quietly in a room

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“All human miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” –Sepharad, Antonio Muñoz Molina

I have never been one to make grand declarations about my plans or hopes (at least not since reaching the trials of adulthood, watching hopes and plans be beaten like a piñata – what you end up with in life is some of the candies and tchotchkes that fall from the piñata. Pieces of your hopes and moments of sweetness in unexpected flavors that you’ve scrambled to pick up before someone else does), knowing that change will come regardless of what I do. I might be able to guide the changes that occur, making decisions and taking actions that will influence outcomes. But claiming – ‘everything changes and is different from today’ is a dangerous and foolhardy path. And yet, without sometimes taking leaps, if not always the grandest or furthest, palpable change isn’t possible. Sometimes to agitate movement, you have to force things through. Sometimes you have to do things that are uncomfortable or that hurt.

And this week I’ve had to do something that I long ago should have done – something that does hurt, but the longer-term effects of not taking this course of action will hurt much more. The last three years have been a long process of slow change, acceptance and finding contentment. Now, the trick is to move forward with longer, faster strides – and this is not possible with lingering elements grabbing at my ankles and trying to trip me up.

I can and do sit, happily, quietly, in a room alone. I can no longer invite those who cannot into my room with me.

The other day I was thinking about the creation of “victim selfhood”. I know a lot of people who create their own miseries (in a host of different ways). I think and write a lot about this, but reflect also on the fact that it’s not as though I am immune. We can all see our own actions and behaviors through a prism that relieves us of blame or absolves us of responsibility. I try exceptionally hard not to do this now – possibly even to the point of being annoying to the people around me who would rather that I not analyze my own actions and motivations in such detail.

Looking at youth (and this could be anything between childhood and one’s early 20s), in particular, we can, in our naivete and inexperience, really believe we were in the right and not reflect on all the things that we did wrong, excusing them, if acknowledging them at all, with mild self-exculpations: “I was a child. I didn’t know what I was doing.” I’ve written my side of many stories involving my long-ago friends, examining my own feelings and reactions – but not necessarily divining all the details of things I did to set things in motion. Yes, for example, I was competitive with others for the attentions of the one friend we all wanted to love us best; yes, I was messed up and trying to escape in my own way, leading me to slip in and undermine a close friend in a situation neither one of us should have been in at all, and then, to my own detriment, took that situation further, creating a reality that was not real, doing all kinds of things that, while they seemed innocuous to me at the time, still surface and haunt me and make me want to apologize to people 30 years after the fact. (In fact I already have – years ago, even if there is some part of me that realizes as a 40-something woman that children cannot be held accountable for emotional repercussions that they do not have the maturity and experience to understand.)

But on some level, of course we know what we are doing. But being young and inexperienced, I didn’t comprehend the seriousness of the things I did – not just in the moment, how some of my actions could lead to perilous consequences, but also further-reaching repercussions – toying with the psyches of fragile, damaged, middle-aged men (for example), but in truth, despite living with one of the most troubled, damaged people I have ever known and seeing other evidence of it all around me, I somehow didn’t really believe that adults could be that fragile – and felt that the silly games of a bored 13-year-old girl couldn’t possibly wound anyone so very deeply that it would matter and would in fact harm the trust they were able to place in all the future relationships they tried to build. It is almost as though the life I led, that all people led, before adulthood, wasn’t even real life. So much of life during that time felt surreal and out of my hands and control, that the things I could control – as destructive as they might be – were seized, eagerly, giving me a (false) sense of maturity and power.

It’s rather stream of consciousness, this whole thing. I am just coming to terms with finding strength in considering these flaws and mistakes of youth – borne as they were of youthful insecurity (wanting to be liked?), fear and fragility. It’s a strange dawning – daunting, even – to recognize how fragile people are. And how willing they are to put their fragility on display.

“How could she allow herself to break down like that, in front of everybody? Jane had never understood this willingness on the part of these from-aways to peel up the scabs of their emotions and let everyone see their festering sores. They were like children that way. They had no shame and even less self-control.” –Red Hook Road, Ayelet Waldman

Even the strongest ones. But the strongest ones have ways to cope and get through; they have people they can turn to. The weakest, well, they don’t have reserves to deplete. And some of them, like parasites, move on to deplete others of their reserves. Once depleted, though, there is just nothing left. Each experience leaves us empty, feeling as though we will never feel again. Sure, we will feel. We will make long strides. We will sprout a joystick. We will feel enthusiasm and excitement and stirring.

But to get there, we (I) must (know how to) walk away, whatever it costs. And sit alone, quietly, in a room.

