You Make Me Miserable, Thank You
I know the idea of isolation is exciting to writers (many, not all), especially writers who are not endowed by benefactors and are given lovely garden studios and a stipend, but who, instead, are looking at papers to review, rather than pages to write. Residencies are an amazing dream – at the most posh, we are flown to a gorgeous rustic location, given studios and apartments, meals come to our door, and in the evening, we mingle with other artists. At the least, we drive to a cabin in the woods with dehydrated vegetables in our packs and write quietly wondering what noise is just outside.
This sabbatical, I’ve had the best of both worlds. Cansarrat, an amazing artist villa/wine works in Catalonia, where I shared space with five other artists and was spoiled by the upscale, sophisticated cooking of the hosts. We sat under grape trellises, fought mosquitoes and drank wine while the moon rose over Montserrat. Days, I hid in the writer’s studio and plunked away on my book, breaking in the afternoon to climb the endless hills to the El Bruc pool with visual artist Heather Sincavage. Via spotty internet, we hooked up with our honeys and families and sent off pictures to Facebook and had communication with the most important. Others got a reflex message; leave me alone. Once in a while I downloaded a movie from the forties.
The most recent experience was a residency at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon as artist-in-residence. This is what is called a self-catering residency. You bring your own food, you make your own food, do your own laundry, sweep your own floors. The space was magnificent—a beautiful apartment, overlooking the rim of the canyon and a walkway from the canyon to the Verkamp’s Visitor’s Center. No other artists shared the space; no director was on the premises, no chef and no Internet. I had twenty-four solid hours of solitude and aloneness if I desired. If I didn’t, I could walk over to the El Tovar Hotel and use their internet in the lobby.
Twenty-four hours a day for twenty-four days with only a cell-phone with good coverage in the main room and nothing more. Now, in some fantasy, I think, wow! A total disconnect, I’ll be able to sink into my novel, stay in the zone, uncover the deep dark layers of my narrative, write with my veins. I begin, clean page, new chapter, forward moving action, depth, metaphor…. And all of that comes crashing down right around nine o’clock at night when I’ve written myself dry, read as much as I could, played some word games. I turned toward the inevitable—the smartphone. With my teeny-tiny, slightly barred roaming data feed, got on Facebook, several times a day.
In my non-isolated life, I am irregular on FB—some days in a row, I exchange with friends, photos, news, and outrage, and then I drop off for a while, missing a lot of birthdays. My FB friends are closely selected—they not only match my politics, but also my level of passion—will get rabid about Marissa Alexander not getting bail, about the mayor who took down a homeless encampment with a sledge hammer, and about the shooting of Renisha McBride, seeking help after her car broke down. Most of my friends are writers, activists, and people of conscious. That is deliberate because it is my world, so I don’t want other perspectives.
In the Canyon, this world of hearing the wind outside my window, seeing the ravens fly over, watching the tourists pose against the wall, I didn’t want live contact with many, just a light pulse on reality—the machinations of the world I cared about. I followed the VONA/Voices fundraiser, I checked in with the latest criminal acts of George Zimmerman, with the girl who was asked to leave a Christian school in Orlando because her “natural” was too unruly. The list goes on and on, all brought to you by my Facebook friends. They became my source of news and they are a trustworthy source, because I know Lisa Suhair Majaj would keep me posted on the children of Gaza and their efforts to get to school despite being flooded by sewage and losing electrical power. Geralyn, my sister, would post the innocent victims serving outrageous sentences for minor offenses in radically racially imbalanced system. Kim Jensen would remind me about prisoners in Palestine; Ninotchka Rosca and Lara Stapleton would expose the nonsense media reporting on typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Son of Baldwin would keep posting about race, about gender, about sexism, about everything. Upworthy’s videos would remind me of how non-post-racial we are. And more.
I know…it’s all bad news. Why would I want that when I could gaze at a masterpiece of rock, shadow, clouds, strata, ages, and ponderosa pines? Could I not allow this pure nature to inspire me without the distraction of this endless reminder of our inhumanity, the destruction of the planet and the growing violence and loss of boundaries that has invaded society? Doesn’t the build up of the consciousness derail the purity of the artistic act, the residence in the place of grace, the life in the zone?
Not really, I need to be reminded, now and again, why I write. Why it’s important to spin out the stories and poems that nuance each of these situations in a context familiar to me and from a perspective that reinterprets the largest questions we grapple with. So yes, I sought out those stories that made me mad, that made me cry, that made me worry about our humanity, and wonder whether we would destroy each other at a alarming speed, or we would forget about the innocent prisoners at Guantanamo, or that we would never understand how guns contribute to our destruction, or how business and media have us manipulated, how workers are exploited, how the backlash against women is going to screw up our girls---this could be an endless list. Necessary.
I write in the real. The Grand Canyon for all its longevity and solidity, delivers a world that is constantly changing, and with every change, has a new beauty, a new identity, and a romantic perspective that releases anger and instills humility. I reach toward it and pull out its riches as a contrast to the lives my characters lead, as an example of how to see change, and interpret erosions, moral and physical. It is a well that is golden in its belly and wind-beaten in its face—bringing complexity and layers to all stories that start before the moment we encounter then and never end, but just go on past the ledge, the promontory, the rocks in piles and crevices.
So with all that beauty blinding me and teaching me such enormous lessons, thanks for the news, Facebook friends, the passion for equality and justice and the need to roar, the impulse to expound, the gift of poems and essays, the reminders that there are all kinds of erosions that must be weathered and destructions that must be rebuilt.
You make me miserable.
You help me understand.
And I can write with the silence of the night, the glory of the canyon and the racket of the world. Thank you very much,
Causes Elmaz Abinader Supports