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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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The Anecdote of the Gloves

In the “tangible landscape of memory,” as Rebecca Solnit calls it, on one end is the primal scene of my father’s first instance with disease that keeps repeating itself in my life, and the life of my family; on the other end resides the “unseen bodies” that are at work, like strong winds that can be felt but not seen.

To acknowledge the unknown is part of knowledge, and the unknown is visible as terra incognita but invisible as selection – the map showing agricultural lands and principal cities does not show earthquake faults and aquifers, and vice versa (Solnit 163).

What, then, lies beneath?

My trip from Vermont to New York was common enough. I was on route to see my literary agent and, once more, go over a piece we were wrangling over (we parted ways because of it – so it goes, an unseen fault line). The first stop, as it always is when I visit New York, is my parent’s house in Garden City, L.I.

My father, then 82, was not well; that is to say, after 50 years in a wheelchair, taken there by polio, an acute, viral, infectious disease, now a new form reared its ugly head, post-polio syndrome, which, like the original virus, creates yet more muscular weakness, pain in the muscles – what’s left of them – and fatigue. Post-polio syndrome’s wickedness is that it crashes life’s party some 30 years after the original polio attack. My father’s case. To add to the picture, it had been recently discovered that my father also had leukemia, a type of cancer of the blood or bone marrow – and not unusual given his age and condition.

His immovable frame in bed brought me back to my childhood when he was returned home after spending time in an iron lung when polio first attacked and left him totally paralyzed. I stood at the edge of what then, for a 6 year old kid, seemed like a giant, cold, green cage with levers and pulleys. I held the metal bars at the foot of the hospital bed and peered through at the face I knew – the new man I didn’t. This was 1960, Córdoba, Argentina – the primal scene that changed everything. Fifty years later, in Garden City – GC, as we call it – he looked tiny, child-like, as if dissolving, though he was once 6 feet tall.

In another life, he and I rode his motorcycle to Villa Carlos Paz, sometimes running out of steam and having to push it up mountainsides. I wouldn’t again mount a motorcycle until I was 19. I didn’t return to Argentina until I was 50.

It’s amazing how age and disease reduce us to almost nothing, churn us into something else – the ill and the healthy together. How we whither, becoming smaller as if somehow Nature understands that’s what we need to pass on. Until eventually we’re nothing – so it appears.

Lucretius, in On the Nature of Things (De rerum natura), says that, “…things cannot/Be born from nothing, nor the same, when born,/To nothing be recalled.” Nature, he says, “ever by unseen bodies works.”

“You have to come with me to the doctor’s office,” said my mother. “I can’t do this alone,” she said.

My father had been through a series of tests that would determine his prognosis. He was hopeful that somehow science – his one touchstone in life (he was a man of science and mathematics) – would know how to bring him back, at least get rid of the leukemia and, though bedridden, enable him to live a bit longer. My father’s appetite for life was voracious.

“There’s nothing more to be done,” said the doctor, someone my father, a very loyal man, knew for 40 years.

“I can’t face your father with these news,” said my mother. “I’m going to ask you to tell him. I’ll be there but I can’t do it. You have to. I can’t. Not after all the life that’s between us.”

Emerging from Penn Station, in New York, I wasn’t sure how I would approach my father with his death sentence. I was lost, literally, in a search for courage. I was totally in the dark. Completely. I wasn’t sure, either, how this was to fit my story – or into a story – since we live by stories; but I was sure that I had to create a story in which the title character is told that he has an expiration date – and it’s near.

Deep in my thoughts – perhaps deep in my soul questioning father and son roles – just up ahead of me, on 31st and heading towards 7th Avenue, an old man in a gray overcoat dropped a black glove. I caught up to the glove, picked it up, and caught up to the man, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Here, you dropped this.”

“Thank god my wife’s not here. You saved me,” he said, chuckled, thanked me again and we were off . I turned right on 7th Avenue, making my way toward the Flatiron District. My agent was on 22nd.

Not five minutes later, nearing 22nd, a woman trying to speak to her friend while balancing a shopping bag and a handbag, drops a beige pair of gloves. I thought it strange that I’d see the same thing so quickly. What are the odds? I picked up the gloves and faced her and said, “I think these are yours.”

She gave me a beaming smile and said, “Oh. Yes. Oh. Thank you so much.”

And we went our ways.

“Even when deprived of all but all the soul,/Yet will it linger on and cleave to life, –” writes Lucretius.

And, says Solnit, “A story can be a gift like Ariadne’s thread, or the labyrinth, or the labyrinth’s ravening Minotaur; we navigate by stories, but sometimes we only escape by abandoning them.”

That afternoon I abandoned one story, the one my agent wanted me to tell. I wanted to tell it my way, which I did. But what I didn’t know is that I was already in another story – aren’t we always in someone else’s story, after all?

On the return walk to Penn Station, a wind kicked up. It was overcast and chilly. I was thinking that it would be a good idea to slide into a bar and have a stiff one before heading back to GC. When a middle-aged couple comes out of a building and an elegantly dressed woman drops a pair of red leather gloves. The man with her, also quite elegantly dressed, didn’t see them.

The red gloves looked huge to me, bigger than they actually were. On this the third set of gloves dropped before me, I was certain that something unseen, some force was talking to me.

Here’s Lucretius again – he explains it best for me:

And as within our members and whole frame

The energy of mind and power of soul

Is mixed and latent, since create it is

Of bodies small and few, so lurks this fourth,

This essence void of name, composed of small,

And seems the very soul of all the soul,

And holds dominion o’er the body all.

I could find no reason or logic; I could not locate the language by which to describe the first dropped glove, then the second, and now the third that came with a thunderous roar from a place “void of name.”

When I got home I stood by my father’s bed. My mother at his feet.

