How seeing and feeling the physical world gave me love when I had none
In my first post I wrote about the importance of physical life in fiction. This is not an esoteric opinion. It comes from non-literary experience, which I believe other people besides myself have had, maybe without identifying it because…it’s not something a non-writer would feel the need to identify. Descriptions of the physical world are important to me because my connection to the physical world has preserved my sanity.
I have had times of enormous loneliness and fear when I walked around with my senses wide open even when my heart was protectively closed and my mind was relentlessly focused on what I needed to do next. One of these times was when I lived in New York City in the 80s; I was in my mid-twenties and trying to make it as a writer. Mostly this meant working at menial jobs and writing at night. Mostly I had no money to go out and mostly when I did I found the social world confusing and hard to penetrate. I loved looking at people, feeling the striving personality in each of their bodies, the complicated force of it coming through a sometimes ill-fitting persona, mine often being the most ill-fitting of all.
I admit that I loved looking at things even more: the porousness of concrete, the density of canned goods on deli shelves, the dank, sagging patched leather seat of a taxi, the heavy machinery of the subway, the ramshackle shapes of roofs, water towers, heat vents and cooling systems on the tumbledown apartment blocks I could see from the tops of buildings: the random, inexplicable beauty of natural materials shaped at different moments by intrepid human hands. There were long periods when I had nothing, no partner, no respected identity, no one even to talk to. But I had all of this, the blocks and blocks of life I could somehow take in as if through the pores of my skin and it sustained me, made me feel hope.
The support of this inhuman world kept alive my connection to the human world because it kept the feelings of my body alive. Because it was created by humans, and I could feel the fierceness of human will humming through it, feeding my own will. It was a subtle connective tissue that could not be occluded by social etiquette or mixed signals and which I somehow understood that I had in common with anyone who had a body. I trusted this.
You might be thinking I don’t believe a 20-something would think like this! You’re right, I didn’t think like that at the time. I just knew I loved to take long walks and to stand on roof tops and look at stuff. I liked listening to people in cheap restaurants where I would eat by myself, undistracted by a non-existent phone. I only analyzed what was happening many years later, when I was wondering how I was able to write convincingly about human society while feeling so baffled about it. It wasn’t only the long walks and the gazing from roof tops. I also read a lot, especially drawing from people like Updike and Nabokov, whose deep, joyful evocations of physical reality confirmed my sense of the world and the possibility that other people were experiencing it something like me whether or not I had anything in common with them socially and/or politically. And I got help from friends and sometimes healers who said corny things, but who still did great work.
It was when I published a book and moved to Marin County that I began to realize how I was drawing strength and inspiration from the world around me. I lived alone in a canyon that felt like living architecture, with “human” characteristics expressed in its branches and foliage; irony, elegance, melancholy and humor seemed to have some kind of fundamental origin there, mixed with qualities I could feel but which were beyond my human mind. If I was having a hard time gathering myself before I wrote or even before I taught a class, I made the effort to channel something of the power and delight so abundantly on display. I would focus my eyes wherever trees or buildings met the skyline and ask. It always seemed to help.
I know other people also draw from physical phenomena like I did then; they just may not have thought about it as much because they didn’t need it as badly. But people used to do this and not just like I did, alone, through my eyes and mind, but together, with their bodies. Many people in this country used to work together, farm together, dance together regularly, ride horses together, play team sports with no professional intent. Some people still do! But how many of you reading this know that experience daily? It was how we were built to live and it has become more and more uncommon even before Covid. I’ve known it through martial arts classes and dancing. I knew it in my city life because of just being on the streets and in the subway, moving with a mass that, given everything, was remarkably considerate, with finely calibrated spatial awareness.
The life of dancing and martial arts and horseback riding is still there. (And I would recommend any and all of it as therapy for literally anyone who can do it.) The life on the streets of cities is still there. But it feels attenuated because the soft, blood-driven wiring of our brains is now entwined with the dazzling and very hard electronic connective tissue of the internet, creating an unbalanced hybrid.
I recognize that “online” can be a bountiful thing, and that people who would otherwise be physically isolated in inimical environments have found a place to meet there; really, the pandemic would be even worse than it is for all of us without “online.”
But. The way we’re using it now, it feels like addiction. It feels like panic.
It feels like we are rubbing our nervous systems raw straining to find that warm, total experience of bodies together through a medium that cannot give it any more than a “mother” made of wire can give a baby animal milk. It would be very unlikely now for a lonely, questing young person to have the heartening experience I described because young people are being eaten by their phones. I am being eaten by my phone; in spite of my strong memories and a mental habit of looking to the physical world for inner strength, it doesn’t come easily any more. I have to make more of an effort and I don’t feel it as strongly. My brain too is wound together with the internet which means it now works differently. On top of that I fear I am subliminally feeling that the strength of the natural world is being leached away by constant plunder and therefore don’t trust it as much. The ground under our feet is crumbling as we migrate into the hot-colored ether of an aphysical dream world driven hard by commerce and rage.
Countless similarly anxious commenters have related this circumstance to the despair felt by the young, the ubiquity of depression and the rise of suicide. I want to say more about that later. But for now, thank fucking God that there are still living writers who continue to look at and feel the actual life around us, recording what may soon be memories of how individual human minds participate with it. Yiyun Li, Alice Munro, Elena Ferrante and Jo Ann Beard are a few of my favorites but what I want to end with is an abbreviated piece by essayist Sallie Tisdale. (You can find the whole thing in her collection of essays, Violation.) It’s not fiction but I often assign it to fiction classes because it is to me a great way for a fiction writer to look at the world, reordering it with her own unique mind, mixing what is disgusting to us with what is sacred—or what ought to be.