Monday, December 26, 2011

A New Year's Anti-Resolution

So. These are my last few days in Paris. How amazing is it that they've been over the holidays?

It's been a busy time here, what with all those Jungle Bells ringing, all the frantic packing as I get books and clothes ready to ship back home, all the while acting as host for out-of-town friends and being very very sick. And not just averagely very very sick, but the kind of sick in which you are hurling yourself at the bathroom every 20 minutes, hoping that someone with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a harpoon gun will finally come in and put you out of your misery. 

This illness is of course not helped by the fact that I have been living in France's Worst Apartment, hunched over France's Most Antiquated Pull Chain Toilet, which has--over the course of this weeklong and possibly cheese-related gastroinestinal distress--developed the particular charming plumbing tic of both flushing down AND spraying back up the contents of the bowl in one carooming, Niagra-like rush, thus sending forth a fine spray of fecal mist over the toilet seat and bathroom floor that--besides seeping down through the many already mold-felted cracks in the bathroom's linoleum--is also likely being absorbed through the pores of my face.

As I spent part of this week stumbling from visitor, to bed, to toilet, to visitor, to toilet, to bed, I couldn't help but be thankful for the small fact that, no matter how horrible this apartment is, no matter how unsanitary the bathroom, how pervasive the ceiling mold, how mortally dangerous the wiring and how uselessly dyspeptic the radiator, at least--AT LEAST--there were no rodents.

Which is when I discovered the rat.

"Oh, no!" soothed the manager, trying to put me at ease. "It is not possible for there to be a rat here."

"WHY?" I demanded, looking wild-eyed around this decaying box in which I'd been installed the last four months. "WHY WOULD THAT NOT BE POSSIBLE?"

"It is not big enough for you both," he replied.

So that is why, my last few days of Paris, I am sitting inside a literal circle of rodent traps, all my luggage zipped tight and stored high on the top of the wardrobe, googling articles on whether poisonous molds really did kill off Brittany Murphy and her husband.

And yet, weirdly, I still can't stand the thought of leaving. I just love it here so much.

Maybe it's all these beautiful holiday shop windows. I mean, how can you not love a town that every year decides to turn its every store into a greeting card for the city?

And how can you not love the fact that one of these greeting cards involves an entire display of DANCING KARL LAGERFELDS?

Maybe it's the fact I've spent so many hours pounding the pavement here. So many in fact, that the brand-new boots I bought for this trip have been literally worn away at the seams.

Or maybe it was the weird one-man dance performance I saw the other night, in which the dancer "danced" by stalking onto the stage to "Every Breath You Take" and staring, intensely, at various members of the audience.

Maybe it's because I found my very trip through these last four months echoed in the Printemps' holiday window display.

Maybe it's the fact that every time I go to the cheap but excellent restaurant by my apartment ("The Passage", right near Metro Ledru Rollin, check it out) I keep getting served things like pig's intestines and sheep brains because I never check my dictionary to confirm what it is I've so confidently ordered. And each time, the waiter discreetly pretends not to notice my dismay when the plate arrives.

Maybe it's because when the little French child upstairs cries, he sobs, "Ooooh LA LAAAAA!"

Maybe it's because I can't bear to leave a place so clearly devoted to the needs of the obsessive compulsive among us. What other city is STOCKED with whole avenues of stores devoted only to antique children's games, or antique radios, or children's books, or large glass jars filled with candy-coated flowers and plant leaves?

Maybe it's because of the homeless crazy man who sits outside the shoe shop and high fives me wildly each time I pass.

Maybe it's because my gym offers its members chocolate truffles after their workouts. (Only for the holidays, they told me. They don't want us to get too fat.)

Maybe it's because my apartment, horrible as it is, still has its little graces. Last night, there was another scrabbling in the wall by the refrigerator, then the sound of something electrical popping, a sudden rodenty shriek as something ("Not a rat, nooooo!" soothes the apartment manager) scurried away. "HA!" I yelled at the wall. "DIDN'T READ THE NOTES ABOUT THE WIRING DID YOU, YOU LITTLE FUCKER?"

Maybe it's because Jacque Brel's girlfriend seems to have been dumped. Instead of epic love-making sessions now, I hear a lot of Joni Mitchell, and sometimes crying.

Maybe it's because I'll never see my tiny nuns again. And because our last day in French class together, Rose, along with the Nepalese nun Sushma, gave me some pain d'epice for the holidays.

Or maybe I don't want to leave this city because it took me so long to love it. Strange as this may sound, I didn't want to enjoy myself too much because I felt guilty: guilty for Sean's not being happy about me being in this city, guilty for my dogs being left with my parents for so long, guilty for having so much free time to write. It is not, let me assure you, something that anyone--least of all my dogs--have insisted that I feel. Guilt, to me, is like oxygen for you: evidently I need it to survive, which is sad, because if there's one thing this award was supposed to do, it was to allow me to experience some measure of unmitigated pleasure. But this--it turns out--is probably the hardest thing in the world for me to do.

