Be with Me Always by Randon Billings Noble (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).
“But then I met J, and my heart emptied its pockets,” writes Randon Billings Noble about meeting her husband in the essay “Ambush” from her first essay collection, Be with Me Always. The book’s title, taken from Wuthering Heights, seems to suggest a series of essays haunted by love at its most overpowering: past lovers, places, books, and paintings linger in the imagination, whispering our names. But these essays are haunted in other ways, too.
In the first essay (“The Split”) about a near-death experience on a motorcycle in France, Noble describes an out-of-body experience: “But even while I was absorbed in this physical self, some other part of me stood by, aloof, watching and waiting for what I didn’t know.” The self that divides into two has long existed in medical narratives, but Noble’s description also reminds us of the essayist’s capacity to be both the doer and the observer who reflects on, questions, and creates meaning out of the doing.
Like many essayists, she is obsessed with etymologies, which is fitting in a book about hauntings. Open the closet on any word and you’re sure to find skeletons. The roots of the word “endorphin” (endogenous or produced from within, and morphine), for instance, are catalysts for an extended meditation on the split between body and spirit:
Even if the split self is triggered by a chemical reaction, it serves no larger, physical, evolutionary purpose. Adrenaline gives us the strength or speed or sureness to survive; our genes have a better chance of being flung into the future. But the moment of clarity that the split self gives us is a purely internal gift that affects no one else but the self. And I begin to wonder if that isn’t part of the plan as well, if we don’t carry a small piece of mystery within us that is intentionally inaccessible for most of our physical, sandwich-eating, bus-riding, everyday lives. (“The Split”)
The above excerpt touches on what I loved best about this collection: the author’s heroic quest to access the mystery of herself. In multiple essays, Noble attempts to catch a glimpse of herself as others see her, knowing all the while that this is as impossible as capturing a ghost on film.
Over and over again, Noble seeks out her reflection (“Mirror Glimpses,” “Marked,” and “Yet Another Day at the Jersey Shore”) in hopes that it will confirm what she knows about herself or reveal something new. A mother of twins, Noble looks in the mirror and discovers a hidden or nested twin: “I see myself— the internal self within my external self—and for the most part I like what I see.” (“Mirror Glimpses”). In “Marked,” she finds a self at peaceful odds as she simultaneously mourns and celebrates her body changed by childbirth: “This is what I look like because this is the way I’ve lived. I would sooner cut away my fast walk, my peculiar handwriting, my particular singing voice.” The next paragraph consists of two words, “Still. Still.” as Noble both welcomes change and wishes she could stop time. Just as she would never have surgery to restore her body, she refuses to disavow her ambivalence. Ambivalence, she implies, is the stretch mark of a capacious mind.