It does not do to love what is easy
On complicated relationships to place.
Happy Monday Folks,
I am looking at the calendar and somehow it is now June 20th, halfway through 2022, and I am convinced I am losing my grasp of time. This month has been a whirlwind— I spent the early days of it back in New York City for the first time since I moved out two years ago, then returned to North Carolina for my final week of teaching, then visiting family on the South Carolina coast, and now back to North Carolina, where I just moved to downtown Durham. I am at that point where I no longer know where I am or what day it is. Usually that would stress me out to an extreme. But I am trying instead to lean into the feeling, to trust that all will work out as it is meant to, in its own time.
Even as I am surrounded by boxes and almost nothing has been unpacked, I am struck by the feeling in this new space that it is the first time in my adult life that I have really loved where I live. That it has immediately felt like home. I’m renting an apartment in an old warehouse right in the middle of downtown, and I keep thinking that this is the space I used to dream of as a child, thinking one day I would live in New York or San Francisco and my life would be easy, then. I would be able to simply love where I live and hold no complicated feelings about it. I would be able to finally settle, and build a home in a place, the way I had never felt I could before.
Of course, much of that feeling is childhood fantasy. I know that, and yet, my whole life, it has always felt like I am looking for home. Like every new place I go to will feel like one, or somewhere that could be one. It has felt impossible to allow myself to enjoy where I am, and even when I have loved a place, it has felt like it comes with caveats, as if I must constantly explain and defend why I love it. Never in my life have I felt I could just love something without attachments, based simply on the fact that it pleases me. It does not matter if it is an apartment, a relationship, a research topic, a film. There must always be a defense. This is a world, in the end, that loves to judge.
I have felt this most when it comes to home. Growing up, I used to tell people that I was from California just because it was where I was born, despite the fact that I had no family there any longer, that all my family was concentrated back in the Carolinas, where we have always been. It was easier to say San Francisco, and hear people talk about how they love it, what a cool city is is. It was uncomplicated. Simple.
When I went off to college, I was one of three people from South Carolina in my entire freshman class. New York City brought the world together before my eyes— and it also made me feel impossibly far from the world I had known. I chose to turn my back on that world, expecting that I would find acceptance once I was away from it. I say acceptance but I what I think I really wanted was ease. Not in the way I lived, but in other people’s reactions to it. I wanted to feel proud of where I was from, where I chose to live. I wanted the affirmation that I was a cool, conscious, open-minded person, and that the place I chose to live would reflect that, explaining it without me ever having to. The questions I got asked about life in New York were so different than the ones I got asked about home. They were so much easier. I just had to say that it was cool, and that I did love it, and that I was so happy to finally be living there, and people would go on their way. Even if I was lying.
But I did not love it and I was not happy and instead of feeling like I lived somewhere cool I felt like I was living somewhere where I was a fraud. I did not belong and I would never belong and soon everyone would see it. My mental health suffered. My relationships suffered. And my art suffered, which was to me the worst possible thing that could happen.
If you are an artist, you likely turn to your art in times of crisis. I do. My art is what has allowed me to process the world, to take what doesn’t make sense and twist it into words and phrases on a page until it begins to come together into something I can handle. It is not an exaggeration for me to say I would not be alive without writing. I think often of this quote from the brilliant Melissa Febos’ Body Work:
“Tenacity is often cited as the most common characteristic of successful authors. Of the many talented people I’ve met—classmates, students, friends—many of them no longer write. The ones who have kept doing so have made it central to their lives both external and internal. Writing is hard. It is not the most apparently useful kind of work to do in the world. Most of us are not out here saving any lives but our own, though its power to do that (at least in my case) is uncontestable. The older I get, the less convinced I am about most things, but this is one of the great facts of my life.
I cannot imagine nurturing a devotion to any practice more consistently than one which yields the reward of transformation, the assurance of lovability, and the eradication of regret. No professional ambition could possibly matter more than the freedom to return, again and again.”
Art is what allows us to save our own lives. And if we take this to be true, what is one meant to do when their art betrays them, and you cannot find the words? There are entire months of my life in New York where I could hardly write a single world. I had chosen the city because I believed that was where real writers went— where I would find my voice and prove myself as an artist. Instead my voice just felt lost in the thousands of other voices the city holds. I did not have anything to say.
When I began taking memoir classes, writing about the South and thinking of it as a place of value and interest for the first time in my life, it was as if something unlocked for me. As an artist, I am not interested in what is easy, what is uncomplicated. When I teach narrative to my students, we often talk about plot structure and the necessity of conflict. What good does it to do me to write about a place I feel uncomplicated about? To write only about places that I love?
It was hard for me to return to New York recently. I kept being struck by the feeling that I did still love this place, though that love has come largely in the rearview. I also knew that, if it came down to it, I would not be able to make art in this place. I would be too overwhelmed by the amount of voices, the pressures to always be writing something smart or beautiful or interesting, and I would lose myself in that. When I write about the South I am unraveling complicated histories and conflicted feelings and examining places where stories are not often told. I am building on the narratives that have made my family— and thus have made me— and weaving together new stories. I am angry and I am in love and I am ashamed and I am in awe and this is the fire that is needed to make something new. It does not do to love something easy. I am not looking for simplicity; I want my art to go deeper than that. I want my work to say something, and to mean what it says. I will not do it because anyone else wants me to or expects it of me or because it is what sells on the market. I will write what I feel to be important and true and I will wait for the right audience to find it.
A few weeks ago I shared this tweet and I have been thinking of it ever since.
Rich, complicated, and fertile are what I would like my work to be. I will not write elegies. I will not write love letters. I will simply write what I see before me— a place where things grow out of what is often dead and buried. But still they grow.