Discover more from Ear Mountain
The world now seems like an entirely different one from the one in which I wrote my last long-ago Ear Mountain! First of all, let me say: I hope you and Matt are doing okay. I know you guys just found a new spot to live in Tucson, and I'm hoping/envisioning that you're moved in, feeling happy about the new space, and enjoying the warm bright weather on many walks. I hope, too, that all of what's been happening the past month or so hasn't affected you guys or your various communities too terribly.
I'm writing this from my couch, where I have been spending a lot of my time; out the window I have seen, over the past few weeks, a plum tree flower and leaf out, its foliage now dramatic maroon. I've also observed that there might be a crow nesting in the spruce tree (I think it's a spruce tree—our street is, after all, Spruce Street!) right in front of the window. The windows in our new apartment are large, and they're old glass that warps what you see a little. This view, from the side of the couch I prefer, has become one of my main vantages. There's a demolition project happening on an adjacent block that's somehow been deemed essential, and the crashing, scraping, crunching sounds emanating from the west have also become constant companions during workdays. My world feels pretty small. Sometimes that's felt good, the unexpected expanse of time combined with scrutiny of a narrower slice of things. Other times it feels claustrophobic and awful, and the real centers or tethers of my life seem to be my computer and my phone, which I've been calling twin black holes.
I have a fear that there is nothing new for me to say about coronavirus and the attending moment, but there's also no way that this letter can be about much else. One of the effects of the past few weeks has been for me an intensification of awareness of this “present moment” I am living in. Of course I'm always living in some present moment, but the slippage of routines and expectations gives it shape, capital-m-style Moment status. The state of our world is uncertain but also defined (we are living through a pandemic), we understand what's happening as history versus mere temporal roughage, everyone is analyzing everything in a furor. But even as I'm more aware of this era's historicity, I'm also more attuned to another thing that's always true: the “present moment” is a succession of moments, present and then past. The situation, which can feel calcified and defined (pandemic!) is also always shifting. I've felt, and I've heard other people remark, that time feels both faster and slower. Perhaps this is just what happens when you're more conscious of time passing.
We in Seattle got a little bit of a head start on the rest of the country, and have been dealing with major changes for more than a month. It's hard for me to feel exactly how much time that is, because it sort of just feels like this is the way things are now. But on Leap Day—not that long ago—everything was totally different. It was a Saturday; I'd had a cold that week, but I was teaching a class at Hugo House that afternoon, a reading-focused class comparing novels by Henry James and Sally Rooney. I walked the mile or so to class and stopped in the bookstore I love most to buy myself a cup of tea and to buy cookies for my students. We were discussing Conversations With Friends that day. I jokingly promised my students that I hadn't touched the cookies, swore I didn't have COVID-19. Two of them, a young couple, were sad because out of worry they'd cancelled a trip to Italy they'd planned for later in the spring. But despite all those little hints, in that room that day it was still unimaginable—to me at least—that any of this would be a serious problem here.
About a week later it was not only imaginable but clear. The University of Washington suspended classes, and one by one more colleges here shut down—again, like my students with their trip, out of caution, it seemed. (The college I've been teaching at stayed open—the president said they wouldn't close campus until a case was confirmed, which seemed and continues to seem like madness; they were finally shut down by our governor's blanket order, but by that time everyone had gone online anyway, all the teachers and students equally freaked out.) There was that insane evening on which, in the course of about an hour, an NBA game was cancelled with all the fans in the stands because a player had COVID-19 and Tom Hanks released a video message saying he had it. Trump started holding daily conferences and inviting the CEOs of every megacorporation even remotely related to health. As you might imagine, I don't care much about either Tom Hanks or the NBA (though I live with someone who does ardently care about the latter!), and no need to say anything about Trump, but the effect of all this, and of all the other cascading changes of that week or so, was for me a kind of non-stop high-energy incredulousness. Andrew and I walked around our apartment saying “This is CRAZY” to each other all day long. There's a terror that is also a kind of privileged giddiness in seeing institutions that are so well-established as to be considered givens cease to function. Each day of that micro-era felt like a different year. There were more insane Trump speeches, the facts were changing on the ground; it became clear that many, many people were going to suffer here and everywhere, and I felt acutely aware of my privilege in not suffering, not yet, anyway. I also felt jangly with shock and worry.
