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The Subterranean River of Emotion: Cheryl Strayed on Writing, the Art of Living with Opposing Truths, and the Three Ancient Motifs in All Great Storytelling

“When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”

“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder,” Cheryl Strayed told an aspiring writer in her no-nonsense advice on faith and humility. But there is an enthralling ease — or willingness, perhaps — with which Strayed herself digs into the impenetrable surfaces of things and mines the raw material with which to warm our souls, be it in her celebrated Dear Sugar advice column or in Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (public library), her magnificent memoir of mourning and self-redemption in the wilderness, which rose to such levels of cultural resonance as to become a major movie starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed.

On the fantastic Longform podcast — a belated but befitting addition to these favorite podcasts for a fuller life — Strayed dives into the depths of her writing process, her credos and how she channeled them as Sugar, and the singular and quite possibly unrepeatable-in-our-time experience that precipitated Wild. Her immensely vitalizing conversation with Longform founder Max Linsky emanates the very personhood from which Strayed’s enchanting prose springs.

A necessary note here: We live in a culture that expects us to cushion a conversation with a phenomenal person with the apologetic caveat that it’s two hours long but it’s brilliant and well worth it — a tragic symptom of our shortcuttism. As I’ve lamented elsewhere — incidentally, in a long conversation — real conversations (much like a good book, which requires the same investment and rewards with the same intimacy of insight) are among the few ways to invite meaningful ideas into our lives, for we don’t arrive at meaning via sound bites and status updates. Lest we forget, William James was right — conversation is how “bound energies are let loose.” True thinking — the kind of deliberate reflection that welcomes wisdom — takes time. Digging past the surface of things — getting to what Strayed herself calls “the subterranean river” of truth and meaning — takes time. Time alone may not be a sufficient condition, for the conquest of meaning also requires thought and wholeheartedness and resolute intentionality, but it’s an absolutely necessary one.

Which is all to say, let’s begin to reclaim our humanity by reclaiming our language, which both reflects and shapes our thought. Let’s revert to the lucid conjunction: When it comes to communing with a shimmering mind, the conversation is long and therefore it’s brilliant and well worth it. And so: This conversation with Strayed is indeed brilliant and deeply rewarding in its totality. Below, I’ve transcribed some of the most shimmering parts.

On the latent recognition of how our seemingly unremarkable experiences add up to our becoming, something Strayed addressed beautifully as Sugar:

Some of the most interesting experiences, maybe all of them … become more interesting in retrospect, in hindsight. You know everything that happened and how it came to be.

On good books being the product of processing life’s raw material at its rawest and how that transmutation of sorrow into story into solace fueled her Dear Sugar column:

All of my life has been a processing… Having to forgive and cry and understand mortality and love … you have to do this, I think, to write a book.

[…]

We can’t essentially escape who it is that we are, and I am — for better or worse — a writer who likes to go into that subterranean, emotional world and to talk about the mysterious and dark and beautiful places inside of us… I always felt that story was the greatest consolation in my own sorrow, so when I started to help people in their sorrows and their confusions, I had to tell stories.

[…]

[In Dear Sugar] I might have told a story about myself, but it was really about the letter-writer — it was really about how can that story illuminate a truth that is universal, not just for me, not just for letter-writer, but for [the readers]. That column was like doing therapy in the town square.

On the misconception that her Dear Sugar column was about giving answers to others, while it was really about showing up for the questions throbbing in her own self and, in doing so, providing the sort of assurance that brings others closer to their own answers:

Ultimately, the truth is that we have to help ourselves — we all benefit from people helping us, but we will never get anywhere if we don’t help ourselves… [There is a] universal truth that we are all are responsible for our lives — that we all suffer and we all need to find light in that darkness, strength in that weakness.

[…]

It’s not as if I’m some sort of font of wisdom and perfection — what I’m speaking to is my own struggle. I’m talking to myself, too — all the time, every day. It’s not as if I have the answer and I’m giving the answers. I’m, instead, really down there in the struggle, speaking to it, trying to speak as openly as possible about what it means to be human.

On how great art transcends its creator and speaks to our own lives in the universal voice:

When we see a painting that we love, we’re not standing there thinking about the artist who made it — we’re thinking about how that painting makes us feel, what that reflects to us about our lives and the world. And so I love when love exceeds … its creator, which is the whole goal of art…; when it becomes not about the person who created it, but about the people who consume it…

This is especially true in memoir, where you’re writing about yourself — it has this horrible, false reputation of being the narcissistic form, which I think is pure bullshit. No good memoir is really about the writer — and yet it’s deeply about the writer.

