Maybe you already follow LitHub on Facebook, but I’m here today to recommend that you sign up for their daily newsletter. Every single day, it’s the email I most look forward to receiving, and I’m guaranteed at least FIVE articles that I’m desperate to read (usually all of them. Most common for me is that there’s one I feel meh about, but the rest are thrilling.). I’ve had to turn completely away from the daily political material I used to receive, because it’s just going to kill me. Every day, “the worst day yet!” Every new thing, “a new low!” And yet none of that matters. Tomorrow will be an even worse day, five minutes from now will bring a new low. I can’t watch Colbert (etc) because they all seem to rely heavily on video clips of the horrorshow, and I can’t tolerate his voice or face. So I’ve turned my body to completely face literature and poetry and art, out of desperation.
Even when LitHub includes something that’s related to politics, it’s more an analysis, a thoughtful Big Picture perspective than a reactionary bit of clickbait, so I can usually read them at a slant. Here is today’s newsletter, to give you a taste of it — and more from me at the bottom.
Lit Hub Daily
September 14, 2017
TODAY: In 1851, James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, dies.
From triumph to terror: how America grappled with the dawn of the nuclear age. | Literary Hub
We marched day after day: A final interview with writer, artist, and activist Kate Millett. | The New Yorker
“I love the way he plays with our expectations of autobiography, how he frustrates our desire to find the perfect leftist, activist, Latin American writer and revolutionary who is heroic in all the right ways.” Jenny Zhang on Roberto Bolaño. | The Atlantic
“The bucket was half full of papery spit globs. Soon she’d be able to take it outside and add onto her project: an enormous wasp nest big enough to house a human body.” A short story by Kristen Arnett. | Burrow
Really — some pieces I might race to read first, but every single item is interesting to me. If you go to their webpage, you’ll see the box on the right to enter your email and “get the lithub daily.” I’ve been so glad to get it every day. I feel like a dwindling plant in parched dirt, and that daily email is sunshine and rainwater, allowing me to re-find myself each day and muster a bit of life.
Since I got rid of that stupid game on my phone — and although it’s not a fair test yet, since I simultaneously got a small handful of jobs that take all my time and attention — I’ve been less scattered and wasteful. Every morning I read something good, at the moment Anne Carson and Women Who Run With the Wolves. Before I started college, I was deeply immersed in myth and deep structures, and that’s when I first read Wolves. And then I went to college and studied psychology and statistics and then I went to graduate school and studied experimental design and psychological research and even more statistics and there wasn’t space for that kind of mind AND a mind that prefers mythology and literature and deep structures, so I drifted away from it into a more linear if-then way of thinking (which, not for nothing, was never my forte…..). So it’s a pleasure to have the time and space every morning to reacquaint myself with this kind of material. Anne Carson cracks and shatters my brain, and every morning after I read her, she has gotten into my speech and I hear myself thinking weird words, not my words but hers.
So literature, rah! Poetry, YES! Art, oh yes please. And LitHub as a lovely daily invitation.
Also, I’m finally reading Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning short novel, The Sense of an Ending. It is so squarely in my wheelhouse — a meditation on memory (and its infallibility) and responsibility and what life has meant, and whether what happened is as important as how it is remembered and taken in. I’ll have more to say about it when I finish, but at 80% complete, I am completely enamored. It’s likely not going on my “absolute favorites” GoodReads shelf, but it’s really wonderful. More on that later.
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I’m like a dog with a bone. Like a coral snake at a heel. I carry on these arguments (in my mind) for YEARS, fluently and passionately, and constantly collecting new data in support of my side. To wit:
In my first year of graduate school, 1998, a clinical grad student named Anna said that she believed one can only really understand life as it’s happening, in the present moment. What???? I thought she was joking; she was extremely intelligent (undergrad at Harvard, first PhD at Berkeley, in some natural science I don’t remember anymore, and then second PhD in clinical psychology) so I was intimidated by her, but she loved the television show Roseanne and said it was a great example of a strong woman and that confused me. So I didn’t know what to make of Anna, but I thought that was the craziest thing ever. If ever there is a moment one can’t understand as it’s happening (in isolation) it’s the present! If I’m sitting at a cafe enjoying a glass of wine and my book and in the next instance a bomb explodes, that moment in the cafe is forever transformed. And who I am as I sit in that cafe is so wholly connected to the moments that led up to it, including the concerns in my heart, the painful or joyous memories, etc. I just realized she said that 19 years ago, which explains why I’ve finally [mostly] stopped arguing with her. I just decided she was wrong. 🙂
At some later point in graduate school (1998-2003), my friend Sherlock started arguing with me about whether I am an introvert. [Yes. The answer is yes.] He insisted I wasn’t. Again, he was wrong. (But I still get a little bit thrashing when I think about the argument, even though I know he is wrong. You are, Sherlock.)
