Following last week's post on creative inspiration born out of hard experience, I'd like to recommend a book I've recently read and loved: A Still Life by British author Josie George. In this beautiful, painful, deftly-crafted memoir, George brings us into the center of a writing life honed by illness and disability: circumscribed by physical limitations, yes, but rich in observation, reflection, and depth of feeling, alchemized into the making of art.
She begins the book like this, writing from her bed in the small house where she's lived for fifteen years:
"Houses like mine exist all in a row along every street of my industrial West Midlands neighbourhood. They push themselves right up against the narrow pavement, rusty weeds marking the join. It's a land of scattered wheelie bins, patched grass, broken glass, dog shit and prowling cats. Cars ride the corners and the yellow lines because there is never anywhere to park. The neighbours shout behind closed doors and smile at you on the street, and for half the year the old people drag plastic garden chairs to sit outside their front doors and smoke in the sunshine, their heads tipped back to the sky. We're good to each other. We're so trodden together that we have to be. There is peace and reassurance in that and I like living here.
"I share the house with my nine-year-old son and no one else. Our days follow a repetitive, quiet rhythm. I take him to school, him dutifully shifting each bin that blocks our path so I can squeeze by on my mobility scooter. We make up phrases beginning with the letters on the car number plates we see, each as daft as we can manage. 'Bee, ee, ess!' I call. 'Bubbly...elephant...SNEEZES!' he returns. We are happy with each other. I watch him run to his friends in the playground and then I go home again.
"I write. I rest. Some days, when I'm well enough, I'll scoot to the community centre the next street over and write there for a while until I need to lie down again. I've spent the last few years trying to make a living with my words and thoughts. I don't really know what else to do.
"I write the words, but often won't say a sound out loud until it's time to pick up my son from school again. I don't mind it. There have always been long years when I've struggled to leave my house for more than an hour or two at a time and so I am used to solitude.
"I am thirty-six years old."
George's text is not just about living with an illness (although her writing on the subject is gripping), it is also an unsentimental appraisal of the value of stillness, of slowing down, and of fully engaging with what we have -- right here, right now -- instead of measuring our days (and, by extension, our creative work) by what we lack.
Although my own experience of health disability is milder than George's, and more intermittent, I found enough similarity to be grateful for her insights on the subject; I also appreciated her raw honesty -- often expressed through a dry humour that does not disguise the courage beneath. This is, however, a book worth reading whether you've experienced chronic illness or not, for its primary theme -- how to maintain creativity, vitality, and a sense of self while dealing with life's trials -- is one we all must face, if not through illness then through age, through loss, or through some other hard life change ... such as long, world-wide pandemic, where even the able-bodied have had to learn to live with physical restrictions.
A "still life" imposed by circumstance (health, poverty, age, a cultural barrier, pandemic isolation, etc.) can be painful, frustrating, and burdensome...but also enlightening, tempering, liberating, and full of unexpected gifts. George's story encompasses all these things ... and it does so with a quiet beauty that our brash, angry, overly-fast-paced society could use a great deal more of.
"The miracle is, perhaps, that I am still here -- that I continue -- and that despite all that's come before, I believe my life to be good. That is the truth hidden under all of this: that I am deeply happy to be alive.
"Usually, when you are unwell, people expect one of two stories: either you get better -- you beat it -- or you get worse and die. Stories of everyday living and undramatic, sustained existence, stories that don't end up with cures or tragic climaxes but that are made up of slow, persistent continuation as you learn and change -- stories about what happens then -- they made be harder to tell, but I believe they're important too. I believe we need to tell more of them.
"That is why this year I decided to be brave. I decided I would try to find a way to tell my story, to pin it down and spread it out in front of other people -- in front of you -- so that we could look at it together. On the first of January, I made a resolution to try and write down my confused and searching past and the quiet days of my present, simply, honestly, and ignore the voice inside me that continues to tell me that it is a worthless, unimportant story to tell. I have barely told a soul of it before. It was always too much to explain. It was always too complicated and I have felt flawed and vulnerable in complexity's jumble. My life has made it easy to hide, and so I have, but I don't want to be something small and hidden any more. Mine is only one ordinary human life among countless, similar others, but it is a life that doesn't leave anything out: not grief, not pain, not delight, not failure, confusion, nor joy. It holds and embraces all of it equally, and that, I have learnt, is nothing ordinary at all."
Words: The passage above is from A Still Life: A Memoir by Josie George (Bloomsbury, 2021). The poem in the picture captions is from Indigo by Ellen Bass (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). Both books are highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.
Pictures: Dartmoor ponies on the village Commons.