Sunday, December 17, 2017
The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2017, pt. 13: Susan diRende
The Pleasures of 2017
by Susan diRende
The world vanishes when I read. I am altogether elsewhere, and remain oblivious to music or noise or even the voices of others speaking to me. Saying my name aloud works like some magical incantation to pull me back to this dimension. I am not exaggerating, though most people think I am when I say it. This was the case of the housekeeper at an artist residency until the day she vacuumed the room I was in, moving the chairs around while I sat in the window seat reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness. She came over to me when she finished and spoke my name. I jumped with a hoot of heart-stopping surprise. I hadn’t realized anyone was in the room. It was as if she had suddenly materialized by my shoulder. We both laughed that she could have been bustling about my room noisily for five minutes and yet my conscious mind hadn’t noticed. She ever after spoke my name before coming to clean my space, and I appreciated her consideration. Not everyone believes me about this, and I have been scolded throughout my life for ignoring people. It is not a defect I have any idea how to remedy.
Still, every defect has its compensations. I can read anywhere, no matter what the noise. I can also fall asleep anywhere by simply telling myself a familiar story. Light and noise vanish as the comfortable tale absorbs my conscious mind and then slows like a movie winding down to slow motion and finally a stillness that dissolves into sleep.
Audiobooks take me out of the moment also, but not quite as completely. I don’t like listening to them when at home unless I am doing some rote task. Then the half-absorption distracts enough to help pass the time while leaving me free to wash dishes, iron clothes, or drive a car. It is in driving that I discovered the greatest pleasure of the split attention offered by audiobooks. I was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles listening to The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore. Somewhere in the long stretch down the San Joaquin Valley I was dazzled by the beauty of the light on the orchards lining the highway. I turned off the radio to drink it in. I was happy I’d done so, because a few moments later, the magic faded. I praised myself for taking the moment to appreciate the golden moment. I turned the radio back on, and just as I re-entered the tale of the Marston family and their living arrangements, the beauty exploded against my awareness again. So again I turned off the radio and drove on until it faded back an everyday landscape.
The third time it happened, I suddenly understood that I had it backward. The narrative wasn’t interfering with my full enjoyment of the beauty of the afternoon light. The narrative was making it possible for me to experience it by distracting the front of my brain so that subtler aesthetic impressions could rise to my awareness unedited, unexplained, and undissected for taxonomic classification. I felt a gestalt of beauty, a kind of ecstatic bath of presence while the categorical, linear parts of my mind chugged happily down the road, occupied in listening and driving. If I focused on the beauty, it went away the way faint stars do when you look right at them. If I let it happen and kept my eyes on the road and my ears on the chain of narrative, it washed over me in almost unbearable beauty. This dance continued until the driving demanded more of my attention.
Since then, I have had this same experience often on highway drives and long walks. I can still call up the clarity of summer taking the turn to fall in the sight and smell of some fallen leaves while walking the Stanford Dish Loop and listening to Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. This magic only happens when I listen to nonfiction; something about the emotional component of fiction gets in the way, I suppose. I cannot make it happen, and if I look for it, of course the experience eludes me. But that it happens at all, and with some regularity, is a gift of listening that I cherish.
I don’t know if this is an experience unique to me thanks to my odd sort of concentration, or if it comes to pass for others. It is my season’s wish that it may be so for you somewhere on the road or along a long path through the woods.
Susan diRende ran away from college and joined the circus at 20, where she learned how to step outside the boundaries just far enough to get a laugh. Ever since then, she has been writing, painting, performing, and directing with the goal of bringing about illumination and transformation through laughter. She has won awards as a playwright, screenwriter, filmmaker, and performer. A multilingual US/EU citizen, she currently is living the vagabond life with no fixed abode, chasing images and ideas wherever the impulse leads. Aqueduct Press published her novella, Unpronounceable, in 2016; it received a Special Citation for the Philip K. Dick Award.