Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Thing With Feathers

Hope is a strange emotion. It’s addicting but dangerous, like some kind of new street drug, except that we manufacture it ourselves, like endorphins or adrenaline. And we stand in a somewhat different relation to those other chemicals: the body releases them involuntarily, at moments of physical exertion or stress. Hope is active, intentional, a gesture of the imagination, an attempt to conjure the future. To actually allow yourself to hope for something you care about deeply requires a peculiar unacknowledged bravery that not everyone can muster; it opens a troubling chasm of vulnerability at your feet, and looking down into that gulf of disappointment creates a dizzying vertigo.

Much better to play it cool, pretend it doesn’t matter. We have invented a whole patois of self deception on this point: ‘Easy come easy go” “That’s the way the cookie crumbles” “Que sera sera” ‘So it goes” “Who cares?” “Roll with the punches” “Lighten up” “Big deal” and the ever popular “Whatever”. But things don’t go easily, we all care and we take most of those punches right on the point of the jaw. Still, indifference remains the perfect combination of pose and protection. We act blasé while we prepare for disappointment in advance. We tell ourselves not to “get our hopes up” though we know the secret shameful truth that actually having your hopes up is one of the few clean cheap thrills you can get in life and flinching in advance doesn’t make it sting any less when the rejection finally comes.

Sustained hope in the face of relentless setbacks and failures can be toxic, though it feels nourishing – sort of like trying to live on Chai tea and muffins. My friend used to say of my Hollywood ambitions, “Until it happens, it didn’t.” And I would answer, “And when it happens it was always going to.” But releasing those hopes has been liberating, Hope requires the stamina of youth, when the seemingly limitless procession of days ahead lend any prediction a diaphanous plausibility. A five year old toddler dreams of becoming an astronaut; a twenty year old boy writes his Oscar acceptance speech on the bus to work. A fifty-year old man is happy just to make it through another week. There’s no more time for dramatic re-inventions and astonishing second acts. I won’t be going to law school or clown college any time soon. Win or lose, I am what I am: accepting that mortal tautology sounds despairing. But it contains an element of bliss, a caress of relief, like a vein of warm water in a frigid lake. I can happily call myself a ‘hobbyist’ and get on with my work. Emily Dickinson put it best: “Publication is not the business of poets.” She knew what she was talking about on that score; she made obscurity into another art form. But she understood hope well enough. She called it ‘the thing with feathers that perches in the soul/ and singe the tune –without the words/ and never stops at all.” I always wondered whether that line was a tribute or a admonition.

Away from that relentless bird-song I’ve found my own refuge, pecking away at the keyboard in privacy and silence. But hope is a tough old pigeon and not so easy to escape. It feeds on litter and perches on the fire escape, strutting snd fluttering over it three inches of hard-won territory. And so I find myself doing hopeful things like contributing to Open Salon and even –on a cockeyed impulse – contacting an editor who expressed interest in seeing more of my work. She’s reading my new novel now, as I comb the Open Salon website for comments and wonder feverishly if the last post will be an Editor’s Pick. So I guess I haven’t shaken the addiction after all and I probably never will.
I never could stay on a diet.

So please, O! charming editor who actually returned my phone call on a dreary Tuesday afternoon and chatted for half an hour about Hillary Clinton and Alice Munro, please read my book and like it and publish it, and send it off into the world with a full page ad in the New York Times. And while I’m waiting, I’ll have a Chai latte.

Make it a double, with a pistachio muffin on the side.

No comments: