Soft Places

I’ve always said that if I ever got famous, my entire bio would just read “Helena Fitzgerald is very tired.” This is funny because you’d have to be famous to say that. It doesn’t tell you anything about me; everybody else is very tired too.
 
I spend a lot of time looking for ways to be more alone, and if you’re looking for a way to be the most possibly alone, the middle of the night is a good place to look for it. There’s a moment, sometime in the sweet spot after 1am, before 4am, when the city goes almost completely silent and it feels as though everyone else has died. Finding a space in the twenty-four hour day to be alone isn’t just about being by oneself. It’s about finding a space when you aren’t supposed to be with anyone, when being alone isn’t a isnt a problem that needs to be fixed. Being alone at a crowded party isn’t being alone at all, even though it’s also the most alone you can be. The thing about this time of night isn’t just about the city being silent - the night of the election, at 3am, New York was the quietest I had ever heard it, absolutely silent, but it didn’t feel at all like being alone. The silence was stuffed to bursting with presence, built out of all the other people awake and not making noise, people standing in the nowhere of a moment further into the future than they thought they’d ever have to get, the sound of thousands of champagne corks stuffed firm in their bottles, un-propelled. But on most nights, what’s so good about this time of night is that the world continues on along its tracks, keeping itself in place; it just doesn’t include you. Being awake late at night in a city is similar to being up very high above one - everything goes on just as it had, but you can stand back and watch it turn, pulling yourself out of the maelstrom and observing, for once a spectator rather than an actor, briefly relieved of consequence, as though you could pass ghostlike through the mass and volume of bodies and no one would feel a thing. No one could embrace you and walls couldn’t hold you.
 
I’m awake because my current schedule is untenable. Success is supposed to look like a busy schedule, to look like too many appointments at once, but failure looks like that, too, and so does precarity, the long ledge right between stasis and disaster, right between things just barely continuing as they should be, and things scattered into irretrievable pieces, the kind of life that can be taken apart by just one bad piece of mail. In the fall I said I was quitting my day-job, I raised up a whole misty-eyed valedictory alarm about it. I wrote a tinyletter about it. I was proud, and I was very tired. Helena Fitzgerald is very tired. I was ready to do something big and triumphant, to hold up success like a flag you waving at the head of a parade. I had a very good Christmas break, and then I went back to my job. My job is freelance and pays pretty well, which in this month of the year is a bad combination. A week and a half ago I filed a large stack of 1099s and thought how laughable it was that I had ever written triumphantly to any of you about quitting anything that offers me a paycheck.
 
The thing about money is that it’s the noun all the other nouns mean, it’s the melody at the bottom of everything, where it turns out all the songs are the same song. As long as money is ok, as long as there isn’t a crisis, then we get to pretend that we do things that aren’t based on money, aren’t constructed out of money, aren’t determined by money. As long as we can avert immediate crisis, we get to pretend that every bus ride and exit and entrance, every coffee and every slow morning, every kiss and every argument, every memory and regret and resentment and mercy and want and expectation and resignation and hope, every fingernail and eyebrow and muscle in your legs or your back that sings or doesn’t at the advent of a new pressure, every phone call and every unexpected free hour in the middle of the day, every surprise and every comfort, the couch, the bed, and the body there in it waiting for you, aren’t all made out of money. Tiny lines of numbers filling in the picture, giving architecture and form to the world that spreads out tangible into a life. The song underneath the song is always the same: plus one dollar minus one dollar plus one dollar.
 
We want to believe love can be something that transcends the language by which things are bought and sold, but it’s more difficult than that. The rooms in which love takes place, the warm spaces that allow love to be performed, are made possible by the fact that money hasn’t run out yet. The point of how we retreat into one another is the fact that we have a place to go. So much of love is really just the privilege of being able to go inside away from the weather.
 
