Reviewing my Amazon “Saved for Later” section reveals growing anxieties which seem ironic now in this time of genuine disruption. These include “bug out” boxes for “disaster survivors” (added in the wake of the Pickering Nuclear Emergency Warning); two “tactical” pens—pens which double as weapons, knives, compasses, something I would never purchase even at the more reasonable price of $16 (compared to the better reviewed pen, also saved for later, at $90) because of the existential line that would be crossed, but instead betray a fascination with the inventive anxiety which drives the desire for hidden weapons always at hand; water purification straws, dry milk powder, a scythe blade (currently unavailable), as well as the books of poetry and theory that regularly gather in my checkout cart only to be placed, with hesitation but no small amount of relief, back on their digital shelves.
More recent items reveal the actual concerns (so far) of what has been anxious and challenging but, so far, weirdly tame, isolation. A silicon donut mold (three-pack) steadily rising in price to meet the market demand of millions of households spending all day in front of the oven. A micro-SD card for the video game system that I think I have already given both enough money and time. Cabinet locks to keep my suddenly stir-crazy cats out of the cupboard (but why are they so expensive?). A converter to allow HDMI to plug into an old A/V television (definitely a luxury).
My anxieties, which were all about flight, collapse, disaster, haven’t exactly been assauged. It feels just as likely, to me, that the world will end inventively in some kind of climate-related catastrophe, and not particularly far away. Perhaps a little less likely only because of the current pause of (non-essential) industry, and a perhaps-growing awareness of human vulnerability and social possibility. But something else has been revealed, that I dofeel less anxious about. I spent a lot of time thinking about fleeing the city because, in all likelihood, I would have had to—not due to an unforseen, sudden disaster, but to the slower disaster of capitalism and commodity trading which has turned housing in Toronto into a luxury item. Fleeing the city both in the wake of violence and also to anywhere that would have me—where I could imagine putting down roots, building a life that otherwise seemed perpetually precarious. And in that sense I feel relief, hope for falling prices, crashed markets, Airbnb speculators losing their shirts and flooding the market with cheap rentals, condos, properties. It’s one of a number of things that I hope COVID-19 turns around.
Now, reason, says love, understand your demand. He that burns feels no cold, just as he who has drowned feels no thirst. And this soul, says love, is so burnt in the furnace of the fire of love that she has become fire, she feels fire no longer because she herself is fire, by the virtue of the love that that has brought her into him, that fine love. This fire burns from him, in him, in all places and moments of time, without taking any matter of will into its substance, except from himself. For whoever feels anything of God, by matter that he sees or hears outside him, or for labour that he does by himself, it is not this fire, but this fire with matter mixed into its substance. For the labour of man, and the desire to have matter outside themselves to increase their love, this is but a shadow or glimmer of the knowledge of the bounty of God. They that burn with this aforesaid fire, without seeking matter to have or to will, see so clearly in all things that they praise them as they deserve to be praised, for these souls have no matter in them which might blemish their clear sight.
Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls (translation mine, from the Middle English)
What I’ve accomplished. Perhaps nothing. Impossible to write, even poems, when you feel no distance from anything. (Least of all, from yourself—closer instead to your animal yearning than to anything that might hope to transform itself with a sentence.) I am on my hands and knees seeking matter. I am looking to obscure myself with substance. I’ve written it a hundred times before, perhaps a thousand—I’m tired of living this way.
We are practicing social distancing—keeping to ourselves in a house seventy kilometres from the city. In the morning we take the dog across the field and into the forest, where there is still snow and ice which softens during the day and freezes up again at night. Then we enter our days, working respectively in the living room and dining room; the two rooms are really the same large room, divided only by a short barrier about four feet tall. We drink coffee together in the morning—she takes cream and I, milk. Often we will eat the same breakfast, but not always. Today, for instance, I ate a packet of Quaker Instant Oatmeal diluted with regular quick oats and she did not eat until the early afternoon, a single egg on an English muffin. Typically we will eat lunch and dinner together, although because today her first meal would more properly be described as lunch I ate my lunch separately, even though in the end I ate the same thing. Our last English muffin, the last of the bread that we brought up here from the city.
I think because the situation—locally and globally—is so uncertain, I have been finding it difficult to concentrate. This began long before the pandemic, and the social isolation, had been called, as I followed the course of the disease as it made its way through China, South Korea, to Italy, here. For weeks, anticipating this decampment, for weeks, wondering about the state of the world. I returned from a trip to Boston only two weeks ago, where I passed through two international airports and washed my hands constantly. Before leaving I regretted not pulling out of the conference—but it was too late to do so. A few days after returning I developed chest pains. A muscle soreness that I imagined might have been the coronavirus operating on me relatively asymptomatically—but now I think it was just anxiety, since after arriving here it largely disappeared. It is a relief to not have to worry about my neighbours (have I infected them? will they infect me?) or the people I pass on the street.
