On the island of Tahiti, to be exact.
During a game of haru raa puu which led to a dramatic and moving conclusion for Miss Alma Whittaker, who nearly drowned, but fought the ocean’s grasp before arriving at an epiphany that made me cry.
All this past week I’ve been spending time with her.
Wandering through her life in the 19th century as told through muscular, beautiful prose like this which describes her father’s handwriting as he documents her birth in his ledger:
Each sentence was a crowded village of capital letters and small letters, living side by side in tight misery, crawling up on one another as though trying to escape the page.
This line made me suck in a little breath, look around for a pen with which to write it down, before abandoning that notion and simply giving in to the lure of the novel….
In case you’re wondering, it’s The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.
But I’m not writing about the book. Not specifically. This isn’t a review. Rather it’s an account of how I’m finding my way back to the things that I love.
Simply put: I haven’t been reading enough.
Sure, there’s no doubt that I spend more time with books than the average person, but not enough for me (I am, after all, a writer and like a chef who needs to indulge every day in delicious foods, or a musician needing to stick in his ear phones and listen, I require this kind of creative sustenance).
Before picking up Gilbert’s book, it had been awhile since I’d immersed so deeply, perhaps not since last winter and spring when I read Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, all incredible, fat, rewarding books demanding focus and attention and compassion and, I guess, a kind of listening.
I feel like I haven’t been listening.
To books, to stories, which is, in a way, how I most deeply listen to myself.
I watched myself while I was reading this novel.
I saw the rolling tide of the story carry me out into a sort of slow following along of events, then roll me in on a swell of emotion. I cried, I laughed, I thought. I reflected. I had ideas. I took some notes.
All so, so, so much better (no offence) than hanging out on Twitter.
What are we doing on social media?
Trying to find a sort of fame, it seems to me. Trying to be recognized. To gather as many retweets as we can for saying the cleverest thing or ‘likes’ for the profundity of our mini-essay about how I’m overcoming [fill in the blank].
To earn those elusive ‘wins’ (to use a word bandied about now in online marketing, as in, these are what you need to give your customers) that Silicon Valley has figured out how to embed into their products, turning them into slot machines that train our neural pathways (brain hacking, they call it, and, of course, it’s a thing. Go watch this.).
(At this point, recognizing how people get pissed off when someone starts saying bad things about the Internet, I’ll pause briefly to say, of course, there are many good things…blah blah…)
When I cracked open that novel, after having not engaged with a book (or at least not a deep book, not a challenging book) in a few months, I watched my mind scamper around, saw how long it took to settle. I recognized how alone I was in the endeavour, but refused to break the experience by boasting about it with the #amreading hashtag on Twitter.
I let myself remember. This is what it is to read. And soon, there I was, nose in a book while I ate my lunch (like when I was a kid) instead of watching YouTube. Going to bed at 7:30 with my book. Deeply engaged. Feeling whole; feeling fulfilled.
Ah, yes, I thought. This!
Recently, in a dreadful article in The Guardian about the collapsing sales of literary fiction in Britain, someone compared writing these sorts of novels to “quilting,” a quaint pastime that hardly anyone appreciates anymore.
I posted it on social media (and, yes, it got a lot of responses, because the people around me online are also concerned) but in my own quieter, slower contemplation, it made me wonder if this decline in reading complicated books – in the isolated experience that demands that we, as a lone individual, patiently contemplate other human beings’ experiences without the capacity to immediately blurt our own opinion into the crowd (often cruelly, without respect for anyone else, demanding the primacy of our own idea) – is one of the main reasons why our society seems to be falling apart.
Certainly, I’ve felt my own lack of listening. Reposting an article I haven’t fully read. Weird attempts to assert my “brand” (which, you know, is just “me,” or just any of us, on the Internet).
I’ve felt how this is a hunger for fame.
And I’ve recognized how I – like too many adolescents – feel bad when watching the often quiet response or (worse) when comparing myself to others or (the very worst) when reading a nasty note someone’s posted about Swarm. Less inclined to go to my desk, less convinced about the meaning of my work, less devoted to the solitary world of my writing.
After finishing The Signature of All Things, I picked up another book called Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distractions and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life. Written by Bonnie Friedman, this book came out long before the Internet was much past narrow networks of crude listservs accessed by oh-so-slow dial-up modems (the 90s, to be exact). In it, in the chapter on Envy, she recounts this exchange:
‘Why do we seek fame?’ a student asks the spiritual teacher Krishnamurti, according to a book entitled Think of These Things.
‘Have you ever thought about it?’ he responds. ‘We want to be famous as a writer, as a poet, as a painter, as a politician, as a singer, or what you will. Why? Because we really don’t love what we are doing. If you loved to sing, or to paint, or to write poems – if you really loved it – you would not be concerned with whether you are famous or not …. Our present education is rotten because it teaches us to love success and not what we are doing. The result has become more important than the action.’
A gong went off in my head.
This is our culture. And in a time when the hunt for attention is becoming an end in itself and a normal part of the everyday, fame needs to matter even less (because it matters enough to destroy us).
We need to turn with more conscious attention to that which we love, to that which feeds our deepest selves.
I pick up books because I love them.
I love words. I love sentences. I love stories.
I don’t even really love talking about them. More I love just being with them, engaged with them, having that intimate conversation.
And more. So, so, so much more.
Krishnamurti said something else in this book.
It’s a quote that I’m going to write on my wall, to remind me of what I’m doing, of the most important, central meaning of this task which is so contradictory to the times. It is this: “You are just a creative human being living anonymously, and in that there is richness and great beauty.”