Thursday, September 29, 2011

Some words. Not mine.

It's all I have to bring to-day
This, and my heart beside,
This, and my heart and all the fields,
And all the meadows wide.

Emily Dickinson, C. 1858

Beyond the books: reading my city and the long runs; the blinking cursor and the old testament.

 on a San Diego Porch. also awaiting baby Reed's arrival. 
Some thoughts that have been swirling. They may or may not form a coherent thread of thought to anyone else but me, so maybe read each paragraph as a singular thought?

One of the best parts of my summer was sitting in a San Diego coffee shop with two of my best friends and letting our focus stray from the laptops in front of us.  Often we talk about stories that move us and inspire us--this particular trip seemed to focus on the beauty that is Friday Night Lights.  Conversation strayed and Sarah mentioned that she was currently loving unsatisfying things, and that she was feeling violent toward stories that portrayed a neatly packaged ending.  This was a hilarious comment, because Sarah appears to be cool and collected on the outside.  But those at the table know and love that she has a fiery spirit beneath the surface and a wisdom that spouts from it.  So, I wasn't surprised that those words have been sitting with me ever since.

On the way home, I wondered out loud why we didn't all live in San Diego.  It really is a city of summer in the day and fall at night--in other words, perfection.  Then Katy, a fellow winter-hater and  former New Yorker, began to to sing praises of coming-of-adult-age in the dark-at-five, hunched shoulders of New York City from January to March and the days when you miss every train and forget your umbrella for the wintry mix with an armful of groceries (and a laptop in your bag). Perfection is a maker of complacency.  There is no atmospheric struggle in San Diego--and that, she says, makes for a city without the raw passion and blunt emotions.  Obviously this is a metaphor.

I threw away my half-marathon training calendar yesterday and counted that I ran 200 miles to prepare for a 13 mile race.  And the race was amazing.  In my mind all summer I kept picturing it being a 13 mile physical and mental struggle--something to simply be endured in order to cross the finish line.  But the course was mostly running on a two lane road through the back streets of East Hampton, through woods and past fields and the bay.  The entire course was beautiful and reminded me of running at my favorite park in Ohio.  The running (with the exception of the last mile) was surprisingly enjoyable.  

And so I want to set off to face the writing on the wall.  Literally.  I made a visual of my writing project on the wall of my apartment to wrap my brain around it and also to motivate me to finish it.  I've found that when there is something I need to say in writing, I'm not settled until it has been typed.  I want to lean into the unsatisfaction, as Sarah would say and the struggle, as Katy would say.  I want to write in the moments when it would be easier to not.  I don't want to live in a season of complacency.  I want to remember that putting time into the struggle yields enjoyment.

And, also.  I want this to sink into my spiritual life.  A friend came and shared with my (Christian) small group last night about the significance of Rosh Hashanah and also talked about the tradition of Tashlikh, where people throw bread crumbs or stones into moving water as a symbolic casting off of sin and struggle and becoming renewed.  This is beautifully symbolic. The struggle is not forever.

Infinite Jest and Advertising. Or, real goods are intangible.

Infinite Jest is the kind of book that has to be read slowly because not only are there sweeping themes and ideas to keep track of, but there are short passages and lines that speak volumes into American culture.  While I was reading, it was easy to gloss over those small details without considering them in a significant way.  I want to slow down with a few.  Here is one.

"V&V's NoCoat campaign was a case study in the eschatology of emotional appeals...It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relieveable by purchase.  It just did it way more well than wisely," (414).

It comes in a section where Hal, one of the main characters and a junior at the Tennis Academy, is "sinking emotionally into a kind of distracted funk."  In what appears to be almost a complete aside with the connection only being that Hal once wrote a paper on the American ad industry, the narrator explains the atmosphere of advertising (as the book is set in the near-ish future).  This particular ad was from a company that created a nation-wide need for tongue scrapers: "when the nation became obsessed with the state of its tongue, when people would no sooner leave home without a tongue scraper and an emergency back-up tongue scraper than they'd fail to wash and brush and spray."

A. This is hilarious,
B. but DFW's sense of humor is not what I want to write about, though maybe over coffee some time?

His tone and manner of addressing the absurdity of such aspects and culture is so nonchalant and un-ironic (and reminds me of his essay A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again)--as though he is pointing out the obvious.  Yet, it is obvious only in the subconscious that we hardly ever bring out to play, because life is easier when we don't listen to it.

How did it happen that we know our next purchase will not satisfy anything within us and yet we continue to believe and act on the hope that it will?  Why is it easier to believe and act on the promises in advertising than it is in the life truths we claim to profess?  What is going on in our brains when we feel great after buying something new? Why is retail therapy a thing? That people joke about?

We are ridiculous.

I want to drink from a well of Life.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Infinite Jest: a very general response to a very specific novel.

I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace from June 1st-August 8th this summer, with just a 3 day break to read My Name is Asher Lev and a chapter each morning on the porch of The Summer Book while I was in Kentucky. I reread Anne of Avonlea right after to let my brain recover/not commit to anything super literary while trying to unpack this brick of a book (that I am thankful to never have to carry in my purse ever again).  All that to say, my summer reading looked very different from my usual devouring of books.  It was as if I were in a committed dating relationship with Infinite Jest.  I was talking with a colleague before school ended whose boyfriend had read the book and when he was half way through said: "Oh, I get it.  The infinite jest is that I am still reading this book."  There were many times I felt the same way.

