I read Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home yesterday in one long, breathless gulp. The book is an elegant evocation of a true friendship between women, a heartbroken eulogy, and an unflinching exploration of what life looks like on the other side of an unimaginable loss. Written in Caldwell’s absolutely glorious prose, Let’s Take the Long Way Home is also a set piece of and love letter to my home town, Cambridge.
There’s much to talk about in Caldwell’s book, but what I am thinking about tonight is the way she describes the initial bond between Caroline Knapp and herself. She describes her early observation that in Caroline’s voice there was “restraint that suggested wells of darkness behind all that mannered poise,” an image I adore. The women shared a host of similiarities, in both their temperaments and in their narratives, that bond them quickly and deeply.
On page 20 my breath caught in my throat:
For both of us, in different ways, the volume of the world had been turned up a notch. Whether this sensitivity functioned as a failing or an asset, I think we recognized it in each other from the start … She was so quiet, so careful, and yet so fully present, and I found it a weightless liberation to be with someone whose intensity seemed to match and sometimes surpass my own.
Oh, the shelter and immense relief I feel when I find someone like that. There aren’t many, but they are treasured. I’ve spent much of my life feeling that I ought to moderate my intensity, that my sensitivity is just plain annoying at best and an outright liability at worst. Later in the book Caldwell quotes an old boyfriend of hers who said, as their relationship neared its end, “You know, sometimes the light of you is just a little too bright.” I identify with this: not in the “good” sense of light, but because it reminds me of what my father has always said about me, that being with me is like drinking from a fire hose. It’s a question of being unable to moderate myself, my intensity. Sometimes I wonder if my shyness and quiet affect when I meet new people is a way of compensating for this, a way of hiding the firehose for as long as I can. After all, who would want to be drowned in the onslaught of my neurosis, observation, personality?
Caldwell describes another facet of Caroline that resonated very deeply with me.
When she was confronted with any emotional difficulty, however slight or major, her response was to approach rather than to flee.
This makes blinding sense to me but it’s another quality that I’ve been both misunderstood and judged for. A friend once referred to an argument as a burning building and I said without hesitation that I would run into it. This quality can come across as confrontational, for sure, and it has led to some raised voices and heated conversations where perhaps none were merited. But it is a rare relationship in my life that suffers from an undercurrent of unresolved tension. As Caldwell goes on to say, “silence and distance were far more pernicious than head-on-engagement.”
There is so much I want to say about this beautiful book. Tonight, though, at the close of a birthday that was somewhat sadder and more complicated than I would have chosen, its most reassuring message is its assertion that there were at least two women out there in the world who might not have shamed me for being intense, sensitive, and determined to resolve conflict.
That’s really what it is, now that I write it: shame. Shame that I messily emotional, unable to keep my sensitive skin shielded, to remember that it’s not all about me. Every intellectual explanation that makes crystalline sense in my mind crumbles in the face of the powerful emotional response of my heart. I think the task now is to identify the ways in which these weaknesses – that I even code them, instinctively, as such, speaks volumes – could be contributors to strengths. I need to find ways to numb slightly the intensity, sand down the edges of the sensitivity, though I wonder how to do this without simply blunting who I am.
There’s no neat conclusion here, only a devout and heartfelt thanks to Gail Caldwell for making me feel, in a very real way, less alone and less crazy. I am comforted knowing that women like she and Caroline are and were in the world. I admire their friendship, made up of such profound connection to and dedicated, patient witness of each other. Their lives ran together in a deep and sturdy way, and the loss that Caldwell experiences at Caroline’s death is the topic for another whole post. Most of all, though, I’m grateful to Caldwell for allowing me to believe that there are out there people for whom I am not too much: too messy, too intense, too brittle, too fragile, too sensitive, too, too, too much.