Last night, in my van, after work, the rain wouldn’t stop falling. Flooding! Endless! Dark and dampening rain! And the rear doors on my van don’t seal properly, it was in an accident, the water drips down on my collection of books- What We Leave Behind, Mrs. Dalloway, Shadows on the Koyukuk. I sat watching the rain, not rain like I’ve known it here, in the last three weeks- not thunderstorms, the sun fighting with the wind, clouds like wadded clothing thrown across the sky. This is the proverbial rock’s underside- a wetness that saturates every happy soul- thorough- like how they do it in Portland. Portland! I am nearly two weeks past the three-month mark away and my homesickness has reached its fever pitch. How I miss my friends! How I miss them! Kindred spirits! I’ve stopped caring about minutes on my overpriced prepaid cellphone (orphans don’t have family plans) and I call them up whenever I fell like it, except always it’s too late, there, or someone is working, or the connection is bad, and I end up feeling like the last living person on Earth. Last night I got through to Toby on the second ring, dear close Toby, and as always she was having the very same thoughts and feelings that I seem to have, only she tempers hers with coffee and notcaring and I try to temper mine with nature.
“We’re going to die!” She said. “I don’t give a fuck!” And then I laughed nearly hysterically because it’s true, true, true, and I had just been thinking (writing in an email) that very same thing in the morning, that I am, in theory, unafraid to be myself and not tempted in the least by conformity and moderation and self hatred because I am, truth be told, along with every other thing, going to die, and for this very reason I should listen to my soul and my heart and my intuition and no-one else, not ever, ever, ever. I have to keep reminding myself that, these days, here in the land of self-doubting, where everything seems for naught, and I don’t remember who I am, or why I care, or where I came from, and I don’t have any friends.
I am going to die. I am going to die. I am going to die.
What is there to be afraid of! What is there to lose! Nothing! Nothing nothing! Tell me what you are afraid of. Tell me one single thing. And then imagine you are dead. You are dead right now! You are dead forever! You never get to be alive again! That’s it! It’s over! You never get to put together another outfit, or eat another pinto bean. You never get to have one single more crush on a living human being. You never get to tell someone to fuckoff! Never again! What a shame!
And then guess what? You are alive. You are not dead yet. You have been beamed down from space, mysteriously, after you were sure that you were dead. You are like a spy! No-one knows that you have died and now you are alive again. You can do anything you want! You have this strong and functioning body, fifteen fat leather suitcases stuffed with privilege, like a season’s pass to all the world’s theme parks. You can, in essence, do whateverthefuck you want. No more lingering in the clouds, watching, being nostalgic, having regrets for all the times you were dishonest or indirect or cowardly. A L I V E ! What are you going to do with your million living dollars? Your twelve thousand days? Your five hundred waxing moons? How often has a waxing moon passed and you haven’t even seen it? How big a number is five hundred? How long do you think you will live? What if you were already dead?
It’s a cheap trick, I know. But it works, like beads on a rosary. There is the part of me that believes it, and there is the part of me that is tempted by immortality, laziness, and cowardice.
“Does it ever get any easier?” asked Toby, the Toby that lives in my soul but also in the telephone- “Why can’t people like us have someplace to live that’s not in the city, with good air and water and stuff?”
“I think that life is just hard,” I said, laughing. “like a hundred years ago people were like, ‘I wish I didn’t have to haul water in this bucket, and I wish I had a comfortable chair and stuff’, but it didn’t make anything easier, life is just hard now in different ways.” We are both laughing, and when I hang up the phone I am crying. Sob, sob, and then I swallow it and reach for Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To a Young Poet, which I have just acquired and which, of course, has been written just for me.
“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. – And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to inte4rest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it. So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.”
“In your opinion of “Roses should have been here . . . ” (that work of such incomparable delicacy and form) you are of course quite, quite incontestably right, as against the man who wrote the introduction. But let me make this request right away: Read as little as possible of literary criticism – such things are either partisan opinions, which have become petrified and meaningless, hardened and empty of life, or else they are just clever word-games, in which one view wins today, and tomorrow the opposite view. Works of art are of an infinite solitude, and no means of approach is so useless as criticism. Only love can touch and hold them and be fair to them. – Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentations, discussions, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.
In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”