I don’t know why I bother with reading books anymore. All they do is crack you open and make you care about things like, I don’t know, passion and longing and yearning and messy uncomfortable stuff that can’t be resolved by a bullet point on a to-do list.
And, certainly, I must save my strength, my worry, for my never-ending list of tasks which, once completed, will certainly spit out the prize I’ve been working so hard to earn, whatever it is, like one of those claw machines that finally picks up a two-dollar watch you spent eighteen dollars in quarters trying to get.
I’ve been trying so hard to get it right, to force things to happen. There are goals, action items, lists, emails to answer, things to achieve.
I’ve been trying to pretend that I am a practical, business-like person who appreciates the simple, beautiful functions of spreadsheets. A little disappointed-- miffed, perhaps -- that a degree in creative writing didn’t prepare me well enough for the “job market.”
And it didn’t, of course. My first job after college was driving around southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware teaching “reading classes” off a script that was given to me in a big white binder, trying to convince kids that “reading is fun!” because I said so, because other adults said so, because their parents were willing to pay for this class in order to better prepare them for “the job market.”
But reading is not fun, kids. It’s not fun like an amusement park, or playing video games, or playing soccer. It can be depressing, heart-wrenching, mind-bending. It can make you question your reality, yourself, your life. It can make you see yourself more deeply, possibly in shades that are as not as flattering as you might like.
Because the truth is, I was not “prepared” for the job market. I was not “prepared” for real life – but is anyone, really? Perhaps my big mistake all along was the misconception that with enough preparation, you can be ready for and able to manage this massively unwieldy, tangled up, randomly-firing gibberish people call life unfolding.
I can almost feel my 19-year old self cringing at the compromises I have made, am making, even now. She with the Janis Joplin poster on her wall does not accept my reasonable arguments about making a living, affording meals and maybe a house someday, gardening supplies, a plane trip to visit people now and then.
Because she is unreasonable, that girl, along with many other things. A little embarrassing, perhaps, in her stridency and urgency. But she wouldn’t stand for this shit about grad school and paychecks and gardens. The world is your garden, she would say. Everything is your garden: streetlights, lampposts, the Vietnamese hoagie shop, the bicycles gliding past. And she would mean it. Metaphorically, of course.
What happened to that girl, the one whose brain circuitry got all blown out when her AP English teacher introduced her to The Wasteland. Who stayed for hours in the college library soaking up memoirs and poems, wrestling with them, trying to make heads or tails of them, reading W.D. Snodgrass as if it mattered, as if it was important to find out what those words meant, why that nice old man took so much time to put them together in that particular way, in that particular order. Surely it meant something to the guy who spent so much time on them, if she could only figure out what.
What happened to the girl who thought anything was possible, who still didn’t know that she would not, in fact, meet the love of her life in college, who still felt that he (she? nah, probably he...) could be lurking around every corner, it could be any one of these people.
What happened to she who flipped out over the beauty of dying black-eyed susans on her way home from class, such that she couldn’t wait to get home to write about it. Or even she who haunted the Shakespeare & Company bookstore in Paris, whose sixth sense, almost, brought her there to the scent of her wildest fantasies, in which she was a bohemian writer-artist traveling through Europe making fast friends, sleeping with people, drinking right from the bottle. Living a little.
And yet whose good sense always overrode that sixth sense, kept her from acting on any impulse other than that it would be time to get home soon, the subway closed at midnight, she didn’t want her host mom to worry (if she was even home). She had to complete her homework for her class, she had to earn an A, or the French school for foreigners equivalent, because deep down that was the comforting way she knew how to look at herself: responsible, hardworking, desperate for the approval of whatever random person happened to be in authority.
Do you see what that has cost you, you silly girl?
Maybe nothing. You are safe and warm. But once upon a time you dared to dream that there was something more to life than safe and warm.
I don’t apologize to her, the 19-year old with the Janis Joplin poster. She was kind of ridiculous in many respects, often too strident, impossibly insecure. She toed that odd line of wanting to befriend everyone and wanting to tell everyone to fuck off. She could never quite choose. Maybe still can’t.
But she was a bit of pretender, that girl. She’d could really only identify one or two Janis Joplin songs, although she was massively fond of Bobby McGee. Thumbing a diesel down, hitching a ride to New Orleans, that sounded alright to her. Of course, J.Jop died real young, and at this point I can’t really get behind that.
It’s one thing to make an album or two of smoking, epic passion and then flame out early and die. It’s another thing to stick around as life mellows and grows more complex, gains additional flavors to those of hot pepper and raw nerve. It can get slower, deeper, more subtle, maybe even richer. More heartbreaking, more confusing.
Maybe the girl with the Janis Joplin poster would have said fuck you to all of that. But Janis Jopin did not have the balls, ultimately (and who can blame her), for growing older and learning new things; gaining wisdom; watching her parents age and contemplate the fact that they will eventually die and perhaps could have been happier in life; having to make sacrifices and compromises; paying the steep steep prices that continuing to live can sometimes exact.
I do miss that girl, though. She left by degrees, slowly was replaced with another girl who could appreciate not just the cracked-out urgency of the Beats but whose mind began to open and unfold despite herself toward poets of a quieter, subtler, more nuanced ilk.
She never wanted to be like those old boring gray-haired poets who lived in the woods and smoked pipes and wrote poems appreciating all the birds and twigs and leaves. Sounded like the most boring thing in the world.
Maybe what she could not yet appreciate was how absolutely ravaged you tend to be by the time you have the privilege of living to be old enough to go gray.
Maybe she couldn’t appreciate how much those boring old duffers had lost along the way to their lonely cottages in the woods.
How maybe the only solace, the only truth they had left were those stupid woodchucks or the smell of damp soil in the morning or the way sunlight dapples things or the way words look and sound on a page.
Maybe she didn’t give them credit for knowing that these small tokes of natural beauty or calm, contemplative sadness were not really enough, all told, to make this gradual wasting process called life worth it— but that they felt that perhaps they should try, anyway.
Perhaps she did not appreciate the nobility, the courage, if it can be called that, of all those hill-rambling old men with hearts like spent charcoal, trying to keep a few smoldering embers alive.