Life Work

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No Place Like Home

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I had a strange dream recently, and I haven’t been able to forget it. This is unusual for me. I tend to dream a lot, and vividly, in multiple layers, and all that vividness and layeredness will typically slosh around in my mind for a few moments when I first transition into consciousness; but by the time I’m stumbling into (then out of) the bathroom, I can’t remember a thing. (I know people say you should keep a notebook by the bed; but once my eyes are open, and I’m hauling myself over to the nightstand, click-clicking a pen, the essence of the dream escapes me even faster. In my experience, words can generate highly detailed dreamscapes, but not the other way around.)

The dream took place in my childhood home. More specifically, the home I lived in between the ages of 5 and 13. In the dream, I open the closet door in my bedroom and find torn plastic wrap and wrapping paper all over the floor. I stomp into the hall and find a girl I don’t recognize, and my two sisters. My sisters are adults in the dream, but they aren’t really my sisters, they are weird versions of my sisters, much more matronly than my actual sisters and sort of 1950s-ish. Suddenly, I am an adult, too (in my bedroom, I had been my child self opening my child’s closet), and it becomes clear that the unfamiliar girl is the culprit: she has a roll of wrapping paper in her hand. Then I am a child again and I tell her to please not make a mess in my closet. She rolls her eyes and folds her arms and starts talking. One of my sisters also starts talking, and then the other. I can’t make out exactly what they are saying, they are talking loudly over each other, but basically, they are making it all out to be my problem for being fussy about my closet floor. I grow angry – that dream-anger that is so frustrating, because you can’t express it, like you’ve got lead in your throat, akin to running dreams where you’ve got lead on your ankles. Finally, I manage to spit out these words: “What I really need is to be able to come out here and say that there is wrapping paper all over my floor and to…” And this was where I woke up.

But the dream – and this is weird, too – sort of continued as I woke. I finished my sentence – possibly out loud, but more likely in my head – “…and to be able to just state it as a problem. Without anybody telling me that the problem is my fault.” The feeling of anger – what I needed to spit out as a result of the dream – was so clear, so sharp.

I am always humbled by how transparent, psychologically speaking, my dreams are.

After the dream, and the half-waking continuation of the dream, I drifted into a slightly yet more conscious state, though still in bed and not completely awake (probably I rolled over and scrunched up the pillow under my head); and I started to feel sad. Sad about the dream, and my “issues,” and all the ways in which that particular species of anger pervades my life.

But that’s not what I want to say about this dream. The dream continued on (or I guess it ceased to be a dream at this point, strictly speaking, more like an involuntary imaginative exercise) as a journey through that childhood house. I haven’t thought much about the house in recent years; there were three houses after that during high school and college, none of which I really lived in, since I was away at school, moving from dorm room to dorm room, summer sublet to group house (and then after that on to a string of apartments and houses, the west coast then back to the east coast, etc.). I remembered all the rooms and different areas of the house: the wood paneling on the walls and the scratchy synthetic carpet and the musty coolness of the basement TV room where I used to watch What’s Happening and General Hospital after school. I remembered the burn marks on the ceramic stovetop and the medicinal smell of ginseng tea simmering overnight and the pantries stocked with Ichiban ramen and Chunky Soups and the sliding doors that looked out onto a pebbled patio we never used and the yellowing mattress skirts and the plastic suction noise that the doors between the kitchen and the family room made when you opened them or shut them and the fake crystal chandelier hanging over the dining table that was always missing crystals because my sisters would climb up on the dining table and pilfer them so they could pretend they were earrings.

I lay there, and all of it washed over me; I moved through the house, like a ghostly cinematographer. I was recalling to consciousness what it felt like to live in that house, emotionally, sensorially – as a six year-old, an eight year-old, an eleven year-old, and everything in between; alone, with parents or sisters or school mates, doing something, doing nothing, in this room, in that room; every moment or image that had, for whatever reason, stuck around in my brain. And then I grew sadder. Because no matter how hard I tried – and I was really trying at this point; I was all in, working at it – I could not bring forth a single good feeling. Happiness, peacefulness, joy, warmth, comfort, silliness, wonder. Not a single one. Evidently that house, wrapping paper or no wrapping paper, was for me a place only of fear and unease.

