“Avoid adjectives of scale.
Dandelion broth instead of duck soup.
Don’t even think you’ve seen a meadow, ever.
The minor adjustments in our equations
still indicate the universe is insane,
when it laughs a silk dress comes out its mouth
but we never put it on. Put it on.
Cry often and while asleep.
If it’s raw, forge it in fire.
That’s not a mountain, that’s crumble.
If it’s fire, swallow.
The heart of a scarecrow isn’t geometrical.
That’s not a diamond, it’s salt.
That’s not the sky but it’s not your fault.
My dragon may be your neurotoxin.
Your electrocardiogram may be my fortune cookie.
Once an angel has made an annunciation,
it’s impossible to tell him he has the wrong address.
Moonlight has its own befuddlements.
The rest of us can wear the wolf mask if we want
or look like reflections wandered off.
Eventually armor, eventually sunk.
You wanted love and expected what?
A parachute? Morphine? A gold sticker star?
The moment you were born—
you have to trust others because you weren’t there.
The strongest gift I was ever given
was made of twigs.
It didn’t matter which way it broke.”—Dean Young, Handy Guide
“It is the phenomenon sometimes called “alienation from the self.” In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give back to ourselves - there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”—Joan Didion “On self-respect”
It does not matter what you say. As a woman, as a woman of color, as a woman of size, as a woman with large breasts or no breasts and a lifetime of experience with bucketloads of passion. It does not fucking matter.*
Because unless there is a white guy backing you up, you are an angry bitch. Uppity, spirited, “that girl,” the femanazi, the super-libber, the PC chick, the conspiracy theorist…
I just wish my own experiences were enough. That the experiences of fellow women were enough. But we must always come with backers. We must always have a few men nodding along behind us in the crowd. And at the very least if we’re going to be so bold as to bring up racism or sexism in polite company then we better be willing to quote reputable studies that have been widely recognized by the psychological and sociological communities.
If we lack this armor we are just drama. Dramatic or… wait for it… psycho bitches who think everybody is out to rape them or thinks they must be, “Like, soooo attractive to be hit on so much and totally, probably, like, thinks like a victim.”
This is so dangerous because I believe it teaches us not to trust our own judgments. Sadly, in this world, that can be life or death. When that guy hits on you for the third time at the club we should just get over it. He wasn’t being that creepy. “Oh no, girl, don’t talk to the bouncer about him, that’s just drama. Just have a good time.” I complained anyway but nothing was done.
And hey, when he tries to attack you while leaving the club—which happened to me and a friend in June of this year—the police may ask you why you didn’t complain “more than once” to security. I shit you not.
Because it is never good enough. It’s always a teachable moment from man to woman. So listen up, child, because that’s exactly what you are. At least until a white man comes to back up your claims. But I don’t have to tell you that. You already know. The trick is for this argument not to be dismissed outright by some dude in a Quicksilver t-shirt because the fact is, he has final say on the veracity of our claims.
“Are we not all of us fanatics? I only say what you of the U.S.A. pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.”—David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
Loneliness can be a shameful hunger, a shell, a dangerous landscape of shadowy figures. But it is also a gift.
The bluest period I ever spent was in Manhattan’s East Village, not so long back. I lived on East 2nd Street, in an unreconstructed tenement building, and each morning I walked across Tompkins Square Park to get my coffee. When I arrived the trees were bare, and I dedicated those walks to checking the progress of the blossoms. There are many community gardens in that part of town, and so I could examine irises and tulips, forsythia, cherry trees and a great weeping willow that seemed to drop its streamers overnight, like a ship about to lift anchor and sail away.
I wasn’t supposed to be in New York, or not like this, anyway. I’d met someone in America and then lost them almost instantly, but the future we’d dreamed up together retained its magnetism, and so I moved alone to the city I’d expected to become my home. I had friends there, but none of the ordinary duties and habits that comprise a life. I’d severed all those small, sustaining cords, and, as such, it wasn’t surprising that I experienced a loneliness more paralysing than anything I’d encountered in more than a decade of living alone.
What did it feel like? It felt like being hungry, I suppose, in a place where being hungry is shameful, and where one has no money and everyone else is full. It felt, at least sometimes, difficult and embarrassing and important to conceal. Being foreign didn’t help. I kept botching the ballgame of language: fumbling my catches, bungling my throws. Most days, I went for coffee in the same place, a glass-fronted café full of tiny tables, populated almost exclusively by people gazing into the glowing clamshells of their laptops. Each time, the same thing happened. I ordered the nearest thing to filter on the menu: a medium urn brew, which was written in large chalk letters on the board. Each time, without fail, the barista looked blankly up and asked me to repeat myself. I might have found it funny in England, or irritating, or I might not have noticed it all, but that spring it worked under my skin, depositing little grains of anxiety and shame.
Something funny happens to people who are lonely. The lonelier they get, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself. Once it becomes impacted, it isn’t easy to dislodge. When I think of its advance, an anchoress’s cell comes to mind, as does the exoskeleton of a gastropod.
I thought of those dreamlike crumbling rooms, extending across the water, where men long since dead freed one another
This sounds like paranoia, but in fact loneliness’s odd mode of increase has been mapped by medical researchers. It seems that the initial sensation triggers what psychologists call hypervigilance for social threat. In this state, which is entered into unknowingly, one tends to experience the world in negative terms, and to both expect and remember negative encounters — instances of rudeness, rejection or abrasion, like my urn brew episodes in the café. This creates, of course, a vicious circle, in which the lonely person grows increasingly more isolated, suspicious and withdrawn.
