It took a teachers’ strike to clear the ache between my ribs.
I had tried (again) to set a plan for myself this term: focus on my two jobs, save up, accept that all writing was lost until the end of the year, and… listen. Listen to my natural inclinations when I stumbled upon rare pockets of free time. What did I gravitate towards? What did I honour? What fortified me in my lowest hours?
And some of this worked. The listening, absolutely, worked. I hear my goals in my Spanish practice. I hear my goals in my running and climbing. I hear my goals in my freelance editing and the bursts of writing that enter my tight schedule regardless.
But what made the grandest difference? It was that moment when the threat of a strike at a job where I had been working hard–a job for which I had made such upsetting sacrifices in the first place!–became a reality. The moment I knew the strike was inevitable, that great weight of personal responsibility lifted–because no amount of fretting or scheming could make a damned bit of difference anymore.
As news of the strike spread, I then received many words of comfort: “I’m sure you won’t be out very long.” “At least you’re not picketing too far away.” “At least the weather will be kind this week.” “At least you’re getting some income from strike pay.” But what struck me, at each iteration, was how little I felt I needed the reassurance. Pay is out of my control right now: amid myriad rumours at the start of strike, I believe only the cold, hard truth of whatever eventually ends up in my bank account–which leaves me a great deal of room to be pleasantly surprised. Weather, too, is out of my control right now: there were some decent, brilliantly coloured fall days, and now there are wet, cold, and windy days. So it goes.
So it all goes.
But, listen–amid the picketing I am writing again, because there is time for it and because it is what I love to do; and rediscovering that has made me come alive once more. Granted, I’m slow to finish anything, having been out of the practice for a while, but in the process of renewing these dearest mental muscles, I am also returning to old forms and finding new challenges. I hear myself reclaiming the poetry of life again–in nature, in prose, in myself. The other day, I realized I wanted to write a kind of writing that I had never seen done before, and the mere idea of building a whole line of pieces around this concept, over the many decades in which I have left to grow as a writer, stopped me mid-stride on the sidewalk from sheer excitement. (It also impeded foot traffic for a beat or three, sure–but, that too rectified itself in time.)
And yes, the strike will end–meaning, classes will resume, and my difficult original schedule (much as I love the teaching itself) will return.
But then the year will end, and oh, the new one holds so much promise.
I know it does, because I’ve been hearing that promise ever since the universe, in all its great indifference to human striving, left me no choice but to walk the ‘line. And oh, what a tremendous gift that added obstacle has proven, at last, to be.
See you in 2018, all you magnificent dreamers, you!
Among the many projects I started this year is a two-person podcast, aptly titled “Never Try”, which addresses a wide range of failures throughout history. With any luck, the podcast’s 10-episode first season will be published this year, but for now, I’m gratified that the first bit of research I did for my segments involved the difficult personal life of Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. Not everything negative in Melville’s life deserves sympathy; in the throes of his setbacks, failures, and depressive spells, he also caused harm to others, including his wife and children. However, in the sum total of his sadness still lies a pointed reminder: namely, that the giants of our cultural canon were messy human beings, many of whom struggled with little immediate success, and no way of knowing that their lives would have any greater impact.
I’m heartened by this reminder that success has no fixed blueprint, because this has been a grinding and disappointing year for me. I had high hopes for many things, all of which fell through: the transition out of academia, the completion of a novel project, the production by summer’s end of a season of podcast episodes, the achievement of any further writing sales to build on last year’s fortuitous landing in two Year’s Best Anthologies, the accumulation of savings to make moving to a new community a viable option, and the preparation needed to take a post-secondary equivalency exam in physics, so as to build history-of-science writing credentials by other means after withdrawing from my PhD program last November.
