“All right then, let me try to rephrase. When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.”
— Maggie Nelson, Bluets
1. I had contacted them in advance - RTowne Fitness - to tell them I would be on vacation for a week and I would want very much to use their bicycle. I will come in, ride your bicycle for no more than one hour, and then I will leave. It is what I do. And a courteous man wrote back right away and said, yes, please come in. I will sell you a punch-card. So, I said great and thank you and I will see you on Monday.
2. Monday morning, I drive out the long, winding road that runs alongside the long, winding lake. A woman behind a desk greets me. Oh, I know who you are, she says, I know all about you. It takes her a long time to enter my information into her database. I spell my name out for her, my street address, but she gets it all wrong. It doesn’t matter. She asks me, where are you staying and I tell her. We have rented a house near the lake. She asks me, what will you be doing here, and I tell her a family reunion. There is a wedding. And there are my husband’s parents, who are frail and in a great deal of pain. So there is that, too.
3. The gym is empty. The machines sit unused. While I am waiting for my punch-card, a man comes in and he walks on a treadmill in his khaki pants and long-sleeved button-down shirt and it is as if we have caught a glimpse of him heading down the hallway from his cubicle on his way to the staff kitchen to make a cup of tea.
4. I ride their bicycle. There is a long narrow window across the room and through it, I can see the strip mall parking lot. A few cars drive by, but not many.
5. I am getting over something. A little breakdown of the mind. A kind of illness, I suppose. I do not mean to overdramatize it, but I also do not mean to minimize the effect it has had on me these last months. A kind of unraveling. I am winding myself back up.
6. In this strip mall: a dentist, a real estate office, a fitness supply store. A few cars scattered through the enormous parking lot.
7. So, I am winding myself back up and I am reading and I am doing the things I am supposed to do, like riding on this bicycle and not eating too many bagels and maybe on a Friday night, I will have a burger and onion rings, but I will probably feel badly about it later. I will not turn down a glass of wine even on a weeknight, but wine is good for you, you know. All those antioxidants.
8. Sometimes a book will land on you and perhaps that is an inelegant way of expressing what it feels like when the book you are longing for appears and you are holding it in your hands and it is like a miracle that the book found you or you found it, or perhaps you and the book are creating a new reality together and there is nothing to do but let it worm its way into you, a beautiful bird who chose, by nothing short of grace, to make a habitat of your heart, says Maggie Nelson, herself a beautiful bird.
9. She is not talking about a book; she is talking about a person. And perhaps I am, too.
10. Maybe it is not useful to say that I was unraveling. Maybe we come apart and put ourselves back together all the time along a broad continuum and the distance between one point and another is a matter of semantics. What I mean is: We go on. Raveling and unraveling. There is a bicycle and we get on it, or we don’t, but a certain distance is covered nonetheless.
11. The wheelchair my mother-in-law needs to go even short distances weighs more than I imagined it could and it is unwieldy, does not fold or collapse easily to put into the trunk of the van we are driving. And by chance, in its relentless indifference, the door to the trunk jams shut so that to get the wheelchair in, my husband has to fold down all the seats and haul this leaden machine into the back through the passenger side door. The rest of us hover around and watch. When he is done, he slams all the doors and thrusts the van into gear having barely uttered a word.
Lately I have been trying to learn something about “the fundamental impermanence of all things” from my collection of blue amulets, which I have placed on a ledge in my house that is, for a good half of the day, drenched in sunlight. The placement is intentional - I like to see the sun pass through the blue glass, the bottle of blue ink, the translucent blue stones. But the light is clearly destroying some of the objects, or at least bleaching out their blues. Daily I think about moving the most vulnerable objects to a “cool, dark place,” but the truth is that I have little to no instinct for protection. Out of laziness, curiosity, or cruelty - if one can be cruel to objects - I have given them up to their diminishment.
13. The unraveling began at the start of my fortieth year. You may say that age is just a number and forty is not so old, after all, but turning forty was like hearing the chime of a bell rung near the end of a long exam. This is your ten-minute warning. Now there are five minutes remaining. And now there are two.
14. It is later in the week when I finish the book. My punch-card nearly filled. I climb on the bicycle and face the narrow window. There is no one on the treadmill. There is no one else in the gym except the woman sitting behind the desk. It is quiet. I hold the book up close to my face so it is steady even while I am pedaling. There is only the noise of the bicycle, whirring.
15. Later, you tell me about your own memory of reading Bluets. You were sitting in a cafe that you had not been to before. You were reading and taking notes. You read a passage that you particularly loved and you paused there, taking it in.
16. When you looked up, you saw that the ceiling was painted to look like the sky. A wide expanse of blue, with clouds.
It often happens that we treat pain as if it were the only real thing, or at least the most real thing; when it comes round, everything before it, around it, and perhaps, in front of it, tends to seem fleeting, delusional. Of all the philosophers, Schopenhauer is the most hilarious and direct spokesperson for this idea: “As a rule we find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more painful than we expected.” You don’t believe him? He offers this quick test: “Compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten.”
17. If I were to list the pleasures I have known, I would include on it: reading the closing lines of Bluets, my skin damp with sweat, tears forming but not falling, pedaling furiously on a bicycle in an empty gym, facing a narrow window looking out on a strip mall parking lot.
18. I drive back to the lake house like I am floating through a dream. When I arrive, everyone is down at the dock. I go down there, too and take my son into the murky water and we wade through the swaying weeds and grasses holding hands.
“One thing they don’t tell you ‘bout the blues when you got ‘em, you keep on fallin’ ‘cause there ain’t no bottom,” sings Emmylou Harris, and she may be right. Perhaps it would help to be told that there is no bottom, save, as they say, wherever and whenever you stop digging. You have to stand there, spade in hand, cold whiskey sweat beaded on your brow, eyes misshapen and wild, some sorry-ass grave digger grown bone-tired of the trade. You have to stand there in the dirty rut you dug, alone in the darkness, in all its pulsing quiet, surrounded by the scandal of corpses.
Do not be overly troubled by this fact. “Nine days out of ten,” wrote Merleau-Ponty of Cézanne, “all he saw around him was the wretchedness of his empirical life and of his unsuccessful attempts, the debris of an unknown celebration.”
In any case, I am no longer counting the days.
I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.
But now, you are talking as if love were a consolation. Simone Weil warned otherwise. “Love is not consolation,” she wrote. “It is light.”
All right then, let me try to rephrase. When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light.