12. Clearing the Decks

December 2020

This is the last installment of my monthly digest that collects a few entries from the nightly journal I kept in 2020.

On the first day of this year, I sat in the pews of a medieval cathedral in Turku, Finland, and tried to pray, which is alien to me. I tried to pray because my thoughts were gummed up with so much chatter and junk, the outrage and opinions of digital living, the residue of too much time spent behind screens. I wanted to know if it was possible to develop any type of faith these days. And underneath this desire, I had buried too many memories of grief. I had also stalled in my writing. I found myself trapped in an idiotic loop of procrastination and perfectionism, stuck with a mind that deleted each word before the first keystroke. So I decided to dust off my blog and commit to writing something each night for one year. Perhaps a few ideas about art, faith, and loss. Maybe some notes about each day's events for my future self.

And now, on the last day of this year, the memory of sitting in a church in a different country feels as though it belongs to some lost golden age, like telling your kids about the days when airports did not have x-ray machines or you could smoke in supermarkets. The end of the year leaves me feeling as if I'm supposed to be reflective; I find myself hunting for insights and revelations that never arrive. And as this nightly exercise winds down, I feel compelled to make sense of it. My first thoughts are: 1) I do not recommend such a needlessly compulsive approach, and 2) I wish I'd picked any other year. (From February 26: "New infections are being reported. How far will this thing go? Will history record this as a blip, or is this the start of something bigger?")

But this practice helped me develop a steady writing routine. No matter what was happening, I managed to carve out an hour around midnight to write, and I'm eager to point this habit towards books and stories. Posting something each night also helped me reckon with my precious bullshit. I often found myself wrestling with some murky idea or failing to make a sentence behave the way I wanted—then I'd see it was two o'clock in the morning. Good enough. There would be something new to write tomorrow.

Most of all, I appreciated the need for people I do not know. I've always preferred writing in museums, hotel lobbies, and train stations because these places remind me that I am a stranger. At home, I become too familiar, and my perspective narrows. In a year without the babble, mess, and wonder of people on sidewalks and subway cars, or the small adventures and chance encounters that come with simply moving through the world, I found myself plumbing my memories and dreams and revisiting moments of loss. So in the end, this exercise felt like walking away from something, a way of clearing the decks before trying something new. Which I hope is how this year feels for all of us one day when we look back in the rearview.

When I think about my relationship with art, I often remember the day I took my father to the museum shortly before he died. How I watched him drag his oxygen tank through curtains of plastic string that dangled from the ceiling of an empty room. We diligently consulted the explanation on the wall, which described how these “multi-sensory penetrables rendered our passage through space fully palpable.” I will never forget the look on my father’s face when he said, “I guess this stuff is over my head.” How tragic to enter a museum hoping to feel dignified and ennobled, only to walk away feeling like a fool.

Two years ago on a Saturday night in rural Pennsylvania, I saw a vision of the future that I cannot shake. I visited an elaborate recreation of the Virgin Mary’s appearance in a French grotto in 1858. A narrow footpath led through a forest to a candlelit statue of the Virgin in a shallow cave. The scene was illuminated by dozens of telephone screens that floated in the gloom like devotional candles.

Hanging back, I watched a strange ritual unfold among the men attending a weekend Catholic retreat. They formed a line in front of the statue, and when the first man knelt to pray, he handed his telephone to the man behind him, who would photograph him praying. After the man finished his prayer, he retrieved his phone and reviewed the image. The next man repeated this process as he knelt before the statue. The photo had become the meaning, the reason for this pilgrimage to kneel before a simulation of the appearance of a ghost.

I took a photo of the statue, too. Our technologies have taught us to document every activity, no matter how personal or sacred; our screens are becoming the way we see the world and ourselves, and it looks like they’re even more potent than religion.

One of my short stories has been published at Vol. 1 Brooklyn. It’s about an elderly couple in a Walgreen’s parking lot, and they’ve been haunting my dreams for a few years now. It’s called “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and here’s how it begins:

There’s this old couple that gets around. Maybe you’ve seen them. They’ve been touring the country for years, long before America elected a game show host for president. They started off doing decent business at casinos and conventions until their tantrums began causing problems.

Light snow fell last night in Ohio. I cheer like a child whenever flurries fall. Maybe it has to do with the silence it brings, how it tranquilizes the world for a while. Or because a snowstorm is one of the few remaining shared events that cannot be misinterpreted or denied. Perhaps my attraction is more symbolic: the blank slate, everything buried and clean. Maybe I savor this weather because it’s becoming rarer as the world overheats. My hunger for snow grows each year, and I’ve been nurturing increasingly elaborate fantasies about Greenland’s snowfields and the Siberian Express. And in this spirit, I’ve been enjoying the first chapters of The Terror, Dan Simmons’s haunted variation on Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated quest across the Arctic where it gets so cold your teeth can explode.

Here’s a list of my favorite albums this year, mostly in the vein of slow-motion gloom, reverberated ballads, and conspiratorial synthesizers.

Thank you for reading, and here’s to a more sensible year.