A newer one that I’m still in the “collecting data” for stage involves the role of “bad”(/unpleasant/negative/difficult) emotions in life. In Austin, a group of friends and I were doing these writing exercises in lieu of having a book club, and the second month we tried it I asked if we would be willing to do some spontaneous writing for a prompt I’d bring. I wanted us to write about a time we were angry; I think anger is a difficult emotion for people in general, and for women specifically, and I’ve been thinking hard about it since my early 20s. I thought it might be a rich topic and could give us a lot to talk about, and I’m always wanting to know how other people handle it, since I haven’t figured that out yet. WELL. One woman in the group became enraged at me (wait for the irony….), demanding quite angrily to know “what good does that do, it doesn’t serve me so I don’t get angry.”
[Insert wide-eyed dramatic eye roll from me….I recognized this in the moment but didn’t think it wise to point out to her just how very angry she was as she vehemently insisted she doesn’t get angry.]
She aggressively attacked (well, I’d want a little lighter word than that, even though she was attacking) people who read what they wrote, asking what good it was to dwell on it. (Um…..they weren’t dwelling, they were responding to a prompt! Jesus!) Her attack on me was more personal, in response to what I wrote about. After that meeting she ghosted me. She has never spoken to me since, and she actually blocked me on all social media (and she unfriended my daughter)! SO bizarre.
So in part I carry on the argument in my mind with her because it was like hitting a brick wall, an unexpected brick wall that just flew up in front of me and then disappeared. I’m not at all interested in what her problem was, for the problem was clearly with her, but I would like to have the conversation because I think feeling all the feelings is crucial. That’s my personal understanding of things, and of course there is a LOT of data on it, and thoughtful people have been writing on this topic for centuries.
In her essay titled “Optimism,” Helen Keller describes the superficiality and contingency of the type of happiness that people ordinarily seek, what she called “false optimism.”
Most people measure happiness in terms of physical pleasure and material possession. Could they win some visible goal which they have set on the horizon, how happy they would be! Lacking this gift or that circumstance, they would be miserable. If happiness is to be so measured, I who cannot hear or see have every reason to sit in a corner with folded hands and weep.
And yet Keller saw herself as happy and optimistic, writing: “If I am happy in spite of my deprivations, if my happiness is so deep that it is a faith, so thoughtful that it becomes a philosophy of life, if, in short, I am an optimist, my testimony to the creed of optimism is worth hearing.” Keller saw adversity as a prerequisite for real optimism. And granted, she could not simply deny or run away from or pretend that her adversities were not there, as this attacking woman professed to do, but I don’t think that mattered to Keller’s philosophy.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, also knows the truth of this. (And not for nothing, this woman is some kind of Buddhist-lite, believing that the reason one meditates is so these kinds of feelings don’t happen. HUH?) Anyway, Hanh said,
A man must understand evil and be acquainted with sorrow before he can write himself an optimist and expect others to believe that he has reason for the faith that is in him. I know what evil is. … I can say with conviction that the struggle which evil necessitates is one of the greatest blessings. It makes us strong, patient, helpful men and women. It lets us into the soul of things and teaches us that although the world is full of suffering it is full also of the overcoming of it. My optimism then does not rest on the absence of evil, but on a glad belief in the preponderance of good and a willing effort always to cooperate with the good that it may prevail. I try to increase the power God has given me to see the best in everything and everyone, and make that Best a part of my life.
However, he also understands that hiding from fear is not the answer.