Now we're in a different time, though it is also the same moment by certain definitions, and what I feel is what I mentioned earlier, which is that sense that “this is how it is now.” The intense novelty of the situation has worn off, and shelter-in-place is now the governing condition. The order here's in place until at least May 4. This certainty doesn't prevent waves or anxiety or sadness about it all, but those, too, more turbulent moods, are part of what I expect now. What hasn't stopped seeming crazy, and might seem crazy for a long time, is the other half of this incredulousness: since all this started it's felt to me like very little about the world before coronavirus made sense. What has happened over the last few months has worn off any analgesic normalcy around the scaffolding of our lives, routines, systems, country. Again it feels borderline ridiculous to say any of this stuff. I know I'm not the only one observing it. But still, I have to say it—it feels like there is suddenly bright light on something we always sort of knew. How can it make sense to live in a world in which a week, a month, a season's slow-down of work destroys not only the economy in abstract, but a huge percentage of people's lives? How is it that we actually have to have a conversation, with “great thinkers” and experts weighing in on both sides, about whether we should let more people die to save the economic systems that create so much precarity? And yes, I know as I write all this that what all our myriad specialists might say is that it's not actually that simple—but why, exactly, should it not be just that simple? I have since my No Logo-reading adolescence been a capitalism skeptic, but I don't think I've ever felt the sharp certain scorn and horror that I feel right now: it seems like madness, total madness, to operate under a system that cannot decelerate without collapsing, that by design puts most people in positions where they have no recourse or safety net. And I say all this knowing that I've frequently ignored it, frequently don't pay attention to ameliorating any of the problems, and even frequently buy into some of the ideology that underpins all this. (This newsletter has been absent for the past nine months as I've lived out a version of a must-work-unceasingly vision on my own micro-and-privileged scale.)
As everything I've said likely makes clear, I find this moment, or this series of moments, scary and hard. People ask how I'm doing in this era, and I always say more or less the same thing: I'm fine, we're fine. We're lucky, we're not directly affected by any of this yet. That's completely true. But it's also not true insofar as a lot of the time, I actually don't feel fine. I feel an aching and indefinite sadness; I walk Hans under perfect blue spring skies, under cherry blossoms, and feel so grateful for the world, so much of it impervious to this, and also feel miserable, sure that what I see and fear in the world now won't go away even after “all of this is over.” And I feel dread and anxiety. I feel my heart beating in my chest and know that should be reassuring, but it frightens me, my body and the fragility of all our bodies frightens me. I worry about other people in a way that feels desperate. What's happening to my Care Center students from years past? What's happening to my students now, the ones who are delivering everyone's Amazon packages and working in home health care and stocking groceries for me and my friends and family while we protect ourselves?
Once more: all this is common thought, banal. It feels unimportant to write it here, and yet this, along with plenty of small joys (I forgot about the ice cream bar in the freezer for many days, and now I found it!—or I watch a movie with friends remotely and it's so fun to talk with them, or I write a postcard and feel the luxurious expansiveness of time, which I have often wished for)—these fears and joys are the texture of my days. And I think “the current moment” presents an opportunity, at least for privileged me, to think about that texture, and how that texture changes—how days were before the virus came close to me, and how they are now. So much of what I've said here circles around how strange everything feels—different and disorienting—but many of the things that aren't new, that were familiar before, also feel crazy and surprising now. You've got a graduate degree in fiction too, so you know we have a word for this: are we not living in a world remade by defamiliarization?
In fiction, as you know, defamiliarization's a good thing, or it least it's good when it's done well. Why? Because it gives us the world twice over—it brings things out again brightly. For me, and for other people too, I think, this is happening without effort right now, and sometimes it feels less like an additive experience than one of losing things, or noticing their absence. But the concept of defamiliarization seems to me like a possible key—not to less suffering, but to a kind of experience that doesn't take panic, misery, numbness, or obliviousness as the only possible avenues. Now I have to talk about one of my favorite and sometimes-considered-cheesy loves. I just discovered, with great joy (I cheered “YAY YES YES HOORAY!” to myself alone in the house), that Cheryl Strayed, whose “Dear Sugar” podcast I loved, is now hosting another podcast (part of the much-needed Quarantine Podcast Renaissance) on which she interviews writers over 60. Her first guest is George Saunders, an all-around good guy, and at at one point he said something that struck me as wonderful, and as perhaps the succinct way of saying what I've been trying to say here. After remarking that one of the roots of many people's angst right now is that they want things to return to how they were pre-coronavirus, he says:
Why? What is it that you want to do once you are free again? And for most of us—I think for me—it's that I want to assume my old habits. Why? Because they assuage my anxiety, essentially, you know. So it does present a little bit of a moment to look afresh at what we do with our energy when we're healthy… So many of the ways we live are kind of just lazy, and habitual, from the small example to the larger things—so I'm trying to be optimistic and think that maybe each of us having a little enforced spring break, and if we're healthy, god willing, it might make us look a little differently at the American life we all live, the kind of innate laziness and violence of it, and the habitual part of it that most of us accept and try to make the best of.
