I was listening to an interview with Tori Amos because I’m old and I know stuff.
She was talking about how following the death of her mother and successive pandemic lockdowns, she had become confused. Lost. But lost in that way in which you don’t even know how to go about thinking of yourself as lost.
And she said that she had an insight one day and said to herself, “I have to write myself out of this.”
And here I am.
— § —
I have a mug that says I’m a writer. That’s the first thing.
But beyond that, I wrote seven books that have been translated into a list of languages. I wrote papers that are in journals and anthologies. I wrote essays that are in leading intellectual vanguard publications. I wrote poems by the pound and put out chapbooks. I started blogging in 1999 and blogged for twenty-two years straight.
Now here I am and it’s 2022 and when’s the last time I wrote anything?
Months, at least. I have been in danger of not even being a blogger any longer. I have been in danger of not being a writer any longer, even though at the end of the day that’s the only thing I’ve ever really known and the only thing that ties together all those loose, fraying threads of the thing called “me” over all these years.
— § —
Every third day or so I’ll be busy doing something completely unrelated—taking out the trash, or standing up a virtual machine for work, or doing laundry—and I’ll have this sudden, desperate need to write. I’ll start putting things together in my head, in the voice that only speaks when I have something to write, assembling words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs.
It’ll become a physical sensation, like being covered in ants or not being able to breathe. I’ll feel as though I’m becoming so tense that at any moment I’ll start snapping bones if I don’t find my way to a keyboard and start typing.
And I’ll tell myself I just need another thirty seconds to finish what I’m doing and then keyboard and in the nick of time I’ll reach it and save my life. But that thirty-second pause is too long.
I’m repeatedly too late and each time it happens I die an untimely death, replaced by the unconscious petty functionary that mindlessly performs the requisite tasks of modern living. The threshold of no return has been crossed, the dam has broken, and all the words have fallen away in a rush, emptying the reservoir.
Pieces of me lost forever.
— § —
I’ve been losing myself steadily for fifteen years, since the day I was married. For a moment it seemed as though the divorce would arrest the process, but it didn’t. The background violins continued to play, the dancers continued to dance, the whole hazy scene continued on as if it was all a film that I was watching—and at the end of it, here I am, distractedly listening to Tori Amos interviews on YouTube while I putter around the house doing mindless chores until I hear her say, “I have to write myself out of this” and yet again I experience a fleeting moment of lucidity.
But this time I stop what I’m doing and I write because by god, this time someone has put the word “write” at the center of said moment.
— § —
I’m like everyone else in that I’ve become a collection of things. Tools, appliances, linens, knickknacks, doodads, this and that, tasks, jobs, responsibilities, workflows, opinions, origins and destinations, times of day.
There are so many things. There is so much clutter. It’s all clutter. The whole world is clutter. Clutter, clutter, clutter. On the desk, in the sky, in my guts, under my psyche.
I mean, I’m still tempted to start paragraphs with “when we were in couples’ therapy…” and go into some stale insight that I gathered then that has now been sitting in the uncleaned refrigerator of my mind for the better part of a decade as though there is still a “we.” Mindless habits of mind are our favorite embodied oxymoron.
No. I won’t write it. I won’t.
But I can’t figure out how to overcome clutter. I don’t want to adopt the vision of the state as James Scott put it and somehow organize it all out of existence. The clutter is the words, the words are the clutter, and both are me.
It doesn’t strike me as the solution to reform my consciousness and self into a series of well-ordered, sanitary city blocks, the better for the taxation of myself, zoning all of the color out of existence.
But at the same time, I’m buried in it—I can’t master it—it drives me to suffocation so rapidly that even the suffocation is buried in the clutter before I can reach a keyboard and begin to try to cope with it.
— § —
There is a feminine talent that exists in the miasma of the universe for figuring this sort of thing out. In material terms we call it “nesting” or “homemaking” but it’s a kind of innate talent for nurturing what appears to be disorder into what was always actually beauty.
The problem with our current epoch is that this yin of our collective being was, after aeons of fertility, suddenly cut short sometime during my lifetime.
As a man listening to an interview with Tori Amos I commit a man’s sins. I hear her talk about listening to the trees and those sorts of things and I begin to think it’s a lot of woo until she drops the conclusion that “I need to write myself out of this” and then suddenly I realize that as a man I couldn’t get from trees to creative process on my own and in fact I can’t get to the destination of creative process from any origin at all right now.
The world misses this.
There is precious little of the yin of our species being anywhere right now, and that said, precious little of the yang either. Women wanted to “have what men always had” and instead became callous and petty. Men worked at “being in touch with their feminine selves” and simply stopped growing up, remaining pre-pubescent forever.
— § —
One of the joys of being out of academics and working entirely remotely is that I can be a bumpkin, a rube. I can listen to interviews with Tori Amos on YouTube and I can talk about yin and yang with a straight face (if you could see it) as I sit here typing and not worry that someone may see it and end my career.
The general problem with the Smart People is that they don’t understand that we’re dying. They don’t even see the clutter, much less the fact that they are attempting to curate and tax it rather than transform it into biography and living.
We are all lost.
I’m not more lost than anyone else, really, I’m just lost in a different key. That and I’m not comfortable in it because it’s visible to me precisely because for so many years I wasn’t lost.
— § —
None of this is to say that I have confidence that I can write myself out of this. One of the characteristics of clutter (metaphorical or not) is that it makes both reading and writing difficult.
At the same time, it is something to do. That is not nothing.
In a phase of my life in which every single day has been the same for years and years and in which the only reason I bother to get up in the morning has been that my kids (who are now needing me less and less as they grow) have needed me to get up in the morning and direct traffic and provide dad speeches, well… it’s something to do.
I am badly in need of something to do, rather than all that nothing of household workflows. It’s not enough to let the yard go. I need to let about a dozen more things go. “Go” meaning, of course, “grow a history, change with time, accumulate evidence of being.”
— § —
That’s it. That’s the thing.
When you paint the walls and fold the socks and go to work, change stops.
When change stops, time stops.
Einstein said that time is nature’s way of preventing everything from happening at once. But there is another way to neuter time, and that’s to ensure that nothing happens at all, to whitewash and clean and repair everything, every day—every piece of clutter over and over again so that it is the same whether you observe it today or tomorrow or next year or in a decade. We need more things to break. To wear out. To die.
So that we can live.
Maybe I can write my way out of this, if writing becomes my strategy for being irresponsible and permitting things to fall into disrepair so that time can begin to exist again—so that I can unpause my biography and fucking get on with it.
— § —
I still think that “listening to the trees” is woo. That’s why we need more of the genuine feminine spirit around. Because somebody needs to listen to the trees, and it can’t be a man, because most of us don’t speak tree. We speak gravity and acceleration and torrent, not tree and moon and scent.
We need to find ourselves again, all of us.