I can’t write with you on my chest
You crush the words inside me
Into essence & nonsense & body
And sound. Which is fitting
Because that’s all word is to you
Sound and the motion behind it.
I am beneath you
Unable to write about anything else.
I can’t write with you on my chest
You crush the words inside me
Into essence & nonsense & body
And sound. Which is fitting
Because that’s all word is to you
Sound and the motion behind it.
I am beneath you
Unable to write about anything else.
“I’m so much older than I thought I’d be,” cries unhappy wife and mother, Emily Weaver in Crazy, Stupid Love, and I have to admit that I laughed out loud at the line’s illogical logic.
I’m so much older than I thought I’d be.
Just five years ago, my youth seemed to spread before me with indifferent forever-ness. My youth was a fact. It felt consumable and yet, infinite.
And I know, I know, age is an attitude. You’re only as old as you feel, but despite myself or my best laid plans, certain experiences are befalling me–I am passing through certain social rites, and many of my forever young friends (all those wild Peter Pans) seem to be doing similar.
Shall I list them? Marriage, kids, houses, settling. My husband and I find ourselves redistributing our money. Instead of coffee, cigarettes, and art supplies, we buy diapers, cereal, and car parts.
Settling. It’s a nice word. Inevitable, but comfortable. But what about when it’s loss?
You can settle softly, like a feather to the ground. The word can be a nestling, a nesting, a getting comfortable.
But it can also mean loss–a decisive surrendering to a less-than-ideal.
The former is light in my mouth. When I say it, the stress falls on the first syllable. It tickles my tongue. SEttle.
The latter, this locked-into-less settle drags on. It lands with a thud. SetTLE
In a recent match of Words With Friends (My IPhone Scrabble) an old friend (the kind of defiant and spirited person you eventually spin myths about) played the word AGING, and it felt so sad, so sad to associate with the word in anyway.
And yet, it’s inevitable–aging. It’s truth, so why does my aging sometimes feel like settling–and I mean in a bad way–the way that feels like loss?
The coin is a beloved symbol in Buddhist thought. You cannot pick up the heads without the tail. One cannot exist without the other.
And perhaps the meeting of these differing concepts in one word (settle) is more than just accident.
Settle–the relaxing, the getting comfortable (I am so much more comfortable), but in this process of decision, selection, staying put (in one way or another) you have to say “no.” You have to sacrifice. You have to “settle” (for some things, sometimes.)
They don’t prepare you for this settle, though. They tell you all your dreams will come true–but the truth is, some just don’t.
And maybe there’s always going to be settling in settling. You can’t have one without the other. Right?
And yet (and yet and yet) there’s an art to insisting. The trick–I’ve yet to learn, is when to insist and when to allow. When to get out of the way and accept, and when to take a break from settling to fly. Because settling seems like something you do again and again, over and over. Is it obvious, I haven’t settled when it comes to the word settle? And perhaps, therein lies the word’s genius.
You like to think they get the best of you, and I’m not taking eyes or jaw-line. I’m both interested and disturbed by how much of myself is blood, DNA, my body. (This veers dangerously close to the theme of my blog, which could mean a ten thousand word tangent, but for the sake of all of our busy schedules, I’ll resist that tangent.)
Take the Minnesota Twins study, for example. (If you took Psychology 101, you know I can’t mention genetics or nurture versus nature without referencing a twin study.) Thomas J. Bouchard’s 1979 twin study was basically a long and vigorous assessment of different twins separated at a young age and reared apart.
Like twins Gerald and Mark Newman.
“Neither know of the other’s existence until a shared acquaintance brought them together. Upon meeting for the first time each saw his own reflection. They had grown the same mustache and sideburns, and each wore the same glasses. As the brothers talked,they discovered they had more than looks in common. Levey went to college and graduated with a degree in forestry. Newman planned to go to college to study the same subject but opted to work for the city trimming trees. Both worked for a time in supermarkets. Levey had a job installing sprinkler systems. Until relatively recently, Newman had a job installing fire alarms. Both men are bachelors attracted to similar women– “tall, slender, long hair.” In addition to being volunteer firefighters, they both share favorite past times of hunting, fishing, going to the beach, watching old John Wayne movies and pro wrestling, and eating Chinese food in the wee hours after a night on the town. Both were raised in the Jewish faith but neither is particularly religious. Both men drink only Budweiser beer, holding the can with one pinkie curled underneath and crushing the can when it’s empty. In becoming acquainted, observes Jerry, ‘we kept making the same remarks at the same time and using the same gestures. It was spooky…He is he and I am I, and we are one.'”
Obviously, this is just one example. Some of the similarities are pretty amazing, while some are, well, not. (e.g. bachelors attracted to similar women– “tall, slender, long hair.”) The debate over nurture vs. nature remains without conclusion, and yet I can’t help acknowledge that much, if not most, of who we are is inherited.
I grew up seeing my father no more than twenty or so days a year, and yet, I often gesture like he does. I argue like he does. I adopt vocal tones and attitudes that are my dad. I didn’t know this growing up (though my mom would often allude to how much it freaked her out) and now that I live closer to him, I can see it for myself. In fact, I can quite easily pick out traits of mine that come from the Webster side of my genetic pairing, but maybe I’m making it too simple.
“They” say you see yourself in your children- and that you have to often step back and remind yourself they are separate from you. Still, even with forewarning, I struggle with what to say as my nearly three-year old son sits apart from story time festivities. The other kids dance, clap, and laugh, meanwhile Henry stands to watch, an intensely serious expression expanding all over his face. He sits apart from the group, and I ask him why, later in the car.
-Why didn’t you want to dance with everyone?
-I don’t know.
-Didn’t you think it’d be fun.
-Because I don’t.
And it’s difficult to keep it about him when I’ve got all of these old spook memories laying around, like how I spent most of my kindergarten and first grade recesses sitting by myself, waiting for the bell to ring, or how, in second grade, the kids at the bus stop referred to me as “the girl who doesn’t talk”–and it would really feel like I couldn’t talk, like there was something blocking my throat, a great sorrowful clot that I couldn’t understand, and definitely couldn’t maneuver.
Oh, I eventually figured it out. I’ve had social periods in my life–extremely social periods, in fact–and I’ve had long stretches where I mostly kept to myself (or a very small amount of people). I’ve developed and lost a stammering problem. I’ve blushed my way through entire years, and yet I’ve frequented social events like a butterfly. What I mean to say is that I’m not afraid for Henry, really. I know he’ll figure it out.
It’s just–I’ve always imagined it to be easier for the people who can just glide into the group, the people who don’t feel apart. I’ve watched, and it seems like, the people who can quickly lean on one another, laugh with one another, and call out to one another find life to be so much friendlier, a little more palatable. They have less fear, or so it seems, and I wanted that for Henry.
I want for him to be able to shake of the weight of thought so that he can leap into the parade of fun. (I’m not being metaphorical. Story time regularly has Parades of Fun.)
And if he can’t, I want to figure out a way to make it OK, because when I think about it, all of this “apartness,” all that sitting to the side and observing, only felt bad when it felt wrong, when I became conscious, self-conscious of my body as being odd and out. I liked to watch, and maybe he does, too.
So, maybe I can sit back and watch him sit back and watch (without oddness or pressure) and that will be the way he participates, or maybe I’ll have weak moments and nudge him forward just a bit. Or maybe I’ll do a little of both, flip-flopping between them like a nervous mother, trying her best to protect her son from the hardness in his blood.
These are some of the most important words on love (as in the human relationship) that I’ve read in some time:
An honorable human relationship–that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love”– is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.
It is important to do this because it breaks down human self-delusion and isolation.
It is important to do this because in so doing we do justice to our own complexity.
It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.
Here’s to going the hard way–whether you’re lovers, brothers, sisters, friends, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, aunts, uncles, and I could go on and on.
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Stay with me. This is a question. I’m researching a project I have in mind. . .
While visiting my childhood home, I came across an old, empty journal. The journal was a gift, and I’d thought it so wonderful, I didn’t dare write in its pages. The book is fat (nearly three inches thick), leather bound, with an embossed image of scantily, sheet-clad women holding hands and dancing (you know, sort of Greco-Roman-Barnes and Noble). I think I was around 15 when my parents gave it to me, and I can remember holding it just to savor its weight. The certainty of its objecthood thrilled me. The object, its quality, inspired me. I yearned to fill it with important things, better handwriting, serif-worthy prose. I’d had journals before, but this–you know, this was a JOURNAL.
I don’t think about objects as much now, as I did when I was a kid, and a quick pre-blog bath/brainstorm session led me to the following reasons why.
Reason number 1: “Object” is kind of a bad word–especially if you are sensitive to the female’s ongoing relationship with said word. I’m sure, even if you are not (sensitive to it) you’re familiar with the term “objectification” and all the negative connotations it conjures. But seriously. Pay attention to the next commercial break (or magazine page or billboard or grocery store isle or or or) The female body is ever dismembered (i.e. objectified) for the sake of making a buck or eliciting a quick thrill (in order to make a buck). A woman’s legs. A woman’s belly. A woman’s breasts. No matter how healthy my body-concept, it’s difficult not to feel (sometimes) estranged from certain body “parts”. It’s as if–in the midst of all this objectification– these parts aren’t wholly mine, or a part of the whole–my whole. I have to make a conscious effort to note and deny this aspect of my culture that allows my parts to be so easily marketed and sold (as parts). I have to make a conscious effort to inhabit my body as a body, as a subjective and warm, living and doing entity.
Reason number 2: It’s not exactly christian (in this christian nation) to worship objects. Placing too much importance on material objects is not only seen as foolish but perhaps a bit amoral. People tend to view the materialist as a shallow, greedy person, unconcerned with the things that “really matter.” In fact, I’ve personally heard our society condemned for being too “materialistic.” In his essay, “Images of God,” Alan Watts offers a counter-view:
“For it is strictly incorrect to think of the progressive cultures as materialistic, if the materialist is one who loves concrete materials. No modern city looks as if it were made by people who love material.”
Which brings me to
Reason number 3: Most modern day objects just don’t mean much, anymore. They’re cheap and disposable, if not right away, within a number of years. And the objects that do mean something (the objects that get us excited), mean something because of what they do, not because of how they are made, or what materials that were used to make them.
Part 3 (The Question):
So, the question I want to ask you is, what object gets your heart pumping, for its objecthood, alone, I mean? Please, your comments are welcome!
1. Great Expectations
My two and a half year old wakes up crying in the night. His nightmares recur with similar themes. He drops an ice cream cone in sand, or he wants his banana whole but his father cuts it up. Maybe I take away his toy. He works through the same situation again and again. Expectations had and expectations lost.
In waking life, it is the same. He races out of his bath dripping naked and rogue. He expects to run to me laughing, but his father snatches him up. Dad intends to dry him off, but Henry doesn’t understand. He expected one thing and did not receive it. A melt down ensues.
We’ve tried to talk him through it. You know, the whole take-a-deep breath routine. We’ve condemned him to timeout. We’ve played out scenarios, fed him lines.
“Whoops! My ice cream fell! May I have another?”
My advice feels stale after a while, because, to be honest, I’ve yet to master the art of disappointment. I can throw my own grown up tantrums and sulks with the best of them. You’d think I’d learn.
“You’re not good with disappointment,” My husband tells me, my sister tells me, my mother tells me, and yet I insist on setting (and resetting) those expectations high.
It’s like a disease–some neurotic impulse that I can’t seem to control. I romanticize and inflate future events, and when something goes wrong, I crumble.
