I find I get more and more disagreeably solitary; In fact I foresee the day when I shall have gone too far into myself that there will no longer be anything to be seen of me at all.
Vita Sackville-West, from a letter to Virginia Woolf, The Letters of Vita Sackville-West to Virginia Woolf (Cleis Press, 2001)
$112 tab for the two of us. I’m trying to be a good mentor, trying to make sure he’s doing okay in his second semester. I suppose that’s what I’m here for, our little belated and early birthday celebration for two at the Franklin. He’s got his “gasoline” in hand, and I’m nursing the one on the menu with the ginger syrup and the tin cup.
The truth is that we’re both solitary queens, often alone in our towers of books. But he’s disciplined in a way I have yet to become. Six hours of class and he’s still in the graduate lab marking up his texts until the white doesn’t show, leaving only for a brief meal. Pages upon pages of meticulously tracked notes, presentations written up far in advance. I worry about that kind of productivity, whether or not that grind is sustainable. I think of how the past year and a half seem to blur, the way the days seem to elude my means of measuring and counting. I ask often what I have done, what I have made of myself when I find the many fields of my life seemingly shrinking, closing in. The walls of my studio, the partitions of the cubicle I rent, the office I share. All so disagreeably solitary.
Yet as I toast him, I see how he has fallen into his rhythms. I keep drinking because I feel like the imposter in me is showing. I still feel ill-fitted to this life that I signed for. In the end, I think we both know that I need him far more than he needs me. For what little I know, for what little I can say, for what little I can offer him.
“But even so, every now and then I would feel a violent stab of loneliness. The very water I drink, the very air I breathe, would feel like long, sharp needles. The pages of a books in my hands would take on the threatening metallic gleam of razor blades. I could hear the roots of loneliness creeping through me when the world was hushed at four o’clock in the morning.”
— Haruki Murakami, from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Vintage, 1997)
Still lacing up my boots and flinging on my parka because De Blasio dropped Punxsutawney Phil the moment he saw his shadow. One of those mornings where a small coffee from Good Karma doesn’t do a thing to keep me warm, and the cold manages to find its way in between my gloves just as the gravel and street salt make microtears in my long socks. I never walk slowly, but I stop reluctantly at the intersection at 21st. There he is, coming out of the SUV with his baby girl. Mama goes to the trunk to get the stroller, pink this, pink that. I know how the books would tell me to respond, what my colleagues would say about this scene that I am politely smiling at. Between me and thee is a great gulph fixed. It is precisely that fixture and its coercive force that make this encounter so unsettling despite its comforting familiarity. A distance felt so intensely, a violent stab.
But I’m late for class. They’re late for a kiddie play date in Rittenhouse. Different directions, divergent paths. We keep walking.
For me, the writing life doesn’t just happen when I sit at the writing desk. It is a life lived with a centering principle, and mine is this: that I will pay close attention to this world I find myself in. ‘My heart keeps open house,’ was the way the poet Theodore Roethke put it in a poem. And rendering in language what one sees through the opened windows and doors of that house is a way of bearing witness to the mystery of what it is to be alive in this world.
Julia Alvarez, quoted in 1998 in The Writer magazine, with the quotation republished in “Great Writing Tips from 125 Years of The Writer,” in the magazine’s April 2012 issue. (via apoetreflects)
During the writing-heavy end of the semester, I always get asked how my writing is going. Dissertating folks hear this all the time, especially when long periods pass between department functions and meetings with faculty and other grads. There’s always that subtle (or maybe not so subtle) shaming that goes on when you aren’t actually producing pages, getting something down on paper because that’s somehow the only concrete measure of your productivity. We all know that writing is a process. It is accretive yet often destructively subtractive, as well. There are pages that go by the wayside, paragraphs copied and pasted into new documents, handwritten notes crumpled and unfurled, dogeared pages to revisit, annotations and highlights. A writing life becomes so powerfully idiosyncratic: rinsed and repeated paper after paper, bird by bird as Lamott put it.
