Indefinite Fire

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As a stutterer, the definite article had caused me problems more times than I wished to count, even if I could remember all of them. I was about to write that there was nothing definite about stuttering when the possibility arrived that perhaps the opposite was true. I was certain that I would stutter again. Nothing would change. For instance, “The house was on fire” could take me what felt like forever to utter. Experience told me I would be less likely to stutter if the same sentence were to start with “A” instead of “The.” A house on fire felt less threatening somehow. The indefinite article, a, seemed easier for me to pronounce than “the.” A house would create more uncertainty in my mind than the house, wouldn’t it? Fire was an explosive word. I couldn’t forget that burning was necessary sometimes. I had never thought of stuttering as an emotional event, which seemed to suggest that I hadn’t thought much about it at all. Halting speech was another way of speaking about stuttering, or in my case when I was younger and stuttering was part of my everyday life, another way of being unable to speak at all.

These certain and uncertain thoughts were interrupted as if I were a bystander inside my own body. Someone I knew, whom I worked with in this store, NonStop Books, was speaking to me. I had handed him the book I was about to buy. I’d arrived at the bookstore early before my shift to see if I could find a book which I had been certain I wouldn’t find. Then I found it. This can’t be real, I thought. It was impossible that this bookstore would have a volume on a psychoanalytic understanding of stuttering, published in 1980, in stock. “Where did you find this?” my fellow bookseller asked. “You don’t stutter, do you?” I wanted to say that he wouldn’t have asked me that if he had known me twenty-five years ago, but I remained silent because I worried that I might stutter.

I was skilled at interrupting the flow of my own words, whether they were outer or inner ones. The previous sentence seemed too definite. Mental life was more indefinite than that, wasn’t it?


Welcoming Dreaming Attitude During the Day

(My book of vignettes with the same narrator continues.)

I was rereading my own sentences. The nouns I was using seemed passive. My mind seemed passive. I was searching for a new translation, or a new method of translation, of my own mental contents into a language I had yet to discover. My thoughts could be active too. I imagined including everything in a single sentence. Something was missing. Maybe my mind needed more time. I already knew that verbs needed nouns. And nouns needed verbs. Some grammatical unknown seemed to be telling me that this was not the moment to move too fast. I shouldn’t think too fast. I shouldn’t write too fast. I reminded myself that “should” was seldom a writer’s best friend. Patience arrived as an unwelcome word. Images and thoughts were on their way. Words were creating new things in my mind this morning. It was morning, wasn’t it? Questions were good. They kept or made things fluid in my mind. Mind seemed on my mind. Rereading my own sentences slowed things down. I had finished my morning coffee. I would be on my own, so to speak, until mid afternoon when I would have my second and last cup of the day. I was never alone in my head. The rest of the morning would be full of details. I had no more time for rereading my own sentences, whether I wrote them on paper or they wrote themselves in my mind. It occurred to me that details might often be substitutes for something else, and I wondered whether they were substitutes for something more meaningful. I realized I was trying too hard to find meaning. Maybe I was working on the wrong mental tasks this morning. Perhaps I needed a more welcoming attitude toward my moment-to-moment inner experiences. I could imagine today as a dream in which I was a dreamer. My day outside of my mind was about to become complicated. I would be surrounded by others at work. There would probably be no time for my inner world to come into clear focus. Fortunately, I would also be surrounded by books, which must have been part of why I often enjoyed my shifts at the bookstore. Details, questions, patience, impatience, nouns, verbs, uncertainty, the need for certainty, anxiety, and coffee would be part of my mental life until the end of the day. Don’t forget about translation. I was still rereading my own sentences. More coffee wouldn’t be necessary until mid afternoon. Maybe I would move closer toward discovering a new language of subjectivity before today became tomorrow.

