My Year (in books)

In January I read The Letters of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, Ongoingness, and Hannah Sullivan’s Three Poems. January was too dark and a birthday of rain and cold and homesickness was too much. But in January H and I started to send moons to one another from across the world. It was usually in transit―from the bus-stop, the ferry, the walk or cycle home―we would look up and see it hanging, glowing, and lift our screens. Suddenly the moon was beamed to a bedside or pocket a whole hemisphere away. So cliché, but it’s the same moon, the same sun―but not the same stars. I looked up and saw an unfamiliar atlas, one of literature, but not of longing. There’s the north star, steady and true they say, but I didn’t see it til I was twenty three. And cassiopeia, lynx, draco―a zoo of unfamiliar gods and beasts. There’s no Matariki in my summer skies, and never The Southern Cross. No South Celestial pole that we learnt to identify by lines and frames of the palm―thinking we’d need it for navigation when we were grown. Ha. But instead (of course, of course) we used our phones to navigate, to connect, to make sense of ourselves in a world that seems so dark it’s always a jolt to look up and remember there’s light in it all. And, even if it is dark (too dark it feels as if you’ll never find your way out), there will always be something (even if it is so very far away) that reflects the light.

February had hot pink sunsets. On my way to dinner with O I cycled past a big neon sign that read ‘we are alone’. But then I glanced back and an extra L had lit up nestled next to the first one—a flicker, a letter, a moment of light to make me stop and marvel at the power of art and words and messages and meanings. For one weekend in February it was hot. Too hot, and I stripped layers of wool to sit in the sun. A brief respite, but one tinged with a sense of doom that comes with the knowledge of a warming world. In February I held my door wide open and told my students how proud I was as they walked out of class this morning on their way to a protest. In February I read The Years (Woolf) and The Years (Ernaux), Eye Level, Homegoing, and Salt Slow.

In March I met E at a party we both didn’t belong to. We tried to be polite to those who were sitting next to us but spent the night engrossed in one another. We realised we were neighbours and cycled home together in the dark. The next morning she came upstairs and borrowed Ali Smith and Lanny and Sophie Collins’ Who is Mary Sue? In March Spring arrived in the post just as I went into hospital. As the hours of waiting waxed into a day I read On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. When I woke doped on morphine the words fell to the bottom of the page. I closed my eyes and shifted in time as the nurses shuffled in and out of the room.

April began bored in bed; a slow recovery. The light was coming back, and so was I. E would come up and make me coffee and I realised she’d only ever known me as ill. In April I read Limbo, Gingerbread, Blind Spot, Magical Negro, and Too Much and Not the Mood. I read Ghost Wall twice. Obsessed. Without warning I bumped into Ali Smith in a stairwell, and read Spring again.

May was a haze of green as we drove through forests and fields to see Virginia Woolf’s house. We noticed a paua shell, shined to purple and gold and blue on her bedroom’s mantle. E had borrowed my copy of The Waves and laughed as she noticed everything underlined was just descriptions of light. In May I read Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl, Dear Tombs, Dear Horizon, Sour heart, Known and Strange Things, The Bone People, Luminescent, Three Women, and Tātai Whetū.

In early June O and I spent hours in the sun. She did crosswords as I read The Journals of Katherine Mansfield. I read all the best bits aloud to her and unsurprisingly found myself in its pages. In June I wore a dress with Botticelli’s Primavera on it. It was bougie as fuck and the best thing I’ve ever worn. I read The Collected Schizophrenias, The God of Small Things, and America is Not the Heart. At the end of June I was so full of summer and it felt like I hadn’t read anything in weeks, but that wasn’t true—I’d read chapters, articles, exams, lists, poems, beginnings, endings, news, ads, emails, letters, cards, notes. I read instagram captions over and over before hitting publish, like they were a draft for something bigger and better; for this, and then some.

