An incomplete history of wanting it both ways
In the morning of my ideal day, I wake up early. I stay in bed smiling, half awake, letting my mind play out the phantom ends of lingering visions. I meditate for thirty minutes, an hour. I write in a notebook, read a poem, sound a bell, brew a cup of tea.
Somewhere nearby there’s an ocean. Somewhere there’s a damp forest. I watch the wind catpaw the water and scout the ground for treasures: bone, shell, edible stalks.
At home, the vegetable garden takes care of itself, with my stumbling encouragement, beneath my studio at the top of a hill. In my ideal world, on my ideal day, the studio is a simple, modern cabin behind the home I’ve built with the hands and help of friends, and my partner, Steve. He has a studio too. Maybe he skis to it. All of my studio’s walls are windows. I write all morning, pausing to swim.
Then, in the afternoon, I go out. Friends call and we collaborate. We knock on doors. I speak to people about local elections and priority hire contracting; they tell me what they love. I listen to a community meeting about a new park. Steve and I fix up a building. A few nights a week I practice with a steel pan band. A few nights a week I take in a lecture, or a gallery opening, or a play. I end the day in a sauna, with deeply loved intimates, friends and Steve. He and I dream until we sleep outdoors.
Where will do I live on this ideal day? Even in my fantasies I don’t know where to roost. I wake in the morning on the coast of Alaska or Washington, spend the afternoon in Philadelphia, or Berlin, or New York, and go to sleep on the coast again. I want both days: a pastoral solitude in which to write and commune with the dirt, and the restless urban energy to work — blusteringly, driven, vulnerable in our passion, bound up in community. And then, which city, which wilderness, where?
My name is Jen. I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut, but I don’t expect to ever live there again. In the last four years I have lived in New York (during and after college), Berlin (to study abroad), Alaska (for a documentary project), Bainbridge Island, outside of Seattle (while Steve attended grad school), Philadelphia (for an internship), and Seattle itself – where I live now while Steve finishes his degree. Come this summer, we’ll move back to Philadelphia, because we fell in love with it last year, and because we equate places with emotions, and hope we’ll fall in love over again there.
For a living, I write. Mostly about cities, in particular how to make them more equitable and more in harmony with the earth. I write about infrastructure, is another way to say that. I can work from anywhere, which is both liberating and crazy-making. This moving every year is the online-dating version of homebuilding. Every plausible new life beckons. I compare each one’s charms and detriments to the last, and salivate over how tantalizing the next will be.
I’m reading this book now, Art and Fear. It quotes the artist Ben Shahn: “The painter who stands before an empty canvas must think in terms of paint.” Of course, some of the canvases that impacted me most this year were not painted, but punctured, charred, and rent in an exhibition in Amsterdam I saw during a 24-hour layover there. But I appreciate the point: an artist working with canvas must think in terms of canvas.
Which is to say, I have to live my life in terms of days. “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives,” writes Annie Dillard. I can’t spend my mornings on the west coast, and my evenings on the east. I can only do one thing at a time. I have to take the knife to the canvas, not plan to. All this thinking on the nomadic life — not necessarily the geographic shiftiness of it, but the doubt as to whether this point on the map is better than the former or the next — I could spend all my days waiting to feel settled. I’m learning instead to move with purpose and rest in forgiveness, setting up more or less permanent shelter, ever encamped in myself.
The unmarred canvas grows less innocent by the hour. “What’s so hard about that first sentence is that you’re stuck with it,” writes Joan Didion. “Everything else is going to flow out of that sentence. And by the time you’ve laid down the first two sentences, your options are all gone.” Also, a world has begun to come into being. I don’t want to neglect that world-building out of fear of making the wrong choice.
“Your job is to develop an imagination of the possible,” says Art and Fear. “A finished piece is, in effect, a test of correspondence between imagination and execution.” So let us correspond: revealing the hopeful, gap-toothed grin between where we feel ourselves to be and where we are.
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