“If you try to run away, instead of confronting or embracing your ill-being, you will not look deeply into its nature and will never have the chance to see a way out. That is why you should hold your suffering tenderly and closely, looking directly into it, to discover its true nature and find a way out.”
It’s very hard to do with anger, but my point goes well beyond anger, and encompasses fear, sorrow, devastation, boredom, impatience, irritation, heartbreak, rage, all those feelings that people lazily capture under the umbrella of “bad” or “negative.” It’s so completely wrongheaded, as far as I’m concerned, that I can’t even grasp it well enough to make a sensible counterargument. They aren’t pleasant to feel, that’s for SURE. They aren’t feelings anyone would want to linger in any longer than necessary, but oh how important they are. I’ve learned more from being present with my fear, my sorrow, my anger, my heartache, than I’ve learned from being present with my bliss, which I also easily access.
I hope I don’t keep arguing with her for as long as I’ve argued with Anna and Sherlock, though I might because this is as nonsensical a thing as I’ve ever heard, and there was no opportunity to have a normal conversation about it. (Ring that irony bell, sisters!) I guess in all three of these instances, my desire to have the argument is born of wanting these people to see how wrong they are, because in these cases I believe they are. Except for the introversion thing with Sherlock, the other two arguments are big topics, life-soaked topics that I think about all the time, topics that I have wrestled with, in the mud and blood, and I don’t feel confused about them. There aren’t many things I could say that about; I’m pretty uncertain about most things, but not these.
(Oh, and I still argue in my mind with my first husband Jerry, who insisted that his feet smelled like lilacs. [THEY DID NOT.] He has a very dry, dry sense of humor, my favorite thing about him, and for years and years I asked him, “You’re joking, right?” and he would hold a straight face and simply insist on the lilacs thing. It makes me laugh.)
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I have this feeling so easily — whether it’s brought about because of beauty, or awe, or pain, it’s always the same. It’s a feeling of tenderness towards all of us (except for the asshole Republicans who just want to destroy everything and loot the world), because here we are, trying so hard. Here we are, losing everything in floods. Here we are, on our knees in a long, dark night. Here we are, fighting for our precious lives against our own murderous cells. Here we are, seeing each other (I see you there, dear Mudd), reaching out a hand. Here we are, crawling on our bellies with no guarantee that there is light to be found. Here we are, bringing babies into the world with our quavering hope. Here we are, feeling joy and despair and need and want and wistfulness. Here we are, wondering about dinner, or worrying about the basement, or missing our children. Here we are, fighting our tiny little personal battles that can loom so large — addiction maybe, or financial need, or suicidal depression — feeling so all alone on this earth. Here we are, wondering how we got here, at our age, is this all there is? This is not how we thought it would be. Here we are, wherever we are, and it’s almost always a surprise. Here we are, away from home: maybe it’s a choice, a vacation, a long-anticipated trip, or maybe it’s a fleeing, maybe an abandonment of what’s dear with no idea of what tomorrow will be.
Here we are, making our plans, for vacation or new schools for our babies or quilts/bread and cookies/sweaters/comics/books/paintings/music. Here we are, expecting that next week we’ll paint the upstairs, or go on a trip, or have an ordinary week at work. Here we are, worrying how we’ll make it to the end of the month without nearly enough money. Here we are, hoping that nothing bad happens like a broken car or sick child. Here we are, praying that the rains will stop, that war won’t find us, that missiles don’t fly. Here we are, claiming our small happinesses — lovely sunsets, time in the vast West in awe of that scale, dinner with friends, an hour on the yoga mat, celebrations of moments that only matter to us — and going ahead and feeling all that joy.
Here we are, sitting alone and feeling alone, or sitting in a crowd and feeling alone, or sitting with a partner and feeling alone. Here we are, feeling all the abundance in our own silence and solitude, or feeling all the abundance with a crowd of friends, or feeling all the abundance of our loving partner. Maybe feeling loneliness and abundance all at once, so confusing.
Here we are on the turning earth — summer into fall or winter into spring, dramatic shifts, and we’re tired of the old and anticipating the new. It does this every year, and every year it feels surprising.
