Things I can't do
Style as character
Wednesday night after dinner, stomach full of red curry takeout, I’m lying on the couch, listening to Bach, specifically the Icelandic pianist Vikingur Ólafsson’s Bach album, this track:
And my immediate reaction is: Man, that’s beautiful. Second thought: I could never perform that.
Then again, I don’t play piano. But even if I could, I can’t picture myself playing it so direct, so clean, with so much knowledgeable feeling. It’s like he knows the music from inside, as though the song is his spontaneously, rather than something written by somebody 300 years ago.
I can’t play piano. I can’t build a boat. I don’t know how to perform a cholecystectomy. I can’t do many things, but I enjoy admiring what other people do – it fills me with wonder and I love to feel wonder, especially when the person displays an embodied ease. I don’t necessarily want to see or hear someone do something that’s perfect technically; I want it to be from their own angle, their person. As if the start of each performance is a first sentence that already knows what the last sentence will be.
People often ask writers if we write with a reader in mind. I think I write to myself. Mainly to figure out myself at a point in time, with an eye on tomorrow. It’s the question of where are we in time, as opposed to when. To write something long is to yank a line from start to finish. And the line is best, I think, when it’s pulled by need and not design. Then it says I can’t do this or that, or that, or that, but I need to love this thing, sustain this question, for as long as it takes.
So much of what’s done, whatever we do, is tedious. We do things and redo things, and even extraordinary things under review become plain. Joan Didion once said something about how emeralds, when you look at them up close, are inevitably disappointing. (She must’ve seen a lot of emeralds.) The trick is to set up someone else for discovery, a first glance, even if that first glance, for you, happened in the past and now feels dull.
Life is a dark trip. We never really know tomorrow’s weather. But then I see someone do something I don’t know how, something I can’t, and it’s like I’m stuck in place, out of time, feeling like a kid watching a magician.
Style is character; character is what compels me.
In tomorrow’s supplement: Connecting the death of stars to Shakespeare’s sonnets, confidence-boosters for wilderness survival, and weird books. Next weekend will feature the monthly long essay from the woods for supporters, this time about fly fishing (kinda).
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What the what
Meditations in an Emergency is a micro-essay published Saturdays by novelist Rosecrans Baldwin about things he finds beautiful, with a longer essay once a month for subscribers, written in the woods.
Also for subscribers, a Sunday supplement with three-plus ideas of things to love, no paid placements 💀
Rosecrans is the author most recently of Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles, winner of the 2022 California Book Award, now available in paperback from Bookshop, Amazon, or (preferably) your local store. Other books include The Last Kid Left and Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down. His debut novel, You Lost Me There, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.
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