Over Coffee: The art of reading, writing and caring

As my need for escapism intensifies in an environment of smothering political chaos, stacks of books are piling up around me. To keep from obsessing over the madness emanating from Washington during this past year of demagoguery and discontent, I’m pondering the nature of literature as a deterrent to despondency.

Oooops. Wait. My phone is vibrating across my desk. A news alert. Forget it. Mueller can wait. It’s finally the weekend. Back to literature. Coffee close by.

The value of literary art is aptly rendered in an “Author’s Note” by Marilynne Robinson published Sept. 24 in The New York Times Book Review.  “In almost every major literature there are works that make you love being human, and make you love and revere the humanity of other people,” Robinson writes in the column adapted from an essay entitled “Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.”

Is there actually something that RIGHT NOW could make me love the humanity of you know who? Or, if not that, could I at least despise a few people a little less by, say, late next week?

Of course authors of the books I read deserve credit for their dedication to story and plot and character development, and for respecting and enlivening language while probing and expanding creative expression. But the deepest, most genuine nature of the literary arts requires involvement and even dedication on the other end; pushing a literary work to its highest possible level requires involvement from the reader as artist. This reader is one who knows to listen when there is something to hear, to contemplate when a deeper principle or insight can be unearthed, to imagine, extrapolate and allow the story being told to expand beyond the pages, outside the book’s covers.

Two books published this year – the novel “A House Among the Trees” by Julia Glass and the short story collection “Fresh Complaint” by Jeffrey Eugenides – left me writing down excerpts because I didn’t want to lose the feelings of recognition and resonance gained through the wisdom and insights of the authors. These works allow me, as the reader, to become a discoverer with something to claim as my own after being led through frontiers exposing much to treasure.

Perhaps certain excerpts inspire me because of what my subconscious is probing when I commit to considering deeper meanings underlying the author’s observations or descriptions. With all that’s been on my mind since, oh, I don’t know, about a day after the last U.S. presidential election, it’s apropos for the first excerpt included here to be a deft one from the Eugenides’ short story “Great Experiment,” written in 2008. “One’s country was like one’s self. The more you learned about it, the more there was to be ashamed of,” he writes.

One of the characters in the Glass novel pulls me in with this: “So much in her life is still so unfamiliar that sometimes she mistakes fear or uncertainty for regret. Not that she can pretend she has no regrets.” Another gem: “But that’s the netherland of night distorting what she knows by day, which is that she is back in the middle of life, the roiling, muddled middle, and it’s hers. …”

Yes, indeed. Nice stuff coming off these pages – like the essence of the “roiling, muddled middle” that feels like it’s all mine today.

In one passage, Glass describes a walk across New York’s Central Park: “Neither of them knew the paths, which seemed deliberately confusing, as if designed to foil your sense of direction, not deviously but mercifully, as if the park were urging you, Listen! Life is not a mission. Get lost a little, will you?

Yes, indeed. Get lost in a story, let it challenge you to think and experience, to question and contemplate, even to imagine, dread or desire.

In “Complainers,” the first story in Eugenides’ new collection, I found wisdom and reassurance: “Pay no attention to the terrors that visit you in the night. The psyche is at its lowest ebb then, unable to defend itself. The desolation that envelops you feels like truth, but isn’t. It’s just mental fatigue masquerading as insight.”

Ah yes – desolation born of tainted attempts to mask, manipulate and deny the truth. (Sound familiar?)

Eugenides is masterful in getting to the heart of easily misunderstood or overlooked characters, as he does in interpreting observations of an 88-year-old woman suffering from dementia. “Looking at the snow, blowing around beyond the window glass, Della has the feeling that she’s peering into her own brain. Her thoughts are like that now, constantly circulating, moving from one place to another, just a whole big whiteout inside her head.”

The interpretation by Eugenides of what Della thinks and feels warms with clarity, even though those in her life often are mystified by her behavior. “Going out in the snow, disappearing into it, wouldn’t be anything new to her,” Eugenides writes. “It would be like the outside meeting the inside. The two of them merging. Everything white. Just walk on out. Keep going. Maybe she’d meet someone out there, maybe she wouldn’t. A friend.”

