And this year has not been off to the best start. A lag, and a rush, and dealing with new realities.
I read today about – was it Seneca? – who admonished people for waiting until 50 or 60 to begin living life intentionally. And there was something about focusing on being present, not on accomplishments. Of course, the people telling us this have all accomplished enough to say such a thing.
With a straight face.
I arrived in London on the 23rd of December, and ran down the escalators at every tube station. We ran 17K on Christmas Eve, and I woke up with runner’s knee on Christmas morning – only to bicycle across London to see the boys anyway. Now, two weeks and one painful New Year’s run later, it’s clear there will be no marathon for me in February. It’s a blow to my confidence.
And not the only blow to my confidence this month. There are work issues, other health issues. There is aging, which is probably somehow related to both.
There was a storm. And I find that I’ve let myself slip into an unproductive/objective (not present) perspective.
I’m behind in my correspondence.
Today I prodded E. to head out for a hike. (Another thing on my holiday to-do list was to get a new winter hiking jacket. Not done. After 20 minutes, my coat was soaked through. Thank goodness for wool.)
We headed out to Synesvarden, which seemed like an ironic name for the spot today. White: a 360 degree view of white. We take what life brings us. Today, it came a few meters at a time. The cold-stiff orange and yellow tussocks, the granite rocks that might be coated with ice. Shadows that grow into figures that mumble or holler, “good day” as they pass.
There was a dog barking somewhere in the forest, and we circled back to find her. But she went silent.
Isn’t there a culture that conceptualizes the future as something that comes at us from behind to overtake us? Maybe they are the only ones to have it right. All this planning, all the mirages we see ahead of us. The clump of earth that should be frozen, but that rushes suddenly from behind to slip into the present, under your foot, in the form of soft and giving mud. And there you have it: the irretraceable moment that is a wet sock.
There have been bright moments. Moments that shine a bit, like glassy eyes after half-a-bottle of wine. And I keep telling myself this will pass. This grief. Because that is what this is. It seems by body understood it long before my mind caught up to see what the problem was.
There is more to this new challenge: the surrender of ambition, the letting go of childhood dreams that were based on values that I may have never fully accepted, and don’t accept now. Fears can stand in the way, no doubt, but fear can also deflect the original aim of an ambition.
“Because we didn’t get enough love of children.” That is probably more of a paraphrase than a quote, from a fiction character in a musical.
There is that moment. When you get to the brink of where you deliberately headed, and you realise: this isn’t at all what I really want.
Coddiwomple: to wander purposefully towards a vague destination.
It’s time to admit it: to live intentionally doesn’t have to involve ambition. There is purpose in being in the moment, in being in the white with wet socks, and mist in your eyelashes.
Your write about not being able to sleep – and of course, wouldn’t it be that now I’m sleeping far too much. 10 hours most nights. I’m trying to give up looking for reasons or explanations. Unsure whether to give in entirely, or fight it: force myself out of bed on time to write and run before work. I’m not feeling myself.
So much darkness. In the mornings, I walk to the train in the pre-dawn half-dark, and after work I walk home again in the dark. Today I had E.’s car and drove home in the sunset. A layer of landscape, a layer of blue, jet streams low near the horizon, under pink stratus clouds. Above those, white cirrus clouds – like scattered feathers left by some mythical beast that must have been galavanting across the sky while I was inside the black box all afternoon.
Black box, as in black box theatre. I teach movement twice a week. I think you knew that. It’s a nice break from theatre history and production. It keeps me humble – and paranoid enough to force myself out of bed for a run – on most mornings.
There are days I envy you getting to work from home. Except I think I’m too introverted for that to work out well. I tried briefly when the boys were small and I got to the point where I wouldn’t go outside to check the mailbox. I feared I would stop changing clothes eventually. I believe my nature is too much like the inanimate objects of the universe: at rest unless acted upon, in motion until stopped. This time of year I need a good, solid shove.
I had to give up on the script I was planning to write. I contacted the author of the work I was going to base it on, and she has already sold the rights to a “major motion picture company”. I’m comforting myself with the reassurance that I can spot a good story.
Did I ever tell you about my novel? Everyone drinks coffee. That is, in nearly every scene people are drinking coffee. Or wine. It is really kind of awful. There is a drunken sex scene. Fade to the morning after. He is drinking coffee alone. The children don’t drink coffee, though. They do stuff. Maybe I should write a novel about children. Except I’m not terribly fond of children.
Seriously, I learned a lot from writing the novel that’s stashed in my drawer. But I’m still not sure why I wanted to tell the story. That story. Do you think about things like that? I even killed off the character most like me in the prologue to be sure I wouldn’t be telling the wrong story. Is thinking like that going to save me from unwittingly exposing a horrible truth about myself? Or is it simply self-sabatoge parading in pschyobabble?
It is odd that I thought you would have a reference for The Little Engine that Could. I don’t think of you as an American. Or even as an Englishman much. It is odd, isn’t it? How we are both tethered to, and out-of-touch with culture(s). I have been feeling that a lot lately. Not only the America/Norway thing, but which America?
By the way – The Little Engine That Could is probably one of the most evil children’s books ever written in that it convinces children that if they just try hard enough they can accomplish whatever they put their minds to. It’s the book Willy Loman (theater reference, sorry) read as a kid, I’m sure. It’s why the old, unemployed salesman winds up a suicidal wreck – but for all his self-confidence and positive thinking. I think Americans are brought up to be self-flaggelators at the alter of that particular secular superstition.
I wrote last time about banging pots and pans and getting ready for Christmas. I haven’t done that. I guess by now, from the tone of this letter, that is pretty obvious. I did pull out the Pete Seeger Christmas CD set. And as I typed that sentence, as though he’d read my mind, E. lit the candles here on the table. Now he is eating a cookie. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. He is definitely not reading my mind now. Marriage. It is all about balance, isn’t it?
A famous novelist (I will tell you who later) – a feminist of sorts from a country with few of them – had two pieces of advice for me. 1. Find a partner who loves you more than you love them. 2. Get a wife.
So, ignoring the first bit of advice, which I just find very, very sad: yes. I wish I could hire a “wife”. There is a pile of laundry downstairs. And last week we had a couple over for dinner. It did not go well. The chicken wasn’t cooked properly, and when I stuck all the food on the table “family style”, they looked at it, and then at me like I was asking them to eat with plastic sporks. E. didn’t pour the wine in the glasses, just handed the bottle around.
I figure: we had a lovely evening, all four of us – and if I judge right: they won the competition for best host and hostess. That makes them feel good, right? That is a good deed.
And besides, if I could carve a chicken and delicately place it on a plate without it landing in someone’s lap, I would have made better tips as a waitress, probably not held out algebra to graduate college, never moved to Norway… it is all part of the big plan that requires no positive thinking: merely creative rationalization. Life is good.
And although neither E nor I have a “wife”, the tree will be put up… eventually. The halls will be decked. Tomorrow evening we are going to a friend’s annual Christmas sildefest, which is always so much fun. We’ll walk downtown and see the Christmas lights around the harbour first. H’s wife is a singer and choir director, so there is always music. Six different kinds of herring, and laughter.
It will be the shove I need.
Much love to you and M. and the family.
May you get a good night’s sleep soon. (And I have an eye out for the music).
This week has been difficult. I believe I’m having a little emotional relapse. I’m having a difficult time accepting the world we live in. But I am going to leave that there for now. Instead I’ll write about one of those moments you try to catch. Mental snapshots. Has poetry, and the drive to write poetry, always been just Instagram with words?
Only far less popular? (That is as profound as I am going to get this morning.)
The old lady is here again this week. Last night I took her for a walk around the block. My rain clothes are black, and there are sections of the neighborhood with very poor lighting. Strange how the rain allows asphalt to swallow all the light. I wear an LED headlamp on nights like this. And every time I exhale, I watch a cloud form in front of me. There are glimmers of blue and red in the light of the headlamp. It becomes very meditative: watching the cloud form again and again. Only, instead of thinking about peace and the effortlessness of a Buddhist life, I think about the Little Engine that Could and how it seems every moment is a struggle against stillness. Life itself a disruption, the workhorse of a universe that would much rather remain at rest.