Maybe you're one of those people who sinks into delight without a backward glance. If so, please go fuck yourself. I mean this politely. For me, I was raised on the belief that any pleasure has to be earned or, if not earned per se, then be entirely innocent of any possibility of putting someone else out in the pursuit of it. The hardest thing about the past few months has been learning to accept the fact that there are no limitations on my time. It may sound easy, but in fact it is quite difficult when you've spent so much of your life training yourself to believe that limitations on one's time are a measure of success. You need your time limited: it's called a job. It's called a relationship. It's called a book deadline. It's called a family life. If you have no limitations of time, you have--in some sense--almost no identity at all.

Added to that are the often contradictory ideas I had about what I was supposed to be feeling. When I talked to Sean, I felt I was supposed to be sad and miserable because we are apart. But when talking with strangers, explaining what I was doing here, I was supposed to be ecstatic. The fact is, I am moving between all these states: the same person who gets paid to spend a whole year to do nothing but wonder what she would like to put next into her brain or her mouth is also the same person pining for her husband while hunched on the floor of her bathroom, mopping up spilled shit-water around an antiquated toilet.  

And on top of that is the fact that I am supposed to be constantly inspired to write. (That's the point, right? To be constantly inspired? Interestingly, there was a psychology journal article I read recently about whether there was actually a basis for this belief that travel inspires more creativity. Evidently, it's not just my mother who suspects that this whole year is an elaborate ruse. Still, after weighing all the evidence, the academics had to admit--grudgingly--there seemed to be something to travel after all.) However, I am not as immediately inspired as you might think I'd be. There's a lot of creativity expended in just getting by in a foreign country. Sometimes I think the most beautiful sentence I've written yet is an email in French asking for more rat traps. So while I'm also looking at some of the finest pieces of work ever produced in Western art, I'm also kicking myself for not producing something--if not equivalent--at least worthy of me being in the presence of so much art. 

After awhile, however, I understood that I was missing the point of this whole thing. Instead of thinking about this year as something that is supposed to be about money or travel or status or happiness or time or insipiration, perhaps the point was simply the removal of limitation--the idea of limitation--from my life for a time.  I thought this year was about what I was supposed to do. But it's not nearly anything as concrete as that. With no pressing personal, financial, or job-related reasons to do anything, it's about what I'd like to think.

It struck me then that I had, to a certain extent, misspent a large portion of my energy here. I was too busy berating myself for not knowing French, for leaving Sean, for sleeping in too often, for staying up too late, for seeing too many movies, for writing so many bad drafts of poems or for not writing more poems, for missing this show or reading or taking in only that one.  I had esentially begun to impose all these other limitations based on objective "achievement" upon my thinking, thus mitigating the possibility of enjoying this place for what it was. But if the award was offering me the opportunity to live without such limitations, the very least I could do is try to offer myself such freedom in return.

Spending the day yesterday talking to one of my oldest friends in the world--a woman who has spent the last few years working as a stay-at-home mother--something struck me. My friend, who has raised two cool kids, feels she's supposed to see herself as a failure for not continuing to work outside the home. She feels that people judge her success primarily on whether it has any objective financial value attached to it. For my part, I admitted to her that I felt like success had become a goal post that kept moving, maybe an inch, maybe a mile, further away the closer I got to it.
Here's something we agreed upon: the ways we are asked to see ourselves as failures are legion, but the ways in which we are allowed to see ourselves as successes are miniscule.

That was an interesting discussion to have. And I would have loved to continue it a moment longer, only just then I had to run like a maniac for the bathroom.

So. This is my newest goal for the year: to have no goals at all. I'll see what I want to, or what you suggest for me (Brian: I saw the math show at the Fondation Cartier! It was awesome! And so were the Richard Serras at the Gagosian Gallery! No pictures! They weren't allowed! Jennifer: Will be working my way down your excellent list in Istanbul next week! Thank you!), and I'll write or I won't. Fuck it. Before I left, I'd bought my plane tickets to France, Istanbul, then to Vietnam, but then I got overwhelmed and stopped planning. I'm glad I did: I love that my tickets dead-end on January 9th in Hanoi, with a little less than half the year finished. I'm now going to take advantage of this year fully and hold myself to absolutely no expectations.  Gone the brow-beating, the guilt, the relentless planning, all self-enforced suffering. Banished the thought of deadlines. Forever removed from the diet anything unpasteurized or completely raw. Sunday, I'm off to Istanbul. To do whatever. Then on to Vietnam. For however long. To live wherever. To live in a hotel, maybe, on a beach, in a hut. To go somewhere else. Maybe. Maybe not. To just hang out, with as few limitations--with as little self--as I can possibly manage.


How awesome is that? 


  1. I too am aiming for no goals this year. At least you begin the year with Paris floating around in your brain. Gorgeous pictures.

  2. I like this no goals thing you've got going. It seems like there's no time like the present for this. For you, I mean. Now excuse me while I go refine my list of resolutions.

  3. How awesome is that? Very very awesome, except the rodential and fecal parts. Best of luck with your antiresolutions!

  4. The ways we are asked to see ourselves as failures are legion, but the ways in which we are allowed to see ourselves as successes are miniscule.

    I'm going to cross-stitch this on a pillow for your beach-hut in Vietnam. So that you can fling it in the ocean whenever you wish.