I was fortunate enough to hear my favorite author speak recently, and any summary of the evening would fall infinitely short of what it actually was, but I can do my best to share what it meant to me, personally.
I looked up and spotted her sitting off to the side of the stage while she was being introduced and watched her adjust her hair – long and sleek, then remove a sweater – it was surprisingly warm in Chicago, and there she was in all her artistic elegance – Maggie Nelson in the flesh. A real live person who fixes her hair and takes off layers when it’s too hot inside.
But as she made her way to the podium and began to speak, it became obvious that she was anything but human. And as someone who considers themselves to be agnostic, I understood for a moment where the idea of goddesses could have some truth to it. A woman in possession of immense knowledge, with insight into the innermost workings of the world, of art, the mind, of life.
Hearing Ms. Nelson speak made me feel just as, if not more, inadequate as reading her work did. More so in the sense that I couldn’t ask her to repeat a passage, to pause while I looked up her references, to do the work it takes for me to get as close to fully understanding her arguments as I can with my undergraduate education.
And even though there is no pedestal high enough for me to put her on, she has this accessibility in her writing, this ability to code-switch between language that is academic and critical to sexually explicit to personally raw and everything in between, with a piquant sense of humor that gives the impression that by reading her words, one could hope to acquire even the tiniest sliver of her knowledge. As if it were a contact high.
So there I sat, surrounded by a few hundred people, most of whom I assumed were very serious art students, which only added to my overall feeling of intimidation. Little old me, just a member of the “public”, to whom the event was open to, hoping to learn something from and about a woman who had so serendipitously impacted my life…
Serendipity n. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.
Sometimes we are lucky enough to stumble upon something, perhaps the one thing, better yet the exact thing we need in life at a particular moment. More often than not, a something we didn’t even know we needed.
I met someone once who told me I had a hole in my face – a hole they said gave it character. And because I cared about what they said, I looked in the mirror and found it for myself. A little divot. A tiny pockmark. What they didn’t know was that meeting them was like holding up a mirror to my entire life – that they unwittingly found and pointed out all of the holes that were there as well, and god was it overwhelming.
I remember a particular conversation we had once. One of many similar hypothetical scenarios we posed to each other – that if we could be good at any one particular thing, what would it be? When I said writing their response came in the form of a question; did I write very often? The answer being “No, never,” I felt like Paul Varjak betrayed by a ribbonless typewriter in front of Holly Golightly. It was such a simple question. One I began to carry around inside myself, but slightly altered – why didn’t I write?
Truth be told, I felt inadequate. It had been years since I wrote for my own enjoyment. Not since the days of my high school newspaper column. Back when I was awarded the “most likely to write a book” superlative.
But at the age of 18, I despised hard news and left behind my journalistic passions for a degree in Spanish – something I was good at. Something I loved that came easily to me; a combination I later learned rarely comes around in life. And once I had that diploma in hand, those things I used to love, those creative things, seemed to require education of a different kind, or to a further degree – one I wasn’t prepared to shoulder a massive amount of debt for with little guarantee of return on investment. And then there was that dreaded word – “experience”, which always seemed to be necessary to get a foot in the door anywhere to begin with.
So I had left those dreams behind, those creative things I had loved about myself, in pursuit of a life that was stable enough to imagine I had “arrived” at adulthood. And I thought that was the case for everyone, a harsh reality that we all had to swallow, like finding out that Santa Claus isn’t actually real.
But with that mirror now held up to my face, I saw the gaping void for what it was, everything I had left behind in order to fake having it together, and realized I had been lying to myself all along. I had been settling in more ways than I could count. I had given up the things that made me me for the illusion of comfort, for the idea of what I thought I was supposed to do now at this point in my life.
Instead of what I loved, or what I was good at, I had chosen what came easy. It’s harder to fail that way. To be disappointed. I let my fears and excuses get in the way and put on what was essentially a fake sumo wrestling suit made out of them. One that could cushion any fall and mask everything in humor, but also prevented me from moving anywhere or doing anything.
I was a coward, which is a terrible thing to call anyone, let alone yourself. And like a coward, I pretended not to care about the things I didn’t think I could have anyway, and just as suddenly as this wake up call in the form of a person had arrived in my life, they were gone. Like a firework that leaves spots in your eyes and a ringing in your ears; a lingering fog of confusion where moments ago there had been brilliance.