Here we are, with absolutely no idea what’s coming. Here we were on a perfectly glorious September morning in NYC in 2001, clear blue skies and our big plans and no way to begin to imagine the way the world would change on the 11th. Here we are, ever the optimists, imagining more endless clear blue skies. Here we are, flood waters taking away everything and us rising to the occasion to help each other in ways large and small, visible and never-known. Here we are, filled with all our little human joys and pains, dramas and melodramas and quiet times, and we are just trying so hard. Most of us are just trying so hard, and I find such a crushing nobility in that. The crushing part is the moving part of it, the way we’ve all been brought to our knees at least once but here we are again, standing up and holding out our hands to each other. Here we are, leaving little notes for each other, sending little helpful bits of information to each other, saying I see you / That happened to me too / Here’s what I tried / It will get better.
I’m sitting in my leather chair, surrounded by large glass doors and windows. To my right I see, through the large double glass doors, my beautiful deck littered with beech nuts and orange leaves, and a forest blocking my view of the mountain behind, with little bits of blue sky visible between the leaves. Over my left shoulder, I see a big blue sky with wispy clouds, and another mountain behind, a little more visible between the trees because the leaves are thinning out. To my wider left, I see nothing but trees — a huge beech tree trunk up close, and all the trees of the forest preserve just beyond. Straight ahead, I see my living room, my woodburning stove, my wonderful kitchen, and through that window I see the later afternoon light, as I write this post. In the air I hear Arvo Part’s gorgeous work, Spiegel im spiegel, and my heart creaks and cracks. Outside the music I hear birds and insects, and a little chipmunk dashes past me, capturing my attention. I feel the space in my heart that’s set aside for Oliver and Lucy, for Ilan, and for my daughters and their husbands, the part that’s shattered that holds my son, the part that holds space for my husband and the new ground we’ve found with each other. My feet are cold, my nose is cold, I’m not sure what I’m going to make for dinner but it doesn’t matter.
I love you. I’m so so grateful for your presence on this earth, at the same time I’m here. I’m so grateful for the way you share yourself with me, however that might be — big or small, in person or electronically, loud or soft, frequent or rare. You are here, I am here, and I’m so very grateful for it all, and for you.
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My mother went through a Christian fundamentalist religious phase — years of it, many different flavors, and during a prolonged period when she was doing the most hideous, unspeakable things, and knowingly allowing even worse things to be done inside her house. One phase was particularly weird to me; the gist of her preacher’s message was that God wants His people to be wealthy so non-believers would want to follow. Because who would look at poor, down-in-the-mouth Christians and think Gimme some of that! There was a very specific verbal construction she and her fellow church members would say: “I’m believing on the Lord for a new XYZ.” (on the Lord?) So, for example, “I’m believing on the Lord for a new Cadillac.” “I’m believing on the Lord for a new refrigerator.” “I’m believing on the Lord for a bigger house.” “I’m believing on the Lord for those designer shoes.” It was always stuff they were “believing on the Lord” for, never humility, or forgiveness, or an open heart. They seemed to understand God as the Sears & Roebuck catalogue. (And I don’t recall new Cadillacs, or refrigerators, or new houses, or designer shoes magically or unmagically appearing, except perhaps for the preacher.)
Prayer always felt deeply urgent to me as a little kid. I once lost a birthstone ring Mother had given me for Christmas and I was so completely terrified about what she would do to me when she realized I’d lost it. And as an indicator of the specific kind of gaslighting Mother did to us (among other things, she told us she knew everything we were ever thinking or doing, even when we weren’t in her presence), I believed that God knew exactly where my birthstone ring was and was laughing at me, and wouldn’t let me know where it was because I deserved what was coming to me. But how urgently I prayed, how desperately I prayed. Please God, please let me know where it is. It’s going to be so terrible, please, just please let me know where it is. I promise I’ll quit being an evil person. Just this one time, please just this once please show me where the ring is. (I was 8.) OR Please God, please let the Longhorns win so Daddy won’t hurt us. Etc.
