Nothing is more difficult than lashing a vagrant mind suddenly into long self-imposed stints of concentration.*
See the trees, the sidewalk, the trash can turned over, the Auburn flag, the dirty awning, the abandoned tricycle that will never not suggest something sinister. See the leaves, the dried ones on top and the molted ones beneath. See the neat ranch home, the Spanish colonial, the craftsman. Barking, birds, voices. Don’t think about what anything reminds me of. Don’t think about my childhood. Oh, my God–daffodils. Never not shocking with their yellowness, their alien mouths. Stop thinking about Sylvia Plath. Stop thinking about trying to write about her, the experience of re-reading her, the sex scene in THE BELL JAR that causes Esther to hemorrhage in a historical way, the rarest sex in the universe, the day-off-from-the-mental-hospital sex, the sex that punishes, the sex that touches death. How can the bleeding out not symbolize Plath herself, her genius, the violence she must have believed was embedded in her own ambition, in the very anatomy of female ambition.
So many cracks in the sidewalk, it would be impossible to play that game. Forgetting to remember and remembering to forget yield the same result: forgetting. A bird, another bird, so many birds. Too many birds today. How a certain number of birds signifies spring but one more than that number means something terrible is about to happen.
I want to live each day for itself like a string of colored beads, and not kill the present by cutting it up in cruel little snippets to fit some desperate architectural draft for a taj mahal in the future.
I am not an ‘in the moment’ person. The moment pains me with its borderlessness: how long will this last? When can I call it ‘over’? When can I call it the thing that came right before the real thing? When I was a child I sat in the church pew and was transmogrified by my longing for the service to be over. I mean I felt my blood blacken with disquietude, my limbs actually tingled. Sit still, my mother would say, but I would be sitting absolutely still. She could feel the friction in my mind, in my body, and it broke her concentration. Now, when I need to endure something I don’t want to endure, or when I need to wait for something, which I am still terrible at, and I can’t read or look at my phone, I try to pray, for something to do, and because that childhood pew was a crucible where my early ideas of God and suffering and forbearance and waiting got forged.
I’m newer to breathing as a form of coping. I used to become angry when people would talk about deep breathing. I like my breaths fast and shallow. Stop telling me to breathe, world. Stop telling me to slow down. Now I tell myself to breathe, to slow down. Mailbox, mailbox, crushed can, tire-flattened box of Eggos that must have escaped the recycling bin.
I catch up: each night, now, I must capture one taste, one touch, one vision from the ruck of the day’s garbage. How all this life would vanish, evaporate, if I didn’t clutch at it, cling to it, while I still remember some twinge or glory.
My dog–a phrase I never thought I’d say–sniffs everything. As though every day he sets out with one goal: to sniff every single thing. I pull him along, before remembering that I’m not supposed to be hurrying, I’m supposed to be pretending that time doesn’t exist, that all of these things around me are the miracles they’d be if I were a better person, or an animal. A chimney. A brick. So many bricks. I can’t fathom being tasked with building a house, or even just making a single brick. Trees, plants, grass–so much green and I only have the barest understanding of photosynthesis, of the very air I’m abusing. I have no practical skills, my God. Look at those bricks and meditate on the people who know what to do with them. Look at the litter without judging it. Stop judging the litter. The well-swept porch, the shabby car. This is not a cookie-cutter neighborhood. This is a real neighborhood. There is so much to see, if I could just stay with it, stay in the seeing, in the indexing, and out of the dictionary part, where meaning must be ascribed, or the memory part, where connections must be drawn. My dog eats garbage.
I keep believing that the world is loving because I am. I keep waiting for something to jump out of the bushes and harm me, but nothing harms me like I harm myself.
There is a certain clinical satisfaction in seeing just how bad things can get.
*All italicized portions are from The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, ed. Karen V. Kukil
A while ago, Lily pondered the flâneur in this post, and in the comments section Ken referenced Nassim Taleb, and it seems that interest in the flâneur, like the figure of the flâneur itself, meanders around the consciousness of many of us, possibly. There is something perennially appealing and perhaps romantic about the flâneur–the apartness, the deliberate purposelessness–and I remember that it took, for me, reading Benjamin’s The Arcades Project to understand Baudelaire (the man and the work) in a more complete and meaningful way. Some years ago I wrote an essay (whose title is the title of this post) that sought to explore the idea of text-as-city and reader as flâneur, and then, by extension, the work of writing as its own kind of flânerie. (Really wanted to publish it as Flânerie O’Connor, but then I would’ve had to punch myself in the face really hard. And also get it published.) Anyway, here are some excerpts/cut-ups from that essay: