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Victory and Loss: Solnit’s Letter to My Dismal Allies on the US Left

Rebecca Solnit ends her letter, (though it was published, online, in The Guardian, on October 15, 2012, I’ve just run into it and find it – still – relevant for many reasons, which I’ll try to capture here), by saying the following :

There are really only two questions for activists: what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And those two questions are deeply entwined. Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style.

That is the small ongoing victory on which great victories can be built, and you do want victories, don’t you? Make sure you’re clear on the answer to that, and think about what they would look like.

Solnit also says:

There is idealism somewhere under this pile of bile, the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be. That’s why the perfect is the enemy of the good. Because, really, people, part of how we are going to thrive in this imperfect moment is through élan, esprit de corps, fierce hope and generous hearts.

Solnit is, for me anyway, trying to channel, (to some extent and falling dramatically short), Slavoj Žižek, the Slovanian Marxist philosopher, psychoanalist, and cultural critic. (To directly cite Žižek would be disastrous for her, I’m sure.)

I see Solnit’s thinking and language parallel Žižek’s in primarily two texts: Žižek‘s The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), and the more recent, his Demanding the Impossible, a conversation edited by Yong-june Park (2013).

Let’s begin with Solnit’s assertion, There are really only two questions for activists: what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be? And I agree with Solnit that these are deeply entwined questions.

In the first chapter of Demanding the Impossible, titled “Politics and Responsibility,” Žižek argues the following (and it’s relevant to see it entirely to note the parallel):

What is a common good today? OK, let’s say ecology.  Probably most people would agree, even though we are politically different, that we all care about the earth.  But if you look closely, you will see that there are so many ecologies on which you can have to make so many decisions.  Having said that, my position here is very crazy.  For me, politics has priority [underline for emphasis in original] over ethics.  Not in the vulgar sense that we can do whatever we want – even kill people and then subordinate ethics to politics – but in a much more radical sense that what we define as our good is not something we just discover; rather, it is that we have to take responsibility [underline for emphasis in original] for defining what is our good.

In this sense, priority and responsibility as valuable standards by which to address the questions, what do you want to achieve? And who do you want to be?, appear to respond, in one way, to what we first need to consider if we’re going to respond to Solnit’s questions appropriately.

Only Žižek might argue that Solnit is passing from one extreme into another.

What does that mean?

Every minute of every hour of every day you are making the world, just as you are making yourself, and you might as well do it with generosity and kindness and style, says Solnit.  This is a compulsion, Žižek says, for a sort of partial harmony (Demanding the Impossible); it is defining the world we live in by contrast when, what we need to answer Solnit’s questions is, first, another set of relevant – perhaps the most relevant – questions:  How do we imagine individual freedom?  And how do we imagine the common good?  

Listen to Žižek and  you see where Solnit stops short in her analysis:

The first thing I would like to do is show how absurd it is to urge that we have two extremes and need to find the balance.  These two extremes already flow into each other.  That is why “synthesis” does not affirm the identity of extremes, but on the contrary, affirms their differences as such. So the synthesis delivers difference from the “compulsion to identify.”  In other words, the immediate passage of an extreme into its opposite is precisely an index of our submission to the compulsion to identify.

It is precisely this bind that compels us to re-examine Solnit’s proposition –  generosity and kindness and style as a solution – and turn it back on itself.  Generosity and kindness and style suggest that we live in a world that’s the polar opposite – not generous, unkind and cruel, without style.  Of course, these negatives do come with style – maybe a style that’s harsh, brash and vulgar, but style nevertheless.  This reality – or truth – puts those on the political Left, which Solnit is addressing, already on the defensive, evident in the reactions Solnit is criticizing; likewise, since those on the political Right don’t see themselves as cruel, unkind and styleless, we are once again in the place Solnit wishes we were not.

What’s the problem, here?

For starters, though Solnit feigns taking responsibility, which she does not allude to not at all, and certainly not on Žižek’s terms, we are left moving far afield from the critical questions – How do we imagine individual freedom?  And how do we imagine the common good? – and back into a political tug of war.

The irony – or the joke – is that this is how Solnit sees us moving towards a sustainable, compassionate, perhaps egalitarian and healthy and certainly more balanced world. Somehow generosity and kindness and style will begin to take us there.  Perhaps. Yet, I see Solnit’s call as Žižek does: an unsustainable attempt to move towards the measure of balance because, as Žižek argues, the very measure of what is extreme has changed.  So for me this is the true revolution.  It is that totality changed; the very measure of the extremes changed.  For Solnit extremes are not going away, so we have to learn how to negotiate with each other – generosity and kindness and style.  The world we have will remain.

