On Pride and Weariness

In which I connect a former poet laureate to a low-budget 90’s comedy.

While sitting at work last week, gazing blankly at one of my many market briefs, some random lines of poetry floated across the forefront of my brain. That tends to happen, actually—I’ll find myself internally quoting Shakespeare or Auden or Eliot at random times. It’s weird. English major problems. But the other day, it was Robert Frost. “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I’m actually not a huge Frost fan (I know, so un-American, but what else is new?), but this poem has always resonated with me. It’s simple on its surface, which is perhaps common to most Frost poems (no, I’m  not calling Frost simple—I just believe his poems can be read simply, and some people like him for that reason), but it’s considerably deeper than one initially expects, ending on a profound note of longing and resignation:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

Miles to go, indeed. I’ve unexpectedly reached my breaking point in these last weeks; between keeping up with three jobs, taking 18 hours, and running two student organizations—oh, and making time for riding, which I will never sacrifice—I’ve  gotten a bit run down. (And yes, that’s why I haven’t written much recently. At some point, I had to make time for rest, too.) It caught me by surprise, but I’m clearly overcommitted. And now I’m wondering why I allow this to happen—why I continue to keep these promises when it would be so easy to just…stop. Seriously, existential crisis happening over here. Does anything that I do matter? It’s no wonder that final line has been popping into my head so much lately; it appropriately sums up that bone-deep weariness that pervades both body and brain. And I’m not the only one, because I know far too many of my friends share this tendency. It’s a little self-destructive, though, so why do we do it?

Time for a random tangent. Recently, someone persuaded me to watch Office Space at last—you know, that movie from the 90’s with the employee who stops giving a fuck and rebels against the corporation and ends up trying to launder money and then the office burns down. Okay, this is going somewhere, I promise.  Anyway, I was weirdly reminded of myself while watching this guy try to figure his life out—minus the money laundering and building burning. His struggles just felt so familiar. Sometimes, it really does feel like each day is worse than the last. And sometimes, I would like nothing better than to ignore all of the people who want things from me—assignments, editing, research, my presence, conversation, the list goes on—and just…do my own thing. And you know, sometimes I’d even like to take the office printer and bash it with a baseball bat. I’m sure plenty of you can sympathize with all of these.

But there’s clearly something keeping me from doing these things, because I’m still leading an excessively busy (read: moderately insane) lifestyle. And now I’ll get back to Frost, since I think he’s put things together pretty well. Because I do have promises to keep, and I’m not the kind of person to disappear into the woods. I might resent the situation, but at the same time, I know I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t like half-assing things. I pride myself on my ability to get shit done—even when that makes me want to collapse into a little puddle of exhaustion at the end of the day. And that is why I will never succumb to Frost’s metaphorical woods (which might be a metaphor for death in the poem, but that’s not what I’m getting at—point of clarification). I will always push myself—even to my breaking point—because it’s incredibly satisfying to look at what I’ve done and claim ownership. I’m too proud to give in.

Friends often tell me that it’s time to give something up, that I need to drop a commitment and make time for things like sleep. But there are miles to go until I can do so; I’ve got too much to accomplish, so I smile and nod and make noncommittal replies. Because I refuse to let myself disappear into the woods. I hope I can encourage others to resist as well. As long as you perceive some long-run benefit, fight the pull of the woods.

But I might go after the printer. Those things drive me crazy.

 

(n.b. for any future employers who stumble upon this blog: completely joking about the printer.)

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For the Love of Literature: A Top 10 List

Recently, a couple of my lovely fellow English majors challenged me to post a list of the top ten books that have influenced me. They’re calling it the Book Challenge or something on Facebook. Well, I compiled the list, and I posted it, and as I wrote each title into that little status bar, I realized this list was incomplete without exploration and discussion. What good is sharing the title of a book if I don’t describe why it made the list? Plus, ten is clearly an inadequate number. I’ll add a few in an “Honorable Mention” section, just for the books that didn’t immediately come to mind. Here we go!

Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown

My first excursion into Rushdie did not, as one might expect, include Midnight’s Children or his Satanic Verses. Instead, on the suggestion of a friend, I delved into this fascinating novel that leaps from contemporary California to Kashmir in the 1960s to World War II and back again. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so incredibly shattered by an author’s ability to portray loss, heartbreak, violence, and the many other themes that contribute to the agonizing tale of Shalimar. Rushdie’s sheer delight in language shines in this richly textured novel; on more than one occasion, I wanted nothing more than to tear my eyes away from the pages so I could escape the suffering within them, but Rushdie’s language captivates. It’s luxurious. And so Shalimar the Clown made me fall in love with language all over again.

