Sometime in March I projected ahead and planned to write this entry around Mother’s Day. Then, with recalibrating during this time of COVID, I lost my writing focus for a while, and it slipped my mind. I’m thankful to have thought again to write it, albeit a little late, still in the month of honoring mothers here in America.
When I wrote my Masters dissertation for the University of York in Modernist Literature and Culture, I entitled it, ‘Life Stand Still Here’: Moments of Heightened Awareness and Virginia Woolf. “Life stand still here” is probably the most resonant sentence in all of Woolf’s writing within my life. It comes from To the Lighthouse, the first Virginia Woolf novel I ever read, and while I doubt that my eighteen or nineteen year-old self reading it for the first time perceived it, my adult self recognizes that the phrase pertains exquisitely to motherhood.
But before delving into the import of this hallowed (at least to me) Woolfian sentence and its application when it comes to motherhood, it is worth considering the supremacy of “moments” in Woolf’s writing. Woolf is repeatedly concerned with apprehending present moments and in conveying both their power and their fleeting nature. Her treatment of moments of heightened awareness, and of what she sometimes calls “moments of being,” have been of particular interest to me ever since I first began to read her work. Put succinctly, moments of heightened awareness in Woolf involve either lush, sensual immersion in the present, a startling glimpse of a wisp of meaning just before it flicks around the bend, a sense of immense well-being and oneness and cohesion, or all of the above. There is a pressing urge in Woolf’s characters, as indeed there was in Woolf herself, to try to arrest time in order to fully live and register a moment. Life is asked to “stand still here,” whereby the experiencer of the moment can successfully extract the complete essence, significance, and vitality, rendering the moment somehow permanent and able to be turned over in the mind in the future.
William Wordsworth captures this sensation of apprehending and secreting away a moment for later satisfaction and sustenance:
“ not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment, there is life and food
For future years” (William Wordsworth, “Tintern Abbey” II, 62-5).
“That in this moment, there is life and food for future years.” How we all have moments we want to suck the very marrow out of, distill down, and bottle forever for future enjoyment!
In Mrs. Dalloway Woolf writes of her protagonist: “Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed” (35). “An inner meaning almost expressed.” This is very much of the essence of moments. Moments are bound up in transience. No sooner is a moment experienced, but it has transformed; it is already over; it is something else. This passage from Mrs. Dalloway includes key elements of a Woolfian moment: the presence and poignancy of nature. A sense of sudden luminosity and the flickering of a meaning, like a passing, silvery shadow that one glimpses only briefly and cannot be quite sure one has gained the measure of.
All too often, the glittering moment transforms into the past, as Robert Browning so stunningly captures in his poem “Two in the Campagna,” a love poem he wrote for Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “And then the good minute goes. Already, how am I so far out of that minute?”
This is also the plaintive reverberation of motherhood. A mother often thinks, as she reflects on how swiftly her children are growing, how rapidly milestones are being squared away: “This is passing, this is passing! How shall I capture it? What is the purest meaning of this that I am meant to absorb, take notice of, pay tribute to, encapsulate for future years?” There is an urgency, sometimes nearing desperation, a felt panic: a flushing, pulsing attestation to the great vibrancy and potency and import of life. A tug at our core that there is something here of transcendent value; there is something here that must be retained.
This is also the reason why, perhaps somewhat morbidly, graves and old photographs often deeply move me. They deliver the sense of life being all too brief. “Here, in this cemetery lie the remains of people who lived wholeheartedly and well, who loved, who nurtured, who fought, who in their youth felt invincible, who once felt that they had all the time in the world to squander.” Here, in this black and white photograph, I see the eyes of a young man and a young woman in love, fresh, eager, ready for anything, engaged in the world and as alive as I am this very minute. And yet now they are old, or now they have passed.” Sometimes, the sense of life’s brevity, the sense of loss, chokes me up. We all can labor under the delusion that we are more than but a blip on the surface of time, but these graves, these photographs, belie the truth. It is this line of thought that helps poet Mary Oliver’s words in “The Summer Day,” strike so cleanly to the heart: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Perhaps this too is why I nearly gasped when I first read James Joyce’s words, “Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past” (Ulysses).
So it is that when I read Woolf, her meditations on moments pull on my soul to “pay attention! Pay attention! Here is a true thing.” Mrs. Ramsay is the mother figure in To the Lighthouse, and it is Mrs Ramsay who commands life to “stand still here.” It is Mrs. Ramsay who brings the characters together. This is revealed within the narrative through a reverie of an artist character, Lily Briscoe. Here is the luminous passage:
“What was the meaning of life? That was all -- a simple question; one that tended to
close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one….Mrs. Ramsay bringing them together; Mrs. Ramsay saying, ‘Life stand still here’; Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent (as in another sphere Lily herself tried to make of the moment something permanent) -- this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability. Life stand still here, Mrs. Ramsay said. ‘Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay!” she repeated. She owed it all to her” (161).
Mrs. Ramsay, the beloved and dynamic mother figure is “bringing them together.” Mrs. Ramsay, the mother, is “making of the moment something permanent.” Mrs. Ramsay, the mother, is saying, “Life stand still here.” I may first have read this before I was even in my twenties and long before I was a mother, but I do know this passage, even then, felt like a revelation. This was essential: this idea of bringing people together. This idea of stopping a moment in its tracks and telling it to “stand still here,” “making [it] “permanent.” Isn’t this what so many mothers try to do? In a certain sense, what is motherhood but the art of making moments out of monotony, of resting shape from chaos, of crafting extraordinary memories to push back against the threat of mundane, forgettable, trivial constancy? We insist, with our traditions, with our posing of family photographs, our family rituals, that we will celebrate a day, a moment, a season, an hour as singular, as precious, as transient: sweet and heady and passing like a lilac bloom. The bittersweetness of it always before us. Always haunting us at the backs of our minds and ever an impetus for us to create and capture moments that will be singular, that will catch the breath in the throat, that will persist in our consciousness, and more importantly, in our family’s consciousness.
What else, in another sense, is motherhood, but the art of bringing people together? Many a mother naturally sets about arranging social connections for her children, for her partner, for her friends, for herself. She strives to see harmony produced within her home: between her children, parent to child, and so on. Mrs. Ramsay is perceived by characters in To the Lighthouse to be an exceptional mother, perhaps not so much because she is exceptional in her mothering abilities, but because her abilities represent with beautiful precision, some of what is most cherished by many in their mothers: this propensity for bringing people together, this tendency to tell life to “stand still here.”
Virginia Woolf believed that people were either life enhancers or life diminishers. Mrs. Ramsay is clearly a life enhancer. In Recollections of Virginia Woolf (1972), Nigel Nicholson recalled of Woolf:
Virginia had a way of magnifying one’s simple words and experiences. One would hand her a bit of information as dull as a lump of lead. She would hand it back glittering like diamonds… She was a life-enhancer. That was one of her favourite phrases. She always said that the world was divided into two categories: those who enhanced life and those who diminished it.” (ed. Joan Russell Noble, 156).
Of course, Woolf never became a mother herself. She artfully seems to employ her character, Lily Briscoe, who is childless, to represent another way to be a life enhancer and another way to make shape out of chaos and to bring cohesion from fragmentation. Lily Briscoe, in her art, on her canvas, achieves a triumph of illumination and integration as she unites the fragmented portions of her canvas. She preserves moments and creates cohesion “in another sphere” (161). “In another sphere,” she “tries to make of the moment something permanent” (161), and in the closing sentences of the novel, at last, she accomplishes it. Woolf closes To the Lighthouse not with another extolling of the mighty powers of Mrs. Ramsay but with a quiet, solitary, internal triumph experienced by Lily Briscoe. Lily has been struggling with her painting, but now, in the closing of the narrative, Lily stops and observes her work. “With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision” (209). Lily’s epiphany here once again has the hallmarks of a “moment.” There is a “sudden intensity.” She sees something clearly “for a second.” She unites the disparate portions of her painting with a line down the center. She has a “vision.” I note with some pleasure Woolf showing here that though, in her day, it was conventional and expected for a woman to be a mother, and indeed, her artist sister, Vanessa, with whom she was exceptionally close, became a mother, Mrs. Ramsay, for all her motherly success, does not get the final word. She does not get the final exultation. She does not design the final moment. Woolf seems to resolve within herself some inner struggle about the validity of a woman’s choice or circumstance of not becoming a mother. Lily Briscoe, in another sphere, can create “something permanent.” Lily Briscoe, can be bring illumination and satisfying order, just as Virginia Woolf was able to rest shape from chaos through her writing.
Virginia Woolf shows us in To the Lighthouse, what passionate people are often about: be they mothers loving passionately, artists faithfully pursuing their artistic vision, or writers using words to thrust forth and crystallize truth and beauty; the human condition generally involves hungering after similar things. We seek shape from chaos, unity out of fragmentation, truth out of confusion. Those hungers can manifest in nearly as many ways as there are humans to manifest them. But the hungers persist as true, permanent things.