2. Wait. Before you Judge
Have you ever gotten angry while stuck in traffic? Or maybe you’ve cursed the person puttering along ten miles under the speed limit ahead of you. You expected a trouble free commute, and when your expectations weren’t met, you became angry. (The philosopher Seneca believed that all anger is rooted in optimism.) If you’d started out your morning expecting a delay, you may have taken it all in stride.
3. The Happy Half-Empty Glass
The tag line for a wonderfully witty “Sunday Sermon” by the School of Life (hosted by Alain de Botton) suggests the following,
Here are a few basic truths: life is essentially meaningless; your hard work won’t dictate where your life goes; you will be struck down by death; and your loved ones and your achievements will whither and turn to dust. A grim way to look at things perhaps. But a long line of philosophers, starting with the Stoics, have seen wisdom in taking a dim view. As Alain de Botton points out, a pessimistic outlook reduces our expectations, our envy, our disappointment, and it creates room for emotional upside and healthier life decisions.
Even if you don’t agree with the “life is meaningless” exertion, you’ve got to concede the others. Sure, Alain de Botton’s suggested pessimism makes me laugh. My Disney childhood has placed me in a position to view such advice with discomfort and skepticism. But I think it makes logical sense.
It makes logical sense, but I’m not sure if pessimism is in my blood. I’m not sure I have the stomach for it. I can’t help but get up when I get knocked down (again and again and again).
All the following situations flare my excitable need to expect:
And those are just to name a few.
And what about the fuel our expectations/hopes can provide for us when we pursue those more difficult goals (i.e. I want to forge a career as a writer.) If I thought pessimistically, maybe I’d give up (though, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t, which is maybe the idea.)
5. A Case for Madness
I’ve experimented with an alternative to pessimism: illusion.
Truly! when life isn’t enough, you can sort of beef it up a little bit.
I am an excitable person who only understands life lyrically, musically, in whom feelings are much stronger as reason. I am so thirsty for the marvelous that only the marvelous has power over me.
Anything I can not transform into something marvelous, I let go. Reality doesn’t impress me.
I only believe in intoxication, in ecstasy, and when ordinary life shackles me, I escape, one way or another. No more walls.
Writes Anais Nin–who didn’t have children–and I rallied behind quotes like these differently before I had them, too.
But really, there’s always poetry, reflection. I can imagine more meaning than may truly exist. I can imagine meaning, project meaning, insist on meaning. I think that’s how it is done.
(When hard times come, don’t so many of us turn to that adage, “Everything happens for a reason”?)
6. Bad Parenting Advice?
But how in the world do I work this out in an honest way with my two and a half year old? It’s far fetched to tell him that there’s meaning in his accidentally cut up banana, though I have repeated to him the When-Life-Hands-You-Lemons advice, and that’s sort of like telling him to create his own meaning, which is kind of nice, but I still don’t think he gets it, even on the level of lemons and lemonade.
And the alternative: telling him not to expect much, is far too depressing.
Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe he should expect the world–he should expect everything from the meaningful to the meaning less, to joys and disappointments and surprises, love loss, etc, etc.
But who am I kidding? He’s two. I’ll probably just stick to take-a-deep-breath. I mean, it’s a good start. Even for me.
You cannot be in the United States for long without running into the word “freedom.” In fact, the concept of “freedom” extends far beyond the literal and specific (i.e. democracy) into a glorious and mythical abstraction.
We are free.
is wildly incomplete. Sure, compared to some (if not many) countries, our citizens enjoy many liberties, but to claim Freedom Absolute feels a bit excessive.
It’s as if our patriotism commandeered the word directly from the Christian religion, where freedom is comparable to enlightenment–a glory-to-God kind of freedom.
Galatians 5:1 reads: Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. (The yoke of bondage being sin and/or the law, depending on which Bible version you prefer.) At some point every abstraction runs into this same, ambiguous muddle. Outside of a context, what is it exactly? (i.e. how can you measure it? know it? define it?)
I like the concept of freedom, and, in a way, I feel like most of us pursue it.
And though most of us can agree that freedom is desirable, we all seem to look for it in different places and in different ways.
