When I told the story (well, let’s face it – it wasn’t so much a story as it was the airing of a grievance) of a colleague challenging me (a self-proclaimed grammarian) on adjectival-phrase hyphenation, oddly, it was the first time he had heard the word “grammarian”.
Something I hate and try not to do but catch myself doing too much is starting sentences with “S/he was one of those people who…”.
There is nothing lazier, less descriptive, more general and generic than lumping everyone together, especially when trying to nail down with some precision the nuance or detail that makes that person who s/he is, whether you love or hate him.
I try to move outside these lazy generalizations and even into different descriptive territory. Not too long ago, for example, I wrote about someone who was like a fruit fly to me, and elaborated on why.
Later, I felt that the same person is a lot like a tiny, live frog, trapped in a bag of fresh salad. Every so often, I’ve read a news story here in Sweden about someone opening a ready-to-eat bag of greens, only to witness a little frog, still alive, hop out. Me, I’d find this horrifying (the companies selling these frog-laden salads claim that live frogs prove the freshness of their goods…). In comparing a person to these frogs, though, I isolate certain aspects of the individual’s personality: living in a confined, non-reality, oblivious to the fact that she does not belong there and that that environment is inherently unhealthy and won’t lead her anywhere. She may die there.
When some unsuspecting consumer opens the bag, and she – this oblivious frog – jumps out, she is unwelcome and terrifies the person holding the bag. This can’t be happening! Even if it’s a fascinating and strange curiosity, that fascination lasts only for the briefest moment. This uninvited, intrusive guest must go.
Another one of those aimless, sprawling collections of thoughts, quotations, snippets floating freely in my brain … all on the vast topic of writing and reading. Thinking about how ideas come to fruition and lead to a story or a storytelling spree of some kind. I know I am doing little more than collecting a bunch of random quotations and thoughts – not doing anything particularly creative myself, and certainly not weaving together a story. But I am, as I write about below, creating new links and networks in my brain… which I guess is part of my process (also noted below).
“In the place of the ever-changing cloud that we carried in our heads until the other day, the condensing and dispersal of which we attempted to understand by describing impalpable psychological states and shadowy landscapes of the soul—in the place of all this we now feel the rapid passage of signals on the intricate circuits that connect the relays, the diodes, the transistors with which our skulls are crammed. Just as no chess player will ever live long enough to exhaust all the combinations of possible moves for the thirty-two pieces on the chessboard, so we know (given the fact that our minds are chessboards with hundreds of billions of pieces) that not even in a lifetime lasting as long as the universe would one ever manage to make all possible plays.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino
To write is to embrace a certain freedom and break free from constraints you did not even know were there. Sometimes to write is to buckle down and find your way. Free to write our stories, or some story, we have to find the way to do it – and seize the freedom that allows us to… even if, as Calvino cautions, we shall never live long enough to make ‘all possible plays’.
This can be a considerable enterprise, depending on how you experience writing, the process of writing and creativity. And the how you do it does not even begin to touch the why.
The write way
For some, writing is like giving difficult birth, laborious, long and painful. Or like a marathon, tapping into the reserves of the entire being while also still being a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other exercise.
“Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor. It doesn’t involve heavy lifting, running fast, or leaping high. Most people, though, only see the surface reality of writing and think of writers as involved in quiet, intellectual work done in their study. If you have the strength to lift a coffee cup, they figure, you can write a novel. But once you try your hand at it, you soon find that it isn’t as peaceful a job as it seems. The whole process—sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track—requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine. You might not move your body around, but there’s grueling, dynamic labor going on inside you. Everybody uses their mind when they think. But a writer puts on an outfit called narrative and thinks with his entire being; and for the novelist that process requires putting into play all your physical reserve, often to the point of overexertion.” –What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
For others, it’s almost dissociative, but still subject to much self-doubt and criticism as well as somewhat cynical self-reflection.
“…there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic.” –Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion
“My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.” –Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Joan Didion
For others, it’s casual and easy. (I tend to fall into this category but only because most of what I write is not ‘personal’ and I am not personally invested in it.)
No matter what the process is like, or what the results, it’s still a process. Entirely unique to the storyteller. This is true whether the story is a work of fiction that many will read or a technical manual that only a handful will read. Being able to delve into and engage in this process is a kind of privilege, necessarily implying that the abilities and time exist to produce – something.
When I think of the “process” I think of two different things. One is the literal process of sitting down and being surrounded by certain comforts or habits, which many writers discuss. I suppose mine is closest to that offered by Gary Shteyngart: “I write in bed next to a coffee machine.” There are so many other well-thought-out and explained processes (or non-processes), when for some, it’s literally, in the end, just rolling over, grabbing the computer and putting the coffee machine to work. (Admittedly I don’t have a coffee machine next to my bed, but I make cafetiere after cafetiere and bring them with me to the bedside table where I think, read, work and write most of the time.) Each person has his or her routine, largely, I assume, governed by the impulses that inspire or force one to write and by the aforementioned way a writer experiences writing (hard work, escape, etc.).
The second part of the “process” relates to everything that leads up actual creation and development. How do ideas form – how do they grow from embryonic seeds into a multicellular life?
The eyes and ears have it
“There are days when everything I see seems to me charged with meaning: messages it would be difficult for me to communicate to others, define, translate into words, but which for this very reason appear to me decisive.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino
This stage can start out in the vaguest of ways. For example, I see something or hear something and jot it down, whether it’s the URL on the side of a van: eloped.se (which I figured would not be about eloping but about an electric moped), or a much fuller vignette. In the case of the URL, it is not that I will write about the URL, the van, or even the misunderstanding/difference in the language but only the fact that some piece of cognitive dissonance jolted me out of the moment, stuck in traffic, to think about other connections and linguistic associations. It’s about keeping the brain working and linking seemingly disconnected concepts together.
The ‘sprout’ of a fuller idea might be planted by a conversation. For example, when someone told me that he ended up with a copy of Pink Floyd‘s Dark Side of the Moon album in every breakup he ever had, without ever having had the album himself in the first place. Now the proud owner of six copies, all of which were relics of relationships gone by, existing on media ranging from vinyl to cassette to CD, representative of the eras of which they – and the failed relationships – were a part. Perhaps a flimsy premise for anything, but certainly a human anecdote to fill in the flesh of a skeletal character.
The read way
The other part of this ‘germinating ideas’ is preparation, however unconscious. It’s sparking the brain constantly to think in different ways, walking down new paths. This is largely done with (excessive) reading. It doesn’t matter if you remember everything you read: “Books also change, via our mental models, the very reality that we perceive.”
And this is the whole point. Changing the perception of the world around you, the people around you, taking on understandings you did not have before… and applying this newfound understanding to your own creativity – freely.
Reading is a form of forgetting – and remembering:
“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” -“When we read a book for the first time”, Vladimir Nabokov
It is a process, according to Nabokov: you may know how to read, but are you a careful reader – have you read and reread and viewed it through the aforementioned microscope? Have you asked the right questions of it? In this way, the reading and examining process, too, is like writing. And it’s through this other level of understanding, of seeing the written word presented in many unexpected and unusual ways, defying expectation, that the freedom of creativity is cultivated.
The freedom of creativity
“No one, no matter how alienated, is without (or unaware of) an irreducible core of creativity, a camera obscura safe from intrusion by lies and constraints.” –The Revolution of Everyday Life, Raoul Vaneigem
Regardless of what hard work it can be, the ability to create at all confers a form of freedom.
That is, when I reach a stage in my mind when I am ready to finally throw my hands up in the air at the powerlessness of having to tow the line, speak the party line full of marketing gobbledygook and corporate branding BS, of feeling rendered inert by the anodyne ‘voice’ of large corporations – either silencing me from within (restraint at being able to only say so much) or outside (as academics and journalists experience when entities like Google have outsized influence on what they can publish. Don’t be evil, my ass), I am asking ‘what for’? To go on, continuing down this path of non-creativity forever until self-respect shrivels up and dies a merciful but none-too-early death? No. This is not what I was made for. I was, like many others, made to tell stories. I was not made to censor. I was made to create characters. I was not made to sit silently in offices and nod while someone describes another ‘campaign’ that will lead nowhere.
