City on Fire, In Progress

I’m in a long-term relationship with the book City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg.

I started reading this massive novel in the summer of 2016. While on a cross-country trip, I picked it up at an airport Hudson News during a long layover. I made it an eighth of the way through the book, reading voraciously for the remainder of my itinerary. It’s a slow-paced, lovingly detailed mystery set in New York during punk rock’s early years. The characters are vibrant, the storyline is engrossing, and Hallberg’s prose style is beautiful, sometimes nearly poetic. City on Fire-and-me was a match made in heaven—at least, so it seemed while on holiday.

I vowed to keep up my reading momentum after traveling, so much had I yet enjoyed the story. But in my naiveté, I hadn’t accounted for—well, for pretty much any aspect of normal life. Upon return home, busy routines set in. Leisure time was in limited supply. I set City on Fire aside in lieu of other pursuits.

But I hadn’t forgotten it.

A sucker for the tradition of New Year’s resolutions, I formally resolved at the start of 2017 to read more books in the following year, specifically in exchange for social-media time. I won’t get on a soapbox about this, because I don’t believe everyone has the same anxiety-provoking experience with Twitter, Facebook, and their ilk. But for me, titrating down my regular overdose of online-profile-plugged-in-ness was a big deal. City on Fire was my forced substitute in the evenings, and I started over again from page one.

At first, reading a book seemed a poor tradeoff for all that dopamine-pinging, phone-glowing scroll/click/lurk/like behavior. Although I’d realized for some time that it worsened insomnia, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, I still found daily social media engagement to be a surprisingly tough habit to break. For a former bibliophile, that’s hard to admit. What a powerful addiction.

But I stuck with the tradeoff. City on Fire became regular evening reading. Sometimes this meant just a couple pages per night, but the important thing was that it kept me off soc med before bed.

By the end of the year, reading before sleep had become second nature, and previous device-centric habits had happily fallen away. My sentimental attachment to City on Fire is solidified forever for what it has come to symbolize: freedom achieved from a toxic groove.

But… I still haven’t finished it.

The paperback version is over nine hundred pages. Reading a page or two per night hasn’t gotten me very far. However, I recently started a new job with a bus commute, and I’ve gained a sudden bounty of reading time. Since the new commute, in less than one month, I soared past the midpoint of the tome. I’m on a roll.

And now I even have an e-reader—and yeah, okay. Many years ago, I vowed I would never choose to read a Kindle over a real paper book. But in my naiveté, I hadn’t accounted for the sheer gravity-attractive mass of City on Fire. So I checked out an electronic copy from the library and put it on my, y’know…. my device.

The poetics of personal irony do not go unappreciated around here.

Again, no soapbox: I adore the e-reader in my backpack. But I certainly still love the big dog-eared paperback on my bedside table. I can do both. And I hereby resolve that 2018 is the year I finish this book, one way or the other.

I just won’t be hashtagging and oversharing online about it.

Oh, wait.

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The Inexhaustible Well

Paul Bowles’ book The Sheltering Sky houses one of the most poignant literary passages I’ve ever had the pleasure to read:

“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.”

Ruminating on this passage recently shaped a notion in my mind. The presumption of the “inexhaustible well” of life’s potential is a subliminal, self-preserving instinct. It’s a mindset of blissful privilege. It protects against panic-triggering awareness of one’s own vulnerability.

Behind any instinct, nature’s intent is rooted in survival. Certainly this seems a benevolent cause. But human survival instinct takes on many mitigated and illusive forms.

In America since its beginning, struggles for rights and resources have shaped the social landscape. Other nations have long known such struggles. Our mutual instincts regularly pit us against each other in a battle for resources. Instinct is enacted through our self-created social constructs: battle field, courtroom, corporate boardroom, street rally, online forum. Words themselves become actions in the effort toward instinct’s goal, whether it be a vicious tweet gone viral — or gentle words spoken quietly by a parent to a child. So instinct also brings us together: through love, collaboration, education, mutual protection.

In recent months, I’ve returned to favorite artistic, philosophical, and literary comforts with the hope of finding answers to questions that trouble me: about the future awaiting my children; about the changing face of social deviance and what it means to dissent; about the paradox of maintaining a compassionate worldview in a world where compassionate acts are increasingly marginalized.

