I had a dream a couple of weeks ago that a friend of mine got extremely fit and cultivated this flat, smooth yoga belly that she flashed at me with glee and then said, “let’s go to the mountains and go hiking.” I told her about it, and I noticed a few nights later that she was returning from long bike rides, taking swimming lessons, growing sleeker. She invited me for a weekend in Harriman State Park in May, and I remembered that one of the things I have always appreciated about my dreams is exactly how often they are the precursor to my realities.
(If this remains true, I should warn you now: There are some interesting things coming.)
That same friend, who happens to be the only person in the world I have ever been able to live alongside without losing my mind and who has figured out to a science the exact amount of aloneness I require from the universe, put into my hands last week a copy of Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet”, a book that I have read previously but have not thought about since I lost another of my favorite humans to Spain a couple of summers ago. I’d forgotten that it is not only a book about the writing practice, but about being alone and about love. More simply, it is a book about how the writing practice itself is about being alone and about being in love and how those two things are not mutually exclusive in the slightest. “If you read this, you will understand me more,” someone I love very kindly said about something I recently wrote. I feel this way about Rilke’s letters: like maybe, if it wasn’t one of the most pretentious things you could do to someone else, I could just get away with handing it to people at the start of relationships and clear up a whole lot of questions.
The best thing about Rilke, besides the fact that he’s writing letters to some random young punk poet kid for no apparent reason except that he’s just that gracious, is that while he finds both of these conditions necessary, he by no means implies that they are easy. He writes simply:
“Whenever you notice that [aloneness] looms large, then be glad about it. For what would aloneness be, you ask yourself, if it did not possess greatness? There exists only one aloneness, and it is great, and it is not easy to bear.”
It is comforting and encouraging in this very nice, Rilke-like way, and it seems really important to remember that unlike people or money or anything else that you really want in life, books will always fall into your hands when you need them. Songs quite often work in the same manner, and if you do not understand the importance of art at any other level, it is crucial that you understand it at this one. There is just not that much else that you need.
Stephen Elliott over at The Rumpus is doing this relatively amazing thing called “Letters in the Mail”, which gives you a weekly letter from a writer of note for $5 a month. It’s amazing for a number of reasons – bringing back the art of letter writing in general, turning letter writing back into a notable prose form, adding value to “print media” and giving the post office something to do – but namely it’s one of the best and brightest ways that publishing is using the subscription model to offer readers something more, something exciting, something that feels personal even if it technically is not. In a really roundabout way, it is the beginning of the answer to the question, “What is the publishing industry doing about digital?”, and it is a much more thrilling answer than a base conversation about ebooks.
(It is about time that we figured out that ebooks are a format and not a revolution or a threat in themselves. This does not seem an arguable point – and yet.)
This morning I sat in bed replying to Stephen’s letter because it felt necessary to do so: even if it’s mass letter, even if you paid for it, I believe that if someone writes to you first, you are at risk for some heavy psychic weight if you don’t respond. As it happens, I will put off letter writing with the best of them, but when I sit down to do it, it is a format that I love. Earlier this week while searching through old emails for a file I failed to find, I found a love letter I wrote four or five years ago that I’d wager is one of the best things I’ve ever written. It, like most of my best letters, never got a reply. I thought about that quite a bit this week because it is so strange to be so bad at so many things but so good at writing letters, and so funny when it turns out that no one minds that long list of things you are bad at but that no one to whom you’ve written a letter understands that this was the absolute best and brightest thing your brain could ever give them.
I guess it is hard sometimes to realize just how lucky we are.
There are other kinds of letters, too. As the weather gets colder I have been listening to PJ Harvey’s “Stories From the City, Stories from the Sea” because it pulls my brain into New York in the spring when things start to bubble up and happen. I will say this: If you can listen to her song “Good Fortune” and not think of that as some kind of gift, some sort of magical letter in the mail written just for you, then I can only hope that someone has the good sense to drop a book into your hands when you really need it because there’s a strong chance that someone will need to teach you some things about aloneness and about love.