Stereophonic Silence

Laurel Beach, December 2006

Q: Why haven't you written lately?

A: As far as telling personal stories to (relatively) large groups goes, I've always done it through songwriting, by writing obliquely. In fact wasn’t “oblique” a word  Time Out New York used to describe Dimestore Scenario during that one little moment of glory we had 10 years ago when someone caught our Cooler show complete with Joe’s endless, “eyebrow raising” solos? Yes. Oblique; indirect. That’s how I wrote, mostly, about my life. At least as far as others were concerned. Last American Childhood changed that, with an immediacy that revealed flaws—in both form and content, writing and thought, and in action perhaps most of all. That gave me pause, as did the attempt at honesty, which naturally ran into limits,  Silence, when shooting for honesty, is at times the only recourse. 

My journal tonight is the latest issue of the Iowa Review, Volume 40, Number 3. I mean the actual paper that I'm writing on. The scene is Ginger House, on 7th Avenue, where the bartender marvels that I can concentrate with such noise around me.  This is not the kind of place one comes to in order to write. It's not a nice little hum of people drinking coffee or Malbec in comfortable chairs but rather a clattering hookup scene with $4 cocktails, dumplings falling to the floor and people pushing every which way to try to crowd around the tiny bar. I tell her the noise is much less than what I face at home, which is only partly true. It's not that it's always so noisy, it's that the personal demands always seem so great. In Ginger House I'm surrounded, bumped into, leaned over, but no one is asking anything of me.

I go back and forth between reading parts of the magazine and writing on pages with lots of white space. I get weirdly mixed feelings reading stuff by “emerging” writers that I like. Excitement –almost a nervous excitement like in the past when I was about to get on stage, then something that I can only describe as a kind of envy, and finally an overwhelmed sense –too many people, too much talent to keep track of, the feeling that it'd be better to  narrow it down a bit, cross as many people as possible off the list of people whose work I'd like to read. Instead keep expecting great books from Mailer and Roth that I can rely on if not actually read, keep expecting them never to die (yes I realize that's too late now for the former). But all these random people like Kathryn Scanlan making breakthroughs in the Iowa Review? It’s too much. I’ll never get a handle on it. It feels too big and spiderwebby. I’m only now recently going back to re-reading Willa Cather--books I loved so much--after a break of many years. I feel easily discouraged by there being too many good things. Maybe it just illuminates how little time is left. But too many good things is not a bad thing, I have to remind myself. Although who was the philosopher who said we wish to be free of decisions? Kant or Heidegger. Someone else? 

Despite that fear of things being too big, spiraling out in all directions, I've found such peace in focusing on learning, reading, spending long hours in libraries (okay, I think that happened once in the past year). This is what we did growing up--looked for answers from people smarter than we were. Now I find myself seeking them from my peers, or worse. All that time on email, facebook, reading people's blogs ...these are people as lacking in insight as  I am, on occasion even more so. Sometimes I think that's why we're all feeling so lost. This is what we're looking to for guidance, things people dashed off on their iphones while reading Huffpo. There again I stumble upon another reason not to write. Why add to the clattering chaos and demands, to the "loud noises of the moment"? (Always loved that phrase from The Unvanquished.) Then that's followed by the fear that even writing that will sound like the blog equivalent of "Does this make my hips look too wide?" Like it sounds like I'm fishing for people to write "No, we love reading your blog". But in truth, I'm moving past that. I'm moving past the person I've written about who maybe would have depended on hearing people say that.

Diaries are grounded in time--that's largely the point of them--here's what I did today, on this fifth day of the year 2011. But then that's their weakness too, their vulnerabilty. Whatever you write down, whatever you portray yourself to be, you're further along than that by the time others read it, of course including your own other self. In Kathryn Scanlan's story in this Iowa Review she writes: "But the day after that, and the day after that for sure, I think things will start to change." It's a great little story. It won the fiction award for 2010. She coulda been a contender and she became one. She is self-actualizing, delivering on her potential. 

I've been reading Julian Baggini lately, What's it all about? On the train back from Brooklyn this morning there was a guy offering an easy answer to that question: Accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, choose life, not death. In between where I sat with Wally and this impromptu preacher were two enormous see-through bags of blown up balloons, pink, green and white, lovely and strange. Nobody could get past them, physically I mean, but nobody complained about them either. Just accepted; there are giants bag of inflated balloons blocking my way. It was a very New York scene, and by that I guess I mean improbable but entirely accepted. The guy preached for over 30 minutes straight. The balloons, I suppose, prevented him from moving smoothly on to another car.

