Friday, July 13, 2007

Back in the Saddle

I've been remiss. I've been slacking. I've been AWOL. I had a good run going there for about six months, where I was writing and posting something pretty much every day, and, because I am a creature of habit and a somewhat pigheaded one at that, for as long as I was keeping it going, the additional incentive of not wanting to fall off the wagon helped me to keep going. Now the wagon is gone, over the hill, out of sight; even its memory is fading. What sort of a wagon was it? I can't quite recall...

If pressed, I could give reasons. I can rationalize. I have excuses. I've been teaching summer school. I've been giving workshops. I'm taking a lot of pictures. I'm trying to play piano. I'm working on my power naps. I've taken up chess again and am burning an hour or two online every day honing that particular set of useless skills. But I've gotten to the point now where the internal psychic pressure is building. It's time to get back in the saddle.

Assuming I can find a horse to ride. This horse I'm riding right now reminds me of a horse I once owned when I was about twelve, named, in an act of naive and wishful folly, Joy. I'm not going to get into the Joy story right now, although it is a good story. Suffice it to say that Joy was a horse with a mind of her own. She had no particular interest in going in whatever direction I was trying to ride her, and she found it entertaining to try in various diabolically creative ways to toss me off her back. When we were heading out from the barn, she'd balk and sidestep and keep trying to turn around. When we were heading back to the barn, she'd grab the bit in her teeth and run like hell, no matter how hard I sawed the reins and hollered "Whoa!!" (Somehow in class this week we got off on the subject of Homeric similes. And now I've got my horse metaphor running away with me. Funny how that works.) Anyway. Where was I?

Oh yeah. I guess what I'm writing about here is rhythms. My life seems to consist of various intersecting sine waves. The rhythms of writing, of reading, of walking, of teaching, of chess, of photography, of eating and sleeping, of crossword puzzles. This morning I was noting, not for the first time, that the first half hour of every day consists of a series of steps and gestures that are so habitual that I can do them in my sleep. Which is a good thing, because I really am not fully awake until toward the end of the sequence waking, walking into the bathroom, walking from there to the living room, stretching (in a ritual sequence), doing tai chi by the lanai facing the sunrise, coming to the bathroom to shower (another set of rituals, right down to which arm I use to open the shower door, which to turn on the hot water, which shoulder to soap first, which hand to put the shampoo in), shaving, dressing, eating breakfast (a half bagel and orange juice.) If I manage to get locked into a rhythm, I'm good at staying with it. And if I lose the rhythm, it takes a while to get it back.

There's another horse I've been trying to get back on. I've gotten out of the rhythm of reading. It's not that I haven't been trying. I've got about a dozen books open and scattered about the house, but I seem to be having trouble staying with them. In the essay by Sven Birkerts that I referenced last week, he has a passage of typical elegance in which he describes what it's like to be on that horse:
When I am at the finest pitch of reading, I feel as if the whole of my life—past as well as unknown future—were somehow available to me. Not in terms of any high-definition particulars (reading is not clairvoyance) but as an object of contemplation. At the same time, I register a definite awareness that I am, in the present, part of a more extensive circuit, a circuit channeling what Wallace Stevens called "the substance in us that prevails."

The state of being elsewhere while reading was once, in childhood, a momentous discovery. The first arrival was so stunning, so pleasant, that I wanted nothing more than a guarantee of return. Escape? Of course. But that does not end the discussion. Here was also the finding of a lens that would give me a different orientation to what was already, though only nascently, the project of my life. Through reading I could reposition the contents of that life along the coordinate axes of urgency and purpose. These two qualities not only determined, or informed, the actions of whatever characters I was reading about, but they exerted pressure on my own life so long as I was bathed in the energies of the book.

If anything has changed about my reading over the years, it is that I value the state a book puts me in more than I value the specific contents. Indeed, I often find that a novel, even a well-written and compelling novel, can become a blur to me soon after I've finished it. I recollect perfectly the feeling of reading it, the mood I occupied, but I am less sure about the narrative details. It is almost as if the book were, as Wittgenstein said of his propositions, a ladder to be climbed and then discarded after it has served its purpose.

No matter what the shape or construction of the ladder, the ideal state of arrival is always the same. Deeply familiar—like the background setting of certain dreams, like travel, like the body sensations of crying.

I remember that "ideal state," and have been feeling the need to re-experience it. I wanted to once again climb the ladder into that state of exalted awareness and engagement that Birkerts describes. But it's been a while. The reading I have been doing recently — re-reading Birkerts being an exception — has too often felt like work, and unsatisfying work at that. I'd read, I'd put the book down, and I'd feel no tug to get back to it. But finally, last week, I pulled off the shelf a book that I bought a while ago after I had read about in several places. It's a book that a number of people in a position to know — Jane Smiley, Annie Proulx, and Brad Leithauser among them — consider to be one of the best books of the twentieth century. It's called Independent People, by the Icelandic author Halldor Laxness, and I've got to tell you, it's the real deal. It's got me back in the rhythm. I'll have more to say about why a little later on.

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