No wonder I feel tired this morning.
Your friend is probably right. Maybe it is this time of year that we should be pulling out the pots and pans, and banging them with wooden spoons like angry nisse? Lighting candles. It has been a rough week. I think I said that. But it has also been a week that demands that I put things in context. In a larger context. And be grateful.
A few years ago a colleague and I traveled abroad with the students. When we returned we talked about how difficult they had been. How they had complained the entire week, had been negative and demanding. Slowly, while we talked over a glass of wine, we came to the realization that it had been a single student – one of thirty – who had actually been difficult. We had just given him so much space in our awareness. We had allowed him to color the trip for us. And, as a consequence, and in turn, we had probably colored the trip for the other students.
I have been having to pull up that lesson this week. It’s like when I was 8 and ate a strawberry with a worm in it. It was years before I ate another strawberry. I used to love strawberries. I still approach them with caution. I have you ever eaten raw a worm? It tastes nothing like a strawberry. Should be easy really not to associate the two in my mind by now. To untangle it.
I suppose expectations matter, too, don’t they? When we expect people to be completely honest and we encounter lies of omission it’s all the more painful. I think those are the worst kinds of lies because the person on the receiving end is complicit. Who are we to assume the world is as we wish it to be? Especially when it comes to other people. At least at my age, I cannot say anyone has shaken my faith in human beings, or influenced the way I choose to interact with them. It’s more like one of those slow-motion scenes where you step where you knew you shouldn’t have, your foot goes through the ice and you realize, while it is plunging ankle-deep into the water, that you knew better and hadn’t been paying attention. You limp home, pushing down the bile of self-reproach. (Oh my, that was purple).
So it’s a purple morning.
Funny this about lies of omission relates loosely to Bee Bones (which I finished last night). I won’t say more. I read an aquaintence’s novel (NYT Bestseller) and had wanted to write on facebook about how it is a contemporary version of Anna Karenina. That would have ruined it for many. I won’t ruin Bee Bones for anyone. I enjoyed it. Again. I suppose I could say it puts a real twist in the “road trip” genre.
The old lady is lying here in the bibliotekette. Snoring softly. She hasn’t licked her paw this morning and I wonder if it will be already to let her be without the cone while I’m at work today. Last night she walked through the kitchen and knocked over several potted plants. Poor thing. I guess it isn’t really connected to her being so old. Puppies have a difficult time with plastic headgear, too, but I get the feeling that she is ashamed because she expects better of herself.
Rereading, I do believe all of that in the last paragraph was more an exercise in projection than an actual digression. Apropos self-analysis through an examination of one’s own writing (ie the subconscious at work) that we were talking about.
Switching gears: and back to your letter. Birthdays. I have this fear that I will forget my kids’ birthdays. In May, for example, I will get panicky that I have let something slip by (both were born in the fall). I actually get a jolt of electricity running through my arms at the thought. I have no idea if there is some psychological explanation for what is going on, but I harbor this fear as deeply as I do the fear of car accidents, or late night phone calls. And, now, what if I forget my wedding anniversary? E. Is such a romantic. He’d be hurt. Even with google calendar, I “misremembered” my doctor’s appointment this week. I scheduled simultaneous activities. I had to reschedule a chiropractor appointment three times this week because I forgot about work obligations.
I would worry, but this isn’t new.
You know when you have those perfect moments you wish could last forever? This has been such a weekend.
I think we should both write a short story about being caught in the perfect moment forever. I have a feeling it would be hell for me. Like being stuck in Sarte’s hotel room with no eyelids, no blinking, no respite. Wouldn’t it be like eating cake for breakfast, cake for luch and cake for dinner? We need our conflicts. Or I do.
I bet bacon is a good remedy for marispan overload.
Now sure what exactly is a remedy for purple prose, though.
I should get to work. Should write a poem or two.
Much love to you! (Thank you for Bee Bones.)
