A Long Letter for January
9 min read

A Long Letter for January

A Long Letter for January

Dear Friends,

Happy New Year! It's been a while – but since I last wrote on New Year's Eve, the greeting still feels appropriate, even without accounting for the fact that I observe three New Years between January and February: the Western calendar's on January 1st, the Lunar New Year whenever it arrives, and my own private one between February 1 and 3. More on that next week, though.

Welcome, too, to new subscribers – I'm so glad you've joined, and I hope you enjoy what you find here.

I find myself writing to you as with a pen this evening. My thoughts are all longhand, lately, but also slapdash, scattershot – I've traded semi-colons for em-dashes. I'm trying to write without thinking too much about it, shedding some of the habits that social media forms. At a certain scale, self-awareness necessitates a kind of self-erasure. Social media used to feel like being in a crowded hallway at a convention; now it feels like being on a stage. I want to find the quiet corner again, the part of the lobby by the potted plant with weird artsy couches where you duck away to have a real conversation away from the racket, and slowly build your own gravity together, attracting people who want to listen and talk in a way that's a sharing, a pooling of interest, instead of a competition or a performance.

Usually on Fridays I just ask a question I hope is interesting, or muse on some element of my day or week until I see a question emerge from it, to invite that kind of conversation and sharing. In this new year I find myself wanting – if not quite a change, then a shift in emphasis, a shift in my stance, to figure out where I want to lean my weight. So I thought, today, rather than the usual, I'd write you a long letter about how I've lived this month. Imagine it in jewel-blue ink.


I saw my own eyes today. Not in a mirror, but imaged on a computer: orange and round as a planet, veined like a living thing, suggestive of roots and atmosphere. I have never felt so sudden and overwhelming a love for my own eyes as when I saw them in this impossible strangeness, this colour that belongs to Mars and a humid moon, with no hint of iris or sclera – but instead something amniotic, at once generative and utterly complete. All the warm secret workings of sight, made available to me as I sat in the low-lit mundanity of an optometrist's office. The revelation was no less splendid for it. I was reminded of the title story in Ted Chiang's Exhalation, in which the narrator carefully deconstructs and observes the functions of their own mechanical brain.

Inside me, then, there is this shape, there are these liquids, that create my sight and I can see them. I thought, too, of Coleridge, of one of the two most beautiful things I know Coleridge to have written – a childhood memory of his father pointing out Jupiter to him in the sky, and explaining how big it is, and how far away:

I remember, that at eight years old I walked with him one winter evening from a farmer's house, a mile from Ottery—& he told me the names of the stars—and how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world—and that the other twinkling stars were Suns that had worlds rolling round them—& when I came home, he shewed me how they rolled round—/. I heard him with a profound delight & admiration; but without the least mixture of wonder or incredulity. For from my early reading of Faery Tales, & Genii &c &c—my mind had been habituated to the Vast—& I never regarded my senses in any way as the criteria of my belief. I regulated all my creeds by my conceptions not by my sight—even at that age. Should children be permitted to read Romances, & Relations of Giants & Magicians, & Genii?—I know all that has been said against it; but I have formed my faith in the affirmative.—I know no other way of giving the mind a love of 'the Great', & 'the Whole'.

I wrote about this in a poem, years ago – "once a small boy / fit Jupiter in his eye." I thought of that, too, as I looked at my eye and saw a planet, a pair of planets hidden inside my body, incapable of seeing these parts of themselves until that moment. I wondered what else was inside me that I didn't even know to love.

*

January is thick with birthdays. (A pause here for the requisite nod and wink to the merry month of May.) My sister, brother, spouse, numerous cousins and friends celebrate their birthdays this month. My sister is the only one with whom I observe a tradition, though: for several years now I've treated her to a fancy birthday tea at the Château Laurier. We get dressed up, we sit next to a window looking west, and enjoy three picturesque tiers of sandwiches and scones and too many cakes while the sun sets over the coldest parts of winter.

For the last two years we haven't been able to do this, of course, but I refused to abandon the tradition entirely. Last year, I picked up the fancy tea fixings as take-out, drove one half of it to my sister, took the other half home, and then set up a video call so we could so we could enjoy them together. This year, we met at the Château to pick up our respective portions and make better time, and I remembered that I'd been given a fancy tiered tray for a wedding gift and never yet used it.

On a black desk, the following items from foreground to background clockwise: a tea cup and saucer from Cat Mallard, with a moon phase design on the baes and the words "insist on your cup of stars" around the cup; a beeswax candle in the shape of a medieval hive; a cast-iron teapot, blue with a repeating flower pattern; a Moroccan-style glass mosaic lamp, lit; a 3-tiered tray of treats, with savoury sandwiches on the bottom, halved scones with mascarpone whipped cream and strawberry jam on the middle, and an assortment of cakes at the top.

It had a good first outing.

My sister and I are two years apart; she's now the age I was when the pandemic began. It's strange and moving to reckon time in siblings – not wholly unlike looking at one's own eyes from a different angle.

We agreed that this would be a fine year for the pandemic to end. A symmetry.

*

The teaching term has begun again, and I'm teaching three courses (remotely) between now and April, approximately 220 students spread between them. This, more than anything, is why I haven't been up to writing to you weekly, but patterns are settling into place, needles into grooves.

One of the courses is called Fantasy, Myth, and Language, and so far we've read Virginia Woolf's "Lappin and Lapinova," Hope Mirrlees' Lud-in-the-Mist, and Tolkien's The Hobbit. It's probably the course I look forward to most every week, because it feels most like a giant book club – but also because it's astonishing to take the temperature of how contemporary readers encounter fantasy from almost a century ago. The things that startle and alienate them at the level of narration, for instance – what they find immersive and what they find jarring. I often experience a strange doubled vision, remembering how I read a given text the first time, what it made me feel, what I was impatient with, and how much more I find the more I look, the more I return to a text and find the tracks my younger selves left in the margins, betraying so much restlessness while obscuring the patient riches of a passage.

There's so much love, there, too.

*

For most of last year, Stu and I made a habit of going on a half hour's walk through our neighbourhood every day. January broke the streak; the deep freezes found me before I found new winter boots, and what with one thing and another I never seemed able to leave home before the sun set. What I've been doing instead has been following a month of Yoga with Adriene, which, by sheer happenstance, a plurality of friends locally and internationally have also been doing, so pleasant groups of gentle accountability rose spontaneously around the practice. I've been really enjoying it. I first started doing yoga consistently last autumn, taking a weekly in-person class with the wonderful Danielle Lyrette, and had fully intended to continue this winter – but, well, everything, so thought I'd try out a daily practice and see where that took me.

I like where it's taken me. I've missed a few days and not stressed about it (after stressing about it quite a lot the first time – so it goes), picking the practice up again, enjoying it enough to trust that I can do the missed days at a later time. The videos are free and aren't going anywhere. Some days the practice frustrated me; other days it pleasantly challenged me; one day I burst out laughing during a breathing exercise and paused the video for five minutes because I couldn't stop. The spontaneous accountability groups – one in texts with my sister, one in a small Discord server, one in a Slack – have also varied, each bringing different observations, different enthusiasms and annoyances. We share our preferred and detested poses and with them, all the genuinely beautiful strangeness of our bodies: what is hard for you, what is easy for you, where do you carry your tension, your rage, your anxiety, your humour, your peace. How were your shoulders today, how were your hips, your wrists, your neck. I couldn't do this one, I did this instead; today was too fast, today was so slow, today I leaned forward in a pose I was sure I couldn't do but I did it and it felt like magic.

The intimacy of this hits me now, just now, as I'm writing – how close this has brought me to the bodies of my friends, who are always, always so far from me. We've spoken so much, through this accident of January, while we're so immured by case counts and blizzards and cold, about our bodies in movement, our bodies shaping tentative new strength, our bodies carrying themselves. Our bodies that have been carrying so much else besides.

*

On the first day of January, I went for a long walk. It wasn't yet so cold, so I wore old boots, and I went out in search of my bird, as my friend taught me to do three years ago.

Incredible how much it echoed the first and second outings. I heard chickadees, but didn't see them; I saw what I thought could be the airborne silhouettes of pigeons high and far away, but plausibly uncertain, and anyway I didn't want to end my walk. I felt something pulling me forward into that desire to be surprised and affirmed, felt that something beautiful was going to happen if I let it, even if it was only a glimpse of more birds.

I walked my usual route to the river, through the park, thinking there might be ducks, but it had too recently snowed. I saw three pink hearts in the snow leading to a grey basketball spinning in the greyer river, and thought, look, a metaphor.

I kept hearing a distant bird call I couldn't identify. I'd walk towards it, it would stop, I would stop, turn to go elsewhere, then hear it again. I approached a line of trees near a house, and saw birds.

Chickadees again, then; there they were, undeniable, bold and chattering, beautiful, fierce. I loved them helplessly. My only disappointment was that they'd been last year's bird for me, and I had thought something different would happen this year. I wanted for difference so badly, after so long a sameness. I wanted new angles of augury. I wanted Lynda Barry's "Something big. A revelation. Suddenly you just understand."

I picked at some maple seeds from a fallen tree branch, thinking maybe if I hulled one and held it in my hands I could offer it to a bird, entice the miracle. I stood very, very still for what felt like a very long time. The birds came closer, and I felt this becoming enough: their closeness, their unbearable beauty, their vivid life.

There was a flutter in my left eye's corner, a very near sound. I hardly dared turn my head. Brown, different.

A house wren flew past my cheek and lit on a nearby branch. So small, so round, its wings sharp and short, its shape utterly unmistakeable though I'd only seen one twice before that I could remember: in that park a year ago, vanishing into a hedge, and on a high hidden footpath in Cornwall looking over a tidal river more than a decade ago.  

My eyes blurred, my heart dissolved. Those places came back to me, or I went to them. I stood quietly crying in a park while looking at a bird and thought of how wrens are written of in songs and stories, and almost as immediately put them aside. The small brown body was miracle enough, in its newness to me, in its rarity, its presence. I wanted to honour that.

I like thinking that last year's bird led me to this one's; I like thinking that something beautiful and good came of all that standing still. I like thinking of that as auspicious for this year, and I like the sound of The Year of the Wren – as a title, as a mystery, as a memory. I know these are just stories I'm making up in my head, as much as tales of the King of Birds are. But stories are a truth in progress, a truth we build between us, something we look at and something we look through – a habituation to the Vast, yes, and a habitation, too. Some days an eye can see itself and become, for a moment, the great, the whole wide world.

Selfie in which I'm wearing a black KF94 mask and a dark blue winter coat with a hood extravagantly lined with synthetic fur. My whole face is obscured except for one brown eye on the right side of the photo.

Wishing you every good thing you need in this new year,

Amal


PS: This letter's plenty long enough, but I really hope you're doing all right.

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