Two paper cups and a string
I am dragging myself to the computer tonight like a 9th-grader with a paper to write. Due tomorrow. It’s 10:36 PM and I haven’t started. Only it’s not a paper and I don't have to write it. It’s just sending a few notes out to the ether, picking up one end of a telephone made with paper cups and string. Listening to Arcade Fire and digging a tunnel, from my window to yours.
"But I don't know what to say." That's the lazy, discouraged part of myself talking to the part that felt determined to start posting every day. What was the point of that again? I'd rather watch Jon Stewart or listen to "A Child's Christmas in Wales" read by Dylan himself (not Bob!). There's nothing pressing that I need to write about right now.
I have noticed that May Sarton in her journals, Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron—they always start with a basic description of what they’re doing or where they are. Like Annie Dillard, they begin with the details. The flowers on the desk. The afternoon light. Like Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird, they start with something small enough to fit in a square-inch picture frame. Even John Greenleaf Whittier in his "Snowbound Winter Idyll" begins with the cheerless sun that brief December day.
Let go of your telescope. Forget your old journals. Put down the worn paperback Existentialism as Philosophy you found on your father's shelf. From the inscription it looks like an ex- girlfriend gave it to him in 1964. (I wonder where that ex-girlfriend is now, if she still believes she’s free at the exact moment when she’s not, or if now she thinks it’s the other way around.) Start with where you are, in this moment.
I am at my parents' house in Massachusetts with Wally. It's quiet. Wally's asleep in the next room. I can hear the rain outside and every now and then a giant gust of wind. Either that or parts of the roof sliding off (there was a contractor out there all day fixing something having to do with ice damns). After dinner, Wally and I took a walk in the rain. Most all the Christmas lights were still out. We walked along for a bit with a flashlight and Wally asked where Uncle Billy's house was. (That's where we spent Christmas day.)
"Uncle Billy doesn't live in this neighborhood," I tell him.
Wally stopped walking and looked up at me. "He's so far away."
We continued on a little further across the bridge. "I miss him so much," Wally said. I have to remember to tell Uncle Billy. Later over by the mailboxes we found a package of grapefruits for my parents. Alex is in New York. Tonight's the last night of Hanukah.
All day on and off I worked on the last section of my gross-o-pedia book for young adults. While Wally played in the library and then home with my mom, I was digging myself into piles of slime, blood, bile, pus, gore, guts, all kinds of horrible history, food that would make you want to throw up, disgusting customs, icky insects, bizarre rotten discoveries.
In between that I’ve been coaching my dad with this great short story he wrote a few years back. He has his patients and is running around getting wires at the hardware store, but in between that he works on his story and he works quickly. I give him tips and pointers, draw his attention to places that need to be changed. Take a graph from the end and make it the opening. You can’t suddenly jump into the other guy’s head only at the end. He takes suggestions well.
“You need a turning point here; why did she change her mind?” I am standing behind him at the computer.
“She just realized it wasn’t working.” He answers, hands poised over the keyboard.
“No, but there’s got to be some reason. There’s got to be some impetus. What changed?”
"It just fizzled out," he answers. Silence. He cranes his neck around. "No good?"
I shake my head. He opens up the document again and shoots off a new draft.
Why is silence often more helpful than an actual answer? It reflects back the question, forces reflection. Why is it so effective for therapists, to not answer, to let you keep digging that tunnel, or to let you choose to go another way when you don’t seem to be getting anywhere. Sometimes silence is infuriating, but powerful, too, forcing you to refine your thinking with no input other than the knowledge that something is not clear. There is this amazing quote about knowing things in emptiness and silence. In Zen Mind, Beginner Mind Shunryu Suzuki writes "If your mind is clear, true knowledge is already yours. When you listen to the teaching with a pure, clear mind, you can accept it as if you were hearing something, which you already knew. This is called emptiness, or omnipotent self, or knowing everything."
All this is related to intuition, creativity, myths, dream interpretation, and the collective unconscious. Lots of things I want to read about. I do, it turns out, have a lot I wanted to say, I just needed to begin. Engaging patients in free-associative thought was how Freud attempted to get at the inception of their disorders. I often feel that, in free-writing, I'm better able to track my compulsions and instabilities. I have to begin by listening to myself. As Harold Bloom writes in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, it is through monologues that Shakespeare’s characters grow and change. By talking out loud. They have to literally hear themselves think.
So it is with writing. I think of my advice to my dad about the character who changes in his story. Why did she change; what happened?
I do have a lot more to say. For now I'm just picking up that paper cup, attached to a string. Wondering if anyone's at the other end. Either way, I'm here.