I tend to organize my sense of self into patterns–I guess we all do. One period of my life will end, another commences. The thing I worried about for decades actually happens and I realize I was worrying about it wrong–what takes place does not completely overlap what I feared would take place. I’ll look back and realized I coasted along on magical thinking for those eight years, or I’ll that my forties were in fact, as I was always being told, the best years, and that the happy activity and social life of that period has now slipped away, and I’m somewhere else. Maybe even someone else. The patterns, or eras, wrap around jobs, or places I’ve lived.
For example, I’ve been in my current apartment for 9 years in December; I left a sweet little place on an old West Village block which I loved and had assumed to live in forever, because after decades on a wait-list, I was being offered a unit in a limited equity co-op, an offer too good to turn down for sentimental reasons. And as it turned out, as the simile always is in my mind when I look back, this was a great good fortune, like being scooped by God’s Big Dipper out of the warming pot of water. Because it was the beginning of the financial crisis, and unbeknownst to me, my freelance work was going to abruptly dry up. Had I not gotten the offer letter from the co-op just then, I’d never have been able to stay in New York. It was a real rescue, but it also marked an alteration in my sense of self. A lot of things tumbled, Friendships ended, the scene was changed.
The pattern of this year seems to be another indelible scene shift. In late March it became clear that my parents could no longer live independently. With no freelance offers, nor energy to look for gigs, I began a few months of devoting most of my energy to the complexities of their problems. There was a big move to organize, there was an assisted living situation to find for my father, and then there was assisting and emotionally supporting both parents as dad progressed from the AL to a nursing home and dwindled away to his death a month ago. My life’s felt to be on hold all that time, and it still does; I’m not in tune with what I can or want to do next, but very much in touch with what I’d like not to have to do any more.
In the midst of all this I’ve read a great deal this year. I always do–last year I read 60 books, and 92 in 2015, when work was very scarce. So far this year, I’m at 73. I want to come up here with some original and lovely phrases to describe what reading does for me and has done for especially the last 8 months of upheaval. Everything feels like a trope–escape, yes, a reassuring sense of being part of humanity, yes, entertainment, a transport in the imagination of a master of characters and atmosphere, yes. These describe it as if it was the thumbnail of an entire body, and I can’t think how to talk about the rest of that body. Every book I read seems to be for me only, and I experience an uncanny flutter of disbelief whenever I encounter, either in person or the media, someone who’s praising or discussing the same thing. I’ve always felt alone with books, not in a sense of loneliness, but in having them, deliciously, all to myself. The one area of my life where I’m not compelled by any outside force or responsibility.
Some of this year’s fiction choices were inspired by my discovery of the Backlisted Podcast which brought me to Anita Brookner, the WWII novels of Nigel Balchin, as well as Barbara Comyns, Nella Larsen, Jane Gardem. Others were nonfiction books about race and other topics in American history, and about Russia. I reread quite a bit, often via audiobook listening to books I’d read before; and read new fiction by authors I already love: Elizabeth Strout, Alice McDermott; and was swept up all summer in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.
Another catharsis of the last weeks has been a nearly compulsive process of cleaning out–with the help of various friends, and on my own, I alphabetized my books, discarding many (I’m down to ~1850 volumes), purging and organizing my kitchen, my closets, desk, jewelry box, wardrobe. Everything I get rid of makes me feel lighter, and gives me more pleasure in the things I surround myself with, my household gods as I think of them. Handling all my books, seeing how many I own that I bought because I wanted to read them, but haven’t touched them yet, has inspired me to a reading project for 2018: I’m going to start at A, and read at least one completely new-to-me book from my own shelves for each letter, two letters a month. Of course some letters are very overrepresented in author’s last names, and one or two letters don’t appear at all. I’m going to begin in December with, I think, Renata Adler and Isabel Bolton.