Will we then have a world within a world? One generous, kind and stylish, moving a particular agenda, the other unkind, boorish and vicious, moving their agenda crudely.

It is here, in Žižek’s thinking, that we are closest to what Solnit is trying to get at when she admonishes – well – the admonishments she, and others on the political left, receive when privileging a good while the same person – Obama = Obamacare + drones – is also responsible for a bad, or even evil, as in the killing of innocent children while also protecting others.

Does the common good, always already arrive to us with good and evil?  Is this how we achieve stability, today, or how we define it? Is this who we are?

Historically, we live in a time that, when we talk about stability, says Žižek, it means the stability of dynamic development.  It is totally a different logic of stability from that of pre-modern times.  

Listen: stability is the stability of instability.  Say it again.

The lesson of politics, says Žižek, is that you cannot distinguish between means and ends (goals).

This is how we land on Solnit’s notions of idealism, which, she says, is the pernicious idealism that wants the world to be perfect and is disgruntled that it isn’t – and that it never will be.  Solnit is closest to Žižek when he describes the source of totalitarian: The greatest mass murders and holocausts have always been perpetrated in the name of man as harmonious being, of a New Man without antagonistic tension (The Sublime Object of Ideology).

Think la Reconquista and the expulsion of the Moors and and the Fall of Granada in 1492 – begin there.  Then in the same year, Columbus, instead of reaching Japan as he had intended, discovers a New World.  And work your way through history and note how the ideology of a New Man without antagonistic tension wanders through as a harmonious being in a wave of mass murders and holocausts.

The only way this can happen, always, over and over, is if the first condition of ideology is met: individuals partaking in it are not aware of its proper logic, says Žižek.  If we come to ‘know too much,’ to pierce the true functioning of social reality, this reality would dissolve itself.

This is why the emperor never has any clothes, as Solnit posits.  He is always already naked – only we don’t know it.

It’s best to go further and bring it to a close listening to Žižek, fully:

This is probably the fundamental dimension of ‘ideology’: ideology is not simply a ‘false consciousness’, an illusory representation of reality, it is rather this reality itself which is already to be conceived as ‘ideological’ – ‘ideological’ is a social reality whose very existence implies the non-knowledge of its participants as to its essence – that is, the social effectivity, the very reproduction of which implies that the individuals ‘do not know what they are doing’. ‘Ideological is not the ‘false consciousness’ of a (social) being but this being itself in so far as it is supported by ‘false consciousness’.  Thus we have finally reached the dimension of the symptom, because one of its possible definitions would also be ‘a formation whose very consistency implies a certain non-knowledge on the part of the subject’: the subject can ‘enjoy his symptom’ only in so far as its logic escapes him – the measure of the success of its interpretation is precisely its dissolution.

And here we are, inside this ‘ideological bubble’:

  • Solnit points to the non-knowledge of the left
  • Generally speaking, in Solnit’s words, none of us know what we are doing – not the left, not the right, not anyone
  • Yet we are involved in doing, what Solnit suggests is the making of the world
  • This is the false consciousness supporting us, what we are doing without knowing, always
  • We are, in the West, especially in the US, most of us, involved in the greatest perversity of all: we are enjoying ourselves, even as murderers and holocausts abound

The solutions are, perhaps beginning with Solnit, as here, but then moving to the more critical: How do we imagine individual freedom?  And how do we imagine the common good? And doing so with responsibility.  It’s the only way out of the bind of trying to create a balance among contrasts, a shallow exercise that leads us back into the bind we’re in.   It’s not about victories, as Solnit says; it’s about knowing and understanding where difference are – and they’re always a moving target.

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My Final Post on Getting Lost: Lost in the Funhouse…

Our students thrash about because we do; students are terribly confused because we are; we are all a danger to ourselves. And, as far as I am concerned – in one humble opinion – we dutifully adhere to the most medieval institution, the University, without realizing that, before our eyes, it has metamorphosed into an exotic multinational business like any other – and students are our last concern. 

Read more here…

The Secret in the Mirror: From section 2 of Imagining Amsterdam

The beginning of Imagining Amsterdam can be found here.   Below is what follows, the second section, which I’ve titled, for this exercise, “The Secret in the Mirror,” to comply with our work/play/reading of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to  Getting Lost.

 

For Hannah and Leah, who brought this story to me.  And for Karen who has always been there, caring and interested and thoughtful.

 

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Some ideas are new, but most are only recognition of what has been there all along, the mystery in the middle of the room, the secret in the mirror.

Rebecca Solnnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005)

 

In a story such as this, the full view is necessary.  Otherwise it won’t work.  I don’t want false impressions.

