Posted in Novels

Family Failings

Agilight [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D

Why is it so easy to love our family, but so hard to like them?—–Daphne Moon (Frasier)

On my bookshelf, I have devoted an entire section to books I haven’t read. Unfortunately, I am one of those bibliophiles who compulsively buys 3 books for every 1 finished, so the section simply grows and grows as time passes. When choosing what to read, I have a tendency to base my choice on the amount of free time I have, so the bigger, longer books ends up sitting in this To-Read section for endless months. Intending to break that trend, I challenged myself to pick up Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” despite its hefty size.

Slogging my way through this coming-of-age novel, set in the early 20th century, I became intrigued at its intricate portrait of the Gant family, with all of its trauma and affection, its personality and its pain. Unsurprisingly, it is not a particularly happy story. Then again, the number of us who could claim to have enjoyed a “happy” childhood is undoubtedly small. The children of such families may spend the rest of their life burdened by the mystery of their early life’s unhappiness. 

Don’t get me wrong. After many years of hard work and the help of good friends, I’ve made my peace with the struggles of my childhood. I place myself thoroughly in the camp of individual responsibility when it comes to an adult’s quality of life. I am not the “but my childhood was bad, so I’m excused of my destructive behavior” kind of person. Still, present-day events can easily trigger deep, hidden emotions in me that I thought I had already worked through. And, once again, I’m obsessed with the same questions. What went wrong? Why? How can the people you depend on to care for you hurt you so deeply? Is love still possible, even after the horrible has happened?

“Look Homeward, Angel” explores those questions. With the Gant family, Wolfe introduces us to a husband and wife, their two daughters, and their five sons, including the main protagonist Eugene and his favorite brother, Ben.  The Gant patriarch thunders across the page with his devastating alcoholism and regular rage attacks. The mother nurtures an fixation on accumulating money, land, and buildings. To cope, most of the children take refuge in perpetuating the dysfunction, by either imitating the drunkenness or resorting to martyrdom for the family.

Benjamin and Eugene Gant seem to be the only children who long to rise above it. The youngest son, Eugene, is the primary focus (he is a loose depiction of his author).  His self-satisfied bookish personality quickly earned my irritation, but that’s probably because I identified so closely with him. It soon became obvious that education and literature saved him from his environment, as it had saved me. Yet, it was Ben Gant who slowly won the status of my favorite character. I enjoyed his proud dignity, his sardonic silence in the face of his outrageous family.  Being an older child, he could not benefit from the education opportunities his youngest brother enjoyed, but he still possessed an “aristocratic” nature that hid his lone suffering. 

Interestingly, the only time Ben spoke up about his parents’ failings was to defend Eugene’s life prospects, not his own. Their mother’s penny-pinching led to both physical and emotional neglect, but Ben could not suffer this in silence. Of course, the good-natured woman never does anything explicit to harm her children. Yet, her life’s preoccupation with money subtly hinted to them that she cared more about it than their well-being.

Unfortunately, when people close to you don’t take care of you, you often don’t take good care of yourself. One of the most harrowing moments in the novel occurs when Ben’s contracts an illness that is exacerbated by how poorly he had been watching his health. Tellingly, he refuses to see his mother during the worse period of his sickness. Her concern, her finally understanding him as a person, comes too late, and she’s shattered by his rigid rejection of her belated care.

Eugene clearly sees his mother’s failings, too.  Despite his special place as the youngest, by the end of the novel he has seen his share of domestic brawls, unnecessary monetary deprivation, the shame of his boarder-house living. Still, realizing how deeply she’s failed Ben, their mother almost pleads with her youngest son, “We must try to love one another.” Despite his strong attachment to Ben, Eugene pities his mother’s position. He takes on the role of a maturing adult by trying to reconcile his love for his parents with the blatant fact that they failed him and his siblings so completely, so fundamentally.

Perhaps this is the task of all maturing individuals. Far beyond the normal struggles between children and parents, sometimes a mother or a father raises their children in environments detrimental to their well-being, whether physical or emotional. Distress can linger far into the future. Later, when forgiveness, assistance, or even renewed relationships with parents present themselves, adult children may feel tempted to respond with anger, outrage, and resistance. Eugene Gant’s mother suggests a merciful alternative: love and understanding, even when the child may rightly feel betrayed by the people who should’ve love them the most.

Parents are human, so it’s tempting to blame them for all of the evils we face. On the other end, it would be naive to claim that any indifference, neglect, substance abuse, or even physical abuse has no effect at all. Somewhere in the middle lies another solution. Understanding our parents as people, with the same limitations, scars, and faulty societal education that we’ve all undergone, helps us to begin to make sense of our past. And maybe even choose love and forgiveness in the future. 

How have you reconciled your childhood with your present relationship with your parents? Do you have any favorite fictional families that reminds you of the joys and troubles of your own family?

Advertisements
Posted in Novels

When Stream Meets Stream…

I recently watched a fictional movie about one of my favorite composers: Frederic Chopin. The movie introduced me to George Sand, the French authoress/colorful character. I decided to read one of her novels to discover if she was only the 19th century version of a celebrity, or if she actually had some grit.

