constellations #72: spiraling out
At the end of last year, I wrote that time felt like it wasn’t moving forward for me — or more so, that my life didn’t feel like it was moving forward, exactly. But maybe, I said, that was OK: “Lately I’ve been thinking that maybe linear isn’t even the right framework,” I wrote — “it feels better to think about patterns, cycles, things that repeat but change.” In other words, it felt more useful to think about it as a spiral: moving around an idea or a goal, looking for new angles, getting further away and then closer again but from a new vantage.
A spiral — like the Milky Way*, like DNA. A fiddlehead fern, a pine cone, a hurricane, a snail’s shell. There are spirals all over nature.
I have been thinking about this spiral — of perspectives, of ideas, of issues — a lot lately. The pull of the strong, linear narrative is heavy on my mind, but I wonder if it doesn’t come naturally to me to actually live that way. Or, it feels itchy to try to apply that frame to the way I’ve lived my life so far? In contrast, the metaphor of the spiral feels kind of soothing.
A spiral is also the logo for The Creative Independent, a website that does very nice interviews with writers, musicians, artists, etc. — a “growing resource of emotional and practical guidance for creative people,” by self-definition. (I like this website a lot.) Their mascot is a snail, of course: slow-moving but always leaving a trail of progress/process.
TCI says the spiral was chosen “because they’re about circling back to a core idea over time, something all creative people must do to create whatever it is they’re creating,” and then quotes The Artists’ Way:
You will circle through some of the issues over and over, each time at a different level. There is no such thing as being done with an artistic life. Frustrations and rewards exist at all levels on the path. Our aim here is to find the trail, establish our footing, and begin the climb.
Lately I’ve found myself circling back to themes over and over, and by that I mean, I’ve found myself hitting on what feels like a new idea only to realize that I’ve been here before. An example: I was re-reading a zine I made with Madeline in 2016 the other day, which I hadn’t re-read in years; re-encountering it, it felt like a relic. In it, I was reflecting on how my own behavior “usually involve[s] a heavy dose of assigning motives to other people’s actions” and how “it turns out, I am often wrong about why people do or say certain things!” I was noting it because I wanted to change that behavior. Maybe the metaphor of the spiral is comforting, but I actively groaned when I read this part of the zine — in part because of my tone (so chipper and goofy and young) but mostly recalling the end of 2021, when I wrote essentially the same thing in this very newsletter (“It is really easy to think, especially if I know someone well, that I know what they are thinking — but (hear me out here) I actually usually don’t”) as if that was some novel realization, as if I was just realizing it for the first time. How could I have forgotten that I had indeed already spent so much time wallowing in that concept that I had written it into a zine?!
So yes, the spiral is a comfort, but also yes, it makes me feel a little stupid to re-encounter myself like that. It feels bad, not just like my memory is bad (which it is) but like I’m a bad learner altogether. Does it have to feel painful to remember that I’m always circling the same questions? Or maybe, put another way: When does it feel like my spirals are pressing down on a bruise, rather than opening up a path?
I wrote down this quote from a Gawker essay in August when I started thinking about the spiral again. The essay is mostly about the way we discursively gesture at “capitalism” to offload personal and systemic dysfunction, but this part, about how we measure success in our lives, felt particularly resonant:
The progress you make is spiraling rather than linear; circling steadily, slowly, around your weak points, taking two steps forward and one step back, building habits so slowly that only in retrospect can you see your life become different than it was. And there is no one who can tell you that you did it right.
“Circling steadily, slowly, around your weak points.” That sounds like me, but also maybe it’s all of us? Maybe I’m not so much a bad learner as a slow learner (a late bloomer); I can’t imagine the snail arguing that that’s a bad thing.
(This newsletter is so self-referential! But I guess that kind of proves the point.)
I was circling this idea in my brain last week when I stumbled upon a random photo in my phone’s library — a hastily-taken shot of the bottom half of a page of The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. In it, Nelson is writing about a desire she once had, when she was young, to avoid the pitfalls of identification — how she didn’t want to get too boxed-in, how she wanted to remain slippery. She says:
But whatever I am, or have since become, I know now that slipperiness isn't all of it. I know now that a studied evasiveness has its own limitations, its own ways of inhibiting certain forms of happiness and pleasure. The pleasure of abiding. The pleasure of insistence, of persistence. The pleasure of obligation, the pleasure of dependency. The pleasures of ordinary devotion. The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one's work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again — not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.
Of course. Of course! I’ve read this book half a dozen times but I am, apparently, still absorbing some of its most precious lessons. Well. Such learning constitutes a life, I suppose.
Here are some other things I have been consuming lately: Write Your Name In Pink by Quinn Christopherson (which I reviewed for NPR Music); Biodiesel by Brittle Brian; Miles of Aisles by Joni Mitchell (thanks to Marianela for the rec); this concert video of The B-52s from 1980, with a version of “Give Me Back My Man” that I can’t stop thinking about (thanks to Lars for this); Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin; Bad Sex by Nona Willis-Aronowitz; Sour Widows live (rocked so hard); Haley Heynderickx live (I cried); two s’mores cookies from Sweet Maresa’s in Kingston; this great conversation on romance and rejection; this fan upload of “End Song” by Alex G set to what I can only described as the ideal footage to accompany an Alex G song; a marvelous, very quick trip to Philadelphia; the first candy corn of the season
This time last year I was: not trusting my intuition
Thanks for reading. Hope the spiraling path feels clear to you these days. See you next month.
*I had to look this up; longtime friends will recall that I don’t actually know anything about outer space because I skipped fifth grade, which is traditionally (in my elementary school) when you learn about outer space. Matt tried valiantly to have me watch the original Carl Sagan Cosmos with him in college to make up for it, but I was stoned and mostly slept through it; no disrespect to Carl.
This feels so poignant for me right now. It’s comforting to see this is the way of life for so many. Only this year, after nearly 15 years in therapy, have I begun to be kind and understanding to myself when I realize I am re-learning a topic, or revisiting a concept anew that I have visited many times before. It can be so frustrating but perhaps the problem is we are set the expectation of the linear. You learn addition and subtraction and you are meant to know it for the rest of your life but most concepts of modern humanity are not so simple. Perhaps very few ideas that lead to a thriving life can be fully understood on first examination. Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful re-examination of this idea. I hope it helps you thrive.