Diaries are located in time, sometimes in small and embarrassing ways, but it’s nice too, to feel time, to mark it. And sometimes just to be inside it and not write at all. One other thing is that I always thought it was wrong to be lost in your own little world, even though that’s where I usually preferred to spend my time –in the woods or on desolate stretch of a beach in winter, under the wooden table on our backporch, writing in my journals, laying down the tracks that would become the Gowanus Sessions. Somehow all that was okay, but lost in your own world with a child always seemed to me to be solipsistic to the point of being unforgivable. I know I’m not the only one who felt that way, who said, “Congratulations” (from Sex and the City, or is it Seinfeld?) to news of a baby through gritted teeth. I don’t know why except that it symbolized so clearly one generation passing away, or at least moving on. Being so lost in your own little world with a child meant you were okay with everything you were leaving behind, the pool halls, the parking lots, the snow-covered green in front of the library clock tower, the view from under the BQE, the unbearable weight of nostalgia that had transformed itself somehow lately into a little voice that sounded so far away. 

There is a line from Absalom, Absalom about thinking that things should matter just because they once mattered. I had always felt it to be such a wrenching line. The lost imagined South, lost loves, friendships that outgrew themselves, the need to break away yet the heartache and longing that came after it was finally accomplished. But now it seems positive to me. Like you could spin it around. Things don't have to matter so much just because they once mattered. We can take pictures and write letters and make time capsules and document things that mattered so much to us. Then we can move forward, give ourselves permission to move on.

"We wake in the night, to stereophonic silence." 
Mignon McLaughlin, The Neurotic's Notebook, 1960. 


  1. Couldn't you argue that all that matters is that it matters once? It's the chaos theory of meaning; if it matters, it reverberates in ways that we can rarely see or even trace, nevertheless living in the ether, making its own small dent in the cosmos.

  2. Beautiful Rachel, and hard to read because I relate to so much of it. If I were to wake up one day and no longer have the chest-crushing urge to write, I guess I wouldn't. But it seems to be a life affliction. Seems we just have a larger field to access all the time for inspiration, highs and lows, as you point out. Glad you and I are part of that field...hope we balance the time mucking around in other people's words with time to drop into the zone and bring our own forth (as you have done here).

  3. It is not that all the bright moments, balloons of colorful thoughts and feelings on life's train don't matter...but they aren't "it"...are they?
    Longings have a special way of being not quite it when you get close enough...what matters is that you have a longing and it has a dialectic in your life that will keep you searching for what truly matters, what next matters, what even after the end...will matter?

  4. All three of these comments are so beautifully written, so thoughtful, so full that I just keep reading them over and over. (Yes to anonymous reader--it was Sartre, for one, who made it clear that humans prefer to believe they don't have a choice.) Hawkeye - that's a different take on it. One could argue that it matters because it mattered once independently of any after effect (what Eli and I used to refer to as "isolated moments of perfection" which in high school parlance sounded so musical and apt to us) or your way, that there is an impact, however invisible and distant, one that connects rather than separates us. Tania--I too am glad we are part of that field. "Chest-crushing urge to write" is wonderful, gets at the messiness of it, the sometimes despair. Although I love that Isak Dinesen line about writing "without hope and without despair". That would be a good goal to have for the new year. Jeanette --you're right the colorful, improbable, lighter-than-air but still trapped balloon moments aren't it, and it's certainly true that longing keeps us searching. We'd miss the search more than the thing we longed for. I love how you put it, a longing having a dialectic in our lives. (In the am book Baggini concludes that the meaning lies in the struggle more than the end goal). Your words call to mind that Cavafy poem about Odysseus's journey to Ithaca, the end (trans. Edmund Keely):

    "Always keep Ithaca on your mind.
    To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
    But do not hurry the voyage at all.
    It is better to let it last for many years;
    and to anchor at the island when you are old,
    rich with all you have gained on the way,
    not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

    Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
    Without her you would have never set out on the road.
    She has nothing more to give you.

    And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
    Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
    you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean."

  5. I think that's what growing up is really proving to be about. Clarifying the things that do matter, whether or not they "should." That's what most strikes me about being in my 30's-watching my calm and unoffended reaction to things which would have devastated me 10 years ago (or 2). As we gain clarity on who we are and embrace ourselves, including our weaknesses, there is a shift in the things that matter. I like it.

  6. Obviously, as our world continues to change what matters to us changes but some things that remain constant that we can all agree on that matters most are..a good book on music trivia, a good book on testing your dogs IQ (if you still have one and it hasn't yet been run over and killed by some distracted driver hurrying to get home so he could sit down and relax with HIS dog), a good book on Spanish curses (which we can refer to at almost any moment throughout the day, especially when dealing with people of Asian speaking descent), a good book on girly drinks (also appropriate for girly men), a good music CD developed in some low profile area of Brooklyn, and lastly, a the ability to never have come to mind a vision of your parents having sex.

  7. haaa -- thank you Robertal. the girl drinks book is definitely appropriate for girly-men and you falling into that category I suppose makes it politically correct to use that term? hope that's not offensive to any self-identified girly-men. So so horrendously sorry about your pup. You've been so brave. She was such a sweet and beautiful dog. The pix come up on my iphoto all the time from my parents CA trip two years ago or whenever that last none was


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