On the three main narratives undergirding any good memoir — common threads of the universal language that illuminate the commonality between Strayed’s memoir, a form predicated on introspection, and her advice column, predicated on empathic outrospection:

If we go back to the ancients, those three narratives are there — they’re in the first writing that we have: It’s about sorrow, it’s about redemption, it’s about journey — the hero’s journey… When I teach writing, I always tell my students: “You might think you’re writing about your divorce, or your infertility, or whatever it is — remember the ancients, because nobody wants to read your book about your little tale.” Nobody should read my book because I took an interesting hike and I loved my mom a lot and she died. That’s just a very small, insignificant story — insignificant to anyone but me. And so my job, as a writer, was to make it about other people…

That’s the writer’s work — it’s consciousness. It doesn’t happen by accident that you learn how to use your life as material for art — this is what we talk about when we talk about having to really apprentice yourself to the craft of writing.

[…]

When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.

On the great leap into the unknown that writing requires, the intuitive flow of which should still be tempered — as Ray Bradbury famously believed — by the intelligent discernment gained only through deliberate practice of the craft:

I’ve been a serious writer since I was nineteen or twenty, and I would say that the difference between being a writer now in my forties versus being a writer in my twenties is that I have just learned how to trust the mystery of the writing process… The most important thing that I’ve learned to trust is that I don’t know where I’m going to land, and it’s okay — but to follow the path where it leads me… I trust that there’s some intuitive place within me that’s driving me forward.

[…]

So you trust the intuition, but there is this point in the writing process where you damned well better know what you’re doing — you damned well better know the connection… The intuition falls away — you trust the intuition to get to that place you need to go as a writer, but then it’s not just, like, “Oh, I don’t know how it’s connected — I just know it is,” this kind of, “It sounds poetic, so it must mean something.” That never has worked for me — I’ve always had to eventually say, “No, this is the bridge.”

On the necessary capacity for duality, the complex relationship between our minds and our bodies, and the well-meaning but wholly misguided and infuriating cultural narrative that one should only “think positive” in order for positive outcomes to occur:

My mom was forty-five and she had a terminal diagnosis — she died seven weeks to the day after she was diagnosed… She wanted to live — and she didn’t. And she didn’t have any power over that… For a long time, I was very angry … at this very prevalent idea that we could conquer these terminal diseases with positive thinking — because, the fact of the matter is, sometimes people just get sick and die. And sometimes you just have to live with that fact, no matter what you want.

[…]

[And yet] you have to be a positive thinker — you really do have to control your mind in some way and think “I can” instead of “I can’t.” But I think that the danger of saying that is always [the question of] will this be misinterpreted [and] taken to its extreme [of believing that] you can actually reverse course on something like a terminal diagnosis with positive thinking…

If I had to say, in one fell swoop, what is Sugar, what is Sugar trying to espouse, it’s that two things can be true at once — even opposing truths. It could be true that you will suffer forever because you were sexually abused as a child — it can also be true that you can overcome that and not let that experience define your life. And you can hold those two truths in two hands, and walk forward.

I think it’s the same way with the positive thinking — you can’t necessarily think your way out of lung cancer, but you can have a happier life if you think positively in the face of profound sorrow.

On how she applied this dynamic duality to her own life when her memoir became a movie and she was played by the gorgeous Reese Witherspoon, which called for a real discipline in not succumbing to self-comparisons and resisting the tyranny* of perfectionism:

It can be, sometimes, really hard to rise at the most beautiful moments of our lives… I decided that I was going to try to shine, in a sort of Hollywood way — I was going to wear those pretty dresses and get my hair and makeup done and not feel out of place in that world, but I was also going to be who I am and be the size that I am and have the body I have and be the forty-six-year-old that I am, and not allow myself to feel bad about it.

So I did … this mind-control thing, where every single time I thought [something negative about myself], I said, “Don’t think that — you’re not allowed to think that.” And it’s amazing what that can do — when you actually don’t let yourself be mean to yourself… You’re saying, “There you are — I see you, I acknowledge your presence, and you will not rule me.”

And I think that is so essential to any kind of success. We’re all flawed, we’re going to fail, we’re all going to be afraid sometimes, we’re all going to feel terrible about ourselves sometimes, or regret what we did or said… But you have to say, “Well, who is going to be my ruler?” — almost on a moment-by-moment basis.

