This is personal. I’ve been away, again, and I left right at the moment of swearing finally and definitively and forevermore death before dishonor happily ever after the end amen that I’d never again go, all away-going thus fully forsworn and packed in travel-battered and bumped past tense as those times I went, oh all those times, good old blameworthy times. Too far to go again, that’s where I thought I had come, finally, thinking I’d really learned something or some things and on that thought it seems I promptly put myself in a here from which I could do nothing but deviate. Right on fucking cue. That’s what it was, really, not just for the sake of narrative, now, but really right on cue, then, the awayness triggered by its very renunciation like a rubber-malleted rap on the kneecap, pure reflex. I am here, so said, and before I knew it I was gone as if those were the magic words for going.
Well, I’m back, now, mostly, sort of, getting there, after a bit, a busy, strangely, awkwardly, dully busy little bit. I’m back and looking around for my bearings like I simply misplaced them, as if they’re misplace-able things, and even things in the first place. Maybe for me they are—scary thought, my bearings’ misplace-able thingness, but I’ve thought scarier, trust me, I have.
They seem to be close by, close and familiar but nondescript and slippery like a bit of déjà vu, close but I’m not quite sure how or where or when from. Where and when—I’ll start there; how comes later. Where and when. Maybe in the closet, stuffed away with the winter clothes I was wearing when last they had me and I had a little more sense, when I decided in moderately uncertain terms that something had to change, cursed, beautiful change. I should go there first, back to that where/when and retrace my steps, because it’s literal and actual and physical and tactile and habitual and I need to visualize like the late great Tony Judt and his memory’s chalet. Like Tony Judt—listen to me, I should be ashamed.
So here I am, rummaging in the closet, looking for my bearings and thinking myself crudely Judt-like. Maybe I should look under the couch cushion, I think, almost aimlessly, mind wandering as I riffle mechanically through hanging clothes and stab hands into pockets, finding nothing but one old grocery list. Funny, I need all those things again. Under the bed? No, there’s never anything there but monsters. Somewhere in that stack of mostly unread magazines on the end table? Eh, that’s a good place to hide something but—or on the bookshelves, maybe, yes, ah yes that’s right, the bookshelves, because I like things that belong together, maybe between Anton and Fyodor and whoever the hell else sits on that top shelf, at tall folk eye level for easy reminding. There’s always something there and hmm it seems I might be getting warmer, now that I finally stop and think about it. Stop, and think about it.
That’s it, the bookshelves. It’s coming back to me now, little by little, remembering speech and thought patterns, ideas and angles, a patchwork vocabulary of beautiful things, troubling things, true and difficult things, and some of the places I’d go to find them, places on those shelves as distinct as geographical locations, a whole semi-arranged world of whole other worlds just like ours, truly ours but seen differently, particularly—worlds there only for walking past while I was away, never venturing much more than a glance, certainly never a linger, afraid, I’m guessing, I’d get lost where I belong, pulled back in. I should start there; I actually mutter those words as I turn from the closet, there with the shelves, start there and stand there and look. And mutter, apparently.
I stand there, looking—Chekhov and Dostoevsky, oh right and Gogol, Camus, Sartre, Cioran, wonderful Cioran, Jung, Zagajewski, Bakhtin, Kundera, Proust, with Frankl and Rilke and Rimbaud and Szymborska and even Foucault and crazy ass Žižek thrown in for good measure, some measure, and for carons. Judt is there too. All of them top shelf, the good stuff. But I think it was Faulkner at the time, wasn’t it? Oh there he is. And Steinbeck, right? The Winter of Our Discontent. That was appropriate, that book and me trying to learn what it meant at one time to be an American novelist, and I remember thinking how perfectly appropriate and it scared me. And it was Proust, too, of course, how could I forget; I am always reading and never finishing Proust, as I can’t help thinking he would’ve appreciated. Maybe I left myself a note inside the cover of volume four, where I left off, and when:
Dear self, IOU bearings. Good luck. Ha.
I’ll look, looking, nothing.
Remember. I’m warmer, though, closer—the clue to my misplaced bearings stood a better chance of being scrawled somewhere inside volume four of À la recherche du temps perdu than in closets or pockets or under beds or on the back of grocery lists (I check it just to be sure).
It was a note, though, something written, brief and aphoristic. Come to think of it, I didn’t write it. Who else is top shelf? I look again. Milosz! It was Milosz, of course it was. The book she gave me, not the ones here on the shelf, though, but the one I never put away even when I was, the one I’d read from each morning before work for a last little glimpse of beauty and brilliance to ease me from dream to reality, the one with the blue post-it note-marked page, marked because she probably knew I’d get lost again and need a little trail of breadcrumbs to guide me back, knew I’d ask a book for help before I’d ask her or anyone else, knew to speak to me in my language, the thought-out language of the page. Page 62, in fact. I find it, open it, excited, relieved. A short little something called “A Goal.” I hope this helps you come closer to yours, she wrote, in pencil on the top-left corner of the first blank page of this little hard-bound full of short little somethings, and I hope it never fades. Here is what it says on page 62:
On one side there is luminosity, trust, faith, the beauty of the earth; on the other side, darkness, doubt, unbelief, the cruelty of the earth, the capacity of people to do evil. When I write, the first side is true; when I do not write, the second is. Thus I have to write, to save myself from disintegration. Not much philosophy in this statement, but at least it has been verified by experience.
To save himself from disintegration. Thank god for Milosz, or thank Lithuania, and Poland, and war, and goodness, because we are all part and product. Judt would agree.
Disintegration, he says. Darkness, doubt, unbelief, cruelty, evil. Write to oppose them, write for beauty, luminosity, trust, faith, write for side one. Write. This is the how. I stopped writing, almost completely, and the second side came true and I went away. Or vice versa, whichever you think goes first—the writing stops when I go away and I go away when the writing stops, because I stop looking, searching, asking for things to keep me honest, I stop bouncing my ideas off of those worlds and their raised questions and attempted answers, my questions and attempts, and stop weaving my thoughts and past and person together. I stop. I disintegrate; dramatic as it sounds, it’s true. There is really no philosophy in this, either, and it has also been verified by experience—side one is true when I am true to it.
My bearings are there, there on page 62, right where they’ve always been. And they’re in “The Lady With the Little Dog” and The Brothers Karamazov and “Nothing Twice” and Light In August and Everything is Illuminated and The Unbearable Lightness…. They’re in inspiration, in provocation, in the truth I’ve tried awkwardly, stubbornly, painstakingly (and painscausingly) to seek, sought so I might live up to the reason why she marked that page in that book in the first place, to earn that page, live up to the task of pursuing that goal and keep myself together.
They’re here on this page, too, in fact, as I write it, and all the pages I’ve made before, gracefully, sadly, awkwardly, stubbornly, madly, pages complete and nowhere near, pages read and shared and pages still hidden, in scribbles, in pieces of stories, in ideas, dreams, thoughts, intentions, wishes for beautiful things and the words I’d string together in an endlessly feeble attempt to make them true and integrated, the whole thing integrated and sustaining, making me better and more than what I just am when I’m not making, making me comfortable, anchored, and finally contained.
Look to these pages, not for bearings but because they are where bearing is made and remade and refined. Pages on screens and pages printed and pages of notebooks—remember those? god that’s right, the notebooks. All those notebooks, scratched on and scrawled and littering this apartment, the notebooks I tucked neatly away from sight and mind while eyes and thoughts were on something else, just else, not bigger or better or more beautiful or more necessary, not at all, just else. Precisely the problem, that was, precisely. Just else.
* * *
I was tired, I remember, but I stopped doing the things that restore me, stopped writing, stopped reading, stopped being the truthful person I’d worked so hard and dived so deep to retrieve. Kafka said something about this—see? I’m remembering, it’s coming back—god I hated not having anything to say. He said the truth is always an abyss and I refuse to put that in quotations because they’re ugly and it’s a beautiful thought. He said one must—as in a swimming pool—dare to dive from the quivering springboard of trivial everyday experience and sink into the depths, in order to later rise again—laughing and fighting for breath—to the now doubly illuminated surface of things.
Did I go away to take a deep dive? Can’t see how. Did I come up laughing and gasping? Gasping a little bit, maybe, but more from astonishment—and a little revulsion—than shortness of breath. Truth? Abyss? Not so sure; those seem a stretch at best. What about triviality? Now we’re getting somewhere. Surface, everyday, even dare, if I think about it, and back to thinking about it I am, earnestly. These words apply, and quite directly, because I’m coming to accept now in my presence what I really and truly did know, deep down, in my absence, I was just too dream- and hope-struck and desperate (again) and distracted to take the trivial everyday dare at the face value it so obviously screams for and at the same time resists, dreaming of depths beneath and hoping for more, just like always.
I wish I had a better story to tell but I don’t; no story deeper, nobler, more necessary or sublime than the one just lived, lived up there on the surface, pretending, playing around and playing along with easy skin-deep-ness and kitschy midcult drives and desires for fitness and normalcy. All I wanted was to be happy and ok and love someone again but I was not happy or ok and it was the wrong someone so I couldn’t. It was phony and misplaced and I feel stupid here in front of her note and Czesław for trying so hard to believe it was anything else.
The truth. The truth is I pushed, put, and went, away away away, up and away from sublimity, strange and inimitable sublimity, from pages, from language, from heart, from meaning, from necessity, from her, from them, from art, from all that really matters in the end, any end, because an end has always been my fear and my hope. I’m going to be fine, I thought, fine. It will be different, everything, I will be different, and I’ll free myself from all this weight, from ends and hopes, from the stultifying weight of my dreams, and I opened up to a surface world that never was, has been, or will be mine. I tried to lighten up a self that has always been on the heavier side, and bobbed up dumbly but with mock grace to have a look around at Franz’s trivial everyday and tried to feel and be normal, ever-elusive normal.
Well it still eludes, because I refuse it, always have. Make it strange, Ginzburg said, and I’ve taken that to heart, made it a mantra. But what I’ve failed to realize is what makes me most strange is the great effort I will put into covering up my strangeness. Part of this is practicality, yes, to get by and get through, but it is mostly fear. And this most recent absence was yet another act of covering up, perhaps even escape, and I can’t help wondering if I was escaping myself, or trying to, I should say, because it’s ridiculous to suppose a self may actually be escaped, even by a master of departure and desertion such as I: I am the only thing I can’t get away from, try, try as I might.
A self can be analyzed, though, and if I were to do so, I’d say yes, clearly, I was trying to break free from me, and I’d ask myself all the obligatory pseudo-psychoanalytical babble about my father, my mother, trials and traumas and subjects and objects and longing and bla bla bla. It happens, my self-analyst self says, we’ve all done it and do it, we’ve all compartmentalized the troublesome, hidden from ourselves, pretended, lied. Many of us live that way. It makes things easier, neater, quicker, more palatable—at least in the short run.
I get that, I say. I have more empathy for that in others (sometimes) than I do for it in myself, though. For me it is a shameful practice, really, self-sabotage, near-willful disintegration; it is cowardice and dullness, weakness and frankly a waste of time all too limited; it’s side two. And the best, the only way I know of dealing with it, restricting it, maybe even preventing it, is to write myself over onto side one. There are other ways to head there, of course—I can read, travel, love, wander, talk, think, and so on and so on, all in that direction, but it seems only writing it out and about those things takes me all the way into that sometimes terrifying abyss and back up again, renewed and refreshed and myself. When that happens, when I am not afraid, it all flows, just like she told me, and I read, travel, love, wander, talk, and think more purposefully, more meaningfully, more as me,truly, proudly, comfortably strange.
All that to say I’m coming back now, still slowly, and I wish I could say I’m staying for good this time. But I need help… I am asking for help. Me. Really. Putting it out there. For help. I know. It’s crazy. But I am. Not help from just anything or anyone—I most certainly do not need to “just forget about it,” whatever “it” may be, or “be around people,” whatever “people” are, or trust that it’ll all “work out” eventually and stop “thinking” so much and just have another “drink.” I need more particular help than that.
What I need is this: If I start to drift away again, please someone kindly but resolutely put page 62 in my face and tell me to read her pencil scribble before it fades away entirely—it’s already been almost two years since she gave me that book, a parting gift of sorts, but really a reminder that she knew, yes, she knew and she was watching. I want to stay here, I need to stay here, but I need help. Not distraction, not new preoccupations, not something else, but help staying, help with the truth, help accepting, help with being ok with myself and all it entails. Because I can’t ask her, not directly, but I’m asking you, whoever you are, to remind me to ask Czesław, and I promise I will. I will not just read, I will do something about it. I will. I’ve said it before, I know, but I will.