The image and idea of a horizon is something I find myself gravitating towards throughout my notes, thoughts, poetry and collections. Here, I explore this in a convoluted post about walking, Heaney, uni and uncertainty.
A horizon is clear; a separation between the sky and sea. So what happens when my horizon blurs? What does this mean? What is the personal significance of a horizon?
During this period of lockdown, where my walks have forcedly become more considered, I have been taking the time to discover new areas of where I live (and have lived my whole life). On two particular days, with two very different walks, I noticed how much I value the image and idea of a horizon (the two walks I shall refer to as the imaginatively named ‘cliff walk’ – with a sea/sky divide – and ‘field walk’ – with a field/sky divide).
Being able to easily distinguish between the sky and sea is something I’m so used to and almost, at some level, rely on as my constant. So being unable to do this on my cliff walk unsettled me in a way I was unprepared for. How we chose to deal with uncertainty really underpins who we are, how we make decisions and which approaches we choose to adopt. This is almost like getting to the top of steep hill, or reaching the top of a peak in an undulating cliff; whilst not majorly dramatic, and fairly certain, you still have to trust what is on the other side. This is just like when we finally do achieve our long-standing goals, we have to trust what is next – what is to come and which new process to follow. Learning to sit comfortably with all that is unknown is easier said than done, but a necessary part of our experiences through life.
Time to unpack all these jumbled thoughts a bit; essentially, I find uncertainty uncomfortable. As much as I can, I have to know what is next; what is the next step, where am I going and what is the exact outcome. I feel to varying degrees we all want to know our future; is our work worth the reward? What do our choices mean? Is what we are doing pointless or does it actually hold meaning in the grand scheme of things? Is this meaning outside of ourselves? Or for ourselves? Have we made the right choice financially? Are our choices sustainable? Are they worth doing? We almost have to shun any doubts and questions and instead just take blind leaps, all whilst not pressuring ourselves for how long any potential benefits (or consequences) will last.
The clear, physical divides in my views lead me to think about my physical and mental surroundings. For example, I have never not known what it is like to not be five minutes away from a horizon. And I have always taken this line for granted. Even on a childhood holiday to Norfolk with my sister, we still went to a few beaches; we still saw that horizon and, on some level, identified it as familiar. And this familiarity helps to strengthen memories and experiences; there was one trip in particular, where an afternoon was spent on a beach, that we all remember very well. It is such a formative memory, and I can still clearly picture the trees in the sand, the evening sea and the barefoot walk back to the car, putting plasters over my blisters and the drying sand on the soles of my feet. But I also remember a clear horizon, withstanding the evening breeze and the disturbances from the shore.
So on some level here, I am trying to understand why I keep returning to a horizon; to a sense of what is beyond being so familiar, so comfortable and yet still out of reach and unattainable; a clear line holding so many physical and mental divides that remain unclear.
This contradiction between certainty and uncertainty, as well as what is within reach and what is not, leads on to my reading of Dennis O'Driscolls 'Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heaney'. Whilst I have used this book for research before, I have recently managed to read it in its entirety for my own enjoyment, rather than dipping into it or referencing it for an academic purpose. It has felt like such a treat that I have been able to enjoy such a deeply informative text at leisure, rather than with the pressures of ‘reading something new into it’; I feel giddy to have indulged in all this book has to offer for ME, rather than for an essay or a box-ticking exercise.
How does this link to my horizon? Why am I talking about Seamus Heaney again? I promise I will do a follow-up blog to this piece as both university and studying are topics I often get requested to write about, and I assure you I have a whole lot of other blog material to annoy you with than to use it all in this piece. But particularly with reading this book, and finding myself returning to what I have read on my walks, it is all to easy to focus on what I didn’t do; I didn’t get the first class degree I wanted and would’ve worked so fucking hard for; I didn’t get to write my thesis on Heaney’s prolific works or research his and its historic significance further. There are SO many things I didn't get to achieve that I thought I would, and this has often lead me to the assumption that I have written off my future and sullied my otherwise guiding principles and aspirations - in other words, I have managed to blur my own horizon through my choices, and so lead me into these often frightening times on uncertainty.
But in approaching this book in this leisurely way, I have been able to appreciate Heaney and his work because I love it, not because I’m analysing it for some other purpose. I get to learn selfishly in my own way and in my own time, away from any external, academic pressures or criteria (even with the freedom an English degree can offer). If I had studied Heaney at degree level, no doubt using this seminal set of interviews as a key reference, I probably would’ve resented him, rather than appreciating him as the artist, writer, poet, human and top bloke I imagine he was.
By not enshrouding myself in academia and making that my identity – which was a blanket I hid under for too long – I am able to properly enjoy this to its fullest potential, and so change the course I thought I was set on. I have often felt upset that I wasn’t strong enough at the time to continue studying, and that I didn’t get to pursue uni life at Queen’s. But, upon reflection, even that was a relatively short-lived dream; English was a quick passion and one I wanted to stay in and excel at. But in the words of the man himself, ‘The poems that arrive quickly are usually the ones you keep’ (I’m badly paraphrasing here, but he’s definitely said this at some point in relation to ‘On the Road’ and the ‘Sweeny Redivivus’ poems).
Yes, I am a little regretful of choosing to leave academia, but honestly less so each time I think about it. And happier for taking that step - the more I look at who I was, how I was and what that way of living was doing to me and those around me. Physically, I was stable and comfortable; I was achieving top grades even with terrible attendance. But mentally, I was angry and destroying myself in the easiest way I knew. Because if I pushed myself academically, and kept doing more and more work, I knew I would be praised for it, and so would have an ‘out’, an excuse or a way to justify that behaviour.
But what would I honestly have given to the world of academia other than pithy essays with an air of self-pretention, in all their tenuously drawn conclusions? Ultimately, I feel calm and glad that I took a different direction, and can now approach poetry, writing, and all things literary from a new and previously unexplored angle. And I am also excited to keep learning, keep exploring and keep creating new horizons and guiding lines for myself. It is scary that I will lose them from time to time, and they will become blurred and hard to distinguish, but I will find them and re-find them again and again and I will work with the fluctuating and uncertain nature of certainty as best I can.
Until next time, H.M.
References and Further Reading:
- All images are taken from my personal VSCO here.
- 'Stepping Stones: Interviews With Seamus Heaney', by Dennis O'Driscoll can be found here.
- 'On the Road' is featured in Heaney's collection 'Station Island'. I thoroughly recommend reading it if you're in a rut and need inspiring (I mean, 'In my hands/like a wrested trophy,/the empty round/ of a steering wheel.' is poetic genius few can hope to achieve in my totally non-bias opinion...).
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