I have an ageing postcard propped up against the lamp next to my bed. On its face it has a reproduction of a tomb painting depicting Osiris, Anubis and Horus. I have the postcard propped where it is not because of the image – the printing is so rudimentary it appears pointillist, but because of the message, a piece of text cut and pasted on the back:
‘Do you think that I count the days? There is only one day left, always starting over: it is given to us at dawn and taken away from us a dusk’. Written in a bold hand with a thick black pen there is the acknowledgement: Jean Paul Sartre The Devil and the Good Lord (1951). There is no signature but I don’t need one. This is my one and only communication from Uncle Ratty’s sister. Her visits to Great Uncle Mole were infrequent and seldom coincided with mine. In fact I could count the number of times I’d met her on one paw. ‘She finds us fearfully dull’, Uncle Ratty once told me. He was much older than she. I thought her one of the most intriguing creatures I’d ever met. She had studied at the Sorbonne just after the war, and kept a base there but was rarely there. She did something elusive that took her to places like Egypt, Vienna and Shanghai.
The postcard has been leaning against my lamp for so long now that I often forget it is there, but just recently the quote has pierced me again. Each morning I wake up to a new day and begin the struggle of uniting the creature who resides in my moleskin with the mole I’d like to be. I have to confess, though, that from time to time I mistake attributes of the ideal mole for my own. It can then come as a shock when a fellow creature draws attention to the gap. My first reaction might be a sense of outrage that this ideal moleself has been so impugned, although the greater my sense of outrage, the more I know, deep in my little moleheart, that the admonition is justified.
It was not really an admonition, just a sad statement of the status quo as perceived another. Had a friendship so dwindled, this dear one asked, that it was time to move their tendrils of friendship to more fertile ground?
It can be tricky being a mole with a solitary streak, one so quickly overstimulated in company and taking so long to re-find equilibrium. And I sometimes fall into thinking that nothing I can give to a friendship can ever be quite enough, and so it is safer to hole up in my burrow.
To be found wanting as a friend rattled me. I tried to recall something I read once, something about how tempting it is for us mortals to avoid the instability of our boundaries, our unsettling status as a work in process. So we fix upon some definitive sense of self and try to hold ourselves to it, rather than to courageously embrace the changes.
I wanted to find more about this and wondered whether it, too, had been Sartre. I trundled down to the cellar where I knew Uncle Ratty’s sister’s copy of Being and Nothingness was in one of his trunks. I remembered her flinging it across the room in disgust one Christmas because the translation was so bad. The book was in bad shape, not only dog-eared (she always folded the corners of pages to mark them), not only filled with underlinings in emerald green ink, and indecipherable marginalia. I should have remembered, given the postcard beside my bed, that any passages she had found pertinent were cut out entirely, so that when you held the book upside down by its arthritic spine, lacy paper entrails drooped beneath the cover.
But there was something about the anarchic vandalism of the book that cheered my little moleheart into braver living. I can see that without nourishment tendrils will atrophy, and I shall venture forth and cherish an important friendship.
And as for Uncle Ratty’s sister, I haven’t seen her since her brother’s funeral decades ago. She might be still alive, a grande old dame in some Paris apartment. I shall make it my business to find out.