Dear Tracy,

Yesterday was the first time I’ve ever taxi-ed home from campus (a trip that normally amounts to a 20-minute walk) because I felt sooooo unwell. On a sort-of plus side: I can now empathize with people who get headaches. I never get sick, so I think the rocky starts afforded by January are finally catching up with me.

Things that I’ve been trying to do on the route to recovery:

1. Blow dry your head and neck with the setting on “Cool.”
2. Lie on the couch with your computer on your stomach, but not under the pretence that you are working.

This is my life right now. It is so real.

Love, and not working,
Jane

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Dear Tracy,

Aside from an independent reading course, I’m taking a few steps away from English seminars this term. I miss the discussions, but it must be good and healthy at this stage to be receptive to other models and zones of thought. My art history class is amazing, but it does generate its own lines of discourse and argumentation that knit my brows in a fancy knot at the end of each 3-hour session. It’s like learning a new language where you’ve been accidentally placed in an advanced class; you feel like everyone will know when you speak incorrectly, even if you’re not aware of doing so. My radical generalization from a dozen-person sample pool: art history discussions seem more aggressive than I recall literature ones being. Plus they constantly invoke artists who, for the most part, I’ve never heard of. It’s humbling.

Sometimes I mention film or photography. Sometimes I get to eagerly nod when someone refers to Fanon, Beauvoir, or Butler, but for the most part I’m pretty outside my comfort zone. The syllabus is broad and expansive — almost “hip,” if one could characterize a reading list as such — but it is nonetheless pointed and specific. Right now I’m basking in the wonderful philosophy and rhetoric of which the syllabus comprises, but it’s harder to talk about these readings intelligently in class — i.e. in relation to art or Art. At least I feel inadequate and foolish, and fall into making connections about the rhetorical similarities among the assigned readings because that’s the kind of close-reading I’m accustomed to.

There aren’t any real artworks or “texts” in the class. Just theory. Yet this decentering also forces me to open up my modes of thinking (and to be more rigorous and discerning in my comments — to veer away from the sometimes slippery and vague generalizations I fall into due to their intellectual loveliness or capaciousness). All of this is good. The professor is incredible. The students are so sharp and challenging. Perhaps I could reap compound interest if I just invest myself a bit more. Any learning works on a sliding scale.

Love,
Jane

Dear J–

When you look up ailments as often as I do, the checklist of confirming signs becomes a running tally of things to watch out for. After a while, they start blurring into one another. Everything is symptomatic. Luckily, regular exposure to the worrying pages of WebMD had made me immune to some of its threats; I visit them out of macabre interest rather than self-diagnosis now.  There is one symptom — a frequent appearance on the Internet —  that has always piqued my interest, though: “brain fog.”

What is a foggy mind? There is literally no way to ascertain its existence. The definitions offered on the Internet are abstract at best, and there is no way to test for it. The most I’ve come to approximating it is in pre-dawn hours, when I convince myself that I’m a morning person by brushing my teeth with my moisturizer. Its causes are abundant: they span from brain tumors to poor digestion, dehydration to electromagnetic pollution. Its treatments are, as you can imagine, equally uncertain.

I thought about this today, when – at the peak of my physical energy and water consumption – I found myself unable to do anything. I made three trips to the kitchen to get one glass. I changed tabs from gmail to open gmail. My brain cleared up momentarily, like blowing hard on frosted windowpanes, and I recalled this whole brain fog business. How unimaginatively impairing, really. I’d rather suffer something concrete.

I’ve been resenting this a lot because I have work to do — a ton of it. Approximately 18 and a half days ago I told myself that this year I’d be different. Harder on myself, because I never am enough. I have coached myself to develop tunnel vision and whittle away (or am attempting to) many of my superfluous interests. This year is all about good ideas and good work. I’ve been doing ok, developing discipline, all of those nice virtues I never had. I don’t really care for the rest. If only my brain could take a hint and clear up, out of respect.

Love,

T

Dear Tracy,

That poem! That poem and its future-pasts! (I’ll have been to New York City. I’ll have been to Los Angeles. I’ll hardly remember today at all.)

On another poetic note, I’ve been rereading Wordsworth for the course I’m TAing this term. This time around, I found the enormous pressure and privilege he places on poetic practice endearing more than anything else. The poet and “the man” are pretty synonymous throughout the Preface. Apparently, poets are everyday people who are just hyper-sensitive to surrounding stimuli. See? A return to the creative productiveness of sentiment indeed!

Here’s a gem on sympathy (one of my interests these days):

We have no sympathy but what is propagated by pleasure: I would not be misunderstood; but wherever we sympathize with pain it will be found that the sympathy is produced and carried on by subtle combinations with pleasure.

Or:

we not only wish to be pleased, but to be pleased in that particular way in which we have been accustomed to be pleased.

And yet another point for the sex-is-knowledge team:

he feels that his knowledge is pleasure; and where he has no pleasure he has no knowledge.

Maybe, then, thoughts have always been my way of being erotic? It’s time to read some more Terry Castle, perhaps.

Giddily,
Jane

Dear J–

It’s silly that you worry melodrama will cloud your intelligence or purpose in your writing, in your previous letter and everyday, when the truth of it is that it should be the nexus for criticism. Rarely do the subtle pangs of everyday sentiments tumefy to the point of providing clarity. When skin is distended it often leaves a mark, right? A lesson. I think it’s time we moved away from such an exclusionary discourse–are we done with hysteria already? can sentience be recognized for its power?–and started thinking about the pragmatism of emotion.

Your Eve Sedgwick is my Joan Didion. This week there has been a lot of ruckus over the article on Didion in the Atlantic. The debate among Didion readers, it would seem, is over her sensibility: it is either transcendental or deeply narcissistic, depending on the interviewee. The author argues that Didion’s “eternal-girl impulse, the one that follows us into adulthood: the desire to retreat to our room, to close the door, to spend some time alone with our thoughts and our feelings”, this practice that we both indulge and rue, has gotten old and cliché–but I profoundly disagree. There is a shadow of permanence there.

Didion is, to me, so much more than mohair and typewriters and leopard skirts. Yes, she articulated the melancholy of growing into ourselves in ways that generations of women never could, and yes, decades later her writing is still tidal, but with each iteration there is a deeper truth. She is rigorous. She is disciplined, and at times, she is austere. I think of Joan Didion when I am grieving, when I am sad beside myself, and this repetition – this “gimmick”, this “tic” they called it – is where the strength is found. With each pounding, a straighter sheet. And then you go on.

But while we’re indulging the topic of sentiment, I want to share a poem with you. I haven’t read or written poetry in a long time – a love expired, but never extinguished – but this came to mind when I read your letter. Her name is Marty McConnell, and she would never call your feminism bad feminism.

Excerpt from Survival Poem #17

recite
the strongest poem you know. a spell
against the lonely that gets you
in crowds and on three hours’ sleep.
wonder where the gods are now.
get up. because death is not
an alternative. because this is what you do.
air like soup, move. door, hallway, room.
pants, socks, shoes. sweater. coat. cold.
wish you were a bird. remember you
are not you, now. you are you
a year from now. how does that
woman walk? she is not sick or sad.
doesn’t even remember today.
has been to Europe. what song
is she humming? now. right now.
that’s it.

Love,

T