Approaching Eye Level

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I have had three copies of Vivian Gornick’s Approaching Eye Level on my bookshelf for several years and never got around to reading it. Someone had given me one or two copies is my guess, maybe all three, for I don’t remember ordering it online or leaving a bookstore with it in my hands.

The copyright on my edition is 1996, although I thought it would be older after reading her last short story: On Letter Writing. She writes — with obsession — over the loss of the old fashioned letter. The loss of that beautiful, antiquated medium, to the telephone.

For me, the phone is still a deep and rich human connection. With the call comes the voice, and with the voice, the person’s smile and personality. While she battles between the old fashioned letter and the phone, I couldn’t help but think of my own battle between the old fashioned letter and email.

I fight it, yet am learning to accept the electronic assimilation, one which seems to be pulling at the remains of a precious simplicity in life. I can’t help but go to that charged, inspiring place when I think of the old fashiond letter or card however, which I wrote about at length last December.

Gornick writes about the ‘call.’ The telephone conversation is, by its very nature, reactive not reflective. Immediacy is its prime virtue. The letter, written in absorbed solitude, is an act of faith; it assumes the presence of humanity; world and self are generated from within; loneliness is courted, not feared.

So right you are Vivian. When I brought her name up with a few friends, they nodded, acknowledging that they knew her and perhaps even read a book or two, but there was no light or energy in their eyes from hearing her name. Have you ever shared something with someone you resonate with on so many things — important things — and it falls flat? I find that no truer than with an author’s mantras or musician’s lyrics.

It is rare that you share a line with someone and see fire in their eyes, the result of a united connection over precisely the same words on a page. Time and time again. When it happens, you become suddenly breathless, beautifully encouraged, drawn in, hunger for more of what they feel. You are excused, even if only for a moment, from the suffering of the most tragic human condition: loneliness.

Gornick also writes about the loss of cafe life, which when I experienced this daily in Europe, always excused me from that cathartic human condition. She compares this culture with the written word. “When cafe life thrives, talk is a shared limberness of the mind that improves the appetite for conversation: an adequate sentence maker is then made good, a good one excellent, an excellent one extraordinary.

Why I resonate with her and authors like her, and others who I connect with on every other level, do not, is always a mystery to me. Is it that these writers, poets and artists have embarked on a similar journey, engaged in much of the same dialogue with the same people, experienced the same kind of loneliness along the way, cannot leave alone the notion that we must constantly be real to ourselves, believe that living consciously is the business of our lives?

Knowingness, empathy, internal tragedy learning to escape, ah yes, the ice cream cone. When I was a child, the ice cream cone represented freedom and escape from mediocrity. It also wore the hat of peace and security. The warm security embraced you as you licked and licked and licked. You somehow felt that you would and could never be or feel alone.

The ice cream and all the innocence that comes with it reminds me of the inner child, when you were one, and for the rest of your life. It filled you up with everything you possibly needed and more. There was no need to go elsewhere to replace your hunger with something larger, more complex.

On security and peace, Gornick loudly and quietly shares with us her loud and quiet definitions of loneliness. I hear anxiety, the quiet kind, and a meloncholy misery radiating slowly from her description of what marriage should be and not be. She argues that “we marry not for the adventure of self-discovery or a shared inner life, but for emotional solace of a primitive sort. What comes with the solace is insularity, an amateurish relation to solitude, and hard questions about the inner self that go unasked for years at a time.”

I think this may be true at certain times in our lives, often in the early unnurtered, unexplored days. Once explored and able to sit with loneliness in a way that frees rather than suffocates, a domestic and loving unity is more than gratifying, it is moving from half life to full, singular to plenty, self-love to all encompassing love. But only then. At any stage before the unasked questions get answered, we risk falling prey to an amateurish relation to solitude.

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