An Ordinary Room

My last post was about how sometimes I wish I could move to an island. Then I didn’t post anything for a long time because I was moving. To an island. It’s a lot like my imaginary private island in Maine, except that instead of a one-room cabin we have one room in a pre-war apartment, and instead of pine trees there are the naked headless mannequins that guard my neighbor’s second floor balcony. Haha.

I never intended to move to Brooklyn and I never intended not to move to Brooklyn. It worked like this: I was crossing a threshold in my life and I didn’t know where to go next, so I threw some ideas out into the ether and waited to see how the universe might decide. A close friend from college who lives in Park Slope got very excited that I had applied for one job in New York. I said not to get too excited; I didn’t get the job, and anyway we were probably moving to Boston. A and I knew that this summer we would bid adieu to “strangers are friends you haven’t met yet” Fort Collins and caravan back to the land of “mind your own business”, otherwise known as the East Coast. We hadn’t agreed on an exact destination. We agreed that we both missed the northern Atlantic Ocean and its brisk people.

We could not agree on a town, so we avoided the question. In June I made a last minute pilgrimage to the mountains outside of Boulder, where I sat in front of a statue of the goddess Saraswati and asked for guidance. I was doing some automatic writing. If I received any answer at all, it was, “Don’t be so concerned with getting what you want.” This was frustrating. I drove to Taos and spent the night with a psychic I found on couchsurfing.org, who tried very hard to sell me a cream with anti-aging powers. I was skeptical of her metaphysical abilities, but grateful for the gift of lodging. In the morning I went to a coffee shop to document everything I remembered about the psychic before I forgot, and my Park Slope friend called me. She said, “My roommate is leaving the apartment this summer and we need subletters for three weeks, and I’m offering you this fantastic, unbelievable price because you’re my friend.” I was going to be camping that afternoon, so she gave me only a few hours to decide. I called A. We made half a decision: go to Brooklyn for three weeks, then figure out the rest of it.

Before we left Colorado, I consulted my tarot cards about the possibilities. “The cards say we should move to New York,” I told A. He rolled his eyes. He lives his life like a normal person who doesn’t know his rising sign. He lets me have my way a lot of the time, but he doesn’t make choices using the Rider-Waite deck; one of us needs to be the rational one. Nevertheless, we arrived in Brooklyn and A was the one who suggested looking for apartments in the first week. I pushed for the place in Sunset Park because I was in a bookstore earlier that day and Paul Auster’s novel Sunset Park was also there and this is how I construct my reality. A signed the papers because the place was newly renovated and large and the rent was low, considering.

Now, of course, I feel self-conscious about being a writer who lives in Brooklyn, which is a prerequisite. ‘In’ crowds make me uncomfortable; I prefer misfits and renegades, but I end up in a crowd either way. Literary Brooklyn as a theory or myth is an annoying place for the rest of the world because Brooklyn writers are the current In Crowd; they get a lot of attention just for being here, and there’s a distinctly self-congratulatory vibe about the whole thing. Though I was instrumental in getting us here, until a few months ago I never thought that I would live in New York City. We visited Maine in August, and I saw a guarded look pass over the faces of the people I’d always known when I told them where I moved. It was fear and pride, confusion and disgust, but a Maine version of that, so it was understated: an expressionless expression. When we returned to Brooklyn, I sat in a wine bar with another writer, to whom I’d been introduced virtually by a mutual friend in Colorado (strangers are friends you haven’t met yet). She was raised in Massachusetts, and we talked about why New Englanders often feel such hostility toward New York. I said it was because people in New England value humility above all else. To seek to fulfill one’s career ambitions at great cost, in a loud, iconic city, is not a humble venture. But that’s an old story everywhere. Then I let it slip that A and I own two typewriters, and she joked, “You’re already a Brooklyn cliché!” She was not being snarky; she is a sincere person and she was saying, look: you and your typewriters fit in here.

There is a 2008 essay by Colson Whitehead in which he wrote “I dig it here and all, but it’s just a place. It does not have magical properties.” He said that Brooklyn writers were not leading the public, sophisticated lives that other people seemed to think they were, because they were home alone writing. It’s like how I asked a friend if she wanted to go to the Brooklyn Book Festival, but she said she’d been to a lot of those types of events, so now she prefers to stay home and read. She and Colson Whitehead have a point. I look for magic everywhere in the world, but what I need most is an ordinary room, devoid of all distracting magical properties. A and I have a place with several piles of books and guitars. We are writing songs and stories. We have a rough draft for a flow chart about fedoras and a comic series about Juggins the Clown. The whole Juggins idea might be weird, but we think we’re hilarious together, and that’s its own kind of sorcery. We are in this apartment because of my Park Slope friend, because of Paul Auster, and maybe because of my amateur tarot reading. And though we could have ended up anywhere, here we are in this park of sunsets, writing as we would in any other place.

