— David Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews
1. I’ve been considering how it is that books get written. I’ve been considering what it is that blocks me from moving on. I think I need permission, need credentials, need validation in order to write what I want to say. This is why tumblr becomes valuable as a tool to make me write: I’m just another asshole with a blog here, so it doesn’t matter what I say. When I take up pen—or, let’s be real, laptop—to say what I want to say about family, history, the Shoah, virtue, kindness, generosity, it’s then that I am stopped by the question: just who do you think you are?
2. How do we trick ourselves into writing the kinds of things others might like to read? One trick is to envision a particular reader, a dear friend, let’s say. You have someone in your life who will listen to you tell a long story over coffee. Who will stop you at intervals and press for an additional detail, or ask a clarifying question. She won’t grow bored with what you have to say because she loves you, and always wants to know what you have to say just because it is you who is saying it. Sometimes I can write to her. This trick, and others, helps you across the tightrope. Because writing is a tightrope act. And a tightrope act is one of confidence. You can’t look down, you can only look across to the other side.
Sometimes I read a novel and I can see the moments in which the author has looked down. Still, it’s been published, sold in shops, read by thousands, maybe even won a few literary awards. But what writer has such supreme confidence that she doesn’t look down even once? Well, there are a few books like that, and of course they are my favorites.
3. In what ways and what places do I give myself permission? Lately I’ve been giving myself a lot of leeway on twitter and tumblr, to be weird, to be poetic, to be grim, to be silly, to be friendly. I love Tricia Lockwood’s twitter feed and her poetry—she gives not even the smallest of fucks. Because of my own vulgarity, as I think of it, and my wish to be myself in those ways, I admire her and am happy that at least there’s one woman who is doing exactly what she wants.
4. I’ve been playing banjo every day. Even after 13 years, I’m not a great player, but it’s fun. My repertoire of old-time songs with lyrics is decent. I’m trying to play guitar as well. I have a beautiful Seagull which I don’t deserve given my guitar ability. For banjos I have a circa 1890 Dobson-style no-name, and the cheap Korean one I learned on. Five string open back banjos tend to cost $200 to start and then jump pretty quickly to $800 for the kind of nice ones you’d like to play. Both of mine were around $200, so the Korean one is cheap and tinny sounding, the Dobson-style is a homemade instrument over 100 years old and it also doesn’t have a great sound. Unfortunately I need to replace the head on the Dobson-style, also. I’ve promised myself for a long time to buy a real banjo, but it feels like an extravagance for someone who isn’t ever going to play except for herself. Of course, I did used to play. I was in an all girl (well, we had one guy) old-time band, and we played little gigs and house parties all over. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. We each would bring a song to rehearsal that we wanted to do and the group was generous about trying it out. No one’s feelings ever seemed to be hurt. If you brought the song, you sang the lead vocal. And with five really great singers on board, no one ever seemed to care about singing lead or backup.
Old-time lyrics are one of my great loves. “You can ride the fine grey mare/ I will ride the roan/ If you see my darling, tell her I’m sitting at home.” “I rock in a weary land.” “Bright day will turn to night, my love/ The elements will mourn.” “Some rounder came along with his mouth full of gold.” “I wish I was a June apple/ Hanging on a tree/ Every time my true love pass/ Take a little bite off me.”
Actually, what’s embarrassing is that I haven’t been able to translate even my intermediate banjo technique (hammer on, pull off, drop thumb, etc) into anything respectable on the guitar. For one thing, my hands are pretty small, and my fingers are not terribly strong. But I just have no clue how to strum more than the most basic songs. Concentrating on the fingering makes me lose the rhythm, so I can’t keep the beat on guitar, either, unless it’s simple. I could use some lessons, but I’ve always just taught myself music; it makes me feel stupid not to see even a little bit of progress.
5. I’m not sure when I stopped listening to music all the time, but it was a bad idea. The last month, I have made a concerted effort to put myself back in the habit. I’ve started to listen to music for at least an hour every day, almost prophylactically. Or as an inoculation against something. I listen and don’t do anything else. Sometimes I dance, I often sing along. But I mostly just sit, listening. I’m giving myself permission to listen to the kind of music I used to love when I was 14, some embarrassingly angsty stuff. What’s wonderful is I’m not 14 now, so I’m no longer enacting my own melodramatic narrative in relation to whatever song; angsty as they are, the songs are much more enjoyable in themselves, as music, now. And I listen to musicals, too: the Sondheim and Rodgers/Hammerstein I like best. Also operetta. Also opera. I give myself permission to like what I like.
Music is both relaxing and invigorating to me, as someone with synaesthesia. It’s nice to sit with something orchestral but with lots of good solos and just sort of trip out a bit. My synaesthesia with music is an association or connection between color and timbre, rather than color and pitch. Individual instruments have their own colors. For this reason I love the sound of the bassoon, oboe, harpsichord, cello, piano when it’s played a certain way, and even electronic instruments or weirder sounding ones like the saw or theremin. They have very distinctive textures and colors. I also love “atonal” music for this reason, as it gives me greater access to the timbre of an instrument without the melodiousness of a diatonic scale to distract me. Music by someone like Schoenberg, Webern, or Berg has a very different quality not just by virtue of the 12-tone, but with this added element of color, a certain extra depth or roundness.
Sometimes my life needs this added dimension. Memory of sitting at a table, of pairs of hands resting on a table, or gesturing and emphasizing a point, made rounder with the sound of my own voice, which like an instrument, has its own color.
"The truth struck, not as a cymbal crash, not as a bombshell, but indeed, shattering: a wild and dispersed field of glittering shards, where a moment before a glass had held water, sweet and whole in sunlight."
The conventionality of other people bothers us because we worry that at our core, we are just like them. I’m late to certain slang words, so thank god for Urban Dictionary. The word that I keep seeing everywhere: basic. The definition that most closely fits how I see others using it
"Used to describe someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to."
The lack of generosity in this word, and how often I feel myself looking down my nose scares me. Am I at heart as ungenerous as I feel when I see people who bore me?
My father used to tell a story about another diplomat and his Polish FSN secretary. Embassies have admin and service positions that go to locals, known in that acronym-fond world as FSNs—foreign service nationals. This FSN came into his office one morning and made some throat clearing kind of remarks to the effect that she had something complex to explain. She prefaced this by saying, in apology:
"Pleeze, do naht make lave to me."
Naturally, the diplomat’s wife walked in at this moment.
It makes me laugh to me, anyway.
"They were safely slotted in their respective beds, their beds safely set in rooms, in houses, on roads upon a map. Lying there, each might imagine the reading lamp of the other, a neat and distinct pinpoint amongst the millions which fed that swath of human efflorescence at the continent’s edge."