Sometimes when I sit outside on my day off and wait for the sun, instead of the sun there are clouds, and pre-rain humidity, and mosquitoes. This summer, I have heard, the West Nile virus is coming to town, but sometimes I still can’t get myself to go inside. I bring out sunglasses, water, a beer, a hat, a light quilt, a pillow, and sun screen in case the sun comes out. Then I stay outside until I’m hungry and thirsty and have drunk all the water and have to pee. It can be totally clear the sun is definitely not coming out, but I’ll stay outside until it gets dark and the trees begin to look stern and worried, and it feels like things are looking at me sideways, suggesting a future rain and some imminent danger. I am thinking about things, over and over, but I can’t really explain what I am thinking about, and I’m not doing anything useful. It’s a little bit exciting, the abandon of sitting there anyway and all the nervousness and desire that entails, but I still don’t know why I am outside, and why I can’t move inside. What am I waiting for? And why do I want it so badly? Will I ever be able to go inside or will my desire determine everything?
Waiting on Long Island
Dear Waiting on Long Island,
I do not know what you’re waiting for, or why you want it so badly. But what is inside that is so important? Your question leaves us wanting to know. Maybe it is laundry, or writing, a family obligation, an exercise video, or catching up on email or tweets. Whatever it is, if it is really true that you are spending too much time outside doing nothing, alone, and you feel badly because of it in a way that makes the problem worse, and makes you a bad friend or boyfriend or writer or mother or activist or whatever love calls you to be in the world, then you will have to be more disciplined.
Some things you could do to become more disciplined are the following: 1) Make a list of things you want to do on your day off, on a post-it note or a piece of some kind of paper you like, and then scratch out all but three things on the list, prioritize them, and put the list in a corner of your apartment or house. Every time you do something on the list, scratch it out, and then eat a piece of chocolate or something. When you’re done with the list, then go sit outside. 2) Instead of sitting around wishing you were the kind of person who would be capable of that, split yourself in two. Imagine that the other part of you, the part that is supposed to get the work done, is a small belligerent puppy who needs training. Not abusive training—we should probably treat nonhuman animals as if they are as important as we are, as beings—but the kind of training you have to give to a being who is not you but with whom you are interdependent (like when you are married or have a child or a puppy) in order to get along. Don’t be mean. Just ask it to go inside. Then do the same for every task you think the puppy should do. Do this without feeling every single little fucking feeling that the puppy feels. Remember, that little puppy seems adorable and endlessly deserving of indulgence, but cuteness is a fiction manufactured by biology (big eyes, huge head, stumbling around, taking lots of naps and then looking all helpless and sleepy) in deadly collusion with consumer capitalism (spend all your money on dumb adorable things that do you no good and then, in despair at your brokeness, do it again) to try to get to you to waste all your energy caring about things that suck all the life out of you. 3) Consider the possibility that you’re drinking too much, or not really in your right mind, and join a recovery organization or yoga cult that will impose its idea of order onto your discombobulated, disarrayed, disaster of a self, and get stuck there, instead.
If what is most important is really that you become more productive, that you do more things on your day off. If this is what you mean by “going inside,” as opposed to letting your “desire determine everything.”
The way you describe your paralysis reminds me of the guy in the beginning of Infinite Jest who is waiting for a pot delivery. The guy wants to go on a three– or four–day weed-smoking binge, which he is pretending will be his last one. He has cleaned his apartment, bought a new pipe, rented “film cartridges,” manufactured a vague emergency on his OGM, and now he is just worrying, like about whether the dealer will buzz or call, and waiting. The waiting becomes excruciating. After ten pages, his phone rings and his doorbell buzzes at the same time, and he can’t decide which way to move, so he ends up splayed in the middle of his apartment, arms and legs stretched out toward the door buzzer, on one side, and the telephone, on the other. And DFW leaves the guy there, crucified in the shape of an X, a chiasmus, a portrait of a profound stuckness. We don’t know whether the guy gets the weed or not. In your case, nothing tangible is coming, not even the sun, but you are stuck anyway. You cannot go inside but neither do you feel good about being outside. Wallace is trying to show us something about addiction; interestingly, you call yours a portrait of “desire.”
