I always linger in bookstores. Not necessarily even reading, just fingering through spines of history's beloved authors and walking out with seven new books for my home library. This started in youth, and continued on through middle school, college years and as a young traveler. Then I spent all of my free hours devouring and marking them up, underlining sentences that I would later dream about and return to.
Each reading was always a process of both pleasure and learning, retracing my way back to paragraphs and passages as I continued onto the next chapters. The underlined areas were not necessarily the famous ones nor the one's recommended be closely examined by a professor, but they always spoke to me with great certainty and rhythm.
There are authors who have changed my world views, invoking a new way of thinking and moving through time and space. For them, I hold the highest admiration. Certainly, Oscar Wilde (Go forth into the world and charm it with your Youth!), Joan Didion (Buy a notebook and write down every detail you observe, even the woman in the fur coat in Vegas you think you'll never see again), and Haruki Murakami (There is chaos and beauty in worlds beyond reality). When I am lonely or uninspired, I simply return to them — their characters — and find peace. From this, I have learned that language has a powerful way of orienting us as readers. We can find clarity, release from our grief, deeper understanding of our family through their storytelling.
Of course, the emotional connection to literature also comes by the way in which it was acquired and read. The Outsiders at 15 years old has different significance than any age past that. A novel by way of recommendation or exchanged during travel, when we are more open and embracing of new ideas, can stay with the reader long after the journey, not so much in the way if we picked it up spontaneously at our neighborhood bookshop.
There was once, for instance, a man in San Marcos around Lake Atitlan in Guatamala who gifted me a book called "Don't Just Do Something. Sit There," which explains mindfulness as pure and relaxed awareness of our present experiences. With the book in my pocket, I climbed alone to the highest mountain top I could find, starred out at an infinite blue sky and lake, one of the most majestic sights I've ever found, read its contents like a private journal, and experienced the most profound silence I've ever known. It was as if the words unlocked something more nurturing than The Self or nature could do on their own. I never met the traveler again, but I still have his book three years later. It sits on my bedside table.
At home, I often dedicate entire weekend days to sifting through old newspapers and literary journals, allowing myself to be filled with stories of other: Other lands, other people, other words, other relationships. I find myself reading articles from 10, 15 years past from the archive of The Times, amazed by how life in New York has changed so much since then, yet besides the city-planning and gentrification, not really at all. The jazz musicians still play their spots; the deli in the LES has not lost its charm; the subway problems persist. In these moments, I catch an intimate glimpse into the city before it was was My City. I share them with my parents, my uncle, my friends — because the author's story is also, amazingly, our story. Our grief. Our tumultuous relationship. Our neighborhood deli.
For me, the process of writing is one of mountain climbing as a beach walker. Many days include a journal where I decorate pages and pages with ideas that will never be seen. This is the ultimate freedom: to document the black man who sits at my neighborhood coffee shop, always in his colorful tunic, hiding behind his computer with everything but those olive eyes which follow me from the register to my seat near the window. Or Ricardo, in Mexico, whose strong hands found their way under my dress, into my hotel room, where we stayed together while his girlfriend waited unknowingly for him at home. Yes, these are the intimate moments that do not have meaning or significance to anyone but me — and sometimes not even to me. Like what it means when my journal simply states: "It felt like monsters were going to come out of the trees," or "food systems in public schools, or "the buildings were black with decades." It begs me to wonder: what tress, what about the systems, what buildings? But still, I keep writing. Don't stop, I tell myself. Keep climbing. Many days alone with only my pen and my thoughts is a slow ascend, but when I reach the top, the view is always glorious. When I get there, I stick my flag into the ground and lay claim to land I've never ventured before. Territory that is mine and mine alone, thought paved for me by multitudes of journalists and authors and novelists.
My best work occurs when I read a lot and meditate on my ideas — without technology, off of social media, in my mind and no one else's. I'll read an essay, take a long, slow walk through my neighborhood, and watch as characters and entire paragraphs float to the surface, like they were patiently waiting to assert themselves. It is as if they are being narrated to me as a gift. Like an old friend who was there all along, waiting until I was ready to meet them again. It is both magic and fear, feeling the most like myself while knowing that this moment of creativity will retreat unless I am relentless in its pursuit.
But as a story comes alive, though each draft, each editor's critical eye, I become more in love with the poetry that is language. A symphony for my soul that I hope to hear forever.