I’ll start with a wide angle shot and push in so you’ll experience what I did when I finally got to Amsterdam in mid May, after I called him, and the city came to me.  As he did.  Slow like.  An animal crouched low.  And they rose up.  First this city that proved everyone wrong, which is what he used to say – and he not far behind.  They arrived together.

— It’s an experiment, like all manmade things in this world.  But it’ll be how we’ll all end up, he told me once.  You’ll see.  That’s why I visit. That’s why I go back.  Amsterdam is an answer I like.

I wasn’t sure what he meant.  He was off to Amsterdam for spring break when he first told me how he felt about the city.  I was a junior.  We were always so focused on memy needs of the day, my problems, my challenges, my dreams and ambitions. Me. Me.  Me.  The price – or is it cost? – for being young, ambitious and quite privileged, even if I’m not from this country,  your America.   

I was initially unsure of myself when he told me something personal.    It was kind of a shock and I’d nod and grin.  That’s all.  Not knowing what else to say.  I couldn’t continue and keep the conversation going – he knew more, on just about everything.  That’s how I saw us.  Right or wrong.   That’s how it was.  But that’s not how I sense us now – then it was intimidating, yes, somewhat, and I was hesitant.  On the contrary, though, he gave me no reason to be intimated.  Honestly.  He gave me lots of space to ruminate, to try things out, to speak my mind.  He never judged – and only sometimes laughed – but lovingly that is.  He laughed not in judgment, rather something like adorable.  His laugh said, Oh you’re so adorable.  It’s as intimate as he could be.  And he was always encouraging.  Always.  He encouraged me to take chances with my ideas – with myself.  I felt him to be a kind of safety net.  He would catch me.  I was certain of that.  It was never said but I always knew his hands were cupped beneath me, holding me up, watching, alert.

I was always looking up at him.  Can you see us?  Me, I mean?  This is how it looked – how I looked, he and I: I’m slouched in his black rocker, incessantly chewing gum, my legs crossed beneath me, doodling in my notebook opened before both of us on his wide mahogany desk.  On the other side, there he’d sit over me, a balding figure, solid, wide-shoulders, fidgeting in his chair, sometimes sitting on one of his big legs that suggested he may have an athlete at some point; he’d lean forward, too, and unconsciously, I imagined, fix his glasses and rub his wide forehead and thick nose, looking out the window – not at me.  Tuck his shirt into his rounding belt, into his jeans.

I’d ask: So you don’t like this word, is that what you’re telling me?  And I’d point to it, underline it or circle it and turn the notebook or the paper – whatever I was working with at the time – around to him.  He’d peer over his glasses, maybe draw it closer to him, slightly – touch the paper I touched (sometimes, rarely, we brushed up against each other) – purse his lips, consider and, more often than not, say, Find something better.

You want me to change it then?  I’d ask insecurely, grabbing a different colored pen to make the change (I obsessively applied different colors to different editorial remarks).

Dazzle meDecideYou’re much cooler – much cooler then that word, he’d say.  Don’t settle. You know what to do.  You don’t need me. You don’t need me at all. You know best.  But never, ever settle.  Not if you want to work with me.  Not if you want to be a writer.

At first I thought he was aloof, that he wanted to be somewhere else and I was a bother, a spoiled brat that needed to be told what to do – then I learned it was intimacy.  His way.  The only way for him.  He drew me in with compliments that compelled me to reach for whatever it was he saw in me.

It was the well placed sentiment about this and that that began to take hold.           You’re much cooler.  You don’t need me.  You’re much cooler than that.

 I thought I was a nerd; he thought I was cool.

You’re beautiful.  Really.  In all manner of ways.

I would never use beautiful to describe my average self; he thought I was – and it got me thinking, wondering.  I lingered a bit longer in front of the mirror and studied myself: straight nose, angular, thick eyebrows, square jaw, full lips and high check bones, black eyes, long hair past my shoulders, thick and black, too, and sort of kinky sometimes (depending on the weather), as is the hair of girls from my part of the world.  Tan skin, a dark olive, something not appreciated at one time by Indians, in my country, obsessed with lighter skin tones.   But beautiful?  I don’t know.  Maybe.  In college I was exotic – we all were from my neck of the woods – American boys always wanting to get close, touch, see if the mysteries that live in time are true, the Kama Sutra and tales of love; then along the way, gradually, slowly, we became desirable and fashionable – the Archie Punjabi’s of our time – something beyond the ways of kissing, embracing and biting, something closer to who we’ve always been, us from this world so foreign to westerners – a people deeply concerned with virtuous and gracious living and the nature of love, family and the pleasure of human life.  In all this he gave me confidence.  AndI relaxed.  I relaxed into him, like settling into an old, comfortable couch. (Maybe I was settling into my history – I don’t know, the sutra, maybe, and I was returning to this long thread.) I let him see more of me.  But it all happened unconsciously.   I just went with it, this feeling, a need I felt that called to him.