My prayers were always of that desperate kind, when I was young, up to the winter night in a freezing alley when I was 15 and completely lost my faith and replaced it with a belief that everything in the whole universe happened in a random way, and there was no Other out there. Because if there was a God who knew what was happening to me, either (a) he could help but instead he just let it happen, in which case screw that, or (b) he knew but couldn’t do anything, in which case what use? or (c) he had no idea what was happening to me, in which case what use? I found so much more comfort in random, because random shit can just happen to everyone. And it does.
But still I pray, constantly, and it always takes this form, now: “Please let the next box hold my third music stand!” “Please let that be the last fork in the dishwater!” “Please let it be chilly tonight!” Sometimes it’s more like “Please please please please please let the next box hold my third music stand!”
I laugh at myself every single time. Oh silly, sweet little queen.
One of Anne Lamott’s thinnest books was Help, Thanks, Wow, which I read at the end of November, 2012, when I left New York and returned to Austin. The point of that book was that she has only three prayers, really (she’s very religious, but in the good way, with good politics): Help! Gosh, thank you. And wow, that’s amazing. I resonated to the book because my prayers are mostly of the form thank you, and WOW. Wow. The trees. Wow. Clouds. Wow. My grandchildren, my daughters. Thank you, my grandchildren, my daughters. Thank you, trees and clouds. Wow. Thank you. I don’t turn to prayer for help except in this silly way (please please please, let the next box hold my third music stand!), because I don’t really think the world works like that. It’s easy enough to feel gratitude and awe, and to allow that to take a spiritual form — but while I might like to think there is some Force Out There that will actually help a woman out now and then, I just don’t have that framework.
But really, pleasepleasepleaseplease let my third music stand be in the next box. Come on. I’d really appreciate it. 🙂
Happy Sunday, y’all. xoxoxo
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It’s happening so fast I can see it, hear it, observe it. I’m losing words. The worst of it is my inability to speak fluidly, to simply say what I want to say. I’ll be shooting a little video to share with my daughters, standing at the closeby creek, and the many long, long pauses are increasingly common as I hit a blank wall. The most frustrating part is that I can’t get the simple words, like ‘pool.’ “And this . . . um . . . this is a well . . . um . . . still area.” Only more frustrating than that, even, is my inability to speak around the lost word, to find synonyms or descriptions or definitions. I usually can’t even get close, as ‘still area’ is close to ‘pool’ in the context of a flowing creek.
For example. Our well water is so gross — sulfur-smelling, and so full of iron it turns the toilet bowls dark gray-brown — and it also leaves a film on things as it dries. The dishes I wash so thoroughly, that are so clean when I put them in the dish drainer, look awful when they dry. There’s a film on them, and that word ‘film’ was impossible for me to find the other night. I was telling Marc how the floors looked after I finished scrubbing them on my hands and knees three times, and then after a final sponge mop, and simply could not find the word film. Nor could I tell him in any other way what I meant. “So the floors are very clean, but there’s a . . . you know, the water . . . you know, how when it dries?” He tried to fill in for me, “Did the water damage the wood floor? Is it stained?” And I couldn’t even approach my meaning. I said, “There’s a specific word for this, never mind never mind.” This morning I tried to explain something about my big camera on the tripod and couldn’t. Couldn’t even talk around it.
This has been happening for a very long time, but it is getting so much worse. I’m losing my ability to be articulate in speech, and I can’t tell you how painful that is, because being articulate has been one of my self-defining characteristics. It’s the aspect of myself I most enjoy, the aspect that feels most me to me. I can still be articulate when I write, thank heavens, but that’s because I can hit a missing word and pause, go searching for it through Google searches, let it be with an XX placeholder and come back later — strategies that you can’t do when you’re speaking.
And it makes me both scared and frustrated, so I get angry in the moment. I’m angry at myself, at the situation, at this roadblock, but the person to whom I’m speaking only sees the anger, the short temper, the flare. Usually this is Marc who bears the brunt. I feel for him. I try to be mild and compassionate with myself about it, and I’m reassured to feel like I’m still fully there, it’s just that I can’t get words — I’m not feeling like my self is disappearing, I have full connection to my own experiences, my memories, my presence, and I know what it is I want to say in its fullness, in its clear and specific articulation, I just lose the words I want when I try to produce them. Too often I just give up before I even start, I don’t try to explain anything that’s at all complex, like the way the lever on the ball and socket head joint on my tripod doesn’t close tightly enough to hold the camera at a 45-degree angle anymore. Or the way there is a film on the clean floor so it doesn’t look clean, but it is.
