The Reader: A Love Story
I can only write for one person.
It’s a pain to write about writing. What is there to say? You sit down, probably at the computer. Or you pick up a notebook. And you try to remember what the hell you were thinking two minutes ago, while your hands were in the sink or covered in dirt or occupied in something otherwise sticky or debilitating. The good thoughts always come while you’re incapacitated.
You sit. Your fingers are painfully still at the keyboard as you strain yourself to remember. Maybe you are staring at a picture in your mind of what you want to say—a scene, a face, a feeling—but oh God, what is that word? The wall gives you nothing. To anyone standing across the room, your writing looks like a complete lack of action. It looks less like writing than it does catatonia.
The impossible thing is to be honest. Everything resists. Of course, you have plenty of thoughts each day. You carry a continuous chatter of thoughts while you brush your teeth and run errands. An unbroken river of thoughts, as you walk up the stairs or clean the dust off the dresser top.
Only now the river has run dry.
Because you sat down, because you put your fingers on the keyboard, you can no longer hear your thoughts. Now you can only hear your ego. And it wants to put on lipstick before it goes outside. It wants to take a shower and smooth its hair, and generally not look like a mess. My god. It gapes at a few thoughts trickling through. Where did you get these? Your ego speaks with a voice as certain as God’s, and it reminds you that, without its help, your writing is revolting. You are not funny, not wise. Your thoughts are, worst of all, not original. And why would they be? While other writers are straining their biceps with heavy philosophical literature, you have been reading your emails. While other writers woke up early and wrote three pages before breakfast, what did you do? You rubbed Korean snail mucus on your skin and drank two sugary cups of coffee. This is why your thoughts are so pedestrian.
Again, your ego steps between you and the keyboard, for yet another day, to tell you not to bother. Don’t come back until you can write something worth reading. Not until you can write with straight teeth and a bright cherry-red smile and make Harold Bloom forget all about Shakespeare.
Your honest voice will only lose you everything, your ego says. Shut up shut up.
I can only write if I begin with murder. Kill the ego. Kill the crowd it wants to impress. Only in the silence after a massacre can I begin to put thoughts to paper. I can write honestly only if I write quietly, and only ever to one person. Not to myself (the ego begins to perk up again) but to someone much kinder than myself. To the reader. Just one reader.
What were you saying? Says the reader. You were saying something.
What was I–that’s right, I was thinking about Christmas.
(OH MY GOD, BORING, says the ego.)
What about Christmas? says the reader.
Well, it sounds stupid. But I was thinking that it’s always a day about being home, no matter what you do. It’s always about being lonesome, because no home ever feels like the home you’ve lost.
Every year, it’s always “I’ll be home for…” and “I’m longing for…” and “I wish I had a river…” Christmas is such a sad holiday, because you can’t cross the distance between where you are now and the far-away home you once had—the distance between the warmest home you can imagine and all the uncertain places you have called home as an adult.
I think I know what you mean.
Some part of me always believes that, when I open my eyes on Christmas morning, I will be home, back where home always was, in the forest, surrounded by my family. My dad will be in the kitchen laughing.
And so I never have an appetite on Christmas Day. I don’t want to cook for myself. I don’t like being indoors. I don’t like the silence. All the hours between waking up and going back to sleep. It feels inevitable that it will always be a sad day, and the worst part is when I pretend that it isn’t. Do you think it feels like this for everyone?
I know what you mean.
I can only write for that voice.
I have invented different readers for myself, ever since I was a teenager, hiding my journal between my textbooks in middle school. I would pull it out in dull moments throughout the day to write long letters to the actress Bernadette Peters. Somehow, I felt she would understand what it was like to be an awkward, unfixably weird kid, so out of place in Western South Dakota. I thought she would sympathize.
Do you have snow in New York right now? I bet the snow there is prettier and not full of mud. I bet you don’t have to wear a stupid skirt every day and walk three blocks to Mass while a girl behind you kicks ice at your legs…
When did I stop writing letters to Bernadette? I don’t remember. At some point, I grew up. I went to high school and I wrote for boys I had a crush on. I wrote for my desk drawer, but the drawer always had a name. The reader, who would never actually read anything I’d written. It was just a someone I needed. A sympathetic face to imagine. A responding voice that would sound like my own, but kinder.
