Some people blog every day—or at least at regular intervals—but having a blog has been fun for me because I gave myself permission, early on, to write only when a topic taps me on the shoulder, demanding attention. Lately, the intervals have been getting longer and most of the taps come from outside—new developments in cultural politics, things like that.
As for the inner taps, it isn’t that I haven’t felt them, it’s that they all say the same thing: how strange it is at this point in life to be so open to possibility and so unsure where it will lead. I start to write, and then I hesitate, the uncertain act of writing rhyming with the feeling that evoked it. Today, I surrender: clearly, this one won’t stop tapping till I type it out.
It started when I had a visit from a wonderful friend last month, listening to her tales of a long sojourn in Asia, traveling light, staying with new people in Sikkim, Thailand, India, Japan. She’d returned in a quieter mood, and has since remained uninterested in the social ramble. During her absence, the meaning had leaked out of some formerly important things, but it didn’t feel like a loss, just a change.
So many people have said that we travel in order to discover ourselves, it hardly seems worth plumbing my memory for an apt quote. This truth is universal to anyone who has spent time in another culture: by eliminating the possibility of ordinariness, of habit, of taking mundane arrangements for granted—by introducing strangeness, we are able to perceive ourselves interacting with the world, as if for the first time.
And so it is with the different type of journey I am making. The movers brought my books and furniture and clothes, and in my compulsive fashion, I immediately put them all away. Now I am typing in my new apartment, lifting my head to gaze out at treetops, at distant hills and a thick cushion of fog settling into the valleys. As I write these words, the whole scene is tinted a deep coral-brown by the setting sun, topped by a tiny slice of crescent moon, like a lemon peel hanging from the rim of a glass.
It has been decades since the decisions I’ve made here—where to place my books, what color to pick for curtains, what to fix for dinner—have been mine alone. These mundane things haven’t been hard, since I know what I like and what I can afford. Others seem difficult to imagine: I’m not sure how to meet people outside my existing circle. I’ve lived a long time in that state where time and habit create a sort of moratorium on new relationships, and now I am out of the habit of making friends. I recognize that all my friends are artists, or cultural activists, or therapists. I’d like to bump into other ways of being in the world, but given the writer’s life I’ve led so long, its preponderance of time alone with words and thoughts, I may have to count on them finding me!
I’m still in the antechamber of my new life, which fits the season: most of the boxes were unpacked in time for Rosh HaShanah. By Yom Kippur, my pictures were on the walls and I had begun to cultivate the tiny habits that make someplace home: I sit here to drink my tea in the morning, I lay my place at the table facing this way. It isn’t that the future is so much more mysterious than it was a year or two ago: the feeling of knowing what the future will bring always says more about our need for the illusion of control than about our ability to predict the actual course of events. It’s that with this change of scene, on this journey, the mystery has come to occupy the foreground. Sometimes I’m scared, but mostly what I perceive is my silly impatience: Get on with it, I command my life, who knows how much time I’ve got? My life shakes it head and laughs.
I see my own attention shifting: at the moment, my interest in my personal story and others’ stories—by which I mean the next iteration of the way I feel about this or that and how it relates to my emotional inheritance—is waning. Sometimes I need to talk obsessively about whatever has pushed my buttons, but then it fades, and I notice how seldom my attention returns to the stories of growing up or the feelings generated in my earliest experiences, all that I used to find so endlessly fascinating.
On this journey, especially here in the antechamber, it is easier to see how experience is shaped by habits of mind, others’ and my own.
Some people seem to be working with an ironclad inner directive: regardless of how unusual the circumstances, it is imperative to respond to news by saying, “I’m not surprised.” Why? What does this widely shared habit achieve? Perhaps it establishes the speaker as wise or shrewd. Perhaps it is a form of superstition, informing the world that one can’t be ambushed, so don’t bother trying.
Others must put a happy spin on everything. A breath after I reported the destruction in my move of some of the dishes I inherited from my grandmother—part of a legacy of family belongings so small, it could all be packed in a couple of cartons—I received the good news from several sources that I could now go shopping.
Others always notice danger; by now, I can look at a room through those eyes and predict which potential hazards will warrant comment.
My own habits of mind are exposed in this new environment too. I can see how the passionate wish to matter, to be seen, heard, and received, colors my own speech and actions. I can see how easily I drop into a familiar disappointment, as when I find myself a lone voice on an issue: I begin to ponder why so many of those who share my perspective have reasons to remain silent, and wind up anticipating more such disappointments in future. It takes will to remember that the future need not conform to the pattern laid down in the past.
My own view of future security leans heavily toward Que Sera, Sera. In preparing for the unknown, I am not a particularly prudent person, much more grasshopper than ant. Some of my friends wish I would do more to insulate myself from future dangers. Half the people who grew up as I did—way out on the margins of economic viability—find it essential to build up savings and other forms of insurance against future want. The other half are like me, taking care of business, but with a survivor’s outlook, a kind of baseline confidence in landing on one’s feet. I know both sides of the argument, and also the third side: watching people lose their carefully husbanded resources in the economic downturn, I find myself thinking that at least I was able to spend my time on work I chose, rather than working at something less satisfying to purchase a security that fate has now withdrawn.
Yet I am fanatically compulsive when it comes to the present: meeting deadlines, fulfilling commitments, getting it done. Why? Superstition, I think. Or let me say it this way: my habits of mind include a superstition about reciprocity, as if the golden rule came with a guarantee. I want everyone to keep their promises to me, meet all their deadlines, allow me to cultivate the confidence and trust in others that I find so difficult to attain—and so I engage in some sort of magical thinking conditioned on the belief that my own hyper-responsibility will generate reciprocity.
I imagine that at some point in this journey I will arrive at a new destination, however temporary. Like my friend the traveler, I hope I will retain the newness of vision a change of scene has given me. For reasons having to do more with politics than poetry, T.S. Eliot is not my favorite writer, but in this case, no one said it better:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Thank you for this post, Arlene! It was exactly what I needed to read today, at this exact moment in my life. I always enjoy your writing, and I look forward to meeting you at some point!