The Undesired “Truth”

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Why is it so hard to change?

A couple of months ago, I was so confused about the stubborn, destructive behavior of a friend—and even my own self-destructive tendencies—that I honestly wondered if it would make a difference trying to improve. As in the case with many things, I took my wonder to Google. I asked, “Do people ever really change?”

By the way, it seems I never learn not to use Google for such existential questions: billions of results appear (more so than usual), each contradicting what the last one says. Why? Because every situation is different. People search because of  a misbehaving romantic partner or a family member with a debilitating addiction. Or they are trying to lose weight or become more socially outgoing. Perhaps they’ve failed in trying to change themselves or a significant other. Yet, there was one underlying theme that I managed to tape together from the hubbub.

Change is possible, but it’s extremely hard work and it gets harder as you get older. Also, be prepared for many failures, setbacks, genuine instances of “you-know-what?-I-give-up.”

The last one is the most confusing, because by that time, you’ve convinced yourself of the rightness of the change and you’ve been assiduously working hard to make your life better, yet you find yourself prepared to throw it all away for a moment’s peace. Your determination melts into “Hey, things can stay like they are. After all, they aren’t that bad.”

Why do we do that? One word: Fear. It prompts us to remain just where we are, even when we know that where we are is detrimental to our well-being.

No one wrote it better than Gwendolyn Brooks in her poem “truth.”

I’ve always admired her for the simple music of her poetry. Though she sings about such issues with piercing depth, her poems always allow a certain accessibility. In this one, in particular, she compares the truth to the returning sun and she asks a question (in fact, most of the poem is a series of questions; no room for dogmatism here). ‘When the sun comes back, the good life that we’ve always wanted appears, do we really want it, now that we’ve gotten so used to the darkness?’

That’s the million dollar question. It’s what stops a recovering somebody dead in their tracks when they are faced with the enormity of their task to change, to be better, to do things differently.

After all, we complain, don’t we? We might not like how we treat others or our stubborn adherence to bad habits. We all dream of having happy, peaceful lives. Yes, with amazing alacrity on human nature, the poem continues: “we have wept for (the sun)…we have prayed all through the night-years.” Still, we have lived in what Brooks calls a “lengthy session with shade.” We have learned to live with our afflictions; we rationalize them until they’re whittled down to nothing…yet still managing to bruise our unconscious minds, but hey, we reason away why they are there.

The emotion behind this stance is fear. In her succinct lingo, Brooks proposes that we would “dread”, “fear”, “shudder”, and “flee” when the sun returns with all of its’ light and goodness. The poem asks if we would not rather seek to hide in the “familiar” darkness.

Would we?

We rage against evil, darkness, resignation, and despair, yet we are frightened by the light, rescue, hope, and change. We would rather swim in the mire because of its familiarity than bask in goodness just because it’s uncertain. No doubt our inner resistance to positive change may be our biggest obstacle.

Gwendolyn Brooks did not give an answer in the poem. It’s not a poet’s job to do so; their task is only to raise the questions. We determine our own answers to the conundrums poets uncover. With this poem, I would like to think that change is possible, that humans have the power to choose to fight for what’s good and right, and that ultimately it is worth it to resist the temptation to hide in the comfortable darkness.

What do you think? Find a copy of Brooks’ poem ‘truth’ and tell me your answer to the puzzle she raises.

The Unloving Dead

Dylan Thomas by Jessica Dismorr

Dylan Thomas by Jessica Dismorr

I’m on an indefinite break from love in all of its forms…if such a thing is possible. After such a humiliating and rejecting experience called the pursuit of love, I decided with the last shred of operable brain power I had left that I needed to take off, recharge, really consider who I was and what I wanted. Of course, the problem is in the details.

Some days ago, I was sitting, all wrapped up in shawl against the damp November coolness in my apartment, with my old cat sitting on my feet. Like a true modern woman, I split my attention between watching Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in “The Misfits” and reading a tough philosophical book on the nature of human relationships (The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm). As I read, a thought occurred to me that had haunted me for the last few months of my emotional retreat, “Why can’t I just stay like this? I’m comfortable. I really don’t need anyone in my life. I don’t need love from anyone. I’m just fine loving myself.”

