Day 26 – Together, Apart (taken from The Isolation Journals. Prompt by Priya Parker)
Your prompt for today:
What’s a memory of a collective ritual, inherited or invented, that was meaningful or formative to some part of your identity? Write about it. Who was there? What was the activity? What were the words that were used? What time of year was it? How did it make you feel? And years later, how might it have shaped you?
My post-SPM days are now a blur but I remember how it felt then. It was 2007 and I was 17. My future held like an open-ended promise but the days felt like one big, lazy yawn. It was a weird post-high school, pre-university state of limbo where I had the luxury of focusing on the art of doing absolutely nothing. I spent most mornings and afternoons playing Final Fantasy or reading any book I could get my hands on as thoughts about my future would flit through my mind.
I had a neighbour named Amelia whom I’d trade books with. We went to the same tuition centre and would meet at the park for afternoon walks. We talked a lot about wanting to be fit and healthy but really, these walks were our time to hang out. Amelia liked reading and writing as much as I did which meant that she was a rare sort of friend to have around. I didn’t have many friends to begin with, let alone any that liked to read and write. We’d walk uphill, downhill and many laps around the neighbourhood park as we talked about boys and their attractive shoulders. We’d discuss about our favourite books and the promise of what the future would bring. Amelia would later go on to attend an Ivy League university.
At the end of our walks, we’d sit on the tarmac benches as we drank from our plastic bottles. This usually also signalled the part where we’d take out our favourite books from our bags for our book swap. During one of these walks, she lent me her copy of Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’.
How do I even begin to explain why this book was love at first read? Maybe it’s the first sentence in the novel itself:
“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”
‘The Secret History’ is a reverse murder mystery that revolves around Greek/Roman history and rituals. Its characters are all terrible and morally questionable, with an unhealthy obsession with beauty and youth that could be deemed borderline pretentious. And yet, I loved these characters. The academic setting depicted in the book whisked me away to an elsewhere where it’s okay to be careless, young, smart and beautiful. I could see Camilla with her tousled curls and floral dresses, looking like a character from a Sofia Coppola film. I could feel Henry’s tension headaches creeping at the back of my own head and hear Bunny’s bitingly insensitive remarks. It felt like I was part of the group. Reading this book was hypnotic.
“After all, the appeal to stop being yourself, even for a little while, is very great. To escape the cognitive mode of experience, to transcend the accident of one’s moment of being.”
“Could it be because it reminds us that we are alive, of our mortality, of our individual souls- which, after all, we are too afraid to surrender but yet make us feel more miserable than any other thing? But isn’t it also pain that often makes us most aware of self? It is a terrible thing to learn as a child that one is a being separate from the world, that no one and no thing hurts along with one’s burned tongues and skinned knees, that one’s aches and pains are all one’s own. Even more terrible, as we grow old, to learn that no person, no matter how beloved, can ever truly understand us. Our own selves make us most unhappy, and that’s why we’re so anxious to lose them, don’t you think?”
― The Secret History
In an ironic, roundabout way, this incredibly long, intriguing book showed me how beauty can be found in macabre things. It helped me to address and think more about my very own first encounter with death which hurt me for many years. It made me yearn friendship and beauty and intellectuality, as well as to understand the inevitable impermanence of it all. Best of all was the realisation that a woman wrote this book. This amazing, solid book. I loved her use of language and her descriptions which, at times, made more for the story than the plot itself. And, in a way, I found a writer to look up to.
For a person who struggled with self-esteem at the age of 17, this book helped me find a less lonely place in the world. You know how they say that things find you easily when you’re younger because you have less impressions about your own preferences? This was one of those special books where I could escape in its entirety and which also helped to shape some of my tastes later on. I wanted to be more involved with the craft of writing because of it and I still think about this book till today.