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

My first attempt to read this Faulkner great (or at least the Benji section; I didn’t even reach the Quentin section before starting over) was miserable and painful. My second attempt ended in awe and admiration. See the previous post for the most profound reasons for this book’s impact on me; but beyond that, Faulkner’s stream of consciousness delighted me with its simple brilliance. I will always love Virginia Woolf above others, but Faulkner’s style is equally—and, in some ways, more so—impressive, especially in his ability to convey the impressionistic mind of developmentally-delayed Benji. Faulkner showed me that language can do far, far more than simply tell; it can show.

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

I don’t even know where to begin with this one; it remains one of my absolute favorites after several years. Egan is a beautiful writer with an impressionistic, transcendental style, in that she lifts you out of her story’s disjointed timeline only to drop you back into a new place, time, and life. Plus, I’ve never seen anyone write music as well as Egan—and by that, I mean she writes about its relationship to life and soul with startling dexterity. When I had the pleasure of studying Goon Squad in a class last semester, I came to the rather pompous conclusion that music is “the great unifier of humanity.” By this, I meant that music—as Egan tells it, at least—provides a common theme to life and its meaning: constant change. Goon Squad made me realize that we aren’t supposed to pinpoint the essence of life, as it were. We’re simply supposed to accept constant change and live. Hell of a message, isn’t it?

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway was one of the first literary works I tackled on my own. In retrospect, that was a poor choice, but it has given me the added benefit of discovering new heights of meaning every time I read it—if only because I read it so poorly the first time. Woolf introduced me to stream of consciousness, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Encountering that mode of writing has made me more aware of my own processes of consciousness. Beyond that, though, Mrs. Dalloway is just a beautiful book. Woolf’s delight in language is even more powerful than Rushdie’s, considering the quotidian nature of her subjects; her ability to reveal so much significance in the everyday is powerful and inspiring.

Margaret Atwood, the Maddadam Trilogy

Atwood’s trilogy combines hilarity, pain, destruction, loss, and survival into one wild, shockingly realistic dystopian tale. I won’t go into specifics here. I can say, though, that this trilogy left me with the most profound feeling of despair for the future of the human race. If that isn’t impact, I don’t know what is.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

This book has the longest-lasting impact of any on this list: it inspired a six year old to tackle a proper book on her own for the first time, triggering a lifetime of literary passion. I never tire of returning to this book; it’s like an old friend, and I know I’ll continue to adore it for years to come. I will shamelessly maintain that I probably received much of my moral education from Harry Potter, and it started here.

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Thanks to Rushdie and Roy, I gained a powerful introduction to South Asian literature, which has become a major area of fascination in my studies and personal reading. Roy has an incredible ability to write from children’s perspectives, and the gravity of the story she tells is only heightened by her young characters’ perspectives. With all the confusion and suffering in this small, beautiful, painful novel, Roy still managed to leave me feeling optimistic with the promise of “tomorrow.”                       

Pablo Neruda, Collected Poems

Neruda’s one of the sexiest poets around. Also: odes to random things like artichokes. He’s brilliant and quirky and passionate, and he showed me that poetry defies restrictions. His poem “Horses” remains one of my favorites.

T.S. Eliot, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”

The beginning of my masochistic descent into Modernism. It takes an excruciating amount of effort for me to analyze Eliot (this one’s more straightforward, actually), but it’s so satisfying and thrilling to do so. Such brilliant language—I mean, I consider this brief moment one of the most powerfully affecting lines I’ve ever read: “Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium.” Fantastic. “Rhapsody” began my love affair with Modernist literature.

James Joyce, Ulysses

Oh, Ulysses. I’ve never viewed a book with the same mixture of adoration, fear, and loathing; but I can’t deny that I overwhelmingly feel a great deal of affection for Joyce’s masterpiece. Of all the books I’ve studied during my undergraduate career, this novel has demanded the most intellectual effort. After Ulysses, I think—dare I say it?—that I have learned to read intelligently and discerningly. Also, I can’t deny that I absolutely revel in the madness of “Circe.” Oh, Leopold Bloom. Yes I said yes I will yes.

There are many more works that have left me with profound impact: Love in the Time of Cholera, 1984, any number of Emerson essays, the Communist Manifesto (only joking, honest), A Farewell to Arms (possibly the only book I’ve ever flung across the room while sobbing my heart out at 4 a.m.). To detail each one would take more time than I have, considering I’m preparing to publish this at 2 a.m.; perhaps another descriptive list waits in the future. For now, though, I’ve given you the first ten that came to mind in the moment. Cheers!

