I am back in my apartment, home, my things a little unfamiliar to me. I don’t know where the colander is, the cutting boards, this book or that one. I go into the kitchen with purpose, look around blankly, waiting.
I am still making coffee in a Bialetti I used only occasionally before, if it happens that the other kind of coffee I preferred even two months ago somehow fails me. A little over a month ago I found this coffee disagreeable and missed the kind I now look at warily. How have I done this, how did it happen?
I have been away. I was in Iowa, teaching, then in Italy, writing, then on vacation in Spain, but that makes it seem orderly, as if I did not write in Iowa, or did not teach somehow in Italy, or left all of it behind by the time I was in Spain. Instead it all spilled around me, it made noise. I grew used to not knowing where things were in a kitchen, until it was time to feel that way in my own, and now I work against it. I go to the corners of our kitchen, I study what’s there so the feeling of unfamiliarity goes away.
The borders, of course, the apartment itself, is deeply familiar, the red bedroom covered in paintings, photos, books, the ancient white wardrobe we consider replacing but haven’t, not yet, the old wood floors, my lucky chandelier in said kitchen, which has followed me through several homes, but has not been hung until this last year. The apartment is much like, I think, this blog, which became a little strange to me also, as I’ve worked to complete my novel and do all of these other things. And yet here I am, back inside its walls much like the apartment, thinking, “Did I leave that there? Where does this go? Is that really where I want that?”
There are times when I pass through the world and one place speaks to me such that I imagine living there, and Dustin and I even had one of those, with a tiny Medieval village on the coast of Spain. I stand in the courtyard, I look up at the stones, I imagine sitting down and staying.
Tonight I go to see my friend Tayari Jones speak with Sara Nelson of O Magazine, and it is a warm, inspiring conversation at the McNally Jackson bookstore in New York. Part of what I love about my friend Tayari is her generous spirit, and today is a day the world gave a lot back to her: a great review in the LA Times, a mention from Jennifer Weiner on the Today Show as a top pick, the Diane Rehm show. I go home afterward, to my bookshelf here ,and I flip a book open. It is Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House. I do this when I want to be ambushed by an insight. Here is the first quote I find, from his chapter The Donald Barthelme Blues:
The price one pays for being loyal to certain kinds of anomalies is typically melancholy or acedia. Barthelme’s fiction asserts that one of the first loyalties serious people give up in the theater of adulthood is a claim upon what they actually want. Of course, other desires are available, and can be acquired, but they are curious grafts, what other people want you to want—not desires so much as temptations, desires-of-convenience. Barthelme’s stories are obviously and constantly about such temptations, which might itself be called the temptation to become unconscious and let others program your yearnings.
The places I’ve been, all my life, seem, in this light, like grafts themselves, as if I’m a tree made entirely of them. I read on.
The Barthelmean character is tempted not by ordinary sins but by the ordinary itself. Does God care about adultery? Sins generally? “You think about this staggering concept, the mind of God, and then you think He’s sitting around worrying about this guy and this woman at the Beechnut Travelodge? I think not.” (Paradise).
It wasn’t activities like adultery that caught Barthelme’s attention, but the inclination to disown one’s wishes and to give in to the omnipresence of the Universal Banal.
Well, yes. And then Baxter quotes a beautiful passage from a catalogue copy Barthelme wrote, for a Sherrie Levine exhibit:
Where does desire go? Always a traveling salesperson, desire goes hounding off into the trees, frequently without direction from its putative master or mistress. This is tragic and comic at the same time. I should, in a well-ordered world, marry the intellectual hero my wicked uncle has selected for me. Instead I run off with William of Ockham or Daffy Duck.
I can think of no better metaphor for the experience of a fiction writer than this one. But also, a beautiful idea, the idea of sin being unfaithful to your wishes, to the person who would do the wanting. In any case, I have been homesick, was homesick for New York, for Dustin, for here. I wanted to be home and I am home.