“I’ve missed your writing,” a new old friend told me the morning after a high school reunion. I think he asked why I haven’t been posting anything here, and I think I said something like, “I don’t know, not sure, life, busy,” but I don’t really remember.
Writing, for me, has always been a bit of a hot-cold thing. There have always been long periods when the words lie fallow. Earlier in my life, those times distressed me, but I came to accept that times of silence are just part of how it is for me. I don’t try to figure out what it’s about, something that became easier to do once I realized the dormancy wasn’t about laziness or lack of discipline or talent or anything I could construe as a character flaw. It’s something that just is, for me. Being able to be this kind of easy about what some might call writer’s block is one of the luxuries that come from not attaching this work to my livelihood. (Another way to look at it: Knowing this about myself is one of the reasons I made a decision not to attach this work to my livelihood.) Honestly, I don’t feel blocked. It’s not as if there are words rising behind some dam. It’s more like the stream has dried up. For now.
I do know, though, that the state of the world isn’t conducive to creative output from me. Last night I walked through a neighborhood I no longer recognize, so many of its modest bungalows and old shops replaced by shiny towers of commerce and soulless studio apartments, grey and white boxes that seem like the architectural equivalent of fast-fashion. In front of me was a 20-something white guy with a t-shirt that proclaimed “Fucked by Satan” in some obnoxiously loud font. He had a tattoo of a spoon on his forearm. He had a lot of tattoos, none of them artful, but that one stood out to me. Why a spoon? (Why not?, I suppose.) All around me were walls and noise and people with expensive shoes and posturing t-shirts and it was hard not to hate everyone and everything, including myself for being there. This feeling was not, of course, really about them.
Except, it also was. It was about all of us on Mississippi Ave. drinking over-priced drinks and artisan burgers in a food cart pod that rings a permanent deck and picnic tables and string lights, all of us kind of playing at being Portland-weird and funky and plain folks in a part of town that all of the plain folks who previously occupied it have been pushed out of while, you know, kids in the other Mississippi ended their first day of school sleeping on gym floors because their parents had been arrested at work for being brown in America. (Or, as we like to say, ‘Merca!.)
And the shootings, of course.
(What does it mean that we can write sentences such as that last one, shootings as afterthought, or as such a given they almost need not be mentioned?)
Writing–or any art-making–I think, is ultimately an act of love. We do it because we care about saying something that those we love might need to hear. Or to serve those we love in some way. It’s hard for me to make love when I feel surrounded by white guys in “Fucked by Satan” t-shirts. Or MAGA hats. Maybe that’s why I’ve been silent.
I know that when I’m having a “world is too much with us” kind of time, the standard antidote to is to get away from people for a while until I can see their beauty again. Or, at least, get away from the gentrified parts of Portland. (I think that last fragment contains a redundancy.) I know I should probably get my Wendell Berry on and go search for the peace of wild things. But it is hard to do that and not think about the rampant, unprecedented wild fires in the arctic. (Just when you think “And the shootings, of course” is the most outrageous sentence you might put in a blog post, one like that last one comes along to challenge that.)
It is hard to seek out nature and not think about the wild fires in Siberia and not think that perhaps the wild things would really appreciate it, perhaps, if fewer of us were practicing self-care and more of us were “taxing our lives with the forethought of grief” so that we might actually do some things to prevent the losses that could be prevented. Maybe we would if we knew what they were. Maybe there aren’t any things, really, and that is why we go out in stupid clothes and spend money stupidly on over-priced food and drink in pretentious settings. Or why I do.
The day after the reunion I visited the beach I always went to for solace and guidance during adolescence, and I realized that what was comforting about it was the sense I had not just of the water’s size–which put my worries and problems into perspective–but also of its permanence. Somehow knowing that the tide would continue to come in and go out long after I would be able to sit on the shore watching it do so helped me endure whatever I was having trouble enduring. I know the planet has never been fixed, that it is always changing, adapting, transforming. But. When I go to find the peace of wild things any more what I feel most is grief, the kind you feel when you miss someone before they’ve even left you.
So what I’ve been doing instead of writing is painting a bathroom (among other things). While I sanded obsessively to rid the door jamb of ridges of (probably lead-based, but honestly, I find it hard to care about that these days) paint, I listened to the audio book of Chuck Wendig’s The Wanderers, a Stephen Kingesque novel of a possible apocalypse. It was political and social commentary wrapped in a page-turner, profane and funny and frothy and deadly serious all at the same time. I truly disliked the performance of one of the narrators, but I listened to all 32 hours and 22 minutes of it just the same. (Deep ridges of paint. Paint that I should probably have just accepted as it was.) Sometimes there is solace to be had in sci-fi horror. It’s scary because the horror is rooted in what is real, but the world of the novel is so much worse than the one we’re actually inhabiting. Or, at least, it feels that way. Mostly. (I suspect the fictional white nationalists’ arsenals might be too spot-on.)
Anyway, I knew of the book because I read Wendig’s blog, which is profane and funny and frothy and deadly serious all at the same time. He has written more than once about the need to create things in times such as these, difficult as it can be in such times because it is easy to feel that art is frivolous when there are so many, many fires (both literal and metaphorical) that we’d like to put out. How is a poem (or blog post) going to save the planet or house the homeless or pick up those children from school? It’s not. But, Chuck (and others, notably Toni Morrison, who died this week) argue that art is essential in times such as these, when we need to connect with our humanity and each other and keep ourselves whole. If you think about it too much (which I am wont to do), the whole thing becomes paralyzing: Both writing and not-writing can feel like self-centered indulgence.
But, as I wrote at the beginning of this ramble, writing or not writing is mostly not a choice for me. I can try to force it, but I’ve learned that doing so doesn’t really work for me. Still, I’m writing these words now, I guess, even though I didn’t really feel like doing it when I sat down at my computer this morning, because I want to say that if you are feeling off your game (whatever that game might be) and maybe not even playing it, that might be OK. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are weak or lazy or overly privileged and just need to buck up and get to it. (I mean, maybe all of those things are true, but lack of productivity is not damning evidence of it.) We are living through a hard, shitty time, and most of us are doing the best we can. That’s not an artful sentence, but I’m pretty sure it’s a true one. I think it’s important to say things that are true, even if plainly is the only way we can muster to say them. Pay attention to what’s happening, and cut yourself some slack if need be. You’ll do what you need to, when you need to, when you can, as you can. Isn’t that what all of us are always doing?
I am writing these words now, I guess, as an act of love, both for myself and for you who are reading them. I don’t really hate you, even if it seems like I said I do. Not even if you’re wearing a MAGA hat, even though I really, really hate what you’re doing. You are kinda wearing me out and breaking my heart, but I don’t hate you. I am writing these words now, this morning because I tend to believe that love is more verb than noun, and connecting with our humanity is something we could all benefit from doing more of, and sometimes acting as if is the only way to make things so.