More than these individual failures, though, I’ve been shaken by what they suggest on whole about me: in particular, about my (in)ability to establish clear, coherent goals and see them through. There is, of course, always the spectre of type-II bipolar disorder weighing on any large list of unfinished projects (bipolar manic phases being known in part for huge spurts of furious and disorganized energy), but I don’t think this set of failures can be dispelled as simply as that. Rather, I suspect the furious energy involved here has more to do with desperate desire to offset one failure (i.e. the abrupt collapse of my PhD two dissertation drafts into the process) with concrete affirmations that I can develop an accomplished life by other means.
Either way, though, furious energy is rarely effective energy, and the last few months have shown no exception to that rule. A few weeks ago, someone attempted to sympathize by telling me that being intelligent can’t be easy, because there are so many things I could be doing that I must have difficulty a) choosing between them, b) sticking with one path, and c) building my career therein. This friend was being kind in calling me “intelligent”, because the other half of his statement needs no such prerequisite–and it, at least, is true: I have been wavering. I have been frozen by the thought of how many lives there are to live. And then, of course (in the manner common to many persons lucky enough to have such problems), I’ve felt ashamed for wasting my abundance of opportunities–and, in this shame, I’ve wasted even more.
In the coming four months, though, I have a work schedule that does not allow for much striving, and I’m hoping to use this restriction to my benefit. I will be stretching myself thin on the work front, so to avoid a level of crankiness experienced in previous terms when working 2-3 jobs with little financial security over the full week, I’m limiting my social media, prioritizing a rigorous climbing and running schedule, and curtailing evening social encounters (especially where there is the opportunity to drink). Mostly, though, I want to see what I lean towards in the small moments of freedom this schedule allows for, and try to listen to those natural inclinations, and build upon them for whatever comes next.
I’m sure this sounds easy, but if I’ve learned anything about myself this summer, it is that I am terrible at defending what I want to do when confronted with resistance. In the last few months, while failing at things I have striven for, I’ve had a disorienting number of people encourage me… not to pick myself up and try again, but rather to stop striving so hard at all: to take the paths of least resistance when offered; to put off dramatic risks; to give up trying to accomplish so much; to just “enjoy the journey”.
Now, on the one hand, this feels like a sure way to give up on dreams that require long-term planning, diligence, and sacrifice. Moreover, when I think in terms of this loss, I feel most acutely the absence in my life of a fellow-traveller: a person who would always champion those biggest dreams, and push me to take the risks needed to achieve them, and support me (as I would them) along the way. Granted, I know such people are rarities–and furthermore, that my own experience involves people who drain time, money, and energy for their own survival or ambitions, and frequently have no interest in my interests at all. But, despite the pragmatic reality, the theoretical sticking point remains: the sense of having failed at so many other things in the past few years because I failed first, when I was younger, to achieve the right sort of ally-ship in life. So be it, though: if that’s the problem, that’s one I cannot fix overnight.
On the other hand, though, I think I know what people are really saying, when they encourage me to relax. They’re saying: Learn to see the successes in the everyday. Seek out more pleasure in being present. Build a sense of accomplishment around the miracle of being alive at all, and celebrate that wonder with other such miracles while you can.
I have enough examples, after all, to know that these are rich lives, full of purpose, too.
In the building where I live, for instance, an older lady named Margarida tends a small plot of flowers. Margarida is Portuguese, and although we’d conversed many times before, I felt we bonded most one predawn in our shared laundry room, when she told me about a then-upcoming trip to Portugal: a trip that she was treating as a final goodbye to a sister in decline. Was this sad? Yes, of course, but she was thankful for having the opportunity at all–“So long as my sister doesn’t surprise me by dying before I get there.” But the trip, when I saw her on her return, went even better than expected: a rare opportunity for both to reflect upon the long arcs of their lives–the sorrows, the joys, but most of all the little quirks that made their worlds their own. She was satisfied, she said, to have had the chance to reflect on a life well lived.
If Margarida has particularly sad days, I never see them. What I do see is the side she shares with most of the world: the side that wears and trusts in her cross with pride, but makes a less overt display of all the little things she does for her community, even though her impact is plainly felt: in the baked goods she brings to local vendors, in the time she spends with less independent residents of our building, and, of course, in the flowers.
