The Process Involves Yoga

Possessing a disorganized mind, I do what I must to keep my life in order, labeling files and jotting down lists as I go through my day. But ordering my free time would feel like sheer nonsense. I’m simply not capable of doing it. Blissfully, Monday night yoga releases me from that responsibility. Once a week, someone else leads and all I have to do is follow along.

I attend only “Beginner” classes, although I’ve been practicing yoga for at least 15 years and could do all the poses relatively easily from the beginning. I am naturally flexible, and as a teenager I was a competitive gymnast. The familiarity with my own limbs that sport gave me has stayed with me all my life. In my twenties, before I became a writer, I generally attended challenging Vinyasa Flow classes, the kind that keep you moving the entire time and offer an intense workout. But that has changed.

When I write, working on a personal essay or my book, which is a memoir of my mother’s mental illness and the ways it shaped our family, I work with difficult memories. And when I draw them up these memories invade my tissues. They climb into my muscle fibers, hunker down in my joints, tug on the fascia. I get knots in my shoulder blades, headaches, spots that pinch in my wrists when, as a massage therapist explained to me, the sheath around the nerve that runs down each arm tightens and pulls. Showing up at yoga in this condition, it is the stretching that matters above all else. I live for poses that open up the hips and shoulders, like that brilliant one called the Pigeon Pose, which pulls on the body’s largest muscle, the gluteus maximus, and leaves you almost gasping with the mix of intensity and relief that only grows the longer you stay in position. I get light-headed just thinking about it.

Sometimes, in the middle of a writing project and finding myself stalled, I’ll start relaxing into the yoga practice and suddenly discover that the breathing and stretching has released something in my mind, so that the sentences start rolling again, mid-pose. I’ll have to stop and tiptoe across the room to the cubbies, digging in my purse for my notebook and pen and then perching quietly on the bench by the door while I scribble out a thought to catch it before it slips away. I’ve learned that if I feel the urge to stop like this once, I’ll likely do it again in the same session, so when I creep back to my mat to rejoin the class I take my notebook with me and set it within reach. My teacher, bless her, professes not to mind.

The Process Involves Nesting

Contents of the writer’s “office,” which is actually one corner of the master-bedroom suite:

1) Non-writing Desk—retained from childhood, pine, recently refinished in “honey pine” and accented with ceramic knobs purchased from Anthropologie. Used solely as surface on which to place reading materials.

Items associated with non-writing desk:

Two stacks of about ten paper-back books each, to read

Stack of hard-bound books, already read, heavily tabbed

Two stacks of three-ring binders containing notes and drafts

Stack of spare folders beneath stack of printer paper

Guitar tuner (Shouldn’t be there, but where to put it?)

 

2) Writing Desk—purchased from Target, stained “mahogany,” made of unknown wood. Official site where writing supposedly takes place.

Items associated with writing desk:

Padded leather dining chair

Two-drawer metal file cabinet

Laser-jet printer

Laptop computer

Paper tray

Table lamp

Textbook of Schizophrenia

Framed photo of self and husband

Unframed photo of younger sister and brother, aged five and four

Corduroy pencil box containing: ballpoint pens, rollerball pens, highlighter pens

 

3) Free-standing half-section of long sofa—midcentury-modern style in black pleather, purchased with other half at an estate sale. Unofficial site where writing most often actually takes place.

Items associated with sofa:

Down comforter

Large pillow

Antique portable TV stand

Floor lamp (very flimsy; must be careful not to bump)

Power strip joining cords for laptop, printer, lamps, phone charger

 

4) Framed black-and-white art photograph—hanging on wall, titled “She Knew the Game Was Fixed But Played On Anyway.”

The image is a self-portrait of the photographer, Lauren Simonutti, who struggled with schizophrenia for many years and spoke and wrote eloquently about her experiences. She committed suicide in 2012. The writer seeks both inspiration and moral support from this portrait and feels at once pain and joy when she glances at it, as it reminds her that she is uncertain about all things, including her own future and the future of her book. The writer feels that these feelings are appropriate, and should be part of the process.

