England: Attunement and borders
I woke up feeling depressed, with the sense that my mind was out of sorts and didn’t know itself or the world. I decided to finish reading Some Notes on Attunement by Zadie Smith, instead of working immediately as planned, since continuing in my stapled-together essay collection was the only activity which seemed bright rather than cold and unsavory. (Plus I couldn’t finish my toast and go back upstairs in the single minute before I had intended to start work.)
I don’t think the words meant what I wanted them to mean, but it was arguably about what I wanted it to be about, and left me with the message I wanted. Which I somehow believe might be what she meant to mean, especially now that I try to find my own words. It sounded like she was saying, “if you lower your boundaries and give time to various initially unappealing art forms, they can be awesome”. But that’s a message in the wrong register. What I wanted it to say was, open yourself in some deep way, turn yourself around, open eyes that you didn’t know you had, and everything might touch you. Touch you like you are its edges and its texture and you know everything, even if you can’t put it into words—not just some heightened tendency to mindless tears, or another ‘positive mental state’ for the utility logs. Don’t ask for more reasons on your blind and empty abstracta table, be your soul instead, and press yourself against the world, into the world. Hear every cell itself, not the trace it leaves in your proposition set. ‘Attunement.’ I don’t know if this is true, and even less know if she meant something like that, but such thoughts do come with something.
“Reduced to a Gothic skeleton, the abbey is penetrated by beauty from above and below, open to precisely those elements it had once hoped to frame for pious young men, as an object for their patient contemplation. But that form of holy concentration has now been gone longer than it was ever here. It was already an ancient memory two hundred years ago, when Wordsworth came by. Thistles sprout between the stones. The rain comes in. Roofless, floorless, glassless, “green to the very door”—now Tintern is forced to accept the holiness that is everywhere in everything.” - Zadie Smith, Some notes on Attunement
I went to get a visa in London. In the early morning line outside the embassy, the man behind me looked like he might want to talk, and had a pleasing, open face. I imagined him to be an Australian bushman. I think he wasn’t. He followed my gaze as I turned my head to take in the skyline and the grey sculpted walls we stood under, but he didn’t say anything. I held my passport where he could comment on our mutual Australianness if he wanted. He didn’t. The woman behind him said something about how long the queue was, and we were off to the races.
We both helpfully told her about how long it used to be, for instance in 2018. We had all come from places this morning. There were potential difficulties. I couldn’t exactly hear all the words, but that didn’t seem to impede the conversation, and I contributed my own emphasized assertions. The buses were most unreliable, as I learned last time. One really wants to stay nearby.
I tried to hear her story, but she spoke it quietly. She lived here but had spent some time in…Paree? She said it even lower, as if ashamed, or socially cautious. I didn’t think France was considered that much of a red flag these days, but decided not to mention this. She had gone to visit her dying parents. This was a problem somehow. She was much smaller than me, probably in her fifties, and had an air of elderly slight encumberment.
We got inside, and I awkwardly took a break from trying to hear things and got out my phone Kindle. An advertised book about how buildings learn caught my eye, and I downloaded the sample. We think of buildings as once built and then unchanging, but photos illustrated that over the decades they grow, rearrange and re-dress. It seemed not as worldview-revolutionizing an insight as the author hoped. But when I got to the mention of how a whole generation of houses had their insides shifted as women went to work, I was brought to tears by the thought of all those hopeful changes made for all those hopeful women, now each getting dressed in the morning for a new world. It seemed important not to cry too much at the embassy however.
Which was too bad, because the last day of transatlantic flying and restless hotel bed-tossing seemed to have made crying a very available option. On the walk to the embassy the thought of being a part of the long tradition of trying to be in America—if a relatively well-off and non-desperate part—just about brought me to tears. And it did bring me to thinking of the song, ‘Thousands are Sailing’ by the Pogues, which then did bring me to tears. I had paused at a bench in the gardens outside the embassy to recoup and question my decision to wear mascara. And now the big stone entrance room was full of people to whom being in America mattered so much. Women with head scarves and children. Neat young students-to-be. A procession of different people, each at the end of their own months-long effort to be here, hands holding precious paperwork against best coats or day-off jogging gear. All waiting for this day.