On growing up poor and being a struggling writer until only recently, then being plunged into a very different world after the staggering success of Wild and learning to reconcile her lifelong values with the realities of her new life as she raises her kids:

[My kids are] going to have to learn what my struggle taught me about the world — they’re going to have to learn that another way. And that’s the thing — I think you can… You can learn as much from your privilege as you can from our oppression, but only if you’re aware of it and only if you have consciousness.

On our mythology of success, which once again bespeaks our difficulty with holding duality:

Every day of my life since the crazy-ass shit happened with Wild, I am fully aware that this is crazy-ass shit. Now, this doesn’t mean that I don’t think I worked my fucking hiney off to have that success — I did. I actually worked my ass off. I also know that it would be true that I worked my ass off if nobody read Wild… The hard work is what’s true — the crazy-ass shit is … just the luck of life, the great fortune of life.

The distinction I’m trying to make here is that there’s a long history of women saying, “Well, I just got lucky.” I didn’t just get lucky — I worked my fucking ass off, and then I got lucky. And if I hadn’t worked my ass off, I wouldn’t have gotten lucky — so you have to do the work, you always have to do the work. And part of the work is about getting comfortable being uncomfortable, learning how to say, “Hello, fear, thank you for being here, because you are my indication that I’m doing what I need to do.”

On learning to dance with the fear and the inevitable self-doubt which, as John Steinbeck’s diary so grippingly attests, bedevils even the greatest of writers:

The way it feels to write a book is that you can’t write a book.

Complement with Strayed’s advice to aspiring writers and her reflections, by way of Adrienne Rich and Marie Curie, on what power really means.

You can — and should — subscribe to the Longform podcast here.

* No era was more tyrannical in its unwillingness to hold paradox than the Victorian, which arguably cemented not only our superficial beauty standards but also our inability to live with duality. A mere century and a half before Strayed, another woman genius was constantly tormented by the pressure to choose between poetry and mathematics. But it was ultimately the fusion of the two that made Ada Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. Even so, she wasn’t spared the era’s tyrannical resistance to duality — Lovelace, unlike Strayed, didn’t engage with the era’s ideals of ladyhood, leading her contemporaries to describe her as “poetical in appearance,” which was euphemism for unkempt and badly dressed, and only one step removed from “writerly in appearance.”

BP

The Art of Motherfuckitude: Cheryl Strayed’s Advice to an Aspiring Writer on Faith and Humility

“Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.”

“Nothing any good isn’t hard,” F. Scott Fitzgerald asserted in his letter of advice on writing to his fifteen-year-old daughter upon her enrollment in high school. That uncomfortable yet strangely emboldening counsel is what Cheryl Strayed offers — with greater poeticism and much better grammar — to a despairing young writer in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), the ample soul-satisfactions of which have been previously extolled here.

Long before Wild — her magnificent memoir of learning, oh, just about every dimension of the art of living while hiking more than a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail — was turned into a major motion picture, Strayed wielded her art as an advice columnist for The Rumpus, simply known as Sugar. Among the thousands of Dear Sugar letters she received was one from a self-described “pathetic and confused young woman of twenty-six” named Elissa Bassist, a “writer who can’t write,” a “high-functioning head case, one who jokes enough that most people don’t know the truth.” “The truth,” she tells Sugar, “[is that] I am sick with panic that I cannot — will not — override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness.”

Like all the letters Strayed answered as Sugar, this one is profoundly personal yet speaks to the artist’s universal dance with the fear — the same paralyzing self-doubt which Virginia Woolf so elegantly captured; which led Steinbeck to repeatedly berate, then galvanize himself in his diary; which sent Van Gogh into a spiral of floundering before he found his way as an artist.

What makes Strayed’s advice so vitalizing is that it is never dispensed as a holier-than-thou dictum; rather, it weaves tapestry of no-bullshit solace from the beautifully tattered threads of her own experience, messy and alive. This is exactly what she hands to Bassist, under the title “Write Like a Motherfucker.”

Invoking the time right before she wrote her first book, when she too was a twenty-something writer plagued by the same fear that she was “lazy and lame,” Strayed recounts how she “finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked”; in other words, she got off the nail. With an eye to Flannery O’Connor’s famous proclamation that “The first product of self-knowledge is humility,” which Strayed had inscribed across the chalkboard in her living room at the time, she writes:

When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote… And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.

Do you know what that is, sweat pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned thirty-five a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my own bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.

Illustration by Kris Di Giacomo from ‘Enormous Smallness’ by Mathhew Burgess a picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings. Click image for more.

