Tuesday, August 20, 2013

To Read or to Re-read

Reading List from Half my Life Ago

To read or to re-read, that is the question. Or so it was when I found myself giving to a man half my age a book I myself had read half my age ago and could not remember well, except that I must have liked it a lot to have placed so many penciled exclamation points in the margins while reading. As soon as the book left my hands, I envied the man his first experience reading this book, but soon realized that my old concern that there were certain books I would never again have that first reading experience with may have rendered itself, while I was too busy getting old to notice, moot by the sad fact of my lately not being able to recall what I had for breakfast, much less a novel I read when I was 25.  

Books I Have Yet to Read (except for Goethe's Young Werther, Been There, Done That)

There are so many books I have yet to read. Too many. But now it seems there are also an equal or greater number of books I have already read but need to re-read because I have forgotten them, or first read them as quite a different person in quite different circumstances. There are now 12 boxes of these books in a storage room waiting to be donated or discarded. Of 1000 books I once owned, 400 were left behind on my last move, and now I have cut an additional 350 from the herd. The 250 books now in my apartment do not necessarily represent my favorite or most significant reads of all time. They are mostly editions I doubted I could find again, or have been signed by the person who gave them to me, or for some reason would not leave my hands and go gently into that good cardboard box.

What Made the Cut, Bookcase One
Fortunately the book I gave to the young man made the cut, which is good because not a week after it made that cut I found myself trying to quote it and needing to consult it and then give it away to just the right person at just the right time. It must have remembered me better than I remember it, but books are like that sometimes, entering your life – or remaining in it – with impeccable timing. I have never been one to give my books to other people. I’ve done it twice this year and if I had all the time and space in the world I would keep those 12 boxes as a ready supply for 350 such future instances. But my moving house process was such a strange combination of intense focus and stupefied detachment, I am not quite sure which 250 books are with me here, much less there. I am sure I will look soon for one of those “surely I did not send that one away!” books and find it absent, or find some “what was I thinking?” books given prominent shelf space. I accept that whatever is here is here for a reason. And maybe for a re-reading too.
Like the book I just gave away, which will be for the man something entirely different than it was for me, and has some passages in it that were so well written, that on at least two occasions I actually can recall to this day, I was in such a state of reader’s delight and writer’s envy, I had to put the book down and call my mother just to read them to her, just to share the joyful burden. That is an experience worth re-living. There have been so few books like that in my life, ones you have to put down because they are so physically and intellectually stunning you don’t know what to do with yourself, you feel made and unmade, you need to take a break, you want to make it last, but you keep eyeing the closed book on the coffee table because it calls to you with its remaining promise in a voice you can’t resist because it is your own voice.

 What I'm Reading Now

I wonder if I will have a read like that again, the way one wonders at a certain age whether all kinds of experiences can ever feel as breathlessly intoxicating, as irrationally irresistible, as destined and delirious. As your memories of experiencing such moments increase and then fade, leaving behind an attitude of wistful muted recognition when they again present themselves, do you require thrills of greater rarity and intensity, or can you hit the restart button on your emotions and get the old heart to leap again as it did half its life ago?

Some hearts are born old and grow young. The reason I collected all those books was that they did all my living and loving for me. They knew things about me that I knew without having actually experienced them. They were my travels, my romances, my tragedies, my follies, my lessons. Half my age ago I had done nothing, gone nowhere. The novel I was working on, as of course I would be, was about a recluse retiring from the world at 25 surrounded by books and collecting quotes and so completely living the lives and thoughts of others her physical self fades bit by bit and is replaced by that of whatever author she happens to be reading or pondering, which, in New York City, turns out not to be an unmanageable affliction, as her infrequent outings are hardly noticed, whoever she happens to be at the time, wrapped up in a dark 19th century coat with collar turned up and a hat pulled down over her eyes.

What Made the Cut, Bookcase Two

The problem with the novel, which I called “Driftwood : A Life in Fragments,” was that it could not end well, and frankly, as a great believer in the power of the written word, I did not like that I was, by writing this novel, writing a version of myself I was in danger of becoming, which makes for a great plot line but not such a great life. I abandoned the novel. Most of it was transcribed quotes, which would have presented difficulties with copyright anyway had I tried to publish it. I turned my energy and attention to living my own life. And it turned out I had plenty of real travels, romances, tragedies, follies and lessons to experience. In a way they were like re-reading a great book in which you find the self you knew you were all along, for while I was never surprised by anything that happened, I was still astonished. 

Perhaps the answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post is that it is better to read than to re-read. There will be time decades from now to sit in an armchair and review my book life and my real life. For now, I want new adventures, new astonishments, in books and in life. Joys so great they have to be shared. Things you call home about and say “are you sitting down? You are NOT going to believe this.” 

This post is dedicated to G on his travels. Bring me that book back read, and some even better stories of your own.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Life on Foot

 Sole Survivor

Sartre famously asserted that hell is other people. For me hell is other people telling me I really need to learn how to drive. Any statement beginning with the words “you really need to” is bound not to go over well with me anyway. But I guess there are so few life choices one can safely give a person a hard time for these days, non drivers like myself will just have to put up with the persistent patronizing attitude of a certain percentage of drivers, safe in our knowledge that when the apocalypse hits, and all the car batteries die at once, we will already be walking home from the store loaded down with provisions.

 Cats Yes, Children No

A long time ago I came up with a short list of things I would never do.  This list included items of varying degrees of certainty, given changing times and needs and opportunities, and ranged from the practical to the deeply personal. I knew quite young for instance that I would never have children. Cats, yes, children no. Until recently people who considered a life without children as somehow inferior were almost as insufferable to deal with as people condemning a life without a driver’s license.  Nowadays, people have learned to lay off that particular life choice, just in time for it to be for me a biological moot point. 

I also vowed never to be on Facebook or own a cellphone. Okay, you win some you lose some.  That leaves never using luggage with wheels and never driving a car, and those I am sticking with to the not at all bitter end. The day you see me rolling my belongings behind me at the airport instead of carrying them, you have permission to put me inside the suitcase and wheel me to the cemetery. When I haul my dufflebag through airport terminals and train and bus stations, do I approach all the wheelers and say “you really need to learn how to pack light enough and exercise more so you can carry your own luggage?” No. That is not, pardon the pun, how I roll. 

 How I Roll

There are a lot of things I never learned how to do. I am sure anyone reading this has quite a few of their own. By this time in my life, if I have not gone ahead and learned them, it is probably because, like Bartleby, I prefer not to. Maybe I did not have the resources or opportunities at some point, but most likely now it’s lack of need and interest, plain and simple. It is certainly not for lack of the right teacher. And if it were, it is kind of arrogant to think it is you I have been waiting all of this time for, or that your interests are my interests, or that your necessities are mine either. I am not an “oh I always wanted to do that!” kind of gal. Generally I don’t wait to act on my desires.  Which is why my blood boils when the statement following “you really need to learn how to…” is almost always a superficially kindly but oh so deeply condescending “it’s easy! I’LL teach you!”


Do I look sound or act like I have lived 50 years in a state of avoidance, fear, ignorance, repression, frailty, dependence or whatever, just to arrive at this liberating moment when I would finally fulfill my lifelong dream to learn to drive a car? Because of you?  Drive a car I will not;  drive this point home and possibly into the ground, I shall. Let’s get the facts straight. I grew up in New York City, where, for the most part, people don’t so much question the pedestrian lifestyle. It’s the city, you really have to work hard to establish a deviant behavior worthy of notice and besides NYC is a walker’s paradise. Not only is it a pain in the ass to keep a car, you don’t even have to rely on the ridiculously convenient bus train and taxi options, you can hoof it just about anywhere, and if you are like me, you enjoy it so much eventually you consider clocking 5 miles just getting around part of your regular daily routine.  If you are really like me, this love of covering distances on foot turns into a passion for hiking and ultimately marathon and ultramarathon events that put you more in touch with your quintessential human self than you could ever imagine. You don’t train for 26 miles in Maui at 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity by riding in an air conditioned car all summer. But I digress.

 And I carried a backpack the whole way

Not having a car or driving knowledge living in Manhattan worked just fine for me for forty years. My life was full, believe me. When I moved to the Boston area in 2002, I continued my non-driving ways and that too worked just fine. Occasionally a driving friend was enlisted to get me somewhere when there were no other options, but 99% of the time all my necessities could be met on foot. I ate less and chose more wisely because I could only eat what I could carry home from the supermarket a mile from home and restaurant visits too required a calorie burn getting to and from. I had thighs of steel because carrying things while walking does that. I didn’t need a gym membership. Life was my cardio. I never had to worry about getting home from a bar drunk because no one ever got killed by my staggering into them on the sidewalk at 3am.

Then a man with a driver's license came into my life. I stopped walking everywhere. In fact, my initial horror that we hopped into the car to drive even the shortest distances soon gave way to a kind of stultified complacence. I no longer asked “can we walk there?” and I did not even check the maps for routes and distances. Having a car did not make my life any easier or open up new vistas of exploration. In fact, I stopped traveling because the man did not want to fly (and did I ever say “you REALLY need to get over your fear of flying – I’ll teach you!” – you guess).  We drove to the trail I used to walk to to walk ON. I began to gain around 10 pounds a year. The mental mechanism of factoring in walking as part of any undertaking I contemplated became as flaccid as my muscles.

 Subaru (Un)official car of the state of Vermont

Fast forward to the here and now. One of the reasons I chose Rutland as the place to be in Vermont was its walkability. It’s not the most exciting place, but if you are near the downtown you can eat, drink, shop, take the bus to nearby cities for the day, do laundry, see a movie, see art, get your cat to the vet and yourself to the hospital. The bus and taxi options could be better, but with a little clever planning, of which I used to be an expert, and the occasional lift from a friend, it is not only entirely possible to live here without a car, it’s downright enjoyable. Is it the greatest city on earth? No, but there’s the NYC bound Amtrak for that.  

I have been here almost two years, and I swear I have seen so much of the area from the window of a car I may as well have not been here at all. The Vermont I fell in love with was the one I knew back in the 80s 90s and 00s when I would visit my parents – by bus – in their summer rental and spend a week doing morning walks along the highways or back roads, as long as 10 miles. Maybe I am an old soul from a time when there were no other options but your own stamina, but there is something so immediate and connected about taking in landscape on foot. And to do this just as part of your designated fitness or leisure activities is okay, but for me, I cherish the fact that even going out to buy a sandwich, I am in touch with the air and ground of the city I live in, not enclosed in a metal box with the radio on and the world outside rushing by unnoticed, unappreciated.

 Ready for Anything 

Now that both the man and my place in the passenger seat are no longer part of my life, I am spending the first weeks living in my new apartment walking along the street doing errands and getting my bearings. Things I have driven by a million times are suddenly revealing themselves to me.  The Vermont I remembered and loved was here all along, it was I who failed to find it. I can’t wait for the seasons to change to see certain vistas you can only take in from the vantage point of a walker.  Everything I need to do is getting done, with some help from friends, yes, but what are friends for? And what better way to find out who they really are? I come not to judge the drivers among you. I understand and accept that there are lives with circumstances and choices that make having a car necessary. But a life on foot is what works for me and you can’t teach me otherwise.