April 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
I finished the Ken Burns documentary on the Civil War as the sun came up today, or, well, yesterday I suppose. I’ve joked that I fall asleep each morning (I can’t sleep at night) with the narrative of Mary Chesnut in my head, but truthfully she’s been with me all day and all night and as I lie here and try to make sense of a night in my life I’d like to forget. The impulse to write it down seems like the only antidote. I do believe I often tell myself things I didn’t know I knew simply by writing, and that’s what I’m hoping for tonight.
Mary Chesnut kept a diary of the Civil War–those 4 horrible years in our history when 620,000 of our countrymen killed each other, spilled each other’s blood on this very land. I think I got that number right; I’ve been watching this 9-part series for days. Mary was a southerner. She fought on the opposing side of what I imagine I would have if only by birthright. My family has always been from New York; they came through Ellis Island (except for that one wild uncle or something from Montana that no one seems to be sure about….but that was only, like, a territory then, right? so that doesn’t…oh, shut up!) I can say today without question that I would be on the side of the north, the Union, and that I would have fought fervently for the abolition of slavery. But then again I didn’t live in the context of the nineteenth century. If I grew up the daughter of a plantation owner in South Carolina in the 1850s I can’t say for certain how I would have felt about the war. This horrifies me. Yes, I never experienced that era. A while back it may be, but it makes me think of the sides we take in an argument without stopping to think how the context affects our perception. Some things do often seem like a given, like an innate characteristic we have no control over. It could be the political leanings of legendary families like the Kennedys or something as trivial as rooting for the Giants over the Jets because I grew up watching football with my dad and thought that was just the right thing to do.
Anyway, if it weren’t for the accent of the voice that reads Mary’s diary aloud in the Burns documentary, I’m not sure I could ascertain if she was on the side of the Confederacy or the Union. Most of the fighting was on southern soil, though, so I guess one would assume. The point is, she never seems to declare allegiance to one side even though when I Googled her, I learned her husband was very much tied to the Confederacy and often she was along with him, experiencing the brutality first hand. An entire generation of American boys and men killing each other off. Mary’s concerns are more heart felt than political; they are more humane that her biography would suggest her diary would be in the sense that she felt a great loss was occurring regardless of which side exactly was losing the fight. At times it looked like the south would win until that final year, really, when Sherman marched the Union east through Georgia and up to South Carolina like a wrecking crew and the Confederate numbers dwindled with lack of food and supplies and the horrid spread of disease. (History buffs–was it Sherman? I think so..)
If I’ve learned anything beyond the basic facts of the Civil War it is that “sides” became irrelevant when Lee’s army was forced to surrender. Surely there still exists a great cultural disparity between the north and south today that lingers from this bygone era, but I think it might be more apt to say it’s kind of like two different personalities more than two distinct cultures since together they are what form American culture at large. I think this is kind of how it works within families, too. More specifically, between siblings–for me, specifically between sisters. Of course you are always on the same side–that is innate, right? But God knows we sometimes want to fight our brothers or sisters. We don’t get them; they don’t get us. Our personalities clash even though in the grander scheme of things, we’d kill for each other.
Here’s the secret (I figured it out): We can fight our siblings all we want, but no one will ever win because we are not playing by the same rules. We’ve grown up together, true, and our greater moral standards and values may be on par, but our personal values and perspectives aren’t even on the same playing field. It’s like we’re speaking two different languages; it is a bunch of chatter that ends up meaning nothing because we simply will never be able to decipher what the other is saying; there’s no translating these parts of us.
I can think I’m right all I want. I can feel the conviction in my gut, in my heart, logically sort through it in my God-given brain and still, in context, I might be wrong somehow. This horrifies me, similarly to the thought I had a few minutes ago. How can I know if I’m right? At the end of the day (surely 4:14am counts) I don’t think I know what the rules ever really are and therefore I’m willing to say, maybe I was wrong when I thought I was doing the right thing. Maybe I didn’t consider the larger context. Maybe we’re all selfish in this way, even as we think we’re being self-less, being good people. Sometimes I don’t know which is weaker, the human heart or the narrow minded human brain, but tonight both of these are aching and I feel a horrible sense that my side might not always be right and what I thought justifiable might be as futile an attempt to prove my point as it is when I’m fighting with myself and so as it when I fight with my sister–the ground is never level and the rules are never spelled out. There’s no lines to cross or stay within–these, I see now, are imaginary.
Civil War is an odd and horrific thing. An internal war. A fight within yourself, within a family, between brothers or sisters. We are a such a part of each other and yet we’re so ignorant at times to think we can somehow be separated.
What is right and what is justifiable? Well, just about anything if you’ve got a good lawyer or even just some good rhetoric. I suppose what I’m saying is that when we fight with people we love, people that are so much like us and at the same time somewhere over there, the other, the unconsidered perspective, inevitably we’re fighting ourselves, too. Endeavor to be good we may–I can honestly say I try for this daily–but as humans we will falter. We will find holes in our convictions. We will wish we didn’t listen to some or wish we listened more to others but instead I think we need to listen more to our hearts before we’re so willing to fight with our loved ones. I sound like Grandmother Willow from Pocahontas, now. “Listen with your heart, you will understand.” Maybe there’s something to it. The irony of this song stings me now as a child growing up with my sisters. It is true; I only have one blood sister. But there’s another that’s always in the picture–literally and metaphorically–and she would get this part, she would understand and smile despite herself right now. The three of us are so different, so dynamic, such strong, dominant personalities it’s amazing to me the walls don’t rattle when we stay under the same roof. And I love this about us. But it is also what so often tears us apart. Alas, it’s like we’re in Babylon and as the decibels increase and the blood pressure rises we’re suddenly speaking in different tongues until we’re ready to take to the streets and tear this city down.
Tonight I go to sleep blurry eyed, feeling defeated, and wrong when two hours ago I knew I was right. I fought on my own soil an internal war. Epic as this may be in my own life as the Civil War has been a legacy in our American history, I know I won’t be able to assess the damage until the dust settles and we take a good, hard look at the ruins that remain, if any. Thank God the Union was able to stay in tact. I hope my family, as I know it, will have the same stamina, the guts and glory to admit the war was a waste. And while we remain wounded and heartbroken, maybe a simple gesture will be enough to remind us of our kinship. I hereby lay down my weapons. Will you meet me unarmed on the battlefield and shake my hand?
You, Hun Yes, you.
April 15, 2013 § 4 Comments
Let it Be?
It would be odd for me not to experience some kind of existential crisis at least once a month. For April I decided to fixate on the idea that as much as we are feeble and futile human beings, we still have a hell of a lot of choices to make. Often people gloss over this fact and would rather accept no responsibility. Sure, I’ve done it. But then I read Jean Paul Sartre and felt like shit. No, I do not want to live in bad faith, thank you very much.
I had an ex-boyfriend who used to always say to me, “it is what it is”–a statement that sent my blood curdling through my veins. How escapist! How illogical! How fucking annoying! But, there is some truth to it. Sometimes I think we do need to listen to those “whisper[ed] words of wisdom and let it be..
And when the broken hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer, let it be
For though they may be parted
There is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer, let it be”
Does that suffice? I wish. It certainly is a comforting notion that sometimes we do need to let ourselves off the hook, to put away our tool belts and let it just be. Trying to fix other people will lead you to heart break, trust me. I’ve only done it like five times.
So where do we draw the line? When does accountability or responsibility or loyalty end? And I don’t just mean towards other people; I also mean towards ourselves.
I’ve been faltering and fumbling through life without knowing what it is I’m even fighting for at times. Is it ever okay to give up? To let go of your dreams? People you love? Wherever it is I’m headed, I know I can’t bring this all along with me. Something’s gotta give. And yet my heart keeps telling me I mustn’t let go. I’d like to tell my heart that I only have two hands, so what the fuck should I hold on to? But it cares not for this physical predisposition.
(Sorry for all the cursing today.)
I think what it comes down to is this: How do you want to define a situation or even your self? Do you want to be vindictive or do you want vindication?
I know there’s no clear-cut answer to this. I’ve dreamed of a million revenge plots including putting poison ivy in someone’s body wash, but I can’t think of an instance where I’ve actually followed through on any of my evil plotting (lucky for them) and I’m glad I didn’t.
I don’t think you have to be a lover of words like myself to notice how close those words are: Vindictive / Vindication. Unfortunately we are all probably more familiar with the former. It implies action and pride and the Biblical eye for an eye. But we do have a choice to choose vindication instead. When someone hurts you, you can hurt him or her back. That’s fair. Someone once even said that all is fair in love and war. Maybe for some, but I don’t know if that works for me. I punched a guy in the face once after he disrespected me and I didn’t feel any better. (Sorry, Peter.)
