Friday, December 14, 2012


Thunderclouds forming a cream-white moon
Everything's going to be okay soon
Maybe tomorrow
Maybe the next day
-- The Mountain Goats, “Game Shows Touch Our Lives”

I’m prone to obsessions.

Just ask my children. They can attest to the hours upon hours they lost of their childhood, forced to listen, in the car as we drove, to one version after another of Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” simply because I couldn’t get the song out of my head, convinced as I was (yes, I admit, I still am) that it was the greatest jazz composition of all time.

I have a hard time owning merely one book by an author. If I’ve read one that I love – José Saramago’s Blindness, for example – I then want to read them all, which of course I do not have the time for. But I can own them all, at least. I can line them up on the shelves in shimmering anticipation of that day when time opens like a delicate flower. (I know, of course, that time does not ever open like a delicate flower but instead pours forth toward some impossibly distant, never-to-be-seen ocean like a torrential storm-swollen stream. But that – by which I mean practicality, reason, logic – is not the point of obsession.)

Yes, I want to possess every work of the poet whose one perfectly made poem made me collapse in grateful misery. I want to taste every dish at a restaurant like the River & Rail in Roanoke simply because their sautéed Brussels sprouts with chicory and crème fraiche made me weep with exquisitely unadulterated joy.

Moderation is not – has never been – my other middle name.

Right now, I am obsessed with the green Thai tofu curry at Bull Branch in Lynchburg and the subtle differences in taste between mid- and high-shelf vodkas (between potato and wheat and rye, between Russian and Polish, Tito’s and Glacier, small batch and organic). I am obsessed with the poems of Rilke with their pensive ache, the funk-thump of a certain bass line (think: “Brick House” or “Mr. Big Stuff” or, best of all, James Brown’s “The Payback”) but also, you know, the tinkling piano in the next apartment and Eno-esque absences and drones and James Blake’s computer-concocted glitches and those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant, with both music and lyrics – and, by the way, as my children could tell you as well, with Music & Lyrics, that dreadfully loveable Hugh Grant & Drew Barrymore movie.

But what I’m really obsessed with these days, to get right down to the meat and bones, are my eyes, with the regimen of drops (four of this one, three of that, twice for two others) by which I divide each day’s hours, with the blur that descends across a book’s pages like a too-often-shown film spooling through the ever-dimming bulb of a school projector, the window blinds imperfectly drawn so that light sluices and slices like a trickling stream across the floor’s dusty gray linoleum squares and onto the desks’ chipped wood surfaces and rusted metal frames.

And because of all that stuff going on with my eyes, I’m obsessed with the exquisite but ultimately impossible pleasure of encountering the world through a persistently mindful aesthetic sensibility.

I know, I know, that last sentence wound up as pseudo-Buddhist mumbo-jumbo. What I meant to say was this:  I’m obsessed with trying to view the world and everything in it in a particular manner, as a concoction of light and texture and shape, each component replete with resonances and associations.

All of which is to say: I’m obsessed, at the moment, with seeing.


And so, as those who know me already know all too well, I’ve been taking photographs lately, lots and lots and lots of photographs – though not real photographs exactly. Instead, I’ve been using Instagram, that Facebook-acquired iPhone app that is a kind of visual equivalent of the haiku: tiny square images that can be manipulated in only a few particular prescribed ways: light, shadow, contrast, focus, saturation – or whatever the technical words for such things are. I’ve got no idea, really. I press a few buttons until I’ve got the closest approximation to beauty (which is to say sorrow, symmetry, asymmetry, grace, which is to say art) that I can manage.

I’m usually, I realize, a long way away from art with these pictures: there’s a kind of dullness, a lack of clarity, a lack of vision, so to speak, if you look too close. Of course, again and again that’s what the artist, any artist, comes up against: everything that the art he’s made isn’t. I would like to write an opera, compose a symphony. I would settle for singing one song, any song, with the right notes; I would die happy to write one verse of a hymn I could imagine a church choir singing.

My father, by the way, was obsessed with cameras. He collected them they way I do Mountain Goats minutia (For some Christmas, perhaps not this one but the next, won’t someone please get me the DVD of John Darnielle playing all of The Life of the World to Come? I’d be ever so grateful; my life would be nearly if not totally complete.), and while my father could explain the germane differences between Leicas and Hasselblads, while he could also cut open a body and reaffix ligament to joint, muscle to bone, I can only – well, to be honest, I don’t know exactly. What can I do?

Is it enough to demonstrate the American Sign Language gesture for vodka – two quick stabs with a pointer finger at the side of your throat? Probably not.

Is it enough to walk the pug James Brown through the fields and take in the line of trees, the curve of hillsides, the exquisite tangle of brush, the silhouettes of bare limbs against the sky at twilight? Is it enough to notice how all the world – books and children’s toys and silverware, tables and sofa cushions and slipper chairs, candles and jewelry boxes and wicker baskets, bowls of fruit and jars of pennies – organize themselves into colors and shapes and light and even, if you look close enough, as I’ve been trying and trying to do, like the real thing, like life itself, every bit of it: muscle and sinew and ache and solitude and grace and whatever name it is we give to transcendence. Maybe love. Maybe.

I think that’s enough.