It was not exactly a new revelation to me that my childhood was not a happy one; but the way in which the Me who has been formed by those feelings and memories lived all those moments and days and years in those rooms, in that place, was something new. The dream, and the semi-conscious journey that followed, made stark (in that slanty way that probably only a dream can effect) how placeless and out-of-body modern life can be.

At the risk of stating the obvious: isn’t it strange, I mean, this thing about being a human being breathing and thinking and sensing and dwelling always, always, in a place?

My estrangement from a happy or anchoring childhood place – that is, my estrangement from place as home – seems to have propelled me toward literature that is rooted in what American southerners sometimes call “home place.” Early in my literary reading life, my bookshelves were stacked with regional literature – Thoreau, Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, all of Wendell Berry’s Port William novels and stories, Kathleen Norris’ Dakota, Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce’s Dubliners, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Stuart Dybek, Mary Oliver, Tony Earley, Jane Kenyon’s poetry and prose, Donald Hall’s Life Work, and Jimmy Carter’s An Hour Before Daylight – all of which spoke to deep, spiritual ties between soul and land, individual and community. I read all these for antidote, for counterweight: for, beginning with my parents’ immigration from Korea to the U.S. – no, before that, when their families fled this city for that city, this region for that region, because of war – my life was all but fated for disconnection. From place, from community, from home-ness.

In those days I read – as many people do, I think, and as I still do – for consolation. So while New York City became a logical place to live, because so many New Yorkers are from elsewhere, or nowhere, like me, my reading life for a long time was populated by people of place, people who consider themselves very much from somewhere.

But writers, as a breed, are no strangers to either literal or psychic exile. At The Faster Times, Josh Garret-Davis writes:
We moderns seem to have developed an exceedingly complicated, ungrounded relationship to place — and, if I had to guess, I’d say readers of literary magazines probably have some of the most balkanized inner geographies. Few of us live where we grew up […] We experience place through research or through evocative photos, movies, and — most to the point here — works of literature.
It is from an external vantage point that a writer captures the essence and authenticity of a place he knows intimately. The writer of place is most often both member and outsider; skillful straddler; translator. He has split loyalties, between the flesh-and-blood people of here and now, and an abstract, timeless humanity. He has left the home place for a time, then returned (Berry, Hall, O’Connor); or has left and revisits by memory (Joyce, Carter, Earley); or has arrived later in life and stayed a long time (McCarthy, Proulx, Kenyon, Norris).

Two central challenges confront the writer of place:

“Caught up in life, you see it badly. You suffer from it or enjoy it too much. The artist, in my opinion, is a monstrosity, something outside of nature.” (Flaubert)
“And he said, ‘Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country.’” (The King James Bible, Luke 4:24)

In other words, in order to see a place, its essence, the writer can never be a full member; he must stand apart, see into the heart of the place, its beauty and its demons, and he must report truthfully. Given this, his work will always be regarded with a measure of skepticism by the inhabitants, the subjects of his penetrating gaze.

What is a modern sense of place? Jennifer Acker, editor of The Common, a new print and online journal that takes the phrase as its tag line, has given this a lot of thought.  In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, she says:
The increasing use of digital technology does not mean place is no longer one of the most fundamental forces in our lives. It is. Where we are from and where we live and how we embed or distance our selves from our environments and their cultural influences are central to our relationships and perceptions, and therefore our art.
And in the introductory note to The Common’s first print issue, she writes:
Where are you from? is still a relevant question […] We can’t extricate our selves from our places, nor would we wish to. Themes of place, including exile and exploration, provoke us to reflect on how we live; they fascinate, unsettle, and comfort […] our mobile modernity creates a hunger for place-based ruminations. Literature provides the vehicle for these travels.
Appropriately, the editors’ commitment to publishing The Common in print is, in Acker’s words, “unwavering.” A print version “reinforces the fact that we live and read and create in physical communities.” Not to mention that Issue No. 1 – which features prose and poetry by the likes of Ted Conover, Fiona Maazel, Sabina Murray, Lauren Groff, Mary Jo Salter, Rafael Campo, new translations of Marina Tsvetaeva by Catherine Ciepiela, Honor Moore, and newcomer Maura Candela, among others – is a beautiful book-object indeed (design by Gabriele Wilson).

