bouncing kisses

Somehow I’ve set my phone to back up every picture I take to my laptop. I only realized this when my hard drive was so full the computer quit working, and I started poking around to solve the mystery. And there they were, thousands of pictures and videos, saved to a folder buried in the file structure. In addition to all the images, I found a somewhat random collection of other files — pdfs and text files and Word documents, all saved and long forgotten. Most of the file names were descriptive enough, but one was just titled “ms.doc” so I opened it, thinking it was a client’s project I’d accidentally saved in the wrong place. And what I read felt as detached from me as if I hadn’t ever seen it before, but the stories were clearly mine. I have no recollection of writing them, page after page after page, but they are definitely mine. Weird. Maybe that’s the hazard of being a compulsive writer-of-stories, and a person who is now very good at forgetting things.

Anyway, this one was written in a way that brought me right back to that experience, to those lonely and exhausted years, those summer nights, those sorrowful feelings, so I thought I’d give it some air and let it breathe a little. Here you go, a story from the very early 1990s:

“Let’s go bounce our kisses off the moon.” This is what I told them every night, after their baths, that long summer in Virginia. The nights were so hot and steamy my glasses fogged up when we stepped out the front door, and my shirt clung to my skin within seconds. They were little, then, and always clean-scrubbed and shiny in their fresh pajamas and nightgowns. There was something fantastical to them about going outside in their nightclothes; they always looked at each other with sneaky little grins, as if they were getting away with something. It had been his idea, before he left, this whole bouncing kisses off the moon thing, as if they could throw theirs and he’d catch them, in the other hemisphere.

“Mommy, does Daddy feel our kisses the way you do? How does he get them?” they’d ask, in a hundred different ways. Katie was the oldest and knew this was just a game, but she went along for the sake of her little sister and brother, the same way she gave me a sideways smile when they’d talk about how clever the Easter bunny was to think of hiding their baskets underneath their beds – the last place they’d have looked. She knew what we were up to with this story, but the way she threw her kisses, the way she looked so hard at the moon as they flew away, I knew she was hoping that somehow they’d get there, somehow he’d feel her yearning for him and know that this one, this special kiss, was just hers, for him. Marnie and Will always gave a little jump when they kissed their hands and threw their kisses into the air. Marnie was just the right age, really, believing in the magic. She’d turn to me with light all over her face, letting the kiss go on its way as she gave one to me, too. Will was usually unsatisfied with just one toss and jump, so he’d push the kiss on its way with both hands a few times, each push getting its own jump. “Daddy is gone,” he’d say, and then he would run into the house, upstairs to his bedroom to play. “Yes, Daddy is gone,” I’d say softly to myself. “Daddy is gone.”

Saturday mornings the kids gathered downstairs, watching cartoons before breakfast. At the top of the stairs, I’d ask, “What shall it be this Saturday morning,” doing my best imitation of the silly-pompous way he used to ask that question, “waffles, or pannnnncaaaakes,” dragging out the last word as he did. “Pancakes! Pancakes!” they’d say, jumping up from the floor. The girls jumped once and ran to me, but Will just kept jumping around in circles, singing, “pannnnncakes, pannnnnnncakes, pannnnncakes!” and waving his hands like little wings. Of course pancakes didn’t mean pancakes, it meant their dad’s pancakes, shaped like Mickey Mouse, or like a silly unicorn, or sprinkled with candy if we had it, or cupcake decorations. Nothing as boring as a plain round pancake with butter and syrup, there’s nothing fun about that, Daddy always said.

“Daddy makes better pancakes than you do,” Will said again this Saturday. “Yours are too round and the legs are too short.” Katie glanced at my face and scooted her chair a little closer to mine, and asked if she could have another pancake, please. “I wonder what Daddy’s doing this morning,” Marnie said. “I wonder if he got our kisses last night? I want to draw monsters with him, I want him to come home now.” Her eyebrows pulled together and a little pout started forming around her mouth. Touching my hand, Katie turned to Marnie and said, “It’s OK, Marn, I can draw with you this morning!” I looked away, out the glass door into our large backyard, littered with leaves and fallen branches from the recent storm. I sat still, unable to move my gaze, as the girls ran upstairs to get the jar of markers and the big blank book Marnie and her dad filled with funny monsters, and palm trees, and dogs that waved their paws. I heard them turning the pages, turning clumps of pages, trying to find an empty space that hadn’t already been filled on Saturday mornings, before he left.

