Care and Maintenance #2: When We Begin

“To arrive is a calamity.” — Rebecca Solnit

This is a legacy post from my previous, somewhat short-lived newsletter, Care and Maintenance.

Hello, and welcome to the long-delayed second issue of Care and Maintenance.

More and more these days, I find myself taking comfort in a line from Pádraig Ó Tuama’s gentle and soulful podcast, Poetry Unbound. “Pilgrimage,” he says, “is never about reaching the place that you’re going on a pilgrimage to. The pilgrimage happens when you begin the desire to go.”

Part of what I love about this is how he takes an abrupt left turn just before hitting a cliché. Because I don’t think Ó Tuama’s words are merely an observation that the journey is more important than the destination. For me, what these words are doing is reframing our understanding of a journey not so much as a direction we go, but as a space we must occupy.

Compare his thoughts on pilgrimages to Fremen wisdom in Frank Herbert’s novel, Dune: “The Fremen were supreme in that quality the ancients called ‘spannungsbogen’—which is the self-imposed delay between desire for a thing and the act of reaching out to grasp that thing.”

So much of what we want happens in the moment we decide we want it. In the space between the desire for a thing and the reality of its absence. The delay offers up our anxieties, our sadness, and our uncertainties. We meet them in that space. We make friends with them there.

Many of us, I think, occupy a space between the life we’re living in our head and life we’re actually living—at all times, but especially now, when our planned lives have been so derailed, our pilgrimages so delayed. The grief of this pandemic is somehow both overwhelming and ancillary. I stifle tears while having routine work meetings on videochat. Every day we build structures to keep ourselves in place, structures that fall by morning, so we can build them back up again. Like the clock that keeps track of Covid Standard Time (today is March 220th by the way), we exist within a dreamy unreality.

This feeling of living in a gap has been intensified to a painful degree these last six months, but to some extent, the gap is a place we have always had to navigate. “We project a way of life that we want to step into as a way of stepping into it,” writer Jia Tolentino says. By imagining the future, we have already begun to pull it into the present. We live our lives in the contradiction between the two. The contradiction is what gives us the capacity to make change.

The pilgrimage happens when we begin the desire to go.

Ó Tuama, Herbert, and Tolentino use different words—a pilgrimage, a self-imposed delay, a projection—but contained within each is an ethics of sensitivity. In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell’s beautiful book about art, ecology, and identity, she writes about sensitivity as the “difficult, awkward, ambiguous encounter between two differently shaped bodies that are themselves ambiguous.”

In “differently shaped bodies” she refers to people, to animals, and to the natural environment. I would extend her meaning to include sensitivity as a navigation of time, of events, and of memories.

A pilgrimage is a space of constant negotiation with the world around us and inside of us. A stringent, thoughtful, unaltering attention to what opens up when we begin to imagine something new. There is so far to go and—for me at least—such an unclear vision of the way forward. “The feeling of having absolutely no long term plans is pretty unmooring,” the journalist Anne Helen Petersen said on Twitter yesterday. Especially, I would add, when I’m still holding on to my long term plans from February so tightly. Still trying to scrape together a semblance of a life I recognize.

And I think here is where I can begin to make some sense of Pádraig Ó Tuama’s words.

We go on journeys because, to some extent, we’re dissatisfied with where we are. The pilgrimage happens not in the moment we reach somewhere new, but in the moment we realize it’s time to let go.