Things waver and vanish, waterily
She feels the pulse between the words. In a crowded dining room, Mrs. Ramsay absorbs the intentions and experiences of every person, lives deeply in every detail she observes.
To the Lighthouse is written how I try to live.
The dinner party begins awkwardly, with rivalry and reluctance preoccupying the characters in attendance. Mrs. Ramsay binds them together partially through social graces, but more through empathy. She possesses the ability to feel, exactly, the mind of the person beside her, whether content or anxious or in love. She is the party’s center because others cannot help but connect their threads to her, offerings for her tapestry. Then, the candles are lit. Mrs. Ramsay knows everyone is “brought nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round a table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass.” She recognizes how the candlelight “ripples” the world outside “so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished, waterily.” She has made a refuge in that room. The others enjoy it without thought. Mrs. Ramsay alone feels how the world beyond the glass might swirl and eddy, but the persons at the table are together in that moment, whole.
I try to inhabit moments. I try to watch my beagle’s paws trot on the sidewalk, feel pride at that word my daughter mastered, taste my coffee. Sensations like these are the stuff of memories, but the memory is the attenuated form. The moment itself is the thing. Among petty concerns and distractions, it’s impossible to experience every moment in a life fully, but Mrs. Ramsay succeeds in it that evening, and Virginia Woolf in writing it. She relegates the doings of the dinner to parentheticals. The feelings are the matter, and Mrs. Ramsay prizes them. The guests discuss and eat and jest; among them, Mrs. Ramsay becomes aware of something “immune from change” that “shines out… in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby.”
The novel sweeps forward a decade, during which the seaside home of the dinner party lies vacant, battered by wind and time. The news comes in another parenthetical, midsentence: “...Mrs. Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before…” Having breathed life into her matriarch with lyrical precision, Woolf quietly snuffs it out.
The characters miss her. Poets, philosophers and artists had sat round her in that candlelit room, but the vision was all hers. Mrs. Ramsay had the gift of attending to the moment. She could break it like bread and share it.
I reread the dinner party this afternoon, in quarantine: a student to whom I was exposed tested positive for the coronavirus. I’m healthy, probably. I sat on my porch. Even in an upstate January, the air can feel crisp without biting, and wind reveal patches of color in the sky.