Your Private Island

For years I’ve had this desire to somehow borrow, lease, or own a small cabin on one of the islands in Penobscot Bay, off of the coast of Maine where I grew up. I was and am a mainlander, but the time I’ve spent on various islands in the bay has only ever increased my longing to stay there, surrounded by water and possibly a few other houses, with a boat that will allow me to go see people on the mainland when and if I want to. The purpose, of course, would be to live alone with my writing and a room full of books. It would be something like this little place on Vinalhaven:

Image from CabinPorn: http://cabinporn.com/image/52986262571

Image from Cabin Porn

I’m aware of the dangerous level of romanticism in a desire like this. It’s nice to think about living in solitude and taking a ferry to town for necessities, but I know it’s another thing to live it. The roof might leak and the windows might need fixing. It might be excessively cold even in the summer, or I might have to board up and sit through a Nor’Easter all alone. I might even actually miss other people. My sisters, who are also writers, know about this fantasy of mine, and while one stamps her foot and claims it was her idea first, the other rolls her eyes and says I’m already enough of a hermit without making it that official. My boyfriend, A, was down with staying in my dream cabin together until he realized how far off the grid I want to be.

None of them will likely ever have to worry about me living by myself on an island, real estate in Maine (even one-room shack real estate, and especially one-room-shack waterfront island real estate) being as expensive as it is. Besides, the true desire has less to do with the actual island and a lot more to do with finding the solitude to write for a longer period of time.

At the beginning of June, I left Fort Collins in search of my private island. My stress over graduating, moving, and finding a job had culminated to a point where I just had to get away. I booked a short yoga retreat outside of Boulder, told A that I would be spending the rest of the week in New Mexico, and drove off. Every day I meditated, did some yoga, read and wrote, and spent time outside. To my surprise, seven days of alone time was more than I needed. I came back home a little calmer, with a notebook full of writing ideas and a new resolve to continue my daily writing and meditation practice.

The truth is that the private island is not actually a yoga retreat in the mountains or a campsite near Taos, although sometimes we need to go somewhere else to rediscover it. The private island is the time you make to consciously enjoy solitude, turning your phone off and stopping the internet to write, taking a walk or a hike, gardening. Et cetera. Although writer’s residencies seem like a wonderful way to get some work done among other inspiring artists, I’ve found that if you have a tent and some peanut-butter sandwiches, or even just a door you can close, you can make your own writing retreat. There have been other times when I told A, “I need three days,” and bless him, he left me alone to work all weekend until I was ready to turn on my phone and venture out of my apartment.

Tomorrow is the summer solstice, when the sun moves into the sign of Cancer, and in the Northern hemisphere we have the longest period of daylight in the year. It’s no surprise that people choose to take most of their vacation time during our hottest season, wanting to get away from the heat and intensity to cool down. While the sun and a host of other planets light the sign of home, privacy, contemplation, nurturing, and sensitivity, it’s the perfect time to retreat to your private island. Drag your rowboat on to the beach, set yourself up with your novels and your notebook, and write like you have nothing else to do.

Sherman Alexie Speaks at C.S.U.

I wrote this post last week for Colorado State University’s new MFA blog.

The Colorado State University diversity symposium this fall began their week with keynote speaker (and author, poet, screenwriter, producer, and performer) Sherman Alexie. I was informed by the diversity symposium’s website, that “Alexie uses irony throughout his work in an attempt to dispel myths about the conditions of Native Americans living on reservations…” and that he would be bringing “his unique humor” to CSU that night. I thought, yes, I have read some of Sherman Alexie’s novels, stories, and poems, and yes, he is very funny. How I am looking forward to seeing him speak. But I was not expecting the two hours of straight stand-up comedy to which Alexie treated his audience that night. Bring his unique sense of humor? Boy, did he ever.

As with all good humor, his comedy was serious—seriously funny, and at the same time, earnest as hell. Between stories about growing up on a Spokane reservation and telling us the myth of the man who kept putting his penis in everything, Alexie said to students “Some people might complain that because people laughed this wasn’t serious. But it’s exactly the opposite.” What Alexie gave us was a belly-laugh-aching social critique that addressed the core wounds one might expect a keynote speaker to address in something called a “diversity symposium”, in the most unexpected ways. He never shied away from the controversial. He asked us to face stereotypes about Native Americans (and their storytelling wisdom, among many common assumptions), to look at poverty in all of its grotesque detail, and to question the rhetoric of victimhood and oppression that so often finds a place in events such as that symposium.

And although some of the more controversial statements were launched right after a joke, so that the audience was caught unawares in the midst of our own laughter, in other moments he made a point to screw with us. During a lecture full of digressions, he asserted, “The tangential can be sacred—write that down!” only to continue with a metanarrative satirizing his own authority. “What a wise thing to say. Was he serious, or was he just covering up because he forgot where he was? Or was that part of his storytelling routine…?” There was never a moment the audience was not enthralled by his particular brand of storytelling, an eccentric blend of narratives that eventually led us back to the same urgent questions about the politics of identity.

In the end, addressing yet another serious topic, the idea of doubleness and the negative connotations of the “difficulty of living in two worlds” that is so often applied to minorities, Alexie reminded us that nobody live in just two worlds—in his words, “there are hundreds”. We get too wrapped up in one identity, he says, and the trick is to “surround your adversaries with your identities.” A lesson that he taught by example, because surrounding us with the force of his many wonderful identities was exactly what Alexie did that night.