As usual, at five o’clock that morning reveille was sounded by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters. The intermittent sound barely penetrated the window-panes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they’d begun. It was cold outside, and the camp-guard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long.
The clanging ceased, but everything outside still looked like the middle of the night when Ivan Denisovich Shukhov got up to go to the bucket. It was pitch dark except for the yellow light cast on the window by three lamps – two in the outer zone, and one inside the camp itself.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Prisoners in a Gulag, or forced labour camp
The above passage begins a novella that won the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature. The book is exactly what its title suggests: it recounts just one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. It doesn’t recount anything more or less than that small fragment of time for a man whose life is of very little consequence to those around him in his work camp. By writing about the experience of the Gulag prisoners in Russia at the time, Solzhenitsyn created a story that elevates that experience by opening it up to the consideration and sympathy of its readers.
In doing so, Ivan’s patterns of using the toilet bucket, and of trying to keep his toes warm, and of his weariness and resignation enter into our contemplation and we find ourselves moved by them. The tone of the book is permeated by a sense of Ivan’s invisibility within his lived context, and the story thus flags the invisibility of the people that Solzhenitsyn uses this story to represent.
What if someone wrote about you?
What would they see about how it feels to live your life? What if your routines, your sufferings, your patterns were noticed and elevated in this way?
What if you began to notice your own life with this degree of care?
What if you began to notice these things about others, and let it matter to you? If you really actually took stock without judgement, and entered as fully as possible into the experiences of other beings?
Your life would, far more often, become poetry. You would see more of the beauty of life: the beauty of melancholy, and intimacy, and solitude, and the millions of tiny things happening around you. The gardens, and the tastes, and the sounds of the rain on your roof. The act of sweeping your kitchen floor, of peeling vegetables, of tending the soil, of tidying up your desk, of tucking your child in at night, of listening to your coworker share their joy about their achievements or their weekend.
So stop, just for thirty seconds and breathe. Just stay here in this moment that you are living right now. Stay a while, and keep yourself company. Take note of your story.