The Process Involves Wormholes

“Undoubtedly you will try to make art out of this beautiful ephemera, the merging of the past with the present, because you’re artists, chroniclers of who you are, and who you might be, and who we all are, together.”—Hilton Als

My brain is a scattered landscape that my mind inhabits freely, without many constraints. This of course makes modern life challenging but it is at least conducive to creative writing. It enables me to follow the branches on my web of associations to wherever they may lead. Memory, we all know, typically ignores chronology, and even when it seems to be arranging itself thematically, its themes and the ones I’m trying to pursue are rarely the same. Moreover it changes course often, winding here to an amethyst necklace on one day and to a shallow, muddy pond on another. So it leads me astray as often as not, opening up wormholes that I slide in, so that I then find myself going on about something far removed from what I meant to say—something perhaps irrelevant but compelling to me in this moment—often for reasons I can’t explain. Wormholes are shape-shifters and that’s part of what makes them beautiful. And they’re muscular too, strong enough to keep me wrestling until the words are out, released, finally taking on their own existence, separate from me.

Part of being a memoirist is knowing when to let yourself slide into one of these wormholes and when not to. As if we have that much control. More often, I just let myself go there and then remove the text if it doesn’t work within my larger vision for the piece. My computer is loaded with Word files containing these scraps, one or two or eight page spewings about some incident that may or may not make its way into my book. Sometimes I write down a description of an event and then set it aside for years, waiting to catch up with it by way of other words. Waiting to suddenly have a place to insert it, a place where it’s perfect, a place that needs it and is made better by it. And then I’m grateful that I wrote it down that first time, when it drew itself up organically from the morass of my recollections and so was pulsing and writhing in my mind at the time I threw it down and made it exist.

The Process Does Not Always Involve Walking

Watching footage of Los Angeles’s streets at night, despite the caché of their claim as the birthplace of film noir, it is hard not to ask: Why would anyone choose to live this way? Without walking? I have considered as much while trying, often failing, to walk around in the town I live in—Tucson, Arizona, where five decades of car-centered development has resulted in mind-boggling sprawl and a valley of a million inhabitants that, even in daylight, often feels like a ghost town.

In Tucson many streets have no sidewalks at all, and when I go on walks I often find myself dodging cars, forced to walk in the road itself even when traffic is significant. Streetlights, too, are so rare in some neighborhoods that people wear headlamps to take their dogs out at night. Streets tend to be wide, boulevard-like, convenient for cars but lacking crosswalks and walk signals. Worse is the extraordinary absence of shade, though the sun beats down hard some 275 days a year and the temperature can top 100 degrees for three or four months on end.

I have complained of the absence of trees along the sidewalks, which often means the difference between a pleasant walk and a brutal walk, and I’ve heard people respond with the nugget that trees can’t grow here. This is entirely untrue, as they could see if they looked around. There are species that grow fine in this desert—palo verde, mesquite, and a couple others. It’s just that no one has ever planted shade trees next to the sidewalks. Buildings too could cast shadows into the street but instead are set far back, behind yards and parking lots. So to take a break from writing I surf the web and stew in my juices instead of going outside and getting them flowing and the ideas moving and the feelings freed up. The process is frustrated when walking is impossible.

As I stew, thinking about obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and anxiety, I wonder why indeed anyone would choose this. Perhaps noir itself offers the best answer: Humans are flawed, and our flaws sometimes constitute our undoing.

