BootsnAll Travel Network

Calming down

This dumb-slap from Stephen: “Oh for heaven’s sake Kendall, calm down, you’re having one of your spells, you’ve just changed addresses again, nothing so remarkable for you, and this saccharine-tinged mania will end in tears I warn you.” So while I am calming down (and calm is good, I agree) I want to examine (not just for Stephen) why I’m having this spell I seem to be having. It’s much more than a change of address. It’s a change of life as profound as marriage, having a child, divorce…moving to a different continent…but I’ve done all those things, and none of them was so disorienting and so promising as this. This makes a complete change from everything I have ever known before. How?

First, I don’t have a job and I don’t have to find one. Wednesday night after the movie, as I walked in the streets of this new-to-me city, I fell right into my old habit of noting, “That building looks like a depressing place to work…that office looks lively…what would it be like to go to work there….” I was accompanied by memories or habits of walking the streets of New Orleans, New York, or Durban, full of anxiety about how I was going to support myself and my child or children, how I was going to pay the rent or get from point A to point B after taking the kid(s) to school or a babysitter, whether the job I found would leave me any hours for writing after I’d met the needs of the children and whatever lover was current, how much of myself I would have to give up in order to get by. I felt those old habits of thought, and I let them go. It’s OK. I don’t have to get a job here. So then how do I look at those office buildings? As places where other people have to find jobs? As architectural curiosities full of cubicles that enclose the lives of others who have to roll up their trouser legs and rush off on their bicycles or get a bus or unpark the car and dash to pick up their kids or flowers or some tasty morsels for tonight’s rendezvous? Hum to myself, “Hello young lovers, where ever you are…oh yes, I remember it well”? But I’m not that old. Remembering isn’t all that’s left. What mischief will I get into now? Can I be a little more wise, or playful, or wild, or something other than what I have already been in this life?

Second, no children and no lover, not even any friends or pets here. I don’t have to provide a home, transportation, clothing, food, tuition, emotional support, sex, a clean litter box, or even interesting conversation for anybody but me. Not that providing those things for others was ever onerous–it was the major activity of my life, after all, and that life would have been pretty damn empty without that activity. But now, unless I invite someone else to take the place of all those beloved others, I don’t have to ask what you want to do, whether you have done your homework, whether I have to sign anything for your teacher, whether your cold is better, whether you prefer broccoli or green beans tonight, whether you have something to wear and lunch money for tomorrow, whether you got an answer from your publisher or an offer from a gallery or have papers to grade, whether your friend with cancer called, or if you’re up to watching a movie tonight or are too tired, and would you like me to draw you a nice hot bath? I can drop a lifetime of the habit of looking first to see what the other needs.

Those two are so big, I sit and contemplate them. I think maybe I need a ten-day meditation retreat to fully acknowledge these two huge, sweeping changes. There’s a lot of this kind of change-of-life going around, since I seem to be on the front edge of the so-called Baby Boomers, the group that swelled the world population at the end of WW2. Even Fidel Castro is doing this. But here is the third and maybe the biggest change: for all my life, I have run this racket, “I’d rather be writing. If I didn’t have to X or Y, I would be writing right now.” As of yesterday, my new apartment is fully assembled. I’m finished spending money. I’m in the city I have chosen as the place where I’ll spend the rest of my life, to the extent that we ever choose these things. (I don’t yet know where things are here; I still get lost when I walk out of the building, and I don’t know the geography, but familiarity with the place will come.) Now all I have to do is live a life that is completely my own responsibility. I can write now.

In 1972, the man who would soon supply half of Seth’s DNA said to me, “Your life is your art. But you’re too young to write about it now. You have to live it, and then you can write about it. Wait till you’re fifty-five, and then you’ll have one hell of a memoir to write.” Mind you, his writing consisted of a book about the penicillan group of drugs and roughly fifty arcane academic medical articles, and to his mind he was the most interesting aspect of my life. Laughing and embracing the memory of him, the young woman I was then, and the (far more interesting, far more surprising) intervening years during which I clung to his prophecy, I stare at the blank screen and say to myself, “GO! Start. This is the chance you have been waiting for. This is the day you thought would never come. There is nothing stopping you from realizing the fantasy you’ve been carrying around since you were six years old. Be the writer you always wanted to be.” This is not exactly calming. But I step in.


4 responses to “Calming down”

  1. That’s much better, and of course I know it’s more than just a change of address. But more wild, Lord love us, your reckless history appals me quite enough already. What on earth do you have up your sleeve now? To become a ‘writer’, I thought you were that already, and so in that territory the dangers will already be known to you. To abandon responsibility for others to be responsible to yourself? Even more onerous. But there’s no need to make a fuss about that, it’s far more natural, discriminate and judge according to your own considered principles and then friends and lovers or even children and all the rest follow automatically…
    Architecture is not to be viewed so much as habitable places, more like music. What people do inside it is their own business, as the responses of an audience to a performance need not concern us. Constructed things stand in their own right, if they’re good enough – a lesson to be applied also to writing, another form of architecture.

  2. Kathryn says:

    Much better for YOU, I suppose, Stephen. I like architecture as music. I’ll try that on. But why fuss about my fuss? Are you uncomfortable with exultation? Equanimity is not really a goal for me. That’s the one quibble I have with Buddhism–it values equanimity more than I think it’s worth. Life IS fuss. So be it. I can’t “become” a writer when I already am one, have been one pretty much all my life. But the joy of indulging in that pleasure, giving it center stage–that’s new. Till now it has been something I could only do on the periphery of everything else. I’m not abandoning responsibility for others but rearranging my responsibilities. How do you arrange yours?

  3. I couldn’t be happier about the news of your new life. “Be the writer you always wanted to be.” Yes. I’ve loved your writing since you first shared your travel journals with me in the 1980’s. Now I look forward to your new writing enriching my life. Thank you, Kendall, for claiming and sharing your life through your writing. As always, I wish you well.

  4. Unhappy with exultation? I don’t think I’ve ever “rejoiced exceedingly” to use the dictionary definition, but if I ever were to then I suppose of necessity I’d be “happy”. You mean then am I unhappy with yours? No, that would be very mean-spirited and anyway I have no reason.. I’m PLEASED you’re having a good time for the moment, but knowing a little about your emotional habits – do I? – I was suspecting that it’s short lived, and although I don’t care too much for Buddhism either I was reminding you of another word that crops up in your vocabulary, balance, or to use my own, proportion. Let’s say I’d be unhappy with your dejection or whatever the opposite of exultation might be. As for your writing being “on the periphery”, really Kendall, remember that I’ve had the pleasure of reading a certain amount of your African journals which almost give the impression that they provide the core around which everything else revolves, as if what you do is done in order to write about it. That’s meant to be flattering, by the way, with a reference to you-know-who.
    How do I arrange my responsibilities? The answer to that is simple, by having as few as possible

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