Our cat sleeps most of the day. That’s what cats do and part of why those of us who love them love them, part of what they provide. A pet is the image of a more merciful world, a life made only of tenderness. When Sophie (our cat) settles into the crook of the couch, onto a pile of folded laundry or a nest of jumbled clothes, into a blanket left on the floor or the sinking velvet nap of the big chair, Thomas says “she’s just looking for soft places.” “That’s what we’re all doing,” I always tell him, because another one of the reasons to have a cat, to care for an animal, is to get to say things that sappy and awful, to be allowed to be un-nuanced and unsophisticated, to love in an absolutely uncritical and un-rigorous way. Here, you get to love something just because it is soft, and warm, and smaller than you, love as nothing more explicable or considered than the absolute knockout tenderness of careful paws finding their way to your chest, and settling a small nine-pound weight just over your ribcage. Unconditional love often gets held up as a virtue, but in actuality between humans it’s both impossible and undesirable. Even if it were possible to love a person unconditionally, it would be neither kind nor responsible to do that to them. The flip-side of unconditional love is inexplicable love, the kind of love that can be only be explained by beauty, by softness, by proximity. We want to be loved because are known, not simply because we are there. But loving an animal is all about loving something because it’s there, elevating this randomness as the best thing in our nature. A pet allows us to love in the way that we cant love another human - we can love them because we shelter them, love admitting itself as a tautology. We can love them because they have allowed us to take care of them, because they are vulnerable to the fact or absence of our care and because that vulnerability allows the softest part of ourselves to awaken, the part that actually says things like “everybody’s looking for soft places.” We can read onto them all kinds of reactions and meanings, we can assume that their desire for warmth and for shelter means that they love us, too. Because there is no hope of communicating with an animal, we have the luxury of loving them without the desire to untangle the knot of whats and whys that presents itself in human love. Our love is unconditional and utterly selfish, fully free of the idea that anyone might deserve anything; everyone deserves soft places.
 
But all of those soft places are made of money. Sophie the cat is a perfect tenderness and a permission for unconditional love and a nine-pound raincloud rumbling on my chest, but she is also a savings account, a monetary figure, a future crisis. The soft places exist not because she deserves them, but because we can afford them. It is hard to tell apart the brutalities of the economic system and the brutalities of the human condition; we are so used to interacting with everyone and everything first and foremost as what they will cost us that it has perhaps become part of how we know how to locate one another. Love is an interior room and an interior room is something you buy with money.
 
Anyway, I had a bad week, or a bad few weeks, and everything felt too close to the edge, to close to the memory of when each new day was a roll of a dice and a scratching in the dirt. I felt up close to failure again, its broken fingernails, its small choices. Helena Fitzgerald is very busy. I’m too busy, and I’m very tired, but perhaps that’s because I’m failing, not because I’m succeeding. Of course failure is a luxury, too, up to a point, much like love. Love is closer to failure than success anyway, better acquainted with it. How we love people has a lot to do with how failure makes us our best and most interesting self. Someone past all their accomplishments, in the ruins of their hopes, becomes a person you might want to know. People are best once the top layer of striving has been scraped off, once they’ve been defeated a few times. People are their most loving and most lovable, are most like soft places, when they’re walking out of the ring with their head bowed, after they’ve been relegated to the bench and taken out of the starting lineup, after they suspect they are no longer going to be put back in the game.

Love can’t escape money but it can escape ambition or, more accurately, it can provide an escape from it. Love is a grand failure, a sinking back into sleeping all day - nobody cares that you got somebody else to love you. Assholes and failures and nobodies fall in love every day. If you walk down the street and pay attention you’ll always see at least one pair of average-if-not-ugly people gazing into each other’s eyes like they’ve found paradise. People who have done absolutely nothing with their lives find each other and believe they are the luckiest people on earth, the grandest and the most accomplished. Nobody cares. Love defeats ambition because it defeats our desire to matter to anyone but one person, because it allows us for a moment to escape the systems that ask us to logically measure out our value, to account our price, to figure up the column of plus-one minus-one and present ourselves as concrete sum for trading - here is how much I have to offer, here is the most I can afford. Love places illogical prices on things, it refuses the rationale of an exchange rate. For this reason it is often horrible and always unjust; think of all the times someone you loved chose someone else over you and you looked at them and thought her? why? how can they choose her? But that’s the soft place, that’s the thing that’s the opposite of money, the chance we have to even partially escape the columns of numbers. Walter Benjamin, comparing love to the feeling one gets smoking hashish, called this “the squandering of our own existence that we know in love.” Love is where we fail on purpose, defiantly unaccomplished, where we are allowed to be cats all day, looking for soft places, amazed to wake up each day and still be here, the merciful half-conscious moments where we can convince ourselves the world is more than the rustle and threat of money beneath the surface.

Hi friends. I know it's been a while since the last tinyletter; I'm trying to be better about it. I have a couple new pieces up here and here. If you feel like donating to support/tip this tinyletter, my paypal is paypal.me/helfitzgerald. You can also not do that though; that's the beauty of free will and free internet.