Cleaning my stove and refrigerator on new year’s eve is perfect because it doesn’t feel like such a waste then, like I’m spending time on maintenance that could (should) be spent on change. It doesn’t seem like I’m giving in to “the way things are,” as the old folks say (and the young folks and in-between folks too), because, really, how many people are doing this tonight? Tonight of all nights, household chores in an empty household that might as well belong that way after all. I imagine everyone else for thousands, perhaps billions of miles around celebrating, most of them in that new yearsy way that always makes me think of noise, just noise, turned way up because volume is apparently directly correlative to how good of a time we’re having, and glitter. Fucking glitter. And here I am in the middle of that noisy glitter storm doing what most of them would say is nothing, but it all is, isn’t it? Maybe I’ll go fold laundry. That’ll really show them, everyone, who and whatever they are, the bastards.
I’ve hemmed myself in here pretty tight. All this stuff, the accumulated dishevelment of existing, on and off again with purpose, but mostly at purposes crossed and tangled: hurt feelings and regrets packed into worn out cardboard boxes and stacked against the wall over there because I don’t know where to put them and know I need to let them go; debts and lingering ties to the ways I thought it was and could be folded up and shoved onto shelves where some of the same clothes I wore when that happened and then that and that hang nearby; haphazard piles of naïve wishes and unmet expectations and remnants of stubborn attempts to really open up and live mixed in with all the ordinary messes you’d expect to find scattered around and all but forgotten on tables and counters and furniture where of course they don’t belong—all this stuff is the stuff that always seems to make people say “that’s life” when you tell them because you always tell them in the kind of vague terms that sound like it is, never letting them see yours. And the losses. Can’t forget those. There’s a whole city for them, they’re spread over town, soaked into its marrow and the ideas I let mix there, in its tone and tenor and pace and on those days when it’s just a little bit cold and the air smells like it did then.
It occurs to me as I scrub boiled-over food from the stove that I’ve gotten a little sloppy because shame and distress have a way of compounding themselves, folding in on you and adding to the jumble of whateverness to which you find yourself beholden and from which you think you’d do anything to break free without having the first solid inkling of what that anything you’d do might be, telling you it would be kind of pathetic to take good care of a life you don’t want while your plan moves on as if without you.
So you let it go, I tell myself as I scrub, blinded to your own lucidity and not even sure you’re missing it. Because it’s certainly not through thoughtlessness that you’ve arrived here. It’s through a central absence in your over-thinking, an empty middle, gaping and paradoxical, that keeps you firmly where you don’t at all wish to be and never thought your fantastically uncalculated calculations would leave you because all you ever saw was the end. Or an end, some kind of end, a dreamscape you knew must be realized. That absence flips things around on you, so that a feverish desire for action gets twisted into inaction, change into continuance, leaving into staying, good into bad and none of it feeling remotely right, not even satisfactory but nevertheless feeling like something because you are thinking after all. You’re just not thinking well enough to really see a solution to your ever-extending in-between moment or well enough to know that, so long as you continue like this, there isn’t one. So it will continue to extend, in between, and nothing much will change.
But it’s time to clean up. That’s why celebration is ridiculous tonight, in any form—especially tonight and especially ridiculous, not the cleaning. I realize that my tiny act of defiant incongruence with this particular evening’s conventional activities feels like change feels when it starts, and I remember that it often starts with maintenance. And with a calmness too—nothing frantic, not some hopeless, paranoid, mad scrubbing and sorting and throwing away all full of nervous, crazy energy to toss out and sanitize and forget and escape. No, not like that at all. There’s a sense of relief at knowing I’m facing it, bit by bit, soberly taking stock of things and remembering how to distinguish between their inertia and my own, remembering I can move and feel and be and live and think clearly and remembering that I either do all that or drift off into nothing. It’s really that simple. This is the kind of relief someone once said is felt when the worst comes to pass and I think that’s interesting. I’ve been my worst, and now it’s over and I’m feeling the first slivers of relief and the return of my self and senses.
There’s no cleaning up after, only while. After is too late; it would mean the messes came with, and if the messes come with it means I didn’t learn a thing.
Dec 31-Jan 1
I am aware, a little in spite of myself, as the clock approaches midnight. I watch for it like I’m afraid I’d miss something, like it would be bad luck or poor celestial form, whatever that means, to glance over too late and see 12:01. It’s ingrained and even a little instinctual, and I feel something almost like a duty to give 12:00 a salute or a nod or even just a shoulder shrug or a tilt of the head and a lingering thought: another year, there it is, there it went.
I go to the window to see what this “new year” everybody has been talking about looks like—it looks a lot like last year. That is not encouraging. The wind is just as biting and brutal. The party is still going across the way. The city still makes the night sky orange and the sun will most likely come up in a few hours to remind us we’re still here, just like we were. I’m still writing the same batch of stories that all feel like they’re about the same thing and I’m still not sure where any of them are going but I know they have to go somewhere and take me with them because I’ve never known where but always known we’d go. At least my kitchen is clean. At least I have a kitchen.
I turn off all the lights and set my chair by the big window with the curtains pulled back. Chekhov said not to tell him the moon is shining so I’ll say this: The room is moon-soaked, everything a pale, dim not-dark that in turn seems lunar, making it easy to mistake reflection for radiance as this, down here, glows as if in reply, faithful, but I know it’s all just as accidental as I am. How long has it been since I bathed in moonlight, since I went somewhere else and felt as if changed by doing nothing but stopping? I hold my breath for a moment and then breathe deeply, watching a world I suddenly remember I’m part of.
Today I woke up different for the first time in a very long time, so different that I had to deliberately fall back into some familiar patterns just to check myself, like a pinch in a seeming-dreamy-dream, more for confirmation than comfort or assurance because if it’s not real I feel like I should probably know, but that doesn’t mean I want to know what is, at least not exactly. The familiar stuff still feels familiar but I don’t feel quite like the same person who felt those things before, even just yesterday. It actually seems how I’ve imagined a new year might seem if all the typical hubbub was a true indication of transition, and I’m not sure what to make of that seeming or what it means or how even to put it meaningfully without knowing what I mean, distrustful as I am of this whole calendrical advancement thing and wary as I am (sometimes) of hyperbole, though you might not know it to say.
It’s not as if the slate, if you’ll excuse the weary expression, has been wiped clean but more like last year’s slate, with its mess of starts and stops, vacancies and blank spots and chips and cracks, narratives and pieces both hastily scrawled and carefully, monkishly scribbled late in the night and all but forgotten in the heathenish morning, has been set aside, stowed away, probably in the me archives for safe keeping and future reference, and replaced with a fresh one for this year by the slate fairy or whoever handles that for this corner of the universe. Sounds ridiculous but there it is: A brand new slate, just sitting there leaned against the wall looking at me, waiting for me to make a few marks, daring me to get started. I’m not sure what to do with it, not sure I’m up to the task, and I feel like it knows, like it’s challenging me. So I watch it warily, eyes narrowed for the proper affectation of suspicious sidelong glances in a feeble attempt to mask some of my irresolution. It’s not working.
I don’t know how or where to begin—the first marks are important and I find myself feeling something like that too well-documented writerly neurosis and uneasiness in the face of a dauntingly blank page. The great threat of the unfillable void. So what do I do? Start tracing familiar patterns and see where they go, just let go and see? Scrawl something decidedly new and brave, something I’ve never tried to scrawl before? What kind of chalk do I use for that? I better get some new chalk. And find a good place to put it and my slate, someplace central, like where the tv is. Maybe I should get rid of everything else in here and just have my slate and a bed, and maybe a chair (for sitting in moonlight). Everything else seems superfluous, and this is not the year—this is and must be the first of many not years—for superfluity.
Maybe I’ll start with the truth. Then again, maybe this is just a new day, just today like it should be because it is and it’s as simple and easy as that.
Ok, it seems I got a little new yearsy there in spite of myself, excuse me for that. Not that I didn’t feel different when I awoke yesterday. I did. But it was wishful, a wish to some degree come true but wishful nonetheless, probably about a 60/40 ratio of wishfulness to truth, amounting to 100% of who knows what. That’s how I live, though, it’s me to be wishful, my scales a little off balance in favor of that which enchants and captivates and strikes to the depths; it’s me to get caught up in my nights’ dreams and carry them with me through my days—no sense in denying or fighting that. It makes life difficult sometimes and makes people say I am too but I’ve never been able to believe that any life truly worth living would be an easy sequence of conventions and purely logical steps. Maybe I have to make it hard on myself to know I’m alive. Or maybe I’m just looking for a challenge I can get and stay up for, without any wondering why, without feeling I’ve taken it as far as it will ever go—a challenge I can really fight for because I have to. To fight without analysis, without reason, without explanation, just because I believe.
Yesterday’s dream was change, transformation. I needed to feel that last year was really and truly and truly and really behind me, and that this year things will be different, I will be different from last year’s me because last year’s me was mostly a slowly recovering mess-making mess. Not that I will be someone else—I will be me again, finally, arriving where I started and knowing it for the first time, as Eliot said. Nothing magical or ridiculous, no wholesale, freakish metamorphosis into a man of other stuff, just me, same stuff as always, changing. So nighttime mind, dreaming mind, set that up for me. Because it knows—it knows that before I know it it’ll be this year’s new year’s eve and I’ll hate myself for staying and waiting and hiding from life if that’s all I’ve done by the time it rolls around.
“Why do we treat the fleeting day / with so much needless fear and sorrow? / It’s in its nature not to stay: / Today is always gone tomorrow.”
I thought of Wisława this morning as I looked out the big window again at the world outside, mine again, at the city and all its hard truths and possibilities and then quickly scribbled a note to self on the still-blank slate, first note of the year, a couple days late but that’s ok: Be here today like you will be gone tomorrow, without fear, without sorrow. Take it in, and let the moment, as much as the city, be your salvation. Let it move you like it should and like it did before you got stuck thinking your plan had failed because its actuals didn’t turn out as clean and neat and right as the end for which you still wish, an end which, remember, is no less possible than ever before. You just have to fill in the middle.
Remember when you came here. Remember how it could still feel new even after it became familiar, how limitless but still so bounded by its history and habits, all bustling and stubborn and petty and grand and welcoming and rugged, how you could look at the skyline and think how small a big bunch of us can make ourselves feel and how big we try to be in response, humbled and defensive and proud and sometimes downright mean, how you could listen to the murmur and deep respiration of the great urban everything-at-once that seems to say you can find it here, all of it, in its own peculiar way, anytime—so be careful, but not too because you’ll never find anything or get anywhere unless you open up.
Remember a long run through the chilly, damp air of an early December evening downtown, unseasonably mild, relatively speaking. Remember the canopy of low clouds swallowing the tops of buildings, holding us comfortably down and in and closer together than the usual cold permits when the roof’s off and the wind cuts and the sky is just the sky and not ours. Remember the mist, the holiday crowds, the nighttime people and nighttime places starting to warm up, the car-lined streets and traffic. Remember gliding through those daunting concrete and brick and steel corridors, lungs filling, expelling and thoughts drifting, weaving around, dashing across, completely isolated and right in the middle, enveloped but still just passing through, just how you like it. Remember how it was home, becoming home, not quite there yet but edging close and remember wondering if it ever would be, fully, wondering if you’d let it—or find it. Remember thinking how lucky, how lucky to be in the middle of the seeming-infinity of lives fanning out from your little point of nothing and how you hated the thought that you were missing it.
Remember, because if anything could keep you awake and moving and open, it’s that. You came here with a question, the same one as always: what’s there and what can I make of it, what will it make of me? You’ve seen some of that, only some—there’s too much here yet for a final appraisal so don’t let your earthy Saturnality get ahead of you and start thinking it’s done, don’t start believing you know there’s nothing left and nowhere else to go. Be here today, and marvel again, like it’s only your time here, today, that’s limited. Until tomorrow.