“Is there a limit to the imagination of a writer who takes real facts and uses them to construct a world where truth and fiction coexist? What right does one have to play around with collective memory? Is there any credibility in getting these sometimes-disparate characters in tune? The starting point for all these characters was the thirst in them.” –Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Yes, I live in the real world, and for now, my creativity has to be partly channeled into this environment. And sometimes, strangely enough, reaching this stage of frustration, as described, opens the door to new clarity, a new approach to communicating in different terms, circumventing the “rules” imposed in these narrow frameworks. And isn’t that what true creativity is? Being able to find a completely fresh way to describe or communicate about something?
“I’m producing too many stories at once because what I want is for you to feel, around the story, a saturation of other stories that I could tell and maybe will tell or who knows may already have told on some other occasion, a space full of stories that perhaps is simply my lifetime, where you can move in all directions, as in space, always finding stories that cannot be told until other stories are told first, and so, setting out from any moment or place, you encounter always the same density of material to be told.” –If on a winter’s night a traveler, Italo Calvino
“So…scratch my name on your arm with a fountain pen
(This means you really love me)”
-The Smiths, “Rusholme Ruffians”
Everything old is new again. This holds true for so many things, but today it’s the venerated fountain pen.
“Over the past 10 years, during which the world has adopted smartphones and social media, sales of fountain pens have risen.” The Nakaya Fountain Pen Co. in Japan saw this trend brewing and jumped on it.
I’ve written about fountain pens and their aficionados before, mostly because I find the passion people feel about this so fascinating. Apparently it can be addictive, as all my conversations with fountain ‘penthusiasts’ attest, and even the article linked above, which describes the “handfeel” of holding a pen in your hand as though it’s a transformative experience, even for the novice (not to mention the overwhelming sensory experience of being confronted with the massive choice in the stores, as described):
“The ideal way to experience a Nakaya, though, is to hold it and feel it in your hand*. The best way to test the pens is at one of the many impressive fountain pen emporiums in Tokyo: the vast Maruzen bookstore, a few blocks from the Imperial Palace; the airy rooms of stationery superstore Itoya, hidden among Ginza’s luxury boutiques; or the well-stocked specialist shop Kingdom Note in bustling Shinjuku.”
*The ‘feeling it in your hand’ entreaty is a part of the Nakaya tagline: “For your hand only”. Each pen apparently takes a minimum of three to six months to craft – just for you.
“But even a novice can identify products from Nakaya. The first clue is the color palette, which explodes in reds, greens, pinks, ochers, cornflower blues, even bright oranges, all so shiny the pens almost appear to be underwater.”
Quite sincerely, as you read about the craftsmanship that goes into a Nakaya, it starts to become clear, even to someone almost unmoved by the quiet ‘explosion’ in fountain pen ownership and use.
“The faint lines on her face seemed to have deepened. She looked severe and competent and suddenly much older, not even very pretty anymore—a woman used to dealing with emergencies, ready to take charge.” Eleven Kinds of Loneliness – Richard Yates
Wading my way through the writing of Richard Yates a few months ago, I found the repeated statements about characters “not being very pretty any more” (or a variation on this) distracting. Perhaps it was a hallmark of the time – to write about a woman’s beauty (fading as it might be) as though it were the only real currency she had. Even if in the quoted case, Yates gave the ‘severe’-looking woman a new competence and ability to take charge, she virtually becomes invisible because she looks both older and less beautiful.
It occurred to me, though (and this is no lightning-bolt of revelation – it’s pretty much something that smacks us in the face daily), that while it might have been more common to write about a woman’s appearance in literature in earlier decades, it’s still the same.
I grant that when dealing in literature, the writer is creating a person: a description, physical as well, is warranted. It is also fiction, so the writer is creating a space, a scene, in which the character must exist and those around him/her react and perceive. Yet, the writer frames the physical appearance as the highest-value sum of the female character’s total worth. And that’s a choice.
My reaction to Yates was more a trigger to thinking about contemporary writing in media. While not every media outlet is the Daily Mail, with its headlines on so-and-so’s weight loss or weight gain, there are still more subtle value judgments associated with age, with beauty, with “health” – it’s all just couched in different language.
“There are cities which don’t need literature: they are literature. They file past, chest thrust out, head on their shoulders. They are proud and full of confidence despite the garbage bags they cart around. The City-State, an example among so many others — she pulsated with literature.” –Tram 83, Fiston Mwanza Mujila
It can all return to place somehow, even when the story is about inner life. It does not need to be a city, as Fiston Mwanza Mujila posits, or as Italo Calvino writes about at length in Invisible Cities. This place can be an actual place, geographically, an interior, private place, or even a container/concept that represents a kind of space. A space that is occupied by some need, for example the need to write, to drink coffee, to love, to break out of previous forms or perceptions, the need to pretend or project images of ourselves into another space.
There are so many ways to create and exist in a space or place, for example:
- “stepping off the plane at keflavik i didn’t know what to expect – only that i thought i belonged there. i went through all the stages of excitement, wonder, questioning, noticing all the surface-level weird things that all foreigners remark on animatedly when they arrive. almost 20 years later it’s easy to blur the hardships and forget all the missteps that often made the move seem like a mistake.”
- “sometimes you know someone, even from afar, and feel like you want to hug her close to you and immediately declare your love, make it legal, and marry her. she, in central europe with her bewitching way with words, makes me feel that way every time i read her writing or see her messages in the far, cold nordics.”
- “if he were serene, would he be able to accomplish the feats he does? underneath it all, with just a hint of resistance, he becomes fussy, testy and sarcastic.”
- “how did i get blindfolded? i saw so clearly at the beginning, lost all sight, but eventually, like a hostage with no value, was dumped off somewhere, mostly unharmed. removing the blindfold, the reality is stark.”
- “…and the guy painting on the remnants of the berlin wall – he was a felix, asking the firewall if he liked weed and shared a joint with him, if firewall would just roll it. according to firewall, it was an experience he just had to have. felix, as it happens, is the name of a ketchup brand in sweden; i frequently make people abroad jealous about my ability to get it, even though i don’t use/eat ketchup.”
- “the phone rings. a husky, masculine-sounding voice answers gruffly, ‘computer room, this is odile.'”
- “The point is that fantasies are fantasies and you can’t live in ecstasy every day of the year. Even if you slam the door and walk out, even if you fuck everyone in sight, you don’t necessarily get closer to freedom.” –fear of flying, erica jong
- “compared with my present incarceration, the future holds no interest for me.” –the revolution of everyday life, raoul vaneigem
- “maybe a woman’s version of a midlife crisis involves stopping doing stuff?” –love and trouble, claire dederer
- “but I’ll tell you a secret. when i want to take god at his word exactly, i take a peep out the window at his creation. because that, darling, he makes fresh for us every day, without a lot of dubious middle managers.” –the poisonwood bible, barbara kingsolver
You get the point. You see the ‘place’.
Image (c) 2014 S Donaghy
“There are many sages, but on the other hand, not one stupid tree.
After writing the most difficult thing is reading.” -from “The Short Year”, Paavo Haavikko
“A knowledge of different literatures is the best way to free one’s self from the tyranny of any of them.” -from On Oscar Wilde, José Martí
…I often claim not to understand addiction (and it’s a subject, much like – inexplicably – teeth – that I am abnormally interested in), but extreme behavior, even of the sort that is not self-destructive, is a kind of addiction. This year, my extreme has found its niche in reading. As I’ve written about numerous times, I dropped reading for many years. When I did not want to think or feel, or manage the fatigue that comes from either, I pushed my passion for reading into dormancy, letting other obsessions take hold (incessant television droning around me, baking industrial amounts of cakes and cookies, working to the point of excessive exhaustion). It’s odd that one can just ignore a passion, pushing it aside as though it were never there, as though it were never something that clutched at the heart and pushed at the back to make one continue to indulge. But it can happen.