P.S. Have been having trouble sleeping the past weeks, so I thought I would sleep better if I skip the wine on weeknights. It seems to help. Damn it.
I hope that this letter finds you recuperating from the dentistry work, and feeling better in general.
This time of year is so difficult to push through isn’t it? I have to dig deep to find an energy source. I leave for my day job in the dark; head home in the dark. It’s no wonder I feel disconnected from the days, and time itself. I wonder if anyone is actually energized in the Advent season? Or is that why it was invented? A way to force us out of bed and complacency with an obligation to dig out the Christmas lights from the attic to put them in the windowsill (so the neighbors don’t think you’re a lazy Scrooge), and make gift lists, debating which trinket will make another person happy?
Our lights aren’t in the window yet. (Although the door wreath is up, and I have begun a mental list.) I’m also getting some work done: The latest podcast is up, and I’m making progress on other projects. (I’m shortlisted for a performance collaboration in London, so I hope you’ll keep your fingers crossed for me.)
I’m having trouble concentrating. As I type this, I think about a conversation I had yesterday with a student who is struggling with the same thing. I talked to her about recognizing when to push back at the world, and when to relax, gather strength; and to never beat oneself up for not being perfect. Now my own advice comes back to me with a wink. This seems to happen a lot. This kind of synchronicity can either strike me in completely narcissistic terms – believing everything in the universe is designed to be a personal message for me – or it can open me to the fact that I am in no way unique, and that I’m completely blind in terms of my own weaknesses… and wisdoms. I’m ashamed to say I often have to remind myself of the latter. I so easily slip into magical thinking. For comfort, really, not out of narcissm.
And speaking of magical thinking: according to the podcast I was listening to, there have to be rules. Otherwise there would be no conflict: magic could potentially solve every situation. So, aside from dealing with time-travel paradoxes, there would be no drama if everything were possible. Each magic universe still needs consistent rules. No rules, no conflict. No conflict, no growth, I suspect.
It’s beginning to sound like I think that a tendency towards moral reasoning is built into our brain structure? Or maybe not. Maybe it just our need to rationalize (be rewarded for) suffering? Have you read much Eastern literature? From what I understand, there is no moral fine print to their stories. At least in terms of horror stories. In the West, the ghosts and demons target the corrupted or confused; but in the East, those hauntings are arbitrary. There is no reason for the haunting, it just is. They don’t rationalize evil.
I wonder if that is just their post-WW2 Absurdism? I wonder if that is where our stories will go now. Has the average person in the West finally, subconsciously, given in to radical existentialism?
I wrote an article for a magazine a few years ago about how superheroes are no longer challenged morally. For example, when Toby Maguire’s Spiderman saves the day, he is also unmasked (accidently) and people on the subway see him. Fame. Reward. I always thought that the whole point with those superhero disguises was that it was proof that they were doing what was right because it was right, not because they would be rewarded. Spiderman even got the girl in that rendition of the story. Remember the Superman films of the 70s? He lost the girl. Sacrificed. Because our basic story is still built on Christian mythologoy. Or was.
I am all for morally ambiguous characters and stories. But is that all we have now? And if it is all we have, have we lost the framework conflict? That is, have we lost sight of a moral norm? If so, there is not moral ambiguity, only moral irrelevance. It all is becomes Jean Genet’s game of: “I’ll play the bad guy, so you can play the good guy.” And then we lose the framework the dichotomy game all together. It is a lot like a magic universe with no rules: kind of pointless. No arc. No meaning.
Can you tell I have reached the time of year where I cover the 50s and 60s in Theater History? Every year I seem to circle back to another superficial look at the meaning of life.
You wrote about your “mild depression”: “But the last thing I want to do is to have the energy and the words cured away. Because, truthfully, that would be death.”
I’m always reluctant to define depression. But for me, there is a difference between melancholy and depression. I define it where it tips into what you describe as “death”: where the energy and words are gone. Depression (for me) isn’t an emotion, it is a lack of emotion. An emptiness. It isn’t sadness, anger or even despair. It is the point of numbness. Sometimes therapy has meant getting back in touch with the pain.