This loss is gutting, and just so very personal. I’ve always said that if a terrible accident befell me and I was confined to a chair, that wouldn’t be awful at all. Athleticism, or even physical activity, is not central to my identity, it’s not at all an important element of what makes my life worth living, or enjoyable. But verbal acuity is, for me. Incisive expression is, for me. My thoughts can be quite complex, and my emotional understanding is layered and intricate, and being able to give voice to that has always given me such a thrill, such pleasure. I love words. I’m just so verbal, it’s where my intelligence lies. I don’t have other forms of intelligence, but this is mine, and it always has been. I scored at the 99th percentile on the verbal section of the GRE, and wasn’t even surprised by that. This is my little pocket of gift. It’s all there, in my mind, and I can easily access it except in speech production. So that’s at least a reassuring feeling, even if it adds to my frustration: I’m still here. It’s all still there.
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Just a note of re-entry to mark the end of my two-day retreat offline.
My kneejerk note would be something like, “It was tremendous.” And in moments, it was! In other moments it was boring. In fewer moments than I expected, it was anxious. In many fewer moments than I expected, it was insightful. Mostly, it just was.
When you go out to watch stars at night, you have to watch for at least half an hour before light leaves your eyes and they become accommodated to the dark and you can see the fainter stars. In a way, my experience was like this: it took almost a whole day before the cacophony left my mind and I could find any silence, at all. I spent the first day in complete silence, but my mind was full of sound — songs (mainly LP), something that almost sounded and felt like radio static, and the voices of people I know. For the first day, my mind was also full of my own narration, of my telling the story of what I was doing as if I were telling you, or writing it. My mind was full of my noticing things to photograph to share. It took a very long time for that to stop happening, and in fact it never really stopped all the way. Implied other, present and accounted for!
And I realized that I had approached my retreat with a specific expectation of enlightenment, that some huge insight was going to happen for me and from then on I would be ever-changed. How silly, and how glad I am to have had the inner space to spot that one lurking in the subterranean churn. Ironically, that was my big enlightenment insight. 🙂 I do this all the time. I initiate these projects with this expectation, and impose the specific insight on myself right from the outset. “I’m going to get it and then I’ll be chill / whatever.” I laughed out loud when I realized this.
Every time I undertake one of these projects, whether it has to do with retreating from noise or watching more closely or going deep in some way, my searching always circles around the same issues, and I gain and lose them, gain and lose them, gain and lose them. I’ve always felt ashamed when I’d lose them again, as if I were a small person, unable to hold big and deep things . . . but I realized that this is the human endeavor. If we just sought and then gained enlightenment (whatever that means, as a word and for us as individuals) in one grab, then the world would work very differently than it actually does. This is the human endeavor.
So on the second day, I didn’t search for anything at all. I didn’t wait for chill / whatever. I just was. I just read. I just drank coffee. I just looked at the trees. I walked a lot, regular four-mile walks over my two days offline. I drank a beer. I actually did finish The Ministry of Utmost Happinessand ended up appreciating it, a lot. I rambled along my creeks. I stopped taking photographs. My experiences were just and only for myself. And I finally stopped narrating myself, and was able to be still in the silence of Heaventree. This felt less like a marvelous transformation, less like an a-ha! insight, and more like just that moment, nothing more.
I’m very glad I did it, and I’m so surprised that it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be to stay offline. My sense had been that I go online to manage any and all discomfort, as a distraction, but maybe being online produces discomfort. Well, it does. Obviously. It doesn’t just do that, it also allows for connection and happiness, but it does also produce discomfort, especially in this nightmarish Republican world we are trapped in. I’m glad to learn that it wasn’t so hard, and I’m thinking about having regular periods of staying offline. I missed people, I missed knowing how my friends around the world are doing, seeing their pictures, but I didn’t miss the noise, at all. Since I did not feel anxious, I’m left wondering why I go online to manage discomfort. My discomfort was never uncomfortable.