We are lucky to be able to escape in this way—I am aware of the privilege that makes this possible. I feel embarrassed, ashamed, that this is available to me. It is not available to everyone. I have spent the past decade distancing myself from the privilege that is not really mine and never was. Except in situations like this. I worry that it has done something to me, returning here and leaving the city behind. I worry that I will again inhabit a kind of selfishness, that I will become colder and more closed off. In other words I worry about a form of quarantine that is far from physical. Even as we perch together on what feels like the edge of the world.
Preparing a conference paper I am giving on Saturday I come across a line from Borges that I realize is intimately familiar. That’s because when I first read it, I think sometime in the fall, it resonated so much that I published it somewhere on this blog (I could perhaps find it now, but I’ll leave this fact conjectural). It was something along the lines of recognizing that if he (Borges) does not live his life in such a way that he is frequently writing, or perhaps relating to the world through writing, something in his very being rebels. I’ve done a poor job of paraphrasing—but even though I’ve just put the book down again I won’t pick it up to check. He describes the chain of action that occupies him, ideally, in this process: inspiration, composition, and then finally publishing (“which is the least important”).
I think what struck me, that first time, was that final clause. “Publishing is the least important.” Now, having published a book; now, constantly drawing up CVs and statements of purpose to justify my place in academia, seeing friends and enemies (and myself) crow on social media about accomplishments (hollowly, it feels and seems)—I realize I’ve let publishing assume a place of higher importance than it deserves. As I discovered when showing the first draft of my book to the editors of Harper Collins and Anansi, several years ago now, what is acknowledged as good is sometimes different from what is desired. Which isn’t to say that the desires of a reading public is not a thread that writers should chase. Only that taste and hunger are distinct.
The problem is that lately I have let myself believe too much in that hunger, which is rootless and constant and impossible to satisfy. Hunger—in the author and in their audience—is something entirely outside of the process of writing, which is intuitive and irrational and inspired. To give hunger a place in your life is to worship an angry and insatiable god.
How remarkable to have made it through the month. After an initial flurry of activity the month becomes one of incredible torpor, made worse by an acute and then lingering illness. The days don’t seem to begin. When you find yourself still—on a bed, on your laptop or reading your phone, a heaviness, a cool settled feeling, takes over. You’re late wherever you go. Fortunately it isn’t so egregious that anyone seems to mind. You are able to rouse enough of yourself to carry through the days. But if you were to ask yourself what you had done—it would be both seem impossible and too insubstantial to itemize. Like listing forgotten names of the wind. You find yourself listening to the descriptions of other people’s lives with a kind of passive amazement: “How could I be living so incorrectly in comparison to them?”
(This isn’t your entire life. You meet others, you spend time your partner, but it’s in moments like that this that you efface yourself entirely—so that you are either too much or too little your self. Deflecting or annoying. Too passive or too closed-off. After you watch a World War II movie at the theatre, you discover that your movements on the bus and on the streetcar have taken on an old-fashioned self-possession. You are easily displaced.)
Lean away from it. Turn in a different direction. Cut against the line. Let it drip beyond the chalked radius. Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones (cover by Joe Brainard): “I cut the daisy from my throat” is better than “My throat was a little sore, so I didn’t say anything.” (Perhaps even by writing that second line the first one is entirely ruined.) Write first without editing yourself. A sustained period. Do not go back, do not cross out. I am working at the front desk of the library, so it is difficult. She is thinking about writing in pen, in which the mind is always faster than the hand. This is less obviously the case on a computer, where I have often found myself able to move much faster than the mind can think (though I try to avoid it now).
Goldberg however was working in a different era and does not have much familiarity with computers, describing them carefully, as if they are magic objects: “the computer automatically returns the carriage. The device is called ‘wrap-around.’” Wrap-around. That’s what I was talking about earlier—writing faster than I could think. That’s how I learned to write, first seeing how fast I could go—one, two thousand words. Sometimes good ones. Sometimes quite bad. Now I typically write about two-hundred-and-fifty to seven-hundred-words in a fifty-minute period. Depending on how much of the story I can see. I’ve already strayed far in this experiment—“Don’t. No.” was meant to be my theme. But in truth I mostly wanted to write about cutting the daisy out of the throat. What does it mean to cut across the throat, to pull out a flower? To extract a delicate green stem and the petals stained with blood? And why does it feel to me so obvious—as it seems also to be fore Goldberg—that this has something to do with writing?