“Mommy? Are you crying, mommy?” Will asked. I coughed a little into my fist and turned my shining eyes to him. “It’s OK, Daddy will come back!” he said. Will put his arms up, the signal he wanted to be lifted out of his booster seat, so I got up and lifted him out of the chair and watched him run upstairs, to draw with his big sisters.

Daddy said he would come back. He said.

* * *

In the funny way the world works, sometimes, this story continued to echo into the world. Marnie incorporated some of it into a personal experience she had, and put it in a truly beautiful book she wrote and illustrated called Particle/Wavewhich you can buy for only $8.

It reminds me of the way our experiences have such long echoes and ripples, how a moment can transform and connect past and future. And it makes me cry.

three things: 1/17/17

FEED: My Sunday was incredible — I attended the National Poets Against Trump protest and the National Writers Resist protest here in Austin, and wished with all my heart I could’ve been at the ones in New York City. The writers’ protest there was held on the steps of the New York Public Library, and how I would’ve loved to be there.

At the NYPL

I also attended a training session for nonviolent protest, organized by the women organizing the Austin Women’s March (they’re expecting more than 22,000 people!), so all that comes together to lead me to share this powerful poem.

A Woman Speaks (Audre Lorde)

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride
I do not mix
love with pity
nor hate with scorn
and if you would know me
look into the entrails of Uranus
where the restless oceans pound.

I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
my sisters
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did
mourning.

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
promised
I am
woman
and not white.

From The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde.

That feeds me, sisters, it does.

This is amazing, amazing Joe Brundidge.

SEED: Even though mine is such a heavily literary life, I’m not hooked into the quite large literary community here in Austin, though I want to be — especially after attending the writers protest and seeing a good portion of it. I sat there at BookPeople thinking These are my people. All of them, these are MY people. I thought it at the poets protest too; we who need words, who value words, who understand the power of words to fight, and who turn to them in times of trouble. He was at the poets protest too, but I must have been distracted because I didn’t really GET Joe until he spoke at the writers protest. He read two pieces, the first of which I remembered from the poets protest a few hours earlier. But then he read the second one, and he is such an amazing speaker it just felt like he suddenly started talking to us, and with urgency. It was about the critical importance of doing your work, of not waiting, and of how important it is, and he spoke right to the things you say that stop yourself, and he was right there ready to step into the muck and lift you out, rinse it off of you because he needs you, he needs your voice. I just sat there crying and feeling LOVED, and held. When he finished speaking, the next speaker was Sarah Bird — actually the person I was most eager to hear — but I couldn’t pay attention because I was afraid Joe would leave, so I just kept my eye on him.

As soon as Sarah quit speaking, while the next speaker was being introduced I jumped up (I was on the front row) and dashed over to Joe, who didn’t know me from Adam. I asked, “Can I hug you?” And with his giant smile, this tremendous bear of a man reached out his arms and hugged me so tight, so solid and still, and for so long. I moved slightly, to end the hug, just because I didn’t want him to feel stuck, and he didn’t let go. So I just relaxed, and I’ll bet we hugged for two solid minutes, maybe three. I thanked him and told him how much I needed to hear what he said, and my eyes filled with tears. Then I got shy and embarrassed and ducked back to my seat, but for the rest of the night I was held by him, and his words, and I felt better than I have in a very long time.

Joe is a host on Writing on the Air (here are his interviews), and he’s the director of the Austin International Poetry Festival. Here’s Joe in action, at Austin’s wonderful, wonderful independent book store Malvern Books, host of the poets protest and so many other wonderful events. He’s not as intense and passionate in this video as he was at the protest, but you get a feel for who he is.