I could not find a powerful refutation to my claim. I knew—I know, theoretically, that human beings need love from others, like they need to breathe, to eat, to drink, yet, I could not feel it. No amount of reasoning could talk me out of it. The answer, then, lied not in the brain, but in the hidden, dark, suppressed subconscious where emotions lie and cry. I had to dig down and discover what I really felt, what I really wanted. And then try to determine why an isolated life appealed to me so strongly just then.

Back in my Dylan Thomas days (yes, I tried to muddle through his collected poems; then, I had to take a break…speaking of indefinite breaks…), I read a wonderful poem by him called “They Are the Only Dead Who Did Not Love.” I advise you to find it and read it, because it validates the happily loved/loving and gently reproves those who choose to live their lives without love. The poem struck me because I was struggling even then with the pull between caving into myself and taking the risk to reach out to people and connect.

This Dylan Thomas poem is not as murky and enigmatic as most of them. He begins the poem by noting the dead who did not love during their lifetimes, using blunt, visually visceral language to explain what we all should think of them. They are “lipless and tongueless,” utterly ineffective in relationships, maybe even life. Yet, one can get the idea that we shouldn’t despise or hate them. They are “staring at others,” indicating a passive, uninvolved attitude, though they are deeply interested in what they don’t participate in. He calls them “poor unlovers.” He pities them.

Does it make you sort of pity an ex who claimed they were uninterested in being close and loving, and you could just tell that it was all they thought about all the time and they were just so frightened of intimacy that it couldn’t even come up into conscious thought without killing them? Well, it makes me…

Who am I to judge, though? Remember my isolation pact? Sometimes I remind myself that I have never had a close, intimate relationship with anyone (not even my parents), so I have no idea of what it looks like. It’s so easy to give up because I have no idea of the value of real, everyday love.

As if answering my ignorance, Dylan Thomas compares the attitude of those who try to be ‘complete’ by shunning love against the strength and ease of those who do love. He claims it is impossible to live without human warmth. He’s right, you know, but there are some that will fight to the last to refute that.

Not me, anymore, because, well, the poem continues that even the unloving dead have had people who tried to love them (out of the kindness of their hearts), but these unloving ones were unresponsive or they didn’t see it (he calls it love “unreturned” and “unreturnable”), so they missed out on “a certain godliness” that did encompass some “woe” but also “divinity”. And there’s the point…

An unloving person may think that he’s protecting himself from pain, hurt, loss, rejection, abandonment, “woe”, but he’s actually missing out on something that transcends himself, leaps over the negativity of human existence, and makes life worth living. When looked at like that, an unloving person is pitiable indeed. He dies without having ever lived.

Remembering and rereading this poem relit something in me, a positive spirit that had hope of human love between people. Not saying that this holy quest, this divine adventure will be easy. Images come into my mind of many stories where heroes embarked on their destined journeys which were fraught with frights from without, doubts from within, and a plethora of heroic qualities gained. They had to fight, but somehow they attained the rewards of their quest.

May that happen to us all.

What about you? Has a certain stressful event in your life conjured up a long lost poem that helped you find yourself again?

The World’s Greatest

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Once again, I find myself lost in the depths of a great story. For the second time in my life, I’ve picked up Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. My first attempt didn’t end well. Not only was I bored by the character Levin’s part of the story, but I didn’t have any deep emotional connections to the other integral parts. Years later, I have the help of life experiences. All of my romantic triumphs and woes created a place of empathy in me for the story. I realized how balancing Levin and Kitty’s sections were to the plot. I am now completely enthralled.

I’ve stated before how maturity helps a reader appreciate literature better. I’ve been an avid reader since early childhood, but I find that I am a completely different reader as I age. For one thing, I have a compulsive urge to research what others have written about whatever interesting book I’m reading. In the midst of reading Anna Karenina, I continually encounter the fact that it’s considered one of the best books in the world.