I didn’t realize, until I ran into her one morning, weeding the lot and picking detritus from between the stems, that the flowerbed was entirely of Margarida’s own construction: a labour of love over a decade old, and not just a standard facet of the building owner’s designs for the apartment complex. Perhaps if I’d looked closer, sooner, I’d have realized this wasn’t the work of a contractor… but to be honest, I had taken the whole thing for granted throughout my four years in the building. When I mentioned my surprise to Margarida, though, she laughed. She told me that she worked on this flower garden for two reasons: first, for the pleasure of the work itself–that sense of achievement in seeing something so fragile come into its own; and second, for the joy of brightening her neighbours’ world, whether they knew it was by her hand or not.
These, too, are valuable lives, and I’d hate to think that I’m impugning similar in my friends groups, and my broader networks, by not being satisfied with the sheer act of being alive, and all the little joys that come from being present in and for my community. I live in an area surrounded by people who have–for reasons of brain injury, addiction, degenerating age, or extreme mental health concern–lost the ability to produce anything like the output I long for; but then there are also a great abundance of locals who do have the ability to produce similar, and simply have no interest in it. Or, if they do have interest, their working lives and child-rearing lives and attendant slings of financial and social stress have entrenched them in a sense of defeat about artistic practice. And in this body of experience, they, too, offer lessons in what constitutes a life well lived. Who the hell am I not to listen? Am I just spinning wheels for the sake of spinning wheels? Using my immense amount of busy work, and all my goals and ambitions, to pretend my way to a life of meaning?
There are days when I want to leave, and live an anonymous life in a small community teaching English halfway across the world–maybe translating and writing in the quiet of the evenings or the lull of predawn; but always, in this fantasy, without all the attendant worries about “wasting” time and failing to achieve any recognition for the work. Who really needs another book about histories of science? Another short story, or poem, or tediously long-winded blog post? It’s no wonder I’m told so often to stop striving, to relax, to just go with the flow of life. None of these things I care about matter. Nothing really does–but not in the nihilist sense of the phrase; more in the sense of “so why are you breaking yourself over any of this?”
It’s a fair point, and so–for now, while I work a difficult schedule and figure out how to cope with the terrible decision I have allowed myself to be pushed into–I am going put off bigger goals, and as much coherent striving as possible. I’m going to focus on just getting through these next few months, and–in the process–listen: to other lives, yes–other ways of finding meaning in existence-but also, to myself. I want to see what comes most naturally to the quiet spells between necessary labour. I want to see where my heart really lies–what sorts of “gardens” I’m inclined, on my own, to tend–and then, without all the frantic performance, all the desperate urgency that has marked so much of these last few months full of failure… to tend to them: quietly, patiently, and with more love for the daily labour than any hope of a grand result.
Whatever successes you have and have not achieved in your own creative practice, I hope you’ve at least found the gardens most worth tending to in your lives.
If not, then I wish you well on your own, impending hunts.
I’m starting to get my writing routine back, and hoping to finish a short story in the next couple days so I can return to the novel for the month of June. So! This might be the last joy-post for a while, because I sorely want to achieve my fiction goals. But, these have been helpful for the interim–both for the attitude adjustment, and the reflective practice.
TV Series: The Leftovers Season 3
Technically, the final episode of Season Three isn’t until next week, but this week’s penultimate episode crystallized the show’s overall thrust in a way that makes the ending clear without ruining the journey. This is quite an achievement for a show that could easily have taken the Lost route and heaped up so much ambiguity around its mystical elements that its core mythology would never recover. Instead, The Leftovers moves from its opening premise in Season One (of a world where 2% of the population vanishes without explanation), through its complicating premise in Season Two (of a town in Texas where further miracles seem to occur), to arrive at a Season Three end-of-days in which everyone is looking for their personal mythology to be affirmed on the seventh-year anniversary of the initial disappearance.