As 2016 was coming to a close, many things converged – feeling the new, if deceptive, bloom of love, the influence of accidents, injuries, near or sudden death, the letting go of the grip of all-consuming grief – that made me feel less afraid of feeling again. (Perhaps counterintuitively, it took a handful of new ‘bad’ things to sweep away the persistent influence of old ‘bad’ things, as if the new and old could balance each other out.)
“Sometimes it takes a book to jolt you out of where you are. It doesn’t have to be a great book. Just the right book at the right moment, one that opens something up or exposes you to something new or somehow forces you to reexamine your life.” –My Life with Bob, Pamela Paul
And so the books re-opened. And none too soon. Reading does, after all, inform how we see and interpret the world we live in – seeing the patterns repeat, and new patterns form, we can almost feel hope even in the darkest of circumstances. It feels, in fact, as though the literature of the world chronicles the darkness in order to shine a light, however dim. It sounds glib – I don’t much feel like delving more deeply into it than that. But it’s powerful and moving to the degree that I can see every single day why I stopped reading for such a long time (even if I kick myself in regret over all that wasted, lost time). Looking at the world in late 2016, it would be easy to fall into a sense of complete despair: only literature, recounting past tragedies and triumphs, seems to keep despair at bay and illustrate the way toward sanity.
“We lived in a culture that denied any merit to literary works, considering them important only when they were handmaidens to something seemingly more urgent—namely ideology.”
We live in times in which we should feel protective of books and the freedom of consuming information and diverse viewpoints, stories and narratives. We cannot take for granted the availability of this abundance:
After all, these riches could be taken from us, lost to our own indifference, confidence in broken systems or traditions and lack of care.
“This is the paradox of the power of literature: it seems that only when it is persecuted does it show its true powers, challenging authority, whereas in our permissive society it feels that it is being used merely to create the occasional pleasing contrast to the general ballooning of verbiage. (And yet, should we be so mad as to complain about it?” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino
“Literature is one of a society’s instruments of self-awareness—certainly not the only one, but nonetheless an essential instrument, because its origins are connected with the origins of various types of knowledge, various codes, various forms of critical thought.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino
And yet books are often the only way most of us will experience so much of the world and the only way we can experience history:
“Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine percent of them is in a book.”-Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Even if we had endless disposable means and could travel to every place in the entire world, we cannot experience life through the eyes of someone else. The way a writer has perceived, lived and described something is necessarily, forcefully, different from our own experience, even if at the same time as being eye-opening, the experiences s/he describes is relatable to us as individuals in some way. I cannot feel the same outrage as someone experiencing the injustice of another time in history any more than I can feel the same outrage as someone experiencing an injustice that is not perpetrated on me today. As a human I can feel it, feel some form of associated pain, hurt, confusion and anger, but I am not a black man in America; I am not a Jew in 1940 in Europe (or any time); I am not a woman of color or even a woman who lives in most of the places of the world where being a woman is perilous (sure, it’s kind of perilous everywhere, but least of all in Scandinavia); I am not a Native American or First Nations person; I am not yet elderly; I do not have any debilitating handicaps… you get the picture.
Whether visible or not, there are so many ways of being in the world that I cannot – you cannot – no one but the individual can – understand from the inside. No matter how sensitive or tuned in or intellectually astute we are, we cannot experience anything beyond the projection of empathy.
And even empathy seems in short supply. Almost everything I read is an evidentiary chronicle of all the ways in which we are terrible to each other and ourselves. Whether it’s the grinding poverty that kills, mass discrimination, hidden prejudice, self-abuse… it’s brutal to be human.
To read offers the beauty of the big picture, to know all the details as they unfold, to reflect on from a distance. And yet reading offers the opportunity to dissect, to examine, to analyze – and revisit and do it all again later. Books are a window on the world in a macroscopic, cultural and linguistic way but also microscopically, almost scientifically:
“It was beyond that screen of fickle humors that his gaze wished to arrive: the form of things can be discerned better at a distance.” –Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
“As with many beauties of nature, the enchantment of human works can only be retained when viewed from a distance. Analysis is the microscope that brings objects close to us and reveals the coarse weave of their tapestry. The illusion dissolves when the artificial nature of the embroidery and presence of design flaws become apparent to the eyes.” –Advice for a Young Investigator, Santiago Ramón y Cajal
“This book can go under the microscope. You’d find life under the glass, streaming past in infinite profusion. The more pores, the more truthfully recorded details of life per square inch you can get on a sheet of paper, the more ‘literary’ you are. That’s my definition, anyway. Telling detail. Fresh detail. The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies. “So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.” –Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Reading can be a form of resistance. It can also be a form of acceptance.
Reading is a form of forgetting – and remembering:
“Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” -from “When we read a book for the first time”, Vladimir Nabokov
It is a process, according to Nabokov: you may know how to read, but are you a careful reader – have you read and reread and viewed it through the aforementioned microscope? Have you asked the right questions of it?
Italo Calvino posits something similar – less about the rigors of reading and rereading and more about the need to read backed by age and experience:
“In fact, reading in youth can be rather unfruitful, due to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s “instructions for use,” and inexperience in life itself. Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty—all things that continue to operate even if a book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age, we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino
Informed, careful reading is rarely done in a vacuum – brought to bear is the human experience, emotion and individual history and perspective. Also, there is the triangle Calvino describes, and which other disciplines, particularly the sciences, confirm/highlight.
“What I have described in terms of a twin-bed marriage must be seen as a ménage à trois: philosophy, literature, and science. Science is faced with problems not too dissimilar from those of literature. It makes patterns of the world that are immediately called in question, it swings between the inductive and the deductive methods, and it must always be on its guard lest it mistake its own linguistic conventions for objective laws. We will not have a culture equal to the challenge until we compare against one another the basic problematics of science, philosophy, and literature, in order to call them all into question.” –The Uses of Literature, Italo Calvino
Scientific investigation, too, is its own form of storytelling, which relies on finding data and then interpreting it, which is not always well understood.
“The confusion between these two diverse human activities — inventing stories and following traces in order to find something — is the origin of the incomprehension and distrust of science shown by a significant part of our contemporary culture.” “The border is porous. Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth. But the value of knowledge remains.” -from Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, Carlo Rovelli
These disorganized ramblings do not begin to cover everything. In fact, they cover nothing. They touch microscopically on the everything that is reading. The everything that has taken up residence and occupied my every waking moment this year. It can no more be contained in the confines of a blog post than a series of evocative or mind-altering sentences can truly be contained within just one book. Just ramblings, random thoughts, on my revived and enthusiastic appreciation of reading.
G texted the other guy telling him she was excited for dinner – he was cooking, and he was waiting.
For some reason, before heading to his place, she had agreed to meet with someone else – someone persistent and at the same time mysterious. F was slightly older, and it was perhaps his pursuit alone that piqued her curiosity. She could never see, though, that he was truly interested in her, but believed he was interested in the conquest. Not necessarily a sexual conquest, but instead, the breaking down of the barrier that had kept her in a polite outer orbit. She ended up at F’s apartment, a penthouse overlooking the vast city, where he instructed a cook to prepare something for them. He said something about hoping she was not a vegetarian, but said it forcefully, as though he expected her to disavow any idea of being a vegetarian, even if she were lying. Throughout the evening, on all counts, she was reserved, quiet, and to this non-question about her carnivorous habits, she only nodded, quietly saying, “No, I just don’t eat pork.” He laughed too loudly for the circumstances, exclaiming his relief.