The main conclusion that I came to after finishing its 981 pages of tiny type narrative and 96 pages of even smaller type footnotes is that it is the kind of book that needs to be read twice.  (Crap.) Though I'm sure there are geniuses out there who could keep track of all the characters connections (see poster below by Sam Potts) and narrative threads (see digram below by in their minds while reading, but I was not one of them.  I've probably spent 5 or 6 hours so far researching the book and reading essays and taking notes with post it flags and feel like my understanding is still shallow at best.  I can retell the basic plot lines, but the craft that went into this book is like nothing I have ever seen and there is a part of me that is itching to start over and read it with a much deeper understanding.  Chances of that happening in the near future, though, are slim to none.  I wish I could take a graduate school course on this book with a brilliant but not condescending instructor.
created by Sam Potts 

created by

What I loved about this book is exactly what makes it so difficult to read: its intricacy and its depth--it is an artistic, critical work that forces the reader to be active: to ask questions, to do the mental gymnastics it requires, to step up and work hard to figure out what on earth is going on even when there will not be a definitive answer.  He address things from the nature of entertainment to the consumerist nature of the United States to depression to personal drive to personal recovery.  There is no way that I could address the book as a whole in a single blog post.  The retell alone would be absurd--and it is almost as if each piece of the puzzle that is Infinite Jest needs to be singularly treated and then juxtaposed with every other piece.  I start back at work tomorrow, so obviously that's not going to happen.  What I've decided to do is respond to a few pieces of the book that I think are relevant to everyone, without giving a lot of context.  The book is filled with fleeting conversations and observations that the reader could ruminate on and discuss for hours--which is overwhelming in such an enormous book. But taken in very small chunks could be fodder for your next cocktail party conversation. People have those, right?

Friday, September 2, 2011

My Name is Asher Lev. To wrestle and become .
My Name is Asher Lev opens with these lines from the adult voice of the title's namesake whom the reader meets as a child and watches grow up: I am an observant Jew. Yes, of course, observant Jews do not paint crucifixions. As a matter of fact, observant Jews do not paint at all--in the way that I am painting. So strong words are being written and spoken about me, myths are being generated: I am a traitor, an apostate, a self-hater, an inflictor of shame upon my family, my friends, my people; also, I am a mocker of ideas sacred to Christians, a blasphemous manipulator of modes and forms revered by Gentiles for two thousand years.  Well, I am none of those things. And yet, in all honesty, I confess that my accusers are not altogether wrong: I am indeed, in some way, all of those things. Reading these words over again after finishing the book was a powerful testament on the process of not only becoming oneself, but the complexity and pain that can accompany the journey.  

This book by Chaim Potok is the story of a boy, Asher, who is an observant Jew and an artist and his struggle to identify as each--as the story progresses, so does the tension between art/religion and tradition/individualism.  What I thought about the most while reading is that these hard questions of identity--and the confidence that one can embrace--come through struggle and leaning into, instead of running away from, tension.  Because there was so much to consider in this book (and I couldn't bring myself to edit it down to a specific one), I ultimately decided to name some of the tensions that Asher had to face in his coming of age and identity formation, which I think are relevant and challenging to almost everyone. After all, I think coming of age is more like a lifelong coil shape rather than a plateau that one reaches. 

Being educated before taking action.
Asher's mentor, Jacob Kahn, trains him in the history of art and tells him "Only one who has mastered a tradition has the right to attempt to add to it or to rebel against it," (213).  His mentor is speaking about art, but this can also be interpreted for Asher through his religion. Because he has been schooled in his religious culture, as he comes of age he both adds to it and rebels against it.  Modern culture is one of instant knowledge and a desire of instant acquisition.  Slowing down to understand and develop is worth it.   

The fear in being completely honest with those around you.  
Kahn believes that Asher must show a representative of all of his work at his first show.  Asher struggles with this because he knows that people of his culture will not understand the inclusion (let alone creation) of some of his work:  "We will show the two nudes, Asher Lev. They are important to your development. We are not playing games. You will enter in truth or you will not enter at all," (287).  Especially in the age of social media it is easy to craft, curate and control the way others view your life.  The art show becomes symbolic of opening up one's life for public viewing, which can be painful but freeing. 

Deciding whether you share or squelch what you long to say.
"Millions of people can draw. Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way," (212).  Asher could have remained a boy who had a sketchpad or drew nice little pictures for decoration.  But he felt too much.  It would have been easy to go to school, do his homework, his chores and create a life that was too preoccupied for his art.  But.  He chose to let the scream out.

It is always easier to stay comfortable and safe.
"It is my intention to frighten him out of his wits. I want him to go back to Brooklyn and remain a nice Jewish boy. What does he need this for, Anna?" he said (213).  For those who have ambitions of any kind, and like I wrote about a few weeks ago, there will always be other things to do to keep busy and keep you away from the work required to share your voice.

Wrestle with the truth.
"I do not sculpt and paint to make the world sacred. I sculpt and paint to give permanence to my feelings about how terrible this world really art cowardice and indecision can be seen in every stroke of the brush...paint the truth or you will paint green rot," (226).  Kahn didn't live a life of complete darkness. There are some scenes where he is beautifully alive.  What I love about him, though, is that he let himself feel and share and question.  Watching Asher wrestle through what he believes to be real and true is refreshing to me.

Maintain a sense of self.
"It pleases me that you have chosen not to abandon things that are meaningful to you. I do not have many things that are meaningful to me. Except my doubt and my fears. And my art." (260)  This is one of my favorite parts from Kahn.  It takes courage to to pursue an art and yet to maintain and individual sense of identity or conviction that most others in the field don't share.

To close, I love that this book is titled My Name is Asher Lev.  Asher repeats this throughout the story in a way that seems to function as a chorus of sorts--a reminder that he is an individual with an individual story and heart and identity.  Perhaps my heart melts over this because I teach middle school and watch so many students just want to fit in, or perhaps because I don't always get to see the outcome of the beginnings of the wrestling.  I suppose I just hope that they wrestle well and have courage and know that they can solidly land down the road.