Commonplace (Sy Safransky edition)

clocksIn 1974, Sy Safransky founded The Sun, my favorite magazine. He edits it to this day. Though the mag is imbued thoroughly with his sensibility, he doesn’t actually write for it much these days, instead ceding each issue’s 48 pages (always 48, and with no ads of any sort) to the memoirists, essayists, poets, short-story writers, photographers, and interviewees he has chosen. And there’s not an issue that goes by in which I don’t wish he wrote more for it. But he’s humble. When he gets in there, it’s a page, a single page, from his ongoing notebook—fragments of his life, loosely tied together by a theme. Those themes range widely: marriage, God, war, politics, writing, love, family, heartache, fear, human frailty.

This year, he published Many Alarm Clocks, a collection of vignettes, musings, snapshots, koans, and frustrated longings from his notebook, roughly spanning from 9/11 to early 2015. The book is glorious. I’ve read it through once but now I keep it on my nightstand, dipping through it for moments of wisdom, grace, fury, and anguish. I encourage you to seek it out, and to keep it close. What follows are some of my favorite snippets. Enjoy.

* * * * * * * *

“…How quickly I shut my heart to a disagreeable neighbor. How quickly I shut the door on myself! If I make a habit of judging myself harshly for every real or imagined failing, then how can I possibly extend generosity to others? My politics must be rooted in compassion for myself if I want to contribute to a more compassionate world.”

—from “So Many Buddhas”

* * * * * * * *

“Deepening my awareness is a challenge. It isn’t a challenge because my parents didn’t love me enough. It’s a challenge because it’s a challenge. I don’t need to take it personally. I’ve spent years excavating my past, sorting and cataloging the wreckage. But who I really am, the essential truth of my being, can’t be grasped by the mind, no matter how acute my insights. I’ve confused introspection with awareness, but they’re not the same. Becoming the world’s leading expert on myself has nothing to do with being fully present.”

—from “Nonjudgment Day”

* * * * * * * *

“Is it possible to live each day knowing that everything will go wrong—that everything is falling apart right now—yet remembering, too, that this in no way denies the love at the heart of existence?”

—from “The Life I Tell Myself”

* * * * * * * *

“Do I really need to understand myself better? Isn’t that just another kind of accomplishment, another goal that’s always out of reach? In therapy, I discover hidden stairwells, rooms within rooms. This is the sort of mansion a man could spend his whole life exploring, following clue after clue. But loving myself has nothing to do with following clues. Loving myself has nothing to do with understand my story—such a beautiful story, such a poignant story. Just a story.”

—from “His Famous Melancholia”

* * * * * * * *

“I can trust the power of love. That’s all I can trust. Not my story about the past; not my fantasies about the future; not all my remarkable insights, polished until they shine. They’re like a wall full of trophies in a house that’s burning. Better to trust the flames.”

—from “A Thousand Footnotes”

* * * * * * * *

“Reminder to self: You don’t need to sound smart, Mr. Smarty Pants. You don’t need to have an MFA or a PhD. You don’t need to know the answers to the ten most difficult questions. You don’t need to know what those questions are. You don’t need to make sure that everything you write is all muscle, not an ounce of fat. You don’t need to send only your best and brightest sentences into battle. If you do send them, you don’t need to pretend they’ll win.”

—from “Reporting for Duty”

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation,, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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