These works by Glass and Eugenides have made me care about their characters, to want to understand them. I also want to know more about these writers and their motivations, and about how they get from the blank page to such meaningful written words.

About the mission facing all writers, Robinson writes: “When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected.”

Literature – complete with artistic mystery and written intrigue – is providing much more than a distraction from the concerns I have about the social disintegration around me that began accelerating a year ago. I’ll keep reading to increase my understanding of people and places, of threats and less sinister developments. And I’ll keep appreciating the work of creative artists who venture into the unknown and help me become a discoverer in my own way.

As Robinson says: “Writing should always be exploratory.”

Same with reading, my escapism of choice.

Into an empty sky

Sometimes I can’t write if I hear a clock ticking.

Or if the room is too quiet. Or if it seems my surroundings are too still, like every reminder of life has been squeezed out of the room, the atmosphere, the universe. (Confession: When this happens, I am prone to exaggerate, repeat words or ideas, even disregard grammar rules.)

For some reason, I continue breathing. Here at the keyboard, I am stilled but alive, yearning for expression, but paralyzed.

I have a pulse. I have neural recognition and mobility. I think I have function and purpose, but I cannot prove it. I know I am breathing because I am not in physical distress.

I need, I don’t know – SOMETHING – to trigger synaptic activity, to translate SOMETHING, ANYTHING to the page. A sound, a rhythm, a reminder that time is passing and I am on Earth to record something, register a feeling, highlight an idea, or something, somewhere, even if only through a fictional character, a made-up scene, a story that doesn’t exist – and won’t exist – until I give it contours, until I infuse this manufactured reality with meaning, construct a plot, add depth, or dream to rise beyond razored edges with poignant conflict.

What is this beast that confounds me? (Truly an agile, almost Shakespearean transition.)

This beast, this monster – it’s something so big it loses size, like being overwhelmed, or buried, or ignored, by silence. (This is not a contradiction, but rather irony suffused with dissonance.) Ticking, ticking. Relentless. And then, this beast – also mundane, at times solicitous in its own domain. I search for the forgotten, perhaps abandoned and sometimes pulsating life form within Poe’s heart, another creature that never dies.

My intellect tells me nothing holds me down, but I can’t move. I honestly CANNOT MOVE. (OKAY, I GOT TO THE CAPS LOCK KEY. BUT TRUST ME, I CANNOT MOVE IN A MEANINGFUL WAY. AT LEAST NOT, RIGHT, NOW.)

IF ONLY I COULD HEAR THE TICKING OF A CLOCK, COULD KNOW LIFE GOES ON, COULD BELIEVE THOUGHTS AND COLORS, TEXTURES AND MEMORIES – THESE ALL GIVE MEANING TO MY EXISTENCE BECAUSE I WILL COMMUNICATE ALL THAT I SEE, HEAR, FEEL. I PROMISE!

But here, nothing.

ONE DEEP BREATH. 

EXHALE.  

ANOTHER.

Exhale.  

I’m moving again, perhaps more confident, more assured of why I am here, at the keyboard, in this time, this place.

I am the writer, the one who describes, relates, understands, conveys. I inform, interpret, analyze. I share. And then —

Illusions take shape. (Is that even possible?)

With fingers poised above home row, reality tugs at my brain. I fight the urge to push back. It’s the invisible demon again. (At least I think this devil is invisible; I can’t see it, but I know it’s there.) Right there, yet again, perched on my shoulder. Then the jumping, up and down, a sour voice hissing in my ear: You can’t write! You can’t write.

Next, more menacing: You can’t write. Not now, not ever. Never! Never! Never!

(The devil gets italics AND boldface. You caught that, right?)

