Monday, May 13, 2013

babel


Reader

I am sorry I haven’t written in so long. I realize I always apologize for not having written and I hope you continue to forgive me for it.

It's warm out now; almost summer. February is long gone. The winter seems like it never happened. 

I have not written because I am having trouble writing. By saying I am having trouble writing, I mean I am having trouble thinking.  I think mostly through writing and only once I have written about something do I feel that I have truly lived it.

I have not written because I am overwhelmed by my inability to chronicle it all. I realize it might seem strange to have existential consternation about something that hardly anyone reads, and is inconsequential in most ways, but I look at writing as so much a part of my ability to internalize and understand the world that things build up and I feel that any attempt to explain it would be deficient. I would rather not write about something than write in a way that impoverishes it.

Reader, do you remember when I first wrote to you when I came to DC? About making ideas happen? I had no idea what was in store for me in the next nine months. And if I did, I might not have even come. But it's good I didn't know, because these were the things that had to happen. 

I wanted to write about what the past nine months have taught me about integrity, humility, and resilience. I have learned a lot. I have learned that it is difficult to stay positive when it seems like things are falling apart.

Somehow it seems like everything falls apart at the same time.

I have learned that there is only so much disorganization I can manage in my life, but as time goes on my perception of my ability to manage has evolved. The disorganization seems to be on a parallel trajectory to what I can manage, and each ascension in disorganization is matched by ascension in my ability to manage it. 

The most important thing that I have learned is to see the rarity in things where other people would see only tedium or pain. I am continually overstimulated by life, and there are these little things that get me all the time. At a few points it has been these things that have sustained me.

If I have a talent, it is appreciating those moments when they happen for their singularity. I consistently attempt to create synthesis, to create order where there is none. But lately that has eluded me, so what I have is moments crystallized in time. 

***

On Valentine's Day I had a bad cold. I showed up to the restaurant I work at wearing the wrong shoes. I hadn't been home all day; where I was temporarily living was under construction and I had to be out of the house by 8:30 am when the construction workers would come into my temporary room and continue to knock walls down. This was doubly problematic because I was currently unemployed except for working evenings at the restaurant, so during the day I tried to write at small cafes until I had to go to work. I tried to read too, but my concentration was at an all-time low. I switched between Nietzsche and the Economist to feel as if I was still learning, which didn't add up to an uplifting experience. All my clothes were in a pile on the couch and I had no idea where most of my stuff was. We could only use the water, in one shower, at certain times and having four roommates made that difficult.

I showed up to the restaurant that evening wearing shoes that my manager said were not appropriate for work (he wasn't wrong in that statement, they were borderline slippers; I had no idea where my work appropriate heels were and wearing them for my six hour shift while feeling horrible seemed unappealing). I took the inflated heart balloons from behind the bar to the patio and started tying them to the railing. I didn't care that it was Valentine's Day, but I did care that I felt that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being homeless, I was at a 6 and sliding upward. 

I wondered why I had decided to move to a city that was currently draining my resources and my mental well-being. It seemed ironic that at that time last year I had been in front of a class full of students three years my junior and had been paid to teach them. I wondered how I could have been considered qualified to teach anyone. I thought of living at home over the summer; working at Nordstrom and feeling completely unstimulated but very content. I was well-dressed and making money, and when people asked for recommendations on what jewelry they should buy I could respond by explaining that Chanel's runway show had established faded neon as THE fall trend. The shoe trend was toeless heeled boots in the burgundy color we had coined "oxblood."

I thought about the night before, Ash Wednesday. I knew that was when I got the cold. It was an evening of freezing rain and I had gone to a Spanish mass in Columbia Heights. There must have been more than 200 people in the church and the service was two hours. I speak Spanish but the Mass made no sense to me.

I thought about that, and my mind went far away from the Lebanese restaurant in the Northwest quadrant of Washington.

I tied heart balloons to the patio railing and tried not to detract from the festive environment.



During the most tumultuous times I got advice and encouragement from people who spoke to me with the idea that everything would work out for me because it had for them. I always appreciated the sentiment and entertained the idea in the moment but it slept away from me at night. Sometimes the intensity of the darkness at 3am made it impossible for me to sleep. 

I told my friend about the negative effects that stress has on me, from insomnia to a racing heart to getting sick. He said, Wow, since your body is so in tune with your mind you are going to need to fulfill your destiny; your health is at stake.



I had the option of going home. That door never closed on me, and knowing that made the situation exponentially more bearable. That option, though, seemed tantamount to giving up, and that has never been a habit of mine.



The next day I woke up and did basically what had become routine over the past few weeks. I came home in the evening to change before work, and noticed something on my desk behind the sheets of tarp. It was a bouquet of flowers with the message "Happy Valentine's Day! Here's to waking up with a smile (sorry it's a bit late)." It took me a moment to register who could have gotten in my disheveled room to leave it, and remembered the construction worker who generally woke me up in the morning so they could start work. I attempted to make conversation with him while still being half asleep and trying to get everything I would need for the day out of my room. I had thought of myself as barely functioning during those mornings, trying to suppress my accumulated exhaustion and frustration. I had never thought that the small talk even made sense. On February 15th my Valentine's Day turned around.


***


I joined a writing group that meets every week to read each other's work. On the first night I went, we all went to a nearby bar after the writing and editing session. "We are drinkers with a writing problem," the group leader explained. Only a handful of people had driven, so as a loose collaboration of relative strangers we all crammed into the cars. I was in a car with two people who had been in my smaller writing group, including a retired professor, who was driving. When I got in the back I noticed that there was a bag full of band-aids, gauze, and antiseptic. When we parked at the bar I asked him if I could have a band aid for a burn I had gotten on the inside of my forearm the night before. I had gotten it at the restaurant taking bread out of the oven and it had been stinging all day. "Of course," he said.

I was fumbling with the gauze and scissors as he parked. He closed his door and came over to me and extended my arm to expedite the process. I winced as the skin around the burn pulled. I rolled up my sleeve and he looked at it; it looked worse than it had the night before.

"Good God girl, what'd you do here? This is going to scar." He took the antiseptic out of the bag and applied it. His hands moved deftly. I asked him if he was injured, because I felt bad using his medical supplies if he needed them.

 "No," he said, taping a piece of gauze firmly over the burn. "My wife has leukemia and her skin gets fucked up because it's really delicate. I help her put these on at night."

"I'm so sorry," I said, taken aback. He had finished the bandaging and took my backpack out of the back seat. He insisted on carrying it into the restaurant, even though I told him the pain had mostly subsided. I thanked him for the ride, for bandaging up the burn and for carrying my backpack. The burn started getting better after that night. In the restaurant I asked if he was ever scared to write about things that were personal. He said no; what writers can offer is truth. Writers contribute by exposing themselves. He said if you water it down, what's the point? 


***


I talk to customers at the restaurant all the time, and once in a while I meet the most interesting people. One person came in reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest; he was a psychologist from the convention across the street. I told him it was one of my favorite books. He had just started it, and he asked me questions about it and what to expect. I told him I loved it, but it was sad. Most great books seem to either have a sad ending or very sad elements to them. I told him about how I wrote a report on it in high school, and focused on the religious symbolism pervasive throughout it.

We talked about literature and he liked a lot of the same things I did. When I told him Anaïs Nin was my favorite writer, he said he had slept in her bed. I looked at him blankly for a second, because he did not appear to be older than 35, and Anaïs Nin died in the 70s. He explained that he had lived in France and worked at a bookstore that was popular for writers in the 1920s. There was a historic guest house still open somewhere in the winding streets of Paris where Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin used to stay.  It sounded like the French version of the Chelsea Hotel.  There is some kind of visceral connection from sleeping in someone's bed, even when they're not sleeping in it.

***

Reader, I told you I do not have synthesis. As I watch the bright refractions of the late spring sun falling in sheets on the Potomac, I feel grateful for all the moments it took to get here, even the bad ones.

What I have learned is that sometimes things are difficult. When the situation became very demoralizing, there were always indicators that things would get better. There were always these moments.  If at times it's difficult to see them, just keep your eyes open and eventually it will get easier.

I learned that life is ultimately enriched by passing moments of sorrow.  Light, shadows, and darkness must all exist at the same time. Life is comprised mostly by what you give attention to.

People say it's the little things, and it sounds kind of trite. But it truly, truly is the little things. And really, they're not little things. They're big things but we don't notice them and that trivializes them. But they are there, every moment we are awake and even when we're half asleep.