Somehow this sitting down together did not reveal much information about him; the only reason she’d let herself be led there in the first place was to satisfy this curiosity. He was as mysterious as ever, with only context in place to reveal or assume certain things: he had money, he had a cook on staff, he was intense and focused at the same time as seeming to be entirely indifferent to her company, to his surroundings. He never asked questions but freely answered them.
She had no reason to do so, and did not have an interest in doing so, beyond curiosity, but she ended up having sex with F after a whole evening sitting at a long table on benches across from one another, talking (or listening and nodding) but never learning anything. He led her around the apartment, showing her all the rooms, explaining how he had come to decorate them the way they were. He seemed as disinterested in this as he did in all other information. This bemused disinterest continued right into his invitation (which, again, was no invitation but an expectation) to bed. It was, it seemed to her, a kind of conquest, but not even one about which he would feel any excitement for having achieved it. No, it was just something fine but forgettable to do. At one point during this cautionless and oddly awkward interlude, he stopped, looked at her and said through clenched teeth, frustration and a hint of threat creeping into his voice, “I was hoping I would not be able to hear you breathing.” Alarmed, she thought she should get up and leave. Nevertheless, he resumed, and she assented, with nothing more being said about the sound of her breathing, and eventually it was morning.
And in the light of day F seemed like a different person. He still did not ask (many) questions, but now he was open and personal, revealing that he had five children. (The only questions he asked were pokes and prods into her desire to have children.) He lay on his back, propped on a pillow, arms behind his head, smiling and warmly inviting all the questions she felt too nervous to ask the previous evening.
She thought, while lying next to F, propped up on one elbow, looking at him, still feeling nothing but curiosity, that she never made it to the other guy’s dinner. In fact, she never talked to him again.
The next thing we knew about her was that she moved into F’s apartment six months after this strange dinner, although she moved into her own room. It was a veiled fact that she didn’t fully grasp until in residence, but he had a girlfriend already. She was in the periphery all along and was the mother of two of his children. She had her own apartment in the same building. G was expected to become a part of this ‘extended’ family. Again, it was posed like a question to which ‘no’ could not be the answer.
As time went on, G realized that F was like a composite of every man she had ever known or been with. Those who would not cut off former girlfriends or those who insisted on open or polyamorous relationships. F was dispassionate but interested in the pursuit. What took time to realize was that F was deeply insecure, despite seeming like the most secure person on the surface. He made a lot of all-or-nothing pronouncements but did not believe fully in any of them. His insecurity led him to be a minor tyrant at times, which grew worse with age. You just don’t know or see what you’re getting into in the beginning, especially when you are young and think you know everything.
She wanted to escape after several years. And after years of F’s household management, it was like an escape. The freedoms had eroded so slowly that she did not realize fully how much her life resembled a prison. She got word to her estranged brother that she needed help. Her brother came from across the country and brought her a car – by this stage in her experience living with F, she did not have unlimited freedom. She had a career and a seemingly lavish lifestyle but could not socialize as she liked, and certainly could not “get away”. Her brother parked the car in a lot near F’s apartment and stashed the key in her office building. When she finally saw a brief window of time to escape, it had been snowing for a full day, and there was no way – not enough time – she could get out and shovel all the snow away from the car without being noticed or missed. She frantically phoned her brother, begging him to help her with the snow. He was already gone.
G collapsed in the parking lot in the snow, leaning against the front of the car, not knowing if she could get away. She waited, worrying that F or someone acting on his behalf would turn up at any moment and drag her away. Closing her eyes, flakes of snow falling on her tired eyelids, she remembered a moment in Mexico, long before she knew F, when she was inadvertently served pork at a roadside taco truck after saying she’d eat anything but pork. Suddenly she realized that so long ago, that first night, F had laughed so long, loud and inappropriately because, after shyly telling him she didn’t eat pork, he served it to her anyway, calling it something else. And that, if only she had realized, should have been the first sign…
A person swimming in the pool of her own life, constantly crashing against the concrete edges of said pool, is more likely than anyone else to insist that her own life is “really fucking weird” even if it is, by all objective accounts, mundane and boring as fuck. Some people need to live – or wallow – in the belief that their life is “weird” or surreal to feel that it has some meaning or isn’t just a day-in, day-out account of nothingness. Such people can elevate their boring marital infidelities to soap-operatic, shrill drama; such people can imagine that their semi-imagined illnesses/hypochondria make them special, interesting, persecuted, or even unique.
