Monthly Archives: September 2013

Message in a Bottle: Meaning / Mistake

There’s an essay called “Metaphor as Mistake” by semiotician and novelist Walker Percy in which he explores the cognitive phenomenon of mishearing a phrase and why that mistake strikes us with sudden emotional potency. For example, says Percy, there was the time when,  as a child, he heard an African American man describe a bird as a “blue dollar hawk.” The child was fascinated, believing he apprehended something ineffable about the bird in the name, something evocative, true, specific to him somehow, as an encounter with the divine might be.  I know this moment, I think, as I read.  It’s an experience similar to what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins calls “instress”: the moment in which one apprehends what he calls the “inscape” of another being, its innermost self in all its transcendent glory. It is a spiritual moment, Hopkins says, and we only achieve it when our own nature goes out to meet another, a godly namaste, an encounter with pure and perfect knowledge. It is a moment in which love for the world both mirrors and creates love of ourselves.  I am a big believer, if not in God, in this.

But then Percy, the child, is told the bird is, in fact, a “blue darter hawk.”  Rather than a moment of deep recognition, there has been a mistake, a misunderstanding, the  older man’s dialect slurring the second word into something more mysterious than it really is. Thus, argues Percy, the potency dissipates immediately upon the correction of the error.  But, for one moment, the child feels the “truth” of a phrase as if he has bypassed language.  And for the moment in which we all make such mistakes, we do:  we generate the phrase mostly in our own heads. Metaphor is mistake, both true and untrue—science and poetry, an attempt to assert authority over mystery, to make it closer to something we understand.

*****

In college, my junior year, I fell in love with the first of what would be many Ryans to come. It was an uneasy and unofficial relationship:   I wasn’t Mennonite or German, both of which were important to him, and he wasn’t very free, which was important to me. But loving him was my first experience with grown-up love, the kind in which you listen to each other, really listen, without trying to change each other’s minds, and respect differences instead of pushing them away.  There was, with him, a truthfulness and an attempt to connect deeply that set a healthy precedent for me, one I still honor every time I set myself aside and hear what someone else is trying to say.

But look. See how I go back and forth, even now, the trial of rewriting rejections into peaceable histories? I’ve made the man a metaphor, when there was so much neither of us could hear at that young age.

***

The truth: We had always known each other but had never spent much time together.  I was a hippie at the corner table, in a broomstick skirt and an over-sized feminist tee shirt; he participated in chapel and wore his shirts tucked in.  But then we drove from Kansas to Ohio, spent a weekend together, part of a large group at a wedding.  We’d talked more on the drive there than we ever had in three years; there were jokes exchanged and looks. We coordinated our turns driving home so that we were together in the front seat for four hours, talking, listening, asking the questions you only ask in college, when any thoughtful answer might really reshape what you yourself might think. I call it “dangerous listening” to this day.

***

And this is where the mistake, or love, begins.

The VW bus breaks down—is it surprising this is the kind of vehicle? Or that it breaks down?  We talk all night in a 76 truck stop in Troy, Illinois, share stale but free apple pie, snuck to us by Lorna, the waitress, who feels sorry for us or notices how our two heads lean in closer, while everyone else tries to sleep. We talk about God, of course, as you do in college and the dark, which means we also speak of love and art and books that sound pretentious now (The Stranger, The Fountainhead)  but, at the time, are not. They never are, at that time, that age.

Back on the road, we wordlessly seek out the darkness of the backseat, let others take their driving turns.  I curl into him; he lets me.  I feel the body of this man under my cheek, hear his heart beating so quickly, think I know it now.  “Blue dollar hawk,” the child hears.  I turn my head up to face him, notice how sweetly our lips will fit together. “I can’t,” he whispers.  Blue darter. I lower my face, pretend to be asleep, keep my cheek against his heart, despite its still-rapid beating.

***

Over and over, in the next few months, moments are sensed by me, rebuffed by him:  gazes dropped, then resumed, held, dropped again.  Sometimes, he comes down to have tea and talk about books.  I give up, go out of town, go out with someone else. When I come back, he comes to my dorm room that very night, lifts my face.  How sweetly our lips fit together in that first kiss three months after the refusal in the van.

