On Giving Things Up

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Last week, in a conversation about my upcoming move to Hungary, a friend asked me, “How could you give up your apartment here?” I found this question difficult to answer; after all, we are defined in large part by our willingness and unwillingness to give up certain things. For me, giving up an apartment (under these circumstances) is easy; for someone else, it may be unthinkable. But I struggle with other material attachments. When sorting and packing my things, I have paused for a long time over books. I can’t bring many books with me, but I find more and more that I don’t want to leave behind. I am just putting them in storage–they won’t be gone–but I won’t be able to take them out of the shelf whenever I want.

Extreme circumstances–a war, flood, earthquake, fire, or other calamity–can force a person to give up things that otherwise would have seemed indispensable. Even a minor life change requires relinquishment of some kind. All the same, in large and small situations, each of us has a unique response to things that stay and go. Whether in times of ease or difficulty, no two people attach in the same way to their possessions, surroundings, and relationships.

Why is it easy for me to give up my place? After selling my apartment in Brooklyn, I chose to rent (rather than buy) an apartment so that I would have greater flexibility. I wanted to be open to future possibilities. So in a way the departure was already built in; I just didn’t know what form it would take. I love the neighborhood–particularly Fort Tryon Park–and am grateful for the two years here. It was an ideal place for writing my book (which is inching toward publication, by the way; there’s no concrete news yet, but I see light ahead).

So one answer to the question is, “This was part of the plan, before I even knew what the plan would be.” But another answer has to do with my sense of home. In my adult life I have spent years in one place or another–over a decade in New Haven, seven years in San Francisco, thirteen years in Brooklyn, two years in upper Manhattan, and seven Julys in Dallas. I am not one to move around continually. But I have no single home; each of these places is still a home for me, and there will be more.

Home does not exist for me without homesickness and longing for unknown places. Those are two different longings, though they combine at times; homesickness is a longing for a real or imagined home, while that longing for other places–places that aren’t home–pulls a person away from home, away even from homesickness, into travel and exploration. In his video introduction to his Shudh Sarang-sextet, Iván Fischer describes his search for a single word for such longing, something along the lines of “farsickness.” He had a wonderful Hungarian word, elvágyódások, but could not find a title in English that conveyed what he wanted.

So to answer the question, I would have to explain my sense of home, homesickness, and longing for the faraway. That could take a few years; in the meantime, the relations might have altered or shifted. For most of my adult life, I have not traveled much abroad, but the few trips I took on my own (to Kyrgyzstan, Argentina, Lithuania, Turkey, Slovakia, and Hungary) became part of my daily thought. The move to Hungary is more than travel; I don’t know what it will become, and I look forward to finding out.

Isn’t this true for everyone? Doesn’t each person have a sense of home that is difficult to explain to others, that changes shape over a lifetime, and that gets pushed and pulled in unexpected ways?

Back to the sorting and packing….

 

I took this photo in Baja, Hungary.

Twitter and Loss of Solitude

Last March, during a book talk,  Jonathan Franzen committed the scandalous act of criticizing Twitter. An audience member took issue not with his points, but with his failure to admit to his own privilege. Franzen, she argued, doesn’t have to  worry about promoting himself. His publicist probably dreams about him every night. Many lesser-known writers have to go on Twitter and Facebook if they want to reach readers.

But do we? Isn’t there a way to reach people without reducing yourself? If you genuinely enjoy Twitter—and many do—then it can have benefits. It can serve as a good source of information, if nothing else. But if you aren’t drawn to it, why force yourself to use it? One of the most grating aspects of Twitter (and other social media) is the subjection of everything to a popularity vote and public display.

Publicity is not evil; writers and others need to reach an audience. Still, there are many ways of doing this, each with its benefits and costs. One must choose carefully, resisting pressure to join the crowd.

Promoting your work through Twitter is no mere thumb movement. It isn’t enough, from what I have seen, to toss out a tweet now and then. No, you have to build a following (which you can check moment to moment). This requires time and strategic activity. What’s more, it requires that you look somewhat friendly and accessible. You tweet about how great it was to meet so-and-so for lunch. You tweet that you’d love to come to so-and-so’s reading but—alas—are about to board the plane to LA, where you will be giving a reading of your own. Too bad! Another time!

Now, some claim that this sort of online socializing actually preserves privacy. Susan Cain suggests that it appeals to introverts because it relieves them of the pressure to socialize in person. According to Cain, it is more comfortable for them to tweet and blog than to speak in public or introduce themselves at parties. Clearly there’s some truth to that. It’s probably less draining in some ways to send a hundred tweets than to meet ten people in a day. Introvert or extrovert, a person gets tired.

Let’s set aside the question of introversion for the moment and consider solitude instead. (Introvert-extrovert distinctions are a bit messy, in my view.) If you value solitude—that is, time apart in the mind, even time alone with a friend—do you really want to muddy it up with tweets of “great to see you” and “say hi to Nancy”? Are your conversations really mass entertainment pieces? Some will argue that such communications aren’t special or intimate–so nothing is lost in making them public. But I consider even acquaintanceships important enough (and, in a sense, private enough) to keep to myself.

In my book, Republic of Noise, I define solitude as the apartness we have at all times, which we may honor and shape or not. There is solitude in friendship, because friendship requires a certain aloneness of spirit, a willingness to take the other person on his or her own terms. Each friendship has its special language, history, and rituals, which are understood by the two friends alone. Conversations between friends do not have to become public property.  Something’s corrupted when they do.

I like to separate public from private. When in public–for instance, when giving a speech or teaching at school—my words are for all, and my focus is mainly on ideas, not on personal relationships. When in private, alone or with others, a mixture of ideas, rumblings, and affections (or, in some cases, antipathies) comes into play. Although it is impossible to separate the public and the private completely, I find meaning and respite in such division.

Twitter and other social media erode the distinction between public and private. They create a zone that is neither one nor the other. Of course, this erosion is not new, nor is social media the sole cause. Hannah Arendt considered it a feature of modernity;  she gives a fascinating analysis of the problem in The Human Condition. There is something perturbing about the zone that is neither this nor that—the extension of our selves into arenas that do not care for us.

Now, one can use Twitter in a purely formal manner: sending out links and announcements with no personal content. But unless you have a large following, this will likely have little effect; moreover, you still have to deal with tweets from others. I’d rather stay off the whole thing.

My upstart abstinence may cost me a host of readers. So be it; I’d rather have a thousand readers and independence of mind, than a hundred thousand and twice as many tweet-intrusions. I do not have to broadcast what is private or mundane (or even what is not). Some say social media is the wave of the future, but that does not obligate anyone to ride it. An age contains far more than its trends; a life, far more than avatars and “likes”; a book, far more than its surrounding chatter.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after its initial posting.