Echoing Voltaire’s memorable admonition from his letter of advice on how to write well“beware, lest in attempting the grand, you overshoot the mark and fall into the grandiose” — and Bukowski’s lament that “bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt,” Strayed adds:

I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.

Strayed directs her tough-love incisiveness at Bassist’s paradoxical blend of self-pitying defeatism and grandiose entitlement — something not uncommon in young artists, who forget that “anything worthwhile takes a long time,” and a kernel of truth in the otherwise overly flat and ungenerously applied cultural archetype of the millennial:

Buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core. It presumes you should be successful at twenty-six, when really it takes most writers so much longer to get there… You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done. We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce.

Pointing to Bassist’s litany of women writers who ended their own lives — perhaps Plath, Sexton, Woolf — Strayed calls the young writer out on perpetuating the dangerous mythology of creativity and mental illness. Reminding her — reminding all of us — that the stories we tell ourselves shape our horizons of possibility, Strayed reality-checks this perilous narrowing of attention:

In spite of various mythologies regarding artists and how psychologically fragile we are, the fact is that occupation is not a top predictor for suicide. Yes, we can rattle off a list of women writers who’ve killed themselves and yes, we may conjecture that their status as women in the societies in which they lived contributed to the depressive and desperate state that caused them to do so. But it isn’t the unifying theme.

You know what is?

How many women wrote beautiful novels and stories and poems and essays and plays and scripts and songs in spite of all the crap they endured.

[…]

The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you—,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us — straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

[…]

So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.

In this excerpt from her altogether fantastic 2012 conversation with The New York Public Library’s Paul Holdengräber, with Bassist in the audience, Strayed elaborates on the art of motherfuckitude:

But being a motherfucker, it’s a way of life, really… It’s about having strength rather than fragility, resilience, and faith, and nerve, and really leaning hard into work rather than worry and anxiety.

[…]

I think there are a lot of writers who can’t write, or they think they can’t write… I understand that feeling, I think every writer has wrestled with those anxieties and that self-loathing, and yet ultimately in order to succeed in anything we all have to in essence embrace humility, rather.

[…]

A lot of people think that to be a motherfucker is to be a person who is the dominant figure. But I actually think that true motherfuckerhood … really has to do with being humble. And it’s only when you can get out of your own ego that you can actually do what is necessary to do — in a relationship, in your professional life, as a parent, in any of those ways. It has to do with humility — doing the work.

Tiny Beautiful Things, it bears repeating, is nothing short of necessary to the liver of modern life. Complement this particular fragment with Dani Shapiro on the plight of the artist and this evolving archive of celebrated writers’ advice on the craft, including Elmore Leonard’s ten tips on writing, Neil Gaiman’s eight pointers, Nietzsche’s ten rules, Walter Benjamin’s thirteen doctrines, Henry Miller’s eleven commandments, and Kurt Vonnegut’s eight tips for writing with style, Zadie Smith on the two psychologies for writing, and Vladimir Nabokov on the three qualities of a great storyteller.

BP

Ongoingness: Sarah Manguso on Time, Memory, Beginnings and Endings, and the True Measure of Aliveness

“Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.”

Some of humanity’s most celebrated writers and artists have reaped, and extolled, the creative benefits of keeping a diary. For John Steinbeck, journaling was a tool of discipline and a hedge against self-doubt; for Virginia Woolf, a way to “loosen the ligaments” of creativity; for André Gide, a conduit to “spiritual evolution”; for Anaïs Nin, who remains history’s most dedicated diarist, the best way to “capture the living moments.”

Joining the canon of insightful meta-diarists is Sarah Manguso with Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (public library) — a collection of fragmentary, piercing meditations on time, memory, the nature of the self, and the sometimes glorious, sometimes harrowing endeavor of filling each moment with maximum aliveness while simultaneously celebrating its presence and grieving its passage.

Looking back on the 800,000 words she produced over a quarter-century of journaling, Manguso offers an unusual meta-reflection exuding the concise sagacity of Zen teachings and the penetrating insight of Marshall McLuhan’s “probes.” She becomes, in fact, a kind of McLuhan of the self, probing not the collective conscience but the individual psyche, yet extracting widely resonant human truth and transmuting it into enormously expansive wisdom.

Sarah Manguso

Manguso traces the roots of her diaristic journey, which began as an almost compulsive hedge against forgetting, against becoming an absentee in her own life, against the anguishing anxiety that time was slipping from her grip:

I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

[…]

The trouble was that I failed to record so much.

