Laughably out of reach?
Laughably out of reach?
It never gets old because I am so bad at it.
Recently, I read this blog post by Rohan that reminded me that one of the reasons I am not present in my life, or TO and IN my life, is that I have such a hard time saying no.
I say yes when I don’t want to (or even when I want to say yes, but know — deep down — that saying no is better for me).
This takes me out of the present moment. If not immediately, then it definitely pulls me out of the present moment when the yes I agreed to comes “due,” so to speak.
I am — humans are — notoriously bad at imagining what our future self wants and needs. We think everything will be exactly as it is in this moment.
But I am overwhelmed in this moment, too.
There’s the rub.
Will I ever learn?
I am starting to.
Now I keep a list of the things I’ve said no to. So I can remind myself — prove to myself — that I can, in fact, do it and am getting better at it.
And, as always, an attempt to answer some fundamental questions of metaphysics through song.
I finally figured out a name for this thing I’ve done for years.
The thing is this: simultaneously, or in very quick succession, reading a group of books about one topic or theme.
I call this weird little habit of mine “reading in swarms.”
I suppose you could also call it “research,” but that would be too clinical and would give me too much credit.
Is it “curiosity”?
Sure it is. Of course. I’m curious about something or someone and then read not one, but five or seven or ten or more books about the topic. But there is something about reading five or ten books (and not, say, two) that tips this — at least in my mind — from curiosity towards some other kind of activity.
Is it mania?
Maybe. But a benign mania.
I don’t know what it is. It’s just what I do when I read.
I don’t do it exclusively. O, god no.
I also read one-off books, so to speak: a single book by an author.
For example, while I am reading a swarm of books about the Arctic, say, I might also be reading the novel Mating by Norman Rush. In fact, I am never not reading Mating, but that is a different mania of mine. I’ve never read another book by Rush except a book of his short stories.
Maybe this impulse to read in swarms is an impulse towards mastery.
Perhaps. That’s more like it.
In reality, it’s probably all of those states along some sort of continuum. The impulse to read a book about death, for example, starts off as curiosity or a straight-up need. As in, I needed help in figuring how to deal with the impending death of my mother, so I looked toward literature for that help. Then, having read one book on death, I got curious as to how other minds thought about it, so I started searching for and reading more books on the topic. And then it became a bit of fixation and a what… hobby? obsession? race? hunger? (See my blog posts: Death, A Reading List part 1 and Death, A Reading List part 2.)
That’s more like it: hunger.
What I know is that for a while I was insatiable about the topic of death in book form. I was desperate to find some aspect of my experience described by another person. I wanted words for the unutterable grief I was enduring at my mom’s side during those years of her dying. That’s why Christopher Hitchens’s perfect phrase “living dyingly” spoke to me when I first read it. It physically rearranged something in my brain and body. I read that phrase and something that slid into place inside me. That’s why I picked up his slim, piercing book Mortality in the first place. A writer like him would surely be able to help me articulate what I couldn’t.
While my mom was dying, I picked up book after book about daeth. (Well, there was that period of time when neither she nor I could read anything, but that’s for another blog post.)
And each book added another window to the metaphorical dark house I was living in.
Now, I don’t read as much about death anymore. My mom’s been dead for more than three years. Things aren’t so urgent. I’ve metabolized the writings of the authors in my death swarm. I’ve written my own book about death. It’s a songbook.
I occasionally add books to the swarm, of course. People send me things to read. I’d never swat these words away.
New swarms have appeared or old, forgotten swarms have reappeared: the Arctic swarm, the Shakespeare swarm (the Ur-swarm for me), the Jamaica Kincaid swarm, the William Faulkner swarm (I took a whole semester on Faulkner at Harvard, so this is another old one), the Rachel Cusk swarm, the Elena Ferrante swarm (this one is fraught and frenzied), etc. There are also nonfiction swarms (the income inequality swarm) and self-help-y swarms (time management).
Beekeepers, I’ve heard, consider themselves lucky when they come upon a swarm. Catching a swarm is exciting and unpredictable and somewhat (or a lot) chaotic.
I think I understand.
"My job as a performer is to make sure that whatever happens in a performance lives in somebody else, that it's memorable... If you forget tomorrow what you heard yesterday, there's really not much point in you having been there - or me, for that matter." -- Yo-Yo Ma
Back to showing you some of my journal/notes aka) my commonplace book. This came from an evening spent listening to Anne Carson lecture “on corners” at the NYPL.
If you are struggling with something, say coming up with a title for a book or a blog post or a song, don’t do the minimum amount.
Don’t come up with one title and think you’re done. You’re not. You’ve not even started.
Come up with 20 titles.
And if 20 is hard, do 30.
To come up with 30 ideas you won’t self-edit. You won’t have time to. You need to get to 30 so that the ideas flow.
And that’s the point: find the killer word or phrase that would’ve never been found if you’d stopped at 1 or 5 or 20 or 25.