Real work

All the things one has forgotten scream for help in dreams. – Elias Canetti

Lacets défaits (8 August 2020)

In the dream, the red backpack hangs on a hook in the closet of the childhood bedroom you shared with two of your sisters. You pull it down, put it on the bed, open it. Inside are clothes you once owned and loved: socks, t-shirts, pants. Your sisters are there, suddenly; all seven of them. They surround you. They watch as you pull out the clothes, one article at a time. At the sight of each piece, they cheer and clap joyfully. Even Julie with whom you haven’t spoken in over twenty years.

“What does it mean?” you ask the shaman.

He responds with a question: “What were you like when you owned that backpack?”

You smile as you answer. How could you not? The girl with the red backpack was so fucking awesome. She was drawing, and writing. She was crushing her philosophy classes, killing her English Lit ones. She was singing, too: in the university chamber choir, and in a local blues band whose drummer and rhythm guitar player had her constantly in stitches. She had also started playing guitar, and she was composing songs. She’d discovered a love for traveling, first as a nanny in the Boston area and on Nantucket Island, then as an alto in the chamber choir to New York City, and as a student in the Honors Program to Québec City and Washington D.C. She’d even spent a semester in France. She had friends, good ones. Julie, too. They all made her laugh, they all made her think. She had also this incredibly sexy Jesus-look-a-like boyfriend who made the best mixed tapes. He called her pussycat; he couldn’t keep his hands off her. He made her feel so beautiful, so loved, so alive. She had so much to be joyful about, this girl with the red backpack.

But she defended her undergraduate thesis, a 70-page memoir of sorts called Driving in which she had intellectualized God right out of her life; she graduated with honors; she took a job as a teaching assistant in Le Mans, France. She discarded the tattered red backpack before leaving, she lost the sexy boyfriend not long after. How ugly she was again, suddenly. Inside, outside: ugly, ugly, ugly. She numbed the pain of her loss not through alcohol or drugs, but through grinding work. For two years she focused all her energy on turning her childhood heritage French into a fully developed language she could read and write. She would go from there to the University of Maine and then to Université Laval in Québec City to do more of the same, and from there to Boston and then to Brooklyn to teach. There was work to do. There was always work to do. Work, work, work.

Water stain for Lacets defaits

At home, before bed, you download on your Kindle the book the shaman had recommended with a strange note of urgency in his voice at the end of the session: The Artist’s Way. In the morning, on the treadmill, you read the introduction. It’s the cheesiest fucking shit you have ever read. But you trust the shaman; if he thinks you should read this book, then you will read the book. You draft and sign the artist contract that evening. You commit to taking yourself on a weekly artist date, and to writing the morning pages.

In these pages, you go back to the dream. If you are both all the people and all the clothing being pulled from the red backpack the way the shaman suggested, then you are rejoicing at finding yourself. Toothpick, of course. But also Red and Blackie, Richard, Pritchard, Stu, and Poots, Patsy Wiggins and Uncle Pete. Frankie, too.

Frankie at work on the typewriter (1984)

“You’re a moron,” says this Frankie, “You’re pathetic. Worthless. No wonder Jerry left you. You deserve to grow old and die alone, you stupid cow. Your life is a mess and it’s your own damn fault. Boo, hoo, hoo. Nobody gives a shit. Nobody wants to hear it. It’s annoying. You’re annoying. So be quiet. Shut the fuck up.”

That’s odd. Why in hell would your sisters have cheered and clapped with joy at finding this kid in the red backpack? Has she always been such a toxic little bitch? Has she always been this condescending and demeaning and critical and abusive?

You don’t know? Well of course you don’t know! How could you know? You’ve done nothing all these years but ignore the poor kid. You’ve done nothing but run away from her. Unsuccessfully, as you can see. Because here she is. Here you are. So angry all the time. Why are you so angry? Why do you treat herself so badly? When did you get to be this way? Have you ever asked yourself? No, you haven’t. Nobody has. At this point, you wouldn’t be able to answer even if someone did. You don’t remember. But remember you must. Anger, in case you didn’t know, is a secondary emotion. Knowing what hides behind yours is the key to understanding the three things Frankie needs to be the person in whose presence you will rejoice: care, attention, and love.

This is the work. The real work. You must do it. Religiously. As if your life depends on it. Because it does. Because also: the publisher is coming.1

  1. See Yes, daddy. ↩︎

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