22 May 2008

Sorrow and Delight

Yesterday in my course on Romantic Backgrounds we read the Book of Job.  I've always been interested in this book of the Bible, for a number of different reasons.  At first, I was preoccupied by it because it seemed to me to set up an unfair situation, a situation that I later saw not as simply unfair but as a difficult question to answer:  does faith need testing?  When I first read the Book I would have said no; later I would have said, I can see why it might, since untested faith has never questioned its reasons or really understood itself in the way tested faith has.  Now I would say, I'm not sure. And I noticed this time that although Job doesn't lose faith, he doesn't exactly keep it, either.  So the question of whether faith should be tested or not is slightly irrelevant.  

More recently I have liked Job primarily because it tells the story of a good person arbitrarily persecuted.  On House this Monday House pointed out that life is random, and Job seems to me the greatest pessimistic exemplar of this, especially if you remove the stuff added by the Pious Emender.  So I suppose I like Job because it both jibes with and encourages my pessimistic view of life.

(I should say here, though, that thinking about House afterward I wondered why nobody ever points out that life is randomly good as well as randomly bad.  That is, sometimes awful things happen, it's true, but sometimes wonderful things happen, too.  I don't want to talk about deserving or not deserving, but it's certainly true that while there have been many awful things I didn't expect, there have also been quite a few good things I didn't expect.  But I think we don't think of good things as happening randomly because we have a kind of ingrained conviction that good things come from hard work and determination -- that is, people seem to believe that only hard work and determination will win you anything, but you can still lose something despite hard work and determination.  Which is an odd and unfair equation, if you think about it. ANYway, it did seem to me that perhaps a bit more space should be given to the randomness of good things.)

Reading the Book of Job this time, however, I was struck by the accuracy of the lamentations. Deep-mired in troubles, Job cries out, "Wherefore is light given unto him that is in misery, and life unto the bitter in soul...?  For my sighing cometh before I eat, and my roarings are poured out like the waters....Oh, that my grief were thoroughly weighed, and my calamity laid in the balances together!  For now it would be heavier than the sands of the sea:  therefore my words are swallowed up....What is my strength, that I should hope?  and what is mine end, that I should prolong my life?"  (3.20-6.11).  I found myself arrested by the demonstration this offers of the fact that, apparently, the experience of pain has not changed:  people ask the same questions and rend the same garments even after the passage of millenia.  But I did also feel, if not a sense of kinship with, a sense of gratitude to Job.  This expression of what deep grief feels like is not one I could ever have managed, and it is just right, perfectly accurate.  It is just like that.

Having said that, I would also like to say that this afternoon as I was taking off my t-shirt to get in bed for a nap I thought that there is perhaps no more pleasurable feeling than the feeling of disrobing to get into a white-sheeted bed in the middle of a sunny afternoon.
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18 May 2008

Well, Ahead, Anyway

For the past week I have been reflecting on risks and risk-taking.  While I'm not a bungee jumper or one of those people who flies light aircraft into the desert, in the confines of regular-life-living I have taken some risks:  I packed up and moved to England after college; I moved to where I am; I've gone out with men who were not the men you meet if you just hang around usual places, or if you don't make a point of meeting them.  None of these, incidentally, have seemed like risks to me.  They've seemed like the stuff that would make me happy, so they seemed completely logical. I gather that to other people, however, they have seemed risky or bold.  Apparently most people do not do these sorts of things: they don't approach people, or decide to go for the long shot, or up sticks.

I reflect upon this now, as I am about to enter my fifth decade, and it strikes me that none of the risks I've taken has, in fact, brought me happiness.  When I moved to England, I ended up marrying someone I ended up divorcing.  When I moved to where I am, it turned out to be a terribly wrong place for me.  When I went out with unusual men, those relationships didn't work out.  And other emotionally risky behaviours - risky in my opinion - have resulted badly, too.  

I don't want to turn this into The Blog About New Order, but here a mention does seem appropriate.  They have a relatively late song (maybe 1994) called "Regret" - a strange song altogether, as it's not clear whether the speaker is celebrating good luck or bemoaning loss.  At the very end, sort of dissociated from the rest of the lyric and therefore seeming like a random thought, the speaker (or maybe Bernard Sumner) says, "Just wait till tomorrow:  I guess that's what they all say just before they fall apart."  I've always loved this lyric (in fact, this is one of the few songs that gets what I think of as an elemental rule of song-writing absolutely right: leave your best line for last), because of the essential despair and gloomy view of the world it reveals.  Thinking about it lately, though, I've come to love it for another reason, too.  It seems to me to capture perfectly the stupidity of risk-taking.  You decide you'll do something, and you say, "Just wait; you'll see:  it'll work out."  And the next thing you know, as sure as shooting, everything, including you, falls apart.