That’s one thing I love about life. You can just be sitting there, expecting so little, and encounter someone who blows you over, envelopes you with love and acceptance and wonder, and you come away healed. I love that.

READ: I will just share some good thoughts and reading if you’re in the same general mindset I’m in this week, as we prepare for ….. ugh. Well, you know. Think about, remember, do these things:

  • “My existence requires no one’s permission.” (Joe Brundidge, beautiful Joe)
  • Someone at the poets protest said, “Aesthetically and philosophically, any poetry is against Trump.” No Republican president has ever had a poet at inauguration. Shocked? Nah.
  • “Don’t just sit there simulating a free person.” ~Austin poet Greg Liotta
  • When he takes the oath of office on Friday, January 19, you take the oath too. Take the oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution (against him and his swamp monsters).
    https://www.wall-of-us.org/taketheoath/
  • Here’s a list of 27 books every woman should read if they’re going to the women’s march or NOT. I’ve only read five, how can that be…..gotta get busy.
  • A pivot: Harvard’s photography courses are online, and free. If you complete all the modules, you get a certificate. The software they use is old (~2009, I think), but the basics of photography haven’t changed.

three things: 1/16/17

FEED: When I went to the Quiet Morning event at MoMA last week, I stood in front of this painting with an overflowing heart:

Henri Matisse
Dance (I)
Paris, Boulevard des Invalides, early 1909

For a few years in the 1990s, I felt like this painting kept me going, kept me able to imagine that life could be worth living, that life might again have happiness and joy, that one day I might actually want to dance. They were hard years, uprooting years, dream-wrenching years, and I had a print of this painting on my bedroom wall so I could see it when I felt the most despair. Looking at it today, I remember my shattered heart and how that felt, and I remember the agony I felt in the times I felt this painting made a promise that couldn’t be delivered in my life — and then the fragile times I thought perhaps it could, after all. And now, the simple happiness I can feel in the wake of those years, to have survived them and to have danced. Whether you need hope, or know joy, this painting is a gift.

Here’s the gallery note for this painting: “In March 1909, Matisse received a commission from the Russian merchant Sergei Shchukin for two large decorative panels, Dance and Music (now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). This painting was made quickly as a compositional study for Dance, which was intended to hang on the landing of a staircase, approached from the lower right. This may be why the lower figure leans into the painting, increasing the sense of movement, and why the figure at left is so large, slowing it. Drawing visible beneath the paint shows that Matisse started with two smaller figures where the large figure is now.”

SEED: I want to talk about little-b bravery because I have been thinking about courage/bravery my whole life. (And in fact, one of the characters tattooed on my back is ‘courage,’ and I wrote a memoir chapter about it, which required me to think very carefully about the idea, the experience.) And then, whaddya know, Emily McDowell went and created a whole line of pins for people who exhibit bravery in their daily lives. I have bought four of them, one for me, one for my daughter, and two for women friends, because I agree with her: so many of us do brave things that will never receive the kind of attention that big noisy brave acts receive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t brave acts. And that’s why I want to set “little-b bravery” as my focus here. The big-b Bravery is inspirational, aspirational, admirational, worthy of the kind of honor it receives — like John Lewis and his life-long fight for the civil rights and honor and dignity of black people in this country. It was a Brave act, walking over the Selma Bridge and in fact he was beaten and kicked quite terribly by Alabama State Troopers, who fractured his skull. He thought he was going to die, and he just kept going. There is no doubt that was a Brave act, and it’s also true that he continues to do Brave and brave acts every day, in his quiet, dogged persistence. I’ll probably never do anything in my life that approaches his degree of courage.