Was he calling me too?  Was he seeking me out?  Want me as I wanted him, I wonder now?  Or was it that he wanted something else and I didn’t understand?  He kept a wide berth between us.  But something else happened emotionally.

It’s strange how trust and intimacy seem to reside together, co-mingle.  And how strange it is that trust and intimacy begin to take shape – even begin to take hold – before they’re even noticed and then one day you wake up and you’re in this sort of warm, enveloping place, an embrace, something that takes you in.  It’s okay, it says.  It’s okay. You’ll be alright.  So you stay awhile in this new place.  You stay and in staying you begin to look for that embrace, anticipate it, even long for the embrace, that secure feeling, that sense that there is a world, indeed strange and foreboding, but in that trusting, intimate embrace there is no other world but you – and yours.  Strange how that happens.

No one had ever spoken to me like he did.  Not a man, anyway, that didn’t seem to want anything from me – like an erotic T position or something.  A man – it’s an easy thing to say, very difficult to understand.   A man.   I guess when I was in college – when we’re all that age we’re trying to find the measure of a person, making all sorts of foolish mistakes, not really knowing how to be a girlfriend, something like that, and girls like me, we were like always trying to find the measure of a man.  Find out what that is.  What is a man, anyway?  We were raised that way – although in my case “the arranged marriage” was still something of a cloud that hung over some of us, not so much me, because my Punjabi parents are most liberal, which has always been good.  Liberal and wealthy, I admit.  A winning combination.  But whether culturally – or still, because of my culture, man, the man you would eventually have to end up with carries some weight, even some anxiety.   So when he said to me, You’re beautiful.  Really.  In all manner of ways.  When that comes at you, it’s easy to be seduced if you’re young and naïve (I can’t say innocent).  That’s why I went to him, why I went to Amsterdam.  To see.  To see if I was a victim of a profound and sophisticated seduction.  To see if I was simply some thing he needed at the time – or did he feel differently?  But I can’t lie.  I also wondered about what it was that I felt from him after all these years?  Time seemed not to have worn the feeling away – whatever it was; it seemed to have made my connection to him – our connection – more profound.

Was he someone I used – or was it something else?

Or did I seduce him?  Ah…Ah… Yes.  Was that possible – and I not know it?  Maybe I did know it and I really liked what I was doing.

When I was in school, I began to anticipate and look forward to his well placed personal reflection.  You can do what you want.  You have it all.  Maybe that’s what made things easy between us.  I believed him.  Maybe that’s trust.  Or maybe I was lying to myself and it’s simply the development of an obsession since I remember waking up in the morning and thinking about what he’d said, thinking about him.  Maybe he was lying.  I went to Amsterdam to find out.

That’s why I need to go slow with you, and push in carefully so that you can take everything in as I did – and see what you see.   You decide.  You decide, my friend, what you see.  Accept what you want.  But, I’ll be honest: it’s complicated.  People are complicated.  We’re all complicated, I guess, liable to do anything.

Let’s start here: I’d never been to Amsterdam.  The city escaped me, though I’ve been everywhere else – Paris, Barcelona, Rome, Berlin, Prague.  Johannesburg. Delhi (I was born in Delhi).  Costa Rica a few times.  I don’t know why I never went to Amsterdam, not after it meant so much to him. You’d think I would have wanted to try and at least experience something as he did.  You would think.  Right?  But I avoided it instead.  How strange.  Freud would say that I was repressing something.   Something a  long time coming.

PUSH IN: Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, Luchthaven Schiphol, literally Ship Grave: before 1852, the Haarlemmermeer polder – land reclaimed from water, Harlem’s lake – was a large lake that claimed many ships.

Only the Dutch could have sculpted humanity out of an inhospitable landscape.  It all started with a simple bridge over the Amstel somewhere in 1275.  And here I landed almost seven hundred and fifty years later, alone and apprehensive, nervous, looking bug-eyed at dancing hologram ads and store windows flashing personalized views of me as I walked through the terminal – Urvashi, Bathing Suits! Urvashi, Running Shoes! Distinguished First Editions Delivered to YOU Anywhere, Urvashi!

I turned off my bar code and the ads dissolved, cascading away into thin air, leaving not a trace.