Quentin and Me

A tale of a budding English major, a literary encounter, and the meaning of stasis

During my freshman year of college—a time of less cynicism and more youthful curiosity, if you will—I had the pleasure of reading The Sound and the Fury with a certain lovable and enthusiastic English professor. I say “pleasure” in hindsight; at the time, I found the novel both a torturous slog through the quagmire of Faulkner’s stream of consciousness and a revelation in language’s intricacies and symbolic capabilities. But something clearly went right, because I ended up adoring the book and majoring in English—an early sign of madness? Anyway, to the point.

I remember with rather impressive clarity—impressive because of the soporific state that plagued my brain in the post-lunch hour—a single focal point during our discussion of The Sound and the Fury. We had reached the novel’s poignant, wrenchingly beautiful second section: the Quentin section. I’ll be honest; I had no idea what was happening. Well, I caught the plot, but I had to read the entire section twice to get any deeper (I was a freshman; what can I say?). I entered the lecture with an open and slightly confused mind, professor presiding imperiously over us at his ever-present podium, microphone at the ready, watching his students entering the hall with that unique expression of wisdom, mischief, and superiority I’ve come to know well (and, let’s be honest, I admire that blend a lot—it appeals to my inner narcissist). The hall filled; the class waited.

“STASIS!” thundered that paragon of fierce literary opinions. We jumped. Honestly, it was shocking. That man has impressive lungs, and the aforementioned microphone was not unused. So we sat, rather dazed, waiting for an explanation of that introduction, which was unusual even by the standards of that class.

What came next remains one of the most moving lectures of my college career. First, a quick definition: stasis indicates a state lacking change or progress. Now, Quentin Compson’s state of stasis, marked by his profound inability to grapple with the conflicts that plague his psyche and drive him to suicide (spoilers, sorry), enthralled me, opening my thoughts to the psychological elements of literary analysis that would become my favored method of exploration. Of equal importance, though, is the effect that discussion of stasis has had on my own psyche. This is not a literary analysis. This is a reflection.

I found Quentin’s plight deeply disturbing, if fascinating. That sense remained with me for a long time, and I don’t think I quite understood why—I mean, it’s obvious why, considering that he has some serious repressive issues, a tendency to fixate, and a life ending at the bottom of the Charles River; but it was deeper than that (now that’s a bad pun)—until perhaps a year later. I had entered my own period of stasis: something that had been lurking at the gate to adulthood, held at bay by ambition and optimism for only a short time until it burst—not with a bang, but a whimper—into my life. For a long year, depression immobilized me, and I felt the meaning of stasis. There was no “change or progress” in my mental state; depression is less a state of misery than a state of nothing. But I’ve talked about that before, and it’s boring; I’ll keep moving. Point: my mind was basically in stasis.

Depressing as The Sound and the Fury is, it left me with a preoccupation with Quentin Compson that had the opposite effect. Reading Quentin’s section fills me with pain for his pain—Faulkner writes pain incredibly well, you should check it out sometime—and it scares the shit out of me to realize that his struggle really isn’t that uncommon. Fear can be a good thing; fear is not the nothingness of depression, and fear forces the mind to adjust instinctively. I was afraid to descend into a similar struggle (not that I’m anywhere near on par with Quentin), so that fear pushed my mind into action. I kept dwelling on stasis. That’s my problem, I realized. So logical. Find the source of the problem; fight it there.

And so I fought stasis. Honestly, I continue to do so; sometimes my brain feels stuffed with honey or sludge or some equally sticky immobilizing substance for weeks on end (let’s go with honey, shall we?). Most of the time I can’t even write. But that fear of stasis—that glimpse of what stasis did to Quentin Compson—always pushes me to counter it. I won’t discuss how; for one thing, that’s a constant work in progress but it’s also not the point of this reflection. The point is to acknowledge a static state, because awareness is the first and most important step to a solution.  I feel it especially clearly at this moment, in between internships before the beginning of my senior year. The words “worthless layabout” describe me effectively at the moment. But I know that—and I know I need to fix it.

It’s a pretty odd anecdote. Studying a powerfully depressing novel that helped convince me to choose what might be the most depressing possible major ultimately gave me a handy little tool for pushing back against depression. Weird, isn’t it?

But now, when I feel it creeping up—when I feel that horrible sense of immobility paralyzing my mind—I catch myself. I bellow “STASIS!” at my mind. And I jump.

