When I'm really reading, when I read for days and weeks and it's so good I don't ever want to stop, the books come and come to me. Where they come from is no real mystery. They come from out of the blue. Out of the radio and newspaper. Out of one book and into another. Out of the library. Out of the mouths of friends. Books I've ordered arrive in the mail. A friend leaves one in the mailbox. The note says something like, this made me think of you. Books stacked on my wife's desk have titles that call to me. At coffee a friend has a book I really must read. Books arrive from the past because space is curved and all things return after we read them. Reading one book I try not to think of others. I write quotes on sticky notes, in my notebook, between dates on my planner's pages. I dog-ear library books, God help me, and leave pencil dots near quotes that whispered to me. You see, I know where books come from. It's all magic. A trick in which a magician reaches into a dark place that isn't her hat, and pulls out something not quite a rabbit. The ears seem like pages and the magician's fingers are stained in ink. I stand and applaud, hoping she will hand it to me and I can begin to read.
I'm a fan of low-bar goals I get over easily. Usually, I clear the bar with room to spare. I've set a goal to do ten push-ups a day. Totally easy. There, I just did them. Goal met. Here's the thing: I'll likely do ten more because it's so easy. If the bar is set at one hundred push-ups a day, I'll probably end up doing none.
Your mileage may vary.
My goal on the job is to survive. I'm not a fan of that. Survival is the sort of thing that should be taken for granted. I'm trying to stay afloat as the water rises over my head. I have to survive because this is the job that pays the bills.
Maybe your job is similar.
I talk to students about the difference between a job and work drawing the picture I've posted up top. We do a job for pay and health insurance, the necessities. Work is the stuff we need to do. Not doing our work leaves us empty. My job is teaching high school. My work is writing. The sweet spot is a job doing good work, what Donald Hall calls Life Work.
Students ask if teaching is my job or my work. I say, I'm a teacher who writes but wish I was a writer who maybe teaches. I close my eyes, sigh, and say, that's my wish.
To speak up is not about speaking louder, it is about feeling entitled to voice a wish. We always hesitate when we wish for something. In my theater I like to show the hesitation and not to conceal it. A hesitation is not the same as a pause. It is an attempt to defeat the wish and put it in to language, then you can whisper but the audience will always hear you.
-- Zofia Kalinska, qtd in Things I Don't Want To Know by Deborah Levy, page 10
I don't wish to survive. I wish to write, but I don't know how to do that yet so I do both work and a job. I don't see how the work can pay the bills. I fail to believe I can pull that off.
Deborah Levy has figured it out. She is also a spectacular and brave writer. Here is how her book Things I Don't Want To Know begins and ends:
That spring when life was very hard and I was at war with my lot and simply couldn't see where there was to get to, I seemed to cry most on escalators at train stations. (page 1)
I rearranged the chair and sat at the desk. And then I looked at the walls to check out the power points so I could plug in my laptop. The hole in the wall nearest to the desk was placed above the basin, a precarious socket for a gentleman's electric razor. That spring in Majorca, when life was very hard and I simply could not see where there was to get to, it occurred to me that where I had to get to was that socket. Even more useful to a writer than a room of her own is an extension lead and a variety of adapters for Europe, Asia and Africa. (Page 111)
I don't have it figured out and I'm not yet especially spectacular or brave. I don't have a book that begins or ends other than the one I'm writing one essay, poem, and story at a time. I need a good extension lead, a hole in the wall, and just the right adapter for whatever powers me. Then I have to keep doing good work regardless of my job. It's that simple and yet I can't yet even imagine where I might get to. The bar seems far, far too high.
A few other quotes from the book:
If I thought I was not thinking about the past, the past was thinking about me. (110)
This strange memory in turn reminded me of a line from a poem by Apollinaire....'The widow opens like an orange.' .... I did not know how to get the work, my writing into the world. I did no know how to open the window like an orange. If anything, the window had closed like an axe on my tongue. If this was to be my reality, I did not know what to do with it. (109)
...but I couldn't work out what I was trying to say. I knew I wanted to be a writer more than anything else in the world, but I was overwhelmed by everything and didn't know where to start. (101)
A book about a blind man getting his first guide-dog? Why was I picking this up. It was on the Rapid Reads shelf at Petit Library and I had picked it up each of the last three times I had visited. Something about the cover, the title, the idea was grabbing me, but I resisted thinking it a light book while I was in the mood for something heavier. Something in that fourth time picking it up got me. Maybe it was Billy Collins' blurb, but probably it was me finally giving in to my instincts.
It was not a light book. Nor was it too heavy. It weighed in just right.