I played 2048 on my phone in the hope of numbness, and thought about why it seemed important to wrest myself back from these feelings. I decided that the problem here and perhaps often was risk of being unable to carry out my intention, rather than risk of for instance ending up in a place of suffering. The embassy started to let in the 9:30 contingent. I and the man behind me were leaning against a stone desk, and the woman was sitting on the stone floor. The room went up one at a time, were given numbers, and crowded into the inhumanly large lifts.
The first floor is a giant white oblong room with rows of seats and one long side of numbered booths, each with a window onto a visa officer. It contains a sound of undiscernable talking —perhaps a lot of talking—but is somehow quiet anyway. Screens above the seats flash new numbers several times a minute. You watch for your number and then go and find the window number that flashed beside it, and line up there. If your mind wanders from watching the numbers, you can look at the ever scrolling list of called numbers also playing on the screens.
I sat in the middle of the room. The woman from outside sat beside me and said something about ‘a familiar face’. She was glad to sit down. Why did they have people stand for so long? She needed a visa to go to the wedding of her niece, in California. Her favorite niece. But she was from Iran (oh!) and had been there to help her parents as they died. Which made her suspicious, according to the new rules, so she needed a visa. She wasn’t even Muslim…not that it should matter, she quickly corrected. She found it unfair that it mattered so much where you were born. I hoped that we would one day look back in astonishment from better systems. We kept forgetting the flashing numbers, so drifted into silences to watch the scrolling numbers. She had intended to have back surgery today, but had delayed it, now that her niece was getting married, and a month later her son. The numbers were mostly in order, so we saw ours likely approaching. Mine did. We wished each other luck.
After the first window and some innocuous questions and pushing of things through a slot, I was told to sit nearer the other end of the room and wait for my number to be called again.
I sat beside the same woman further down the room. She was agitated with concern. The visa officer had seemed angry with her. Something about leaning against the booth, when someone else had to step in front of her to deliver their photo. Her back hurt. This had all been a bad sign. I thought that if they had sent her on to the next step, it probably wouldn’t matter too much. Her niece was getting married in Orange County. In a big name hotel. A $500 per head party. She would marry a solicitor, so the party could be something. Had she seen the favorite niece recently? Ten years ago. She had been busy with the dying parents. Numbers after ours had come up—was this a bad sign? I didn’t think so, not much. She found a picture of the niece in a long messenger thread riddled with hearts. A gorgeous younger version of the same face. Yes, they are very alike as people too. More photos of the niece and the solicitor. And then photos of the son who will be married. A tall, dark haired, British looking man. In place after place holding a smiley woman. I say they look happy. He is turning thirty. It would be a reasonable British wedding. The mother of the groom would not have much control of anything, but that was alright, because she had work to do. Did she have daughters? No, two sons, but she had wished.
My number came up. I wished her luck.
At the next window, the difficult problem was taking all ten of my finger prints. My fingers had recently spent time as cold dehydrated prunes, and been made repeatedly bloody by the staples on my essay collection, and perhaps these things left them in worse condition. After some failure, the woman behind the glass told me in a slightly embarrassed tone to rub them on the back of my neck, and try to pick up some of the oil from there. Abruptly, my visa was approved. I can just go? Yes.
I walked toward the lift, but things did not seem resolved. I wanted to know how it ended for the woman. Would she go to the wedding, and meet again with her beloved niece amidst their happiness? Would she sit alone in grey England? I saw her waiting in line still. I got in the lift.
The lift opened onto a sheer stone wall with letters maybe as big as hands, saying: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. - Robert F Kennedy”.
The trickle of people leaving seemed to have a new energy, muted for now. Brief smiles. Warm holding of doors in the shared victory of leaving. Maybe I was imagining it. On our way out we filtered past the slow, serious queues of the entrance hall. I smiled at the people waiting there, and hoped this did not seem smug.
I considered pausing on a bench outside to try to hear once more from the woman on her way out, but unsure what my next move would be after accosting her again—especially if the outcome had been disappointing—I opted instead for never knowing. I’m not sure about that choice. I emailed my boyfriend and went to the supermarket.