He looked up at me with his incredible blue eyes, as if pleading yet knowing.

“This is it, viejo,” I said. “This is it. It’s hard to say so I’ll be straight,” I said. And he grinned. “There’s nothing more we can do. Nothing more.”

On the final day of his life, the woman that took care of him came into his room; it was a resplendent day. And she said to him, “It’s such a wonderful day.”

And he said, “For you. For me it’s not going to be a good day.”

When he left us around 10PM, my mother instructed one of her grandchildren to open a window.

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.

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

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.

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

Que voy a ser, je ne sais pas

I was first introduced to the French/Spanish singer Manu Chao in 2003. Or early 2004, I’m not sure. 2003-2005 were two years for me where time was measured more in feelings than in linear experiences. The Argentines and the Mexicans at my school decided that Indians should know what real music sounds like. So without being too offended, we gladly went along with them. And that night I heard one of Manu Chao’s most popular – and I didn’t know it yet but most profound – songs, Me Gustas Tu“. Yes, it was catchy, it had a beat, it made us 16 and 17 year olds sway to the beat of a Mediterranean reggae that hadn’t made its way over to the Indian subcontinent and felt strangely out of place on a hill in the middle of a valley under a midnight blue tent of a sky with holes pierced through by the stars. It was so out of place that it actually fit right in. And – this is the embarrassing part to admit – in my naiveté, until I actually got much better at my Spanish a few years later, I didn’t realize that his coro was Que voy hacer (what should I do). I kept hearing it as Que voy a ser (what will I be). So you see then why the chorus as per my interpretation really struck a chord with me – 
Que voy a ser / What will I be
Je ne sais pas / I don’t know
Que voy a ser / What will I be
Je ne sais plus / I don’t know anymore
Que voy a ser / What will I be
Je suis perdu / I’m lost
After I learnt the real lyrics, I decided to just go along with my interpretation because by that time, I’d been through a series of moments related to figuring out my identity, my place in this world, these cultures and I held on to these words like a security blanket. It was okay for me to not know who or what I would be, because how could I? After having begun Solnit’s book though, I found myself thinking increasingly about the last line – Je suis perdu. When I think about it as part of the song, there’s no sadness associated with the idea of being lost. The beat, the voice, the melody – they’re in complete contrast to the lyrics. I’d never heard of anyone so cheerful – for lack of a better word – singing about being lost. 
(Sidenote – it’s stuck with me so much that this bastardized phrase of mine is currently at the top of a very short list of what I’d like to get as my second tattoo.)
I talk about the song because I’m halfway through the chapter Abandon and it talks about a musician friend of Solnit’s, her journey and the various stops along the way, some of which may seem like the wanderings of a lost soul, but in reality are very much conscious choices. It’s interesting to try and really pick at the subtle differences between loss and being lost. In the way that they are used in speech and in language, loss almost ends up as something passive, something that happens to you, whereas being lost is an intentional act, a choice to loose certain elements, certain aspects of one’s life. Whether we do it consciously or subconsciously, I think we all discriminate a little bit against certain lifestyles and life choices that imply an intentional loss. 
I bring up this point to link back to the train of thought Solnit weaves through the latter half of the previous chapter, The Blue of Distance, when she talks about culture and boundaries and the repercussions of natives kidnapping many of the Puritan children and their resultant choices to stay with their captors/new communities. When I read that, i actually dug through my inbox to find an email thread dating back to August 2011 – a fervent online discussion with a few friends about reflections from working in the international development sector, and empathising with The Other, figuring out how to transition back to the world we came from. I think it was there that I first started playing with the imagery of boundaries and fences and imagined/defined borders for spaces that we inhabit, or look to enter, or have invariably found ourselves a part of without even realizing when or from where we entered. The more I think about it, the more I’ve reflected this imagery subconsciously during crucial moments in my life. I went to an international high school for two years, and remember always recollecting that experience in conversation or on paper as both a blessing and a curse – it was almost like i had been broken into a million little pieces during those two years there, and when I stopped to pick up the pieces and reassemble myself, I found that I was no longer myself but an amalgamation of everyone else around me. Pieces of them were deeply embedded in me, and have been ever since, and pieces of myself now live in other people. What did I lose/gain in the process? Can I really say that I’ve been the same person since then? What I didn’t realize is that the process of reassembling yourself and carrying on actually is almost an art. Not to sound presumptuous but many a person has broken down at the idea of losing the sense of comfort, of knowing who you are, what you think, what you want and where you’re going. Solnit rightly says that “the real difficulties, the real arts of survival seem to lie in more subtle realms. There, what’s called for is a kind of resilience of the psyche, a readiness to deal with what comes next.” I found another quote from The Pedagogy of Self, that I began reading when I was thinking about boundaries and fences and this situation of knowing the Other and consequently one’s own self better, that puts a very visual interpretation in front of me of what it is actually like to be that hybrid, that in-between who is crossing cultures, losing and finding oneself multiple times to the extent that loss and discovery are rarely distinguishable from each other….sometimes the presumed sadness of loss actually manifests itself on discovery of oneself or one’s purpose because that is where the journey supposedly ends, doesn’t it? The quote reads: 
The hard edges of the boundary between self and other become fuzzy. Where we end and the environment begins becomes a shared space. It is not so much that we become fuzzy as we become aware, through heightened self-awareness, that we already exist in a state of shared being with all of life: It’s less a change in reality than a change in perspective
I really can’t find a coherent way to end this because, as usual, I get lost in what I’m writing. But I’m leaving pondering about the curious nature of the universe, in making things make sense. With the song, with my tattoo, with these emails from two years ago and everything tying in to Solnit’s treatise on being lost. I guess that’s a commentary in itself, isn’t it? Have we ever lost something, or are we ever lost, or merely just waiting to find again?
 
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