I’d write about a few moments, but the surrounding time — there was so much of it! So much apparent nothing I ignored, that I treated as empty time between the memorable moments.

[…]

I tried to record each moment, but time isn’t made of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.

So I tried to pay close attention to what seemed like empty time.

[…]

I wanted to comprehend my own position in time so I could use my evolving self as completely and as usefully as possible. I didn’t want to go lurching around, half-awake, unaware of the work I owed the world, work I didn’t want to live without doing.

Discus chronologicus, a German depiction of time from the early 1720s, from Cartographies of Time

And yet this process of chronicling her orientation to the moment soon revealed that the recording itself was an editorial act — choosing which moments to record and which to omit is, as Susan Sontag observed of the fiction writer’s task to choose which story to tell from among all the ones that could be told, about becoming a storyteller of one’s own life; synthesizing the robust fact of time into a fragmentary selection of moments invariably produces a work of fiction. As Manguso puts it, the diary becomes “a series of choices about what to omit, what to forget.”

But alongside this pursuit of the fullness of the moment Manguso found a dark underbelly — a kind of leaning forward into the next moment before this one has come to completion. This particularly Western affliction has immensely varied symptoms, but Manguso found that it her own life its most perilous manifestation was the tendency to hop from one romantic relationship to another, oscillating between beginnings and endings, unable to inhabit the stillness of the middles. She writes:

I’d become intolerant of waiting. My forward momentum barely stopped for the length of the touch.

I thought my momentum led to the next person, but in fact it only led away from the last person.

My behavior was an attempt to stop time before it swept me up. It was an attempt to stay safe, free to detach before life and time became too intertwined for me to write down, as a detached observer, what had happened.

Once I understood what I was doing, with each commitment I wakened slightly more from my dream of pure potential.

It was a failure of my imagination that made me keep leaving people. All I could see in the world were beginnings and endings: moments to survive, record, and, once recorded, safely forget.

I knew I was getting somewhere when I began losing interest in the beginnings and the ends of things.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from I’ll Be You and You Be Me by Ruth Krauss.

As her relationship to these markers of time changed, she became interested not in the “short tragic love stories” that had once bewitched her but in “the kind of love to which the person dedicates herself for so long, she no longer remembers quite how it began.” Eventually, she got married. Echoing Wendell Berry’s memorable meditation on marriage and freedom, she writes:

Marriage isn’t a fixed experience. It’s a continuous one. It changes form but is still always there, a rivulet under a frozen stream. Now, when I feel a break in the continuity of till death do us part, I think to myself, Get back in the river.

In a significant way, the stability of time inherent to such continuity was an experience foreign to Manguso and counter to the flow of impermanence that her diary recorded. This was a whole new way of measuring life not by its constant changes but by its unchanging constants:

In my diary I recorded what had changed since the previous day, but sometimes I wondered: What if I recorded only what hadn’t changed? Weather still fair. Cat still sweet. Cook oats in same pot. Continue reading same book. Make bed in same way, put on same blue jeans, water garden in same order … Would that be a better, truer record?

The record-keeping of truth, of course, is the domain of memory — and yet our memory is not an accurate recording device but, as legendary neurologist Oliver Sacks has pointed out over and over, a perpetually self-revising dossier. Manguso considers what full attentiveness to the present might look like when unimpeded by the tyranny of memory:

The least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it. With each recollection, the memory of it further degrades. The memory and maybe the fact of every kiss start disappearing the moment the two mouths part.

Looking back on her own childhood, Manguso echoes Susan Sontag’s memorable protestation against the mnemonic violence of photography and writes:

When I was twelve I realized that photographs were ruining my memory. I’d study the photos from an event and gradually forget everything that had happened between the shutter openings. I couldn’t tolerate so much lost memory, and I didn’t want to spectate my life through a viewfinder, so I stopped taking photographs. All the snapshots of my life for the next twenty years were shot by someone else. There aren’t many, but there are enough.

For Manguso, memory and its resulting record became stubborn self-defense not only against forgetting but also against being forgotten — a special case of our general lifelong confrontation with mortality:

My life, which exists mostly in the memories of the people I’ve known, is deteriorating at the rate of physiological decay. A color, a sensation, the way someone said a single word — soon it will all be gone. In a hundred and fifty years no one alive will ever have known me.

Being forgotten like that, entering that great and ongoing blank, seems more like death than death.

[…]

I assumed that maximizing the breadth and depth of my autobiographical memory would be good for me, force me to write and live with greater care, but in the last thing one writer ever published, when he was almost ninety years old, he wrote a terrible warning.