So, after careful reflection, I've decided to stop taking risks.  That doesn't mean I'm not going to do what's best for my career, but it does mean I'm not going to do things that could end wonderfully or could end horribly, or even things that could end well or could end badly.  This is especially true in my personal life.  I would rather be functionally unhappy all the time, the way I am now, than risk being made very unhappy.  My experience suggests to me that attempts I make to be truly happy always end up making me very unhappy.  So I'm done making those attempts.  I obviously have no skill in recognizing people or situations that will make me unhappy, and I possess no ability to strategize in such a way that I can manipulate situations into going my way:  these two facts lead me to believe that it's best to wait for things to happen to me, rather than going after what I want, and to stay away from doing things that offer me any chance of getting hurt.

Now, I should say that this offers up some real possibilities in the sexual area.  Specifically, it makes brief sexual encounters the sensible option.  So I should get my numbers up in that department.  If I could just get the hang of how you meet people to have sex with.  But I think that'll be easier when I'm a woman alone in England.
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13 May 2008

A Paean to the Skirt

This early evening when I was coming out of the hoagie place, a couple came out after me.  The male half of the couple said to me, in a nice pleasant tone not a salacious one, "That's a pretty skirt."  "Thank you!" I said in a surprised voice.  In fact, I don't much care for the skirt I was wearing, which is an old one that I made maybe four years ago when I was hefty (as opposed to pudgy, which is what I'm starting to become now - something I adamantly don't want to have happen before I go to England, so I need to become stern about food again: the hoagie was a vegetarian one, by the way).  It has a strange waist that, although cut in such a way that it should be slimming, in fact makes me look lumpy.  HOWEVER, his comment got me thinking about how much I love skirts generally.

Okay, a big part of my love of skirts has practical roots:  I could never get the hang of making trousers.  This always seemed odd to me, since trousers are essentially a two-seam deal, but the sister of an ex-boyfriend once told me that, in fact, they are quite tricky.  So that's my excuse:  trousers are trickier than they appear.  As a result of my inability, I've been forced to make only skirts, dresses, and blouses, and as a result I wear a lot of skirts (and dresses).  

I must admit, though, that my affection for the skirt surpasses this practical consideration. Frankly, I am not a big fan of clothing.  Okay, it's necessary when it's cold, and these days I wear a bra even when I'm wearing nothing else, because I'm paranoid about my breasts sagging, but aside from that (and even the bra thing I would give up if I could) I just don't care for wearing clothes.  I just like being able to move and stretch my limbs in an unimpeded manner.  And, well, a skirt is quite a lot like being naked.  It swirls, and when you sit down it makes a big circle, under which you are wearing nearly nothing (or nothing, if that floats your boat).  When you wear trousers you can't feel your legs next to each other, and if you try to wrap yourself around yourself (my favorite way of sitting) wrinkles dig into you or prevent you from being comfortable.  Whereas with a skirt you can bend yourself about, or cross your legs, and it's as comfy as if you weren't wearing anything at all.

Plus, I have a terrible waist to hip ratio (quite small waist relative to my hips), and skirts hide that better.

Well, at the moment I'm making a bright green straight tunic, so I'd better get back to that.  
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10 May 2008

Tender Is the Night

Walking home from a drink with a friend tonight, I started thinking about Keats; it's still early spring here, and the night is indeed tender, hence the thoughts.  I was thinking about "Ode to a Nightingale," and the line in the third stanza in which Keats bemoans the fact that "youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies."  This is always taken as a reference to his brother Tom, who had died of TB just a little while before.  Anyway, thinking about that line made me think, as thinking about Keats always does, of my favorite bit of Keats, from "Ode on a Grecian Urn," where he says to the youth chasing the maiden, "Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss, / Though winning near the goal - yet, do not grieve; / She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, / For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!"  And walking through the cool of this tender Arkansas night, I realized that I've been teaching those lines wrongly to my students for three years.  I tell them that Keats loves this moment, and all such moments (because he does like these "just before moments"), because these are the moments in which you anticipate, in which the thing you are anticipating has not yet come and so exists in its extreme of impact:  in this case, because at this moment of anticipation you are still to have your first kiss, and once you have it you'll never have that first again, nor will you have that extreme delighted anticipation.  He loves these moments, I tell them, because, in this delay, the moment of delight both exists and is still to come. 