There’s plenty of times that I’ve been the aggressor. I’ve hurt people without even meaning to because in some way I didn’t think that my actions or my words would matter. I had no intention of hurting, but I did it anyway because that’s what happens when you live your life at a comfortable distance from reality or you just go through the motions, as the saying goes. But I’m looking up at my book shelf and that tiny little black book by Jean Paul Sartre glares at me, could probably knock me out if it fell because it reminds me that I’m still responsible. Yeah, it’s a paperback and weights like nothing, I know–I’m making a metaphor.
I think I’d like to challenge myself to pick the latter of those two words: vindication. Go ahead, call me a wuss. But this doesn’t mean I plan to take anything lying down. No, no. This means that when I have a choice to make, I have the option to set myself free. To acknowledge and vindicate–to liberate myself of negativity or bad blood or silly revenge plots. To vindicate is to acquiesce, sure, but I don’t think this is the same as doing nothing. In fact I think it’s doing so much more than any baser instinct would allow for. I think it takes courage to fight a little within, to feel the full extent of emotion or pain before you’re truly exonerated instead of simply slashing someone’s tires or offering them laxative chocolates while you smile at them or kiss them on the cheek. You really wanna be Judas, do you? Well maybe you do.
But I think when I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary will come to me. She’ll speak words of wisdom and, hell, I’m gonna let it be.
I couldn’t find a link to the original by the Beatles, but I do love this other version from Across the Universe–always gives me chills. Give her a listen, eh?
April 5, 2013 § 6 Comments
I didn’t inherit my mother’s tall, slim physique. I have my dad’s hair and face shape. I can be aggressive, sassy, and I like competition; my mom gets upset for my dad and me when the Giants lose and I’ve never heard her really raise her voice. My skin doesn’t tan well like my mom’s even though she is more Irish than I am. But I can still hope that people will see her in me in other ways, not just in her bright blue eyes, but in the way she has shown me, as I watch in awe, how to radiate kindness and love in every direction. I have very big shoes to fill, but one day I hope to be able to say: “I got it from my momma.”
Happy Birthday to Mary Lyons, my mother, my idol–the most amazing person on this planet. Your love sustains me.
April 4, 2013 § 7 Comments
*Not just because it is her birthday (well, technically not anymore since it’s after midnight), but because my amazing friend Pam continues to inspire me, I dedicate the following to her in thanks for the encouragement, the hope, and example of bravery she always provides me. This one’s for you, Pammy Cakes!
We Are Made of Stars
It’s a little after 1:00 am and I’m half watching Mankind: The Story of All of Us that was featured on the History Channel. The voice of the narrator sounds like McSteamy from Grey’s Anatomy, but it’s a different actor (I Googled). I’m thinking about fate, even before I arbitrarily selected episode 2 of this particular series and it only makes me feel more like a pawn in a game of chess. This game of life, if you buy that to be an apt metaphor, is so much bigger than any of us imagine, or even stop to think about when we feel like things aren’t going our way. “My way”–as if any one of us really has that much push or pull in the grand scheme of things. And yet we still endeavor to control situations with our small, feeble grip on where our lives are actually headed. It is futile and yet part of our human condition to forge and force our way through life when it could end before I’m even done with this sentence…
Oh, still here.
It’s humbling to realize our insignificance and yet it is impossible to discount that all of us living together here aren’t meant to serve some purpose, even if our short lives are not even a blip on the radar of history–and not just our own anthropocentric perspective–but from the beginning, I’m talking Big Bang. Just one of the many paradoxes we live in and struggle to make sense of. Can any one man hold the magnitude of the universe in his head? Go on, try it. It’s unfathomable. We don’t even fully understand it, not even if you’re Einstein or Stephen Hawking or some astrophysicist in his lab, chugging RedBull night after night and convincing himself that he’s so close to a truly accurate calculation that describes the expansion and potential retraction of the universe. As if numbers can signify all that the heavens represent, what they mean to us both individually and collectively, how they hold us down here and suppress us even as their grandeur, when visible, gives us that incredible sense of freedom if we’re lucky enough to live in a place, like I do, where the night sky is so expansive, you stare too long, it leaves you as breathless as this sentence if you read it out loud.
This episode I’m intermittently watching is about iron. It’s reminding me of a book that was made into a National Geographic series called Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jarred Diamond who contemplates the roots of inequality among humans based on a number of factors stemming from their geographic locations and access to certain materials (I’m obviously simplifying this–I highly recommend both the series and the book, and if you know me personally I have both so please feel free to ask to borrow.)