Here’s to keeping your mind jumping.

“You Feel it in your Corazon”: The Soulful Sounds of The Cat Empire

This one’s for all you tricksters, hipsters, and prophets in the sky. As promised: my first music post. The artist is The Cat Empire; the album is Steal the Light, the band’s 2013 venture.

All credit goes to my dear brother for opening my ears to the magic that is Cat Empire; I never would have discovered these Australian geniuses on my own. Their sound is explosive, a wildly varied blend of ska, jazz, and funky rock with a distinctively Latin flavor. Delicious. Of course, I’m a sucker for anything Latin; they had me at that first soulful cry of a trumpet. But this band writes the kind of music that only gets better the more you listen, the more you explore the lyrical intricacies and idiosyncrasies of sound. I’ve been listening to Steal the Light on repeat since August. It’s fantastic. It shifts seamlessly between mellow funk lines and thrilling brass fanfares, between railing against materialism and crooning words of love. The album has a palpable texture that leads me on new tangents of exploration every time I run through it. Sometimes the trumpet catches my ear; sometimes the percussion; sometimes the fantastically witty lyrics. It’s a delightfully intriguing blend of dance music with profoundly encouraging meanings, inspiring both body and mind through the course of the album. Now, let’s get into some tracks…

I shall begin at the beginning, with the song that introduced me to Cat Empire: “Prophets in the Sky.” God, this song is almost indescribable, but I’ll do my best. For one thing, the music is incredible—a quick Latin pulse, some bold brass, quick ear-catching interjections in Spanish. The initial thrilling fanfare hurls you into an impassioned mess of questions, one that intoxicates you with its sounds and intrigues you with its words. I honestly can’t tell you what those words might mean; they’re still a mystery to me, so the song continues to fascinate. Whatever it is, it evokes some sense of primitive questioning that can’t quite be explained. Trust me, it’s brilliant. I can’t do it justice here; you’ll just have to listen for yourself.

“Can you imagine a love like that?”

All of the fast tracks are amazing; to discuss all of them would take another solid thousand words, so I’ll spare you. One of my favorites, though, is “Go,” an inventive diatribe against materialism. It feels like an enormous release of madness—which works, considering their opinion on the folly of materialism. The music, though, is one of the most incredibly compelling components of the song. A steady scale progression of the low brass balances against the wild flourishes of the high brass, simultaneously creating senses of menace and frenzy that warn of chaos. That warning is clear: let go of materialism. It’s an impressively commanding song, with some of the most pointed subject matter of the album. Now, though, I’ll move on to the slower tracks, which are delightfully deep wells of interpretive opportunity.

“Every little viper’s not your friend—and a million dollars is not how this story ends.”

The mellower tracks introduce a deep, penetrating richness that sneaks into your soul and lodges there, using sound to carve out a vulnerable little open space, only to fill it with words. “Steal the Light” is the first slow track on the album, and it took awhile to grow on me—probably because it follows “Prophets in the Sky,” which doesn’t exactly leave you in the mood for mellow. But it still grabs your attention with the almost-immediate introduction of the song’s heartbeat, a rolling bass line that creates a smooth, rhythmic undertone throughout the piece. The lyrics, once you catch them, are simply exquisite. They evoke a sense of that constant internal questioning that digs at all of us, the kind that makes you wonder what would happen if you just decided to fuck it all and did whatever the hell you wanted to, if you would just “open your eyes / and run into the clear,” as they say. The song appeals to a certain existential loneliness within all of us (or at least me. I can’t speak for the rest of you, I suppose) that eats away at any manner of confidence; the triumphant trumpets and anthemic vocals of “Steal the Light” encourage you to aspire to spontaneity. Such subtle inspiration is compelling.

“What if I’m lonely? What if the sky should fall and disappear?”

One of the relatively few love songs on the record, “Open Up Your Face” isn’t your typical ballad. For one thing, the music begs the listener to take it easy after the intensity of the previous song in the track listing (“Like a Drum”). The brass croons sweetly, soothing the ear while bongos establish a steady, calming rhythm; later, that rhythm progresses into a slow march, equally calming. But in terms of content, it’s painfully realistic, wrought through with earthy metaphors and gritty honesty. It’s that realism that makes this such a deeply beautiful song. Love is neither a storybook romance nor a tale of destruction; it is pain and glory, despair and trust, anguish and delight, and somehow this song manages to capture these feelings without sounding quite so dramatic. The language is simply stunning. The opening lines:

“While the traffic hums

When the madness comes…

Like a flower that reaches out its fingers to the rain,

Like a bird that flies above the gutters and the graves,

Open up your face.”

How’re those for metaphors? So unassuming, yet so evocative, they simultaneously capture both the realization that love is, in fact, an everyday matter and the sense that it can still elevate you above the quotidian. And it suggests that you can get away from the occasional pain of the everyday by getting into love. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like a love song until the chorus of “And I’ll know you want me, I’ll want you.” It’s really quite refreshing to be shown love rather than told about it, making this track yet another deliciously inventive song to tease the mind as well as the ear.

“Like a human cannonball that hears the match strike flame; like a prisoner listening to the rumble of the train…”

Finally, the last track in my long-winded discourse on Cat Empire. “Wild Animals” took awhile to grow on me. The vocals are a little strange, it’s a tad repetitive, and the lyrics progress a little too quickly to catch at first. But then I understood the lyrics. And they are astonishingly great. In a similar vein as “Steal the Light,” the track carries a theme of letting everything go and embracing the self. This song, though, directly questions the reasoning behind giving up intellectual and personal freedom, asking, “why’re you living your life behind bars? / Why’re you living your life in the past?” in its first compelling verse. It is a powerful reminder of what matters: nature, freedom, self-expression, authenticity of spirit. It pleads that we avoid living in bad faith—that state of self-deception in which we blame our social context for our actions rather than taking responsibility for ourselves—encouraging instead the choice to confront the conventions that limit our lives. It’s a beautiful message, really. And they make it impressively personal with this concluding verse, which anyone who has ever worked in an office can relate to:

“Look out the tiny window frame that sits behind your desk—

Past the big computer screens and the jars of fountain pens.

What are you doing in this prison with your psychopathic boss,

With your brokenhearted mornings and your backstabbing friends?”

As such a deeply touching and inspiring song, you’d think it would sound serious as well. But the music practically scampers for four minutes with an easy, rolling, cheerful melody. It sounds like what it discusses, which makes it even more subtly powerful. It’s one hell of a song—certainly one of my favorites.

You may have noticed that I truly adore this group. Cat Empire is a refreshing departure from most music—whatever you listen to, there’s not much like these guys. The accessibility of their music and lyrics is a rarity; personally, I think they’re universally appealing, although I’m sure some disagree. But with this fascinating convergence of genre and content, it’s hard to be disappointed in Cat Empire–and let’s be honest, there’s nothing catchier than a good Latin beat. Check out Steal the Light; it’s on Spotify, but it’s also definitely worth buying. I promise you will be dancing halfway through “Prophets in the Sky,” and rest assured that your mind will dance as well.

And remember: “Don’t let them kill the wild animals inside of you!”

Smoke and Mirrors

So I’ve been wanting to write more, right? Life (well, the start of another semester) has interfered thus far, but I decided it was time to try out one of WP’s daily prompts. We’ll see how long I can keep up with them, but I’d rather blog than read for things like Media Law, so here goes.

Today’s prompt: “Mirror, mirror.” Internal vs. external. How you feel vs. how you look. How apropos.

Today was a rough day, in terms of mental health. I’m still not very good at this whole remembering-to-take-pills thing (after 6 months, you’d think I’d be better at it), and two days of said forgetfulness has led to a surprisingly vicious war of manic-depressive emotions. By the end of the day, I was slumped at my desk, head in hands, apathetic, overwhelmed by the mess of rage and pain and sadness of a depressive episode heretofore held at bay by those little white pills I kind of hate but apparently need. Moments like that make me introspective, though. They make me wonder if anyone knows, if anyone would know had I not shared my little secret with them—“hey, I guess you should know, I kind of have this thing….” It’s not something I’m accustomed to, sharing something so intensely personal.

I think I’m good at keeping up a façade. I always look put together; maybe I come off as cold, or aloof, or distant, but I rarely betray my internal chaos by allowing it to rage across my face, poisoning my interactions and broadening that gulf between me and the unfortunate soul with whom I’m attempting to interact. Unless, like today, I’ve lost control of my emotions and can’t maintain that smooth composure. Somehow, though, I think that tactic has masked not only those chaotic emotions, but also my warmer, friendlier, empathetic tendencies. Much like those little white pills flatten my moods, my strategy for composure has flattened the expression of my personality, leaving instead a carefully reconstructed version of me to present to others, a neatly wrapped package concealing the nature of its contents.

Shake that package, though, and something inside might rattle.