September 15, 2013

Inner adjustments

When I don’t write here for a long time, the entries begin to take on increasingly daunting proportions. I spend weeks mulling over a particular angle, or trying to find the right turn of phrase, when probably, all along, what I really need to do is to just sit down and try to write. There is never a correct angle, or a precise turn of phrase, that comes from time spent dwelling on the immensity of the task—tell that to my self of three weeks ago.  

I have tried, even, in the past few weeks, to read about writing as a way to break through all this. I didn’t find this entirely helpful (although, here I am), but I did come across some really good writing—Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook,” for example, and the essay that follows “On Self-Respect” in the collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem. It is hard to describe what it feels like to read something in the precise moment that you need to read it, when some sort of inner adjustment is taking place—an adjustment that, barely perceptible, will be carrying you through to the next stage—but these essays had that mysterious and profound effect on me.

I identified with the early “presentiment of loss” that Didion describes as afflicting “keepers of private notebooks”; with the desire to—in contrast to recording factual events—“remember what it was to be me” at a particular time and place, during a particular stage. Didion writes about how this has the effect of creating “lies”—the writing often having little resemblance to the actual events that are described, dealing instead with how something “felt” to the author.  

I wish I had written down, as a sort of “fact,” what I was feeling on July 12, 2006, when rockets were being exchanged across the Israel-Lebanon border, and I was hearing news of it only very peripherally. I do remember standing on the deck of my small house in upstate New York, wondering what it meant for our family vacation to Lebanon, scheduled to begin in just a couple short weeks. I remember the light being very bright and dappled on that particular day. I was pacing, I think, as I talked on the phone; I may have leaned against the banister occasionally, looking down to the grass below. 

We had planned the trip to Lebanon for the month of August, for one simple reason: August is when the figs would be at their prime. We considered July, tossing around the various possibilities, but we always returned to August because of the figs. This was how we narrowly missed dramatic U.S.-military-led evacuations (to say the least) during a five-week war that killed thousands and paralyzed the country’s air and ground transportation. My father told me, when I visited Lebanon in 2009, that all of the bridges in the country had been bombed during this war. I don’t know how accurate this is, but the metaphoric weight of the idea—of all of the bridges in ruins—stuck with me.

Hence, any writing or thinking about figs, any fig consumption thereafter, conjures recollection of this moment—what turned out to be a harried several weeks wrought with fear and concern, but not physical danger—the “what it was to be me” in the form of smell, touch, and taste, but not words. How to get from there—from the fruit itself, to the baked good, to the memory of what it was to stand on the deck that day, in the harsh dappled light—to the here and now of writing about this fig galette is not, I would say, a straightforward endeavor.

But writing never is.