Rousing sessions, furious responses

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“Part of what interests me is the impulse to dismiss and how often it slides into the very incoherence or hysteria of which women are routinely accused.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

When not enunciated clearly, “betrayal” and “portrayal” sound very much the same. And in reality, they are.

Applicable in many situations, it seems most apt when thinking about the portrayal women must give so often in the world, consciously or not, in the workplace, in their private lives, even in their friendships. And in giving this portrayal (or portrayals), she performs or reflects a kind of betrayal – of herself, other women and even the truth of what women are or can be. I wrote a bit about this – or about false feminism – or carrying the flag of feminism only when it is convenient or aligns with one’s own individual conception of feminism. But I can think of very little that betrays oneself and womankind – and does the least amount of good for all of humanity – than the idea of portraying a role, fitting into a mold, being or showing some unreality to the world and perpetuating it. At the same time, though, it is so ingrained as the expectation that it’s hard to do otherwise. After all, no one appears ready to take a woman at her word.

“I told you, but what does the proverb say? A woman’s prophecy is always taken lightly until it comes to pass.” –The Dance of the Jakaranda, Peter Kimani

At face value

I think of this often: we don’t take what women say at face value. Even if we believe them, and even if what they tell us bears out, e.g. Bill Cosby’s many accusers, Cosby’s own admissions of what he had done (without accepting any culpability, i.e. “I did it but it wasn’t wrong; it was consensual”), we still don’t apply the logic or truths of what women say, we still don’t hold anyone accountable for what women endure, reinforcing the idea that we might as well just shut up or contentedly portray our role.

“If we could recognize or even name this pattern of discrediting, we could bypass recommencing the credibility conversation every time a woman speaks. One more thing about Cassandra: in the most famous version of the myth, the disbelief with which her prophecies were met was the result of a curse placed on her by Apollo when she refused to have sex with the god. The idea that loss of credibility is tied to asserting rights over your own body was there all along. But with the real-life Cassandras among us, we can lift the curse by making up our own minds about who to believe and why.” –Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit

Crazy label: Unspoken message

“As you know, men are apt to idolize or fear that which they cannot understand, especially if it be a woman.” –Cane, Jean Toomer

I read this week about Sylvia Plath, and how she is widely regarded in academia and in general as a gifted but troubled woman. Clearly if you’d commit suicide, you must have been crazy. She was just a jealous woman who had been cheated on, like so many before her, and could not handle it. Unhinged. Hysterical. But is any story or person that simple? It’s so easy to dismiss her this way because this is what evidence we have; this is the narrative that her ex-husband sought to craft in her death. Not to preserve her reputation as a literary voice but to protect his.

The article I read asks: “Why are we so unwilling to take Sylvia Plath at her word?” The “crazy label” assigned to her (which, granted, is not hard to assign when a person kills herself and is therefore left defenseless; any written evidence she left behind was destroyed by the aforementioned ex-husband) automatically makes her an unreliable witness to her own existence, all the more so because she was a woman. The hushed-up, unspoken message is clear: You don’t need to listen to a woman if she’s crazy, and much of the language used to describe women and their behavior (as if it can be so easily classified and compartmentalized) makes all women seem crazy in some way. All women then are unreliable or biased witnesses. When an individual woman’s own situation becomes unbearable and visible to others, it is demanded: “But why didn’t you say anything?” Answer: “I did and no one listened/believed me” or eventually, “Who would have believed me?” When their prescience comes to prove itself, later people ask, “But why didn’t anyone say anything?” Well, we did. It went unheard until it came to pass.

Uncontrollable circumstances, self-blame

As Dorthe Nors writes in So Much for that Winter, “and it is woman’s weakness to believe it’s because she isn’t good enough that things don’t go according to plan (and it is woman’s weakness that things should go according to plan).” Perhaps it is this near-built-in inferiority coupled with the idea that somehow you (as a woman) should be perfect that makes one seem crazy. Even though this is exactly the portrayal women are asked to give every single day.

Meanwhile, as Alice Munro writes on men in Hateship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage:

“Men were not like this, in my experience. Men looked away from frightful happenings as soon as they could and behaved as if there was no use, once things were over with, in mentioning them or thinking about them ever again. They didn’t want to stir themselves up, or stir other people up.”

(Wo)man with a plan

It’s overly simplified and not universally true (in other words: here are some sweeping generalizations for you), but in very broad strokes, women plan and then feel guilty and inadequate when that plan does not work precisely, dwelling on the consequences (even if they often have also performed risk assessment and made contingency plans even for the simplest of maneuvers). Men do not plan, and walk away without a second thought when the things around them fall apart, feeling no connection at all to the consequences.

Or, men’s and women’s idea of what constitutes a “plan” are fundamentally different: A man makes a plan, points A through Z. He rarely seems to follow the threads of what happens if any of those alphabetical points does not go to plan, which is where many women excel. She is thinking about point A1, and the contingency plans A2, A3 and how those interact and meet with the next possible steps in the plan, points B-Z and their subplans. If she thinks this way, how can she not foresee and foretell pitfalls and disasters? It’s a bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure book but without any real surprises. A bit like a woman’s life at times: chaos and silence, ignoring and being ignored and many rousing sessions and furious responses that lead nowhere.

Expectation and the value of nothing

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“Expectations carry the day, causing us to ignore contradictory data. We speak in conversations in incomplete thoughts and sentences but we do not perceive it that way. Oral conversation is full of holes, but we don’t hear it that way. If we did, it would be quite disruptive. It is usually efficient to perceive in terms of our expectations. On the other hand, it disguises just how much we actively share what we perceive to fit our image of what is there to be perceived.” – Awakening Your Psychic Powers

I think (and write) a lot about the concept of expectation – but what exactly is it?

We all seem to have an understanding of what ‘expectation’ means. We expect something to happen, to receive something, and there is a level of trust implied in that expectation because, as I have written elsewhere, expectation is on one end of the spectrum and hope is on the other. On both ends, some action or object is ‘promised’ – it’s just that with expectation, we have a stronger sense or assumption, or trust, that we will experience or receive the promised thing. With hope, it’s more distant, just a possibility, and often much more unrealistic. Is that how everyone perceives these concepts? Is expectation always in the “likely, unless…” (sometimes with caveats) column while hope resides usually in the “unlikely” column?

Sometimes it’s practical: things go as expected… until they don’t. And you wonder why. Promise theory aims to get to the root of some of these issues. Even if it won’t solve everything, it is an interesting enough concept to delve into briefly (with an handy animated video, no less!):

“No matter how good the plans or how detailed the instructions our expectations about the world have limitations. Our information is incomplete.

One answer to the question is that the world has both remarkable predictability but also maddening uncertainty. But that’s not helpful.”

Can we immunize against uncertainty?

“What did you expect?”

From Calvino’s Invisible Cities: ““I speak and speak,” Marco says, “but the listener retains only the words he is expecting. The description of the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing; the description that will go the rounds of the groups of stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house the day of my return is another; and yet another, that which I might dictate late in life, if I were taken prisoner by Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a writer of adventure stories. It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.”” “At times I feel your voice is reaching me from far away, while I am prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable present, when all forms of human society have reached an extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new forms they may assume. And I hear, from your voice, the invisible reasons which make cities live, through which perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again.”

It’s funny when you’re immersed in something, especially with another person, and when something changes, that other person – almost like an amnesiac, or a cold operator who shuts everything down with emotionless precision, now outside the sphere of shared feeling or experience, forgets or misplaces what the connection once (possibly only in a limited or illusory way) offered to both people. Or when you are part of a project or a job or any activity. Expectation boils down to – to be successful – a give and take.

But failing that, in essence, we can always expect inconsistency, a lack of transparency and, most of all, contradictions, particularly where people and feeling are involved.

Is anyone better at juxtaposing the contradictions and our propensity for fooling ourselves than Pessoa? At our expectation and desire for the new but then being exhausted and annoyed by having to actually deal with the details and complications of the new?

“I reject real life for being a condemnation; I reject dreaming for being an easy way out. But my real life couldn’t be more banal and contemptible, and my dream life couldn’t be more constant and intense.”

“This is true in the whole gamut of love. In sexual love we seek our own pleasure via another body. In non-sexual love, we seek our own pleasure via our own idea. The masturbator may be abject, but in point of fact he’s the perfect logical expression of the lover. He’s the only one who doesn’t feign and doesn’t fool himself. The relations between one soul and another, expressed through such uncertain and variable things as shared words and proffered gestures, are strangely complex. The very act of meeting each other is a non-meeting. Two people say ‘I love you’ or mutually think it and feel it, and each has in mind a different idea, a different life, perhaps even a different colour or fragrance, in the abstract sum of impressions that constitute the soul’s activity.”