Unlooked for, unsensed by me, these moments come with increasing frequency as his graduation looms.  We disappear to sit on rooftops after leaving the bars with friends, talking still, listening still.  He learns how bright the moonlight can be upon my pillow.  His heart still beats so quickly, and he laughs one night, lying his head upon my chest.  “Your heart’s beating so quickly,” he says, and I kiss his head.  The moon hangs like a blue dollar in the sky.

On graduation day, somebody takes a picture in which it is clear my heart is breaking:   his arm around me and both of mine around him, his head straight ahead and mine on his shoulder.  He is smiling; I am, too, but in that way that means I am about to cry. I wear his blue and yellow flannel, given to me just the night before.  It is 80 degrees, and I will not take this shirt off for weeks.  One minute before, I meet his mother for the only time, my arms full of irises after moving myself out of the dorms all day. I am sweaty and hot, stained with the ink of all those irises.  She puts her arms around me, hugs me close.  “I’ve heard so much about you,” she says.

Blue dollar?  Blue darter?  What has she heard?  What did he say?

***

The day he drives away from college, we make out for most of the day.  Our faces look again like they did in the picture two days before, but this time he can see my tears.  He is going to see a Mennonite girl with whom he thinks he might be more compatible.  He isn’t, it turns out, he tells me in a phone call, laughing, later that summer.  He promises to write,  though he promises me nothing about our own compatibility.

He writes me, it’s true, the first email I will ever receive, but mostly he writes me letters. Letters—no one raised on email can ever know the adequacy of letters from the man with whom you are still in love, no matter what they say, as long as they do not say “no.”  I am so young, too young to hear that word lurking in every line.  Still sharing, still talking.  Blue dollar, blue dollar.  How sweetly our lips press now the back of each envelope, I imagine.

Pressed on the back of the first is the phrase “Message in a Bottle.”

The Police song, of course?  What is he saying?  I am listening, as I always have. I’ve heard the Police and liked them, but now I immerse myself in a more intentional Police phase, listening so I can find its meaning for this man. I listen as anyone listens to music they believe to be a portal to the mind they love, as if the song is a secret written in many keys and one key will let me in for good, prove that we speak in code, bypass the language to the meaning, recognize the god in me as the god in you.  In him.

In the song, Sting is sending out an SOS to the world. He sounds urgent. He must be answered. I am listening. I sing along: “I should have known it right from the staaaaaaaaaart.” I sing, knowing what this song, now, really means. And what it really means, inside my head, is this: “I need your love, I need to talk to you because talking to you is love.”  And my heart beats faster again, singing it back:  “he needs me now, he knows it now at last.”

The phone rings, and though this is before caller id, I know it’s him. “Did you catch the reference on the back of the envelope?” he asks. “Yes,” I say, my head on his chest in the recesses of my mind, his head on my pillow in the blue dollar moon.  “The Police song.” “No,” he says, “The Bertolt Brecht story, ‘Message in a Bottle.'”  Blue darter.

***

That bottle, then.  The German one instead of the sexy one. The bottle, I think, confused, then, less like me, more like those things so dear to him:  German, contemplation rather than urgency, a kiss that can wait three months to happen, even though I am looking up in the dark right from the start.  I have been wrong; I cannot read his very mind; his heart still beats, but now it is too far across the continent for me to understand him.

But I look up the story again, and in its first lines, I hear myself, and him, and understand at last to whom I have been listening: “I am twenty-four years old. People say that is an age strongly inclined to melancholy. All the same I don’t think my melancholy is a reflection of my age. My story is as follows. At the age of twenty I got to know a young man in whose vicinity I felt lighter.”  And this young man, who lightens with his presence even in the dark of night, he too abandons the woman.  Perhaps it is for someone more compatible, but the reader never knows.  For he too gives her a letter, asks that she open it after three years. She waits and opens it, finds, in the end, a blank piece of paper. And the final words of Brecht’s story are pure Walker Percy, the muddled intersection between meaning and mistake, between metaphors which clarify and metaphors that simply make clear that only mystery remains:

As you know, there is such a thing as magic ink, which is legible for a specific period and then disappears; surely anything worth writing down ought to be written with such ink. I would also just like to add that about a year ago — that is, roughly two years after giving me the letter which is only a blank piece of paper — my beloved disappeared completely from my sight, presumably for ever. After waiting patiently for three years for a message which was less and less meant for me, I can only say that I always thought that love was outside any lover’s control, and that it was the lover’s business and nobody else’s.

In later calls, he will tell me about his new girlfriend and how important our time together had been to help him engage with her more openly, to appreciate her difference:  “I really was in love with you last year, and without that, I don’t know that I would have been as open to her.” At the time, it made me angry to find that he had come to think of  loving me as preparation for loving someone else, and the blue dollar moon had been replaced by the real name of blue darter hawk.  Sometimes, I was angry that those letters, those messages, were not an SOS, calling for my help, my love, a recognition of my inscape.

But as I look at us in that photograph, his steady gaze, my own eyes just about to fill, I know there was less mistake and more metaphor—that more and more, I see the messages he sent me, even before he left, were never really meant for me. They were to a young man trying to learn about himself, in a language only he really spoke, talking and writing to discover the self he wanted to become.  How could we listen well when we did not know yet what we most wanted to say?  More and more, then, that means that any messages I got from him were messages, somehow, I wrote for myself.

 

Here is the other bottle, the one in which I put my love for a time:

Why Can’t I Be You?: Great Women I Admire, Qualities I Don’t Have

This interview series was inspired by my growing awareness that comparing myself to others is–surprise!–not useful. Often, our admiration of others is mixed with envy, the slightly irritating feeling that if only WE had their chances, we could be successful / more creative / happier, etc. My experiences in graduate school and, to some degree, academia, reinforced the even more insidious notion that only certain qualities, certain kinds of personalities are useful or valid. Obviously, certain qualities are suited to certain jobs (you don’t want an irritable yoga teacher, a clumsy dancer), but I was finding myself dismissing my own perfectly useful, perfectly individual ways of being and wondering why I couldn’t be a whole range of things I actually had no real desire to be: more of a perfectionist, more of a workaholic. Ah, but then you run the risk of sour grapes: I would never “want” to be like that person, have their success at that cost. This interview series intends to listen well, to honor those I admire and to figure out how they found their paths in their own ways, while accepting and interrogating my own difference so that, through conversation, I can learn again to listen well to myself.

Interview #1: Carrie Simpson

Who She Is: Carrie is a playwright and poet, new to Seattle via Turkey, where she spent four years teaching English at international schools in Turkey and one year in Barcelona, Spain. It was in Ankara, Turkey, she met Stacy, my friend from our high school days at musical theatre camp; Stacy suggested Carrie look me up. As of yesterday, Carrie had a fourth interview with Alps Language School on Broadway in Capitol Hill. She was offered a high school teaching job elsewhere but hopes to get the ESL job since it would be a new kind of school and teaching for her, and it would give her more time to do that for which she came: to write.

Why She Seems Hard to Imitate / Why I Chose Her: Carrie seems particularly bold, self-possessed, and free, without that taint of escapism that sometimes marks those who’ve spent their lives teaching abroad or moving about. Originally from the East Coast, Carrie spent eight years in Whitefish and Missoula, Montana, in addition to her time abroad. What makes Carrie seem unique—and not like me—is that she doesn’t seem to see travel or moving around as “taking a break” from her real life. I know many people who want to travel, even many who don’t care if anything comes of their journeys particularly; they see travel as a sabbatical from “real life.” I’ve done that. Or I’ve traveled to achieve a very specific outcome: a job possibility, language acquisition, or freedom from another situation. But Carrie seems to combine that carefree curiosity with career-building, to mix devil-may-care with I-care-deeply as she simultaneously works on a play about her father’s death and volunteers to write high school curriculum for the World Affairs Council on the current unrest in Syria. Carrie has no one home base but in no way does she seem at a loss, lost, searching for a path. She’s on one—it just seems to evolve as she moves. To move forward as if it’s ALL real, all part of the plan, without resorting to the cliché of “everything happens for a reason”—that seems to be what Carrie’s about. But I don’t believe in that cliché, either—so, why can’t I be her?

The Questions:

Bryn: How do most people get to your current life position (note: this may refer to your cool job or state of being), and how did your path differ from that? What might some consider unusual about how you got where you did?

Carrie: I follow whims felt in the heart, rushes of feeling that shout, “I want to do that!” Is that called following your bliss? As I move along a certain path, I will have an experience or meet someone who introduces me to a new adventure I never thought of, and if the idea of it rings or shines, then that will become the next step in my journey. You can say I am future oriented, but because I always have just one step ahead of me planned, I am also very much in the present and open to changing that path, looking out for signs pointing to the next step.

