Thursday, October 16, 2008

At Home in Union Station

Today I woke up to the violent, clutching, screaming pain of Louis getting a wretched calf muscle cramp. It was the kind that hurt so much it feels, in Lindsey’s words, like a piece of metal is trying to push its way out of you. The muscle aches for days like you ran a marathon. We woke up on the floor, because the air mattress I’d clumsily pumped up at 3:00am in his new apartment had deflated.

I’ve spent weeks now running from Riverside to LA, staying on couches and floors and yoga mats and inflatable beds, returning to my room to find more boxes to unpack, more phone calls to make, more little issues to resolve with the cable box, the trash pick up, the rented fridge, the car. I have spent more hours in the past month doing the tasks of moving (for me, for Anth and Linz, for Louis, from Boston, from mom’s, from storage, from multiple apartments) than anything else. More moving than writing, more moving than reading, more moving than watching films, dancing, sitting in caf├ęs journaling about the wonders of Southern CA, reconnecting with friends and family, going on city adventures. It’s all taken much longer than I’d anticipated. Over the past few days I’ve begun to feel trapped in a purgatory—no longer energized by my liminality, I’ve started resenting the unsettled, disorganized, future-thinking (“oh I’ll do That Important Thing once my life has settled down…”) state I live in. A writer needs at least one routine: daily writing practice, or close to it. I can put it off for brief periods to bask in the glow of some other worthwhile activity, but if I go too long away, especially if the other activity feels less and less worthwhile, everything in me gets clogged up and gunky, putrid and ugly, like an old shower drain.

The consequences of not writing enough are quite dire. I feel physically uncomfortable—aching and restless, then lethargic. I become more vulnerable to depressive states and less motivated to make changes in my life. I feel a general discomfort and insecurity about myself, my life situation, my work, my career trajectory, my attractiveness as a friend or partner, my worthiness as a thinker, teacher, artist. I even slip into cahoots with my oldest enemy: secrecy—I may talk to people I don’t know well like I’m writing, even though I’m not. These consequences can be deeply compounded by a lack of exercise, healthy food, sleep, and physical touch. If I’m not writing every day, it’s likely those other disciplines are suffering too.

The most terrifying consequence of all is inertia: once a practice of writing every day has been derailed, it is far more difficult to get it back on track because I become overwhelmed by shame (that I let it happen), exhaustion (just thinking about what it would take to start again), and then paralyzing frustration because my actions don’t match my greater values and intentions. It feels as though there is a never-ending stream of crisis states or pressing tasks (leg cramp! DMV appointment!) that I will have to sit down to write AFTER. I say it "feels" this way because it is truly my fault that I do not write during, before, around and in. I take full responsibility for my abandonment of the work. In this state, I don’t even think like a writer. I have more difficulty noticing the world, interpreting texts, collecting details, staying aware of all the “material.” I feel a strangeness in myself, a loneliness that I’ve attempted to ameliorate in the past in ineffective and sometimes truly destructive ways. I'm waiting in line behind myself, waiting for myself to call me up to the window.

All this weighed heavily on me when I arrived at Union Station at noon, ready to commute back to Riverside once again. I was early for the train, and so walked around the station looking for a good bench to prop myself, my bags, and my laptop on. I’ve reached a point in my career and writing life where I know that the most important step back towards health and productivity is just to open a file and fill some pages. I don’t need my desk at home, my familiar window, my same cup of coffee or pot of tea. I don’t need the same restaurant booth, or the same time of day. I’ve trained myself to feel at home in the laptop itself—I put in earplugs or phones, and the white frame of my MacBook IS my writing room.

So I dutifully turned on the old workhorse (now smudged with the rough grit of my transient life), and then, in a moment of unexpected clarity and creative grace, I noticed where I was.

Los Angeles Union Station is a tiny wonderland. I sat outside near a blue-tile fountain, while children kicked a beach ball under a lush canopy that had been strung with wrought-iron hanging lamps. To my right, a patio of white-clothed tables gleamed in the midday light, and the loveliness of that place, that place built FOR transients, was the greatest comfort I’ve experienced in days. I am bolstered by the commitment LA made, to make its waystation so intentionally aesthetic. I’ve sat in so many stations that demonstrated only the travelers' desire to get out, get on with it, get to the destination, built with forgettable, industrial floors and ceilings, uncomfortable plastic benches, horrible fluorescent lights. In contrast, Union Station offers up the notion of a Journey, an adventure that starts in the twenty minutes even before you board the train, through its Spanish architecture, tiling, landscaping, leather cushioned seats, Art Deco signs and cozy patio.

I’m glad that after years of journaling I have trained myself to start the writing flow with noticing and describing my immediate circumstance. This is a meditative practice. And because of it, my creeping despair at the state of my life was addressed. Apartments get put together. Lovers come back to tenderness, and to passion. Groceries get purchased and dinner gets made. I have committed to putting it all down, to seeing with intellectual, creative, and emotional courage. When I am running fast towards some imagined future, I must still always remember that my work is my home, and that my home comes with me.