Bowles’ concept of a perceived inexhaustible well lends poetry to a new perspective I strive to establish. My lifelong privilege has been to assume civil rights, social compassion, and humanitarian outreach are ingrained in our society — often challenged, never perfect, but ultimately taken for granted.

Yet I’ve recently come to understand that the well from which these things flow is not ethereal or passively divine. We comprise this well: each of us, together. Our actions, our words, our very thoughts. This particular well is only as inexhaustible as our hearts.

On Bukowski and Motherhood

The famous first line from Charles Bukowski’s Roll the Dice: “If you’re going to try, go all the way.” He implies: let your creative fire consume you to the exclusion of all life’s dross.

I love it.

From a theoretical standpoint, I love it.

But I have questions.

I’m compelled to sit down over whiskey shots with Bukowski and clarify.  When you mention not eating for three or four days, surely you mean just during the day? Regarding the loss of relatives, what’s the selection process? And when you say “it could mean freezing on a park bench,” could that possibly mean for just a half-hour, waiting for my three-year-old to take one last slide ride (“Okay, now say ‘bye bye’ to the playground!”)—and then I can go inside and warm up?

As much as I adore the notion of the extreme creative life—as darkly intrigued as I am by its most tragic tales—I’ve come to realize something over the years. The angsty, 80s-era goth teen in me hates to admit it: my creative life has not been representative of Bukowski’s dice-rolling sentiment. It has not been extreme.

I’ve tried several serious creative pursuits over my lifetime, but none to the exclusion of all else. Music was a huge part of my life for many years. I rarely had to choose between music and jobs, school, friendships, or relationship. My husband and I spent a decade in the same band together before we married. Friendships were a consequence of musical pursuits—not collateral damage.

Writing is different than playing in a band. A solitary pursuit. “Isolation is the gift,” Bukowski says; he’s talking about writing. Sometimes it’s hard to discern another writer in your real-life midst, but when you do find one out there, it’s a super-cool common bond. Well, or maybe it’s just my one-sided perception. Regardless, I find it motivating, invigorating.  I dig thinkers. I dig those who sanctify time to craft words to articulate thoughts. And I wholly admire what I call the “comfortable alone”: those who can withstand silence, who are willing to forego interaction long enough to reflect and process and bring forth eloquence.

When I find another writer, I’m struck by a sense of camaraderie in mutual isolation.

Writing requires silence in a noisy world. It demands isolation and introspection in an era of social networking and immediate gratification. Pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, Charles Bukowski implied it in Roll the Dice (although he gives voice to the extreme): to bolster and intensify that creative fire, one must understand there’s a tradeoff. For periods of isolation, sessions of silence, one must push back against status quo culture.

But may I suggest, perhaps over another whiskey round—one need not trade it all to “go all the way”?

When I was pregnant with my first child, I knew everything would change. Of course: we had just dismantled my home office and repurposed it for a baby’s room. Everyone told me things would change. I was told by seasoned parents that I would put everything on hold. Music, writing, painting, drawing. All that could wait, would have to wait. My child would come first now, in every aspect. And I’d be okay with that, I was told.

I would necessarily, happily trade it all away: my creativity, my ambition, my times of solitude—all for motherhood.

Quick. Before last call. Again may I suggest—one need not trade it all?

May I hope?

I am determined to find the middle ground. To honor one’s creative fire is something I plan to teach my own children. They’re small now, and they need a lot of attention, so my carving out alone time is sometimes impossible and often impractical. But I’m willing to work gradually. They’re growing up fast, and they pick up on a lot.

In order to teach it—this respect of one’s internal creative drive—I try to do it, when I can. I want them to understand it’s not only “okay” to take that time, it’s crucial. By integrating the concept of occasional, regular alone time in my family culture, I hope to provide my kids validation to seek and treasure their own aloneness, and what creativity may come of it.

But striking a balance is key. The active pursuit of writing is, strangely, much like a child: given attention, it wants ever more attention.  I negotiate with my own writing-addicted id/ego complex the same way I bargain with my kids. “Patience, you’ll get your turn.” “Be good for me, and you’ll get a treat.” “I’ll be back, and then we’ll do something fun together!” My creative fire is a toddler.

If he could read this, Bukowski would probably laugh at me. But who knows? Maybe he’d at least pay the tab.

Either way, the angsty goth teen in me would dig it.