But I see now that Keats loves these moments because the moment of delight has not yet gone. It's not that you still have your bliss to look forward to.  It's that you're delaying the fading, the inevitable loss.  Youth always grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies, whether or not it has TB: it ages.  But if you never, never kiss, then you delay the moment when the maiden leaves, or grows less fair, or the youth dies, or ceases to love.  There's no achievement, but that means there's no inevitable loss, or pain, either.
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09 May 2008

Much to Tell

This will be a post of length, because I had stuff I wanted to write about, and then there was a dramatic development, with the result that now I want to write about that, too.

Okay, dramatic event first:  S. collapsed on stage!  Not that I was there.  I read about it on his blog, where he narrated the entire event in "you are there" style, e.g., "As the performance proceeds my chest feels tight.  I have pins and needles radiating outward.  When
we get to the scene where I have to fake a heart attack, I think to myself, This must be what Brian really feels like..." And as I'm reading along I'm yelling at the computer screen, "Oh, my God, you're having a heart attack!"  Considering that the entry ended "...everything goes black," you can see why I might finish reading and call S. on his mobile phone.  I thought to myself, Well, obviously you were alive enough to write this post, but what actually happened, and ARE YOU STILL ALIVE?  Long story short, he rang me back to say, then posted on the blog that, he didn't have a heart attack, but that doctors don't seem to know what had happened.  Nonetheless, the whole incident managed to make it into The Scotsman and The Stage.  I find myself wondering if this will make his career (pushes him into the public eye) or destroy it (forever labelled "insurance risk:  Guy Who Collapsed On Stage").  The former, I hope, because S. is a wonderful actor, and I want him to have the wonderful life he's deserved since he was 23 (when I met him, so he might have deserved it before then, but I wouldn't know).

What I Meant to Write about Before That Happened

Music, as it happens.  Again.  Perhaps because my friend M. came to town with the band he works for a couple of weeks ago, or perhaps just because it's starting to get summery, and I've been listening to a lot of music in the warm, I've been thinking quite about why it is that I love so much the music that I love.

There have been studies, apparently, that show that music connects in some instinctual way to the brain, a way that bypasses intellect and processing and gets right to some sort of basic connection (like the sense of smell, in that way).  I'm willing to buy into that, because it seems to me that, with music I love, that is what I love about it.  I've talked about this before a bit in my post about New Order, but I'm trying to be a bit more exact about it, now.
There's a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, one of my very favorite writers, called "The Beach at Falesa."  In this story, one man kills another by stabbing him or slitting his throat, I can't recall which, and when he recounts the experience he says, "The blood came over my hands, I remember, hot as tea."  (Interestingly, and perhaps sadly given that teaching literature is my job, although I find this a very arresting image I didn't notice until today what it tells you about the speaker:  the lack of emotion he feels at this murder, if he can liken his victim's blood to tea).  Well, in reverse, this is exactly how I feel about one sort of music:  it spills over my hands like blood.  Under that label, I'd put almost anything by New Order, "A Night Like This," by the Cure, "When Love Breaks Down," by Prefab Sprout, and - weirdly - "Fluorescent Adolescent," by the Arctic Monkeys.

To describe another kind of music, I'd turn to another odd, but equally accurate, metaphor.  I used to have a boyfriend who'd been a born-again Christian (I don't know what it's called when you become un-born-again...).  Because he'd been raised in the faith since birth (although as a Presbyterian), and because he'd been to many Evangelical or Charismatic-Orientated churches once he'd been born again, he'd come into contact with many people who were much more Charismatic than he.  He told me once that a couple of those people had described to him what it was like to be Filled with the Spirit:  they said it was as if your heart or soul suddenly opened and was overtaken by happiness, while at the same time, some of them said, it was as if icy water had been poured on you.  Without the icy water, I'd say that's exactly how I feel about another sort of music:  at a sudden moment in the song, my heart is just opened outward. Under this label, I'd put "1234," by Feist, "Everybody Knows (Except You)," by the Divine Comedy, "In Between Days," by the Cure, and "Love Goes On," by the Go-Betweens.

