Today, for the first time in 12 months, I went to my local library, which only reopened last week. It’s the branch featured in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I love it so much that I’ve run a free cinema club in its basement for local retirees. (Lots of Fred and Ginger.) The setup is still bare bones–you can only return books and pick up ones that you’ve reserved in advance–but just stepping into its atrium was so joyful that I burst into tears as soon as I sniffed its familiar scent of paste and paper. “Our favorite patron returns!” sang one librarian as I took a masked bow. But besides bragging about my library celeb status (arguably the highest status of them all), the reason I am sharing this story is because I wanted to confess I pulled a total Grace Paley. Which is to say: dropped off Reckless Daughter, David Yaffe’s biography of Joni Michell–and then immediately checked it back out. Apparently a year is not long enough to absorb the beautiful mystery that is Joni. Hello, my life.
Once upon a time I loathed this holiday and still think there’s more joy, communion, and revelation to be gleaned outside romantic love than capitalism suggests. But I am an enormous fan of intimacy and vulnerability, and have come to believe this is what St. Valentines is really about. David Whyte writes: “Heartbreak is an inescapable and beautiful question, not the cessation of hope but the closest embrace of what we have wanted or are about to lose.” It may seem odd to write about heartbreak today. To be alive to love is to be alive to loss, though, because love never goes away but it always changes form. The acceptance of that change—even as it hurts, especially as it hurts—teaches us how to embrace the essence of love. Today and every day, may your heart be embraced—especially where it’s been broken open.
As we move through this first week of a new year and await the results of the pivotal senate races in Georgia and Trump’s last-ditch coup attempt, I’m reminded that even when change feels too slow—or nonexistent!—it’s unfolding as it should.
In fact, change is the only true constant, and what we’re doing is impactful even when we feel isolated, ill, ineffective—thoroughly thoroughly irritated. All we ever have to do is our best, and sometimes all our best entails is breathing in, breathing out. As my teacher, the wonderful beat writer Hettie Jones, used to say: “Are you breathing, are you lucky enough?”
Sometimes breathing is miracle enough.
I don’t think I’d be feeling so sanguine if I hadn’t stumbled upon this exchange after I posted yesterday. Sanguine is actually a terrible pun, for it’s from Only Lovers Left Alive, Jim Jarmusch’s wondrous 2014 meditation on science, art, and time masquerading as a vampire film, of all things. In it, Tilda Swinton counsels depressive spouse Tom Hiddleston, who’s considering offing himself after centuries of ennui:
How can you have lived for so long and still not get it? This self-obsession is a waste of living. It could be spent surviving things, appreciating nature, nurturing kindness and friendship, and dancing.