Lifescapes and the Lonely City

snow-stairs-2-by-gabriel-caparoI have a friend who occasionally asks me when I’ll move to a real apartment, meaning a modern one that I can’t afford. Mine is in a 130-year-old former bakery I like to think is haunted by donut ghosts. The building was built on top of an aquifer, and the sump pump thrusts out massive amounts of water every several minutes. The outlets are in odd locations, but I love the apartment massively, because it’s old and weird, because it feels like the city of Saint Paul—crumbling and iron-dense and mold-flowered and layered holy upon unholy ghost—and because my life has been lived in it.

I recently finished Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City. The book, which makes the argument that art can defy and redeem loneliness in some way, was not what I’d thought it would be. I thought Laing’s book might be about how loneliness is a beautiful part of living in, and relating to, a city. About how we form ourselves like ghosts in a city of ghosts, watching everything, aware of the layers built upon layers, open to the invisible— all the lives that are not us—and always separate.

I thought it would be about how when it starts to snow, and the sky turns lavender at the horizon, and the Saint Paul’s Smith Avenue Bridge connecting two cliff-sides forms a line of light high above the freezing river, everything turns into a longing, a sadness that pulls the belly taut. About how loneliness is a beautiful way to long for and love something you can never have. [Read more…]

A Poet Walks Into a Business Networking Event

Wine GlassesThe poet gives a young woman $15 for admission, squeezes her drink ticket like a talisman.

Voices roar like surf.

The poet straightens her arms so she can shimmy through the crowd. She must reach the color-coded name tags. There’s a palette of categories: Tech, Finance, Start-up, Health. She must decide between Arts, yellow, or Marketing, red.

If she chooses yellow, she’ll marginalize herself. Yellow’s for novelties, freaks. If she chooses red, she’ll forsake her tribe, the writers who flounce through her photos in flowing skirts. Tonight she wears a tailored dress. A necklace strung with crystal squares. [Read more…]

Gethsemane Companions

12233212894_02c549532e_zBy Dyana Herron

Over the past couple of months, facing two family crises that impact the whole relational web of my tribe down in Tennessee, I’ve learned something about myself: I’m not very good at fessing up to my own needs.

Instead I am attentive—sometimes over-attentive—to the needs of others.

Instead of saying, “I need help,” I ask, “How can I help you?”

Instead of saying, “I need someone to talk to,” I ask, “Is there anything you want to talk about?”

Instead of saying, “I don’t want to be alone,” I say, “I am here for you.”

I say these things to my relatives, my husband, and my closest friends—those who know me best and love me most.

This may sound like a virtue, but it isn’t. It’s cowardice. [Read more…]

Cutting Away the Noise

Fifteen years ago, there was no end to the noise. It took a cutting to get me to silence.

I worked twelve-hour days and longer in an aircraft hangar on a flight line of hundreds of helicopters with the cacophony of auxiliary power units, the collision of metal, and rotor blades beating the air outside, sounds so loud earplugs and noise-canceling helmets were required.

After my shift I would climb into my car and turn on the radio, classic rock or country at a moderately high volume, and drive home to my condo. There I turned on CNN while making something simple for dinner. I watched the thirty-minute circuit and then left it on for company.

Other noise and other stories ensured I didn’t go too far into my own deadening loneliness. I found silence terrifying, though I didn’t see it that way then. I liked motion, and noise, and doing things. I talked a lot. That’s where I saw and added value, where my sense of self worth lay. [Read more…]

Depression, Gift, and Legacy

For Johnny, of course

My mother has been dead a year now, and it has taken me this whole time to begin to find value in her faults as much as her virtues.

For much of my adult life, I’ve been in flight from just such a consideration: There’s a book called The Spiritual Advantages of an Unhappy Childhood, but I didn’t want to read it.

The short version of the story—as anyone who’s read my posts on Good Letters knows—is that my father died and then my mother fell apart, friends left behind and relationships squandered.

Her life shrunk to the dried husk cast off by a locust. She even began to speak in the past tense. My siblings were grown and gone, and I was with her in the house alone. [Read more…]