I must confess: those prolific “100 Greatest Books” lists have always aroused my interest. On one level, I’m interested in how many of them I have read. On another, I like to argue with the lists, shaking my head in disbelief that one book was rated higher than another or that a certain book was listed at all. The biggest conundrum I fall into, though, is the question of what makes a book great in the first place and who gets to determine that?

When I scroll to the bottom of whatever webpage, I notice that many of the lists claim that they only poll literary experts, scholars, authors, professors, you know, people who know their stuff. Of course, there are the reader polls, but serious lists tend to ignore those, fearing the appearances of the occasional Twilights or Harry Potters that might skew the field. In some ways, I agree with this take, but in another, I am a bit wary. Not every book is great because some smart person said so. And there are many books out there, I am sure, that are absolutely genius, and no one ever mentions those.

How about we come up with our own criteria, huh? I’m sure that the readers of my blog have their own standards when it comes to reading, and we must keep these in mind, even when we are perusing what intelligent scholars say we should read. Here are mine:

1) Characters: The people who populate the stories I read must be believable. They must be well-rounded, easily identifiable, realistic people. Of course, there are the rare exceptions to this rule, especially depending on the genre (for example, adventure stories don’t spend a lot of time expositing the psychological background of their hero). Still, they must be likeable and authentic. I like to like the person I’m reading about, even see a piece of myself in them. (Jane Eyre is my muse for the moment.)

2) Setting: The location of the action can become a character in itself. A great story takes the time to lay out the places where the characters move, talk, live and die. One of my sisters teased me that she couldn’t get through a Thomas Hardy novel because of his pages-long exposition on the heaths of England. Yet, it’s necessary. Wuthering Heights would not have the same power if Emily Bronte did not create the world around the characters that mirrored the turmoil of the story.

3) Plot: Some people would argue that the plot makes a story. In fact, most beginning writer courses drill it into students that the question, “What happens next?” will either make or break a story, depending on how a writer creates the sequence of events. In normal speak, how many of us have been so engaged in a novel that we cannot put it down, even if we have somewhere to be, or a certain strict bedtime, not to mention other homework/housework/secular work that we should be during? For me, I think of anything Dostoevsky has written, especially those scenes between the main character Raskolnikov and the detective, Porfiry, in Crime and Punishment.

4) Theme: In my opinion, one of the most important aspects of a good story is the overarching “take-away”. A good story does not only entertain the reader, but it also educates them about the inner-workings of the world around them. A good story reveals, discusses or shows something important about humanity, the world, our existence. In William Faulkner’s Light in August, we’re shown how racism rips society apart, both the perpetrators and the victims. We learn how society treats outsiders. We learn how we lock up our true selves from those around us and even our own consciousness. Most great novels shine a bright torch on some facet of existence that the secular world endeavors to keeps hidden.

5) Dialogue: Probably one of the hardest ones to master, but a great story pulls it off: how do real people actually talk to each other? The trick is, real people and fictional characters hardly ever say what they mean or mean what they say (which is not the same, according to Alice in Wonderland). A good scene of dialogue says so much and so little, revealing little gems of insight on situations and characters that a reader could never get otherwise. Irish author Elizabeth Bowen’s novels will have you perusing scenes again and again trying to understand what her characters are trying to hide, what farce they’re trying to perpetuate, and the horrible failures of communication that takes place.

6) Craft: The last is the best. A great story contains a certain je ne sais quoi that shrouds the book, because of a writer’s genius in their command of the language. The way their sentences can wrap around your tongue and release a flood of images in your brain. Their special syntax, the poetry of their sentences, their sense of pacing and suspense, their knack for humor. Their profound insight into the soul of a human. It is often of the sort that you cannot help but close the book and feel changed, and the world suddenly receives its wonder and beauty again. This quality is unquantifiable, but every sincere reader knows what it is. I think of James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, a wistful tale about family, art, human weakness, and human hope.