No, in fact, they don’t. They do, in fact, make one just like everyone else, albeit slightly more histrionic and liable to whip every perceived slight into something it isn’t, to take every comment personally, to misinterpret every possible thing – ranging from the “rudeness” or “disrespect” someone supposedly showed (they didn’t) to truly believing someone’s hollow words, said to keep her pacified, not because they were truly felt/meant. And, most of all, never letting go. Everything has to turn into a years-long, lifelong grudge – as if holding on to that much anger and hatred isn’t in itself toxic and stressful. Witnessing this, one sees how the American world is awash in frivolous litigiousness, bolstered by each individual’s sense of inflated importance.
When a person’s life becomes, for example, a s(l)ide-show of authorities phoning them at all hours of the night to come and rescue wildcats from a dilapidated, abandoned trailer in a rundown trailer park – yeah, then I will agree that that person’s life is “weird”.
When a person’s life becomes filled with manic people from decades in the past, who refuse to let go, making that person central to their present-day lives – yeah, that’s pretty “weird”, too. Especially when the brazenness and grip of the obsession spills over again and again. One compulsive person raping another person’s mind, mining their brain and history for evidence to use against them later. All to maintain this inflated self-importance and immediacy, threatening to (and not in the least caring if it does) disrupt and destroy that person’s life, yes, that’s weird, and a bit tragic and unfortunate. (Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness touched on this kind of disturbed obsession/revenge/sexual jealousy to the degree that I barely wanted to finish reading, seeing as how similar themes have played out before my eyes.)
How much of life and identity is contrived this way – all designed to elicit reactions from others and feed the bloated, hungry or jealous ego?
Finally, someone shared the same unusual set of experiences – and was experienced in similar ways. Finally, it meant that she did not immediately get bored, annoyed and frustrated.
Always before, she found that the things that are everyday and even passé to her were inevitably going to be exciting and fresh for most others. Even sought after. Having lived completely different lives within just one life, nothing like what anyone who’d crossed her path had lived, such big divides opened up on fundamental matters, no matter how many superficial things were shared in common. The excitement, anxiety, rush, fear – whatever one wants to call it – that filled most people each time s/he took a new step, particularly on her/his own, seemed quaint and cute to her at first. She had been taking these steps alone, reaching beyond ‘normal’ boundaries and experience, since she was not even old enough to vote, drive or get a job.
It was all ‘been there, done that’ for her – not that she could not enjoy any of these things anew, but for her, the awakening to new things and feelings could only come in relation to others, to see things afresh through their eyes. It would take something truly remarkable to move her deeply.
To others, she was an untrodden path, albeit one set with new traps (for anyone who had been hibernating in a long slumber of a closed system). She represented both the life one could finally see, taste, touch and smell while vibrantly on her/his own, exploring, as a facilitator toward the next chapter of life, and yet also the very real possibility of being ensnared in an offset jaw trap. With teeth bared.
In more literary terms, all entanglements, thus, were short stories with abrupt endings. For those middle-aged toddlers, wandering into the world wide-eyed and virtually inexperienced, or perhaps merely cautious, so much unseen, the story was over almost as soon as it had begun, while she continued to linger in those pages already read, imagining it as one chapter in a longer work. She served as a transitional plot device to some while she was, for still others, the awakening that portended an entirely new body of literature.
She wondered whether people ever actually could find themselves on the same pages, at the same time, or at least find that they were ready to stay within the same chapter to move forward with the narrative together.
And, then, just as the question dissipated, seeming to have no answer, it all changed.