This "nesting" in a portable, transient way calls into question both the notions of home and travel. In 2004 I wrote a paper on the Deadheads for a Travel Literature class taught by the great thinker Maria Koundoura. She's written extensively on the destabilization of "home" for multi-national people (such as herself). My paper explored the special circumstance of the Deadhead community, who are both geographically transient and internally culturally consistent. Where traditional understanding of traveling includes interacting with "new" places and people, the Deadheads have perfected a way of traveling that effectively divorces the act of changing location from that interaction. They somehow build the same city in a different parking lot.

The risk of this action, when mapped on to American styles of travel is, obviously, a sort of isolationist elitism, which we can see in self-contained resort hotels that provide just enough familiarity and just enough exoticism to lure moneyed vacationers from the U.S. to places in Asia, the Carribbean, and so on. They get to be "in" Thailand without having to meet any Thai people outside of the service industry, without exiting a carefully constructed living space that is theme-park-ish in its totality of aesthetic (which I otherwise love, when it is THE cultural artifact, not a way to escape culture), without interacting financially or physically with the country directly. It's a complex situation politically, of course, because of the jobs and revenue these hotels tend to provide in struggling economies. It's a very complex conversation for many other reasons too, and I'm not doing it even a modicum of justice except by acknowledging its unprobed and undescribed scope in this sentence. But what I'm addressing here is that the psychological effect for the resort-style traveler is arguably similar to the kind of at-home-on-the-road mindset of a Deadhead, as both are insulating themselves from the New Unknown in favor of repeating the general routine of their daily life in their new location. While it seems oxymoronic to call any traveler an isolationist, the effect of this kind of movement is NOT to encourage interaction, exchange, knowledge.

I'd like to distinguish that process from what I'm trying to do in calling my laptop my writing room, or bemoaning my lack of routine. I've shrunk the conditions of familiarity so effectively that I can carry them on my back, and that frees me up to DO the kind of observation/interaction/receiving a resort guest or Deadhead is protected against. Of course there is a level of effectiveness I can achieve with my work while surrounded by my hundreds of books that I can't continuously achieve away from them. But what had begun to grate on me this week was that I wasn't lovingly cultivating the self-sustaining discipline of my Project, and instead, had begun to allow the vagaries (vagrancy!) of my outside circumstances to decide more of how I spent my time. While this is an appropriate act to engage in consciously if I have one day in Venice, it's not appropriate to do it unconsciously, and certainly not for weeks on end. And it is especially inappropriate when I am in the transitional period of establishing what my life will look like in Southern California for the next months, possibly years. And thus, the gunked-up shower drain. I need to bring my home with me more, in order to do my work, while avoiding the pitfalls of the isolating travelers.

This is one reason why I'd like to do more travel writing. In Alaska, I felt an energized and workable balance of writing vs. adventuring time, and thus between experiential, meditative, receiving of new information and the intellectual, analytical process of thinking that information into meaning. I know it is possible to stay conscious, focused, productive, and still have flexibility in my days such that the adventures can overtake me. I know it is possible to do these things nearly simultaneously, even (thus a voice-recorder during the movie, a pen and paper during the concert). One of the hardest steps toward that balance, for me, is the one where I start saying no to requests my loved ones make of me--the most powerfully convincing variance of daily life is certainly the continual opportunity to do things with and for the people I love.

Ultimately, I've chosen a life that has the problem of too many worthwhile things to do. The possibility of greatness in my work stems from a more fanatical attachment to it, a protectiveness of my writing time that may very well seem overdone to those who are used to me being able to spontaneously participate in...everything else.


  1. That was a bit more articulate than our 2am conversation on the same subject... ;)

  2. That's the benefit of a few days to think about it! Thanks for suggesting that I do so.

  3. but..sometimes to nurture ourselves is to nurture others.

  4. I'm starting to try to put together a phrase or set of words that will describe what I love about you. Right now it's "Disciplined Adventure." It's your dedication to your craft. It's your awareness that, for you, joy comes from a delicate mixture of your commitment to experiential bliss and a meditative practice. I'll find some more things to appreciate and renew my original description, for two words will never really hit them mark.

    (I was listening to Pandora while reading your blog this evening. "Gagging Order" by Radiohead came on just as I began. It was perfect.)

    Why so much travel between Riverside and LA?

  5. I know. I have the same problem! Choosing which great things to say no to when the reason I need to say no is to go study a philosophy more deeply that teaches me to say yes to everything. love, your fellow riverside-la straddler.

  6. Realizing the actual extent of the derailment for me appears in a predictable but often forgotten moment or event: I sit down in a coffee shop full of people, with life and movement to notice, I'm stuck in an airport and the constancy of people beginning and ending to be for each other, I'm caught in Union Station with five hours to a train, channeling Buk and marveling at the now sensational ease of it all. I know exactly the prescription and the failure is simply not putting myself into it (for this prescription must be Entered, not Ingested). How troubling and painful NOT doing this becomes you expressed very well. More tools for identifying and remedying the crisis! Thank you.