My Year of Imaginary Thinking

Travel is useful; it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our journey is entirely imaginary. That is its strength.

Céline, Journey to the End of the Night (lifted from the credits of La Grande Bellezza)

I began 2021 with the particular belief of a convert to a new faith. It was hard not to, since I started it by diving into a pool at a mountaintop estate on a Caribbean island, my crash into its depths a burst through the din of jungle fauna and steel drum bands echoing in the distance. A couple months later, I received my second stab of Moderna and penned what I hoped would be a victory essay over the virus that had disrupted the previous year of life. I had grand travel plans, I would see family again, work would move away from the misery of Zoom, and I would find undying love.

I wasn’t so naïve as to think it would be that easy, which is good, because it wasn’t. New variants surged, a dream of optimism curdled into an air of mystery, the general malaise lingered, and while I generally went about my life, the world did not. I certainly have no judgment for those who continued to take strong precautions for various reasons and would always work to reach their levels if need be. But to sacrifice any more of my rapidly dwindling youth to a climate of fear that was unlikely to afflict me in any serious way seemed a high price to pay, and trying to negotiate a world in which everyone was on a different page on this issue added another layer of complexity. To be a conscientious friend in 2021 was to live in a state of hyper-aware caution, and the escape of obstinacy grew ever more attractive.

I proceed with family and friends more or less as I did before the pandemic, but my social circles have not grown much, and arranging anything with anyone feels like a considerably larger chore than it used to, the serendipity of stray days together now a rare occurrence. My friend group is a busy one, and a lot of them have been pairing off and reproducing while I have not, a divergence that both keeps them occupied and is wont to drive me to brood. I field questions about my house as if contemplating the excitement of a new garage door is a comparable life step to having a child. For that matter, I have been traveling too much and too caught up in my day job when I am home to get around to acquiring the garage door.

The year took its tolls. I lost a grandmother, an aunt, and a cousin, and endured a funerary marathon for all three of them over one week in July. Somehow, this was not the most draining stretch of family time in 2021; that dubious accolade instead goes to a visit, two weeks later, to the other side of my family, on which I will not elaborate much out of respect for my relatives except to say that no human should ever be allowed to own more than three cats. The less weighty but still disruptive milestones mounted: in the hockey world, a man who was an ordering principle for my drive in life lost his job, a complex but significant era drawn to a close; at work, my colleagues and I were too good at our jobs, in short order overwhelmed by requests for help and pushed to the brink by a taxing schedule, a herd of Sisyphean retrievers forever chasing the ball. It took me until some time after that to see that I was slipping into those same dragging tendencies that had annoyed me about the rest of the world, and another period of time after that to correct course.

I sought my freedom from days of exhaustion and low-grade dread through bursts out into different worlds. It started in the Virgin Islands, made its way to some wilderness retreats in my own backyard, wound its way through another grand western road trip, and popped off to New York and St. Louis and Tucson for punchy weekends. I kept the pace going right up until the end: a week of professional development in Minneapolis featured not only full days of classes, but a different form of scheduled programming each evening as I caught up with family and friends, then topped the whole thing off with a 48-hour jaunt to Chicago for the Christmas party that, every year, manages to put every other party I attend to shame.

All this travel is dangerous. At times it makes me ponder other realities, roads not taken and potentialities looming within a kid who is still capable of quite a bit when he puts his mind to it. I come home from these trips a jumbled mess, always in need of recovery, at once enlivened and invigorated and yet sapped by long hours on the road and disappointed by the return to routine and possessed of a poorly directed energy. The magic does not necessarily last. But how I lived on these trips: sweating up slopes and treading blissful waters, fine dining and good drinks, revelry till the end of the night in the presence of delightful people who, consciously or unconsciously, understand what I mean when I quote Joan Didion and say I want not a window on the world but the world itself.

Didion has been my muse for pandemic era reckoning, and 2021 delivered one final blow when it stole her away this past week. Her death saddened me as much as that of any person I never met in the flesh. No contemporary writer had a greater influence on how I think about the art of prose, or gave me a better sense of how to frame my view of the world. Didion learned to write by copying down Hemingway sentences, and I have learned to write by copying down Didion sentences. An essayist adoring Didion is about as original as a classical music buff lauding Beethoven or a hockey person saying there’s something worth emulating in that Gretzky dude, but sometimes greatness is so plainly obvious, so transcendent of subjective standards, that it can stand up even amid the rush of cliches that inevitably pursue it like fame-hungry paparazzi.

It was amid the rush of Didion homages, all consumed breathlessly this past week, that I realized that what sustained me through 2021 was not the travel itself but the opportunities the travel gave me to write. “Her work was her own answer to the question of what writing and living is for. It ought to be ours, too,” wrote Nathan Heller in a New Yorker obituary. There is no personal crisis I cannot resolve, no looming burden I cannot overcome, by taking a moment to jot it into one of several notebooks or clattering away at a keyboard. The act itself, whether it resolves into a single flowing tale or disjointed marginalia, is enough. Through it, I am made whole at the end of every day, and increasingly in the middle of days when I need reminders to escape the tunnel of the mundane.

From a mesmerized gaze at waves on a beach to the solemn donning of a funeral suit, from the hubbub of a brewing party to curling up with some essays as a wintry wind howls outside, here is to the power of the written word. Here is to their power not to exact immediate results but to create the pieces by which, over time, a new idea can assemble itself, word by word and line by agonized line of authorial reflection and search for just the right turn of phrase. The words may or may not capture my reality in full, but that was never the goal. The goal was to change it.

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