He said he’d liked remembering almost as much as he’d liked living but that in his old age, if he indulged in certain nostalgias, he would get lost in his memories. He’d have to wander them all night until morning.

He responded to my fan letter when he was ninety. When he was ninety-one, he died.

I just wanted to retain the whole memory of my life, to control the itinerary of my visitations, and to forget what I wanted to forget.

Good luck with that, whispered the dead.

Upon arriving at a view of death reminiscent of Alan Watts’s, Manguso revisits the limiting fragmentation of life’s ongoingness into beginnings and endings:

The experiences that demanded I yield control to a force greater than my will — diagnoses, deaths, unbreakable vows — weren’t the beginnings or the ends of anything. They were the moments when I was forced to admit that beginnings and ends are illusory. That history doesn’t begin or end, but it continues.

For just a moment, with great effort, I could imagine my will as a force that would not disappear but redistribute when I died, and that all life contained the same force, and that I needn’t worry about my impending death because the great responsibility of my life was to contain the force for a while and then relinquish it.

Illustration by Komako Sakai for The Velveteen Rabbit.

Then something happened — something utterly ordinary in the grand human scheme that had an extraordinary impact on Manguso’s private dance with memory and mortality: she became a mother. She writes:

I began to inhabit time differently.

[…]

I used to exist against the continuity of time. Then I became the baby’s continuity, a background of ongoing time for him to live against. I was the warmth and milk that was always there for him, the agent of comfort that was always there for him.

My body, my life, became the landscape of my son’s life. I am no longer merely a thing living in the world; I am a world.

[…]

Time kept reminding me that I merely inhabit it, but it began reminding me more gently.

As she awoke to this immutable continuity of life, Manguso became more acutely aware of those bewitched by beginnings. There is, of course, a certain beauty — necessity, even — to that beginner’s refusal to determine what is impossible before it is even possible. She writes:

My students still don’t know what they will never be. Their hope is so bright I can almost see it.

I used to value the truth of whether this student or that one would achieve the desired thing. I don’t value that truth anymore as much as I value their untested hope. I don’t care that one in two hundred of them will ever become what they feel they must become. I care only that I am able to witness their faith in what’s coming next.

But even that enlivening “untested hope” is a dialogic function of time and impermanence. Manguso captures the central challenge of memory, of attentiveness to life, of the diary itself:

The essential problem of ongoingness is that one must contemplate time as that very time, that very subject of one’s contemplation, disappears.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Mary Oliver’s assertion that “attention without feeling … is merely a report,” Manguso considers “the tendency to summarize rather than to observe and describe” and adds:

Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries. The originals become almost irretrievable.

Occasionally, a memory retains its stark original reality. Manguso recalls one particular incident from her son’s early childhood:

One day the baby gently sat his little blue dog in his booster seat and offered it a piece of pancake.

The memory should already be fading, but when I bring it up I almost choke on it — an incapacitating sweetness.

The memory throbs. Left alone in time, it is growing stronger.

The baby had never seen anyone feed a toy a pancake. He invented it. Think of the love necessary to invent that… An unbearable sweetness.

The feeling strengthens the more I remember it. It isn’t wearing smooth. It’s getting bigger, an outgrowth of new love.

Illustration by Komako Sakai for The Velveteen Rabbit

Perhaps there is an element of “untested hope” in journaling itself — we are drawn to the practice because we hope that the diary would safe-keep precisely such throbbing, self-strengthening memories; that, in recording the unfolding ways in which we invent ourselves into personhood, it would become a constant reassurance of our own realness, a grownup version of The Velveteen Rabbit, reminding us that “real isn’t how you are made [but] a thing that happens to you.” Bearing witness to the happening itself, without trying to fragment it into beginnings and endings, is both the task of living and the anguish of the liver.

Manguso captures this elegantly:

Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments — an inability to accept life as ongoing.

Echoing philosopher Joanna Macy’s recipe for dialing up the magic of the moment by befriending our mortality, Manguso adds:

The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing time will go on without me.

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.

She revisits her original tussle with time, memory, beginnings, and endings:

How ridiculous to believe myself powerful enough to stop time just by thinking.

[…]

Often I believe I’m working toward a result, but always, once I reach the result, I realize all the pleasure was in planning and executing the path to that result.

It comforts me that endings are thus formally unappealing to me — that more than beginning or ending, I enjoy continuing.