My suitcase quietly floated to me.  I only brought one, and a backpack.  I felt like a kid, again, a kid in college.  I set them down in the crowd.  And as I did, as I was letting the bags down so that I could get my bearings, a sinister smile came over me, instantly.  He was there.  I knew it.  He was there observing me.  I could feel him.  My insidious smile was to let him know, let him into the moment that I realized he was there, with me, again.  I wanted him to know.  I was playing along.  I was here to play.  That’s what my half-sinister smile said.  A chill ran up my spine.

He stood like a sailor on a ship in rough seas, legs apart, leaning over his arms folded over his wide chest.  He’s a big man.  A tender grin, like he’d finally found something he lost.  Hair nearly all white, longer then I remembered, thinner.  A day old light beard – nearly all white too.  Blue jeans, a black t-shirt and flip flops, there he was eight years from the memories.

I couldn’t move.  My insidious smile fell from my face.  I felt something very large and familiar, something that hadn’t gone away but had instead laid dormant, resting in the pit of my stomach, waiting for the right moment to rise.

He didn’t take his hazel eyes off of me.  I couldn’t look away either.  He approached me and I could sense a freshness I thought came from somewhere heavenly and wild.  He had tears in his eyes.

— Again, he said.  You’re blushing, he said.

— Again, I said, and smiled.  Yes.  Again, I said and leaned up to him and kissed him on the cheek, ever so respectfully.  I’m just nervous, I said.  I’m happy to finally see you.

I raised my shoulders as if to say I don’t know and slid my hands into my jeans’ pockets and bit my lower lip.  I think my manner hurt him.   He took a step back from my feeble attempt to hide my emotions by appearing somewhat indifferent, casual.

— How’s it going to be?  he asked.

— What do you mean?

— This.  How’s it going to be? This. Yes.

I don’t know why I became the obstinate school girl at that precise moment – maybe it was because I was scared of what this meant?  And maybe it was because I sensed he didn’t know either?   And perhaps it’s all I knew to be with him.

— I … I don’t … I’m not sure what you mean.

— Look at me, Urvashi.  Let me see you.

I looked up at him.

He reached for my chin and held it.

— You’ve cut your hair, he said.  I like it a lot.  You look great.  You’re even more beautiful.  He ran his fingers through my hair and around my face, softly, and said, It’s okay.  It’s going to be okay.  I understand he said, and he put his arms around me and drew me in and I buried my head in his chest and wept.  He stroked my head and kissed my forehead, like he used to do.

— It’s going to be okay, he said.  It’s going to be okay.   We’re good.  All good, remember?  All good now.  You’re here with me. You’ll see.  Everything is good now.   We’ll figure it out.  We will.  Together.

I kept my head in his chest and released myself and I could feel him squeeze harder at every turn, as if he was taking me in by degrees.

— It’s good to see you, he said.  Really good.  I’ve missed you.

If I push out now – gradually – you’d see the indifferent crowd at Schiphol build to a mass moving around us, passing by as if we weren’t there.   We looked like a small island in a foreboding sea.  But I couldn’t have been more alive in that moment when he held me as if he couldn’t let me go.

And if I push out even further – and higher – up to Schiphol’s glass roof, and through it into the indifferent sky, blue and wide, we would be lost in a world of movement.  We would be nothing.  Almost.

Imagining Amsterdam

Transparency: The following is from a novella I’ve written (now editing), Imagining Amsterdam.  The story takes place in the future – 2025.  I’m publishing the first few pages because it fits Rebecca Sonit’s A Guide to Being Lost – you’ll see why.

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IMAGINING AMSTERDAM

“And in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from any motive of interest, or wish for office or power.”                                                                       

Plato, Symposium, c. 385-380

 

“Why should a set of people have been put in motion, on such a scale and with such an air of being equipped for a profitable journey, only to break down without an accident, to stretch themselves in the wayside dust without a reason?”

                                                                         Henry James, The Wings of the Dove, 1902

“People look to the future and expect that the forces of the present will unfold in a coherent and predictable way, but any examination of the past reveals that the circuitous routes of change are unimaginably strange.”

Rebecca Solnit, A Guide to Getting Lost, 2005

–If I think back, I’d say that some of our most moving times together were when you thought you were about to leave behind something of yourself, he said over the phone.  And … I don’t know, maybe sometimes you couldn’t.  I don’t know.  Or wouldn’t.  You’d hold on.  Tight.  You’d hold on tight.  To everything you could.  Until you couldn’t.

I don’t know why I reached out to him after so many years.  But I did.  And here we were.

— There’s something of that now, I’m guessing, he continued in a soft tone.  He paused, and waited.

— I’m sorry, I said, unsure of what else to say in the awkward distance I felt between us when I heard his familiar voice and it all came back to me again.  I took too long, I said.   I’m sorry, truly.  I am.  Too much time has passed.  I know it has.  I let it happen.  Not you.   Totally irrational, I know that too.  It was me.  It’s me.  My fault.  I feel terrible.   Do you forgive me?