Another day: I sit down to write and stop before I even get going, before I’ve found a reason to smile because I like that word there, or this idea nudged alongside a deft description here, or that unplanned cadence or measured tone, perhaps even alliteration that works but seems more like a lucky find than a developed result. Before I get to any of that, I stop, move away, decide something has to be done before I can get going, before I get to be the musician playing keyboards, underscoring today’s existence with a steady beat, adding melody to musing.

Do I hear a clock ticking?

Today is one of THOSE days, when sound – any sound – is an unleashed fury, the wind doesn’t soothe but singes, more like a dreaded goodbye from a close friend than a harbinger of welcome change or harbor of comfort. Then, like so many times, silence becomes the treasure in today’s realm, even though the clock, just, keeps, ticking. …

… on and on and on …

This is what it’s like when I can’t write: The clock keeps ticking, or it doesn’t. Or the devil convinces me I should be doing something else because there are so many other things that need to be done and, well, you know, THE CLOCK IS TICKING!

Or it’s not.

If a door is shut, then it needs to be opened. Same with windows. And the inverse is true as well: If a door or window is open, it needs to be closed. Maybe I should start a load of laundry before I write; maybe then I will think I’m being productive and more likely to ignore distractions because I am convinced that I’ve earned the right to sit down and write.

So how does the next scene go?

I’m headed upstairs, walking through the kitchen when I see the green light glowing on the dishwasher. The solitary green light means only one thing: the cycle has finished. I’ll just take a minute, empty the dishwasher, get a bottle of cold water from the fridge, and then I won’t have any reason to stop writing once I get going.

I put the last glass in the cupboard, close the silverware drawer with my hip. Then, I see it: One of the bulbs in the fixture over the fireplace is out. Where did I put the spares? I know I bought extras the last time I went to the store, or someone did. I know we have more bulbs, and it’s a lot easier to read with all bulbs in place. …

… and on and on and on …

There are so many reasons not to write. So many battles to fight to get to the keyboard, so many challenges to overcome to start writing, and so many hassles that bedevil my best creative efforts, however they present themselves.

Now the blank black sky of my cherished pre-dawn hours is blueing. A creeping exhaustion pervades. I lift my fingers off of the keyboard, anchor my elbows on the blond wood of my desk, rest head in hands.

Desperation, hints of fear, and then, at last, hope rises. Perhaps the biggest challenge is embracing solitude in quiet hours. Chasing affirmation, I close my eyes. I begin typing: 

         The writer writes

         to stake a claim

         in the empty sky.

 

Moon children

Thinking of a kindred spirit. You know who you are.

The moon draws me in.

I gasp sometimes when I look up and there it is — the moon suspended in time and motion, slivered, full, or somewhere between extremes.

That’s where we are now, each of us in our own way, between extremes, looking up and all around, seeking perspective, inspiration and meaning. Introspection is a solitary journey in many ways, yet, in spirit, we also go together at times.

If you were here with me now, I would say this: Think of the moon as a promise, definite and defining. Imagine and contemplate the many shades of revelations and vows, varying or hidden, to live light and dark.

Even when clouds obscure it, there is a masked brilliance.

This is the moon I see. It is wisdom implied, sometimes even harvested.

Maybe it rises golden, or pale. Is it burnished by atmospherics? Or do we do that with our vision?

Maybe tonight’s moon is a highlight, or a spotlight illuminating autumn blue, or whispering silver to blackness.

Suppose the moon is a piece of one being or one essence that carries us beyond the present, or into another realm. Do we sweep like winds across the face of truth, or fear, or remembrance, maybe even standing now as witnesses to these shards coming together if only for the briefest time possible?

I once wrote this line: “Like a quick cut of a switchblade moon.” I feel something like that now, a segue to another idea warming me deep within: Maybe this is how you make a friendship whole. At first it seems unrelated, this thought, but I trust the process that gets me from here to there.

I take in many reflections from my place down here, under the moon, staring into a night sky crisp, or sultry, or haunting. And I go with them.

The moon makes me aware of obscurity, what is unknown and without reason. These thoughts nurture and nourish me. Is this because I want to know clarity and feel comforted in its absence as well?

Can’t say. But I like pondering these ideas, for now at least, while I am thinking about my soul mate and friend on the West Coast.

We are Moon Children, both born in mid-July, one day apart.

That was back when the moon was a beacon and a dream. Do you think it is the same moon now as it was then?

We are Moon Children, together and apart.

And friends forever, not just because of that specific closeness we share. But it gives us one more reason to smile, thinking back and recalling all that we see that is the same. But still and beyond, we have loved celebrating differences, too.

Even when we surprised ourselves, we found value in symbiosis. I’m thinking now of the time we laughed while racing the train.

Was there a moon in the sky that night? To be honest, I don’t know. I was staring at the train, then the speedometer.

Then I saw your eyes and thought: You can have laughing eyes! Despite what our journalism professors said when stressing precision in writing, you truly can have laughing eyes.

Somehow we knew: We wouldn’t go too far in that race with the train. We would go just far enough and fast enough to make it funny. That’s what we did, taking it just far enough to make us laugh at a prospect that didn’t really exist.

Was that our secret? The whole train incident, I mean. I didn’t tell anyone about it, did you?

I decided it’s okay to mention it now because we did the right thing. Even when you love to laugh, you must respect the right things. And we do.

Last fall, the laughter came again, strained at first, but it was true despite the blue tinge.

Then it grew, warming, comforting. Imagine yellows turning to orange, darkening to red. Deepening still.

I was in despair over a family thing. It didn’t seem right to intrude on your time and thoughts. You rejected that idea. Maybe even scoffed. I think I knew you would.

Like always, you helped me put the bad stuff to rest. You validated my pain and fear. You acknowledged the hurt, you held it for a time, then you helped me cast it aside.

We are so good together, even when divided by this vast continent.

We didn’t always acknowledge down sides. At least that’s the way I see it. We wanted to be about the laughter and maybe only the laughter. It was so genuine and made me feel so free. We backed away from threatening edges.

Not now. Now we walk up to the precipice, study the steep drop into the unknown. We must know what we can about all we confront.

When I was surveying the jagged contours of my landscape, you told me: “You must find a reason to laugh every day.”

And then we laughed.

You were focusing on me, not on your looming reality: Surgery, chemo, radiation.

We laughed about that. You, in that moment, were consoling me. With all you faced, my feelings became your priority.

Then we said these words to each other: Surgery, chemo, radiation.

I repeat them when people ask about you: First, there was surgery. Then chemo. And then radiation.

Then I do a quick cut, like a switchblade moon.

I talk about us laughing. Sometimes I escape (or entertain?) with a story.

We have so many tales to tell, like those about lost security deposits. Or the many other travails of our college years. Or your tried and true approach to battling boredom or decorating challenges by hanging things on the walls, requiring the pounding of lots and lots of nails.

Up they went: Macramé plant holders. Photos. Posters. Even the bird cage that held the Larry Bird photo – a cutout from Sports Illustrated.

I loved the zaniness that was always there. I love having you as my kindred spirit.

For so long, our worlds were about promise and hope and hard work. We plotted strategies, shared inspirations. We cashed our checks, bought clothes and cars, loved our families.

Hey, don’t worry; this isn’t a eulogy.

So let me break the adoration fest by saying: Sometimes you drive me crazy. Even that makes me laugh.

And, of course, laughing reminds me of you.

Here’s how it usually works: I laugh. Because I am laughing, you start. With you laughing, I can’t stop.

I love the way you just keep laughing. Then you plead with me to stop making you laugh. (You don’t really mean it, do you?)

I laugh with you in spirit when we are not together but somehow find the time for one of those great long-distance chats by phone. I laugh sometimes alone, when I remember something funny you did or said.

Sometimes I laugh when I am not alone but remember something funny about you. This perplexes people and that, in turn, becomes funny, even hilarious at times.

Moon Children.

You and me.

Birthdays: July 16th and July 17th.

And still counting.

And laughing.

Still.