These are my criteria for what makes a book great. What are your “greatest” books? And what determines its “greatness” in your eyes?

A Burnished Throne For All

How exciting can a simple poetic phrase be?

During the past few months, I’ve rested my blog in the pursuit of an answer to that question, spending my time studying and experimenting with the craft of poetry, reading here and writing there. The process did not leave me a lot of time to muse and write about the works of others. Still, something caught my attention in my workbook, and I had to explore the idea on Our Literary Lives.

In the section that spoke of where poets can get their inspiration, one of the places was, of course, other poets. As I read on to the examples, a Shakespearian line arrested my attention: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,/Burnt on the water.” In the midst of reading simple prose, a how-to passage, suddenly my multiple senses were engaged upon a single scene. It took my breath away. And I thought, “That’s what poetry should be.” Unfortunately or no, I also thought, “That’s what life should be.”

Recently, I hit an annoying snag when I became addicted to personality profiles (or as I now call them, the pseudo-science version of horoscopes). You know, they divide humanity up by a series of behaviors, sometimes they give you a title or a list of letters, then they declare that you act a certain a way because of that. Consistently, I tested as a personality type that is overly-idealistic, dismissing the real world, real people, and their quite real imperfections. Not to say this isn’t true of me (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi”), yet I couldn’t see the huge problem with this, if it was. Why couldn’t life be extraordinary?

After all, this is what we expect of poetry, of art, of most things we choose to spend our time on. Yet, why is it such a problem to expect our lives to be so? The problem is, so many people click their tongues on idealism, especially in love. They are quick to claim that we shouldn’t expect people or situations to be 100% perfect. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly agree with that. Yet, the same argument could be used as an excuse for underachievement, a lowering of expectations and performances. By making the extraordinary impossible, they discountenance any attempt at excellence.

This is not the poetry of the greats. It shouldn’t be our lives.

We’re not saying that iambic pentameter should spew out of everyone’s mouths all the time and that everyone should be good, noble, and kind with each other twenty-four hours of the day. Not only is that impossible, it would also be irritating. Most of us live quite normal lives. We go to work or school every day. We come home, watch TV, clean the house, clean our cars, go shopping for groceries, and battle with the significant others in our lives. It’s a very prosaic existence, with a faint interspersing of drama every now and then. No, the point is not to dismiss those aspects of living. In fact, much poetry, literature, even visual art and movies are the greater for portraying those avenues of our lives. It’s their familiarity that makes them shine to us.

No, it is the magic, the sense of specialness, the idealism that is brought to the ordinary. It’s the innate sense of the artist, the writer, the actor that the world around us is both everyday and a miracle at the same time! It’s the conclusion that everything else should be to: relationships, work, exercise…I could go on. With writing, especially, it is all about swimming in the ordinary and making out of it the extraordinary. How many poems have we read about seemingly mundane things: onions, birds, fish, factory work, baseball games, et cetera? Even the most realistic writing has some elements of style, flavor, tone….effort, work.

For that reason, there is no excuse for making the ordinary a substandard. We should go about our lives not settling for the mediocre, the unsatisfactory, by calling it reality. We can look for creativity, spontaneity in everyday occurrences. We can be better, we can do better, we can act better. We can go about our lives on our burnished thrones, like kings and queens, just living out our ordinary days, but loving every minute of it because we’ve worked so hard at it, just as a writer works so hard on his craft, that it becomes magic.

Paging Doctor Bennet

What prescription does Elizabeth Bennet have for me?

What prescription does Elizabeth Bennet have for me?

Maturity, to many, is ultimately the realization that there’s a world outside of yourself. Sometimes that outside reality can be sharply different from what we think it is, which prompts a range of reactions from slight annoyance to nervous breakdowns.

Hmm…but assuming we keep our sanity, there’s something to be said about integrating different viewpoints into ourselves. We become more whole, more rounded, even a bit more dynamic. Yet, this idea can seem hard to implement for certain people. Why?