He chuckled.

— All I have to do is shut my eyes and I see you, he said.  I’ve been watching you from afar.

I smiled.  Instantaneously.

— You didn’t think I would? he asked rhetorically.  You probably knew I would.  How could I not?  I always wanted to follow you.  To run away and follow you.

— And?

— I would have loved to follow you to New York and see what you were up to.  Such a change for you, not going home and all.  So far away, you know.  So far.  And you struggled and came through.  The complete you.

— You mean the completion of who you thought I was.

— Something like that.  The complete you, I like to think.  All of you because I knew I didn’t see everything and I wanted to.  The real you, you know?  All of it, scars and all.  I remember your scars.  I can see them clearly, the parallel lines on the inside of your leg by your knee.  They’re as clear as your name.  Like a signature.  A scar, a blemish, something that distinguishes a person becomes so much how you experience a person – you and the person.  The scar becomes an intimacy, draws you in like.  It has a history.  Yours and then someone else’s, I think.  And at a certain point, in the here and there, in memory’s shadows, you’re not sure whether it’s the scar or the blemish or the person or all of it that you love.  The one and the other become one thing in your mind and that unique mark you just can’t do without is suddenly yours too.  You even long for it.   That scar.

It was night.  I held my lights low against the luminescence stitched across the city and my reflection on my picture window talked back to me: head tilted to one side and rocking back-and-forth cradled in his voice, my arms crossed just above my waist as if I held a child.   He filled the room.  It was like it used to be.

I know he felt my hesitation.

— I wondered about you, I said softly, like a single syllable, a moan.  I thought a lot about you.  I did.  I wanted to reach out – many times.  I’d be grocery shopping, you know – I could be anywhere; on a date – and suddenly there you’d be, out of nowhere, something you said to me – in your voice, your tone. Something I’d forgotten.  I could totally see you.  It’s good when that happens.  I don’t know.  Just good.  Good all over.  I’ve always felt like … That you were looking out.  There with me, you know.  You were there.  I liked that.  I liked knowing that you were watching out for me.  I wish I could really explain what that feels like.  I’m not doing a very good job right now.

I went on and again told him that I was sorry for taking so long to see how he was, how he was doing since he’d meant so much to me, all those hours working with me – years actually, from twenty ten to twenty twelve.   Advising me, mentoring me, putting up with my pouting, my tears, my wild rants.  Holding me up.  My self-involved irrationalities.   Until one day something happened and we found ourselves somewhere else, a new place, inhabiting new spaces.  Or the same places differently.   It was near the end, almost to the end of my university life, the last year.  We were in a very different space.  I didn’t say a thing though, totally unsure of myself.  Either did he – he knew better.   He could see the long now and took care of me.

–What happens? What happens to people? I asked him, wanting to really ask him, what happened to us? since there was a time when I spoke to him almost every day just about.  Emails, texts, voice – Can I see you? I use to say.  I never asked about him.   Never.  Hi, when can I come and see you?  That was enough.  That was it.

— You have a life.  Mine is quite different. That’s all.  We’ve always been separated by a swath of time.

I’d forgotten what it was like, his ability to see through me, instantly.

I was staring into my tarnished memory of us, looking for answers, looking to see why him, why is he still here, here with me?

— You know, I’d say that we met because there is such a difference in our ages.  Maybe without that difference, who knows, maybe we wouldn’t have met, he said.

— But we did and here we are …

— Again.

— Again.  Here we are again, I said and my voice trailed off and I changed the subject.   I wasn’t ready to get into an examination of our relationship, especially since so much time had passed.  I turned it over in my mind many times – and maybe that’s why I never reached out.  I didn’t want to get to the questions.  Yet here we were.  As he said, again – a musical phrase that never goes away.

— Boston said you’re on an extended leave.  What are you doing?  Are you gone for good?

He took a deep breath that filled the silence.

— I’ve stepped away from the hallowed ivy – and come to realize that the ivy has tentacles that reach far inside a person.  It’s ironic.  And maybe tragic.  A little tragic, anyway.  That’s what I’m here to find out.  I’m taking a step back to find out who I am once and for all.

— What are you saying?

— Just getting some distance.  That’s all.  Trying to gain some, you know.  I need perspective.  I’m trying to get it somehow – before I become more irrelevant then I already am.

— In Amsterdam.  Talking about some change.  Okay.  Fine.  But I wouldn’t call you irrelevant.

— We won’t be able to meet for lunch.  That’s true. Yeah.  You can’t simply walk across campus to my office, shut the door and spend a few hours. Impossible this time around, he said and laughed.

