Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Nuala O’Connor’s nonfiction piece, Nighttide
John: Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Do you agree? What would the world look like if we possessed such an ability?
Nuala: As a full time writer, I spend most of my life in a room alone and, as a shy introvert, I like nothing more than quiet time on my own, but I suppose Pascal is talking about the human need to poke at one another, to annoy and elevate other people, to love, fight and kill each other. There’d be little point in being alone if we didn’t have other people to push against, to nurture, or to think about; we need each other like we need air and water. Maggie Nelson writes well about the way humans remain dependent on each other; she says attempts to will away dependency ‘in service of a fantasy of…independence, or invulnerability can often have disastrous consequences.’ Being alone is grand, but we need community, no matter if we resist that notion which, often, I do.
Sleep is such a strange thing, vital to life but disturbingly close to death. What do you think happens to our consciousness when we go to sleep? And if consciousness ceases, can we really claim to be the same person when we wake up?
I have a very active dreamworld—my conscious mind seems to use sleeptime as playtime, albeit often in scary and strange ways. When I sleep, it feels like I dream constantly and I sometimes would rather live in my weirdy, subconscious-controlled dreamplaces than my real life. Time is elastic there, I’m happier, I live in a huge old house, and I’m a warrior, often, in a post-apocalypse. My dreams often infect my day and, yes, I feel changed by them at times—they offer insights or new angles on things. I value dreams the way I value conscious thought, they seem relevant, and I don’t like when people dismiss dreams as unimportant.
I still have anxiety dreams about showing up for a college class and finding out that everybody is taking a test I forgot about, or forgetting my high school locker combination. What are your favorite anxiety dreams? Do you think dreams really have meaning, or are they just the random flashes of an idling brain?
I’m the same; I left school thirty-three years ago and I still dream that I haven’t studied my maths, or the English texts, and exams are starting and I know NOTHING. In reality, I wasn’t an anxious student—though who loves exams?—so it baffles me that this dream is so horribly real. Twinned with it is a sense that I have no schoolfriends – that’s unsettling too.
I also have a recurring dream that I’m stepping onto a ship, to join my (dead) Uncle John, but I fall down between the pier and the boat. Plummet plummet plummet then, whoosh, I’m awake.
I’ve no idea where dreams come from or why the brain makes bizarre connections in them – mine are vivid, random, detailed, disturbing and ever-present. Maybe creative people just have this incessant need to narrate. My non-writer husband doesn’t dream at all.
“Ariadne’s Thread” is a name logicians give to the process of solving a problem through exhaustive examination of all possible solutions. It seems that this is often how we try to tackle our issues, and yet it’s hard to think of a real-world problem that is actually amenable to this kind of activity. John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Should we pay more attention to the life than the plans? And how would we go about doing that?
I’ve been reading Eckhart Tolle and, because I’m an incessant future-planner, I have a new night-mantra to stop my thoughts spooling—‘There is only now.’ I rarely live in the moment, I’m always looking forward, plotting, wondering how to get to the next thing and the next. It’s a shitty wheel to be on so I try to stop and get off. But, I’m a malcontent and I know it.
Years ago, my ma did a course on the Enneagram—taught by a nun, so it had godly approval, unlike horoscopes—and I took the Enneagram personality test too. We were both Type Fours—the creative, sensitive, self-aware personality. In the Enneagram book that my ma had there was a cartoon of a girl in a modest house, think-bubbling a castle, with the caption, ‘When is my real life going to begin?’ This Type Four catch-cry sums me up—I feel like I’m waiting all the time instead of just allowing myself to enjoy the be-ing. I’m trying hard to change, but I don’t find it easy.
Repeat after me: ‘There is only now. There is only now.’