Joy as the Lodestar: A Year in Reading and Living

Argonauts Cover Crop

When I found out I was moving to New York I opened the single-serve bottle of Freixenet that I’d bought for the occasion, went to my window, and took an inventory of what I’d be leaving. I’d lived in this apartment for six and a half years, in Toronto my whole life. I would miss the big park that was my living room on warm days when thousands of people would come to drink, according to police, who distributed pamphlets; the concrete slab of porch where I had chain-smoked and hopscotched big black cockroaches in the summer. Friends came over after the bars closed. I always had tequila. They sat on my bed: a futon, actually, stiff as a park bench even with memory foam, which froze in the winter, so I would sleep in a parka, with two space heaters aimed at my body and head.

My ground-floor unit felt about as private as an outhouse. When I moved in, the person I’d been seeing described it as “the minimum allotted space in a military barracks,” and compared the sound the refrigerator made to a body toppling down a flight of stairs. A crack on my bookshelf the size of a garter snake when I moved in was now as jagged as a lightning bolt. I never decorated; my mother hung a picture I didn’t like, but I never took it down. “Renting — or at least the way I rented, which involved never lifting a finger to better my surroundings — allows you to let things literally fall apart all around you,” Maggie Nelson writes in 2015’s The Argonauts, a book that almost everyone I love read this year. “Then, when it gets to be too much, you just move on.”

For more than half a decade I thought I’d be moving on any second. Early twenties turned to late twenties. I lived alone, worked from home and sometimes stayed in for days on end; my bad ideas were my business, I thought. I learned how to be alone in that apartment, how to enjoy my own company and then to prefer it, but I’d come to know myself well enough to hate me with accuracy. Someone pointed out that my apartment felt like my viscera: you could diagram my thought process by connecting where I left the laundry detergent to the angle at which a book stack toppled. Over the years I became more judicious about who I brought home.

In this year’s Spinster, her memoir about single adulthood and her role models for it, Kate Bolick describes reading biographies as a child and assembling “a dynasty of adopted uncles and aunts — adults who weren’t my parents who opened portals to lives I couldn’t have imagined until they showed me how.” Over the years I spent in that apartment, I read a lot of biographies: Faithfull by Marianne Faithfull; I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons’s life of Leonard Cohen; Edgewise, Chloé Griffin’s oral history of Cookie Mueller. Not for instructions on how to live, but to justify the way I wanted to, with joy as the lodestar.

“In one of my favorite of your drawings, two Popsicles are talking to each other,” Maggie Nelson writes to her partner, Harry Dodge. “One accuses, ‘You’re more interested in fantasy than reality.’ The other responds, ‘I’m interested in the reality of my fantasy.’ Both of the Popsicles are melting off their sticks.” In Edgewise, Judith Pringle remembers rifling through Cookie’s belongings after she died in 1989. “When we came upon these clothes in her closet, clothes that when she wore them she looked so amazing, but actually they looked like rags. Things were stapled together, held together with safety pins, maybe there’d be a little piece of tape on them, but when she’d put them on it looked like some fabulous fashion!” I read these books for companionship, too.

My window broke in the summer of 2014, and stayed broken while the temperature dropped to minus 20 for a month, but it was close to spring now. I pressed my bodyweight into the screen, as my favorite neighbor walked by. I shouted to her: I’m moving to New York! She’d heard all about the process and knew how anxious I’d been, how I’d wanted to move for so long that the New York in my actual dreams had evolved parallel to the real one. “So what happens now?” she asked. I realized I had no idea.

* * *

Haley lived on the opposite side of the park. The first time we met in person — we’d added each other on Facebook – we met right in the middle, drank tequila sodas out of mugs, and talked about moving to New York. Two and a half years later, we decided to find a place together for a month, to sleep and work in: she’d brought me on at the website she edited. We found a loft in South Williamsburg with vaulted ceilings, a rooftop, a clean view of the JMZ track and the Empire State Building, and no bedrooms. No bedrooms: adjacent bed cubbies, divided by plywood. I’d been living alone, nesting in my own byproducts for more than half a decade. I had blind faith in an interior/exterior divide that allowed my hideous thoughts to thrive inside the bladder of my private space. So, I was worried. I was really worried.

We slept five feet apart and got up at seven a.m. to work together at the harvest table. We barely slept, and though we should have been exhausted, the days felt both panicked and effortless thanks to the rapid current we’d mounted somehow. Our bliss was overwhelming, pathological, a little bit creepy. The joy was painful; it nearly busted our sides. “How can we have these many feelings?” I said to Haley one day — we spoke to each other in hyperbole — and she looked back in searing agreement. “Like,” she paused. “I’m a pretty small person.”

The only book I could concentrate on was Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes. It seemed like a decent metaphor for our state of unrelenting euphoria, and the fact of being suddenly, violently barreled through a world ridiculous by every standard of the old normal. The train rumbled and pounded and screeched at all hours and the high-rise lights fell like welding sparks. We felt ourselves at the center of a grinding ball of metal and light.

In the summer, Haley and I both read and cherished Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City. “One’s own best self,” writes Gornick. “For centuries, this was the key concept behind any essential definition of friendship: that one’s friend is a virtuous being who speaks to the virtue in oneself. How foreign is such a concept to the children of the therapeutic culture! Today we do not look to see, much less affirm, our best selves in one another. To the contrary, it is the openness with which we admit to our emotional incapacities — the fear, the anger, the humiliation — that excites contemporary bonds of friendship… It is the great illusion of our culture that what we confess to is who we are.”

Loneliness is insidious: it’s so easy, and it so easily becomes normal. I’d thought of being with others as a form of gratification — a high gratification, but the thing is it’s not a gratification, it’s a state. I’d never lived, as an adult, with someone I loved, or known the kind of telepathy that can give rise to. I didn’t know what it was to share a layer of consciousness and if you’d told me I would share this with Haley I’d have felt uneasy. But it didn’t feel strange at all. It felt strange that I’d lived alone for so long. When you live alone for too long you risk falling outside the empathic register. You risk believing you’re really alone.

* * *

In mid-June I came back to Toronto to pack up my old apartment. I thought I would sublet it indefinitely: for $650 a month I figured someone would take it, and I thought I might want to come back. Only one person came to see it, someone I’d known from around for years. I didn’t bother cleaning.

“My apartment is a hell mouth,” I told him.

“I won’t tell Dad if you don’t,” he replied.

My landlord said, “You have to let it go.”

 

I got rid of most of my clothes, and most of my books. I thought I’d give my favorites to friends and leave the rest on the curb, but I realized they were full of margin notes I was loath to let anyone see. I’d had no shame about them before. I’d even read a book on marginalia, by H. J. Jackson, a former professor of mine at the University of Toronto, who’d examined over 2,000 books for the project, marked up by mostly unknown annotators. “Notes made in the book . . . become part of the book and accompany it ever after,” she writes. I’d interviewed Jackson in the winter — she’d written a new book called Those Who Write for Immortality, about the desire to live forever through one’s work, and the factors that affect one’s chances. When she asked how I’d been, I told her I was hoping to move to New York but that it felt like a long time coming. “Now you’ll know what you have to offer,” she said.

The notes themselves embarrassed me, even though I knew that no one, at least no one without a scholarly interest in the practice of margin writing, would ever bother to decipher them. But I was more embarrassed by my infatuation with my own mind, by my childish expectation of credit for every thought that occurred to me, by my faith in the value of “raw human artifacts,” all of which seemed more obvious than any point I’d been trying to make in the white space. I thought that in giving the books away I would reify that version of me, but of course you have very little influence over which version of you counts. “That’s part of the horror of speaking, of writing,” Nelson writes. “There is nowhere to hide.”

There is a lesson here, I think: to understand your self as a body of evidence. “I remember you at random,” Édouard Levé writes in Suicide, the manuscript he delivered before he killed himself. “My brain resurrects you through stochastic details, like picking marbles out of a bag.”

* * *

 I used to have a romantic view of subletting. You get to live in a different world for a month, and once you’ve joined a world it becomes a room in your mind; you never really leave. This is a creepy thing to say to someone you’re subletting from, but it’s true, if exhausting.

“There is really no difference between memory and sight, fantasy and actual vision, David Wojnarowicz writes in Close to the Knives. “Vision is made of subtle fragmented movements of the eye. These fragmented pieces of the world are turned and pressed into memory before they can register in the brain. Fantasized images are actually made up of millions of disjointed observations collected and collated into the forms and textures of thought.”

My friend’s apartment was gorgeous; a Montreal apartment for the price of a Montreal apartment, full of unassuming heirlooms and gem-cut doorways and books. Reading in the black leather armchair, by a radiator cover with a Grecian screen, it occurred to me this was exactly the apartment I dreamed of living in as a kid. Part ’70s Italian horror film, part Carole King’s Tapestry. It wasn’t mine, but I wasn’t sure that mattered; if it were mine, it would still feel temporary. I always think if I look long enough, take enough pictures, or breathe in deep, I will get my fill and be satisfied. But you never get your fill, even if you fill yourself. No matter how hard you stare at the sunset, you will regret the ending of a beautiful sunset. You will have to breathe out.

I picked out Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories to read, because I’d never read it, even though Cabaret is my favorite movie, a small miracle for conveying so much pathos through such a complete and opaque aesthetic. The book is written in the same spirit, with the same precision, and it struck me as both miraculous and perfectly reasonable that the spirit of that place, at that time –just before the worst thing that could have happened did happen — could live forever through the book and its iterations:

When I arrived in New York to sit in on rehearsals [for I Am a Camera], I had first to go to a studio to be photographed, for publicity, with our leading lady, Julie Harris . . . I felt half hypnotized by the strangeness of the situation. “This is terribly sad,” I said to her. “You’ve stayed the same age while I’ve gotten twenty years older” . . . couldn’t take my eyes off her. I was dumbfounded, infatuated. Who was she? What was she? How much was there in her of Miss Harris, how much of van Druten, how much of the girl I used to know in Berlin, how much of myself? It was no longer possible to say.

Over the past few years I’ve noticed a closing distance between the way I relate to my friends, and the way I relate to my idols: through the work they produce. My friends and I mostly read each other, through text message and Facebook and Twitter and the writing we publish; in person it feels like we’ve been meeting in dreams.

When I read David Balzer’s Curationism, I nodded and jotted margin notes (sorry, David) while carrying on a heated conversation with him about Fairport Convention over text message. David and I have a passionate, flirtatious friendship that feels like romantic love with a condom on, enacted almost entirely over text. In Toronto I could amble to my friends’ houses; between FaceTime calls I stay close to Lily’s sensibility through Twitter and radio and to Naomi’s through Instagram and her essays about it. I send emails and selfies to Stephen Thomas while reading and rereading his short stories. “You will find yourself in a city you idealized as a child in your room poring over a page of National Geographic dotted with cereal milk,” he writes in “The Life You Want,” “but now it’s not life or death but a set of keys and three different schedules, daily habits you try always to break or improve.”

* * *

In August I tried to collect myself, but though I worked, nothing seemed to get done. I went to buy my own copy of The Berlin Stories, but they didn’t have it; I left with Al Jourgensen’s Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen. I read Please Kill Me for recreation; it made me think how pathetic we were for idolizing these people. The honeymoon was over and I knew I loved it here because I could have hated it. I was trying to resurrect my early impressions, to give my old self the tour.

“Different rules apply this late,” says a character in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, which turned thirty this year. “After Hours” is one of two distinctive feelings I associate with New York. The other you might call “Meeting at Last.” I came here for the first time on a high school trip, and I mostly remember the thrill of encountering something I’d imagined at length. You can get that feeling anywhere, but only at first — in New York, it’s the atmosphere. New York is not just a fantasy place but a site of constant interchange between fantasy and reality. Every moment here you feel, in ways both trifling and profound, euphoric and horrific, that the human frequency is as real as the physical. The city is as people dream it.

New York is impossible; people move here because they feel themselves at odds with impossibility. In a city like Toronto, a certain sort of privileged person is squirming with unused potential, but also unused contingency plans. New York is one big contingency. (“I have in me the germs of intense life,” Mary MacLane wrote as a teenager in Butte, Montana, before moving to the city and proving herself right.) Toronto is diverse, but what Toronto calls diversity is really a collective agreement not to offend by the standards of one group. In New York, everyone abides their own normal, which is overwhelming at first, but the tradeoff is getting to believe in your own reality, while being in constant contact with the world outside your life. “Any fixed claim on realness,” writes Nelson, “especially when it is tied to an identity, also has a finger in psychosis. If a man who thinks he is a king is mad, a king who thinks he is a king is no less so.” Everyone finds their connection to the sublime, whether through nature or God or the great shining stacks of human potential. New York is a miraculous place to live if you love people, and fear the end of possibilities.

* * *

Last Halloween, I took a nap in the early evening and had a vivid dream: I was being chased through a haunted mansion, a stock haunted mansion, by an unknown entity. I stopped at the threshold of the dining room, where a crowd was sitting down to a feast. In a moment I knew that these people were dead, and that they ate together once a year — the rest of the year, I don’t know what they did. I stood there terrified, thinking, by the logic of horror stories, that they’d want me to join them. Instead, they looked at me with indifference. It didn’t matter to them. The vast majority of people are dead; I’d be joining them soon enough.

The insight wasn’t remarkable, but the feeling I had was: not of horror, but certitude. Horror is relative to how you’d like things to be. This was how it is. I felt myself, as Vivian Gornick writes, “staring, without longing or regret, into the is-ness of what is… staring into that cold, silent purity,” certain as a candle flame. I woke up with a voice in my ear, saying, You might as well go for love. I’m not sure if it meant anything or if in waking I’d flipped back to story clichés.

I spent this Halloween with a few close friends. Since moving to New York my world feels more like a system in which I’m only one body; since moving here my friends have become family: “Like pieces in a kaleidoscope that’s been shaken,” Gornick writes, “we’ve all simply shifted position in the pattern of intimate exchange.” It’s the city, but also the era — our evolving togetherness is the one big-picture detail I’m optimistic about. Haley and I drift in and out of each other’s days, over Gchat, over text, in person (she lives seven minutes away). We sleep on each other’s couches, we work at each other’s tables; she reads everything I write, and I read everything she does. We might not always be this close, but she is with me in a way I never imagined a friend could be.

There’s a myth that adult friendships are harder wrought and hollower, but for me the opposite is true: it’s only now that I feel capable of intuiting boundaries, letting relationships determine themselves, sharing headspace without considering it an incursion. It’s not enough to think of friendships in reciprocal terms, or as clusters of mutual interest. Even the term empathy is insufficient; it suggests a binary. My friends and I are different people, but we’re increasingly attuned to the thing that we all are.