Since I got to graduate school, I’ve found my writing life to be all about managing opportunities for mindfulness, however small or seemingly insignificant, in the face of what is often demands to write under duress. There is a writing life, one that is absolutely not confined to the desk and the chair (especially when you have a back as bad as mine) but one that bears witness elsewhere, anywhere, everywhere. I walk my thoughts, I brew them in my yixing pot, I find them in the corner of the photo I just filtered, I chew on them with my morning bread — my acts of centering. This absolute necessity of being outside of the interface between fingers and keyboard, eyes and screen. This amorphousness or what A. once described as throwing flour onto this ghost of a form that you see, you intimate, you know will appear. All this is writing in progress.
"A rain check is an embryo of congealed time, a vital possibility that can be artificially reactivated within a favorable context."
Baby face, old soul. I think that’s what you saw when you put your jacket on me. We became really good at joking about it after awhile when the tethers started to multiply. Lamb gyros and those fries that are to die for at that place on the Promenade. You taught me how to make transactions over a smartphone. I geocached part of my heart in that parking lot.
And maybe this is why I wait because we ended with a rain check. Like the cake we left in my fridge but never came back to eat. A few years have passed, we’ve spent our selves elsewhere. But there’s this clotted time that I don’t know what to do with. I think about what it might mean if I drove to L.J. to find you, to reactivate what has gone cold because I’m not totally frozen yet in this city turned to muddy slush. A vital possibility, S. I just don’t want to it to die.
When you’re young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time in your hands, tossing it away. You’re your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too — leave them behind. You don’t yet know about the habit they have, of coming back.
Time in dreams is frozen. You can never get away from where you’ve been.
Margaret Atwood, “The Blind Assassin” (via lifeinpoetry)
K. and I come to a head when I fall back into my old formulations of progress. My childish response to how the past year and a half has not amounted to what I see as concrete changes in the quality of my life. These strings of disappointments, agitations, losses find themselves circulating in the same pathways within this same space. A kind of hell in being strung along by these cords that I learned to tie and knot when I was younger. (Yet the irony is that I never learned how to properly tie my shoelaces.)
Kathi Weeks reminded to think about daydreams more seriously, and I found myself wanting to be back in the City of Angels. The impending snowstorm to hit tonight compels me to fly. To fly as fast and as far as I can… perhaps so far that I’m back in the security of my two bedroom apartment on Colby. Back to the days when I got paid to talk about the Olympians, when I gave walking tours that always included the Moreau piece that got me the job in the first place. There is always the shadow of some regression, this sense that I’m running the miles back to some scene that I’ve only frozen in nostalgia to fool myself into believing it was somehow better than where I am now. The truth is that I have the time now to be in disarray, to finally inhabit the crisis of self that had been unhealthily postponed. The work of self-care eventually needs to be done.
But the daydreams sometimes take me forward into the house I want to have with the breakfast nook and the glass desk, the office with my nameplate on it and my books on the shelves. This same sense that maybe when the first digit of my age rolls up by one that I will have struggled into some new life that isn’t so debilitated by the colors on Google calendar or when the delay notice appears at the gate. The shallow breaths I’ll have expended by then, the things that I will have said and heard, the countless psychomachias I will undergo that might rack my frame. There’s a bit of shame in hoping that his arms will be there to greet me after the meanders. No, I’m not in love with an end point, but I just hope earnestly that there is a becoming out of wandering.
You know nobody’s ever going to see the stuff, but you have to write through it. You’re just trying to satisfy some grim, barren mandate. There’s probably a German word for that.
I think of my graduate writing a lot in this way nowadays (for better or for worse). Part of it is the negotiation of all the different demands coming from different places and people that put pressure on your capacities to write. I have always been a slow writer that needs much more time than the weekly schedule of a semester allows. I may be able to draft quickly, but the preparation leading up to that writing is a difficult one. I’ve also been, for the longest time, a notoriously bad editor. I find that as I progress in my studies, I am less and less able to manage the threads of my thinking, other scholars’ thinking. Certainly lots of procrasti-research, reading articles and books increasingly tangential to put off the actual act of producing writing, the labor of synthesis and critical response. Those fears of having to account for my bad thinking, my bad writing, and my bad foundations.
