The Comfortable Lap

old-woman vermeer
Day three in Uppsala, today to meet researchers, some from Uppsala, also Anders Olhsen and his colleague from Lund who are developing a Chronic Pain project,  and Nicolai Ladegaard who works with Mette Steenberg in Aarhus, Denmark.

Meeting the participants of the workshop to get shared Reading going in Sweden over the past two days has made me think about what the essentials are – trying to explain to people who are working in a second language what it is and what it is not – talking to Nikolai last night about why we do not formally ‘frame the discussion’… I have been thinking about when Paul Sinton-Hewitt came to speak to us at The Reader, and talked about having a set of principles which all Parkruns agree to.  At some point yesterday I wondered if  such a set of principles would be useful to us at The Reader.

I listened to Phil describing some of the CRILS work during one of the sessions yesterday. Most of it is research I’ve already seen, read or watched him present. But I was struck by some of the thinking that has arisen from interviewing Shared Reading participants – how when something happens in reading people feel almost physically got-at by the experience – ‘hit’ , ‘struck’, ‘ambushed’. Alongside that the brain scanner research showing that  when people are reading in this way they are using the part of the brain that is activated when we attempt to learn a second language. Also that making what is called a ‘prediction error’  – assuming something is going to mean or be one thing and finding out it isn’t then activates the pleasure centres of the brain. (Sorry, neuro-people, I am  doing this from memory, not notes, and probably mangling it horribly. Take this as a gist). We are set up to learn, from a survival point of view, making a mistake in understanding and rectifying it is a good thing. Because I’ve been reading Habit by Charles Duhigg, I thought, habit (another powerful evolutionary survival tool for humans) in one direction is always trying to make us stay the same, do the same, think the same. But pleasure is activated when we also break habit, change, learn. As D.H.Lawrence says, ‘we must balance as we go.’

If we want to go. Often habit wins, and we want to stay in the same place.

But I don’t have long this morning and must get on with my reading. I’ve been reading each day a little portion of the Immortality Ode with William Wordsworth, which you can read in full here.   Yesterday I was reading and thinking about ‘heaven lies about us in our infancy’ and that as we grow older ‘the light’ seems to fade into ‘the light of common day.’  That section comes to an end, as if Wordsworth has followed a chain of thought and then come to a stop: sometimes you just can’t think any further. The whole poem is like that – take a run at it,  have a go at getting it into words, work through this bit of thought, then stop, pause and pick up again somewhere else. It’s like a man untangling a very large, very knotty ball of string. He’s already said, ‘the soul that rises with us … cometh from afar…’ and now here he is starting in a new place;

Earth fills her lap with pleasures of her own;
Yearnings she hath in her own natural kind,
And, even with something of a Mother’s mind,
And no unworthy aim,
The homely Nurse doth all she can
To make her Foster-child, her Inmate Man,
Forget the glories he hath known,
And that imperial palace whence he came.

When I read ‘Earth fills her lap’ I see a Vermeer or Rembrandt  woman in a capacious house-dress,  sitting in a chair, her lap awaiting some chunky toddler. I remember that Wordsworth was a young boy when his mother died. I think of the comfort he took in ‘Earth’.  But as the lines go on I go into a more SF mode, perhaps to do with  thinking of us humans as foster-children of the planet. And then ‘inmate’  with its connotations of prisoner-hood. Earth loves us and tries to make us feel at home but, as Chaucer says, ‘here is noon home.’

It doesn’t feel a bad thing that Earth tries to love us and to make us forget our real home. These new habits of being ‘of Earth’ can literally ground us, which can be, if not too grounded, a good thing. But turning into earth, clod, inert-stuck-by-gravity-stuff? Not so good. But then, after all, we can’t go back, so acclimatising may be the best thing. Then I am thinking, acclimatising to a foster-home is ok, but acclimatisng to a prison? (is that the meaning of ‘inmate’? I have a quick look in the dictionary.  Yes it is, but the older sense of ‘lodger’ too.)

Reading these eight lines I mainly feel comfort, uncut by the original loss. I’m glad of ‘homely’ Earth. I want the comfort of the ‘lap’. But  I miss the ‘glories’, and the memory of the ‘Imperial Palace’ makes me realise I’ve changed my state very substantially. Something massive and of a completely different order is lost.

Do I believe in soul? Something that survives my physical body? Not really, or don’t know.

So why do these lines work so powerfully for me?

They connect to some feelings, intimations, I have had or  still have. Perhaps the lines themselves help me have those intimations, pointing out some sort of category error, or need for rethink. I may not be able to use the word ‘soul’ but I do not believe we are just live meat. So what are we? Why do I think consciousness (but I don’t mean consciousness, becasue  some of it is nor conscious: after all ,the poem is called ‘Intimations’)  is more than electricity and oxygen in neural pathways?

This is making me think of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads but no time for that, time for work.

5 thoughts on “The Comfortable Lap

  1. Lydia Moore April 8, 2017 / 8:34 am

    Thank you, Jane – I’m enjoying this so much! I struggle with the idea that if there is no soul, what are we? What are we for? And if there is something that isn’t soul, then what is it? I’m getting scrambled brain thinking about it, but you’re making me think! 😬

    • drjanedavis April 8, 2017 / 9:44 am

      Lovely to be reading alongside you again Lydia – your brain, scrambled or not, always feels like good company!

      I somehow cannot make the leap to believe any part of me will survive the death of my body. I feel my belief should be based on some kind of knowing, and I only know this, this life, this being in this body. That is pure ignorance of course…

      I think something of people who have died survives in the memories of people who loved them, but it doesn’t feel live-animated, more like a quietening echo…

  2. Lydia Moore April 9, 2017 / 10:32 am

    Yes, I agree, and perfectly put, thank you!
    Thank you, too, for introducing me to George Saunders (my new hero), and through him to Tobias Wolff (new hero-in-waiting). Enjoy your very well deserved holiday 😎😎😎

    • drjanedavis April 9, 2017 / 10:45 am

      George S. visited a Liverpool recently, doing a talk and reading at the old Medical Institution. He seemed a thoroughly good fellow, modest, witty, humane and in awe of Tolstoy. Big audience of young people, I was glad to see.

  3. Lydia Moore April 9, 2017 / 6:10 pm

    I would have loved to have heard him – I’ve listened to him on the internet, and enjoyed his readings very much. (I didn’t find out about it until it was too late – the story of my life!) I’m reading 10th of December, and have Lincoln in the Bardo up next. It would be great to read this in a group, don’t you think??? Hope you’re managing some leisurely reading while you’re away.

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