Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sermon on Industry


I’m sitting here picking my nose and trying to think of how to start this letter – which, of course, is always the problem. How to start. The inertia of life is so powerful and the vice-grip of routine so ever-present that I find myself constantly plotting, scheming, and devising what my girlfriend likes to call “spiritual pyramid schemes” for how to get up. A particularly pertinent problem for a writer, since most creative work is self-structured and therefore lacks the easy motivation of, say, a gallon of water shot up your nostrils.

In general, I’m a naturally lazy and even indolent person – indolent, which when used in a medicinal context (about an ulcer, for example), means persistent: slow to develop, progress or heal. So, in order not to stay in bed all day I’ve had to organize my life into a series of intricate routines, the point of which seems to be to turn a normally shapeless existence into something structured, purposeful.

One example is my morning, which I developed the year after I left college and have stuck to rigorously ever since. The keystone is a ridiculously-early wake-up: 4:15 am, on the dot. My alarm goes off on the waist-high bookshelf in our living room; I walk the six or so steps to turn it off (very important, an alarm next to my bed being easy to snooze). Then I go into my bathroom and turn on the light to pee. While peeing, I keep one eye tightly shut, which is a little disorienting, but which makes it easier for me to walk through the pitch-black apartment after I’ve finished peeing, since my closed eye remains dilated and can therefore see better in the dark. Out in the living room, I turn on the lamp and prepare to make coffee.

I am not lying when I say that I’ve done this exact same thing every morning (barring travel, disaster, and acts of God), for the last three years. The process as it now stands is effective, both streamlined and possessing a few little kinks (the one-eye thing, my alarm in the other room) that I’m proud of, because they work, and because they’ve evolved like monkey-sticks from the frustrating encounter with reality that is everyone’s day, really, from start to finish.

Now, one of the things that forces me to my knees and makes me regularly weep or at least scrunch my face up in a simulacrum of weeping is the human mind. I carry mine around with me in a silver dish and exercise it with the same delight I get from putting on a pair of fresh-from-the-box sneakers – a feeling of power, yes, but more importantly of rightness, the feeling a fork probably gets as it’s spearing asparagus. I stand in awe of its redundant beauty – redundant because why should we have these things? Why shouldn’t we just be worming around in the warm earth, bumping into roots and eating our children?

There’s so much posturing in writing and art that it’s easy to forget how beautiful and pleasurable a mind can be – but as usual, going back to the primary sources makes things a little more complicated. Virginia Woolf, who suffered from her mind as much as she delighted in it, thinks in her diary about the magic word “Health”

“Returning Health

This is shown by the power to make images; the suggestive power of every sight and word is enormously increased. Shakespeare must have had this to an extent which makes my normal state the state of a person blind, deaf, dumb, stone-stockish and fish-blooded. And I have it compared with poor Mrs. Bartholomew almost to the extent that Shakespeare has it compared to me.”

Again and again, I try to pin down why passages like this one, and the books they come from, are so important to me. Books are cities; books are cathedrals. Books are machines that can channel indolence to awe and awe back into indolence with Rumpelstiltskin-like efficiency. And the best books can (I really believe this), graft themselves onto you in a way that causes your original organism to react. They can turn sicknesses (depression, exile, prison, or just life) into the precise conditions in which joy can happen.

It’s Sunday morning, and I’m obviously feeling sermonly; but I don’t see any real reason why I should feels so charged, so excited. The room is freezing, the heater spasmodic at best, and there’s a bright yellow vacuum cleaner standing about two inches from my left arm – but god, how I love Sunday mornings! I remember being five years old and laying in my bed, listening to my parents sleep, the house creak around me, the wind like a gigantic dog chasing the trees and the leaves and all the other stuff around the yard. It was like the world was lying preserved in jello: inactive, but therefore couched and peaceful. People in general (especially writers) like to use upward-looking words to describe their happiness, but for me, happiness is about ankle-level. It’s that real life that we barely register, the world of drawers and closets and back seats and roots. Right now, for example, my socks on the floor look pretty happy.

I don’t know, I’m sure things need to exist in a balance – but for me, there’s something indescribably satisfying about making coffee in the morning. It’s as if the process – which I’ve cut into my life mysteriously over the years and now can only marvel at, as if it were some kind of crop circle that had appeared there beyond my strength to assimilate or change – it’s as if this form releases, rather than blocks my energy. I mean come on, about ten sentences ago I was practically peeing in my pants! But then at the beginning of the post, honestly, I was just sitting here picking my nose and thinking about how bizarre it is to be writing like this, for no particular reason (for no essential reason, at least).

These days I think about writing and life more and more as a sort of stone-soup production. You bring the pot and life brings the garden. Some books display the process that another person has taken to adapt to their circumstances. It is particularly heartbreaking when, inevitably, this person fails – and maybe this is the biggest difference between The Great Gatsby, for example, and Virginia Woolf’s diaries. One has architecture, design; the other is shifting and incomplete, partial, and imperfect. Or maybe just not interested in perfection.

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