The Heart-Hiræth of ‘Normal People’

I don’t know what took me so long. I’d read some tweets when it was released, but I am always coming to shows that were ‘trending’ months, sometimes years, after the fact. Last evening, I began watching Normal People finally; and it was the first time in ages I couldn’t stop watching. Sleep is ever elusive for me, but I was absolutely gripped in a way I didn’t anticipate at all.

if self is a location, so is love (Heaney). August 2020. Photo credit: Nancy Forde

I knew nothing about Sally Rooney’s novel, apart from the fact the show was based on it. Had no clue as to the premise. So it was a shock to my system and that’s an understatement. I’d been looking for something to keep me company during wee hours. As a long-time insomniac and single mother, wee hours tend to be the only part of a 24-hour day that is mine entirely.

When I turn to TV dramas at all, I am more often magnetized by series involving the solving of murder and by female detectives. There is something so satisfying in a drawn out investigation and a killer being apprehended that captivates me. I can escape to a place where suddenly all the clues reveal themselves, the puzzle snaps together, a life-death issue is resolved with precision and then it’s over. Wrapped in a bow and tucked away. Don’t we all wish we could resolve our lives in that way, within the tidy confines of a 45 minute episode?

While browsing the various series available, I glimpsed the reality show Alone for what felt the five millionth time since its inception in 2015. The thing is, I am alone. I’ve been alone since 2008. I may not have a million-dollar prize waiting for me to survive that, but that is already my ‘reality show’. Okay, I’m not living remotely (I once did). And I needn’t look for moss growth on trees or learn how to forage and craft a Handspike Hitch. I’ve never whittled my own arrows or started a fire without matches though the idea of complete self sufficiency, I admit, is definitely magnetic. But I am surviving being alone. At least, I thought I was.

Fridge magnets of a Single Mother (L). Sleep Country (R). Photo credits: Nancy Forde

Normal People made me realize I haven’t been. Not completely. Apparently, what I’ve been doing instead is repressing a deep longing to be loved again in the way I was once loved by a special someone in my life. When that love ended in my 20s, it was the kind of love I was sure I might never come across again. And that has regrettably proven correct thus far.

I actually do well solo, for the most part. I’ve been on my own raising my son for 11 years now. The truth is, even in my 20s and 30s when I was dating or or while espoused for 9 years and slowly peeling back the artichoke of intimacy to its heart, I had still spent most of my life on my own versus in a relationship with someone so it’s a state that makes me quite content and I’ve convinced myself it’s one I prefer.

My obsession with the stories of the lives of others which actually led to my becoming a documentary photographer means that over the years of chatting with strangers and digging into their truths and pasts, I discover I am more comfortable being alone than most people I meet. Occasionally I witness other humans in relationships that appear to hang together by threads because the prospect of being alone seems to them something far worse than putting up with someone mediocre for whom love, if it ever existed, has long ago died away.

Being solitary is a fear a lot of people my generation and certainly my parents’ generation still hold. In this respect, the fact I turned 50 never having walked down an aisle might be unusual. Many folks my age are just now leaving long-term marriages maybe because kids have flown the nest and they realize the person they’re living with is not someone they want to still be around or they’re seeking meaning in their mid-life; something with more purpose, something more fulfilling. Someone…

I was doing okay the last while, really; making the necessary changes and doing my best to raise my son and my own spirits in the wake of a bad health turn in 2014. But this pandemic has taken a chisel to the marble block I’ve become and defined just how lonely I actually am and have been for some time. Here stands the sculpture of me, blue-veined and cold to the touch. Pre-pandemic, it’s not something I allowed my conscious self to ponder for any length of time. That kind of hard truth is sometimes easier kept at bay.

No Crying Allowed (L). Fuck (R). Photo credits: Nancy Forde

My solitary state is definitely my own doing. I refuse to join online ‘dating’ sites. I wouldn’t know what I might actually be seeking well enough to explain it to someone else. Being alone has only grown increasingly comfortable. It suits many people just fine and I’ve counted myself among them happily. Maybe building an impenetrable fort around my heart has become an invisible crutch I lean against rather than trying to wobble with new-fawn legs again into that emotionally vulnerable territory.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of cooking for someone (equally enthralled by the idea of someone cooking for me!) I sometimes allow myself to imagine holding hands with someone in the inky darkness of a cinema before a movie begins. I’m just not sure I want to fart in front of someone again. Or be misunderstood. To doubt or navigate uncertainty. To be scammed. Conned. To Argue or ugly-cry.