Kuusisto is a poet and writes prose like one. It is good prose with the occasional moments of poetic intrigue. A sentence is phrased in an odd way. Maybe it's broken, a fragment but placed just so. Whatever he has done, it works here and he led me through the story surely and firmly. A book about a blind man getting his first guide-dog? Hardly. It was the story of a man bonding with a partner, falling in love, becoming an independent man, alluding to the forces that had shaped him, and accepting grace. It is, simply put, a good book.
A few choice lines, but only a few. I found that I was reading more than harvesting. I was too involved in the story to stop and take note.
It seemed I had three problems. I was sad. I had to learn how to walk in a larger world. And I had to trust I could do this. (16)
There's an old Zen adage: if you want to get across the river, get across. (17)
Andy Warhol said: "As soon as you stop wanting something you get it." (23)
I'm hoping that these three work out for me. I'm sad at my job and need to learn how to go back out into the world of uncertainty. For that getting across, I just need to get across. And while I believe that I might get what I need when I stop wanting it, I also believe that working is true wanting and that work will get me there.
...my job is to dare to be in the world. (175)
Okay, that line has reshaped my life just a bit. Or maybe it has altered my trajectory by a tenth of a degree. Either way, I'm grateful for it.
Modesty is a requirement if you're walking a long way. (229)
This is a Zen koan. I'll be thinking about it for years.
I've ordered the rest of his prose from the library and will then move to his poetry. Maybe I might even write him a note since he lives right around the corner. I'm in proximity to good writers. How great is that?
I've been looking for a way into reading Oliver Sacks.
When his last essays were published in The New York Times I was still learning to live with the sudden, abrupt death of my father. I knew that Sacks had been diagnosed, sentenced really, and that his death was imminent. My father's death was so recent, as if it was still happening again and again, I couldn't imagine delving into the last days of another man. There's a line in Hayden Carruth's great and wise poem "Regarding Chainsaws" that expressed all this better than I can:
I quit stopping by to see old Stan, and I
don't feel so good about that neither. But my mother
was having her strokes then. I figured
one person coming apart was as much
as a man can stand. Then Stan was taken away
to the nursing home, and then he died.
My father had come apart and that was more than I could stand. Then Oliver Sacks was diagnosed, and then he died. His auto-biography On The Move came out and I heard all about it but couldn't get myself to read it. Through proximity on the calendar, his life and death had become too connected with the life and too soon death of my father.
All my life I've been around death. Dad was a funeral director and when I was ten he bought the funeral home in which I mostly grew up. That is, I spent most of my childhood there and I mostly, but not totally, grew up. The dead lay in their boxes in the funeral home which was connected by three separate doors to our house. The living were there too, both my family and the families of those who had lost their mother, father, and God help us their children. I helped Dad in the funeral home and sometimes closed the lids on the caskets before they were taken to the cemetery and buried or to the crematorium and incinerated.
That contact provided me with far less understanding of death than might be expected. I accepted the logic of it, but death lives mostly beyond the bounds of logic. My only real experience with the fullness of death was when, as a young man, I held my dog while the veterinarian put her down. It took far too long for her breathing to stop and her eyes never did close. Only when the vet said that she was gone did I allow myself to break down, staring into her brown eyes. Even then it was a halting and broken kind of grief that didn't heal me. It left me wanting, needing really, some way to get through.
When my father died, I never really cried or got to any release of all that terrible pressure, much as I tried. Grief didn't consume me so much as rise up around my body like a black fog, an almost liquid through which I found it difficult but not impossible to move. I wanted it to be worse. I wanted to break down, but grief didn't disable me other than when I was alone at Wegmans. There, for some reason, I pushed the cart haphazardly, walking across the whole store to frozen foods for one item, remembering something I needed to get in produce all the way back. I walked the length and breadth of that store in a tunneled fog, the periphery of my vision lost, my way forward clouded. It was as if Wegmans was a kind of purgatory.
It became the space where I was no longer in a world without my father but neither was I gone from the world of my wife, children, and family. I was between. For months I visited Wegmans by myself to be lost there for an hour, crossing and recrossing the store as if looking for something or mapping it for some kind of crossing. I visited Dad. I wondered about the nature of life. I bought bananas, frozen pizza, and six-packs of beer.
It's been almost a year since Wegmans has felt like anything but a grocery store. It has been three and a half years since my father died. It's just three years since Oliver Sacks died, and today I borrowed a slim library book containing four of his essays. Gratitude it is called and I am grateful for having read it, for still thinking of my father dearly but no longer with such a burden of sorrow and loss, and for the idea that I may finally be ready to hear more from Oliver Sacks. I'm ready to hear what he might have to tell me about living, a business in which I'm still occupied even as he and Dad have moved on from that into what I can't even begin to imagine.