Most of the season has followed different characters desperately striving to see their personal mythologies affirmed in the world around them, and in this last episode we see our protagonist, Kevin, finally confront his lack of mythology: a lack, that is, of some guiding story to give him a sense of purpose. In the final episode, it’s clear that he will track down the woman he cast aside–a woman who has bought into a literally self-destructive mythology in the meantime–and commit himself to making a life rooted in the future, not the past. What do all the mystical elements of the show have to do with any of this? Why did 2% of the population vanish? It really doesn’t matter: The show has always been more about how any of us go forward in so precarious a world, when all the signs and symbols around us waver between the prophetic and the meaningless–and as such, Kevin’s journey has always hit very close to home.
I’m glad that his is ending well.
Fiction: Compass by Mathias Énard
Mathias Énard’s Compass was a welcome reminder that fiction can be unabashedly intellectual–in other parts of the world, at least. North American fiction often adheres to a body of stylistic choices that I sometimes find taxing, but in Compass, our Austrian musicologist spends one fever-ridden night negotiating the scholarly concept of Orientalism in relation to Middle Eastern and Western histories of music, literature, and philosophy–while also criss-crossing the terrain of his feelings for a brilliant female associate. The result is a book that advances a pointed argument–the idea that “Orientalism” as a field of study has done a disservice to the fluidity of cultural interchange between thriving bodies of art and artistry, and has in fact reified precisely the divide between civilizations that it sought to tear down–that is also reads with all linguistic play and intensity of a dream. This was a densely intelligent book that I swept through in a matter of hours, but will sit with for months to come.
Non-Fiction: Four Futures: Life after Capitalism by Peter Frase
This palate-cleanser was everything a dissertation should be in terms of writing style: short, straightforward, with an introduction that outlines clearly the function of each subsequent chapter, and body chapters that delight in the range of examples they bring to bear on a simple thesis. In Four Futures, Frase considers four possible paths for human progress in a post-industrial-capitalist society, as mitigated by the two most pressing variables on our horizon: a post-work economy and a post-eco-crisis economy. His futures include a communist society (in which scarcity has been surmounted and the lack of traditional work opens humanity to new endeavours), a rentist society (in which scarcity has been surmounted in principle, but the calcified remnants of traditional capitalism limit individual access), a socialist society (in which we have to do with less as a whole, but scarcity + egalitarianism makes for a hardy, eco-conscious culture), and an exterminist society (in which scarcity and rigid traditional capitalist limits lead to a warehousing and gradual elimination of whole segments of the population). Frase doesn’t offer solutions, or even intrinsically condemn one future over the others–but he does provide an excellent thought experiment through which readers are encouraged to assess their own priorities, and work towards the future they most prefer.
And… that’s it for now! This week: Writing goals! Wherever your own creative practices find you, I wish you much luck, and greater skill.
Oof. I was far too busy two weeks ago to read/watch/listen to much for pleasure, so this week I’m catching up:
Netflix Event: Master of None, Season 2
Aziz Ansari’s first season of Master of None surprised me in its mature, measured treatment of the aimless, absurdist way in which adults of a certain age tend to go through life–in part because of the digital era, but also in part because of a) a disconnect from the histories of life even close to home, and b) the subjectivity of a meaningful life in general. I’m only halfway through Season Two, but the show continues to illustrate how meaning can emerge in fleeting moments, and be lost just as suddenly. We are an active, engaged, yet still-lonely people, and Ansari’s treats all these multitudes with great humour, compassion, and hope.
Music, Part I: Tinariwen
I came across this group of Kel Tamashek musicians (known more broadly as the Tuareg people, hailing from the Saharan Desert region of northern Mali) by accident, but I was immediately riveted by their sound. In the process of learning more about their music–a kind of “rebel blues,” with that notion of rebellion literalized in the band members’ histories of political and military resistance–I was introduced to new and striking terms. Assouf, for instance, is a concept similar to the blues but also untranslatable–something of longing and nostalgia, but something also triumphant, for having overcome hardship even if hard times lie ahead. Tichumaren, meanwhile, is a term for guitar music emerging from violent political histories: a style of music entrenched in the liberation of the Tamashek people from colonial powers. And even Tinariwen is profoundly political– plural for the Tamashek word for “desert,” and as such a stand-in for the plurality not only of deserts they regard as the Sahara, but also of experiences carried by people who live within them. This is a band that contains multitudes, literally and figuratively.