— That’s not what I’m saying.  Is that how you saw it?  A cliché, that’s what it was?  You?  What am I then?

— It’s a joke.  I’m just joking.   Common on.  Can’t you take a joke after all this time?

— It’s not a joking thing.

— Well then, maybe I am a cliché – and it is too late.   Maybe that’s the joke – and it’s on me.  Wait.  Wait a minute, he said and paused.  I – ambeing – tested.  Aren’t I?  Yes.  You’re testing me.  I think yes.  Is that why you called?  Wanna see if I’m still here for you.  Talk about clichés.  That’s why you called. You’re not sure where we are. Me.  Where I am.  Must be serious.  And there’s a change – something’s coming.  Some change. Something’s in the air and you reached out.  That’s it.  It is.  Isn’t it?  Maybe something already happened.  Something big.  Love shattered?  A disappointment.  There’s been a disappointment, yes – and you can’t write it off as all good, like you used to say.  It’s got to be big.  Yes, something’s happened.  What?  Tell me.  What do you need?  This is how it always goes for us, right?  Doesn’t it?

— Okay.  Okay.  It’s on me.  I know.  It’s on me.  I’ll take the chance.  I’ll leap.  That’s what you want.  I hear you.  I’ll take responsibility.  But you can’t say you’re a cliché.   I won’t accept that.  You’re not a cliché.  You’re not.  Far from it.  Don’t be ridiculous. You mean a lot to me – to a lot of people, I said to him.

Then I hesitated, unsure whether to say what I wanted to say, why I called him, after all.  There was a long silence – and I just said it:  I need you.   As soon as I said it I regretted it but I kept on.  I was already in. I was in the moment I got his number from Boston.  I was in when I called him.  Shit, I’d been in for awhile.  

I breathed deeply a couple of times, and nervously just put it out there quickly: Are you busy?  Can I see you?  I asked and dropped my head, letting its weight dangle it there over my chest as if I’d given out.  I shut my eyes and waited.  I waited for the cold, sharp blade to drop on my neck.

My anxiety thickened – and he let it.

—  Are you ignoring me?

He didn’t respond.  I inhaled, not wanting to look up, even though we weren’t visible to each other – I shut off the broadcast just as I called him and I leaned on my picture window, full of anxiety, and whispered facetime off  because I didn’t want him to see me like that.   He’d sense my despair.  That’s what he’s really good at sniffing out.  Despair.  We met at precisely the moment I was falling and spinning out between reason and chaos – and I didn’t know which was which.    I sat hunched over in his seminar on punishment, my thick, black uncombed hair around my face covering my eyes.  I was disconsolate.  Didn’t know where I was and what I was doing.  More importantly, I didn’t know what I was going to do with myself – and I didn’t know who to turn to.  You might say that this is expected of any second year university student, particularly if she is surrounded by classic “A” personality types with their lives totally visible in front of them.  Mine was not.  I was lost.  I can’t even tell you why I took his class – maybe it was the rumor mill we students create and someone told me, oh yeah, take him, he’s interesting.  And I did, not knowing what else to take.   I just didn’t care.  I hardly looked at him when he lectured.  And he pointed to me one day at the end of class and said, softly, simply, See me. Just like that.  See me.  That was that.  It began then, the spring of my sophomore year.  See me.  I saw him alright.

I circled my Tribeca studio.

— Are you busy? I asked again.  Can I see you?  What else do you want me to say?  Can I see you?  That’s what I want.  I want to see you.

A hard rain began knocking against my window.

— Why are you not responding?  Why are you doing this?   I need to see you.  Okay?  I need to.  I need … What more do you want?  You know my history.  Why are you doing this?  I can’t make it up to you, all of it.  All this time.  Okay?  What else can I say?  I can’t – but I want to see you still.  I’ve never known you to be cruel like this.  What?

— No.  Don’t do that.  It’s not what you’re thinking.  Please, he said, jumping in almost out of breath.  I’m sorry, he said.  I’m not testing you.  I would never do that.  You know that.  I don’t want anything from you.  I’m sorry.  It’s just that when you asked me whether I was busy you put me instantly back in my office and there you were standing in my doorway – sweating, out of breath, smiling, like when you went for runs, your hair in a pony tail over your left shoulder and you’d stroke it and fix it compulsively.   You asked me whether I was busy and could we talk.  That’s all.  That’s all it was.  I was there.  Inside that.  It just came over me like that, all of a sudden.  I was lost in it.  And I hesitated.  I’m sorry.  There was nothing I could do.  I hadn’t thought about anything like that in years – and it took me.  Completely.  I’m sorry.