The Process Involves Walking

This means walking city streets, alone. Nature is lovely of course but I don’t find enough there to look at that inspires me, and it is too still to promote the right flow of thoughts—no people. In a city the slow, steady movement around me, and of my own limbs, releases my mind to wander through its own territory, setting me loose to daydream, sort through things, generate ideas. Also it uplifts, eases the tension that comes with the tendency to brood. And it provides the chance to look at things, outside the insulated bubble of my car, level with the world itself and beholden to it fully. Not focusing much on any one thing but just wandering, taking it in. Noticing and experiencing the people and their movements, the social fabric that I spend my life trying to somehow capture, represent, express in words.

Of course, not every city is good for this kind of walking. In the BBC documentary series The Story of Film, the director Mark Cousins argues that it’s no accident that Los Angeles was the birthplace of film noir. It’s not obvious why this would be until you begin to think like a filmmaker, and see that the streets of Los Angeles contain few walkers, are not friendly to walkers, are not built for human interaction. Are a perfect visual expression of modern isolation.

Los Angeles, Cousins says in a voiceover, is a city that becomes deserted at night. Over shots of bare strips of concrete, he goes on to say that since nearly everyone drives, the sidewalks empty at night. For the same reason, streetlights are few and far between, so the streetscape is unusually dark for a large city. The majority of the light often comes from large display windows backlit by cold fluorescent bulbs left on in shops that front the street—strikingly similar, he points out, to the streaming, shadow-casting lighting of classic noir. The mood of L.A. at night, we see, is quite creepy and very lonely. So film noir, inspired by these visuals, was born like a love child in that city resembling no other. This is how you have Bogart waiting by a curb with the shadow of a pole cast across his face like a gash. But what a price to pay for inspiration.

The Process Involves Différance

Derrida’s variety, by which the meaning of a word is endlessly deferred as it is further shaped by additional words, which add to and shift its meaning and are in turn shaped by the words that follow them, and on and on so that no definitive meaning is ever arrived at, ever determined, ever set.

Because most of the time I don’t know what I mean. Most of the time I’m following the path from one word to the next, waiting for the string to lead me to something. Sometimes it’s an actual point. Sometimes not. It doesn’t really matter either way. What matters to me is that in the process of combining words and following the shifts in meaning, the words begin to shimmer and vibrate. They move. They come alive.

It calls to mind old Bruce Lee movies. His style of kung fu, he said, was “the style of no style.” He studied all the styles and then let the situation determine which techniques he used. The important thing was to be fully present, adaptable and responsive, able to act in the most appropriate way. To let the circumstance guide the hand.

I don’t know enough about kung fu to know if this is why his movements were so beautiful, but when I watch him on screen I feel like I’m watching a dancer. He has his way of carrying his body, his own distinct walk, prowling and yet light on his feet. And then he moves so fast it’s hard to believe they didn’t speed up the film. But in fact they sometimes slowed the film down so the audience could see what he’d done. I take this all to mean something. I feel that these words have led me somewhere.

Linguine Carbonara Recipe

It seemed amiss to write a post about this dish but not include a recipe for anyone who felt inspired to try it. So here we are:

1 lb linguine

2–3 T olive oil

2–3 T butter

1/3 lb sliced bacon (or guanciale), cut crosswise into thin strips

3 cloves garlic, minced

2/3 c red wine (or an acidic, non-oaky white like pinot bianco)

2/3 t fresh-ground black pepper

3 eggs

1 c grated parmigiano reggiano cheese

1/2 t salt

3 T chopped fresh parsley (preferably Italian flat-leaf parsley)

In a small stainless-steel frying pan, heat the oil and butter over moderate heat. Add the bacon and cook until brown but not crisp, about 4 minutes. Add the garlic, wine, and pepper. Simmer until the wine is reduced to 3 tablespoons, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, cheese, parsley, and salt.

In a large pot of boiling, salted water, cook the linguine until just done, about 12 minutes. Drain the pasta, add it to the egg-and-cheese mixture, and toss quickly. Pour the bacon mixture over the linguine. Add the parsley and toss just until mixed. Serve immediately with additional parmigiano.

(Note: t=teaspoon; T=tablespoon)