To one, freedom may mean lack of relationship (the old ball and chain variety). To another, the lack of financial obligation. Freedom could mean mental health (e.g. lack of addiction) or a breaking from the past. In fact, it seems the easiest way to understand the word is by what it is not: Enslaved. Contained. Controlled.
Jonathan Franzen recently (semi-recently) published an extensive and vigorous novel that encircles this word (and concept) again and again. The book’s named Freedom and its at times hysterical, at times despairing, love story crawled so low to the ground–so real with human grit (and lack of sentiment), it was often difficult to read.
My dad hated the book. He found its realism distasteful.
“Why would I want to read about ordinary people making bad choices?” He couldn’t finish it, he said. He saw nothing in those pages to strive for, no inspiration to take away.
My sister nodded. “Exactly. And if you would have finished the novel you would have seen that it’s a book about forgiveness. That’s what you take away. I thought it was beautiful.”
As she said this, I sat up straighter in my chair. Could this be it? Is this true freedom–Forgiveness in some shape or form, whether it be forgiving or forgiven.
I’m sure I don’t have to elaborate on the role forgiveness plays in the Christian paradigm. But, the Christian faith is not alone in this. Forgiveness plays an integral role in many religions.
Buddhism, Sikhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, the list goes on. I found this particularly lovely quote on the Forgiveness Wiki page (Yes, I used Wikipedia. I’m busy, these days. My research has got to be quick.)
“Love the creatures for the sake of God and not for themselves. You will never become angry or impatient if you love them for the sake of God. Humanity is not perfect. There are imperfections in every human being, and you will always become unhappy if you look toward the people themselves. But if you look toward God, you will love them and be kind to them, for the world of God is the world of perfection and complete mercy. Therefore, do not look at the shortcomings of anybody; see with the sight of forgiveness.”
— `Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 92
Forgive each other, the weather, fate. Forgive the moment, the shoulds, the should nots. Forgive the past, debts and imbalances, the times when there was never enough.
Forgive and forget. This way of thinking leads me to consider, perhaps the least-free character in modern literature: Funes the Memorious. Jorge Luis Borges describes the character as unable to forget anything, and I mean anything–down to the tiniest detail. The short tale begins and ends with the man sitting in a dark room, every sensual undertaking (visual, aural, tactile) painful to him.
We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses on the table; Funes saw all the shoots, clusters, and grapes of the vine. He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho. These recollections were not simple; each visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, etc. He could reconstruct all his dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day. He told me: I have more memories in myself alone than all men have had since the world was a world. And again: My dreams are like your vigils. And again, toward dawn: My memory, sir, is like a garbage disposal.
. . . Swift writes that the emperor of Lilliput could discern the movement of the minute hand; Funes could continuously make out the tranquil advances of corruption, of caries, of fatigue. He noted the progress of death, of moisture. He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform world which was instantaneously and almost intolerably exact. Babylon, London, and New York have overawed the imagination of men with their ferocious splendour; no one, in those populous towers or upon those surging avenues, has felt the heat and pressure of a reality as indefatigable as that which day and night converged upon the unfortunate Ireneo in his humble South American farmhouse. It was very difficult for him to sleep. To sleep is to be abstracted from the world; Funes, on his back in his cot, in the shadows, imagined every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which surrounded him. (I repeat, the least important of his recollections was more minutely precise and more lively than our perception of a physical pleasure or a physical torment.) Toward the east, in a section which was not yet cut into blocks of homes, there were some new unknown houses. Funes imagined them black, compact, made of a single obscurity; he would turn his face in this direction in order to sleep.
So we aren’t bad off as all that, and while I think Freedom Proper will prove elusive to most of us–at least in a permanent sense, I imagine we can acheive it in small momments. In those small moments of grace, when we forgive the world everything and simply exist. Those moments are enough to keep us hungry for more, I suppose.
Forgive and forget and be free. One of many paths, I’m sure, but one I’m happy to have found.