1095 Days

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Nouns that at first felt isolated came to me: translation, details, fear, coffee. That’s nonsense, I thought. Coffee was connected to everything, especially at 6 am. My first cup of morning coffee wasn’t ready yet. I didn’t seem ready for thinking either. Wait, I told myself, until you have some caffeine in your system. Minutes passed. A cup of strong coffee was in my hand. I was ready to write down what came to me. The following sentences came to mind early this Sunday morning, hours before I had to work at NonStop Books, while I was drinking my first cup of coffee and imagining being in a Freud reading group and having one of our discussions on the light rail as it moved toward Sea-Tac Airport. The volume of Freud’s that we would read and study together was clear in my mind, one of two copies of Psychopathology of Everyday Life I had bought, and the first copy which I had bought I was picturing in my hands, and I realized that it had become a source of frustration to me because the translation was by A.A. Brill and not the later one by James Strachey. Why did this frustrate me? I realized that I had yet to move beyond my frustration to where I could allow thoughts to come to me. This book was written early in Freud’s career as a psychoanalyst. The word psychoanalysis brought to mind the history of the profession, and then, as I took another sip from my coffee, the words “the problem of human subjectivity” came to me. At its best, psychoanalysis was about the exploration of one’s inner world, wasn’t it? Thoughts of airports usually made me anxious. I wondered how the images of discussing Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life on the light rail might have originated (the copy of the book that came to mind now was my second copy, the Strachey translation, which I was trying to remember if I had bought one or two years ago). As the last few sentences formed themselves in my mind, I realized that in Strachey’s translation of this work by Freud, the first word of the title was “The” (The Psychopathology of Everyday Life instead of Psychopathology of Everyday Life, which was the title of the Brill translation; this difference seemed important to me at that moment), and I wondered why I had been convinced that the book had first been published in 1904 (perhaps because it was first published in book form in 1904; I was learning anew every day how adept I was at doubting myself). It was also true that the work had appeared in a monograph three years earlier, in 1901. Three years were 1095 days. I didn’t dare to try to count the number of years since the last time I had been in a reading group. I imagined traveling with Freud’s volume in my mind. Last night, in reality, I had read some pages of this book, of the Strachey translation, which I now remembered I bought last year, and I thought: I would enjoy the experience more if I could read it with others. Maybe I would find reading companions. Maybe the ones in my imagination, with me on the light rail, were what I needed for now. This book was traveling with me in my mind. Wasn’t that enough for one morning?

Inner World in Light Blue

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Discovering the dark blue cover with the word dream on it on a bookshelf where I didn’t expect to find anything related to dreaming surprised me. Somehow I knew that a memory of my own awaited me inside the two covers that were in my hands. I didn’t pause to question my own intuitive thought. I opened the book to a random page and discovered, in cursive letters, a memory from 1974. It wasn’t any memory. It was mine. I had turned eight three days earlier. The cursive writing was in light blue. These weren’t moments for dreaming or remembering. I was in need of a moment of inner calm during a difficult day at work. Inner seemed to bring to mind inner world. The memory on the page might also be a dream. Dreaming memory came to me, as if I were looking it up in a dictionary. Maybe I really was asleep. I watched a man bound past me on his way to announce something important to my parents. We were outside near our tent. Nearly twenty years would pass before a cabin would appear on this land alongside the water. I remember hearing noise from his property alongside ours. His cabin was being built. It was August 1974. I’ll never forget the excitement on his face and in his voice as he told us that Richard Nixon had resigned. The bookstore was quiet on this Sunday afternoon. The images in the memory were so real, as if Nixon had resigned yesterday. As I stood before the shelves and realized that my hands were empty, I couldn’t remember why this was a difficult day at work. It didn’t matter. I had just had the experience that mattered. My inner world had become real to me again, in the form of a memory. Life often felt so fragile. My memory felt permanent, inside of me.