I’m not saying anything new, I know, but I really think the act of “writing through it” will be crucial for my summer of preparing for my field exam. The real danger is being left entirely to my own time with over seventy books in my house collected in stacks. To commit my thoughts to writing, to be forced to even summarize critical arguments will be essential to managing what will feel like a panoply of voices, a blur of words rushing in and out. Even just reminding myself that I can write on a single concept or text for a sustained amount of pages will be productive, especially when my sense and order of things will be the first to go when I begin to navigate between these texts.The interrelations and dialogues will need to be recorded, questions need to be formulated (and reformulated), asked (and asked again). Answers need to be gestured toward, imagined even if in parts. A 6-month exercise in making a symposium out of texts.
“‘The universe,’ he observed, ‘makes rather an indifferent parent, I am afraid.’”
Morning flurries take up residence on my lashes. Heat flees from the small cup from Joe’s. A printed schedule, a fifty-minute conversation about what magic I need to conjure to make sense of seventy-five books. Three lists again, and in them are swaths of time, neurons, and a nascent project. Thought work, labors of some sort of perverse love. Evernote, Google Docs: my containers, my little sandboxes, my wordy stacks. I inhabit a little dollop of fear again, but I keep scribbling in my memo book until the white space is filled in my shaky scrawl. The pen abruptly runs out, and I’m scratching at the paper. That sensation of just needing the words to stay down today (when they otherwise become so hard to swallow), just anything to make it through these hours that don’t seem to have holes punched for me to breathe. This train of knotty thoughts, chiefly in parentheses and without punctuation. There are days when I want to pack a weekend bag and fly to where I can get another drink of the sun. Where I might take that ten-thousandth photograph that captures everything and nothing. Where I might finally begin the novel I’ve waited to grow into.
But there is the salt-gravel under my feet, a torn sole to boot.
That moment that you realize you are entering another year of life. This time in an airport terminal as you’re rushing to the connecting flight, and something about it just feels hilariously wrong. I’m on the rooftop restaurant making up for lost time with a six-hour short rib with créme fraîche and a cocktail named for that bridge so often dressed in fog. Cheers to twenty-four, my youth and cells screaming out with a silent cheer, a cold roar. The wind chill doesn’t make it in here because there’s low light and a fire but enough couples to make me feel even colder. The server notices the birthday messages on my phone and she comps my moscato as a gift.
I make a wish and drink to my health. To the people and the moments that matter. To the work, to the process. To every little thing in between. To you, friends.
R. finds another stray white as she takes the razor with the #2 guard to the sides of my head. Snowy cabin fever: I’m restless to look at something different in the mirror. I’m struck by this old photo clipped to the side of her station, and I ask her to make me look like him. Her husband, she tells me, shot in black and white, because he says it makes him seem more rugged in his old man’s trench. I see her hold him in her mind, this man who makes a living (their living) out of staring down the eyes of guns. I tell her I feel eighty years old, and she tells me to think of him instead, he who routinely sees the years re-constellate across his eyes whenever he is tasked to make sense of spattered blood. A pattern, a residue, a body abstracted. An ambien, maybe a little bourbon. There is a recipe for sleep, he’s discovered. Out the door before daybreak because there’s another bust, another 50 keys.
There’s time to sleep when we’re dead.
I beg to differ.
When you feel perpetually unmotivated, you start questioning your existence in an unhealthy way; everything becomes a pseudo intellectual question you have no interest in responding whatsoever. This whole process becomes your very skin and it does not merely affect you; it actually defines you. So, you see yourself as a shadowy figure unworthy of developing interest, unworthy of wondering about the world - profoundly unworthy in every sense and deeply absent in your very presence.
Ingmar Bergman (via deaths-and-entrances)
This makes me think about being in the academy and this constant rehearsal of asking what might often feel like “pseudo-intellectual questions.” We call these things “criticism,” “elaborations,” “nuances,” “critiques.” Yet we’re all fatigued, exhausted by these modes. By all the suspicion we’ve heaped on things because we’ve in essence trained ourselves in precisely what Bergman is saying here. The critic who questions is he who teaches himself to question unhealthily. Perpetually unmotivated, burnout, a whole lot of bad feeling. Over-investment, wrongful investment. The foreclosing of any possibilities for other things worthy of investment. Desiring this object, that object. This life, another life, so many lives.