Seen in this way, the diary becomes not a bastion of memory but a white flag to forgetting, extended not in resignation but in celebration. Manguso writes:

I came to understand that the forgotten moments are the price of continued participation in life, a force indifferent to time.

[..]

Now I consider the diary a compilation of moments I’ll forget, their record finished in language as well as I could finish it — which is to say imperfectly.

Someday I might read about some of the moments I’ve forgotten, moments I’ve allowed myself to forget, that my brain was designed to forget, that I’ll be glad to have forgotten and be glad to rediscover as writing. The experience is no longer experience. It is writing. I am still writing.

And I’m forgetting everything. My goal now is to forget it all so that I’m clean for death. Just the vaguest memory of love, of participation in the great unity.

[…]

Time punishes us by taking everything, but it also saves us — by taking everything.

Complement Ongoingness, a spectacularly and unsummarizably rewarding read in its entirety, with Rebecca Goldstein on the mystery of personal identity and Meghan Daum on how we become who we are.

Thanks, Dani

BP

How to Love: Legendary Zen Buddhist Teacher Thich Nhat Hanh on Mastering the Art of “Interbeing”

“To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love.”

What does love mean, exactly? We have applied to it our finest definitions; we have examined its psychology and outlined it in philosophical frameworks; we have even devised a mathematical formula for attaining it. And yet anyone who has ever taken this wholehearted leap of faith knows that love remains a mystery — perhaps the mystery of the human experience.

Learning to meet this mystery with the full realness of our being — to show up for it with absolute clarity of intention — is the dance of life.

That’s what legendary Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh (b. October 11, 1926) explores in How to Love (public library) — a slim, simply worded collection of his immeasurably wise insights on the most complex and most rewarding human potentiality.

Indeed, in accordance with the general praxis of Buddhist teachings, Nhat Hanh delivers distilled infusions of clarity, using elementary language and metaphor to address the most elemental concerns of the soul. To receive his teachings one must make an active commitment not to succumb to the Western pathology of cynicism, our flawed self-protection mechanism that readily dismisses anything sincere and true as simplistic or naïve — even if, or precisely because, we know that all real truth and sincerity are simple by virtue of being true and sincere.

Thich Nhat Hanh

At the heart of Nhat Hanh’s teachings is the idea that “understanding is love’s other name” — that to love another means to fully understand his or her suffering. (“Suffering” sounds rather dramatic, but in Buddhism it refers to any source of profound dissatisfaction — be it physical or psychoemotional or spiritual.) Understanding, after all, is what everybody needs — but even if we grasp this on a theoretical level, we habitually get too caught in the smallness of our fixations to be able to offer such expansive understanding. He illustrates this mismatch of scales with an apt metaphor:

If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour the salt into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink. The river is immense, and it has the capacity to receive, embrace, and transform. When our hearts are small, our understanding and compassion are limited, and we suffer. We can’t accept or tolerate others and their shortcomings, and we demand that they change. But when our hearts expand, these same things don’t make us suffer anymore. We have a lot of understanding and compassion and can embrace others. We accept others as they are, and then they have a chance to transform.

Illustration from Hug Me by Simona Ciraolo

The question then becomes how to grow our own hearts, which begins with a commitment to understand and bear witness to our own suffering:

When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. That’s why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness.

Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is love’s other name. If you don’t understand, you can’t love.

And yet because love is a learned “dynamic interaction,” we form our patterns of understanding — and misunderstanding — early in life, by osmosis and imitation rather than conscious creation. Echoing what Western developmental psychology knows about the role of “positivity resonance” in learning love, Nhat Hanh writes:

If our parents didn’t love and understand each other, how are we to know what love looks like? … The most precious inheritance that parents can give their children is their own happiness. Our parents may be able to leave us money, houses, and land, but they may not be happy people. If we have happy parents, we have received the richest inheritance of all.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

Nhat Hanh points out the crucial difference between infatuation, which replaces any real understanding of the other with a fantasy of who he or she can be for us, and true love:

Often, we get crushes on others not because we truly love and understand them, but to distract ourselves from our suffering. When we learn to love and understand ourselves and have true compassion for ourselves, then we can truly love and understand another person.

Out of this incomplete understanding of ourselves spring our illusory infatuations, which Nhat Hanh captures with equal parts wisdom and wit:

Sometimes we feel empty; we feel a vacuum, a great lack of something. We don’t know the cause; it’s very vague, but that feeling of being empty inside is very strong. We expect and hope for something much better so we’ll feel less alone, less empty. The desire to understand ourselves and to understand life is a deep thirst. There’s also the deep thirst to be loved and to love. We are ready to love and be loved. It’s very natural. But because we feel empty, we try to find an object of our love. Sometimes we haven’t had the time to understand ourselves, yet we’ve already found the object of our love. When we realize that all our hopes and expectations of course can’t be fulfilled by that person, we continue to feel empty. You want to find something, but you don’t know what to search for. In everyone there’s a continuous desire and expectation; deep inside, you still expect something better to happen. That is why you check your email many times a day!

Illustration from The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, Shel Silverstein’s minimalist allegory of true love

Real, truthful love, he argues, is rooted in four elements — loving kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity — fostering which lends love “the element of holiness.” The first of them addresses this dialogic relationship between our own suffering and our capacity to fully understand our loved ones:

The essence of loving kindness is being able to offer happiness. You can be the sunshine for another person. You can’t offer happiness until you have it for yourself. So build a home inside by accepting yourself and learning to love and heal yourself. Learn how to practice mindfulness in such a way that you can create moments of happiness and joy for your own nourishment. Then you have something to offer the other person.

[…]

If you have enough understanding and love, then every moment — whether it’s spent making breakfast, driving the car, watering the garden, or doing anything else in your day — can be a moment of joy.

This interrelatedness of self and other is manifested in the fourth element as well, equanimity, the Sanskrit word for which — upeksha — is also translated as “inclusiveness” and “nondiscrimination”:

In a deep relationship, there’s no longer a boundary between you and the other person. You are her and she is you. Your suffering is her suffering. Your understanding of your own suffering helps your loved one to suffer less. Suffering and happiness are no longer individual matters. What happens to your loved one happens to you. What happens to you happens to your loved one.

[…]

In true love, there’s no more separation or discrimination. His happiness is your happiness. Your suffering is his suffering. You can no longer say, “That’s your problem.”

Supplementing the four core elements are also the subsidiary elements of trust and respect, the currency of love’s deep mutuality:

When you love someone, you have to have trust and confidence. Love without trust is not yet love. Of course, first you have to have trust, respect, and confidence in yourself. Trust that you have a good and compassionate nature. You are part of the universe; you are made of stars. When you look at your loved one, you see that he is also made of stars and carries eternity inside. Looking in this way, we naturally feel reverence. True love cannot be without trust and respect for oneself and for the other person.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

The essential mechanism for establishing such trust and respect is listening — something so frequently extolled by Western psychologists, therapists, and sage grandparents that we’ve developed a special immunity to hearing it. And yet when Nhat Hanh reframes this obvious insight with the gentle elegance of his poetics, it somehow bypasses the rational cynicism of the jaded modern mind and registers directly in the soul:

To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love. To know how to love someone, we have to understand them. To understand, we need to listen.

[…]

When you love someone, you should have the capacity to bring relief and help him to suffer less. This is an art. If you don’t understand the roots of his suffering, you can’t help, just as a doctor can’t help heal your illness if she doesn’t know the cause. You need to understand the cause of your loved one’s suffering in order to help bring relief.

[…]

The more you understand, the more you love; the more you love, the more you understand. They are two sides of one reality. The mind of love and the mind of understanding are the same.

Echoing legendary Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki’s memorable aphorism that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow,” Nhat Hanh considers how the notion of the separate, egoic “I” interrupts the dialogic flow of understanding — the “interbeing,” to use his wonderfully poetic and wonderfully precise term, that is love:

Often, when we say, “I love you” we focus mostly on the idea of the “I” who is doing the loving and less on the quality of the love that’s being offered. This is because we are caught by the idea of self. We think we have a self. But there is no such thing as an individual separate self. A flower is made only of non-flower elements, such as chlorophyll, sunlight, and water. If we were to remove all the non-flower elements from the flower, there would be no flower left. A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower can only inter-be with all of us… Humans are like this too. We can’t exist by ourselves alone. We can only inter-be. I am made only of non-me elements, such as the Earth, the sun, parents, and ancestors. In a relationship, if you can see the nature of interbeing between you and the other person, you can see that his suffering is your own suffering, and your happiness is his own happiness. With this way of seeing, you speak and act differently. This in itself can relieve so much suffering.

The remainder of How to Love explores the simple, profoundly transformative daily practices of love and understanding, which apply not only to romantic relationships but to all forms of “interbeing.” Complement it with John Steinbeck’s exquisite letter of advice on love to his teenage son and Susan Sontag’s lifetime of reflections on the subject, then revisit the great D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character.

BP

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