But I am brave. I have been brave in my life, and in fact most days it takes courage to keep going. My friend Nancy told me that the focus of my memoirs must be “what it is to live with it,” because I survived all the nightmares of my childhood, and in a way that was the easier part. (In a way.) Then, it was so often literally a matter of life and death, and that has a way of focusing things. But living with it all, living with the fallout, living with the consequences, living with the loneliness of it, the despair of it, well, that takes a lot of courage, and there are absolutely days that I don’t have enough courage. I do not keep a gun in my house for all the reasons, but the most pointed one is that I am afraid I will use it on myself. On Christmas Day, I was so overcome that if I’d had a gun, I would’ve walked into my back yard, sat on the rocks and just pulled the trigger. One minute, start to finish. My courage was too low that day, the despair too great. I’m so glad I didn’t have a gun.

But more days than anyone can imagine, I lie in bed when I first wake up and summon courage. I summon the courage to get up anyway. To live my life that day anyway. To find some kind of happiness, some bit of joy anyway. To be willing to be open to joy even though there are ways that continues to be hard. I do it — I seek happiness, I allow happiness, I welcome joy, but it’s a brave choice, most days. This isn’t even about depression, which I know too well; it’s about what it is to live with it. To have survived. To be the survivor.

And so the pin I bought myself says “I saved my own life.” That’s brave, and I might even argue that it’s Brave. (Probably not.) One of these days, when I have earned it, I’ll buy myself the one that says “Found My Voice.” My daughter survived unimaginable grief, and that’s brave. It’s so much easier to give up the game, fold up the cloth, disappear from life in all the ways we can do that — drinking too much, abandoning ourselves to whatever is our drug of choice (carbs, for me), withdrawing from the world, dissolving into hate and anger, abandoning people, as my son has done with his family who desperately love and miss him. So much easier. It’s brave to risk, to risk again, to risk loss, to risk hurt. To risk involvement. To risk connection. If that has never required bravery on your part, then you have had a lucky life, and I don’t begrudge it! You have your own ways of being brave, because I believe we all do — and so does Emily McDowell, as she acknowledges the dozens and dozens of ways we show up to life. The ways we show up anyway. The things we had to fight for and maybe still have to fight for every day. The things we survived. The things we live with, and live anyway. Like me, you are brave in your own ways, I’d bet my bottom dollar.

READ: I like to read about the process of writing, and in case you are a writer, you might like these links:

In a pretty low place right now. Pretty low.

I just like to share!

Through the terrible stress of this everlasting nightmare of our presidential election, I have relied on a number of ways of coping — some have been good, and some have NOT been so good. And I’ve been inconsistent in using the good ones, perhaps because the benefit isn’t immediate and my stress is begging for immediate relief (even though they help me more, and without causing trouble). Yoga, walking, cooking beautiful and healthy food, meditation, those have flickered in and out of use.

My less-good ways of coping have filled me with junk. Other stresses. And even though I know this, going in — as I eat another donut, or another BLOCK O’ CHEESE — I often feel completely unable to stop myself. In New York especially, since Marc keeps a fridge just about as opposite mine as possible, and since he makes things for me like gravlax, my stress eating is less good for me than when I’m in Austin. After I inhale a pound of cheese, let’s say, I feel very crappy (to say the least, and I’m trying to say the least, here).

Another way I’ve been dealing with this stress has been a constant consuming of social media. I am on Facebook non-stop, and while I am reading and responding to posts that present the same political position I share, and that help me feel less alone, it also keeps me stirred up. But it’s become a compulsion, an impossible-to-resist response to stress.

It’s also true that when I’m here in Austin, I sit alone in my house day in and day out. I will have a little social activity here or there, but I sit in silence all day and night, and without anyone else to interact with at all. And I like that! It’s not that I don’t like that. I really do, especially in the days after I’ve been in New York and feel overwhelmed by people and noise and non-stop interruptions. The silence and solitude are wonderful! AND again and again I’ll think about something, or read something, or see something, and turn to share it with…… ah, no one. There’s no one here. No one to say, “Hey, listen to this!” to. And so that’s another reason I hop onto Facebook. Wow, look at this. Hey, you won’t believe this! Ah, read this beautiful thing. Look. Listen. Read. Wow.