Secrets in the Substratum

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I was about to lie down on the couch when I realized I wasn’t ready. We had looked each other in the eyes as I’d entered her office. Something seemed amiss in my mind as I did so. Why did I doubt that we had stood a few feet from each other yesterday? Her silence at the bookstore didn’t make sense. It was senseless. I was being harsh. Sarah didn’t move. She always stood alongside her chair when I walked through the door. Something needed to change. Sarah’s job was to study my mind. I was still moving. In a moment or two I would be on the couch. I imagined saying to her, before lying down: we had a traumatic moment yesterday. This was becoming a traumatic moment. I didn’t know what was happening in the substratum of my mind. I never knew. The unconscious was the foundation of my conscious thoughts. Sarah must have been waiting for me to lie down. Such moments of nonverbal delay had never happened before in our eighteen months of spending fifty minutes together in her fourth floor consulting room. Without warning, I knew I was ready. I thought: I’m ready to start the ceremony, which I realized meant that I thought I was ready to be self-reflective. I’d never thought of a therapy session as a ceremony before. A healing ceremony came to mind. These visits to my psychoanalyst’s office were part of my weekly life. Yesterday’s encounter at NonStop Books kept me awake half the night. What needed to change, I wondered, returning in my mind to a question that had come to me moments or minutes earlier. “I wish I wouldn’t become overwhelmed so easily,” were the first words I spoke aloud. I’d been overwhelmed yesterday afternoon when for the first time I saw Sarah outside of my office, at the bookstore buying books, as if I couldn’t accept that she was a human being just like me. I was aware of what had happened in the previous sentence in my mind: I made her office mine. I secretly seemed to want to be in charge of what happened in this room. Something inside of me wasn’t making sense. My next words were: “I didn’t say hello to you yesterday. You were at the bookstore, waiting in line to pay for your books, and you were talking with my creative writing instructor, who you must know is also a psychoanalyst. I felt as if I were in a dream, and I was speechless.” Another question came to me: I was in this room, on this couch, for help with my psychological distress, wasn’t I? I was frustrated. I was angry. I was here to discover inner secrets and to talk about what was amiss in my mind. The couch was ready for me.

Memories of Other Words

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Without intending to, I started writing about what had happened that morning. It had been a long day. Six am felt like a long time ago. There was a word that all of us seated around the long table were supposed to write about. John, our creative writing instructor, seated at one end of the table, had asked us to free-associate on paper to the word memory. I wouldn’t forget that word. Yet, pen in hand, a blank sheet of sketch paper before me, I was afraid I would. It was evening. I should have brought a cup of coffee with me to class. This community college was familiar to me. The bookstore where I worked and the loft on the fourth floor of the same building where I wrote, read, and drank coffee in silence were two blocks away. Two blocks seemed important. I was struggling to write a sentence, to finish something I’d started. My writing life – I was about to write my mental life – was two blocks away, in the loft where I’d recently started a writing experiment, sometimes writing on sketch paper attached to a wall instead of creating sentences at my desk. Some days, with a strong cup of coffee alongside me, I alternated between the seated and standing positions, allowing my body to become more part of the creative process. As if I were unaware of what I was doing, I finished the difficult sentence with a clause that included the phrase mental life and the word mistakes. Was I making mistakes in my mental life right now? It was difficult to reread this last sentence, since how could there be mistakes in my mind? My mental life included everything. I was free-associating. And I was afraid I was making a mistake. Unless I was missing something in my own sentences, there was no mention of a memory in what I had written. Or maybe there was. I was trying to remember what had happened at six am. Now I remembered: I wrote down last night’s dream, in which my instructor John and I had a passionate conversation about what seemed most effective in psychoanalysis (during the day he worked as a psychotherapist and as a psychoanalyst, and I was a patient in psychoanalysis). I wrote down a dream, not a memory, at six am. Free association wouldn’t let me stop writing, not yet. A memory was write in front of me. Write appeared instead of right. I recorded the dream on paper. What could be more right than that?

Magic Paper

(My book of vignettes with the same narrator continues)

It was as if dreaming and writing or reading a letter were the same thing in my unconscious mind. This sentence confused me. When I repeated it to myself, it sounded as though I’d written it on paper. I was the dreamer, and I wasn’t writing or reading anything. I was lying on a couch in a large empty room. In reality, this was where I hoped to escape the problems of everyday life. Yesterday had been tiring. Maybe the dream, which I wrote down this morning, was telling me that I needed to rest. The dream seemed to confuse me in the morning once I was awake and aware of its images that had arrived in consciousness. I knew what year it was. I knew it was Sunday. I had to be at work in a few hours. NonStop Books, where I worked, wouldn’t wait for me to make sense of a dream. In the dream it was a hundred years ago. No one told me. There wasn’t a calendar on the wall. Somehow I knew someone was seated behind me, an important someone. Maybe he was my psychoanalyst. In any case, Sigmund Freud was there in my imagination in the dream, smoking a cigar and reading a letter, or maybe writing one, or maybe doing both. A dreamer can know mysterious things. Then, in the dream, I realized I was silent. Perhaps no one was behind me. In my position on the couch, I imagined watching Freud write the date on the sheet of paper which seemed to rest magically on his knees. The building where I was in the dream was built a decade or so after 1918. I wanted to write on paper. I wanted to read words on paper. Paper was nowhere in sight.