A couple of great things happened while I was away: I learned that our couches will be delivered this Saturday, and I got my NYPL library card, and I don’t know which one I’m more excited about. So Saturday we’ll have furniture and I can arrange an actual living room, and we’ll start painting, and then next Tuesday the new refrigerator will be delivered. The immediate big stuff will all be in place then, and done. And I belong to the NYPL again. SO HAPPY.
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WHY is it so hard to be me. I wonder this all the time. I halfway (quarter-way) long to be a light, easygoing person, what you see is what you get, only walking on the sunny side (ugh, no, I actually detest that, it would be my worst personal nightmare) — but I do wish on occasion to be an easier person. Most of the time I like the complexity of being who I am, but sometimes I wish I were easier.
In the spirit of my last two posts, I’m remembering that old poster I had on my bedroom wall as a near-teen — the image was so green, a deep forest with a shaft of light piercing through, and superimposed (these were the pre-meme days of the 1970s) was a quote, either Thoreau or the Desiderata, I don’t remember for sure, but I do also remember reading Waldenand thinking how swell that would be to go into the wild and confront myself, to confront the bareness of life, to learn whatever that might teach me.
And here comes the complexity, the wish that I were a simpler person. I’m feeling that longing quite intensely, thinking about stepping off the earth, off the public presentation of self, and just being here. Just being here in the wild, lonely solitude of Heaventree… and yet I have to wonder and worry about that, because I know me and my history. Is this impulse a sign? Is this a withdrawing impulse that connects to something darker? I don’t think so, I don’t feel that at all, but I have to ask myself that question. I have to answer that question for people who love me. Are you OK, Lori? (How is mom? Have you talked to her? How are you, mama?) How is it inside you? Are you OK? Really?
Marnie and I talked the other day, and I was telling her about the adjustment, about how inconvenient rural life can be. How Brandon is at the post office between 8 and 10, and then between 3 and 5, and that’s it. How I’d gone to the post office at 2 expecting no mail but just wanting to get out, and found a notice that I had a package, so I had to go home and then return at 3, and when I did, there was a handscrawled note: “In the bathroom, back in 5 minutes.” And so I waited in silence for Brandon, and when I saw him it was notable to be having a conversation with a person. (And I talk to Marc every day on the phone, and text my daughters throughout the days, but a real in-person conversation has become extremely rare.) I went to the Pine Hill library the other day to pick up my library card, and their website said they were open at 2 on that day of the week, but when I got there, a sign said, “Hey! We’ve changed our hours, now we open at 3. Join us for knitting the 1st and 3rd Thursday of the month, Tina will be here!” True rural life is solitary and inconvenient and dependent on how other people happen to be feeling, whether they’ll be there as advertised . . . or not. And so my one chance to talk to a living person is set aside for the next day. Maybe.
So I gradually become more accustomed to my own company, for days at a time — and I like my own company, thank heavens I learned that in Austin — and I begin to wonder what I might learn, left alone with my thoughts and with the forest. I wonder. I wonder the shape of my heart. I wonder the shape of my mind, my want, my need. When I am fully alone, in silence, whether walking or driving, I begin again to recognize my own mind. I have my own thoughts, my own imagery, my own landscape that’s just nearly unrecognizable, because it’s unlanguaged. And I am so very, very languaged.
Social psychology, my own subdiscipline, takes as its starting point that our very SELVES are social even if the ‘other’ is only implied and not present. That without others, there simply is no self. And so I think about that, not just from an academic perspective but from within my own solitary self, here on the side of a mountain, deep in a valley in the lonesome old Catskills. Who am I without others? Am I, without others? What is that, who is that? I spent my second summer of graduate school reading philosophy of self, and while I began that summer with an almost irrationally angry defense (“Of course there is a self, who do you think is even asking the question?!” I’d say, usually suddenly and mysteriously on my feet and with a red-flushed throat), by the end of that summer academic philosophy had done its thing, and I no longer even understood the terms of the question. Self? What is that, really? Me? Who am I, really?
To summon but shift Prufrock, I wonder: Do I dare?
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