Off The Shelf: How I inhabit the Earth

To the fervent reader and writer, the words on a page encompass the whole wide world and their place in it.

By Dinah Lenney September 13, 2009

Back when my knees could handle it, my friend Kitty and I used to meet at the bottom of Fern Dell Drive and hike up above the Griffith Park Observatory to Dante's Peak. From there, on a smog-free day, we could see all the way to the Pacific on one side and to the Angeles Crest on the other. Staggering to think we lived in this beautiful place, but I wondered every time how it was that a vista here, a vista there, struck me as an accident of nature, whereas the human spirit, wailing, sputtering, pining to put that view into words (or pictures or music), might be evidence of the divine.

I'll admit it: I'm spiritually challenged. It's not that I don't appreciate the natural wonders of the world -- it's not that I don't experience awe! It's only that I look to people, not religion, to make sense of it. Wallace Stegner on the American West gets to me, more than the West alone ever could. My dog regularly breaks my heart, but I need to read William Maxwell to understand why. I've seen a whale breach, and it brought me to tears. But life- changing in the way of Melville's "Moby-Dick"? No. It's human expression, the urge to mark the moment, to find the meaning or make it up if that's what it takes -- via words, sentences, paragraphs, books! -- that finally buckles these poor, old knees.

Meanwhile, my favorite New Yorker cartoon? There's a guy at a bar, sitting next to a talking egg. And the caption reads, "No, I don't have a book in me! I have a chicken in me!"

On my night table, some 40 volumes are piled and stacked. I can't turn off the lamp at night or the alarm in the morning without knocking them over. Two stand out at the moment. The first is Natalia Ginzburg's "A Place to Live," because I opened it yesterday to reread an essay I love: "Portrait of a Writer," a retrospective of her life and work in the third person. It ends like this:

"Now she asks that truth bring her what invention never gave. She realizes she is asking the impossible. As soon as she tries to tell the truth, she gets lost contemplating its violence and immensity.

"She thinks she has done nothing but pile error upon error. How stupid she has been. She has also posed a great many stupid questions. She has asked whether writing, for her, was a duty or a pleasure. Stupid. It was neither. At the best of times it was, and is, her way of inhabiting the earth."

Her way of inhabiting the earth. She was no chicken! She was a writer.

The other book? Geoff Dyer's collection of essays, "Yoga for People Who Can't be Bothered to Do It," although I've only just dipped in. I'm afraid to read the title piece, loathe to discover that it isn't about what I think it is. See, my spiritual limitations notwithstanding, I do keep trying: not to find religion exactly, but mindfulness. Every few months, I resolve to do yoga, both because I ache from my shoulders to my ankles -- all those years hiking up Fern Dell -- and because I know I should learn to be still!

But I can't hold those poses, and not just because they hurt. The truth is, I can hardly sit through a meal, cannot stay present-and-accounted-for for any length of time. Except when I read! Except when I write!

Of course, it could be argued -- by any number of people, including my children (who need a lunch bagged, or a load done or my undivided attention for any number of reasons) -- that I am not present when I read and write! That then, more than any other time, I'm entirely absent! But this is not so, not for any reader or writer. When the reading or the writing is going well, we're in touch with our deepest selves. That's our way of inhabiting the earth.

For me, it comes back to the human condition, all of us tortured, having nothing to do with whether or not we're actually traumatized. For one thing, we're destined to die and we know it. For another we're able to remember -- to know what we've lost. How not to take stock along the way? How not to wonder what it's for? How not to hope that we might stumble on a piece of truth at some point, and win a nod of corroboration? We're in this together, after all.

This isn't to say writing isn't solitary; even lonely sometimes. But Tolstoy wrote that art is "a means of intercourse . . . causing the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced or is producing the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression."

So tell me, don't we love the reader? Don't we write with him or her in mind? We'd have to, wouldn't we? We were readers before we were writers. We fell in love with books, cultivated relationships with characters and authors, allowed stories to inform our dreams and our aspirations. And so we began to write -- to the reader; ideal or strange, we mean to reach out somehow, destined to fail more often than not, even as we persist.

Is this courage? More likely, an obsessive-compulsive disorder. But it comes to me now that I've told myself stories before sleep for as long as I can remember; narrative as prayer, as practice, as my way of survival. So it's not courage that keeps me going, or common sense -- it's faith. Faith in the idea that I will meet my best self on the page, and that you might accept and embrace her as one of your own.

But gently please; my best intentions aside, I have much in common with that egg at the bar.

Lenney is the author of "Bigger Than Life: A Murder, a Memoir."