I’m glad for the emergence of a journal like The Common and agree with Lisa Peet of Like Fire who wrote that Issue No. 1 is “both dense and lush, something to take the time to read through and then revisit. It’s a keeper, well worth the $20 subscription price for two issues yearly.” But strangely, after spending some time with it, both print and online, I found myself most absorbed in an online-only feature called “Dispatches” – short evocations of particular places. In these 30 vignettes (and growing), “dispatched” to us from Cairo, rural Texas, Alaska, Santo Domingo, Ethiopia, Poland, Baja, Tuscany, et alia, we are reminded that when a writer evokes place, she evokes an entire way of being, seeing, navigating existence – the enormity of human experience via finely observed particulars. As much as I long for a real home-place, some coherence to my own balkanized inner geography, it’s ultimately in this scattershot pointillism – the experience of reading these 30 elegant blips not unlike that of a vivid and layered dream (though exhilarating not saddening) – that I seem to find my nowhere-somewhere, a peculiar feeling of home; my modern sense of place.


Image credit: bean*mama/Flickr

Fall Book Picks (Part 2): Shop Class As Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford

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Last week, I offered up the first of two recommendations for books about work. In Life Work, Donald Hall meditates on a life of word-work; contrasting his vocation as a writer – of poems, children’s books, essays, reviews, and letters – with the manual labor of his agrarian ancestors, in whose New Hampshire farmhouse he and his wife Jane Kenyon lived together for 20 years until Kenyon’s death in 1995.

Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work considers work from a different vantage point, i.e., that of a philosopher-academic turned motorcycle mechanic. While both Hall and Crawford describe meaningful work as that which is fully absorbing, Crawford focuses on the manual trades — conscientious problem-solving in a concrete, physical context — as a potential panacea for modern malaise, professional and otherwise. With Shop Class, Crawford is on a mission, and a highly-specific, thoroughly considered one at that. He writes:
I offer my own story here not because I think it is extraordinary, but rather because I suspect it is fairly common. I want to do justice to intuitions that many people have, but which enjoy little public credit […] Perhaps most surprisingly, I often find manual work more engaging intellectually…

I want to avoid the precious images of manual work that intellectuals sometimes traffic in. I also have little interest in wistful notions of a “simpler” life that is somehow more authentic, or more democratically valorous for being “working class.” I do, in fact, want to rehabilitate the honor of the trades, as being choice-worthy work, but to do so from within my own experience, which I find is not illuminated by any of these fraught cultural ideas.
What follows is a compelling argument – stronger, I’d say, than the “inquiry” of the book’s subtitle – that is equal parts memoir, philosophical treatise, history lesson, repair manual, and social commentary. It is an argument for concretion over abstraction, intuition and judgment over rules-based processing, the integration of thinking (intellectual) and doing (manual/physical), agency rather than unfettered “autonomy” (what Crawford calls “freedomism”), the intrinsic value of small-scale, locally-based business models where human-to-human interaction is vital; and a notion of The Good Life that does not rely on the compartmentalization of work and pleasure.