My mind wanders even further from this idea of iron, and hence steel, and now I’m thinking of Andrew Carnegie. You’re probably thinking I watch too many history documentaries. But, if you care to continue along to find out if there’s a point to these ramblings, consider this quote the McSteamy voice just told me. I paused to write it down:
“Born in the heart of an exploding supernova star, iron forms the earth’s molten core. Larger than the moon, hot as the sun. Without it: no atmosphere, no magnetic field, no life. The fourth most common mineral in the earth’s crust. “
You might wonder what this has to do with anything, but I would argue that is has to do with everything. Me and you, the places we live, the types of relationships we form, our culture, the buildings we live in, our attitudes about life…
How did I get here? Well that’s a loaded question, but I mean, for this purpose anyway, how did I end up surmising that iron has anything to do with any of the myriad examples I just gave? Abide by me just a little bit longer.
If you’ve been reading this blog on the reg, you probably know that I’m a bit obsessed with nature and culture, particularly how we understand these concepts in our highly urbanized world. I wrote a whole thesis on it for Christmas sakes. I should probably be busy editing that monstrosity instead of publishing a blog post that no one might ever read, but as I’ve said, the things we do aren’t always as logical as we’d like to think they are. To hell with logic, I say.
Anyway, why iron? It is a great example of what I’m always arguing–nothing is really unnatural. The Chrysler Building? Totally natural. Even the Coke Zero I’ve been drinking while writing this (gasp!) isn’t something aliens dropped off. It’s not extraterrestrial even though it might be eating up my insides. How can anything be unnatural if it’s all made from the stuff we’ve been given on this planet. It is simply reformulated, that’s all. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be cognizant of a real attempt to do things “naturally” in ways that benefit our planet and ourselves. Yes, I sometimes drink Coke Zero, but I don’t drink non-organic milk and I always recycle. Gees. But seriously, I am all for going back to the basics. And I’m only drinking this Coke Zero today because I’m hung over (still) and I was craving carbonation without calories. Swim suit season is upon us. And that’s about as logical as I get.
Okay, the iron! So after the Bronze Age when people became more sophisticated with extracting metals to make tools and weaponry, iron was a big deal. (No, I won’t digress into how iron products are made.) It essentially changed the way people lived and certainly made warfare a lot bloodier. If you lived in an iron-rich region you definitely had the upper hand. And here’s where I make a flying leap from that tid bit of Jarred Diamond’s argument to Andrew Carnegie–Pittsburgh Steel magnate. Carnegie, I’m sure most of us know, took iron and carbon to create an even stronger material: steel. Imagine what the New York City skyline would look like without steel? It simply couldn’t exist. Thanks for the skyscrapers, Andy! Pretty cool. But here I do need to digress for a second or several. We got the steel thing down, but let’s remind ourselves again, what’s carbon? And here I turn it over to Wikipedia:
“Carbon is the 15th most abundant element in the Earth’s crust, and the fourth most abundant element in the universe by mass after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen. It is present in all known life forms, and in the human body carbon is the second most abundant element by mass (about 18.5%) after oxygen. This abundance, together with the unique diversity of organic compounds and their unusual polymer-forming ability at the temperatures commonly encountered on Earth, make this element the chemical basis of all known life.” (my own italics)
How extraordinary. We are made of the same stuff as skyscrapers. We are made of stars. When we die, our bodies (until people started putting them in those ridiculous caskets) go back into the earth and can become something completely different. I realize this process takes a lot longer than I’m going to make it out to seem, but just imagine for our purposes that maybe you’ll be part of a new building that becomes the epitome of an architectural style that doesn’t exist yet, or a fossil fuel in a guy’s vehicle that transports him cross-country to see that girl he decided, on a whim, was the one he couldn’t live without. Or maybe you’ll just be the graphite shaft on someone’s new golf club, but maybe you’ll get him or her that hole in one and they’ll treasure you forever. I call this Catholic reincarnation. (*note to self: Make a will that says I don’t want a casket like a Cadillac. Wooden box or cremation, please.)
I’m clearly no scientist and a novice historian at best and perhaps my oversimplification of the processes above might annoy some who know more about all this than I do. But like I said when I started out, I’ve been thinking a lot about fate and about the purposes we serve in each other’s lives. Last night I celebrated my dear friend Pam’s birthday and we had a conversation over our Pinot Grigios that went somewhat similarly. Not the iron part, but the relationship part, particularly the relationships we have with ourselves. We talked about how so often we have to keep ourselves in check because when things go “wrong” we jump to find the solution somewhere else. People often end up in relationships because they think that will fulfill them. Sometimes people define themselves based on a skewed vision of how they think other people view them. They think that they need to fill their lives with a job, or house, or car because that says something about their status in life. We’re all guilty of this at one point or another. Unfortunately the most important relationship we’ll ever have is the one with ourselves, and too few of us take the time to nurture that one. If you cannot be happy alone, I’m convinced you will never be happy in a romantic relationship. If you can’t be with yourself, why would anyone else want to? Immediately this causes an unnatural dependency on the other person and a recipe for disappointment, and dare I say divorce.