The second sort of music is great, and wondrous, but it doesn't quite interest me as much as the first, perhaps because the second I can really sum up with "wondrous," while no word sums up my experience of the first (incidentally, there is a third type here, a type I think I'd call Music of Delight.  Under this heading would come a sub-moment of "Everybody Knows," when Neil Hannon says, "I told the passers-by; / I made a small boy cry...," "A Woman of the World," in which a group of people say, "She's a fake!"  and he says, "Sure, but she's a real fake," also "The King of Rock 'n' Roll," by Prefab Sprout, "You're so Vain," and "Justified and Ancient," by the KLF.  This music is fairly self-explanatory, I think).  Because this music, which we might call Blood Music for simplicity's sake, does have a very basic, very profound effect on me.  I've thought about it while I'm dancing to it and listening to it, and found the effect impossible to put into words.  The best way I can put it is to say that listening to that music is for me like being in a pressure cooker, or really more accurately like being a pressure cooker, but in an immensely powerful and not at all negative way.  It creates an enormous concentration of feeling in me, very very enjoyable feeling that is at the same time slightly painful, without being any less enjoyable because painful.  And that feeling very quickly builds to a very high level, where - if the song is good - it remains.  This sounds as if it would be deeply unpleasant, but in fact the reverse is true.  The intensity of the feeling is itself a powerful experience, and its very intensity... I was going to say renders it enjoyable, but it would be more accurate to say removes it from the realm in which the question of enjoyable/unenjoyable even exists (although I know I find it enjoyable, because I love listening and dancing to these songs more than any others).  It would be most accurate to say that such music causes me to be most myself.  By creating such an enormous amount of visceral experience, it excises everything but that visceral experience, and thus brings me into contact with what I would consider to be my most real self:  unintellectual, unimpinged upon by the surrounding world - just pure experience that isn't even aware of a self experiencing.  Years ago when I was writing an article about hearts in the Renaissance I found a little woodcut of the infant Jesus sweeping all the sin and moral filth out of a heart with a straw broom, and that's exactly what the experience of such music does to me:  it's as if it sweeps out my inside and leaves nothing but pure, uninflected, responding shell.

Perhaps weirdly, I'd say that the experience most similar to this for me is teaching.  Ever since I started teaching I've thought to myself and said to other people that in daily life teaching is the time I'm most purely myself.  This, too, is hard to explain.  When I teach, I have a job to do, but I can do that job in any way I want:  provided that the kids learn, I can do almost anything barring clothing removal to get them to learn.  And because I am in charge in the classroom - just by standing at the front I become an authority - I have a certain kind of power, and that power releases from concern about what these people think of me:  they're younger; they know less; they assume I know, and that means they're already on my side, in a way.  Also, I really do love literature, and I don't much care whether or not people know that.  For these reasons, teaching frees me.  In every other interpersonal interaction I have, I'm lying to some extent; I'm worried about whether the other person will like me, or think of me contemptuously, or I'm being careful not to hurt their feelings, or I'm keeping things hidden from them either because I want to keep certain things private or because I want to create a certain impression (these feelings are not necessarily conscious, nor is the lying).  This is not true when I'm teaching.  Needless to say, this is in part because intimate revelations don't play much role in my teaching, so I needn't hide certain things.  But I think it's also because there are no repercussions:  after the 50 minutes is up, we all walk away.  So in the classroom, too, I am the person I really am, the person I would be if I felt safe: funny, deeply eccentric, mystified, worried, deeply loving and supportive without fear that that will end up causing me pain, often homiletic or gnomic in nature (as an Old English professor of mine used to say), frank about my belief and sorrow that life brings undeserved and irresolvable pain.  I'm only not sad - but that's because I think if I were in a situation where I truly felt safe enough to be myself, I wouldn't be sad.  

In short, yay for teaching, and yay for Blood Music!  Where would I be without them?  A lot less happy.
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06 May 2008

Right as Rain

I did not choke on my own vomit!  In fact, it all went perfectly smoothly, no doubt helped by the fact that I was knocked out.  Now I'm sitting here, mildly stoned on Meprozine, but otherwise my old self.  Although, as I said to my mother, I'm one 35th on my way to becoming a toothless crone. And I don't even have very much pain.