Seeing Anne Carson on Monday is like surprising a gazelle climbing a hill on the savannah. It is like coming across a stand of three or four birch trees suddenly in a forest of maple. “I always sound so together,” she jokes at the microphone after she is introduced. We take a wrong turn from Charles street. I lead Caroline (who I have met incidentally) to the rear of the building, where there is no door, near the dumpsters. But inside the chapel I realize that the rear of the building is precisely where the reading is located—its four massive stained glass windows look out over that back parking lot. I want to take a picture of Carson standing at the foot of those windows and dwarfed by the light passing through them. But the architects of the building, who may have anticipated smartphones over one hundred years ago, ensured that the light would be low enough that the windows would always be dazzling by contrast. This is so no one inside forgets about God even when they allow their mind to wander. I see on the screens of phones raised in front of me that they are only able to pick up those four wide blocks of light. Carson reads us a story about a woman who is a forsenic splash expert who with the help of a corvid friend named “Shortpants” annoys local mafioso. It is somehow both paranoid and earnest. The protagonist reads verbal patterns like a poet. I imagine writing my own story, beginning somehow with that wrong turn. “Looking up they saw the chapel where the reading would take place. In the window a white face suddenly turned away. Impossible to say with any certainty who it was.” In the hallway outside the chapel they are selling a selection of Anne Carson’s books, including one that has yet to be released. But Anne Carson is standing about ten feet in front of the table, standing next to but not talking to one of the event’s organizers. She looks bored and casual. She is after all just a human being killing time for the same reason we are. But it is impossible not to feel scrutinized. I purchase a single book and find my seat. It’s Monday and soon we will be listening to a woman who I imagine has meant something to all of us. I keep wishing I was reading her on the page and vow to spend more time with her. A poet later claims on Instagram that they fell asleep in the second row. And as Carson introduces herself she says that her great-grandfather, one of the founders of the university, died when he accidentally mixed too much lead into his shampoo. “You may find his portrait downstairs,” she tells us. But I don’t.
Fifteen minutes sitting at the table next to the mirror, waiting for Noor. There’s no wifi and we may have to leave when she arrives. I’m happy to be reflected in this way, I mean out of the corner of my eyes, I mean this screen reflected, my fingers typing, though I hate now to look at my own reflection directly. But the subject of the book I am writing at the moment is just this sort of glancing irritation.
Two weeks of working with Noor whenever possible.
Should have realized that it would be painful to take the train to Jane, to visit a station I have not seen since the summer. But what is not painful? What passes smoothly? Last night I was jittery on the squash court, swinging wildly, often well off the mark (though twice I almost sent the ball into Mark, my conveniently named opponent). But I knew that my fitness level was higher than it was in September, and despite the fact that I was practically radioactive I managed to take two games, including the final one which was for “all the marbles.”
Speaking of radioactivity, Sunday afternoon after the scare had died down I went for a run, and came back with a strange rash on the lower edge of my stomach. It’s gone now, and I assume it was only the cold against my flesh, oddly lingering even past my shower, but it was easy at the time to wonder if it was indicative of some trace of Pickering floating through the air. But if that was the case, why not my face? Why not my neck? Why not my eyes, or my lungs, or my ears? Why did they all escape unburned?
I’m at Jane for the book, to remind myself of an atmosphere, a feeling, that exists here. Before the city dissolves itself past Jane station (even as it multiplies itself to the point of illegibility). I’m also at Jane to abide in radioactivity, at least for a moment. At least for now. To let things be a little painful. To feel this radioactive half-life—however I have been burned.
Perhaps the lure of first-person narrative is the opportunity to see other human beings think. To see how they think but also to see them in the middle of thinking. To catch them in their interiority. This is the appeal of having characters who have spent an entire narrative apart meeting for the first time, the moment represented from both sides. Seeing what is elided. Seeing what is misunderstood. Seeing what has been heretofore misrepresented to us, the limitations of the human subject when viewed from the outside. (Purported shabbiness is revealed to be composure, or vice versa. Confidence is anxiety. &c.) (This can also work for characters who have been separated and reunited after a long and painful journey—we see their sacrifices and so better understand their joy.) These limitations contrast with the represented interiors of the human subject, which are often limitless, or which seem limitless, or are in any case much more expansive than they could ever hope to appear to others. We can reach out as far as we want, but sometimes there is nothing there reaching back to us.
Inside, the only limit is our imagination—which too often to our detriment is not a limit at all.
Wondering how the other thinks. A process completely unknowable to us. This is part of the rupture inherent in speech, the cracks that it introduces through the uncertainty of both the abstract and the unknown. (If only we could know for “sure”!—a leap of faith is often required.) In fact, as fiction often chooses to represent, our own thinking is even often a mystery to us. What we want. What we desire. What we deny. What we are doing to ourselves or to others in the name of things which appear real to us but from the outside reveal themselves to be false: duty, propriety, social pressure… The pain, the difficulty, sometimes even violence that results—in fiction it is both easy and difficult to understand.