Friday, August 5, 2011

In Writing, Life Laughs

"But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?"
--Albert Camus

I talked to my best friend for a while last night.   I talk to her a lot, even in good times.

I can't offer consolation.  I can only use my own experiences to listen to what her experiences right now are.  I told her, "We can't make sense of senselessness, we can only talk about the senselessness itself, I think."

In that conversation, there is meaning.

Every life has its moments of senselessness.  No life always means what we want it to or what we think it's supposed to.

When you are talking about the death of someone you love, it's particularly hard to put things into words.  I always remember feeling like I had to talk "around" my dad's death for a while, because the pain frightens you so much, you don't want to speak about it and risk stepping into it.

You have to listen to the silences, be comfortable with them, and let them be.  I've learned to be patient in life; to speak my mind, but also, to wait and watch.

But I can still make my friend laugh.  When I saw that, I was relieved.  That has always been my worry for her, that because of what has happened, she won't be able to laugh the way she used to.

The two gifts I'm most grateful for in life are my ability to write and my ability to make other people laugh.

When I laugh, I can hear my dad's laugh.  I can hear Ezra's giggle.  I can hear my mom's quiet chuckle.

And that's how I remember my friends: I remember the sound and the looks of their laughter.  It gives you strength and comfort, always.

I started this blog almost a year ago, and it has been, hands down, the best thing I've done with my life and my writing.  So much more has come from it than I could have ever imagined. 

I like the spontaneity of it.  I can put up posts, written for a specific purpose or with a particular situation in mind, and then take them down once I know the purpose I had in mind has been achieved.

Or, I can put things up and keep them up.

In this way, I can sort out what has mattered for a moment and what I have wanted to say, from what actually matters and what I feel I need to say.  There's a huge difference between the two, and too often, I think we conflate them.

The mixture of spontaneity and permanence that electronic communication offers is fascinating to me: I enjoy navigating its (occasionally tumultuous) waters.

It enables me to distinguish the ephemera of my life from the permanence of who I am.  The "me" from the "not-me."

It can be a kind of call-and-response to the world at large.  It can be a way of playing with the people and the stuff of life, testing their mettle before deciding what to pick up and  keep and what to speak about and then leave behind.

I think that's the most important thing in life: figuring out what matters enough to take it with you.

Because you can't keep it all.  Things change, people leave, situations unfold and unravel and reform themselves in other ways.  What looked clear and certain one day can become cloudy and uncertain the next.

You don't want to end up an exhausted and angry traveler, bogged down with all of the baggage you've picked up along the way.

Because come to find out, you can't check any of it.  You choose it, you keep it.  And then your life becomes a constant struggle to shoulder those burdens and try to get comfortable with them.  Everything you say and do shows your struggle, not who you yourself are and want to be.

When I write, I know that there is a larger harmony and purpose in life, because I can feel it when my thoughts and my words align.

It's a nearly spiritual thing for me.  I can look at a sentence and say, "Yes, that's it.  That's one of them."

I feel this when I read some of Joan Didion's sentences, for example.  I think its musical equivalent is perfect pitch.  

It's not that I feel like what I write is somehow the manifestation of sentences that are already "out there." But when I write and I feel that I have connected to something outside of myself and chosen to share it with others, it resonates for me.

There's always an inherent vulnerability in that, of course.  You can always be misread.  Not everyone will hear the harmonies that you hear. 

Sometimes, people will think it sounds godawful and wrong.

And that can be a scary thing, of course.  It can plant seeds of self-doubt.  You have to be strong, to be a writer.  You have to be confident, always, if you're going to do your best work.

And you need to do your best work.  Time is short.

It's not possible to be confident all the time, but you always have to try and always, you have to practice.

In the trying and the practicing, you will eventually achieve it.  That is what great art is: beautiful things that happened while trying and practicing.

If you let the insecurities slip in, your words and your phrases will skid away from you.  Your thoughts have to be firmly planted in their expression.  It's your job to find that expression, and to weed out other people's attempts to change who you are and what you will say.

Writers write because they have to: they do it regardless of what others around them think and say.  They can't be stopped.  It's as simple as that.

I think of it this way: in ten years, the words of the critics and naysayers will have faded.  They're ephemeral, because they're written, not from their own souls and sensibilities, but in response to something in you and in your words that bothers them.  Something they feel the need to silence.

How sad it would be to let something ephemeral stop you from articulating something that you feel is honest and true and resonant.  (As Camus once said, ""To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.")

I think the difficulty in life is to see what is in front of us now in terms of what has been, to let go of the need to try to predict or force a sense of what will be, and always, to laugh, genuinely, no matter what is happening around you.

Camus once wrote, "A person's life purpose is nothing more than to rediscover, through the detours of art or love or passionate work, those one or two images in the presence of which his heart first opened."  

And then to write it down.  I'm very much looking forward to another year of (nearly constant) blogging.  I love doing this.  I couldn't stop now if I wanted to.  And I love that people are reading and writing emails and comments to me about it--because it means that my words mean something to them, make them think and write and react.

If I didn't write, they wouldn't read and they wouldn't respond.  We would lose that.

A piece of me is now with them, always.  And they are with me.  And what we each do with that will ultimately tell a story about who we are and what we value.

Camus said, "The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself."  He also said, "The need to be right [is] the sign of a vulgar mind."

We all search for connection, for the right kinds of connections, for ties that bind and matter.  Occasionally we stumble on some things we wish we hadn't come across, but always, we can listen and learn.

Again, Camus: "Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better."

For me, that is the best day: when something comes to me and I can think about it and learn from it and be better because of it.  When something "negative" comes to me, I don't think of it as "negative" anymore: I look and it and think, "What is this?  Where is it coming from?   What can it teach me?"

Just because I don't like it, doesn't mean it isn't useful and important.  Stepping aside from the emotion is important.  It's a process.  We all have emotions, we all react.  But it's what we do after we react that matters most, I think.

Albert Camus also said,
An intellectual is someone whose mind watches itself.   I like this, because I am happy to be both halves, the watcher and the watched. "Can they be brought together?" This is a practical question. We must get down to it. "I despise intelligence" really means: "I cannot bear my doubts."
I think a lot about Buddhist doctrines of non-attachment.  Whenever I feel myself getting anxious about a situation, I find the humor in it, because this is what laughter does: it acknowledges that we are (or can be) separate from the happenings in our lives, but it connects us to them in a wonderful way.

A Yiddish proverb says, "What soap is to the body, laughter is to the soul."

Time spent laughing is never wasted: they are the moments we always remember.  We so rarely think of this--we think of life's traumas and disappointments, or life's big achievements and milestones.

Life's laughs.  That's what we need to remember.  ""Blessed are the hearts that can bend; they shall never be broken." (Camus, of course!)

I'm grateful for the chance to write and to laugh; to laugh, in writing, and to write, while laughing.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading and commenting and emailing.  I have learned so much from all of you.

Hope to see you here again a year from now, and all the days in between.
"Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend."  -- Albert Camus 


  1. This was so beautiful. The writing and the sentiment took my breath away. Thank you for writing this. I think i am going to print it out and keep a copy of it with me to put in my room in Azerbaijan. Keep smiling Harriet. Keep making those around you smile.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

    As I said, I thought of you a lot when writing it. I've been missing you this summer!!!

    I'm thinking I'd really like to see Azerbaijan... I haven't been to Russia in years, and I want to go again... what better reason?

    Must discuss over lunch/dinner and wine. Soon.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."