Well, if you’re like me, there are probably huge aspects of yourself that are not the “ideal” according to our western society. For a culture that appreciates intelligence and creativity, there is not always a market for what usually accompanies those qualities, like a temperament that is more quiet, reflective, observant, and sensitive. Although the members of our society might have a lot to contribute when it comes to art, music, writing, even relationships, they sometimes receive a lot of flak for not being more outgoing, more quick-on-their-toes in conversations, more talkative and outwardly energetic.

Have you noticed that?

So, of course, here comes the “counter-culture” with their blaring horns, telling us ‘to be proud of your introversion’, and ‘don’t let anyone change you.’ And that’s good, trying to give people self-esteem when society doesn’t really value them. Yet, it can cause people to get locked in certain behaviors and stereotypes when they can learn a lot from the other side of the table.

This is maturity, people. When you can be proud by who you are, and still realize that your dominant personality can be improved and modified by it’s complete opposite. Within reason, of course.

I began thinking a lot about this when I sat with my younger sister one day. She was watching that abhorrent reality show, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” (trust me, this is a rare time that I will mention such pop nonsense). Quite innocently, she mentioned to me that our family reminded us of them, because they were all sisters and there are four sisters in my family. Seeing that my sister is a bit of a diva, I realized that she was more impressed with their fashion sense than anything else, but I protested that there had to be better role models for us.

I would say, we are more like Jane Austen’s Bennets. Elizabeth Bennet, in particular, drew my attention. What a literary marvel she is! She is not an unattractive woman, but most of the emphasis rests on her personality, her intelligence, her wit, her understanding…her humor. She was definitely an extrovert.

Now, before my male readers go running for the hills at mention of the Kardashians and the Bennets, the point is the power literary role models can have for us. These are well-written characters who possess some pertinent aspects that we ourselves are lacking.

I don’t know, the last couple of years of my life have been tough. Sometimes, you enter a period of your life when everything seems to be falling apart and you have no idea of who you are and what you should do. Still, I think a bit of humor, a bit of stubbornness, could’ve really helped me. I tend to take things a bit too seriously, but even the most serious issues in the world can be lightened by a playful attitude, an inner confidence that everything is going to be alright. I thought of Elizabeth Bennet. What would she do? Probably laugh and dig her heels in the ground.

Maturity: realizing that sometimes the way you handle things is not always the best way, then trying something new.

So, I try to inject a bit of humor in every situation now. I try not to take things so seriously. I don’t romanticize the ‘brooding artist’ bit as much anymore. Life should be enjoyed every now and then. That’s what I learned from Ms. Elizabeth Bennet. She was like a doctor, evaluating exactly what was wrong with my outlook on life and prescribing a cure.

Is there any literary character that you admire even though you found they were your complete opposite?

A Life of Beauty

National Poet Gallery, London

National Portrait Gallery, London

After another failed round of attempts in life and love, the paramount question must be asked, “What do I want?”

Just a tip: “I don’t know,” is not the right answer. Even when you can’t readily perceive your deepest desires, they are in there somewhere.

Still, I’ve always admired people who know intuitively what they want. Even if they go about it unscrupulously, their possession of strong desires and the courage to pursue them appears somewhat attractive to my somewhat muddled state.

The truth dawned on one such as me, anyway. I don’t remember the specifics, but I was reading my favorite poet, John Keats,’ “Endymion” prelude. There is something about the poem’s power to life my mood in sad or anxious situations. Even better, I discovered just what I wanted out of life.

“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever,” The poem begins. It continue by explaining what these things of beauty are (primarily nature) and the healthful effect they has on us, especially to counteract the negative aspects of life. I realized that this was what I wanted. I wanted a life of beauty, a life filled with the beauty of nature, the beauty of love, the beauty of poetry, and the beauty of meaningful work. I wanted a meaningful life, filled with appreciation for all that the wonderful Earth had to offer me.

I know what you’re thinking. This all sounds like a bunch of fluff. But if you know anything about John Keats you would know that he was no sentimentalist. Don’t let the slightly archaic Romantic language fool you; he was ‘bound to the Earth.’ His eyes were open to the darkness that accompanies the journey of each human individual. He speaks of “despondence, of the human dearth/Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,/Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darken’d ways/made for our searching.” It is against these common distresses of mankind that Beauty fights, whether its poetry, nature, love, or some other personal meaningful object.

Poetry is not escapism. It’s probably the biggest accusation thrust against poets, but it isn’t true. We actually have to live in this world; we have to understand suffering and pain in the deepest sense before we can appreciate all of the good things in life.

That is the life I want. The knowledge that great, beautiful things lies behind the pain and suffering of everyday existence. This is my natural inheritance as a human being.

So, how do I translate this to a concrete desire? I make time for the important things in my life. If I’m a writer, I write. If I am out driving, I take the time to listen to the birds, watch the sky, feel the humidity in the air or the cool breeze, see the trees wave and twinkle at me. I’m there for my friends. I laugh at the silly things my students do. If I have a dream, I work hard to achieve it. I make a difference. And if I fall into despair, I let myself feel it and remind myself that I will get through it.

Beauty lives with us or we die, Keats says. His words has always lifted my spirits. Then, it gave me a life purpose. What about you? Has a poem, novel, or work of art ever influenced your view of life?

The Stuff of Neglected Dreams

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We all think we’re so smart, don’t we?

It’s our friends who choose awful mates. They get stuck in mundane careers. Our siblings, they’re the ones that settle for less in relationships, helplessly give up on their dream careers for the easy buck. Even our co-workers, it’s obvious that they don’t know how to speak up to the boss or even quit the whole thing and start over somewhere else.

No, we’re smarter. We’re more dedicated. We know every trick in the book. No one can sneak up on us and bribe us away from our shiny missions of happiness in life. No, we would never relinquish our burning passion, whether it’s love or work, and we can easily dismiss any sorry imitations.

Except we can’t. We really don’t. And, no, it has nothing to do with our intelligence, or even our street smarts. It’s simply that  you began to intuitively conclude dreams don’t always come true. So you compromise a little here, slow down a little there, and one day you wake up and realize you’re running yourself ragged for something  you don’t even care about.

I’m finding that as I age, the loved poems of my youth take on new, achingly poignant meanings. I believe wholeheartedly that they mean something only when a person has accumulated experience. Yes, you might love the music and beauty of literature as a child, but sometimes it takes maturity to really get it. One day, a certain passage in a poem or a book clicks. It jumps off the page and becomes life.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in the car with friends and Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred” drifted into my mind. I had chosen a career. I had chosen a family of friends. I had worked hard for years to make it work. I had battled fear, rejection, persecution, depression, discouragement and burn-out. Finally, I had reached a place of peace. But, I recalled “Dream Deferred.” I was not happy. It was not my dream that I was breaking my neck for. I was battling for survival. Who dreams of simply surviving? I had let my real dreams go.

I pulled out my phone and read the poem. As I perused Hughes’ argument about what happens when we allow dreams to slip away, I recognized myself in each one. Yes, I had found peace, but I had willingly handed over my dream as the price.

How could I have done this? Me? The one who was so determined and passionate. But it happens. It happened.

The question was what to do.

I sat myself down and asked myself what I really wanted. It wasn’t hard for me to remember my purpose in life. I was honest with myself about the possibility that my present circumstances were not going to help me accomplish my dreams. Then, I had to act. I changed my circumstances. I still don’t where I’m going, but I brandished my courage like a weapon to move somewhere, do something.

Now, I’m more hopeful that I will accomplish what I’ve been put on Earth to do. And I’m a lot more confident that I will stay on track and realize potential pitfalls (at least a tad bit earlier).

Even though you might be very familiar with Langston Hughes’ poem, reread “Dream Deferred” once more. Maybe it’ll make you stop and reflect about the direction of your life and the choices you’ve made. Then, let me know with a comment: Have you ever stopped mid-life and realized that you were on a completely different path than the one you had hoped for? What did you do about it?