I missed this person. And not only did I miss them, I was deeply ashamed of it. How could I be so rattled by something so brief, so seemingly insignificant? Something I wasn’t even sure I could call a friendship. I fought the feeling, tried to lock it away and bury it the sand. I scrubbed away at it like a stain, until my hands were raw until every last spec of evidence was erased. Because if I admitted how much it hurt, I’d have to admit that I had willingly handed over the power to hurt me to someone else. So I pretended I didn’t care. That it didn’t matter.
I wasn’t very good at it.
And it was in this mindset that I decided to read – my preferred form of escape. I made my way over to the bookstore down the street and browsed around until I came to the poetry section, something I typically didn’t read. So by serendipity, or whatever you want to call it, I was introduced to Maggie Nelson, vis a vis a little card containing a lovingly written recommendation for her book, Bluets.
And on a whim, I bought the little blue book, my favorite color, with an impulsive curiosity to read about just that, as the card had promised – the color blue. I took it to the library, and later on my balcony, finishing it in a day. I laughed, I cried, I made notes and dog-eared the pages, marking it as my own, devouring every word.
It’s impossible for me to explain what the book is about, but it was exactly what I needed to read at that moment and absolutely beautiful. It touches on the concept of “being blue,” of sadness, but on an endless list of other things as well.
It contained that academic language of criticism I had loved so much in college: “Of all the philosophers, Schopenhauer is the most hilarious and direct spokesman for this idea: ‘As a rule, we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more painful than we expected.’”
It contained the sexually explicit language I was finding less and less taboo and more and more intriguing: “…the pulsing of a pussy in need of serious fucking—a pulsing that that communicates nothing less than the sucking and ejaculations of the heart.”
And finally it contained some of the bravest honesty I think I have ever read:
“I have been trying, for some time now, to find dignity in my loneliness. I have been finding this hard to do.”
“I have been trying to go limp in the face of my heartache, as another friend says he does in the face of his anxiety. Think of it as an act of civil disobedience, he says. Let the police peel you up.”
“…if what I was feeling wasn’t love then I am forced to admit that I don’t know what love is, or, more simply, that I loved a bad man.”
“I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.”
“Clearly I am not a private person, and quite possibly I am a fool.”
And in reading these words, I stopped being ashamed of being sad. If Maggie Nelson, or a poetic narrator she had constructed, someone who was brilliant and not the least bit naïve and so incredibly self-aware, could be sad, and so openly so, it was nothing to be embarrassed by. In fact, it was beautiful, and no longer required any kind of justification. Her maxim in the first few pages was enough for me: “We don’t get to choose what or whom we love, I want to say. We just don’t get to choose.”
It allowed me to finally be able to admit to myself a similar truth about the things that I had been sad about – It mattered because I cared, and I cared because it mattered. And it moved me away from my habit of gravitating towards the things I was good at, the things I loved, the things that came easily for me, and pushed me towards the things I had never tried, the things that I was afraid of, the things I would need to work for.
I learned to care openly, not just when I knew things would work out in my favor, but when there was a risk of failure. I even learned to care when I was certain to lose. I started to write again. I was terrified and drank an entire bottle of port the first time I shared something I wrote with anyone other than myself. I felt like I was going to be sick (from the nerves, not the port). But it made me happy. It was something just for me.
And so even when I was terrified to make a fool of myself in front of all of those art students, in front of Maggie Nelson herself, and there was no port to be found in the auditorium, I raised my hand when it was time for questions, and asked something just for me.
I wanted to know if she had an inspiration to write before she started her academic career, a moment where she decided she had something to say, that she had something to add to criticism, a conversation that had been going on between so many people for so long. This did not make its way out of my mouth and into the microphone in such an organized fashion as it does here. I might as well have blurted out “Where does confidence come from?” in all my naïvety.
When she answered that she didn’t necessarily think she has anything to say, the entire room, who had all come to hear just that, erupted into laughter. I wish I had a word for word transcript of her response, but I spiraled into a shame blackout immediately afterward.
From the bits I managed to hold onto, she told me writing is compulsive. That it’s a way to churn through the world. Through our problems. And if writing is the way you do that, then you respect that process and allow yourself to do it.
And even though I was embarrassed and anxious for an obnoxious amount of time afterward, and my friend had to calm me down, I am so glad I worked up the courage to ask her, knowing full well I would have kicked myself for passing up what was a once in a lifetime opportunity. How often does anyone have the chance to ask someone esteemed that they truly admire a question?
A question that mattered because I cared, and I cared because it mattered.