Sunday, October 17, 2021

Why is this your life?

"Why is this your life? Why are you not a truck driver in Norway? Why?"

I have recovered from the sickness. I continue to feel tired, but it is a familiar languishing, not the fatigue of physical illness. Some people ask me detailed questions about my symptoms, my circumstances, my vaccinations. I am an oddity, a breakthrough statistic.

I have been attending the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma from the comfort of my reading chair.

I have watched a documentary about women who tie shibari, about how a form of torture can be transformed into a healing practice. Skills can be learned, they reassure; what matters is having a clear vision.

I have watched another, about the intersection of BDSM and Christianity, because sacred ritual interests me. But this film is too cryptic, recommending that we speak from scars instead of wounds.

I have watched a Japanese film, a triptych of bittersweet dramas, about the random nature of love, life, and consequences. In the centre panel, a mature student visits her former professor, and she reads aloud to him an erotic passage from his published novel.

I am reading You Are Eating an Orange. You Are Naked, by Sheung-King. In this novel, a woman tells the narrator (they are lovers, maybe partners) about Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and explains the problem of eternal return and its flipside, the burden of self-insignificance.

It reminds me also of a couple other books (more about that another time) — the feeling of drifting back and forth between possible realities. 

I remember lightness, and I remember being, and I remember how both bearable and unbearable it made everything else. I remember eating oranges naked. I remember eating oranges naked with various lovers, they were sweet. I will eat oranges naked again.

This week I bought a new home. It is a midcentury concrete bunker of a building that once housed a printing company, converted into a loft. I feel the ink in its foundations in my bones.

The other night I dream I am exploring a grocery store in my new neighbourhood with my daughter. I sign up for a random activity at a booth. When I am next in line, I see that I have committed to getting a tattoo. I spontaneously announce to my daughter that I will get a tiny black spider on my collarbone (not the octopus I have been considering in real life); she shrieks and squirms away.

I consult the internet to understand the dream. It means something about fear and fearlessness, change and permanence, setting traps and finding freedom, rooting myself in the divine feminine. Clearly it stems from my waking-life anxieties and aspirations. It may also draw on my current research into ayahuasca retreats, which has resurrected my interest in tree spirits. Everything is connected.

I am casting a plaster mould of a clementine, its segments splayed. I have a clear vision.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

We longed for ennui

Though provincial by birth, we all considered ourselves the most cultured teenagers in our town, the ones refined enough to be embarrassed by our provincialism and desperate for more civilized lives. We listened to NPR in our cars and drove forty minutes for sushi — though we ate only California rolls. We memorized the dates of exhibits at the Tate Modern and Louvre and wistfully regretted missing them. We wished we had money to go see the new show in the city, the one reviewed in the Times. We considered taking up smoking. We considered snorting cocaine. We watched films in translation and argued over what they meant and agreed they didn't mean anything: that was the point! We longed for ennui and weariness, but what we felt was deep, gullible passion for anywhere else splashing inside us like a puppy in a pool.

— from The Atmospherians, by Alex McElroy.

Remember longing for ennui, before you knew what it felt like? Yeah.

Saturday, October 02, 2021

The best salve for sadness

"Sad sells." This might sound sadistic but it's true; people want to see their sadness reflected back at them because it makes them feel connected to something and connection is the best salve for sadness. 

I was supposed to wake up in Dublin today. Instead, I'm convalescing. The cold and damp outside is homespun, familiar. I've eaten gallons of soup, and I have a hankering for stew. My week has been imbued with lilting Irish accents on screen, and pub crawls across Temple Bar between the covers too.

I meant to be reading the latest Sally Rooney. I thought I'd pick up a copy there. Instead, I'm here, #42 on the library waitlist for a digital copy. Maybe I'll manage to find my way to Dublin by then.

Today if I had my way I would be adventuring across Victor's Way, the strange and somewhat strangely erotic sculpture garden.

Instead, I stayed in bed, reading Out of Love, by Hazel Hayes.

I offhandedly wrote in a message to someone the other day that it feels like everything is happening to me in the wrong order. I feel like the plague should have cursed me a year ago, punishment for struggling to rise above it, for loosely interpreting the rules of lockdown in favour of meeting new people, daring to fall in love.

Instead, I lay here sad, weary, heartbroken, vulnerable all over again. I've been honing my skills, going back to basics, strengthening the foundation, in every aspect of my life. Careful, emotionally armoured, professionally guarded. And now, fate chooses to strike. What lesson am I to learn? I don't want to be made stronger by this, I am already strong enough, I couldn't bear to be any stronger; I want to be weak and taken care of.

I feel like I have lived my life in the wrong order. I should have started in this city, like I planned to at age seventeen. I would have moved to Europe by now. I would have met my lovers in a different order. I would be financially secure and emotionally independent and sexually confident by now. (But Isabella, you are those things now.) I am the wrong age, or it is the wrong context, or it is too late. Or too early. (Maybe I'm a stopped clock, right only twice a day.) I feel like I'm out of time, but I don't know if it's because I'm outside of time or because it's been depleted.

We're all running on separate tracks, at different speeds, occasionally intersecting, sometimes moving in opposite directions.

Out of Love
, by Hazel Hayes, is a love story told in reverse, from breakup to first meeting. Outside of love? Has everything been sourced from it? Are the stores depleted?

It's not just two people saying good-bye and going their separate ways; it's the excruciating process of untangling two lives, picking them apart like some sad surgical procedure, trying ta detach this thing from that while causing as little lasting damage as possible.

[It's been a while since I had to extricate my life from someone else's. It's been a while since my life was implicated in someone else's. I've always stayed on the periphery, maybe because it's easier to make an escape from there.]

It's a charming story, from Dublin to London, with side trips to Paris and New York. It's a writer's life, as she grows into her voice and her being.

Possibly the best thing this novel gave me was the story of Hayes' inspiration, from Nora Ephron's Heartburn. "If I tell the story, I can get on with it." I know this: I need to tell the story (I know there is art in it), so I can get on with it.

We kissed. And I left. And that was it. I felt at once lighter and infinitely heavier.

Friday, October 01, 2021

The gloomy, barely traversable depths of your own being

One day, the past calls you up on the phone and you drop everything and go to Bosnia, because your childhood friend's brother who's been missing since the war shows up. (The plot of Catch the Rabbit.)

One day, the past texts you and you reply in kind, and you leave your husband and kids to board a train at Grand Central with your old boyfriend from college. (The plot of Run.)

One day, the past sends you an email, apologizing for having been a bad friend, only you were the bad friend. (My actual life.)

One day, you send a message to the past, and it doesn't seem to get through clearly, there's too much interference, and you don't get the reply you hoped for. (The plot of the narrative of my life.)

One day you call up the past, and there's no answer, it's not there anymore. (My greatest fear.)

Find an exit, or an explanation, in every reflection. Any captured moment has backstory.

(I was supposed to be waking up in Dublin today.)

Armin squinted, as if solving a chess problem, held the cigarette with his lips (the smoke was getting into my eyes but I didn't want to close them), and reached for my hairband with both hands. Covering me like a tree, he pulled the bobble and untied my ponytail. He was gentle — like it wasn't the first time he had done it. 

My hair tumbled around my face. And I thought to myself that I wasn't twelve, but a hundred and twelve, and that I had spent that whole century waiting for Armin Begić to set my hair free.

Catch the Rabbit, by Lana Bastašić, is a road trip that meanders down the rabbit hole of memory, excavating a childhood friendship amid the ruins of the Bosnian war. 

The fact is that this was her, Bosnia, and me, and I couldn't name a single tree from the row that observed us. The fact is we exchanged just a couple of necessary sentences all the way to Bugojno — about eating and pissing — our topics never reaching beyond primary biological motives. Another fact is that a road-trip story makes sense only when the travelers, albeit wrongly, believe in reaching the finish line, the journey's end that will solve all problems and end all misery. There's no finish line in Bosnia, all roads seem to be equally languid and pointless; they lead you in circles even when it looks like you're making progress. Driving through Bosnia requires a different dimension: a twisted, cosmic wormhole that doesn't take you to a real, external goal, but into the gloomy, barely traversable depths of your own being.

Some harsh realities and hardened characters are revealed under a loving light. Comparisons of Sara and Lejla to Ferrante's Lena and Lila are warranted.

One time she told me that writers write because they don't have memories of their own, so they make some up. That was before, while Rabbit was alive, and we had just started reading books. But she wasn't right, at least not entirely. Memories might be like a frozen lake to me — blurry and slippery — but every now and then there's a crack in its surface and I can put my hand through it and catch a detail, a recollection in the cold water. But frozen lakes are vicious. Sometimes you catch a fish, other times you fall through and drown. I know from experience that all my memories of her tend towards the latter. That's why I had done my best not to remember for twelve years. And it worked. When it comes to our humanity, it's amazing the low levels to which we can sink when it suits us.

Review: LARB

Saturday, September 25, 2021

The smell of irritation and boredom

There's a Jewish joke that says God often rereads the Torah to try to understand what's going on in this world he created.

On the 561st day of German lessons, the sickness finally comes. It announces its impending arrival by text from a friend already ill. And its presence is confirmed by phonecall from Public Health.

I keep looking at the photo he took of me at Jazz Festival that Saturday evening. I look so happy. And pretty. And it warms me, to know he saw me that way in that moment. He infected me with his glance.

She wishes she could abandon her body and dissolve into everything outside.

That afternoon I'd been running errands and stopped by the old park with a coffee. But it was fenced off, under construction. How many hours I'd spent there in the cold of last winter, nipping scotch from a flask, stealing time with my old lover, under curfew. All those conversations and kisses now to be excavated. Time to find a new park.

I feel light. I have music in me, jazz, these are the good old days.

Monday, in line at the walk-in clinic, I'm reading The Anomaly, by Hervé Le Tellier (due out in November), pretentious in its intentional stance of antipretentiousness. It is the French intellectual version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, clever but not very funny. I'm symptom-free, and nervous to be huddling among the potentially infected. But he'd messaged to say he'd tested positive, I should get checked too. Protocol 42 is invoked after a plane lands three months after it originally landed, carrying the same passengers, after experiencing turbulence, presumably a glitch — not in the matrix (the virtual manifestation fed by human energy), but in the coding of the program itself (Slartibartfast asleep at the wheel). Purportedly Oulipian in its design, this wasn't obvious to me, which may be either a strength or a weakness.

It's election day. It wouldn't be right to vote, to potentially expose others; the directive is to isolate while awaiting results. It's Helena's first election. I wait it out at a distance, she is in line for two hours, polls have officially closed and the election is already decided by the time she casts her ballot. It's late and chilly, and my throat feels a bit sore.

The passengers meet themselves three months older, with the exception of one passenger, an author who killed himself. They can see their futures, and try to change them. On Tuesday they tell me I'm already sick, but I'm not sick yet.

We must kill the past to ensure it is still possible.

My contacts are traced, and people worry illogically. How I could infect someone if I hadn't been exposed to the virus yet?

I attend my usual (virtual) meditation session Wednesday. My mind wanders; it is designed that way, our guide reminds me. I practice breathing. I'm good at breathing, I can beat the illness by breathing. For months already I have been feeling that I cannot breathe enough out. My capacity to breathe in is capped; I have first to expel what I have been holding in. There is always more to breathe out, I could breathe out forever. I visualize the viral particles expelled from my body.

She brandishes the empty bottle in her hand, leans forward in a deliciously unfocused way, and blows her warm, hopscented breath at his nose.

"Breathe it in, Adrian, that's the smell of irritation and boredom."

(What if it attacks my lungs? I need to practice breathing.)

I have permission, for the first time in about 600 days, to relax. Because I am physically sick. Never mind wellness culture; however much I try to care for my spirit, every mote of indulgence is tied to a strand of guilt. Work harder, call your mother, be productive, put food on your table, have purpose. 

I force myself to exercise my senses. I had no appetite last night, but I cook sausage so that the house reeks of it. This morning I have quince spread on baguette, just so I can describe it like grainy, tangy chocolate. I've never had quince before.

Over just a few weeks, a graphomanic Victor Miesel fill hundreds of pages in this style, fluctuating between lyricism and metaphysics: "The oyster that feels the pearl knows that the only conscience is pain, in fact it is only the pleasure of pain. [...] The coolness of my pillow always reminds me of the pointless temperature of my blood. If I shiver with cold, it means my pelt of solitude is failing to warm the world."

I spend afternoons on my balcony gazing through the trees at the sky. My temperature climbs another tenth of a degree. Will it stop now? What if it doesn't stop?

I'm fully vaccinated. The friend who exposed me to the virus is fully vaccinated. We were supposed to be allowed to live a little, again. I'm supposed to go to Ireland this week. I need a vacation. I think I have to cancel my flight. Maybe I'll read Ulysses. Maybe I'll sleep. 

There's a helicopter overhead. Maybe it's here to lift me out of myself.

I feel like I'm having weird dreams, only I don't remember them. I feel like I'm on drugs, certain sensations come into hyperfocus and time distorts. Moments of intense clarity. And then they're gone.

We're prepared to warp reality if the stake is not losing altogether. We want answers for even our tiniest anxieties and a way of conceiving the world without reexamining our values, our emotions, and our actions. 

The Anomaly: Excerpt.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021


If faced with a rock, for instance, one should stare deep into the place where its rockness begins to form. Then the observer should keep looking until his own center starts to sink with the stony weight of the rock forming inside him, too. It is a kind of perception that takes place within the body, and it requires the observer to be both the seer and the seen. To observe with empathy, one sees not only with the eyes but with the skin.

— from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, by Rachel Corbett (quoted in brainpickings). 

Me in awe of L'Age d'airain, Musée Rodin, 1991.
When I was 15, my big sister took me to Montreal for a few days. I live here now, but that was my first real exposure to the city. The details of the trip escape me. I remember drinking milky coffee from a bowl at a sidewalk café. I remember a visit to the museum: a sculpture on a pedestal, many figures intertwined, and I caressed it, at which point a looming security guard intervened. I don't remember what the sculpture looked like; I remember what it felt like.

I should have known then, recognized the draw of sculpture, the tactility of it. The best sculpture, in my view, is the kind that makes you want to touch it.

I lived in Ottawa for a time, and many a day, when sad or bored or simply free, I would stop by the National Gallery. I would gaze at the sun over Monet's Waterloo Bridge and then puzzle over one of Francis Bacon's popes. As I made my way from one to the other, I would slip past a Giacometti at the side of the hall, or it would slip past me. It might stop me in my tracks. I might take a few steps backwards, forward again, back, trying to pinpoint the exact coordinates where it switched from three dimensions to two, like a child manipulating a holographic postcard, to find where the planes of art and science were in precise alignment with humour and passion. The Giacometti would near disappear, just a line dimension containing multitudes, and unfurling in an instant. And this too manifested tactility, I needed to touch it, to grasp that it was there.

I have been to Paris several times, but I have never been to the Louvre. Given a free afternoon, I go to the Musée Rodin.

That first time I went to Paris, it was 52 hours from touchdown to liftoff, and several of those precious hours would be spent standing in awe of muscular bronze works. I'd seen Camille Claudel. (I bought a volume of Paul Claudel's poetry at a stall along the Seine.)

Despite my love of his work, most everything I know about Rodin I know via Rainer Maria Rilke's letters to Lou Andreas-Salomé, when he served as Rodin's personal secretary, and I share his respect for Rodin's ability to materialize his inner mind.

I watched a documentary about Rodin recently and was stunned to realize he'd been rejected, that his career started late, that he was obsessive.

I am coming to understand the physicality of Rodin's work. I am coming to understand why I think it matters. I am learning the art of einsehen, inseeing. I am starting to see something in myself.

I look back at photos I have taken while traveling. Sculptures everywhere, Warsaw, Rome, Barcelona, Prague. Old, obscure, under restoration, often plain weird. From Botero's cat to Černý's babies.

I am learning how to make plaster moulds. I am learning how to see the shape of white space, how to see in relief. We are defined by absence as much as by presence.

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Time is water

The pills flatten me, make me into a thin scum on the surface of still water. I don't sink. Coast instead, detached from the world around me, and I'm fine with it. Time is water, and the weeks run like a current beneath me, without me.

Magma, by Thora Hjörleifsdóttir, is brave and poetic. Lilja describes her toxic relationship, in short, diary-like entries. She's in love, and all too young and ill-prepared for all the emotional abuse her beautiful, brilliant vegetarian boyfriend deigns to hurl at her.

Our love is raw. We trust each other down to the core, something nobody in my life has ever come close to. When I feel as if I've flayed myself with a potato peeler, I remind myself: Love is a spectrum. It is as painful as it is wonderful.

It's heart-breaking. It's hard for an outsider to see anything wonderful in it.

The psychiatrist lifted a gigantic notepad and, as I spoke, scribbled notes here and there on the blank pages. I told him that I'd tried to off myself. That the man I loved was a womanizer, but things had gotten better. I answered his questions as honestly as I could. Yes, I cry often. No, I don't go out of the house much. No, I haven't thought about doing it again. The doctor called me dear and sweetie — I hate it when strange men do that, but I didn't mention it. I'm polite.

And it just gets worse. No one is able to understand her, let alone is equipped to help her. It's hard to fathom that what she sees as a way out could be a way out. 

Read it in one sitting and cry.