Music, Part II: The Mountain Goats
There’s something quite satisfying about solid concept album, and this one–The Mountain Goats‘ homage to a particular set of goth culture histories–is warmly and wisely produced. I was never a goth myself, but the lyrics to these songs capture a deeper, more universal body of experiences through their specificity. One can easily resonate with the line “I’m hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore” in relation to just about any interest that opens a human being to a spectrum of fellow fans, while the whole song “Wear Black” speaks playfully to the way that our loves become our lifestyles. This album is in some ways a departure from The Mountain Goats’ usual, but the intelligence of their lyrics–the deft, precise strokes that convey whole, complex emotional spectrums–remains, and is joined with some thoroughly satisfying melodic arcs, like the one above. This album hit the writer in me in just the right way.
Book: Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When A Man Falls From the Sky
At first, I could not bring myself to read this volume, despite its glowing reviews in journals like The New York Times Book Review and The Atlantic. I kept picking it up and getting thrown by the opening paragraph of the first short story, which reads:
Enzinma fumbles the keys against the lock and doesn’t see what came behind her: Her father as a boy, when he was still tender, vying for his mother’s attention. Her grandmother, overworked to the bone by the women whose houses she dusted, whose laundry she washed, whose children’s asses she scrubbed clean; overworked by the bones of a husband who wanted many sons and the men she entertained to give them to him, sees her son to his thirteenth year with the perfunction of a nurse and dies in her bed with a long, weary sigh.
Now, I love a long sentence–I read Alan Moore’s 1,262-page Jerusalem last year; I’m reading Mathias Enard’s Compass now–but this one just broke so many rules of coherence at once that I couldn’t grok its aims. First, we get a list structure (Her father, Her grandmother), but then that second item sprawls, using “bone” as its own subdivider (overworked by the bone of X, overworked by the bones of Y)… and then the sentence takes yet another turn with the final clause, “sees her son…” which has neither the benefit of a semi-colon nor shared verb tense to bind it to its ostensible subject (the grandmother). Chaos!
…And I would have left off the volume right there, frustrated by that syntax, if I hadn’t already given up on another book at its second line for similar reasons. This is from Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, another highly acclaimed volume I had also been interested in reading for its use of speculative elements to advance pressingly contemporary issues:
In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her. For many days.
Why. Is. This. Two. Sentences. What value was added by this heavy-handed emphasis on a phrase that, by virtue of ending the sentence, would already be lingering on the reader’s mind? Suffice it to say, as knee-jerk a reaction as mine was, I could not bring myself to trust the narrative voice after that stylistic trick–and I skimmed ahead, then put the book aside.
On the plus side, though, that knee-jerk reaction to Hamid’s syntactical variation made me take stock of my knee-jerk reaction to Arimah’s. Was I missing something that would become clearer with a little more trust in the author? So–I read on, and I’m tremendously glad I did. Chaos was the point, and although the whole first story is strung up on word play in the opening and closing paragraphs, it was a satisfying journey. The next story, more traditional in form, then clinched for me Arimah as an author who can encapsulate huge moral landscapes and the sweeping weight of life’s myriad experiences in only a few pages. By the time her stories took their fantastical turns, in a mode of magical realism well suited to histories of trauma and recovery, I found myself quite happily giving up my usual, more critical approach to any text. Arimah’s stories reminded me how much fun it can be to let a writer surprise you at every turn.
And… that’s it for now! Going forward, I’m delighted to have more time for my own writing again, and I can’t wait to a) start submitting proper stories for the first time all year, and b) return to finishing the novel project.
Wherever your own creative practice finds you, good skill and good luck!