On urban hermits, reading, and making a life for yourself
|Alejandra Oliva||Jun 29|
In Annie Dillard’s book, For the Time Being, she quotes Theresa Mancuso, a church-sanctioned hermit living in New York City: “The thing we desperately need is to face the way it is.”
The last time I read For the Time Being, I was living in an apartment in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens in Brooklyn with two friends from undergrad. I looked up Theresa Mancuso, and she lived, for years, only a few blocks from that apartment, a short walk from where I slept and ate and cried and left every morning to go to a job that a lot of the time, drained my energy without giving much of anything in return—not even much of a salary, honestly.
In 1996, Mancuso set out her basic beliefs and tenets as an urban hermit in an essay for the Review for Religious. Like me, Mancuso had a job, likely commuted on the same train I did, faced the indignities and strangenesses of life in New York City, all the while, in her own words, engaged in “prayer that is intimate and ongoing moment by moment, hour by hour, cements our union with God and prompts the conversion of our hearts over and over again, making holy not only our poor, fragile lives, but everything we touch and everyone we love.”
Last week, I finished reading Kate Zambreno’s new novel, Drifts, and found myself again thinking of Theresa Mancuso, and of my neighborhood in Brooklyn, and of all the ways in which a life can turn towards art and contemplation and solitude, even through all the ways it is difficult and maddening and lonely. Throughout the book, the main character and her partner worry about money, about leaving the city for an isolated cabin somewhere, for looking for somewhere cheaper—all in order to balance this life of writing and thinking and reading. Drifts hews closely to Zambreno’s own life—her house in a neighborhood near my old haunts in Brooklyn, working on a book, commuting to class, having a child. Zambreno was my teacher in undergrad: when she writes about former students emailing her to ask for recommendations, when she writes about resenting having to “sell the writing life” to student writers, I recognize emails I’ve sent her in the middle of some writers-life-crisis or another (How on earth will I find the time to write within the structure/strictures of this job? How does one find an agent? How do you even go about building this kind of life?). “Was being a writer a way of escaping from having a job, or was it, as others have framed it, extreme discipline and unceasing solitary labor? I didn’t know anymore. The lofty comparison irked me; the spirit of Sebald’s comment is right, to write with attention to the present is in some way to become like a dog.” Drifts is a dog book, but within it, she answers her own questions in the clearest way possible—it is somehow both and neither.
In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard says that “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.” Drifts is a minute accounting of these days and minutes—the inabilities to write, the emails to friends that are full of doubt or competition or support, the long, lazy afternoons with books laid out on the table in front of you, the return and recursion to texts, to images, to conversations. This is the stuff of the writing life, not necessarily or always or ever Jo March in her scribbling suit in her garrett, or Emily Dickinson drifting through housework. It’s hard work in equal measure to distraction, dissatisfaction in higher proportion than triumph. I’ve always liked reading Zambreno’s work because her reading lists run nearly parallel to mine—she quotes Simone Weil, Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, alongside other people I’ve never read, and these are the characters that populate her work. Drifts is in many ways not dissimilar to accounts of monastic life I’ve read—Thomas Mertons’ The Sign of Jonas comes to mind, especially. Zambreno’s desire for Drifts was to write a book in which drifts of time would accumulate like snow or sand blown against a window, granular and fluid all at the same time.
We’re several months into a quarantine, several months into a time when time has moved strangely, circularly, dripping and crystallizing by turns. I often feel as if I’m wasting it, as if the last three months have been a total wash. I’ve been bad at reading (mostly romance novels), bad at writing (scraping by on like 600 words and definitely not daily), bad at exercise (rarely), at leaving the house, at taking showers, at not drinking every night. But I think it’s also been contemplative, in the way that both Mancuso and Zambreno outline. That is to say: not easy, full of distractions and deferrals and an inability to get to the actual heart of the thing despite wanting to.
In the novel itself, the Zambreno-character wrestles with Drifts like Jacob wrestling with the angel—its unwieldy and important and strange and at once impossible to do and happening just before your eyes as you read it. Mancuso writes about prayer and especially the Liturgy of the Hours as something both impossible and dearly wanted—working life does not accommodate itself to a monastic schedule, and so instead she does the impossible, setting up a thrumming undercurrent of the Jesus prayer throughout her day.
Both Mancuso and Zambreno’s writing are about this—about doing the thing, (the writing the prayer) even though there is every reason, every way, every inclination in your heavy body and your sluggish mind not to, even though most days it doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything at all. While Mancuso’s writing is triumphant, victorious, secure in its relationship with God, Zambreno’s is full of the struggle, of the everydayness of the writing life—watching her dog, the neighbors, dipping into and out of texts, dealing with having a body, but she nevertheless does what at least Mancuso’s goal is, which is to have a life centered at least somewhat around writing and thinking and looking at Durer prints. There are commutes, and meetings with students, but through it all there’s still the reading and the writing and a life that is centered around her home, with its big bed and front porch.
As it is starting to seem like we are going to be inside for much longer than expected, I want to sink into this contemplative life, have my stay at home be a feature of the year and not a bug, find the ways in which the rituals of the day can shape my thought and my reading and writing. I want to face the way it is, and also keep fixed in my mind the way it might be, through enough attention and work and love.
Theresa Mancuso, “The Urban Hermit: Monastic Life in the City.” Review for Religious, March/April 1996.
Kate Zambreno, Drifts, Riverhead Books, 2020.
Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas.
Regina Spektor, Summer in the City, because well, it is, and we are all so lonely lonely lonely.
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This month, I had a piece come out on Patagonia’s blog on the risk and rewards inherent in falling in love with our planet. As with all my writing, it’s a little bit about God, a lot about trees. I also got to do the illustrations for this—I created the embroidery collage based on stuff I found in my neighborhood and shot photos of it in the empty lot next to my house.