Thus endeth the saga of my wisdom tooth
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05 May 2008

I have to get a tooth pulled!

The title says it all.  Tomorrow afternoon I have to go to the dentist and have a wisdom tooth extracted.  This wouldn't be such a big deal, except that...Well, actually, it's not a big deal.  But it's a big deal to me.  You see, I have all my teeth.  Sort of (we'll get to that in a minute).  And while I never really thought of that one way or another, once the dentist announced to me that one was going to be gone I suddenly realized that I was quite proud of it.  Yes, I have never had a wisdom tooth out, and apparently the fact that I haven't and other people usually have by my age (39) made me feel special.
Then there's another issue.  They're going to put me into twilight sleep, and I've never been put under before.  So I'm a bit anxious.

When we were 17, my best friend had her wisdom teeth out - all of 'em.  I remember going to visit her afterward; I'm not sure how long afterward, but she was in bed.  And she told me at the time that she'd fainted, I believe after she came home.  Now, I'm not particularly worried about that, because my bf is quite delicate, and while she doesn't slither to the floor at the slightest provocation she does faint on occasion (she also did so while giving blood), whereas the only time I even feel light-headed is when I stand up after crouching down to look at something on a bottom shelf (apparently I got my father's low blood pressure, because this happens to him, too).  But today when I told her about the extraction and reminded her that she'd fainted, she said, "Oh, yeah, but that's because I had swallowed a lot of blood, and I threw up and choked, because I was lying on my back."  I don't want to choke on my own vomit!  "Own vomit" is the rock star death I want least (well, "blowing own head off with shotgun" might
 come before that).  I want heroin overdose (thinnest option), or heart attack  during sex (best option), or maybe even suspect "accidental" drowning (most peaceful option).  However, according to my bf I can avoid own vomit if I just don't lie on my back when I return home.  So I won't.  Phew.

Still, though, I'm upset about losing my tooth.  On the other hand (this is the bit I said we'd get to), I do have some consolation.  As it happens, I have a relatively rare dental abnormality called a "dens in dente."  This is when a tooth grows inside another tooth, with one enamel for the pair of them.  I found an example and put it there on the right, although mine is in a molar and doesn't look quite like that.  I only have three wisdom teeth, and my dentists have thought that's because one of them is either the inner or the outer of my dens in dente.  Fortunately, the tooth that has to come out is on the other side.  So although I must lose one of my full complement of teeth (well, full minus one, to be strictly accurate, I suppose), I still have my dens in dente to cling onto.  I retain some dental interest!

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01 May 2008


Spring has firmly arrived here:  the days are staying warm, and the rain rain rain that dominated until last week seems to have gone (at least for the moment). Oddly, I've always loved spring.  I guess it doesn't sound odd when you say, "I've always loved spring," but my reason for loving it is kind of odd.  Spring has always seemed to me the one thing that demonstrates the complete amazingness of nature.  In fact, it's the one thing that truly makes me believe there might be a God.  Everything is dead.  I mean really dead.  And then, all of a sudden, everything is a poignant, crystal-clear, living green.  I love the first spring leaves on trees, because their green seems to me to really and truly fit the word "tender."  It's rare to find a word that actually describes what you're seeking to describe, but "tender" perfectly describes the first leaves of spring.  

And that tender green colour is to me beautiful, and the more beautiful because each leaf seems somehow etched precisely against the blue sky.  I walk through spring and I literally can't believe it, every year.  It catches me with disbelief every time.

Also, people have started to mow their lawns for the first time this year.  I do believe cut grass might be my favourite smell in the whole wide world. Followed closely by the smell of hay, or in other words...dry cut grass. Hay smells so sweet and, like cut grass, so unlike anything other than itself.  Yay for hay, I say!

Wow, and I always say I hate nature. I think I better not say that anymore. I think what I actually dislike is the aimlessness of most going out in nature:  the way people stop and look at vistas that are essentially identical as if each one were different; ambling about generally.  I am a purposive person, and I think most wandering about in nature seems to me strikingly UNpurposive. So I'm not much for it. Although, funnily, I do like tromping about in inclement weather. Mud, chill, rain - I'm happy to be out and about in all that.  And, apparently, I'm also happy to be out in the wonderment that is spring.

Slightly more mature trees:

And, because spring always makes me think of this poem, here is a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.  Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell:  the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and ah! bright wings.

Sing it, Sister!

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