— What do you think?

— I think that it may go like this.  Things fluttering back and forth and that we have no words for.  We’ll have to adjust, I guess.  That’s all.

I saw him reclining in his leather chair, his feet on a large oak desk, Walter Pater or Henry James opened on his lap.  He was graying, rounding.  And he’d give me a big smile, sit up and nod to the black rocker, a crimson H engraved on the top rail, in front of his desk and say shut the door.

When the curtain came down on my Boston days and side-by-side with sixteen hundred undergrads walked into the wide, foreboding world we all feared – reality we called it in the sanctity of our luxurious schoolyard – I knew I’d had something special, something different that nobody else had experienced.  His careful eye on me.

Maybe that’s why I called him again, to learn what it was that I felt, why I couldn’t shed it after all this time, that feeling that something happened to me.  Maybe I wanted it again.  I missed the light tap on the shoulder, a constancy that one day appeared, and stayed.  Until I learned to predict it.  Until I learned to see myself as he saw me.  Until I could no longer feel obstacles between us, no challenges – only a genuine sense of freedom.  Freedom.  Just freedom.  I longed for that feeling, the ease, the smoothness to be.   I didn’t have it when I called.  I’d lost it somehow – at some point.

— It would be easier if I saw you, I said.  I think, anyway, it would be easier. I want to see you.

— Come.  Come then.

I thought that seeing him would be simpler – a ride up to Boston.  But nothing about us was simple, ever.  Addicts of complexity, that’s what we seemed to be.  I am, anyway, I think.

— Come, he repeated.  Come.  See what I’m doing.  We’ll talk.  See what you’re doing.   We’ll talk about writing like we used to.  We’ll read something together.  Remember that?  Take as long as you need, he said.   But come.

— To see why it is that after all this time – how long has it been?

— Eight.  Eight or ten years, something like that.

— Why now, after eight years – let’s say that – I call, and want to see you?

— That’ll be part of it, I’m sure.  If you want.  Sure.  It’s something.  Something is there, yes.

— And why, after all this time, it’s you I’m looking for? Again.

— My sentiments exactly.  I can tell you that.  So come.  Stay.  Let’s see.  Come before it’s too late.

Ever since, I’ve not stopped imagining Amsterdam.

*********************

Bombay blues

The blue of longing in Bombay is in its waters. In the vast Arabian Sea to the west that meets the city at its southernmost point, Marine Drive. It is my escape. It is my horizon. It is my yonder. It is my edge of the world, and the start of another. I sat there last night talking to N, a friend in another city while waiting to meet R, who was ten minutes away from me, and was struck by two thoughts that Solnit talks about – desire and longing.

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space between with the blue of longing”.

It is my blue of longing.

Last night R and I started discussing connection, or the lack of it, that made people engage in one-way interactions seemingly disguised as “conversations” through instant messaging, fleeting interactions and mostly just a desire to be heard above the rest. I am honestly annoyed by people having long conversations over impersonal mediums without bothering to make the time for the same in person. We were both frustrated with how people confuse connectivity with connection and I began thinking about the spaces between us. Virtual spaces are slowly encroaching upon my emotional and physical boundaries to such an extent that I’m made to feel almost wrong for wanting them both simultaneously. Are we so scared to address our desire to connect and sit with that desire and accept it, so much that we make a connection – however fleeting – and then move on as if the desire has been addressed? I leave so many dinners and outings here recently feeling unfulfilled, mostly because they’ve ended up feeling cursory and a lame attempt at a checklist of how interactions should be, and I wish I knew how to change the nature of my interactions with people to a point where every one of them allowed me to lose myself in the other person. I want to not be afraid of depth, and of the unknown and release myself from the shackles of having to arrive somewhere with every interaction. It makes me think of purpose and how purpose is sometimes in conflict with desire. The two sometimes get confused for meaning one and the same thing, but I’m starting to think more about the chicken-and-the-egg with these two concepts. I’d like to believe that the desire to connect is what shapes the purpose of my longing but at times I feel as if the purpose is almost transactional. This then reduces my desire, my longing, to a destination where  – once I’ve arrived – I must renounce it. And I’m not okay with that.

I’m not okay with defining the depth of desire to connect. I’m not okay with defining desire in terms of distance or even as something linear or unidirectional. I look back out onto the slate blue sea during the late afternoons or the midnight blue waters as heaven and earth merge into one by the time the rest of the city is asleep and I want that. I want desire and longing that has no beginning or end, which flows around me and pushes me where the wind blows. I want my spaces to be filled with depth that can hold both the destination and the journey.

Look across the distance without wanting to close it up.

Own your own longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue, that can never be possessed.

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