I have a garden, or what we call, in New York, a garden—a cement plot edged with potted plants—and I think I should go outside to sit at the green plastic table and write and work, in good health, having made myself a glass of iced tea or something. But sometimes, I just can’t do it. I’ll make the list, but then sit on my brown couch and stare for hours, turning something inarticulate over and over in my head, waiting for something that never happens, dehydrating myself, eating nothing good, caught between dread and guilt about not doing the things on the list and the pleasure of not doing the things on the list, while the air gets too heavy to move through, the stillness extrahuman and a little terrifying, if I let it be, like lucid dreaming about paralysis. Recently nearly a whole week passed while I was on the couch, while the sun shone outside and the flowers bloomed absurdly. Neither of us is talking about what, or whom, we are thinking about. The way in which this paralysis keeps me from eating and writing and otherwise “taking care of myself” has me worried, sometimes, that it is a kind of addiction. When I sit on the brown couch, I am thinking, like the guy in Infinite Jest, “I’ll do this one last time, one last time, and then stop, and get to my list, my real life, my real work.” This is what most people say, when they are stuck: “Why can’t I do what I need, why don’t I take care of myself, why won’t I give myself what I really want,” etc. “Why can’t I love the girl who really loves me, who feels like home, instead of being obsessed with the one who tortures me,” or “Why do I keep getting wasted/reading random parenting message boards/looking at porn, etc., instead of writing/practicing/spending time with my real life friends/sewing dolls for poor children,” etc. etc. But the fact that you name the thing that keeps you stuck outside your home “desire” makes me see it differently. And makes me think you are doing something different.
The problem with the advice I gave you above is that there is something intriguing happening outside, for you, and it might never lose its allure. Or rather (I hope this isn’t presumptuous of me) I suspect there is something that interests you in getting stuck outside when you feel you should be inside, something good in feeling constrained there until you are hungry, in danger of wetting yourself, fearful of trees grown ominous as night approaches, and longing for rain, as if the water you’re holding inside you until it hurts could pour down from the sky itself and make this afternoon turned evening mean something cataclysmic. I do not think you need a cataclysm, though, for it to mean something.
The opposition you set up between “going inside” and “letting your desire determine everything” recalls the story in the book of Luke about Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha, the famous sisters. Martha has invited him over, and when he arrives, she stays in the kitchen, making preparations for the meal, doing exactly what she should be doing given that there is such an important guest in the house. She is the sort of person who makes a list and does the things on the list. But Mary sits with Jesus, just hanging out, listening. Martha gets frustrated, comes out from the kitchen to ask Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” Jesus says her name twice. “Martha, Martha,” he says, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” He does not say what is needed, only that Mary has chosen it. The obvious reading would be that “what is needed” has something to do with spending time with the Messiah when he’s in your house. But maybe Jesus is not such a narcissist, and maybe there is a reason he leaves it intriguingly vague, so that the only thing we really know is that sometimes, at least, “what is needed” is different from what Martha is doing, that is, the things on the list. It is something more like “hanging out.”
You think you should be Martha, even on your day off, but you are Mary, hanging out outside your house, and, importantly, outside time. There is no messiah coming, not even the sun is coming. But perhaps you are doing what is needed, anyway. Maybe it is just to sit there, on Long Island, in between what you should be doing and what is next, gathering props but not really the right props (may I suggest bug spray?), denying your physical needs, as if pinioned by some force that you know, secretly, is imaginary. What an imagination you have, then. Need it be so frightening, inside of it?
The chiasmus, the X, can be the shape of being stuck or pinioned, the double bind, but it is also the shape of inversion, which is why Milton has Satan speak in X’s. Again: the mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.
The more I think about it, the more I think you shouldn’t join a cult or split yourself in two and pretend one part of you is a belligerent puppy. I don’t think this would work for you, and besides, you are already in two. Part of you has found a way to sustain the moment of desire, on your own, the way you like it, so that you can be still, inside of it, and listen. It’s like you’ve created the good part of addiction—the way time can be beautifully suspended by your dependence on something or someone, until the moment when you get the thing or the person or whatever and your desire once again builds, unsatisfied, ever, by the having—without the anxiety and the chemicals and the dissatisfaction, because you fill that time and space with imagination. This is evidently what is needed, on your day off.
But you are Martha, too. And Jesus was a bit of a narcissistic asshole, wasn’t he, for not acknowledging that without the woman working inside, in the kitchen, no one would eat. Would you have the time and the yard to rest outside in imagination and longing if you didn’t do what you do inside, to feed yourself? Could you do what you do later, inside, without this way you have of resting, outside? Is what you are waiting for some way of moving inside and outside more easily, when you need to, as if you have intended both, which you have? Or are you cultivating your desire until it is big enough to explode your house? I wish I could sit there stuck with you on your Long Island lawn, and hear what small revolution you are plotting, or imagine one with you, together.
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