Friday, May 16, 2014

A sudden flash of Sehnsucht:

When I was a child, moments of wonder, moments when I truly felt down to my deepest self that life was a grand fairytale and I was living in its pages, were not uncommon.

I remember clearly one day when such a moment occurred. It was the middle of winter, and even the air felt grey. My sisters and brother and I had gathered at the edge of our lot for some kind of crazy game, and as we stood looking out across the paddock, the winter breeze came up and swept across the field. The vast crop of tall lucerne was transformed into a wild, rippling sea of vivid green. The shimmering sea swiffled and quivered and rose and fell with each gust of wind and our response was to rush into it, as though we could ride the waves. Even then, as a much younger person, I felt that here was something wonderful, something beyond the realm of the every day. There was an ache in the back of my throat, and a sudden urgency to experience the moment entirely, fully, with my whole self. Then came the startling question: how much more of myself can I give if I am here, living the moment already?

I think children are better at finding those moments than the rest of us. I’m not sure whether it’s a gifted ability that we lose with age, or simply that the crushing weight of the momentary so bears us down in adulthood that there is little time to consider anything else. I only know that when those moments come to me now, they are startling and unexpectedly lovely. They hurt, and they heal.

I will be reading something wonderful and living and true, and the beautiful sentences will take hold of me so that for a second it is hard to breathe from the wonder and the goodness. Or my tiny niece will bury her perfect round head right in the baby-sized hollow where my neck and shoulder meet, and nestle there. Another time, such a moment will arrive through a piece of music. A composer somewhere in the ages of human history, a person I have never met, will have taken notes and movement and dynamics to transform a shapeless cloud of feeling or memory into a note- picture that is visible and recognisable to me. Or I will be sitting on a faded rug under the crisp light of an autumnal Queensland sun, and the people I love most are gathered around me, and for the merest instant I see my life as if from a distance. I see it for the movie that I get to watch as I live it. I am struck with a thunderclap of sudden, complete knowledge of how good things are even in the brief upsets, how golden the hills are between the valleys of challenge and confusion and small heartbreaks.

I suspect that, as children, we often keep these instances of everyday illumination tight within ourselves. I know that if I thought about them at all then, it was with the vanity of childhood, the sort of conceit which believes that no one else could possibly have felt like this, ever. We don’t consider these things to be universal. We think they are ours alone, and sometimes that realisation is like a hug or a glad secret, but at other times it makes us lonely. What a happy wonder, then, to discover that others have felt these things, too – that, even more than this, people have recorded them, spoken of them, and thrown their experience into the vast pool of relating that reminds us that we are humans together in our human-ness.

L.M. Montgomery called such moments ”the flash”, and she put the flash into words in the experiences of her semi-autobiographical heroine, Emily of New Moon.
It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside – but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – and heard a note of unearthly music. This moment came rarely – went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it. She could never recall it – never summon it – never pretend it; but the wonder of it stayed with her for days. 
C.S. Lewis spoke of a similar experience – or, rather, a similar feeling – but a feeling for which he felt there was no true English word. Instead he settled upon the German word, Sehnsucht, which can be translated as a yearning, a craving, or a sense of missing something incredibly deeply. Lewis called this Sehnsucht an “inconsolable longing” for a thing we cannot identify. For him, too, it visited through unexpected clashes of beauty, calling it:
…that unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of Kubla Khan, the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves.
I fumble for my own right word to describe this sensation. The search is fruitless, but I find something akin to it: inspiration. And inspiration is not the right word or even almost the right word, but it is a cousin feeling. For inspiration is a gift and a beauty in and of itself, but it is not satisfied to simply be. It wants to move, and it will not be content until it goes somewhere, until it works itself out in some kind of art or response or worship. Sehnsucht afflicts us with the same irreconcilable tension. We experience these brief moments when suddenly the ridiculous constraints of time and gravity and history open up for the merest slit and we get to see past it all into something beyond, something that – even though it is unfamiliar – we recognise, and we long for. And there is a collision of satisfaction and longing. As with inspiration, my heart is full, yet it is hungry.

And I suppose that such moments shouldn’t surprise me. If, as C.S. Lewis says, we are souls who have bodies rather than bodies who have souls, then my soul is the realest reality, the most real part of my self. Should I wonder, then, that sometimes the lacy veil of the temporal lifts and, just for a second, I get a glimpse of the eternal? I should not.

Neither should I be troubled by the irreconcilability of it. We are hemmed in on all sides by finiteness, but these bodies we wear, like the clothes of our souls, will one day be outgrown. And once we’re free from their constraints, once we’re out in the broad infinity, everything will be turned loose to find its reconciliation. The flash, Sehnsucht, inspiration – these will all make sense in the Someday.

For now, though, I watch. And if I am set on fire just for a moment by a thrilling and unexpected glimpse of what Annie Dillard calls ‘the corner where eternity clips time’, then so much the better. It helps me to remember that this life is not all there is. I thank the God of infinity for that.


  • I am loving all your comments and reblogs and c. on the giveaway! You've still got ten days to enter so be sure to at least get up in there. I mean, BOOKS, you know?
  • Asea -- I approve of your methodology in singlehandedly disproving my remarks about commenting etc. Nice work! Oh and I worked out why I'm ahead in Hawkeye -- I've been buying the individual issues (digitally) rather than the collections. So individual issues are up to #18, but the compilations haven't got that far yet. I'm beyond keen for #19. Where is #19? I need #19!
  • Katie -- isn't it crazy that LiveJournal and commenting and even long emails feel like part of the old media? It takes serious, disciplined intent to continue to cultivation real engagement in others' worlds and even in social media. It's something I want to commit to doing more because I think it's important and it would be a shame to lose the wonderful community generated by the early days of blogging and LiveJournalling.
  • Mama Essy -- and well glad I am that Jess was here.
  • Meaghan -- aw get out with you.
  • Milliebotreads -- thanks for your awesome comment! I agree with you; I think so much of the makeup of social media lately is about the cursory glance or the brief engagement. There is not as much time inherently built into the task of perusal and reply. As we keep finding shorter and shorter ways of granting our approval or disapproval, it's inevitable that we will cling to those shortcuts instead of going about things in a more time-sucking manner.  
(If this post seems familiar, it's because I shared a snippet from it in 2012.)


  1. Brenda Wilkerson stole my words! Just beautiful. Thank you!

  2. Lovely feelings, thoughts, and words, Danielle. Thank you for inspiring _me_ with the beauty of them. <3

  3. This. Just this. You nailed it. <3

  4. It's also a bit like intuition. Sometimes when I'm working on a paper, I have a flash of almost being able to clearly see the whole picture -- and then it is gone, and I struggle to hold on to the bit of it my pen has almost finished writing. It's gorgeous and frustrating all at once.

  5. ALSO (continuing with the many comments trend), have you ever read the Predator Cities series? I think you might like it. The basic plot is that it's thousands of years into the future, and nuclear war has caused everyone to "regress" to a steampunk world in which cities are all mounted on giant treads and roam the world trying to "catch" and "eat" other cities for their resources. It has some basic glosses which require ignoring (such as everyone magically having fuel), but the world is super interesting, the author is clearly well-versed in many different cultures, and the plays on words are delightful. Plus, it has Tom, who is a most excellent character. And, later, Wren, who is also pretty excellent.

  6. Every.Time. How do you do it?! Your beautiful way with words leaves me speechless.

  7. Thanks you. This was a beautiful read. You amaze me. And If one day, I experience this and recognise it for what it is, I will have a name for it.

  8. p.s. I have posted my summer reading list over on LJ:

  9. This is beautiful. So very much, perhaps one of my favourite of all your blog-posts, Danielle! <3 <3 It struck a deep cord in me, and you write so stirringly and so accurately of the feelings I have experienced and treasured myself. <3 <3 <3

    I loved these quotes too. God bless!

  10. I read this blog occasionally and enjoy it - I especially enjoyed this post!. I nominated this post for the "I'd Like to Share" series hosted by Miss Dashwood at Yet Another Period Drama Blog

    1. - link to the series in case you wanted to know more.

  11. I really love this post. Your prose is so elegant and I wish I had even half the style on my own blog.