I remember when I was very little, lying in bed and thinking about the universe and trying to wrap my head around infinity. How the solar system was a shoe box, but then outside that shoe box was the universe, and a bigger shoe box. And another, even bigger shoe box. And it just continued, each box darker and emptier – until I was so far away from the light that I felt nothing. Nothing mattered. Untethered already at the age of 6.
That was depression, even then. Makes me melancholy to think about it.
“Writing as a quest for redemption”. I think you’re onto something there. Before one needs redemption, a quest for meaning, for wish-fullfilment? I am not sure about original sin, but yeah – I do think sometimes that I was born with shame. (Wait. Is that proof I’m not a narcissist? Or is that proof I’m not a sociopath?)
Is writing an attempt to create a parrallel life? I wrote a short story in high school (I remember because it won an award, and I was disappointed when my mother was utterly unimpressed). It was about woman who sought out her biological father, only to find him a lonely old man, working as a clown at a circus. It was only thirty or so years later that I realized the story was about my desire to track down my father. I swear that was not on my mind when I wrote it. Clearly, it was in it. Today, I find it sadly funny to think what my mother must have made of the story.
I had an ex-boyfriend who read a copy of mixed states and told me that it made his wife uncomfortable since so much of it was about my relationship with him. I was so confused. I have no idea which part of the book was about him. I wonder if, thirty years from now, I’ll see it, too? Maybe it is just the fact that we just repeat our mistakes so often everyone we know recognises us in them?
Do people’s readings of the “layers” of Dead Men cause you to ask yourself what is going on in your subconscious? Do you find yourself looking to your novels to understand yourself better?
Is Ice Child melancholy? Have you returned to it yet? Do you think it will be infused with political undertones because of what you are passionate about these days?
This weekend I’m reading Bee Bones again. E. and I talked about reading The Failed Assassin together. We are still considering what awkwardness might ensue were we to begin thinking too hard about who wrote it and all, though.
Yeah. That maybe shouldn’t be a sentence for public consumption. Then again, you wrote an erotic novel and put your name on it.
And I admire you for it.
E. has lit a fire downstairs and I’m heading down with wine and frozen grapes. We’ll try to find a film we can compromise on. You boys and your battles scenes. (You do know, though, that all women my age are really just into HP because of Snape, right?)
Much love to you and M. I hope the weekend is a lovely long luxurious birthday celebration for her.
All these strange connections when one lets the subconscious bubble them up. I’m very certain that, were I not a poet, I would be one of those conspiracy theorists connecting Atlantis to the Bermuda Triangle, and to the disappeared women of Juarez. I’ve read that this is actually what creative people have in common with the mentally disordered: loose associations. Why there is likely much overlapping between the two groups.
First, what is a little coincidence, a digression, and a bit of proof that you and E have so much in common: last Saturday E picked out The Cursed Child as a Father’s Day gift. He hasn’t started it yet. (He just finished Unbroken, which he says was a much better book than film). You’ll have to let me know what you think. I probably won’t read it. K. told me that all the rules regarding magic that were established in the Harry Potter books, are broken. I hate to start a book with a bad attitude.
So. Yes. The “repeating myself” thing. I do that. I absolutely do that. And when I read that, I remembered a poem in mixed states called “On Not Repeating Myself”, which is about just that.
And the thing is, when I looked the poem up, I find it’s riddled with connections to our correspondence. In fact, the last stanza is:
I gave her the key
to the box
with all your letters.
(Your letter arrived yesterday and when I am finished here, it will go in the light blue box on the shelf in the library – with the others.)
The poem begins with the old lady, but she’s still a puppy. And then there is the “hip” Anti-Christ as an infant (yeah, I am reaching here but these days it feels relevant…). And then there is a mention of one of my recurring “ghosts”, this one perched at the foot of my bed (she is the one who has the key, by the way).
I think I’ve done nothing but repeat myself in some kind of Hegelian spiral my entire life. Or at least I hope it is more a spiral, than it is a puppy chasing her own tail.