“The tedium of the forever new, the tedium of discovering – behind the specious differences we see in things and ideas – the unrelenting sameness of everything…” “…the stagnation of everything that lives just because it moves…”

“To love is to tire of being alone; it is therefore a cowardice, a betrayal of ourselves. (It’s exceedingly important that we not love).” Yes, even within ourselves. We long for love, sometimes to not be alone, but at the same time, feel as though that longing is a betrayal or that we have succumbed to a great weakness. (See the poem “Longing is the betrayal of oneself…” by Agneta Ara for a more poetic take…)

Expectation of superfluity

“this syndrome is a war that nearly every woman faces every day, a war within herself too, a belief in her superfluity, an invitation to silence…” –Men Explain Things to Me

We can also – almost always – expect mansplaining and sexism. It’s almost always a given, unintentional or overt. Rebecca Solnit has published two whole collections of essays on how half the world’s population expects the worst – expects to be silenced or talked over or had its concerns ignored, at best, or expects to be raped or killed, at worst.

In Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me, she pretty much hits all the nails right on the head:

“Yes, people of both genders pop up at events to hold forth on irrelevant things and conspiracy theories, but the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.”

“…billions of women must be out there on this seven-billion-person planet being told that they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, that the truth is not their property, now or ever.” “…And no man has ever apologized for explaining, wrongly, things that I know and they don’t.” “…Dude, if you’re reading this, you’re a carbuncle on the face of humanity and an obstacle to civilization. Feel the shame.” (Maybe I fell in love a little bit with this statement because I love starting statements with “dude” when I am at-the-end-of-my-rope frustrated and irritated.

“Think of how much more time and energy we would have to focus on other things that matter if we weren’t so busy surviving.”

Perhaps the remarkable thing about Solnit and her writing is that, despite describing the condition of – and expectation(s) – of, for and by women in society, she nevertheless explores the opposite end of the spectrum: hope. And why? Because, back to the principles of the aforementioned promise theory, of uncertainty:

“To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what will happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable. Despair is a form of certainty, certainty that the future will be a lot like the present or will decline from it; despair is a confident memory of the future, in Gonzalez’s resonant phrase. Optimism is similarly confident about what will happen. Both are grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans; hope like creative ability can come from what the Romantic poet John Keats called Negative Capability.”

It is not blind hope, though. It, too, is informed by experience – the times we have ignored logic or signs to succumb to seeing only the reality we wanted – or expected – but if we were to marry the two, could we overcome the stumbling block of the ‘plan’ we can’t seem to abandon?:

“As I began writing this essay, I picked up a book on wilderness survival by Laurence Gonzalez and found in it this telling sentence: “The plan, a memory of the future, tries on reality to see if it fits.” His point is that when the two seem incompatible we often hang onto the plan, ignore the warnings reality offers us, and so plunge into trouble. Afraid of the darkness of the unknown, the spaces in which we see only dimly, we often choose the darkness of closed eyes, of obliviousness.”

“We are by nature optimists, if optimism means that we believe we see the world as it is. And under the influence of a plan, it’s easy to see what we want to see.”

The expected end

We expect death, but we hope it comes for us later, much later. But do we know what to expect within death? Is it, as I have asked before, just an expanse of nothingness forever?

What we do know, as William Empson writes in “Ignorance of Death“: death is “the trigger of the literary man’s biggest gun”. Too true – pondering its manifestations and meanings runs through everything. And yet, as Empson also wisely states, “Otherwise I feel very blank upon this topic,/And think that though important, and proper for anyone to bring up,/It is one that most people should be prepared to be blank upon.”

In Slaughterhouse Five it is: “At that moment, Billy’s high forehead is in the cross hairs of a high-powered laser gun. It is aimed at hm from the darkened press box. In the next moment, Billy Pilgrim is dead. So it goes.

So Billy experiences death for a while. It is simply violet light and a hum. There isn’t anybody else there. Not even Billy Pilgrim is there.

In Calvino’s Invisible Cities: “I thought: “Perhaps Adelma is the city where you arrive dying and where each finds again the people he has known. This means I, too, am dead.” And I also thought: “This means the beyond is not happy.””

In Pessoa: “I don’t mean the mystery of death, which I can’t begin to fathom, but the physical sensation of ceasing to live. Humanity is afraid of death, but indecisively. The normal man makes a good soldier in combat; the normal man, when sick or old, rarely looks with horror at the abyss of nothing, though he admits its nothingness. This is because he lacks imagination. And nothing is less worthy of a thinking man than to see death as a slumber. Why a slumber, if death doesn’t resemble sleep? Basic to sleep is the fact we wake up from it, as we presumably do not from death. If death resembles sleep, we should suppose that we wake up from it, but this is not what the normal man imagines; he imagines death as a slumber no one wakes up from, which means nothing. Death doesn’t resemble slumber, I said, since in slumber one is alive and sleeping, and I don’t know how death can resemble anything at all for us, since we have no experience of it, nor anything to compare it to.”