I’ve missed my blog. My absence from it has been due to a lot of reasons; I’m doing other writing, long-form writing, and trying to spend my time in that manuscript, and otherwise I’ve been kind of blanked-out with stress and fear. It occurred to me that I could help myself with two of these things in one fell swoop: Instead of machine gunning Facebook, I can collect the things I want to share with someone and put them in a post here. That will have the benefit of making them easier for me to find again, too. Aside from political stuff (which I will not share here because I just really need to avoid it all completely for my own sanity), the stuff I share will fall into the ordinary categories of things I share on Facebook: book recommendations, interesting articles, poetry, images, family stuff.

And so, here goes:

  • Do you know Hélène Cixous? I hadn’t heard of her until I read a quote about her by Lidia Yuknavitch, so I looked her up and now I must MUST read her. This quote seems especially relevant in the United States as we are teetering on the brink of living under a Christian Taliban: “But I am just a woman who thinks her duty is not to forget. And this duty, which I believe I must fulfill, is: “as a woman” living now I must repeat again and again “I am a woman,” because we exist in an epoch still so ancient and ignorant and slow that there is still always the danger of gynocide.” ― Hélène Cixous, The Book of Promethea
lidia
read Lidia.
  • The quote from Lidia Yuknavitch that sent me to Hélène Cixous was from The Chronology of Water, which I highly recommend: “With Hélène Cixous you must close your eyes and open your mouth. Wider. So open your throat opens. Your esophagus. Your lungs. Wider. So open your spine unclatters. Your hips swim loose. Your womb worlds itself. Wider. Open the well of your sex. Now speak your body from your other mouth. Yell corporeal prayer. This is writing.” WOW.
  • Have you ever read May Sarton? I’ve always wanted to and somehow never have, yet, but yesterday Sherlock sent Peggy and me this BrainPickings post about May Sarton and the use of anger in creativity. That’s a thing you hear, right? “Turn your anger towards your work.” Transform that energy into creation. I need to carefully read that piece and think about it, because I hope it has something for me. I am swamped by the experience of anger, overwhelmed by it, and often paralyzed by it. So when I feel it, I become scared that I’ll explode, that I’ll express it awfully, and often I do, and it’s just tough, and especially tough for women. I once asked members of my book club to write about a time they were angry (we were tentatively trying these writing sessions), and one member became absolutely enraged at my suggestion, saying she doesn’t get angry because it’s not useful. The time didn’t seem right to point out just how angry she was. 🙂 But I am in desperate need of learning how to manage anger! It’s my oldest lesson I have yet to learn, so I’m hoping the BrainPickings post and then reading some Sarton will help. Any words you might have on either Sarton or anger will be appreciated.
  • The idea of living in Australia or New Zealand has become kind of irresistible; a thread developed on a Facebook post by a friend who originally shared this video:

[embedplusvideo height=”450″ width=”640″ editlink=”http://bit.ly/2f42PPI” standard=”http://www.youtube.com/v/9v97xH6Bof0?fs=1″ vars=”ytid=9v97xH6Bof0&width=640&height=450&start=&stop=&rs=w&hd=0&autoplay=0&react=0&chapters=&notes=” id=”ep7574″ /]

[First…I mean, RIGHT????] One friend responded to the video by asking me what it’s like to live here right now, and in the ensuing conversation, I got invitations to move to all the major cities of Australia, with explanations of their great aspects, and a bunch of bids for life in NZ, which is not just gorgeous but is also lacking in snakes. 🙂 They were just so adorable, every last one, and every time I woke up during the night, mid-Trump-panic, reading that thread made me grin so hard.