I confess that, with me, Crawford is preaching to the choir on pretty much every point above. The chapter entitled “The Contradictions of the Cubicle” — in which he laments the learned behaviors of talking in circles, evading responsibility, appearance management, and lowering intellectual inquiry to an institutionally established “good enough” — had me nodding and shuddering, as it likely will anyone who’s ever worked in an office. In “To Be Master of One’s Own Stuff,” Crawford questions modern definitions of freedom and asks whether the consumer fantasy of disburdening ourselves  – of physical things – is in fact a new kind of enslavement, a loss of agency and embodied-ness relative to our material environment and possessions (manifest in the tyranny of “devices,” which represent disposable reality); all of which I explore, more or less, in a forthcoming essay (to be anthologized in The Late American Novel, edited by our own C. Max Magee).

An easy audience for the arguments, I turned my scrutiny toward Crawford’s finely-articulated and often entertaining prose. You might wonder, how does a philosopher-mechanic express himself? Crawford does indeed move effortlessly among multiple registers of diction and expression. Here’s a passage I particularly enjoyed, from a section where Crawford describes his early education as a gearhead, trying to diagnose his VW Bug:
Volkswagens in particular, as the People’s Car, tend to get passed around like cheap whores, and it is rare to find one that hasn’t been pawed at by a train of users applying more urgency than finesse […] a VW engine may have been subjected to clumsy, boyish innocence, such as my predecessor surely felt in his heart as he ripped open his package from JC Whitney and held the brand-new “high performance” valve springs in his hand […] Or it may be a tale of appalling moral squalor, as when it becomes evident that the previous owner failed to change the oil, like, ever.
In another chapter, Crawford considers the mechanic’s “metaphysical responsibility to the machine and his fiduciary responsibility to its owner” as he works on an ’83 Honda Magna V45:
I smelled something burning, and discovered my pants were on fire. I was standing too close to the propane heater, in between bouts of valve cover jujitsu. The cover was still stuck where it had been a few hours ago. At this point I’d exhausted my entire lexicon of “mother-fucker”-based idioms, and was running perilously low on slurs against the Japanese. I was nearing a familiar point where I’ve descended through every level of madness and despair, and a certain calm takes over. I was reduced now to a more or less autistic repetition of valve cover manipulations I’d long ago determined to be futile, when suddenly the cover just fell out of its trap and lay free in my hand […] This is a common experience, actually […] I used to try to hypnotize myself into a Zen-like state of resignation at the outset. It doesn’t work, not for this Grasshopper. I have my own process, as they say. I call it the motherfucker process.
But ultimately it’s heady, ambitious stuff that Crawford is tackling here. Iris Murdoch is Crawford’s philosophical touchstone throughout: “[A]nything which alters consciousness in the direction of unselfishness, objectivity and realism is to be connected with virtue,” he quotes from Murdoch’s The Sovereignty of Good. Mechanics, Crawford posits, as do other manual tradespeople, work firmly in this realm of objectivity and realism, recognizing and embracing their non-invincible place in the world. “In any hard discipline, whether it be gardening or structural engineering… one submits to things that have their own intractable ways… When your shin gets kicked, whether by a mule or a kick-starter, you get schooled.”

The kind of moral capacity and cognitive capacity that we need to be full human beings — to be “just,” as Crawford puts it — thus grows from problem-solving that exists in situational reality (as opposed to, say, financial-derivatives reality). Moral virtue and intellectual virtue are of a piece, and are born from a kind of humility and attentiveness that develops as a result of confronting “the world as it really is.” “By the mere fact that they [mechanics] stand ready to fix things,” Crawford writes, “as a class they are an affront to the throwaway society. Just as important, the kind of thinking they do, if they are good, offers a counterweight to the culture of narcissism.”

Narcissism. Hmm… simmering in the background of Crawford’s story is another drama, a more personal one, that he refrains from telling, though he drops hints here and there. In a footnote, we learn that he spent his teen years living in a commune (possibly with his mother, though it’s unclear), and in the acknowledgments that his childhood was “weird.” At 16, he “was getting reacquainted” with his father, living with him for the first time in seven years. He relates, and returns to, a story about his father, a mathematical physicist, who said to him one day, apropos of nothing, “Did you know you can always untie a shoelace just by pulling on one end, even if it’s in a double knot?” This story serves as an emblem of abstract, situation-less – as well as impotent, and possibly immoral – thinking for the rest of the book. One can’t help but sense that Crawford’s search for the real, the virtuous, and the selfless is rooted in something quite personal. In describing just what kind of book Shop Class is, perhaps add “quest for healing” to those equal parts.