Also, even one of the new-age psychic books suggests that meditation is as close to near-death experience as we can get – makes me think of my questions on this very topic earlier.

When you can expect nothing: A gift horse, full of surprises

Maybe we don’t always have expectations – penis size, for example, is apparently a crapshoot. One can hope, of course, but pop culture will caution about expectation in either direction.

Vonnegut’s preternatural obsession with cocks and their sizes (appearing in both Slaughterhouse and in Breakfast of Champions) is another reflection on how our society prioritizes and values this all-important fact. Size matters, even when this particular size is confidential and invisible. He has just made it visible.

From Slaughterhouse: “Montana was naked, and so was Billy, of course. He had a tremendous wang, incidentally. You never know who’ll get one.”

No, in fact you just never know… until you know, that is. But you really cannot have any expectations in this department. In Breakfast, there are stats provided about multiple characters on these matters.

And then there is Lars von Trier, famously bizarre film director, who claimed that actor Willem Dafoe had a “confusingly large” member, which called for a “stunt cock” in Antichrist. (And this becomes slightly more confusing for me, reflecting on watching The Last Temptation of Christ and recently wrapping up my reading of Reza Aslan’s book Zealot about Jesus of Nazareth. By the way, even Aslan refers back to Dostoevsky when it comes to faith and religion – does anyone not fall back on Dostoevsky?! Hard to reconcile it all somehow.)

Oh, and then there are always the poor micropenises.

It is only too late if you are dead

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“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”
― Doris Lessing

Nobel laureate Doris Lessing and creative pioneer Lou Reed both died recently. I think of this Lessing quote and the way Reed lived his life – unapologetically, his own way – and continue to realize the value of doing whatever it is you want to, are meant to, dream of doing – right now – regardless of whether the circumstances are ideal. (They never are, really. Meaning they always are. Any time is as good as any other.) We can make excuses forever – excuses will stop us in our tracks, hold us back, but all that happens is a life of regret about the things we never dared to try. That’s not to say I have always been completely faithful to the idea of jumping when the urge struck.  I am as cautious and fearful as anyone else – just about different things.

People tell me all the time that they wanted to do X or Y but that “now it’s too late” – followed by a litany of other reasons why. “I’m too old.” “It will take too long.” “I am working all day.” “It’s too far away.” “I am not smart enough.” But this idea that just because something was not done and completed at a specific point in time, like it is now out of reach forever, is complete bullshit. Nothing is too late. It is only too late if you are dead.

That is not to say it (whatever “it” is) won’t be the most difficult thing you ever did or tried to do. Even if you give this nebulous “it” your all, there is no guarantee of success. Obviously if you are 45 and think you can compete in the Olympics against 20-year-old athletes, maybe you are deluded – but does that mean you should not strive for that goal anyway just to push yourself to see how far you can go, even if you don’t compete in the Olympics? This is an extreme example. Most of us are not setting our sights on such accomplishments. Most of us are wishing for a new job, a promotion, a different educational experience, a move abroad, learning a language… and none of these things is anywhere near impossible.

It is a story I have told and written about before but choose to repeat to make a point. Around the time I had decided to move to Iceland, I found myself sometimes racked with doubt. I did not really have a plan – was I making a big mistake? As the day of my move drew nearer, though, I grew surer that I would hate myself if I did not at least try. One afternoon, I ran into a man (a former colleague with whom both my dad and I had worked when we were colleagues) I had known. I knew, via my dad, that this man had recently been diagnosed with fairly advanced cancer for which there were very few treatment options. When I had seen this many only a matter of months earlier, he had been vibrant and alive, and suddenly here he was before me, a shell of his former physical self. In that moment, it struck me vividly – he had talked almost daily at the office about his retirement countdown, looking forward to sailing around the world (his big retirement plan). Everything hinged on this magic number, magic day, “When I retire…”. Now he was not even going to make it to retirement. That encounter cemented my decision for me – it is not possible to live in this “I will do X when…” way. Yes, sometimes real, tangible circumstances delay our plans, but for the most part, when you have your moment, as frightening as it is, what is more frightening than not taking the risk? What is the alternative? Everything is a risk, and life continually postponed and planned out is not living. A more “convenient time” and “the right moment” may not come to pass.

This year, having seen so much loss, especially in very unexpected places, it hit home for me again. Plans, to some extent, mock us. When confronted by loss, even the loss of people in the periphery with whom we are not directly close, it can shock us and create emotional turmoil by stirring up so much self-reflection that normal daily life does not provoke. It reminds us both to hold on to what we have and let go of limitations simultaneously.