01 August 2022

"I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this to you before, but a few years ago, I started keeping a diary, which I called ‘the life book’. I began with the idea of writing one short entry each day, just a line or two, describing something good. I suppose by ‘good’ I must have meant something that made me happy or brought me pleasure. I went back to look at it the other day, and the early entries are all from that autumn, almost six years ago now. Dry upturned sycamore leaves scuttling like claws along the South Circular Road. The artificial buttered taste of popcorn in the cinema. Pale-yellow sky in the evening, Thomas Street draped in mist. Things like that. I didn’t miss a day through all of September, October, November that year. I could always think of something nice, and sometimes I would even do things for the purpose of putting them in the book, like taking a bath or going for a walk. At the time I felt like I was just absorbing life, and at the end of the day I never had to strain to think of anything good I had seen or heard. It just came to me, and even the words came, because my only aim was to get the image down clearly and simply so that I would later remember how it felt. And reading those entries now, I do remember what I felt, or at least what I saw and heard and noticed. Walking around, even on a bad day, I would see things – I mean just the things that were in front of me. People’s faces, the weather, traffic. The smell of petrol from the garage, the feeling of being rained on, completely ordinary things. And in that way even the bad days were good, because I felt them and remembered feeling them. There was something delicate about living like that – like I was an instrument and the world touched me and reverberated inside me.

After a couple of months, I started to miss days. Sometimes I would fall asleep without remembering to write anything, but then other nights I’d open the book and not know what to write – I wouldn’t be able to think of anything at all. When I did make entries, they were increasingly verbal and abstract: song titles, or quotes from novels, or text messages from friends. By spring I couldn’t keep it up anymore. I started to put the diary away for weeks at a time – it was just a cheap black notebook I got at work – and then eventually I’d take it back out to look at the entries from the previous year. At that point, I found it impossible to imagine ever feeling again as I had apparently once felt about rain or flowers. It wasn’t just that I failed to be delighted by sensory experiences – it was that I didn’t actually seem to have them anymore. I would walk to work or go out for groceries or whatever and by the time I came home again I wouldn’t be able to remember seeing or hearing anything distinctive at all. I suppose I was seeing but not looking – the visual world just came to me flat, like a catalogue of information. I never looked at things anymore, in the way I had before.

Reading the book again now gives me such a strange sensation. Was I really like that once? A person capable of dropping down into the most fleeting of impressions, and dilating them somehow, dwelling inside them, and finding riches and beauty there. Apparently I was – ‘for a couple of hours, but I am not that person’. I wonder whether the book itself, the process of writing the book, caused me to live that way, or whether I wrote because I wanted to record that kind of experience as it was happening. I’ve tried to remember what was going on in my life at the time, in case that might help me to understand. I know I was twenty-three, I had just started working at the magazine, you and I were living together in that horrible flat in the Liberties, and Kate was still in Dublin, and Tom, and Aoife. We went out to parties together, we had people over for dinner, we drank too much wine, we got into arguments. Sometimes Simon would call me on the phone from Paris so we could complain to each other about work, and while we were laughing, I would hear Natalie in the background, putting away plates in the kitchen. All my feelings and experiences were in one sense extremely intense, and in another sense completely trivial, because none of my decisions seemed to have any consequences, and nothing about my life – the job, the apartment, the desires, the love affairs – struck me as permanent. I felt anything was possible, that there were no doors shut behind me, and that out there somewhere, as yet unknown, there were people who would love and admire me and want to make me happy. Maybe that explains in some way the openness I felt toward the world – maybe without knowing it, I was anticipating my future, I was watching for signs.

A couple of nights ago, I was getting a taxi home on my own after a book launch. The streets were quiet and dark, and the air was oddly warm and still, and on the quays the office buildings were all lit up inside, and empty, and underneath everything, beneath the surface of everything, I began to feel it all over again – the nearness, the possibility of beauty, like a light radiating softly from behind the visible world, illuminating everything. As soon as I realised what I was feeling, I tried to move toward it in my thoughts, to reach out and handle it, but it only cooled a little or shrank away from me, or slipped off further ahead. The lights in the empty offices had reminded me of something, and I had been thinking about you, trying to imagine your house, I think, and I remembered I’d had an email from you, and at the same time I was thinking of Simon, the mystery of him, and somehow as I looked out the taxi window I started to think about his physical presence in the city, that somewhere inside the city’s structure, standing or sitting, holding his arms one way or another, dressed or undressed, he was present, and Dublin was like an advent calendar concealing him behind one of its million windows, and the quality of the air was instilled, the temperature was instilled, with his presence, and with your email, and with this message I was writing back to you in my head even then. The world seemed capable of including these things, and my eyes were capable, my brain was capable, of receiving and understanding them. I was tired, it was late, I was sitting half-asleep in the back of a taxi, remembering strangely that wherever I go, you are with me, and so is he, and that as long as you both live the world will be beautiful to me."

-- Beautiful World, Where Are You?, Sally Rooney