When I was a junior in college, I took a course where we read 8 novels by Virginia Woolf in 8 weeks. I loved it. There’s never been another time in my reading life where I’ve been able to cover so much in such a short period of time, and she still remains the author I’ve read most extensively. Over the years, though, I’ve only reread Mrs. Dalloway (along with The Hours by Michael Cunningham) with my old book club. For this year’s rereading of favorites, I picked Woolf’s The Waves, definitely her most difficult book and the one my pretentious undergrad- English-major-self claimed to love the most, and what I wrote my final paper on. I’m not going to lie–15 years later, The Waves felt like a lot of work to get through even while simultaneously understanding what a masterpiece it still is. (I tried reading it before bed and I fell asleep within 2 pages every time. It then lived in my purse for weeks as my subway book. Then I read it during my school’s 20 minute independent reading time after lunch each day. Then I finally sat down on my couch until I was done.)
The story is told from the voices of 5 friends and covers their early days into their latest years, with the central event being the death of their 6th friend in his early twenties. It is told in a stream of consciousness, moment-by-moment narration, giving me the sense that each character is simply trying to make it through from one to the next. There is a lot of inner thinking and philosophizing about the nature of life and being that begins to change as the characters grow older.
As a 21 year old, I read it through the lens of love: “There can be no doubt, I thought, pushing aside the newspaper, that our mean lives, unsightly as they are, put on splendour and have meaning only under the eyes of love” (178). I still try to see the world through a lens of love, but looking at my older notes, it’s amazing to learn how the layers and years of your life can change the way you interpret a book. Ultimately, I still believe that love creates meaning, but what stood out for me this time was the capacity one has for being in the moment (and let’s be honest, despite knowing better, mine’s quite small).
“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.”
“The moment was all. The moment was enough.”
Meanwhile, I’m connecting to articles that tell me if I’m turning to my phone because I think I feel bored, that’s a problem.
The other thing I noticed significantly more this time around was as the characters grew older, many of them embrace life’s messiness. I imagine when I was 21 I would have seen these characters as being somewhat lost, whereas now I connect more to this view:
“But in order to make you understand, to give you my life, I must tell you a story–and there are so many, and so many–stories of childhood, stories of school, love, marriage, death, and so on; and none of them are true. Yet like children we tell each other stories and to decorate them we make up these ridiculous, flamboyant, beautiful phrases. How tired I am of stories, how tired I am of phrases that come down beautifully with all their feet on the ground! […] What delights me [now] is the confusion, the height, the indifference and the fury. Great clouds always changing, and
movement; something sulphurous and sinister, bowled up, helter-skelter; towering, trailing, broken off, lost…” (238-239).
The piece that enables me to embrace the mess is this:
“I am rooted, but I flow.”
No more words are needed.
(Note: I also just read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, which is a memoir about her life as a botanist and in it she writes about the root systems of trees, which I find profoundly metaphorical. Highly recommended if you are even a little bit of a life science nature nerd.)