And I admit the safety of myself and my son has become primary. I never want to leave myself vulnerable to harm. Emotional harm is one thing. It can heal (maybe?) But physical harm is not a risk I’m willing to engage. Maybe single momhood has left me too exhausted to seriously consider the many joys over the potential awkwardness, disappointment or actual pain that opening your heart can invite.

Shared space. August 2020. Photo credit: Nancy Forde

Being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. I know that. They’re two different things. At least they always have been for me. I’m only ever reminded I’m lonely in a crowd or at a bar or party where I witness other people coupled and happen to recall a long-ago memory of what that was once like. That’s when the embers of this ache I’ve buried feel like someone has blown upon them. They snap and crackle and sometimes the ache ignites again. But it’s just easier if I throw ash on it, to be honest, as a coping mechanism. I don’t often willingly put myself into a situation in which I’m reminded, because I’ve had to make other stuff in my life a focus and priority for so long now: the raising of my child, obviously, and pursuing a new career I’ve only just begun to explore creatively in my 40s and professionally after turning fifty. The fact I am deeply lonely is just easier ignored. It doesn’t help me an ounce to dwell on it.

And then I began watching this series last night.

I have a degree in theatre so the performances by Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne and Paul Mescal as Connell just wowed me. The writing, the direction, the storylines. One of the aches I’ve buried is a longing to be back in Ireland. Both my parents were born there. Three of my five siblings, too. My mother tells me I’m the sole offspring who harbours the same ache she has about it. It’s this pull that makes me feel I’m an ocean and Ireland is my moon. I feel that drawing of my tide from that corner of the globe, in general. I was born in Canada but I feel more at “home” in Scotland, in Ireland; I felt more at “home” while in Greenland. I realize whatever that pull is, it is entirely Nordic. It’s oceanic. It’s coastal and ice-ridden. It’s high waves and salt water spray. It’s most definitely island-based and it lures me constantly.

Dingle Bay. September 2018. Photo credit: Nancy Forde

The last while I have been planning to explore that pull, give into it. My son and I have Irish citizenship. Watching this series last night made me realize Ireland is a home inside me somewhere. Somewhere very deep. Maybe I should nurture that. I’d like to, I think.

Before I watched the series, I’d booked to be in Ireland in September months ago. I’m heading soon to a special spot where something happened that’s affected the whole of my life over the 29 years since. It’s inspired my final major research project for my masters degree and so the reason for my visit is actually essential travel to complete work so I can finally graduate (a goal COVID19 temporarily set fire to last March), but it is also a spiritual journey, a much-needed mental health respite. I will self isolate on the West coast to document a place that’s been locked in my heart since that summer I was 24, a mere slip of a girl. It’s a spot where I became gripped in a bank of thick fog for about 8 hours while bicycling alone along a remote road en route from Dingle to Slea Head.

To Entire Body. Detail from Posterior Coronal Section of the Heart. Photo credit: Nancy Forde

The autumn after that summer, I fell deeply in love for the first time in my life. But when I think about the embrace of that fog, maybe that was the first time. Maybe that watery cocoon was my First Love, instead. And maybe revisiting that spot will answer that for me. Or at least grant me a feeling like home in my heart for the first time in decades. Maybe in forever.

And maybe it will quell the ache that watching Normal People blew upon. Or maybe, if I’m lucky, it will set this cold, ashy hearth within me ablaze…

I can’t remember not ever having known
The immanent hydraulics of a land
Of glar and glit and floods at dailigone.
My silting hope. My lowlands of the mind.

Heaviness of being. And poetry
Sluggish in the doldrums of what happens.
Me waiting until I was nearly fifty
To credit marvels. Like the tree-clock of tin cans
The tinkers made. So long for air to brighten,
Time to be dazzled and the heart to lighten. ~ Seamus Heaney

I draw light | Canadian photographer. Irish mamaí. Digging with my pen and my lens. nancyforde.com

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