Bryn: Ok, part of that sounds like me: I have the clarity of vision, moments that “ring or shine”—that’s a nice one, Carrie. And I can be at peace with the “one step planned ahead”; my job as an adjunct professor has required that I come to peace with that. But I don’t think I embrace that in the way you do—it’s not so much that only having one step ahead makes me anxious, but I think I see that as more of a necessary compromise, instead of a life choice. And maybe that’s why I don’t always feel like I have time or room to notice what “signs [point] to my next step.” Walk me through an example of how one sign pointed to another for you.

Carrie: For instance, while getting my Bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing, a friend of mine I admired told me of her summer experience as a naturalist for the Student Conservation Association. That sounded fun, reminiscent of my family’s summer vacations visiting national parks out west, so I applied to SCA and was placed as an interpretive ranger at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota during a college summer. From that experience, I decided that after graduation, I would do seasonal work all over the U.S., seeing the country through its national parks. When I graduated college, I landed a seasonal job teaching outdoor education outside Glacier National Park, Montana. However, I connected to the place and the people so much, I worked there as a teacher-naturalist for four years and ended up staying in Montana for eight.

Bryn: Totally get that connection to place creating the next steps. Once you find a place you love, it’s often just about figuring out what you can do to stay there. I did that when I realized I needed to quit my tenure-track job in Missouri and move back to Seattle. What I did was still important, but it became secondary to staying in Seattle. What I also see in your story at this moment, though, Carrie, is an alternative possibility: that deep attachment to what you want to do can lead to a security no matter where you’re at. Sometimes I feel that way about teaching, but clearly, in the case of Missouri, the love of teaching wasn’t enough to counter the love of a good fit for me, regarding place. You’re starting to remind me of Dishwasher Pete—a man who decided his goal was to wash dishes in every state in the union:

http://www.thisamericanlife.org/contributors/dishwasher-pete.

Carrie: During [my Montana] time, I began to long for a more creative life again. My writing self was pulling on me. So I went to graduate school to become a high school English teacher. While there, I focused my thesis on working with an at-risk population, which led me to student teach at a therapeutic boarding school in The-middle-of-nowhere, Montana, and it was there that I learned about the world of international teaching. My mentor had taught abroad in Pakistan and Japan and brought his rich experiences into the classroom through stories and slideshows. I decided immediately and with certainty that that was exactly what I wanted to do, so after learning that I needed two years of teaching experience in my own country before applying to international schools, I did just that at a high school in Montana.

Bryn: Ok, THAT’S probably where most of us would get stuck. “I need two years of teaching experience? Sigh.” Or we’d start the teaching and then become afraid to leave the U. S. job . . . although I haven’t taught high school. Maybe two years is all anyone can bear.

Carrie: After two years, I attended an international job fair in Seattle, very open to where I’d end up, and landed my first job in Ankara, Turkey. I thought perhaps I’d enjoy a two-year contract there then return home to Montana, but loved my experience living abroad so much that I stayed three years in Ankara, one year in Barcelona, and one year back in Izmir, Turkey.

At the moment, I’ve just returned to the U.S. to focus on my writing for a concentrated spell, as again my writing self began to pull on me (a theme in my life). I am here to see theatre in English, meet other English-speaking writers, go to writing conferences, all the things I have not been able to do while living abroad. I have a feeling I will return abroad again after a year or two, but I am also open to the possibilities waiting for me in the people and experiences I have yet to enjoy in Seattle.

Bryn: See, this is where the “traveling isn’t a break from real life—it IS my real life” thing comes in. In order to lend solidity and peace to this life style, it seems like you have to accept that you may not be in the “final” place. To some degree, your choice to give up teaching for a “concentrated spell” reminds me of poet and memoirist Nicole Hardy, who quit her high school teaching job to work as a waitress so that she had more time per day for writing. However, Nicole knew that was a life change she could and wanted to make permanent—at least for quite awhile. And she stays in one place. I wonder how much differently I would live if I knew for sure I would be changing careers and locations at least seven times.

Carrie: I am certainly not following a predetermined course; my path unrolls before me as I go. I would never have imagined at 20-years-old, while studying creative writing at Emerson College, that I would one day be in a writing group with other ex-pats in a bar in Spain, celebrating getting my first poem published in a Barcelona literary magazine. However, when I look back from my current position, I can connect the dots and see a solid path.

Bryn: Even though the point of these interviews is to identify and celebrate your unique individuality, do you have a personal maxim, or another’s words to live by?

Carrie: I discovered the poetry and teachings of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi while living in Turkey. Rumi was a poet and the founder of the Whirling Dervish sect of Sufi Islam who lived in
Turkey in the 13th century. Many of his maxims, such as the one below, entail the kind of surrender and faith that I try to embrace in my own journey:

“Are you searching for the river of your soul?
Then come out of your prison.
Leave the stream
and join the river
that flows into the ocean.”

Bryn: What is most important for you to have done or to feel at the end of each day?

Carrie: That I’ve planted seeds. That is, that I’ve put myself out there in good ways so that by the laws of the universe, good things will return one day. For instance, lately I’ve been reaching out to acquaintances, hoping they will return the initiative and friendships will grow.

Bryn: Like me! Good job, Carrie!

Carrie: Because I’m job searching, I also reach out to prospective employers and volunteering opportunities. These particular examples are very indicative of the stage I am in within my current journey: the beginning. A seed that I plant every day regardless of where I am in a particular journey, is that I write every day. Some days it’s not much. Maybe I’ll only have time for a half an hour of writing, and maybe what I write will be so bad that I will spend the next day erasing it. But even a half hour a day adds up to something, and before I know it, the first draft of a play will grow from these daily seeds I plant.

Bryn: Flannery O’Connor used to sit at her typewriter every day for two hours, “just in case anything happened.” It’s universal—as a writer, you have to accept that production is not always about quality but rather the sheer exercise of the desire to care, every day, that something might happen. Another poet friend of mine, Emily Beyer, said that she doesn’t write every day but that when she is on a more regular writing schedule, she feels like she’s “better—a better person.” You become more aware of your own possibilities, the ideas you didn’t know you wanted to care about. That’s what starting this blog has been doing for me: I tend to get bogged down in the generalities: “I’m not like that person. I don’t do that much.” But when I start writing about a long-lost friend or someone cool like you, I find I have more interesting reasons, deeper perspectives on why I am the way I am. In short, I find my own story wasn’t that obvious.

But onto question #3: What’s one compromise you’ve had to make in order to achieve that sensation of a day well lived?

Carrie: It’s not a big compromise. Since I write first thing in the morning, the compromise is that I sleep a little less or go to bed a little earlier.

Bryn: Discuss a particular event you consider a triumph, a failure, or an obstacle that might surprise others.

Carrie: I find transitions really difficult. This may surprise others because of how much I move. I do love change, but every initial landing is always very shocking and full of doubt and loneliness. However, I’ve learned to just acknowledge those thoughts and feelings and have faith that they will lessen each day and finally pass.

Bryn: Why can’t I be you? (You can answer this in one of two ways: a) Based on what you know of me, how are we most different? or b) What’s a defining quality of yours to which you’re more strongly attached than most people?)

Carrie: I’d say the qualities to which I am most strongly attached are a hunger and excitement for the present opportunities around me, [the ability to develop] coping mechanisms for the hard times, and faith that if I live my life well in the present, the future will unfold just fine.

I rarely fear the future or that I’ve made the wrong decision in the past, which helps me enjoy the present. I can throw myself in 100% to the life(style) I’ve chosen for the moment. I have a knack for finding the new or the different or the hidden adventure in most places and situations. I have lots of interests, and can always find plenty of reasons to get out and explore.

In difficult times, I can remember that this, too, shall pass. I have the initiative and courage to make choices that will get me out of hard times, and the coping mechanisms to help me get through them. When looking back on difficult times, I can always find the positive aspects, whether in friendships made or lessons learned, which helps put me back in the present.

Bryn: Ah, the George Harrison answer: all things must pass. That is such an important one. I’m curious and adventurous, too, but it seems like I’m always slightly saddened by the past as it’s passing, always slightly more worried about whether there is a “through line” in my life, if I’m staying true to a kind of personal integrity or if I’m getting sidetracked. I guess one way to find peace is to accept that all lines are “through lines.”

Bonus questions, Carrie:
What movie character do your friends think you’re like?

Carrie: Christopher Robin—the accepting one who’s in charge of all the others. That was, at least, how my friends saw me when I was younger.

Bryn: What movie character do YOU think you’re like?

Carrie: Max from Rushmore—the kid who starts all the clubs. Or Jim Carey from Yes Man.

Next month, I interview Rebecca Brinson, author of the column “Hustle and Prose” on the website The Toast, co-founder of the online editing service NW Essay, and former development director for the Hugo House. She’s responsible–so how did she live abroad for six months? And why does no one seem to irritate her? These mysteries and more–in October.

Searching for Erin Scott: When a Friend Becomes Tangled Up in (the Long-Lost) Blue

No one I know from college knows what happened to Erin Scott. This is something we all hate because Erin was probably one of the best, strangest, most darling people I’ve ever known, and she was one of my best friends in college. She was the best friend of a lot of people in college. How is it that not one of us knows if she’s ok?

Because there’s always the possibility that she’s not. Upon first meeting, Erin gave one the impression of a quivering rabbit: soft, adorable, bright-eyed, heart beating like a trip hammer. Her father had been killed in an accident while she was in high school, which meant she had life insurance money and a deeply painful psychic scar. She wore a pair of diamond stud earrings and the same dingy pink tee shirt for days. One day, I looked at her and said, “Erin! Your hair looks so incredibly beautiful today,” to which she replied, startled, “Thanks! I brushed it!” There were periods in which “self-care” seemed as remote a possibility for Erin as her turning into an actual rabbit, even though my friend JE once witnessed her staring deeply into the eyes of one near the Administration building.

And there were other reasons to worry. Once, Erin was in the shower, while I was brushing my teeth. “But you’re not here anymore,” I heard from the shower. “What?” I said, turning to look. Two wide eyes peered out from the curtain’s edge. “Did I say something?” “Out loud,” I replied, unnerved by the look of fear that crossed my friend’s face, a look that indicated there was a conversation to which I was not privy but for which I would need to start listening, if I was follow my friend into that fragile space her rabbit heart was making of her mind.

In the years that followed graduation, though, she seemed better, psychically happier, as she bounced from organic farm to organic farm. She was proud of her ability to do physical labor, to find her way through Mexico City on her own, to sleep alone on a beach—all actions that proved she was not “Baby Erin,” as another friend called her, someone who needed taken care of. For awhile, she returned to our college town and lived with a pair of friends, waitressing and taking pride, again, in the blue-collar labor, more akin to her father’s life than to her own liberal arts college degree. While a waitress, Erin met Blaine, a guy biking his way across the U.S., pulling a collapsible lawn mower behind him to make money on the way. They married; I performed the ceremony, which included them standing in the broken bicycle rim that had forced Blaine to stop in town, finding his way, magically, to the café where Erin worked. It seemed as if his misdirection re-directed her, delightfully, towards in no particular direction but happiness. She didn’t need a man to save her . . . but at least, she wouldn’t be alone with the voice inside.

If I’ve painted too much a picture of Erin as lost, an unstable, delicate creature, I have left out what made Erin magical. Erin knew ALL the words to ANY song, and the absence of her singing, in my life and in those lives of our friends, is what makes the radio silence of her absence an anxious one for me. It’s not unusual, the loss of connection with a college friend, the end of the intimacy of late-night conversations, the sharing of developing selves, the connection faded because of distance or time. But perhaps because Erin was never really, fully in the same place with us, fully in time with my friends, with me, we worry. And we miss her because the other place in which she seemed to reside was full of songs, so many lyrics, so many words crowding her inner life that surely a few had to escape as if in conversation with what we could not see. If one of us isn’t there to hear her, how are we to know she is still able to sing in reply, isn’t drowned out by the other voices in her head?

I went to see Erin and Blaine once in North Carolina, and Erin confessed she was going to have a psychiatric evaluation, at the suggestion of her husband’s psychiatrist father. I haven’t heard from her since, but I hope, we all hope, she is still there, happily married and singing all the words to Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue,” particularly. “Tangled Up in Blue” is the song of a journey between worlds, between lives. The protagonist falls in love with a woman “married when [they] first met / soon to be divorced.” He sings that he “helped her out of a jam” but speculates that he “mighta used a little too much force.” We learn how to love our friends as we learn to love ourselves in our youth, which means it is sometimes difficult to decide if you are being overly protective or if you aren’t alarmed enough, when you should let go and when you need to intervene. In the song, the narrator leaves when things get messy: “she froze up inside,” and he escapes, withdrawing because it is “the only thing [he] knew how to do.”

I didn’t withdraw, but I often wonder if Erin’s “changed at all, if her hair is still red” because my past, like that of the protagonist in the song, is always close behind me. I always feel the need to check back in—but it’s not because I don’t feel like I took enough care of Erin. I think it’s because, like the man in the song, “all those people we used to know / they’re an illusion to me now,” and Erin’s strangeness is still more beautiful to me, more loved than many of my stable, untroubled friendships of today. Erin had access to a world that I loved to lean against, and I want to know if it still exists, if it is possible to exist half-magically in this world . . . or if you have to go crazy. Erin introduced me to the song and world of “Tangled Up in Blue”: a world in which synchronicity, beauty, pain, absence, and hope co-exist and return, again and again. It is one of those songs I’ve loved so long that, if I didn’t link it so closely to Erin, it would almost be too hard to find the origin of my love for it—almost as hard as finding the whereabouts now of Erin Scott.

Walter Pater, You’ve Sometimes Made It Difficult

This post is a preface to an upcoming series of interviews I’m currently conducting called “Why Can’t I Be You?” Each interview will center on a woman I admire but who seems radically different from me in temperament. Look for Interview #1 soon!

In Studies of the Renaissance, Walter Pater concludes that the secret to genius is to discern, at all times, the most private qualities of one’s experiences—to revel in the process of experience for the individual, rather than in the “fruits of experience,” what others can see or what benefits you later. “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life,” he says, and, in doing so, he ignites the Aesthetic movement, the philosophical and stylish doctrine practiced and extended by Oscar Wilde and others for most of a decade.

I read this first in college, as a senior. I don’t think I actually understood all of it, really. But I do remember thinking that his writing, that phrase, particularly, was the most beautiful reading experience I’d ever had. The fusion of “burning” with “hard” and “gemlike”—the geological solidity with the sparkling of the gem . . . the image stood out, apart from my college reading, and I heard someone who understood how deeply marvelous I thought life was. I burst inside, my own mind a disco ball illuminated with pleasure that this timid man, an Oxford tutor who preferred to entertain privately, found words for what I felt certain ruled each of my movements made in this world.

I burned all through my twenties when, I still maintain, it’s most crucial to do so. I burned, got burned, and sparkled and drank and tasted and kissed and bought plane tickets too expensive for me. I burned into my mid-30’s and read as much Pater as I could, but nothing’s ever been as good as that one line, as effective at exciting that part of me that knows how important it is for me to know that burning is true, that living so intensely is the only real way to live.

But lately, I’ve been thinking more about lines later in the same paragraph as the gemlike flame line—this line, actually: “Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us, and in the very brilliancy of their gifts some tragic dividing of forces on their ways, is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.” And I think of this line because it is often raining in Seattle, and it is cold, and dark, and I am almost 40 and because I worry, more often than not, that I am sleeping and not burning. I get overwhelmed by the tragedy of the “tragic dividing of forces on their way.” I feel myself reaching painfully out to hold onto those things that are leaving, that exceed my reach. Or, worse, I simply look at the frost and sun and cannot discern why I should reach at all. And yet, I am not sleeping—I lay awake at night, most nights, worrying about how to be greater. Really, what I worry about most is why I don’t want to want more. I try to tell myself that letting go of wanting more—of being more productive as a writer or as a scholar or as anything else I want to be, partially—letting go of anxiety about producing is exactly what Pater means when he says that “it is not the fruit of experience, but experience itself is the end.” I want to believe that I am still burning, but burning in ways that illuminate smaller things, tinier gems—that I am discovering, in my late 30’s, the crystalline structures of an atom, instead of the crystal palace of my 20’s.

Why do I have so much capacity for experience, and so little desire to sit alone and write? Why does writing sometimes make me sad? Is it because I cannot stop burning long enough to write something beautiful, or is it, instead, because I am not burning brightly enough? To really, truly live Pater, I am going to have to walk through these fires, even as I am the flame itself, and pray that, in all that heat, something fuses that can fuel me. Pater says “only to be sure it is passion” that drives me to experience, and that those experiences produce a “quickened, multiplied consciousness,” I am giving myself all that I can, but I wonder what he told himself in the middle of the night, and what it felt like when his flame was low.