77 years ago today, Virginia Woolf walked into the River Ouse with her pockets filled with stones to weigh her down, to facilitate her drowning. She left us with such a body of writing: novels, essays, letters, diaries, glimpses of her in the work of others. I was 19 when I first read The Waves. I remember rationing it out because I didn’t want it to end. I wanted those voices, those characters to stay in my life. And what I know now of course is that they have. Bernard with his stories, and maybe Rhoda most of of all, she who looks into water, searching for herself.
“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”
In my early 20s, I spent a few years trying to figure out how to be a writer in a world that kept asking something else of me. I certainly wasn’t unique in this. And at the time I was pretty self-absorbed. I was porous. Everything I experienced and felt needed to be contemplated, written about, worked through. There was a lot of drama. In a recent essay, “How Rivers Break Away and Meet Again”, I found myself writing about that young self. I wrote about a specific moment on a bridge over Englishman River and when I finished the section, my immediate thought was to delete it. Oh, who needs to know this, I wondered. But then I realized that I am so grateful that the moment passed, that the dog I was caring for reminded me to cross the bridge and continue on with the trip we had undertaken. And it’s good to remember these things, particularly now, at this point in my life, when I can make a place for those dark considerations in the daily light, the beautiful precious years I have somehow been gifted.
When I was a young woman sad enough to consider ending my life, I stood on the bridge in November. I was driving by myself to Long Beach after a series of humiliating events during the first term of my 4th year at the University of Victoria; I had permission to take a week away from classes. I’d borrowed my father’s red Datsun pickup truck. It had a canopy, which leaked, and a canvas hammock, sewn by my father with his big careful stitches, strung diagonally across the bed of the truck. I rigged up a plastic bag over the vent in the ceiling of the canopy to catch the drips and smoothed my sleeping bag into the narrow hammock and walked out to the bridge. I had my family’s dog with me, a crazy Samoyed/Lab cross. He bit people if he was allowed off his leash but he liked me and he was warm. He strained at his leash on the bridge and I thought about jumping off into the deep green water. I didn’t want to think about what would happen to my body but I also couldn’t imagine what would happen to the dog on his leash if I died at Englishman River where no one knew I’d gone and wouldn’t think to look for me. The dog was my wavering. I also wanted to give him the gift of wild running on the empty beaches I knew we’d find that time of year. We returned in the rain to the truck and I heated soup for myself on the little blue Optimus stove and scooped some Gravy Train into the dog’s bowl. I ate my soup on the tailgate in my rain jacket while the dog huddled under the picnic table. Then we both made ourselves as comfortable as we could in the damp canopy and slept while the rain pounded on the roof, near enough to touch.
(A woman, hand inside her rain jacket, tenderly taking her pulse, the drama of her heart pushing blood, whoosh, into her circulatory system, the drama of her life, whoosh, at wrist, at neck. She wonders if she will move forward to the other side of the river, or back, into the wreckage of the past weeks while her dog pants at her feet, eager for more walking. Not this, not the dark considerations of life or death.)