My pictures aren’t much, I know, but they’re my own quiet stammering, the whispered pronouncement every artist, good or bad, tries to make: Look away. Look over here. You just might, for half a second, get a glimpse of your own life.

Monday, December 10, 2012

On Your Way Up to the Light

Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive
Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away
Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make
Find limits past the limits
Jump in front of trains all day...

... Play with matches if you think you need to play with matches
Seek out the hidden places where the fire burns hot and bright
Find where the heat's unbearable and stay there if you have to
Don't hurt anybody on your way up to the light

And stay alive
Just stay alive

      - The Mountain Goats "Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1"

I'm kneeling on my wheelchair right up next to the club stage. It's all concrete, and dark, and the steadily increasing  press of bodies behind me. My feet, tucked up underneath me, are already going to sleep and John hasn't even come on yet. A group of college students who are, it occurs to me, probably at least as old as I am, have their arms around one another and are rocking back and forth more and more rapidly as their excitement mounts.  They are profoundly loving and unlovely: the boys are heavy and sweating and in glasses; the girls are gangly and stringy-haired; their sweaters are too small. They tell me they are a semester from graduation. They ask how much it hurt to get my eyebrow pierced, and when I tell them that it bled a lot but hardly hurt at all, they don't believe me. During the concert they will know the words to every single song from the new album, and call out requests for tracks released only on grainy cassette tape in the early 90's. They drove all the way from San Antonio. They will scream all night. During one brief pause after another song about a slow and terrible divorce the tallest girl leans toward me and says: the funny thing is, aren't we really too young to love a song like that?  

My life has had a lot of constants: poetry and music and mountains, my family and the bright open door of my childhood home, the scores of lovely people walking through it. Profound pleasure and grace.  Also: the small, dark fist of sadness at the center of everything, flexing when I wake. Sometimes it is a small pulse that matches my heartbeat, and I hardly notice it. Sometimes it is all I notice. I know by heart the litany that needs to go here: that I am lucky, that my life is good, that my struggles have been surmountable and that I've had enormous help, that at all costs I need to avoid being precious about sadness and art. I know all this utterly. I know that  to some extent I can and must labor through it and beyond it:  get up in the morning, go to the desk, make an incantation of small pleasures and regular gestures to keep me moving, do it all when I am the worst version of myself, when the world is greyest, and flattest, and least like a place I want to live in. 

The night after the concert I go to a party. It's at  a big house in East Austin that a friend just bought. The night is weirdly warm and we all collect outside on couches and folding chairs in the car-park. For a couple of hours people drink whiskey and beer, and flit conversation to conversation. Late, someone turns on music in an empty room: and people drift to the dance floor and become animals. Dancing will always have for me the particular allure of the foreign and impossible: the body completely let go, completely controlled. Tonight  it seems particularly wild and weird, limbs hurled around the room, heads thrown back, mouths open, all about excising something. People dance for hours, and I let myself be pulled to the floor to bob my own head to "Dancing in the Dark." It's cold and dirty. We go to bed in our teeshirts around dawn. The bodies of the women next to  me are warm and they are asleep instantly. Usually, I hate being young and feel ill suited for it. Tonight, it feels like the greatest gift anyone has ever given me, and I am all of a sudden desperately afraid of losing it. I am twenty one. The darkness knocks and knocks and knocks against the brightness.

I'm working on a longer essay about music. There's a line in it which says that listening to  the music that means the most to me is an exercise in loving what breaks my heart, in delighting in having it broken. Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive...

Sometimes I think I can smell the darkness on strangers, that the scent of it is part of what identifies them as people I could love. This is comforting and dangerous. Jump in front of trains all day.

The day after that party we all sat at the lake and agreed that often we'd happily give up writing, and the extreme joy  that sometimes takes us up completely, if, with it, we could also excavate the dark and find our way to some sort of solid middle ground. Seek out the hidden places where the fire burns hot and bright.

A friend told me her mother called her selfish to be so pulled under by such rootless despair. On the phone,  my mother repeats to me my own litany of cautions. Often, I scare and baffle her.  Don't hurt anybody on your way up to the light.

At night, this friend and I assure one another we will come up out of the dark, and that the things that sustain us will hold steady. And stay alive.

I know I'm risking  sounding overly dramatic here. I can hear it.  And I'm sure you can hear my youth and my propensity for navel-gazing and all those awful things. Is it better if I tell you that mostly I go to the grocery store, and do my laundry, and try to learn to make risotto, and burn it? Is it better if I tell you that as often as we all talk about darkness and poetry and how inexpertly we're trying to sustain and shape our lives, we talk about movies and food and how best to stay abreast of what's going on in the wider world? 

Because we do. Just stay alive...

It's the encore of that night and John is playing "This Year." Everyone in the audience knows every single goddamned word. It is completely ridiculous that I have actually wept tonight, and I know it.  Tonight I would not give it up: any of it, being young or sad or wounded or dumb. I am one of many devoted. I am some twenty-something girl. I am only here because of the darkness and the way it collides with the light. Knock. Knock. Knock. Like a bird against the window, like a fist against the door, like a heartbeat going on through to the next morning. It is lucky to love something like this. Like this one small thing could in fact, absurd as it seems, kill you or keep you alive.