In Praise of Exhaustion

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Summer is the witching season. Maybe this goes without saying. Summer looms large, it occults not only other seasons but whole fields of feeling, entire worlds, words—Snow begins to come loose from its moorings until all I see is s-now, it’s-now, s’now, as in “let’s do it right s’now”, a very Summery contraction—and in defiance of our basic understanding of space-time, even as the days drag on till 9 or 10, the Summer nights balloon, they create a kind of shadow Season with it’s own weather and physics, it’s own freaky logic. Night logic, black magic—this is why I call Summer the “witching season,” a phrase that conjures up Washington Irving’s “witching hour,” that “time in the middle of the night when magic things are said to happen.” Summer is a season of midnight. At least that’s how it feels to me. No matter how much sun I soak up between dawn and dusk it is night and night alone that gives Summer it’s special feeling of (sorry to the strict Lacanians) jouissance, a kind of pleasure-in-defiance. A defiance of what’s rational, what’s healthful and sane. Sleep, for instance. Summer never sleeps and for the months of June, July, and August, neither do I.

The gravity and speed of Summer nights (no matter how tired I am at 3pm by midnight I am wide awake, soon the sun is rising and the giant night swallows itself or bolts for the Pacific, leaving me staring vacantly at the prospect of another day) means less sleep, sure, but more and diverse prospects. The sleeplessness is both energizing and exhausting. For a long time I believed that I was alone in appreciating the weird work (writing work, painting, thinking, romance—whatever) that emerges from this place of total exhaustion until I stumbled across this interview with poet James Tate. In response to the question “Do you have a way that you recharge your batteries?” Tate answers, “I don’t, in part because I believe in writing out of exhaustion…so I’m not too interested in recharging my batteries.” My point exactly. Exhaustion can be stressful, absolutely, but properly managed it can also be profitable. Things you might never say or think or do come bubbling up out of exhaustion. The waking world and dream world mingle there, wherever exhaustion lives. The point, I guess, is not to force exhaustion upon yourself but to be open to the potential energies of an exhausted state, paradoxical as that might sound.

So, in the spirit of Mr. Tate’s declaration, “I like to work when my batteries are very low,” I offer a humble list of things to do between midnight and 5am. Call them Tired Drills. Or, if you’ve stayed up all, they can be essayed at 8, 10, noon, anytime you are feeling properly depleted.

– Cook a meal. A big one. Even if you cannot eat it till the next day. God knows what concoction will end up on the plate.

– Watch a movie, listen to an album, read a book of poems. Fight to stay awake.

– Walk more than a mile. Those of us who live in cities like to think we walk more than suburban folk (we probably do) and country folk (your guess is as good as mine) but only rarely do we walk for more than 5 or 10 minutes at a stretch. A nice, leisurely walk when your exhausted will open your sense receptors.

– Start and finish a project. Write a poem till it’s done. Paint, draw, dance. The point is not to stop until the work you’re following turns that last corner, closing in itself (or, if you’re lucky, opening up).

– Write a letter. Pick a loved one and write them something that’s true. But, for the sake of everyone involved, please don’t send it till the morning.

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