  • Today’s poem: Carpe Diem, by Jim Harrison:

Night and day
seize the day, also the night —
a handful of water to grasp.
The moon shines off the mountain
snow where grizzlies look for a place
for the winter’s sleep and birth.
I just ate the year’s last tomato
in the year’s fatal whirl.
This is mid-October, apple time.
I picked them for years.
One Mcintosh yielded sixty bushels.
It was the birth of love that year.
Sometimes we live without noticing it.
Overtrying makes it harder.
I fell down through the tree grabbing
branches to slow the fall, got the afternoon off.
We drove her aqua Ford convertible into the country
with a sack of red apples. It was a perfect
day with her sun-brown legs and we threw ourselves
into the future together seizing the day.
Fifty years later we hold each other looking
out the windows at birds, making dinner,
a life to live day after day, a life of
dogs and children and the far wide country
out by rivers, rumpled by mountains.
So far the days keep coming.
Seize the day gently as if you loved her.

Happy Saturday, y’all! It’s going to be a great one for me — birthday lunch with a friend, and the lit crawl tonight with poetry group friends. Also: It’s my BIRTHDAY EVE YO! xoxoxoxo

TODAY"S PHOTO: Marnie is in Seattle to exhibit her new book, and she sent me this picture, note the caption. :)
TODAY”S PHOTO: Marnie is in Seattle to exhibit her new book, and she sent me this picture, note the caption. 🙂

TRUTH

“Leslie Marmon Silko whispers the story is long. No, longer. Longer than that even. Longer than anything. With Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath drink at the bar. Laugh the dark laughter in the dark light. Sing a dark drunken song of men. Make a slurry toast. Rock back and forth, and drink the dark, and bask in the wallow of women knowing what women know. Just for a night. When you need to feel the ground of your life and the heart of the world, there will be a bonfire at the edge of a canyon under a night sky where Joy Harjo will sing your bonesong. Go ahead—with Anne Carson—rebuild the wreckage of a life a word at a time, ignoring grammar and the forms that keep culture humming. Make word war and have it out and settle it, scattering old meanings like hacked to pieces paper doll confetti. The lines that are left … they are awake and growling. With Virginia Woolf there will perhaps be a long walk in a garden or along a shore, perhaps a walk that will last all day. She will put her arm in yours and gaze out. At your backs will be history. In front of you, just the ordinary day, which is of course your entire life. Like language. The small backs of words. Stretching out horizonless. I am in a midnight blue room. A writing room. With a blood red desk. A room with rituals and sanctuaries. I made it for myself. It took me years. I reach down below my desk and pull up a bottle of scotch. Balvenie. 30 year. I pour myself an amber shot. I drink. Warm lips, throat. I close my eyes. I am not Virginia Woolf. But there is a line of hers that keeps me well: Arrange whatever pieces come your way. I am not alone. Whatever else there was or is, writing is with me.” —Lidia Yuknavitch

words

I could use your thoughts, please

lidiaSo I was listening to this beautiful short series of free writing lectures by Lidia Yuknavitch, author of the gutting memoir Chronology of WaterHer writing is not like anyone else’s. I hadn’t read any of her books, only short stories here and there, but I had Chronology of Water on my Kindle and after seeing these lecture clips, I decided to read it finally.

W.O.W. I can only read the book in snips and sips, it’s pretty raw and powerful, and quite hard. She does a thing I’d give anything to do, in my own voice. I recommend the book, or anything else she has written.

In one of the lectures she talks about the central importance of our metaphors, and in finding the story underneath the story, and the one underneath that. She said that if you just tell the story you’ve always told, it will be dead, and she provided a really great exercise that I’m dying to try. But in her conversation about metaphor, she said she’d shared an early draft of Chronology of Water with a trusted reader and she asked for deep feedback. Among the feedback, the reader mentioned that Lidia’s central metaphor was water, which she simply had not realized . . . even though a huge part of the story is her early life as an athlete, a competitive swimmer, and her return to swimming, and her feelings of drowning, and on and on and on. Realizing her central metaphor was a crystallizing and powerful thing, not just for her book but for her understanding of herself, and her life.

She said everyone operates with a few metaphors, and she named a couple of others that echo through her stories and her life. I thought it was fascinating that she couldn’t see her own most central metaphor, but at the same time I totally get it. Fish don’t see the water!

