shaded kitchen and shrinking in the sunny spare room. I moved slowly, evenly, and with considered steps. She twiddled rapturously as we passed the bright-blue work of English ceramicist Fenella Elms. I tipped the spoon, and she took off across the Perspex, crossing the patterned small discs with the ease and rhythm inherent in the piece itself. She moved with determination and purpose befitting our understanding of snails.

Our snail courses across stained porcelain discs in “Comb” by Fenella Elms. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Pace is not the same as a break, although they have similar effect. A break is rest, an exhale or inhale. Pace, especially an slow, even one, is how we go where we go. The benefits of commanding pace are subtle but endearing. Steadiness goes hand in hand with a fixed gaze, focusing on what is meaningful and ignoring the extraneous.

In Federico Garcia Lorca’s marvelous and awfully existential The Dialogue of Two Snails,1 the snail is an adventurous soul, driven by a simple, authentic need:

And the snail, the peaceful
bourgeois of the narrow trail,
contemplates the landscape.
The divine serenity
of Nature
gave him courage and faith,
and forgetting the troubles
of his home, he longed
to see the end of the path.

My little snail set a beautiful pace, I wanted to see what she’d do with edges and corners. I introduced her to Isobel Egan’s “Miniature Spaces,” one of my favorite pieces whose removable boxes I rearrange to suit my moods. The porcelain is cold and fragile. To avoid breakage, I have to move them slowly, it’s an exercise in pace. They make a lovely noise, scraping against one another.

The snail sniffed, cautious, contemplative, seeking the best path. She moved quite slowly but she picked up the longer she remained. Ever guarded, however.

“Miniature Spaces” by Isobel Egan. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Virginia Woolf, in her inimitable modern way, paid homage to the determined snail in her short story Kew Gardens:2

Brown cliffs with deep green lakes in the hollows, flat, blade-like trees that waved from root to tip, round boulders of grey stone, vast crumpled surfaces of a thin cracking texture – all these objects lay across the snail’s progress between one stalk and another to his goal.

How comforting that at any point in time, millions of snails are moving slowly towards their most desired end.

Snails converge on a seeding agapanthus. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

My snail was pooped. She had covered tens of inches. I put a measure of soil in the spoon and scooped her up. We spoke softly of art, style, color and texture, rocks and pine cones, birth and death. We sniffed spices and marveled at the freezer. Slowly and evenly. I let her rest in a damp sink which she loved. I had never traced my home so carefully, the precious things I keep nearby.

Time passed, I have no idea how much. Tens of minutes in praise of slowness. We walk paths in order to see, I walked her path today. I returned her to the thin lip of the herb box and wiped the spoon with disinfectant. What is it about snails that ignites reverence? Their consistency?

American modern poet, Marianne Moore, praises a snail’s singular style in her observational poem “To a Snail…”3

If “compression is the first grace of style,” you have it.
Contractility is a virtue as modesty is a virtue.

[…]

the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.

The absence of feet, an occipital horn, those sniffing eyes. Our snail remained (ever constant) throughout the summer, particularly found of the majoram, which thrived once she left. I say “left” because no shell remained.

Her path continued to her most desired end.