At the same time, the brain’s state of red alert brings about a series of physiological changes. Lonely people are restless sleepers. Loneliness drives up blood pressure, accelerates ageing, and acts as a precursor to cognitive decline. According to a 2010 study I came across in theAnnals of Behavioral Medicine entitled ‘Loneliness Matters: A Theoretical and Empirical Review of Consequences and Mechanisms’, loneliness predicts increased morbidity and mortality, which is an elegant way of saying that loneliness can prove fatal.
I don’t think I experienced cognitive decline, but I quickly became intimate with hypervigilance. During the months I lived in Manhattan, it manifested as an almost painful alertness to the city, a form of over-arousal that oscillated between paranoia and desire. During the day, I rarely encountered anyone in my building, but at night I’d hear doors opening and closing, and people passing a few feet from my bed. The man next door was a DJ, and at odd hours the apartment would be flooded with his music. At two or three in the morning, the heat rose clanking through the pipes, and just before dawn I’d sometimes be woken by the siren of the ladder truck leaving the East 2nd Street fire station, which had lost six crew members on 9/11.
Well there’s one thing to know about this town It’s five hundred miles underground; and that’s alright Well there’s one thing to know about this globe It’s bound and it’s willing to explode and that’s alright Well there’s one thing to know about this town Not a person doesn’t want me underground There’s one thing to know about this town It’s five hundred miles underground; and that’s ok There’s one thing to know about this earth We’re put here just to make more dirt; and that’s ok night on the sun.
“Poetry can unleash a terrible fear. I suppose it is the fear of possibilities, too many possibilities, each with its own endless set of variations. It’s like looking too closely and too long into a mirror; soon your features distort, then erupt. You look too closely into your poems, or listen too closely to them as they arrive in whispers, and the features inside you - call it heart, call it mind, call it soul - accelerate out of control. They distort and they erupt, and it is one strange pain. You realize, then, that you can’t attempt breaking down too many barriers in too short a time, because there are as many horrors waiting to get in at you as there are parts of yourself pushing to break out, and with the same, or more, fevered determination.”—Jim Carroll, Forced Entries: The Downtown Diaries 1971-1973
“I will have an undergraduate class, let’s say a young white male student, politically-correct, who will say: “I am only a bourgeois white male, I can’t speak.” … I say to them: “Why not develop a certain degree of rage against the history that has written such an abject script for you that you are silenced?” Then you begin to investigate what it is that silences you, rather than take this very determinist position-since my skin colour is this, since my sex is this, I cannot speak… From this position, then, I say you will of course not speak in the same way about the Third World material, but if you make it your task not only to learn what is going on there through language, through specific programmes of study, but also at the same time through a historical critique of your position as the investigating person, then you will have earned the right to criticize, and you will be heard. When you take the position of not doing your homework- “I will not criticize because of my accident of birth, the historical accident” - that is a much more pernicious position.”—Gayatri Spivak, The Post-Colonial Critic, 1990
“Christianity has done its utmost to close the circle and declared even doubt to be sin. One is supposed to be cast into belief without reason, by a miracle, and from then on to swim in it as in the brightest and least ambiguous of elements: even a glance towards land, even the thought that one perhaps exists for something else as well as swimming, even the slightest impulse of our amphibious nature—is sin! And notice that all this means that the foundation of belief and all reflection on its origin is likewise excluded as sinful. What is wanted are blindness and intoxication and an eternal song over the waves in which reason has drowned.”—Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreaks
“What can I hold you with?
I offer you lean streets, desperate sunsets, the
moon of the jagged suburbs.
I offer you the bitterness of a man who has looked
long and long at the lonely moon.
I offer you my ancestors, my dead men, the ghosts
that living men have honoured in bronze:
my father’s father killed in the frontier of
Buenos Aires, two bullets through his lungs,
bearded and dead, wrapped by his soldiers in
the hide of a cow; my mother’s grandfather
—just twentyfour— heading a charge of
three hundred men in Peru, now ghosts on
I offer you whatever insight my books may hold,
whatever manliness or humour my life.
I offer you the loyalty of a man who has never
I offer you that kernel of myself that I have saved,
somehow —the central heart that deals not
in words, traffics not with dreams, and is
untouched by time, by joy, by adversities.
I offer you the memory of a yellow rose seen at
sunset, years before you were born.
I offer you explanations of yourself, theories about
yourself, authentic and surprising news of
I can give you my loneliness, my darkness, the
hunger of my heart; I am trying to bribe you
with uncertainty, with danger, with defeat.”—Jorge Luis Borges
“Does it follow that I reject all authority? Far from me such a thought. In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or engineer. For such or such special knowledge I apply to such or such a savant. But I allow neither the bootmaker nor the architect nor the savant to impose his authority upon me. I listen to them freely and with all the respect merited by their intelligence, their character, their knowledge, reserving always my incontestable right of criticism and censure. I do not content myself with consulting authority in any special branch; I consult several; I compare their opinions, and choose that which seems to me the soundest. But I recognize no infallible authority, even in special questions; consequently, whatever respect I may have for the honesty and the sincerity of such or such an individual, I have no absolute faith in any person. Such a faith would be fatal to my reason, to my liberty, and even to the success of my undertakings; it would immediately transform me into a stupid slave, an instrument of the will and interests of others.”—Mikhail Bakunin, God and the State, 1871; published 1882