I never liked to give my writing to a real, physical reader. Not when it was still raw and too much my own. Someone might misread me, mishandle what I had given them, or, worst, not pay attention. The miracle of finding a good reader—when you find one, if you can ever find one in the flesh—is like the miracle of finding water. It’s like the miracle of breathing oxygen. And the wrong reader, especially one who echoes the worst refrains of your ego, can poison you at the root. It’s too much of a gamble, handing someone the words they can use to devastate you.
I was thinking about my reader last night while I was in the audience at a Lucinda Williams concert. I had been looking forward to seeing her perform, and I had been nervous too, ever since I got the tickets. She had a stroke a few years ago and I didn’t know whether she would bear any resemblance to the singer I loved from her albums. I have had such a strong relationship to her voice, the specific cadence to her music. I wanted to come to the concert and hear someone who sounded like the woman I knew.
She stepped out into the lights, grasping the arm of the man next to her. She took slow, shuffling steps to her seat. She looked so frail in the center of the stage, staring out into the crowd. But when she leaned forward to the mic and spoke, her voice came through strong. And I was conscious of the love pouring toward her from the people in all the seats. We each knew her, however many thousands of us there were. We all had been spoken to, individually, by her music. We knew we might have lost her, but here she was. She was still with us. Our good friend. Our closest friend.
“I love you!” people screamed at her from all directions. When she announced each song title, a rumbling mmm of recognition would roll through the seats. We knew the songs. We were here to be with her. I thought of Tinkerbell, kept alive by clapping hands. If we just kept clapping and yelling at her, if we kept loving Lucinda the way she needed to be loved, then it felt like maybe we could make her whole and healthy again. We could help her stand, and make her fingers work again. It was irresistible, it drew me up into it, the love from the crowd toward her.
It’s funny, I wasn’t really a fan of hers when I was younger. I had heard a few of her songs. They were alright, but she wasn’t someone I reached for. Then, one day in my early 30’s I played one of her songs and the magic hit. I played Car Wheels on a Gravel Road one afternoon, intending only to listen to the first song. Instead, I listened to the whole album. I hit repeat and listened to the whole thing again. How had I missed this? I heard her words like I never had before. I was inside the words. They were my words.
It’s embarrassing to love a song in front of someone else. Agony, really, to play for anyone a song you truly love. You’re so stripped down, vulnerable, staring at the speakers, adjusting the volume, in order to avoid showing your face while they listen. And what if they can’t hear it?
We aren’t all unlocked by the same words. But everyone in that audience last night had been undone by Lucinda, each of us, in our darkest, loneliest rooms. We were her readers, her true loves, who had heard something in her words that opened us up to her. That made us love her. So much that we would scream our love over and over from the back row, just wanting her to hear us say it.
Words are dangerous. We don’t like to admit this, but the right word spoken at the right moment has such power over us. Words can step right past the ego, through all the fog of bullshit and self-protection, set a key firmly into the lock and tear it all wide open.
~The Love Story~
I’m using too many words right now in order to avoid saying what I mean.
I prefer to write about puzzles and not about love. I can approach my own thoughts like they were puzzle pieces, and the items around me and the streets full of people too. I dismantle them and examine and re-fit them together. I know how to do that.
I enjoy leaving a puzzle half-solved and I know where to find words for the distances left in between the pieces. The distance between sensations and the response they elicit. Between perception and memory. I enjoy pulling my sensations apart until I can find words lying in them.
Love is different. It’s harder. Not because I can’t find the puzzle in it, but because my dissection tools aren’t suited for such a delicate thing. I am happy right now, but my happiness is as frail as sugar floss. So is my hope. I don’t want it to disintegrate in my hands.
I can’t write about falling in love. I can’t write about miracles, even though I have experienced miracles. I wonder, if I had been given a vision of Saint Bernadette on a rock, or the face of Jesus in a dish towel, if I would be as stupefied and silent as I am in the face of my own miracles.
I can write about the guilt of having fallen in love while living in this lonely world. The unfairness of having miracles as we all limp toward the end of this anguished, uncertain year.
I can tell you about it this way:
I have a reader. A real reader, out of my desk drawer, in his uncertain, human flesh. I have a someone now who reads everything. He has been the first eye on everything I have written for quite a while. And he responds to me in a voice that sounds a lot like mine, but different. His voice is much kinder than mine.
It took me a long time to call it love. I called it recognition, which is another word for the same thing. You. That rush of joy to hear my native tongue spoken back to me. Hey, it’s you. I know you.
What were you saying? I ask him in return. You were saying something.
I have spent a lifetime putting out my elbows and knees. I have kept my distance. It’s the hour, finally, to unlatch the windows. It’s time to open the door.
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