In July I used the spare key to let myself into E’s flat—she was away and needed her passport. It was quiet and empty; eerie without her voice calling me in from the front room. Summer’s heat came through gaps in the floorboards and a square of light shivered on the blank wall. Her bedside was empty but for Arundhati Roy’s My Seditious Heart. In the middle of the heatwave I read, with sweat slicked across the pages, Flèche,  Surrender, and Insurrecto. On the last day of July we swam in the river and E moved out. I cried at the emptiness below my feet. In July I read The Year of the Monkey, Baby, The Collection, and Milkman.

Time Lived Without its Flow in August and I learnt how to occupy a different space. We moved from our tiny flat with a turret to a tiny terraced house. After the last box was through the door a thunderstorm rolled in. I rolled my eyes at my own grief and attachment to space, and tried to ignore it all by reading Lost Children Archive and The Old Drift. I unpacked all the books, awake and on edge at 3am. We went sailing and I read Attraction, Saltwater, Faces in the Crowd, A Woman looking at Men looking at Women, and The Waves. I had huge fights with my dad and wondered if he realised where I got it all from.

In September E had been away for months but then suddenly there she was: no longer my downstairs neighbour, but accidentally staying across the road, like an echo of our vertical habitation, now linear. I read The Bells of Old Tokyo and felt cheated as the bibliographic notes began long before I was ready for them. I read Lay Studies, Owls Do Cry, Wedding Beasts, Diary of a Miu Miu Sales Girl, and Hilton Als’ White Girls.

In October I read The Secret Commonwealth, Untold Night and Day, Garments Against Women, Trick Mirror, and Poūkahangatus. I read Two Trees Make a Forest as I flew to Ireland and spent a week trying to form all my thoughts of my body’s breathlessness into words. In October we got riotously drunk at a party—I perched, staring at the door, waiting for E to arrive. When she walked in (flushed, rushed in from the train), we played polite for a while, extracted ourselves from the rest, and then didn’t move until we stumbled out onto the street at 2am. I don’t remember what we spoke of, but I remember my heart was huge for missing her, even when she was sitting beside me.

In November I found myself seated next to a student, a fifteen year old girl, in a dark auditorium waiting for Patti Smith to come onstage. We talked of the heartbreaks happening in between lessons of poetry and she delivered the tea in a hushed voice so her mother wouldn’t hear—everything falls apart when the days get darker, she said. We yawned in unison as the weight of the week descended. Patti came on and told us of her dreams, days spent in bed watching television, and the hope of youth taking to the streets. I cried when she sang Because the Night, and turned to see B with her head resting on her mum’s shoulder, smiling. When the lights flared up, I told B I wanted to be Patti Smith when I grow up. I want to be you when I grow up, she replied. I held back the tears until I got home. In November I read Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House in a day and then read it again. I read Dear Boy, The Topeka School, Autumn, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Madness Rack and Honey, and In the Cut. In November the world got a bit too much and I ran away to the beach as the homesickness bloomed in my chest. I wondered how H could move here—from the heady island’s summer to this gloom, but was fizzing in anticipation of her arrival.

December brought anxiety and heartbreak and rage as a wave of blue washed over the land. I cried whilst reading Whose Story is This, All Who Live on Islands, and We Can Make a Life. December was too much—too cold too wet too dark too long, and too heavy with an election of lies and manipulation and greed. An election of misinformation and arrogance, an election that defined the nation as apathetic. I read Turning, Float, How to be both, Rendang, Little Weirds, High School, and The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield. In December I went to Kettle’s Yard and watched the light hit the mirror at the top of the stairs and bend itself into a rainbow that blazed across Brancusi’s Face of Prometheus—the one that brought us light and hope and warmth. I woke up the next morning and said I wish I didn’t care so much. No, R said, you wish the world cared as much as you did. In December I realised that mirrors make meaning, but only for a moment, and when it begins to get dark we need mirrors and moments of opportunity to make change. Only then will the light come back.

 

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