I do have a sense of one big metaphor in my life (by which I mean a metaphor that I see in my recurring experiences — it’s my storytelling, not something that exists in a reified way in my life), but I wondered about others. And since sometimes other people can see you more clearly than you see yourself, I thought I’d ask. If you’ve been around the palace for a while, what would you say are my metaphors? I’ll welcome any thoughts you may have.

And if you’re interested in Lidia (an interest that will be so rewarding, you’ll see), here’s her TED talk about being a misfit:

Lidia Yuknavitch: The beauty of being a misfit

To those who feel like they don't belong: there is beauty in being a misfit. Author Lidia Yuknavitch shares her own wayward journey in an intimate recollection of patchwork stories about loss, shame and the slow process of self-acceptance. "Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful," she says.

Thanks, y’all.

4. Pay Attention to the World

coverThis is topic #4 in my year-long project, drawn from this post on Brain Pickings. Topic #1 focused on cultivating honest relationships, #2 was about experiencing what is actually happening, #3 was about being patient and loving the questions, and this one is about paying attention to the world, taking a close read of Susan Sontag’s lecture titled “At the Same Time: The Novelist and Moral Reasoning” which was collected in an anthology called At the Same TimeIf you want to read the chapter, I found it online, so click here for the pdf.

Of course if anyone is going to advise you to pay attention to the world and carry any authority on the topic, it would be Susan Sontag. Whether you agreed with everything she said or not, few would argue that she brought her quite fierce intelligence to the world and changed the way so many people thought about the topics she discussed. Camp. Photography. Illness. She shaped so much of the discourse about those subjects.

So, to begin, here is the relevant excerpt from the Brain Pickings post:


Reflecting on a question she is frequently asked — to distill her essential advice on writing — Sontag offers:

I’m often asked if there is something I think writers ought to do, and recently in an interview I heard myself say: “Several things. Love words, agonize over sentences. And pay attention to the world.”

Needless to say, no sooner had these perky phrases fallen out of my mouth than I thought of some more recipes for writer’s virtue.

For instance: “Be serious.” By which I meant: Never be cynical. And which doesn’t preclude being funny.

But these tenets of storytelling, Sontag argues, aren’t just writerly virtues — they are a framework for human virtues:

To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.

To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.

When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.

The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.

But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.


These ideas are offered to writers, but importantly they are extended outward to everyone — a framework for human virtues. The chapter presents a speech Sontag gave in one of her last public appearances, a tremendous lecture on South African Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer, which Sontag delivered shortly before her death in 2004. Gordimer, whose work dealt with moral and racial issues, especially apartheid, said:

Bannings and banishments are terrible known hazards a writer must face, and many have faced, if the writer belongs where freedom of expression, among other freedoms, is withheld, but sometimes creativity is frozen rather than destroyed. A Thomas Mann survives exile to write a Dr Faustus; a Pasternak smuggles Dr Zhivago out of a ten-year silence; a Solzhenitsyn emerges with his terrible world intact in the map of The Gulag Archipelago

The greater context, then, of Sontag’s comments exists squarely in the concerns of writers and alongside Gordimer’s — but her thoughts do have relevance for those of us whose days and quotidian concerns are smaller than Presenting the Political Reality of X. When I first saw the ‘resolution’ “pay attention to the world” I thought the point was to be aware of people and worlds beyond our own. But that’s the easy bit, whether and how well we do that. The harder part, and the element that I’d like to adopt as one of the ‘resolutions’ from this project, involves Sontag’s comments about deciding what the story IS. This is important.