Later in the night when Pinot Grigio turned beer and birthday shots, our earlier conversation came back to me when Pam generously brought to my attention that I, as I so often do, was putting my energy and attention where it didn’t need to go. My friendship with Pam is one of fate I’d say. As unlikely a pair we may be, she has taught me a lot about life that I didn’t know I already knew. I know that we both will continue to have trials and many more errors, but if any of us do have a purpose on this planet, I think it might be to take care of each other, to benefit from the company of others without having to depend on them. But in the best friendships, you know you could and at times you should.
I also think the only real push and pull we have in this life is with the relationship with ourselves and that the bonds we make or break with others is based on the former. Maybe the guy I have a crush on doesn’t see me that way but could use my company because he’s going through a rough time. Maybe my life-long friend betrayed me because she bottles up her unhappiness and unleashes it in the wrong way and directs it at the wrong people. If I keep in mind the perspective that I know myself, know my limits, know the stuff I’m made of, maybe all of this is okay. Maybe it’s just all push and pull and if you’re strong enough, you can take one for the team or turn a negative situation into a positive one.
What I mean to say through all of these disparate thoughts is this:
From the raw materials of the earth to the happiness we spend so much time looking for in our lives, everything we need is already here. All of the answers to our questions lie within ourselves–we only need to unearth them and sometimes rework them. Life is full of wonder and I’m sorry for those who choose to live it at a distance from what it really is, relentlessly looking outward for the things you can only find within. The next time you feel lost or disconnected remember this: We are made of stars. Really! We are.
March 20, 2013 § Leave a comment
I came across the audio from this presentation on a TED Talks podcast one sleepless night. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone speak so candidly and yet eloquently to the psychological danger inherent in the expectations of being a creative person, i.e. a writer.
I’ve shared this with a bunch of people and posted it to my Twitter, but if you missed it and are at all creatively inclined, I urge you to spend 20 minutes of your day listening to Gilbert speak and maybe, just maybe, you’ll feel a little bit of the weight of the world lifted from you as I did.
March 13, 2013 § 3 Comments
This challenge was part of NPR’s Three Minute Fiction series. The instructions for round 10 were to “Leave a Message After the Beep”– write a story in the form of a voice mail message that could be read in under three minutes. Here’s a link to the winner: http://www.npr.org/2013/03/09/173722517/sorry-for-your-loss?sc=tw&cc=share
Unfortunately, it was not me. But here’s my entry:
Howling at the Wind
“Hey, it’s me. I’m glad you didn’t answer cause that would’ve really freaked me out. Your phone is over on the desk in a plastic bag with your wallet and a pack of cigarettes. I knew you were smoking again, jerk. Well, I’m drinking again. So, there. It’s some cheap vodka. Really terrible. And Wonderful. Anyway, I’m at this motel by the hospital. I can’t go home and look at all of your shit. And I feel like you’re still in there, in the hospital, I mean. Like, I’m just waiting for them to release you to me and you’re just gonna stroll out of there and say, “hey, sorry babe,” and then I’ll forgive you. So I wanna be here just in case this is wrong because it feels really wrong. There’s one of those old style box TVs in here and some really ugly curtains, but I wanna be here…Your mom tried taking me home yesterday. I couldn’t stay because our bedroom smelled like you–you’re everywhere. And nowhere. Murphy won’t eat his food; he just walks in circles at howls at the wind. It’s weird how he knows something is up. The storm is still pretty bad…You know what I thought of today? Remember that time when I was living in the city and you made me go to your friend’s birthday party downtown in the snowstorm? I was so mad at you. The FDR was a mess and you were driving like an asshole because we were late. I wanted to kill you that night. I keep wondering if you were scared this time or if you were just your usual cocky self, smoking your cig, and showing off how fast your stupid car is. God, you drive me crazy. What am I supposed to do now? They want me to pick a suit for you. I think that’s insane so I’m just ignoring everyone. I know they’re gonna make me get rid of your stuff since that’s like part of the process or whatever, but I won’t. They can’t make me. You don’t mind if I keep it all, right? I know you don’t. But not your car. Or what’s left of it, I should say. I really hate that thing. I don’t even know where it is, actually. Alright, I’m really tired but I’ll be here so call me back. I love you.”