Turning It Over
Routine, acedia, bad weather, creation
Frigid mornings, finally. Into a stretch, now, of colder weather after disorienting ground-thaw on the first day of the year. There’s such a thing as “bonspiel thaw,” a span of warmth at the end of January, brought on by mild Pacific air moving over the continent, but this New Year’s Day spring was not that. Not expected, not widely shared, bearing no name and no precedent.
Head full of January intention. A thin, harmed focus returning. The season’s sky-blue and tunnels of grey. I have come to love this time of year, its quiet, its underground, its thinness. This time, though, another closing down accompanies it, memories of two Marches ago, not so novel anymore, save for the way Omicron is mushrooming through. I want no Zoom events, no books about pandemics past, no exercise regimen on the living-room floor, but I will partake of all these things anyway.
Back at the start, it was easier to imagine the other side. (Publishers moving all their spring books to the fall, remember that? How optimistic we were!) I used to imagine skipping around wearing bunny ears once we found ourselves past this, a springtime joy upon completion. Now, I know better than to assume such a concrete thing as an “end.” Now, sorrow at this continued apartness, the long harm it’s causing, and alarm at this strain’s virulence, at what remains unknown as we make the hard shift from pandemic to endemic, from noun to adjective. We’re in another sort of early stage. January, a season of reflection, intention, stillness, seems the best month to meet this.
Last January I made myself a program. Roughly (though it was anything but rough): wake, write, walk, work, read, rest. I’m dusting off, fine-tuning, that program again. I heard Zadie Smith in an interview not long ago lament the relentlessness of her routine: a day of writing, a day of reading, a day of teaching, repeat. I felt such envy. She expressed shame. Her boring old habits.
Acedia, the noonday demon, a vice dumped off the books by Christianity centuries ago. A “most complicated and most deadly…mixture of boredom, sorrow, and despair,” writes Aldous Huxley.[i] Poet Kathleen Norris describes it as containing “so many concepts: weariness, despair, ennui, boredom, restlessness, impasse, futility.”[ii] Its hallmarks, the sources of its great harm, are avoidance, numbness, “an unearned indifference to the vagaries of experience and emotion, because one hasn’t really endured them. Acedia will always take the path of least resistance and attempt to go around, rather than through, the demands that life makes of us.”[iii]
There’s a school of thought identifying mass human indifference to climate change as growing out of an endemic acedia. This seems to be what my next book is trying to blast its way out of: that pervasive disregard for what’s in front of us, the sort of detachment from reality that leads us to carry on causing such harm, relentless, unmoved.
Suggestions offered through the ages to help break debilitating acedia, this profound lassitude and emptiness in response to hard circumstances, call to mind the meditative winter season: a focus on daily, menial tasks; a concern only with the present moment; a close reading of your thoughts as you have them; a dedication to stillness and attention to what’s around you; and poetry; and song.
I read through Fast Commute one last time this week, then it’s off to the printer. This book’s long, slow process, the extended looking at bugs in muck, at sunset through rush-hour exhaust, at pigeons nosing around indoors. A book whose subject I resisted with my whole self for a time, until I figured out how to keep still and stare deeply, lest I be rendered perennially, toxically unmoved.
It’s the morning after sviaty vechir, it’s Ukrainian Christmas Day. Pre-Christianity, this time of year celebrates the birth of the world, the receding of night and the coming of day, creation, the slow turn toward spring. I’ve found the song below and I’ve been going around with its melody in my head, “Ой як же було ізпрежди віка” (“Oh, how it was before all time”), singing into the cold winter.
Oh, how it was before all time Oh, God, let it be. Oh, when there was no sky and earth Oh, God, let it be. When there was only the blue sea Oh, God, let it be. Lights were burning on that sea Oh, God, let it be. And the holy ones were sitting near the lights Oh, God, let it be. Holding a council as to whom to send into the sea Oh, God, let it be. Oh, go, Peter, to the bottom of the sea Oh, God, let it be. And retrieve, Peter, some yellow sand Oh, God, let it be. Let us sow it all over the world Oh, God, let it be. So that the sky and earth would be born Oh, God, let it be. The sky – with stars, the earth – with flowers Oh, God, let it be.[iv]
[i] Aldous Huxley, On the Margin (George H. Doran Company, 1923), p. 28.
[ii] Kathleen Norris, Acedia & me. (Riverhead Books, 2008), p. 231. (With thanks to Sheri Benning for the tip!)
[iii] ibid., p. 150–151.
[iv] Translation of lyrics found on the Euromaidan Press website: https://euromaidanpress.com/2016/01/07/prehistoric-christmas-reconstructed-a-celebration-of-the-birth-of-the-world/