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Where will you move??? I'm beginning this letter in a state of ignorance, wondering if any plans have fallen into place for you and Gwyneth, and wondering too how you feel about it all. You guys have been on my mind a lot since Andrew and I arrived in Seattle, in part because it seems like for the past year or so our lives have been running along parallel tracks in a funny way: first we went through a long period of restlessness and wanting to leave western Massachusetts, then the long arduous search for a good reason to go, then a slow move westward with time built in for further planning—and now for us a new place, one with a much-desired view of “real” mountains (as opposed to the admittedly very pretty hills those East Coast jokers call peaks!). Your new place has yet, at least from my vantage, to be determined, but I already feel confident that it will be great.
I feel that confidence because it has been genuinely wonderful for us to be here in Seattle, even in the hardest moments of our transition—when our bikes were stolen, for instance—and, as you know because you were briefly there, it was really amazing to be in Montana, too. Part of the reason that I've felt so positive about our move is just because Andrew and I really like Seattle thus far (and Hans does too, much to our shock and delight), but another part of it has to do, I think, with a certain relief and self-affirmation that come with doing something that I really wanted to do, even though it was in many ways impractical. We had a stable set-up in MA, I had an enviable-on-paper job, and nothing was terrible, even if Andrew and I both felt that the whole situation was adding up to something decidedly lackluster. I've thought a bunch since leaving—and have said as much to several friends—that I hope I can remember to try to be brave about this kind of thing in the future, even under different circumstances: to choose things that I want to choose and not to feel that I have to resign myself to circumstances (though I know, too, that I can be a relentless seeker of excellent conditions, and consequently a malcontent, and that sometimes I do have to settle and/or be more patient). Being in Montana underscored the value of slightly logistically ridiculous but heart-led choices, both in terms of how great it was to be there and also, by way of osmosis/admiration, in seeing the fruits of Noy and Sam's commitment to all their beautiful and far-flung home bases. Andrew once observed, as I'm sure I've said to you before, that they seem to have organized their lives around beauty and wonder—in landscapes, in art, even in the interiors of their homes! (I miss their house there, though I have to say our new house is also very beautiful—we've been getting lucky lately.) I certainly don't feel capable yet (or maybe ever) of doing so to the extent that they have, but I keep them in my mind as inspiration, and also as a dear reminder to keep looking around for what is beautiful and worth marveling at, no matter where I am.
Anyway, all that to say—hopefully without too much self-satisfaction, as I am actually (maybe equally annoyingly!) never satisfied!—I think of that line from the Martha Graham quote I sent to Andrew two weeks back, “No artist is pleased”—all that to say that it has felt good to me, since leaving Massachusetts, to know that we badly wanted a change and made one, even if I often feel like I can't fully explain to other people why we chose to move across the country, or why we picked this place. The other day I was reading a New Yorker article about decision-making (a topic that sits, as I sort of expressed in that letter to Andrew, at the intersection of my contradictory optimization-fascination and lifehacking-scorn), which interested me mostly for its discussion of how we articulate—or can't articulate—the reasons why we make big choices. The article's author, Joshua Rothman, mostly gets into into this by talking about this philosopher Agnes Callard, who recently came out with a book called Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming, which explores the possibility that we make decisions by, as Rothman sums it up, “trying on the values that we hope one day to possess.”
Rothman contrasts this mode of making choices with a couple of other ways of thinking about how we decide to do or not do life-changing things. (He's looking at all this through the lens of trying to figure out whether or not he wants to have a kid with his wife despite some ambivalence on his part. Double spoiler alert: he decides he does want the kid, and he also ends up believing, with Callard, that choosing to be a parent is always a kind of aspirational decision-making!) One other modality is based on another philosopher, Edna Ullmann-Margalit, and her work on “transformative choices,” which Ullmann-Margalit says account for many of the things we do that seem irrational to others (like, say, leaving one's job and moving across the country “just because”). Her theory is that (in Rothman's words) “[t]he point of such a move isn't to maximize one's values. It's to reconfigure them, rewriting the equations by which one is currently living one's life.” And the third school of though Rothman examines, contra Ullmann-Margalit, and which Rothman himself seems to hold in some contempt, is “decision science,” which is such a creepy term. It's basically the opposite of choice-as-transformation, and is predicated on the idea that “faced with a choice… we first ask ourselves what we value, then seek to maximize that value.”