Fall Book Picks (Part 1): Life Work by Donald Hall

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‘Tis the season of back-to-school, back-to-work; back to various labors of love and life.  In that vein, I recommend two books, in two Parts, on the subject of work – literary, intellectual, manual. Today, Part 1, I give you former Poet Laureate Donald Hall’s Life Work.

Life Work has been a beacon for me since my early days of writerdom. I came to the writer’s vocation late and from off-the-map, which has contributed to a general awkwardness around the word “work” – a word reserved, in my experience, for that which involves antagonism, obligation, and toil; and which generally refers to a physical destination as opposed to an activity. (Syntax is everything in the statement, “I am going to work.”  Is the second part a verb infinitive or an adverbial prepositional phrase?)  “Ok, off to the gulag,” my partner jokes wryly as he heads to his downtown office.  Surely, he is going to work; what the hell will I be doing all day?

“Once, in a headlong sentence I clearly intended to say ‘life,’” Hall writes of a therapy session during dark years of marital meltdown and alcoholism, “but by mistake…said ‘work’ instead.”  This recollection illuminates the theme of Hall’s beautifully crafted meditation cum memoir: the lost sense of work as integral, devotional, absorbing; distinct from labor, including but not limited to “what we do to feed ourselves and keep ourselves warm,” and, if not nobler than the toilsome sufferings of humankind through the ages – Hall cites, for example, Mexican farm laborers, 19th century merchant sailors, black American slaves – then indeed no less.
Work.  I make my living at it.  Almost 20 years ago I quit teaching – giving up tenure, health insurance, and annual raises […] I worked like crazy to pay tuitions and mortgages – but because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all.

There are jobs, there are chores, and there is work.
Life Work takes the form of life (and work) in real time: “Today makes a week of Life Work.”  Hall pulls back the curtain on his daily regime, his “best day”: up at 4:30, coffee, dress, drive out for the paper (this is rural New Hampshire), breakfast, then at the desk until “I feel the poetry juices drying out.” A household chore, more coffee, and on to prose.  By 11am, the writing work is done; now lunch, then a short nap, after which he and his (second) wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, “know what we will do next.  How nice to be old enough, living together and alone, to make love in daylight…”

If all this makes ye industrious urbanites want to retch, Hall anticipates your repulsion:
I worry that my enthusiasm over work, over the best day […] will seem to a saturnine or grumpy reader the ultimate in complacency […] Why is happiness unforgivable? […]  I make for myself a golden age.

Only depressives make a golden age; or maniacs create a golden age because their dark brother lurks behind the barn.
But he does not anticipate what comes next: Part I of Life Work ends in early April; 10 days later he begins Part II, having been diagnosed, in the interim, with liver cancer.

The book shifts markedly in tone henceforth, and yet an even deeper fidelity to inquiries regarding work takes hold.  “I realized I had always worked in defiance of death.”  We learn of family histories (generational transitions from manual, to white-collar, to creative work), the sculptor Henry Moore’s model of work, and Hall’s journey in Christian faith (the work of the spirit).  The book ends three months after it began, with Hall about to start chemotherapy: we are suspended in uncertainty with him, as he works on short projects “which absorb me as much as any work can.”

Seventeen years after publication, we know “the ending.”  Hall survives cancer, but it’s his beloved wife Jane, 20-some years his junior, who dies of leukemia two years later.   How profoundly prescient was Hall’s understanding of “work” as the avatar for “life,” as the two of them confront ruthless mortality together.  He writes: “There is only one long-term project.”

Coming up: Part 2, in which a philosopher-motorcycle mechanic makes the case for the cognitive riches of manual work, for living concretely in an abstract world.

Surprise Me!