The Stranger Across the Aisle - V
For a single year I'd write as if I would never be allowed to write again. It would be an exercise in pouring the heart out.
For years I’ve had this notion of going into one of those rotating restaurants that spins around a city in an hour. I’d bring along a pad of yellow paper and a reliable, flowing pen, the kind that’s easy on your hand. I’d wait my turn on the leather reception banquette, and I’d follow the hostess and move past the drifting waiter station and step out onto the rotating floor. I’d be seated, and I’d say thanks and order my drink and get a window seat table for an hour. I’d look out at the sunset skyline and the silhouette of water towers and the tropical clusters of neon signage. I’d note the exact angle of my starting point and the speed of the current against the shoreline of silk plants and air conditioning window vents drifting slowly past my feet.
And for that hour I would write as if I would never be allowed to write again — not a single word in the service of art. It would be an exercise in pouring the heart out, in discovery. I would put my head down and write with abandon, beyond grammar, beyond punctuation, beyond rules, beyond spelling, beyond re-reading, beyond appraisal, simply moving from thought to thought, gathering ideas up like wildflowers, stepping from stone to stone as they steadily appeared beneath my racing feet. I would blend it all together, dancing slow or dancing fast as the tempo demanded, turning stumbles into steps, but dancing always, the only rule to be unstoppable and to flow, to press through my cramping hand.
And I’d glance up at my neon landmarks and make sure that I hadn’t run out my clock, that I hadn’t circled home again, losing time only to the waitress checking on me and the drink I haven’t touched.
And then, at the end, I would commit to sharing it.
You will have to forgive the theatricality of the revolving restaurant and the hour and all the rest, but the setting prepares me for the result I’m hoping for, and I cannot risk leaving the environment to chance. I know that the hour and the circle are empty. If they have a magic at all it is only that we believe they hold what we pour into them. There’s no actual need to turn this into such an elaborate ceremony. Someone else could say what they need to say sitting at the kitchen table watching a white baking timer.
But I have an irrational heart susceptible to stagecraft. I’m susceptible to the dimming of the houselights, to the parting of curtains, to the swelling of overtures. I’m sensitive to the filtered light of cathedrals, to winter vineyards, and Provencal countryside. It is why we are here for this wild year with the children.
Setting prepares my primitive heart, and I want to give my effort every advantage because this rotating restaurant exercise cannot be done twice. And that is exactly why it might work.
It’s also what makes it scary and helps the mind and heart to focus. Because once I sit down to write this year, day after day, morning after morning, and my world starts to spin against the clock, I am writing for Forever. There will be no do-overs. This will be a one-take year, and I must proceed with a perfect, calligraphic, one-stroke confidence. If I am never to pick up a pen again, then the exercise of these 365 days must say what I want said, what is most important to me, what I love and fear and hope, what makes me laugh. It must speak for me when I am no longer able or no longer willing to speak for myself.
And after this year ends, I will never write again.
It is September now and early morning. The sun is coming up. The stone floors were cool on my feet as I made my way downstairs. Melanie and the children are asleep. There’s an internet connection. I have my coffee. My artistry is not spent.
And here I am.
My hour has become a year.
My world is spinning.
And you are the stranger across the aisle.
Feel something. Twice a week.
Let’s get it out of the way. I did write again. Clearly.
After our family’s return to the States, the editing turned into rewriting and all that tapping away threw a spark and fired the engine. Ultimately, I was writing again and full steam ahead at that.
But lingering on the broken vow misses the point entirely. When I was in France, I did write as though I’d never write again. With the exception of ten weeks walking the Camino I wrote every day. Like a machine. Weeping and laughing my way along on the IKEA, bottom-scalloped couch in the living room all the way to 120,000 words. The discard pile was half that again. It was grand and a giant mess and everything I hoped it would be.
Much later, responding to one agent request after another, my manuscript 365 (or 360° depending on the draft and the alternating shading on time or perspective) gradually became Finisterre, and the writing was finally pared down to the Camino journey alone.
The manuscript made its way to multiple publishing house roundtables, but never cleared their bar, dying, pencil stab by pencil stab, in editorial conversations on market challenges and in-house competing titles and nobody buying memoirs written by men and all the rest of the painful “no, it’s okay, I get it” phone calls with my agent.
My internal self-pitier informs me that being published would have made me “real.”
My words, god bless the faithful darlings, are indifferent to that formula.
(They threw the spark.)
“And then, at the end, I would commit to sharing it.”
Thirteen years have passed since I wrote those words, and I haven’t, to date, kept this promise either.
My manuscript has lived in the “Personal/Creative/Writing/365” directory on my computer for all of this time. I believe a dog-eared copy lives in the family document safe, but I’m not sure. Maybe five people have read late drafts. My wife has read sections. My children haven’t read any. My brother has read all (❤️).
Substack has opened a door to share this work with people who will, I hope, understand what I did and why — and who might forgive its ragged edges and length and, too often, shoddy construction. In return for your patience in those matters, I give you what is produced when someone commits to write as though they will never write again.
And so, we’re right back to the airplane crash and the stranger across the aisle scenario I described at the start of these chapters. I’ve taken it full circle, to keep hammering, hammering, hammering on that nail.
In these Saturday Morning Posts I’m going to share the best of what I wrote spinning around that year. The work breaks into major sections: my world at seven years old (Threshold), my loving, but confounding and eccentric parents (Scheherazade), and the story of falling in love with my wife (The White Album). Finisterre, which you’ve either read or still have the opportunity to read — please do! — was about love, but, equally important for the children: it was about adult grief, fatigue, and confusion. The Watchmaker was the very last section, a short one, the closest of anything to spirituality that I touched on racing the clock.
This piece, The Stranger Across the Aisle, was the work’s introduction.
Since these Cricket Notes have turned unexpectedly into a Foreword, there is the matter of the dedication, as important to me as anything else. There’s no clear place to put it here on Substack. So, here then:
365 was and remains dedicated to my brother, Chris, to my wife, Melanie and, of course, to my children, Daniel and Alannah. They were listed from Day 1 in the order which I’ve been blessed to have them in my life. If I got nothing else right spinning around the sun that year, I hit my walk-off early.
(That I am writing a Foreword to sharing this work in an inadvertent footnote addressed to “Crickets” may explain my publishing outcomes.)
365 has always intended to demonstrate an abiding gratitude and to provide evidence, section by section, that my life — that all of our lives — are Fundamentally Good, and that my own life has been blessed, not least of all, by strangers across the aisle.
By you, in other words.
With gratitude and trepidation,
Feel something. Twice a week.