I wasn't thinking this when I first started summarizing Rothman's article to you a couple paragraphs ago, but now, though I found his piece compelling and even a little moving as I read it, it strikes me as facile to put these schools of thought forward as discrete ways of choosing something. A decision can be made for all of those reasons at once! People we are just getting to know here (like Jordan, new petsitter extraordinaire!) or people we haven't seen in a while keep asking us why we chose Seattle—and, besides the fact that it hardly feels like we actually did choose Seattle in particular, as we weren't looking for housing in the city itself until it fell into our lap, it’s hard to explain. We have no job or close family to credit with luring us here, and for reasons I think are culturally-determined and dumb, saying “We have lots of friends here” doesn't feel adequate on its own. So I keep finding myself grasping at some bigger, more substantive explanation for why we uprooted our East Coast life. It's arguable that our move was:
a) aspirational; there are certain things about our choice that certainly fit with Callard's description, filtered here through Rothman, of having “some vague sense of its value, which you hope that some future version of yourself might properly grasp.” It's hard to articulate that vague value, and that difficulty of explaining why something makes sense for you is an intrinsic part of aspiration, Rothman says: “An aspiration, Callard concludes, has two faces, a near face, which represents it 'as lesser than it is,' and a distant one, which an aspirant is reluctant to describe, because it 'ennobles her current activity beyond its rightful status.'” This resonates with me at least in part because I've heard myself, or heard Andrew, say many times in recent weeks, “Yeah… there's no one reason we chose the Pacific Northwest.” The near face! So what's the distant face? Again, it's hard to say, but I suppose it's some sense of wanting a life full of the things that bring me the most joy: art, beautiful landscapes, and lots of chatting with friends.
But—isn't our move also:
b) an irrational transformative choice, “leaving your old self behind to 'create and discover a new self'”? In some ways, which is perhaps also the case for you and Gwyneth, we moved simply because we weren't really liking our lived experience in Massachusetts and we wanted to do something else, even if we had absolutely no idea what it was.
And, too, it easily could be:
c) a reassertion/maximization of what we value. As you and I have discussed, and in what feels to me like a curiously persistent remnant of my teenage self (who really wanted not only to maximize her values but to display them to the world), I've felt a strong alignment with what it means to be from “The West,” whatever that means, and have also felt a correlative and equally strong distaste for having to tell people I lived in Massachusetts, or, worse, was from Massachusetts, which obviously isn't a bad thing but which never felt at all true. I've continued for my entire life to tell people that I'm from New Mexico, even though I'm getting close to having lived longer away from that state than I ever lived in it.
It seems pretty evident to me that my and Andrew's choice to move here, then—as is probably true of most big choices—was determined by all of these desires at once, maybe because we are all of us crazy jumbles of beliefs, escapist longings, and wild aspirations. Do any of these schools of thought resonate with you, though? All of them? None of them? I've now kind of convinced myself that the article itself is silly, but I'm also kind of glad to have read it, if only for all these messy thoughts it's prompted.
(I think, though, that like Rothman I have a special fondness for Callard's aspiration theory, in part because I think it taps into what, in the passage I quoted to Lizzy, Greg Jackson calls “a dream of arrival”—a movement towards something better, more noble, and brighter in oneself, something that may not be entirely possible to achieve but which is nonetheless a strong and driving force for people (at least for me). And partly I like it because it seems like Callard describes all this in a pretty poetic way. She takes as one of her examples a student who enrolls in a classical-music-appreciation course, but keeps falling asleep while listening to the assigned recordings. As Rothman describes it: “The problem is that you don't actually want to listen to classical music; you just want to want to.” I have had this exact experience before! And honestly it's kind of my ongoing experience with classical music, with some notable exceptions and maybe some slow progress over the years. Anyway, here's a quote from Callard's book about this scenario:
Consider what kind of thinking motivates a good student to force herself to listen to a symphony when she feels herself dozing off: she reminds herself that her grade and the teacher's opinion of her depend on the essay she will write about this piece; or she promises herself a chocolate treat when she gets to the end; or she's in a glass-walled listening room of the library, conscious of other students' eyes on her; or perhaps she conjures up a romanticized image of her future, musical self, such as that of entering the warm light of a concert hall on a snowy evening… “Bad” reasons are how she moves herself forward, all the while seeing them as bad, which is to say, as placeholders for the “real” reason.
I don't know about you, but this pretty much describes how I am always motivating myself to do stuff that feels even slightly hard, right down to the chocolate treat and the romanticized image of the future!)
Part of the reason that it's hard for me to explain our move to other people is that much of my desire to leave Massachusetts had to do with my love for the West, and for its landscape in particular. And something about that love is either too simple or too complicated for me to articulate clearly. When we walk out the front door of our house here we can see, on clear days, the spectacular towering silhouettes of the Olympics to the west, and on our favorite walk with Hans, we go east to a nearby ridge where from certain spots you can see the Cascades, further intensified by their dramatic setting beyond shining Lake Washington, the Olympics if you look back, and Mount Rainier, which is so huge and painting-like that it often looks fake (maybe because it is what I believe Andrew told me is called an ultra-prominent peak, which basically means it totally dominates when you catch sight of it!).
