‘For there is nowhere to bide,’ Rilke tells us in the first Duino Elegy. We live, however, as if we have a home, a stopping place, when we are just the movement of a heartbeat through the clockwork hours. And the heart beats counter to the clock. Heartbeat is wrong: life swims in us, rather than beating. The clock is the one who strikes. Dasein, being, is drowned out by the noisy seconds, their inexorable subtractions. Even our English verbs have forgotten this, subject as they are to the slap of minutes and the fist of days.
In England, we talk about where we’ live,’ and there hardly seems to be another verb used for it. In Scotland, friends ask you ‘where do you stay?’ and at least then living somewhere seems to keep faith with the lack of permanence that is its true condition. But in England, the question ‘where do you live?’ has come to mean something about postcodes, mortgages, even GPS coordinates that you can punch into a Satnav. It hardly has the drift of what it really means, less still the urgency with which Rilke, say, might ask the question: ‘where do you live?’
That question is one Rilke asks me now; Rilke, long dead, and yet breathing for me as forcefully as his ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo.’ ‘Where do you live?’ he asks, throwing his whole voice into the verb. It is not a question I can answer, but one that a line from Hopkins tries to answer for me: ‘deals out that being indoors each one dwells.’ Oh Hopkins. He just assumes that selving happens as a matter of course. ‘Each mortal thing,’ he writes, ‘selves, goes itself,’ as if those mortal things deal out their being as easily as they exhale. Not so, unfortunately.
Where we live and where we dwell is locked within us, an underground river, looking for its resurgence. Our task is therefore not to find a place to lay our heads but to descend to the slipstream and abide there. If you have ever tried to stand upright in a burn in spate you will know how difficult this task is: once in a torrent or meltwater, the ‘you’ is seen for the flotsam that it is. Try to stay standing in it and only your will remains, only your pure attention.
‘To ‘bide’ or to ‘abide’ is hardly possible; biding is fragile defense against the force of life. A parable: years ago, on the Shetland Island of Whalsay, I stayed with J in a cottage once rented by the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who used the place as an office in which to write ‘A Raised Beach.’ The owners were a generous and sociable couple who had a thirteen-year-old daughter. One evening, we sat down to our meal, the door open to the warm July dusk. We ate and talked and did not notice that a third presence had approached. A girl (we assumed it was the daughter) was standing on the threshold, watching us eat. We did not know how long she had been there; perhaps thirty seconds, perhaps ten minutes: her gaze was so soft that it took light years to reach us. Realising who she must be, we tried to talk to her, asking her about her life on this tiny island, and about the other islands. Which was her favourite? ‘Bressay…where my aunt bides.’ Bides. In the dusk, that word swung back and forth before me like a candle lantern, and has swung ever since. Who was she, this girl who talked of biding? We could not persuade her to come into the house and we could not suggest that she leave. When I passed near her, she shrank against the wall, even though I was not less than five feet from her. To my shame, I felt afraid of her. She lived on Whalsay, but where did she bide? We had guessed who she was, but at no time did she offer us her name. Looking at us with curiosity, she managed not to stare, as if someone had charcoal-sketched the expression into her eyes. She was an ember made grey ash, slaked by the sea.
Visited by this creature, I was gifted the verb ‘bide’ and its lovely sister ‘abide.’ Full of longing, calling out ‘stay with me, though you cannot stay,’ ‘bide’ and ‘abide’ tell us of reaching out for stillness when the night comes, of desire breathing out and aching for rest.