Saunders is speaking generally and off the cuff, and I don't think—and I don't think he thinks either—that everyone living in the US is lazy, or that the pandemic is a “spring break” for everyone. What I love about what I've quoted above, though, is that it encourages us to respond with curiosity to the situation we're in—and curiosity is a kind of response which can allow a whole range of accompanying feelings, but which requires care and liveliness. It's what defamiliarization can nudge us towards. There's another great moment in the podcast where Strayed asks Saunders to read a letter he wrote to his Syracuse MFA students, in which he asks them to think carefully about the value of observing what's happening around them right now: “Are you keeping records of the emails and texts you're getting, the thoughts you're having, the way your hearts and minds are reacting to this strange new way of living?… What you're able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you're paying now and what records you keep. Also, I think, with how open you keep your heart.”
This all seems like great and sound advice to me—although, as Andrew's friend Greg remarked the other day, it's hard to look forward to a deluge of corona-lit in the next five years. But it's advice that should always be great and sound. I always want to be keeping records, keeping an open heart! It's easy to get distracted, though, and perhaps a shake-up is always what brings me back to these ideas. It's just usually not a global shake-up.
I'd actually been thinking about notetaking before coronavirus arrived on the scene, for a couple of reasons. One is that I recently read Lydia Davis's essay “Thirty Recommendations for Good Writing Habits,” which appears in her book Essays One—and it's so great! I feel like only Davis could write an essay with that title (which sounds so much like a listicle) that I would love. It's a meandering and digressive and wise piece all the way through, but I've thought especially about her first suggestion, which is “Take notes regularly.” Her explication of this, which includes many examples from her own and other writers' notebooks, takes up six pages! She says that through regular note-taking “[a] productive feedback loop is established: through the habit of taking notes, you will inevitably come to observe more; observing more, you will have more to note down.” She also suggests some great categories of things to observe, including “your own feelings (but not at tiresome length),” “the behavior of others, both animal and human,” and “other types of behavior, including that of municipalities.” This feels to me in affinity, though filtered through Davis's own sensibility, with Lynda Barry's ideas, which I know you also love! Do you keep a notebook? Do you use it as an avenue into other kinds of writing? I always want to be the kind of person carrying a small one around, taking the kind of notes that Davis suggests, but I'm so terrible at multitasking that when I carry one, I find it's totally forgotten unless it's my only occupation to sit and take notes. But I'm tempted to try again!
The closest I come to this kind of practice is keeping a journal, which has been an occasional and irregular activity for me for the past eight years or so. But when I was in college, and in particular during my junior year, when I spent half the year in Central America, I made a promise to myself to write every single day, and I mostly kept it. I was inspired to do this by my granny, my dad's mom, who kept a diary every day for decades; I think, in fact, that I started keeping my own daily record around the time that she decided to destroy hers, feeding her notebooks into a shredder so that no one would read them after her death. A and I went down to Santa Fe in February to see my parents, and I brought a bunch of my college journals back, mostly because I've wished a bunch of times to be able to look at some small passage while writing. And looking at these brought me to some of the same conclusions as Davis seems to come to in her essay w/r/t what's interesting/not interesting to record. The journals in which I wrote daily are much more fun to revisit than my more recent spare records—they're interesting because all the stuff I didn't necessarily think was important didn't get filtered out, as it does now. There are one or two ongoing college-era angsts that run through all these old entries, and I find those parts, the ones that seemed most significant then, so unbearably boring that I have to skim or skip them. What I love instead are all the things I not only don't remember but am astonished that I stored in my head and made time to write down: a three-page description of a cocktail party at a professor's house, including excited details on the food (“bread, cheese puffs, asparagus, many things more—quiche!—and also much wine and champagne, and a cake (chocolate walnut), a pie (cherry—very good), and two fruit salads”), a sentence about how my friend Anneka's hat flew off as we stood over our bikes at an intersection, endless notes on what I was reading and what we talked about in my classes (“Oblomov today was good… I identify with Oblomov's cowardice and with his obsessive reenvisionings of what's going on around him”; “Marina [one of my literature professors] was discontent. She said she was troubled by the lack of depth in Heidegger's boredom, and told her own story of being in Tuscany last summer and reading Heidegger with fervor as sights passed her by and her husband was distraught, and she said she felt a real self-hatred doing this, because she resented terribly Heidegger's definition of thinking as humanity's purpose. The class debated.”) These sorts of things are actually what made up the substance and texture of my days at Bard, but they're the easiest things to lose, or to gloss over in a general summary (“the professors at Bard were great”).
I feel grateful, reading through some of these entries, that some part of me had the forethought to preserve these details, and yet I've found it almost impossible to replicate this kind of daily writing since. I don't know if it was youthful energy that fueled it, or loneliness or a surplus of time or a better attention span or what. But—like Saunders's podcast wisdom, and Davis's essay, looking at these journals makes me want to take better note of things on paper. I just read a collection of poems by a friend of ours here, Bill Carty, and there's a set of lines in one of his pieces that has been coming to mind over and over since I read it: “There's no despair//like inattention.” Perhaps this is the perfect-for-pandemic formulation of an idea I keep finding and falling in love with over and over again—it reminds me of the Frank O'Hara quote I mentioned in a letter to Joe last year (““Attention equals life, or is its only evidence”) and also of a moment in the movie Lady Bird, which I rewatched earlier this year and have loved wildly each of the four(!) times I've seen it, in which one of the nuns at Lady Bird's school asks her, “Don't you think they are maybe the same thing—love and attention?” But Bill's quote and its syntax, cautionary but also inspiring, feels especially right for right now.
I have many visions and hopes for you and Matt—I hope you both are finding time to write (so I can read your work!), to cook, perhaps to collage and make music? And I hope, too, that you're still loving the environs of Tucson. Every time I see the mountains (and the weather has been amazing here—clear and warm and sunny day after day), I feel ecstatic, even on days when I have felt vacuumed clean of other forms of hope. What are you seeing that makes you feel that way? I'd love to know. In the meantime, to end, here are a few notes, Davis-style scraps of days, observed with you and this letter in my mind:
There are so many crows here, and the brighter it gets the more I perceive them. Walking Hans, a shadow crosses over and I look up and for a moment I see the actual crow as a second shadow, dark absence-of on stark blue sky;
Our apartment's windows cast shadows of their own for much of the day, underwater-looking shapes sliced up by plants or light fixtures or window leading, cast on walls or ceiling. Reading Valeria Luiselli in the morning I notice my ballpoint pen, the cheap kind I always wish I were less fond of, doing this too. A thin strand of wavering framed light in the margin of the page;
The woman next door has a new puppy, a yellow lab. It paces out on the tiny second-floor balcony, its tail slowly wagging. One day I hear her outside calling: Ranger Ranger Ranger!;
At the store I cringe around the other people in the aisle and they cringe around me. It's impossible to smile at someone from under a mask, I realize. I feel guilty, but my face keeps trying to smile;
A day of boredom when, after buying nearly nothing for two weeks, I impulsively order two pairs of jeans and a jumpsuit, and immediately feel terrible about it. My bank calls me five minutes later. I have triggered a fraud alert;
As I sit at our dining room table and revise this letter, the recycling truck comes trundling down our street. I watch it stop in front of our house, and then I see that it has gotten stuck in the plum tree, the one I mentioned at the start of this letter, which I have been watching and loving since February. The branches have snagged the truck, and I watch in still horror as instead of waiting for help, or stopping, the men in neon vests use the can grabber to slowly shake and tug the tree. A huge clump of branches comes off, and then I see that the tree is coming out of the ground. It is unrooted, resting on the truck. I go get Andrew from his office and we stand and watch as the truck backs out. The tree lies across the street and it feels, as I look at it, as if I am looking at a body. I cry. “I know it doesn't make sense to cry about this,” I say to Andrew. And he says it's okay to cry. So many times over the last six weeks I'd thought to myself, I love that tree, I can't wait to watch it bloom again next year. It was situated under a streetlight and even at night it was illuminated, its blossoms bright pink-white and framed in our windows. As I write the men in neon vests are still outside, standing in our driveway. I hear them laughing;
Sixty-five degrees, light wind and clear air. It's afternoon and I am out with Hans. The breeze on my forearms is the pleasure of good coffee, of the William Kentridge movie A and I watched over and over again in Amherst, pure pleasure in a way with all the senseless emphasis on pure. I never want our walk to end.
Good advice against the black hole and towards attention from Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. Underlining courtesy of Andrew.