Seeing all this, like looking out at the Rockies from Noy and Sam's house in Choteau, makes me feel amazing and amazed—that's a stupid way of putting it, but part of my point here is that I really struggle to find any words or reasons for how much I love looking at mountains! I said to Andrew the other day that a mountain view sometimes feels like my #1 predictor of happiness, which is absurd and probably not true—but it really does feel integral to me, somehow, as if that landscape's as much a part of me as other more obvious determinants of self. I read Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard in Montana (how did you end up liking Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by the way?), and felt that Dillard's near-hallucinatory prose got at something like what I am trying to say about all this. Towards the beginning of the book she writes (and forgive the long quote, which seems to be my MO—apparently I don't know how to winnow anything down, or maybe it's just that everything I'm excerpting in these letters is so damn good!):
The Cascade range, in these high latitudes, backs almost into the water. There is only a narrow strip, an afterthought of foothills and farms sixty miles wide, between the snowy mountains and the sea. The mountains wall well. The rest of the country—most of the rest of the planet, in some very real sense, excluding a shred of British Columbia's coastline and the Alaskan Islands—is called, and profoundly felt to be, simply “East of the Mountains.” I've been there.
I came here to study hard things—rock mountain and salt sea—and to temper my spirit on their edges. “Teach me thy ways, O Lord” is, like all prayers, a rash one, and one I cannot but recommend. These mountains—Mount Baker and the Sisters and Shuksan, the Canadian Coastal Range and the Olympics on the peninsula—are surely the edge of the known and comprehended world. They are high. That they bear their own unimaginable masses and weathers aloft, holding them up in the sky for anyone to see plain, makes them, as Chesterton said of the Eucharist, only the more mysterious by their very visibility and absence of secrecy. They are the western rim of the real, if not considerably beyond it. If the Greeks had looked at Mount Baker all day, their large and honest art would have broken, and they would have gone fishing, as these people do. And as perhaps I one day shall.
But the mountains are, incredibly, east. When I first came here I faced east and watched the mountains, thinking, These are the Ultima Thule, the final westering, the last serrate margin of time. Since they are, incredibly, east, I must be no place at all. But the sun rose over the snowfields and woke me where I lay, and I rose and cast a shadow over someplace, and thought, There is, God help us, more. So gathering my bowls and spoons, and turning my head as it were, I moved to face west, relinquishing all hope of sanity, for what is more.
I think it is that sense of “what is more” that I love in the west, some excess in the grandeurs and starknesses of its land that both puts me in my place and also reminds me of all the huge possibilities of the world. What Dillard is writing about here doesn't seem so different from the Romantic ideal of the sublime, at least as I remember it from college. I'm looking at an excerpted essay by Wordsworth on my computer right now, which I think I maybe read in Comp Lit III at Bard and in which Wordsworth describes the sublime as a kind of “power… [that] calls upon the mind to grasp at something towards which it can make approaches but which it is incapable of attaining—yet so that it participates force which is acting upon it.” (One of the great things about that description is the unusual use of “participate,” which a footnote in Google Books is telling me means, in this context, “to receive part of.”) Is this not almost exactly what Dillard is writing about in what I copied out above? And isn't that idea of the mind “grasping at something towards which it can make approaches but which it is incapable of attaining” also kind of similar to Agnes Callard's theory of aspiration?
I want to be careful here about avoiding a simple equation between our moving west and striving for “what is more,” not least because that's kind of the rhetoric of manifest destiny! But I guess I actually don't want to be too careful, because I do think there's a way in which all these varieties of moreness—what my dear teacher Geoff Sanborn classifies as “extravagance”!—overlap. There's this great line in Thoreau's Journal that I think about a lot where he says, “When I reflect, I find that there is other than me.” Somehow being in the sublime landscapes of this leftmost side of the country, whether the stunning hardly-traveled trails you saw with us in the Front Range near Choteau or here at the top of the ridge where I can see that “last serrate margin of time” whether I look east or west—somehow these surroundings burnish whatever's in me that is able to reflect, and I feel impossibly small and surrounded by wild enormous forces and yet also more confident that I, too, can move towards what is other than me.
And now it's the end of the week and the end of the letter, and I know that you guys still aren't quite sure where you'll go next. I sympathize a whole lot with that precarious waiting feeling, having spent much of the past year in the murk of it myself—but isn't it also amazing that you don't know yet which mountains you'll look out on, what new places you'll explore? I think it's brave that you and Gwyneth have pried open a space, a gap of time between certainties, in which to decide, and that you're not rushing. Wherever you end up, I'm sure Andrew and I will be clamoring to come visit sometime, and to see a different set of views. Go find them for us when you're ready!
(Thank you Andrew for letting me borrow the pictures you’ve taken! Also, I meant to say this last week, but after I sent out Andrew’s letter he informed me that he was, in fact, the person who originally sent me the Martha Graham quote that I quoted to him. I kind of love the strange stealing and return that my (lack of) memory wrought there! But also we regret the error, as they say.)