I saw the shrink yesterday. It’s a relief to know I’m not mad. And I feel a bit like Sheldon saying, “My mom had me tested”.
And I think I’ve reabsorbed all my ghosts again – for now. Even the one “in cartoon prison garb” that I mention in that poem. She told me to keep writing.
The shrink also told me that, and then the rest of the day, I couldn’t write a thing. Like you, I find this whole political climate alienating. I thought that we would see an apocalypse. A sudden clash of extremes, and instead we have these horrors coming in “on little cat feet” like Sandburg’s fog. Part of me is relieved. And I’m deeply ashamed of that.
Already here in Norway the extreme right has been emboldened. Well. Perhaps. It could also be that the media now has sought them out, and is giving them attention. There is a fine, and messy line between uncovering the hate, and “ufarligjøring” it. I still can’t find a good English word for that. Everyone is saying “normalising”. I guess that is technically correct, but it doesn’t sound as dangerous in English, does it? We shine a light on what we find repulsive until we can actually tolerate it. Until we do tolerate it. Until we shrug, and seek out the ever-more outrageous news stories that will trigger a inexplicably pleasurable surge of hormones. It is supply and demand. I read that the President electoral -Elect pointed out to CNN how much money he made them this last year. We are a self-fulfilling prophecy of self-loathing and schadenfreude. And greed.
Last week I posted something to my students – I wanted them to see a possible indication of a parallel between Stalin’s suppression (and execution) of Meyerhold, and Trump’s tweet which attempted to define the role of the artist in his America. Some of them expressed concern, and I then tried to comfort them. I meant well, but wondered if I was just fanning the flames.
You know, I don’t take periodic breaks from Facebook because what is there upsets me, as much as because what is there affects me: I find myself on witch hunts of sorts, filled with anger and looking for opportunities to justify it. It is a kind of mob mentality, isn’t it? And yet…
Struggling to find my role here, as a white, cis-gendered ex-patriot (sic.) – I don’t have “boots on the ground” and I need to find a way to be supportive without appropriating, and to do my best to stop the spread of this… well: evil. I know you are doing your part.
All this seems to bring me back to Harry Potter. There is a podcast called Imaginary Worlds. The last episode I listened to talked about JK Rolling’s work with Amnesty and the empathy-effect of literature, especially the theme of racism in the Potter series. They talked about the werewolf Greyback as an analogy for homosexuality, but I had been thinking all along it was an analogy for bipolar disorder.
At any rate, I was thinking how one could view the whole series as another dystopic story. Albeit one with a bizarrely happy ending. I think it would be kind of funny if The Cursed Child made Harry out to be a kind of Walter Mitty. Full circle dystopia to status quo. What if it were all a daydream?
I think this is just me trying to comfort myself.
It sort of drifts back toward what we were talking about: giving in to what is difficult: the cold, the harshness. And your warning of how that kind of giving in can lead to giving up, accepting, euphoria and death. I guess I could avoid calling it “a test of manhood” – but the fact is, most women give birth and that is a test of womanhood in these old stories and traditions. Seems men in these stories battle nature from without their bodies, women from within.
Though I suppose in the end we all figure out that our own bodies are nature. When we no longer recognise ourselves in the mirror, and our limbs no longer do the things we will them to as quickly, as smoothly.
A lot of people say that old people turn to religion because they fear death and long for a distinction between body and soul -to comfort themselves. But what if it is just a recognition that becomes impossible not to see as one ages?
Nah. I guess I don’t really believe that. It’s probably just a lack of attention. We should do more like your acupuncturist suggests: eat and do nothing else, pay attention to the food, to our teeth, to our swallowing. We would probably know ourselves better and recognise our nature.
Maybe if we did, we would recognise and do something about the baser sides of ourselves? The self-loathing, and the schadenfreude? The greed.
I opened the last remaining bottle of red from my birthday stash tonight. A wonderful Barolo. I don’t know who gave it to me, but I’m grateful. It takes the edge off. It puts me in a forgiving state of mind.
Let’s hope it doesn’t kill me.
It helps to know you aren’t shrugging and giving up.