You do this in your own life, and so do I. I take an extremely complicated and complex world and say “this is what happened.” Or “this is the part that matters.” Or “you/I are this.” Or “you/I did that.” We make those pronouncements with such great ease we don’t even think about what we’ve done — or rather, I do that. I don’t know about you. I’m a pronouncement-maker. A decider. A summarizer. This is. That was. You are. We are. They aren’t. I am. I’ve actually thought and written about this a lot, with a variety of shadings, but I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about the moral implications of the pronouncements. She’s right. As soon as we isolate a story, it collects weight as a thing. As a true thing, or at least as a mostly true thing. I wrote this at the end of 2012, and I think it’s relevant here:

So basically, the deal is this: the landscape in front of you, and all around you, is full of more stories and information than you can absorb. Hell, we humans can’t even see beyond the light spectrum we have identified. Our rods and cones do a fantastic job, but they only pick up a little bit of the available information. And then when you add all the human bits, the motivations (what is, and what we think is, and what the other people think is), the drives and longings and urges and agendas, well: infinitely complex. And it’s all right there, happening. We want to make sense of it, so we rely on our feeble little minds, and our pet little stories,* and we say “this is what IS.” But the truth is that there are so very many ways we could see and say what IS, versions that completely contradict the story we choose to tell, versions that go with ours but obliquely, and versions that are kind of similar. And then there’s chunking — where we decide to start the story. I start the story where Person X wronged me, so my behavior is merely a response to that. But of course Person X starts the same story at the point where I wronged him or her. Same set of events, wildly different story (cf  Israel and Palestine).

Cambodia: 1175 column inches. Timor: 70 column inches. Oh? You don't know about what we did in East Timor? THERE YOU GO.
Cambodia: 1175 NYT column inches.
Timor: 70 NYT column inches.
Oh? You don’t know about what we did in East Timor? THERE YOU GO.

The media has a moral obligation to take this much more seriously — it looks like they are reporting on what’s happening, but of course they’re telling us what to pay attention to. By making a huge thing out of a topic they’re telling us it’s a Big Deal (and so….the Kardashians?), but more disturbing, by not paying attention to a topic they remove it from our understanding of the world, unless we are diligent about digging for ourselves. We have to know about the existence of something to learn that we need to go investigate it, so their power is potent. Noam Chomsky’s famous example of the NYTimes coverage of the Khmer Rouge vs their coverage of the US-funded and supported atrocities in East Timor — both horrors happening at the same time — makes this point exactly.

Even for “regular” people, I don’t think Sontag would be satisfied with a passive endorsement of her position — well, just remember this — but instead I think she would deem it to be an active moral stance. Be vigilant! Pay attention to the world and embrace your moral responsibility by thinking carefully about how you identify the story being played out! That makes me a little bit tired, and a little bit grateful that I don’t hold a position on any global stage — or even national, or even state-wide, or even county-wide, or even city-wide, or even neighborhood — but I think there is something I can take away for myself:

Don’t be lazy. Don’t mindlessly accept the world as it is storied for me, and when I tell a story of any kind, never forget what a big thing I am doing. I am being a Creator, speaking a whole world into being and endowing it with truth and reality.

In this project, I’m also interested in thinking about how the various ‘resolutions’ go together, if only because 16 is a lot to hang onto. I can actually see a melding of this with the first three, can you? Be honest about yourself and what’s happening, and don’t rush to an answer. The story you will tell can be world-changing or defining. So far, all four of these topics dwell in the importance of complexity — acknowledging it, experiencing it, being patient with it, resisting a quick and simple version, and incorporating the complexity in the telling.

So to date, my understanding of the four ‘resolutions’ I’ve been thinking about is:

  1. Cultivate honest relationships.
  2. Experience what is actually happening.
  3. Be patient, and live and love the questions.
  4. The stories you choose to tell have great moral weight.

I’m very interested in your thoughts on these topics, if you have any to share. Maybe you see the topic very differently — or you entered it at a different place, or left it somewhere else. My own biases direct me in a predetermined way, but I very much want to think about these things so I’d love to hear your thoughts if you wish to share.

And now I’m off to topic #5, “make room for fruitful monotony,” which will take me to Bertrand Russell’s chapter called “Boredom and Excitement” in The Conquest of HappinessI doubt I’ll be too bored. I’m wondering if this topic will sit easily with the first four, or if it’ll veer off into its own topic.

p.s. If you’re interested, here’s a talk Sontag gave at the 92nd St Y: