My grandmother, the tweeter

I awoke this morning with a question: would my grandmother have tweeted?

She passed away before twitter was even a germinating notion and before email was as ubiquitous as it is now. The most prevalent form of social media were the conversations during which she and I would dissect plot and motive from a recent episode of “Murder She Wrote” or “Hunter.”

But she was a correspondent. True, she had a readership of just one: her younger brother who lived in India. But to him she told the news of the day, of the goings-on in her corner of the States, and general musings about her quotidian observations. She wrote in Tamil, a script I only recognized by shape but whose meaning eluded me. Sometimes my grandmother would translate what she was writing; only now does it occur to me that she could have been lying! I doubt it, but…

If she were to tweet, I bet she would have adopted a less publicly public persona. That’s not to say her tweets would be protected. But they might be somewhat disguised, and her twitter handle would likely hearken back to the days of early email usernames when people relished in concocting absurd monikers for themselves, a time when anonymity reigned supreme (rather than the branding and self-marketing that marks today’s norm).

Some options:

@Kalpathi4eva (she was born in the village of Kalpathi, and so…)
@Hunterfan (self explanatory)
@Breadupma (would take too long to explain)
@Loosekanji (so would this)

As for the content, I wonder if her tweets would contain bits of song she would often invoke to underscore a point, draw out unexpected contours of experience, or simply as an excuse to break up the afternoon. Or might they be quotes from the Bhagavad Gita or the Ramayana, two books she read and reread incessantly? Or perhaps, if she were to continue with her flaneuse-like tendencies and resume circumambulating our childhood neighborhood as once used to do, perhaps she would recount odd bits of conversations that caught her as she passed by — below, snippets I overheard during last night’s walk:

 [Young man to a young woman he was walking with]: “Do you smell that?” deep breath “I love the smell of late evening in the spring.”

[Teenage girl crossing the street with two girlfriends]: “Omigod, I am fat. No, I am. I am! I am fat.” Over her friends’ protestations: “That’s rubbish.”

[Young woman sitting next to a young man on a bench in the park]: “I’ve never had a one night stand.”

[Two men standing on the corner smoking cigarettes, the one with worried eyes did the talking]: “Have you heard anything? Has there been any communication?” The other shakes his head.

So, would grandma have been a tweeter? I can’t say for sure, but given the way the platform keeps people in the forefront of my mind’s eye, I’d like to think so. 

A week when Sebald found me

One evening in December T showed me a manuscript copy of A place in the country, a collection of Sebald’s essays that was originally published in German nearly two decades ago. This spring, the English translation was published (and available May 2nd) and I can finally get my hands on Sebald’s take on Rousseau and others whom, it is said repeatedly, he brings “lovingly to life.”

This past week, articles in the key of Sebald found their way again and again into my virtual inboxes — either via email or twitter feed.

A link to the first — Out of the Shadows — was emailed to me by a friend and is written by Uwe Schütte, a former student of Sebald’s. One line in particular stood out to me and suggests to me something about why the sensibility of this writer strikes such a chord with me.

“I never liked doing things systematically,” Sebald declared in the 1990s. “Not even my PhD research was done systematically. It was always done in a random, haphazard fashion. And the more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way, ie, in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field.”

I was alerted to a second piece by a friend via twitter who I turned onto Sebald’s works and whose father, it turns out, had been an avid reader of the author in the years before his death: WG Sebald: Reveries of a solitary walker. Four writers (James Wood, Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Robert Macfarlane) reflect on the significance of Sebald for them and their work. Macfarlane gets it just right when he says:

Sebald’s seemingly passive prose was in fact – to borrow Marianne Moore’s memorable phrase – “diction galvanised against inertia”

At the bottom of this piece was a link to a third piece — the pièce de résistance, as it turned out — penned by Sebald, himself. And for just the smallest of split seconds the truth seemed like it might be a beautifully crafted nightmare… The Guardian had printed an excerpt from Sebald’s newly published collection and called the piece: A Place in the Country by WG Sebald – extract. And from the first words, I heard his voice* begin to spin a tale.

At the end of September 1965, having moved to the French-speaking part of Switzerland to continue my studies, a few days before the beginning of the semester I took a trip to the nearby Seeland, where, starting from Ins, I climbed up the so-called Schattenrain.

The long sentences stretch out before the reader like a guide, comforting without revealing too much truth at once. The information is meted out in metaphor, location, and imagery that provides necessary details while resisting the trap of over description. Sometimes called wandering, other times called poetic, and often evoking the feeling of traveling from one where to another, these sentences beckon, are invitational and unfolding, are an apt form of the pedagogical (if the reader will let them be so).

I thought immediately of another excerpt, this time from Emerson’s essay “Experience” in which he writes:

Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus. … We animate what we can, and we see only what we animate. Nature and books belong to the eyes that see them. It depends on the mood of the man, whether he shall see the sunset or the fine poem. There are always sunsets, and there is always genius; but only a few hours so serene that we can relish nature or criticism.

I often read Sebald as both composer and conductor, orchestrating the reading experience as a transportive one in which a casual glance at a lamp or a stone carving is an instance license to travel through time and space and to feel both local and global resonance at once. Nothing is unconnected everything, which is not to say that everything is necessary connected; rather, he seems to be writing with the purpose to move the reader to consider each words as tethered to a portal of further inquiry. He is an artful master of stringing beads, in the Emersonian sense, and describing while also delivering experience. And yet, Sebald strikes me as one who is free from the trappings of the current academic epidemic of writing as self aggrandizement; his purpose seems to be driven by a different purpose, while maintaining a palpable gentleness and humility.

In the excerpt reprinted by The Guardian, Sebald has written about Rousseau and his affection for the monastic Île St. Pierre in Switzerland. Here, he ponders the ways that returning to the island effected Rousseau’s writing:

Compared with these dark days, the Île Saint-Pierre must truly have appeared to Rousseau, when he arrived there on 9 September, as a paradise in miniature in which he might believe he could collect himself in a stillness, as he writes at the beginning of the “Fifth Walk”, interrupted only by the cry of the eagle, the song of an occasional bird, and the rushing of the mountain streams.

And now, I must order my copy of his volume, which I glimpsed in hard copy during a weekend sojourn with a friend — images, photographs, drawings jumped out from a very abbreviated flip-through. It promises to be as engaging and moving a read as the rest of Sebald’s oeuvre.

*To hear Sebald in his own voice, you can listen to him being interviewed by Michael Silverblatt on the radio program Bookworm, transmitted a few days before his death.

In the echoes of others’ words

“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something — because it is always before one’s eyes.) The real foundations of his enquiry do not strike a man at all. Unless that fact has at some time struck him. — And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.” — Bertrand Russell

“Whereas a work has something irreplaceable and unique about it, a product can be reproduced exactly, and is in fact the result of repetitive acts and gestures.” — Henri Lefebvre

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may
be the measure of our lives.” — Toni Morrison

“I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sat reclined;
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran.
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man…..”
— William Wordsworth

 

***********

Shedding Skin
— Harryette Mullens

Pulling out of the old scarred skin
(old rough thing I don’t need now
I strip off
slip out of
leave behind)

I slough off deadscales
flick skinflakes to the ground

Shedding toughness
peeling layers down
to vulnerable stuff

And I’m blinking off old eyelids
for a new way of seeing

By the rock I rub against
I’m going to be tender again

What it takes to write

In her piece for the New Yorker titled, “How I get to write,” Roxanna Robinson describes the precious, sacred morning time between the end of sleep and the beginning of writing. The time — or more precisely, the space, the gap in the day when remnants of slumber still linger before the day’s demands become all-consuming.

I brush my teeth, get dressed, make the bed. I avoid conversation, as my husband knows. I am not yet in the world, and there is a certain risk involved in talking: the night spins a fine membrane, like the film inside an eggshell. It seals you off from the world, but it’s fragile, easily pierced.

The “fine membrane” of the previous night is one I want to stay with for longer than I usually am able to, save during breaks and time away — that is to say, physically away. While I don’t agree with all of what she writes (i.e., I love breakfast and, when I allow myself to indulge, truly enjoy the taste of coffee) —

I go down the hall into the kitchen. I don’t like breakfast, but it’s necessary to get through it in order to get to coffee.

I drink instant because I don’t care how it tastes, all I want is the kick. And I don’t want to wait for perking or dripping.

— I do have a deep appreciation for her articulation of the importance of undisturbed times to delve deeply into the gossamer hints of thought that require space to germinate and sprout.

So I don’t read the news or listen to it. Nor do I make a single phone call, not even to find out if the plumber is actually coming that day to fix the sink, which he has failed to do now for five days in a row. One call and I’m done for. Entering into the daily world, where everything is complicated and requires decisions and conversation, means the end of everything. It means not getting to write.

The reason the morning is so important is that I’ve spent the night somewhere else.

This is nowhere I can describe exactly, only that it’s mysterious and limitless, a place where the mind expands.

****
Being awake and ready for writing and being awake in order to be social are two utterly different things. My family knows this well…

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Still more daily routines of writers were made available recently by Maria Popova over at brainpickings.org:

The Daily Routines of Famous Writers

including, Ernest Hemingway:

When I am working on a book or a story I write every morning as soon after first light as possible. There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to your work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there. You write until you come to a place where you still have your juice and know what will happen next and you stop and try to live through until the next day when you hit it again.

Maya Angelou:

I write in the morning and then go home about midday and take a shower, because writing, as you know, is very hard work, so you have to do a double ablution. Then I go out and shop — I’m a serious cook — and pretend to be normal. I play sane — Good morning! Fine, thank you. And you? And I go home. I prepare dinner for myself and if I have houseguests, I do the candles and the pretty music and all that. Then after all the dishes are moved away I read what I wrote that morning. And more often than not if I’ve done nine pages I may be able to save two and a half or three. That’s the cruelest time you know, to really admit that it doesn’t work.

Don DeLillo:

I work in the morning at a manual typewriter. I do about four hours and then go running. This helps me shake off one world and enter another. Trees, birds, drizzle — it’s a nice kind of interlude. Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours. Back into book time, which is transparent — you don’t know it’s passing. No snack food or coffee. No cigarettes — I stopped smoking a long time ago. The space is clear, the house is quiet. A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.

William Gibson:

When I’m writing a book I get up at seven. I check my e-mail and do Internet ablutions, as we do these days. I have a cup of coffee. Three days a week, I go to Pilates and am back by ten or eleven. Then I sit down and try to write. If absolutely nothing is happening, I’ll give myself permission to mow the lawn. But, generally, just sitting down and really trying is enough to get it started. I break for lunch, come back, and do it some more. And then, usually, a nap. Naps are essential to my process. Not dreams, but that state adjacent to sleep, the mind on waking.

Anaïs Nin:

I write my stories in the morning, my diary at night.

and, for E, the wise musings of Benjamin Franklin — seen here in this graphically organized daily routine:

Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule

and now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to prepare to sleep so that I can get up and write.

Finding the pockets

Beginnings and ends of semesters are frantic. Middles are not much better. But there are always pockets, and this week was full of the most magnificent pockets — even amidst the height of administrative banality.

Two pockets have to do with teaching, notes of an experience that were foreshadowed unexpectedly several weeks earlier in these tweets by author Teju Cole:teacherunknowing

…and the grace of unplanned and fated encounters.

And a third, an essay by Uwe Schütte about being a student of W. G. Sebald — see “Teaching by Example” that begins on p. 42 of the latest issue of Five Dials magazine. In it, he writes of being a student, learning, being taught, and also of fate. And, a beautiful embrace of the humility of teaching. For instance, of his time with Sebald, the German author who spent most of his adult life in the UK, Schütte writes:

What I learned from him was more than a thing or two about literature. I also learned what it means to be upright and detached in the bonfire of literary as well as academic vanities. And I learned the probably somewhat un-British lesson of speaking one’s mind in situations where it is necessary to do so.

Living by example, really.

today’s playlist

Those of us who write — for work, for play, for all the bits in between — think and talk to a great degree about voice. But so rarely in all that talk is there discussion of what the damn words actually sound like — the timbre, resonance, rhythm, cadence. What do our words sound like in the world? Spoken by others we may never meet? Or, for that matter, what is the sound of our voices as we dare to say the words we so boldly write, as we so baldly claim our voice.

And then, thoughts of voice — of timbre, resonance, rhythm, and cadence — took me to these voices, and I was soothed, intoxicated, transported.

It amazes me what people can do with their voices, what they choose to do, what they think to do. Alexi Murdoch is a recent discovery. The live rendition of “All my days” has been on a loop for the past hour and half. Can ears be transfixed? Mine are. (It only underscores the abject lack of quality of my own voice as I have participated in a few renditions of “happy birthday” in recent weeks…)

Near the end of a conversation (included below) between John Berger and Michael Ondaatje, all of which I love and highly recommend that everyone give a good listen to, they each reveal what path they might have pursued if they were not writers.

The question is proffered by Berger to his friend and interlocutor at around the 39:50 mark. He says, with his inimitable and somewhat rounded style of articulation, “If you could swap  your talents you for another of any kind, do you know you’d choose?”

Ondaatje responds with an eager “Oh yeah…” even before the question completes its exit from Berger’s mouth.

“I would want to be a piano player.” And, having said this, Ondaatje smiles momentarily, as if to take in his own response — one that he has clearly pondered many times before this one.

Berger: “huh…”

Ondaatje: “Well, what would you do?”

Berger — smiling, perhaps self-consciously or in a self-congratulatory manner, and nodding, his tan head prominent against his white shirt whose sleeves are messily rolled up — responds: “I would want to be a singer.”

Ondaatje: “And what kind of singing?”

Berger: “Doesn’t matter [shaking his head]… just … it–it doens’t matter…uhh… the devil or the fairy decide.”

Ondaatje: “Well we’ll meet in the next life and join up.” [laughing, and joined by Berger’s enthusiastic laughter at this proposition]

The guitar fantasy — the one about being able to create altogether new worlds with a simple wooden object, strings, and fingers in concert with voice — still lingers… Maybe in another life, indeed…

For now, in honor of the Nick Drake kind of week I’ve been having, thank you to my friend who first brought his music into the realm of my consciousness all those many, many years ago. A classic (albeit somewhat overused classic at this point):