The book was “The Master Pipers.” I was pleasantly surprised at her talent, especially at her piercing insights on human nature. Sand presents us with beautiful young people, falling in love and finding their passion in life. We follow the adventures of the shepherdess-type Brulette and the mule-driver Huriel as they fall in love, then we meet the musical genius Joseph, whose ambitious drive prevents him from being able to connect with anyone on a non-egotist level.

As I followed Brulette and Huriel maturing in order to be worthy of each other’s love and contrasting that with Joseph’s eventual fate, not only could I not put the story down, but I also ran face first into an interesting conundrum:

How do we become better people? What makes us give up the egocentric worldview of our youth and transform to empathetic, productive adults who can sustain satisfying relationships?

How about my story for an example?

It was only after I fell in love that I was introduced to myself.

The memories return to comfort and amuse and astound me eight years later. I felt a connection with another human being and it made me realize my own existence. I remember him through that old fog of non-living. I walked pass him every day and I watched him perk up when I came around and I experienced my own heart palpitations, my own grounded mood lifting. It was astounding because before that I felt absolutely nothing. Week after week passed. Month after month. And I wondered why I couldn’t speak to him. “I must be shy,” I concluded. I had never considered myself as shy before, but it was deeply accurate. In fact, it went even deeper than that. 

I realize now that after people live through emotional trauma, years of unconscious emotional numbing can plague them. Sadly, it can become so pervasive that it turns into a way of life. It is as if they have shut down. During that period, they can unthinkingly harm themselves and other people repeatedly, because they had been injured and had not dealt with it properly.

And I was one of those people. My life had been painful and I had shut down. Then, I met a man and I woke up. I saw myself. I experienced myself as a person. I told myself: “I must be shy.” So, I went to the bookstore and grabbed a book about shyness. I was determined to overcome it so that I could talk to a man I loved. 

If you are rolling your eyes right now, I ask you to stick with me. I am the first to concede that romantic love should not (and probably cannot) be a permanent stimulus to sustain real change. For example, that particular romance did not survive for several hilarious reasons. Yet, I was determined to learn about myself and heal myself, until I had worked through my grievous issues. Now, eight years later, I like to think that I am an emotionally healthier person than I was back then. Even now, the goal of making my life and the lives of those around me better influences the personality changes that I decide to work on.

So, it leads to a pertinent truth about humans: Love makes us want to change, want to be a better version of ourselves, in order to retain and please our love objects.   

Eye-rollers, this love does not have to be romantic; it can be love for your family or your friends. Many people contribute their growth to the desire not to hurt their loved ones anymore. Many people credit their improvement with the support of family or friends who wanted better for them, who expected more from them.

What I loved about Sand’s book was that the two main characters were not previously bad people who went through a complete transformation to become angels. They were regular people who battled a bit selfishness, vanity, and immaturity. Yet, through the help of good friends and the power motivating force of mutual love, they were able to grow up and be what each other needed.

It’s a fundamental truth that relationships help us to grow as individuals.  When a stream meets a stream, a flowing river appears. At least, that’s the ideal…

Either way, I highly recommend George Sand’s novel. I eagerly await reading more from her.

Posted in Plays, Poetry

Departures

(In celebration of the recent 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I’ve devoted a post to the first play I read by him: Romeo and Juliet.)

Loved ones should not have to part. No bigger tragedy exists, especially when the separation will be for an extended time or even permanent. Of course, Shakespeare is the undeniable king of tragedy, so it fits that he has written several scenes in his plays that captures those sentiments exactly.

Unfortunately, Romeo and Juliet has become such a cultural staple that it has lost some of its power, becoming symmetrical more with pathos than transcendent art. The funny thing is, my attraction to the play when I was a fourteen-year-old Freshmen in English class was not the “sappy” love story, but the poetry of the whole thing. The poetry that could reflect with such joyful creativity the real emotional life of real people. It was the genius of Shakespeare: the mirroring of love and hate and grief in language. So, it is with this attitude that I must approach Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Taking Romeo and Juliet from a new angle brings back all of its old power.

Speaking of departures and grief in particular, the scene where Romeo must leave Juliet after spending the night with her packs a punch when you read it with desperation rather than with the playful lover bantering that it suggests on the surface. In Kenneth Koch’s “Making Your Own Days,” he chooses Act 3, Scene 5 for its’ superb poetry, but one can make a case that this scene also portrays two people who love each very much despite the fact that they must separate and they have no idea if they will ever see each other again in life.

All of a sudden, Juliet’s joking about the bird singing outside of their window is not just a cute verbal flourish. It is, for lack of a better term, desperation to keep her loved one with her for as long as she can, because she hasn’t been with him for long enough (it’s never long enough when you want to be with someone) and she unconsciously suspects that it will be the last time they will be together. On the other hand, though Romeo sees that he has to be practical about the matter (after all, he will be killed if he is caught), it’s blatently obvious that he doesn’t want to leave either. If Juliet is desperate, then he is grieved, speaking a few times of their “woes.”

The tragedy is that their fears are real. They do not meet again while both are still alive. In fact, the “loss” of Juliet prompts Romeo to take his own life. And have we not all felt in our melodramatic moments that the loss of someone, the departure of a loved one or friend, made us feel like we wanted to die, too? Separations can be likened to death on an emotionally level. And is it not true that death is the most devastating separation? The hopelessness, the powerlessness that accompanies it…I wonder how humans can stand it. How have we stood it?

Recently, I learned that some dear friends of mine were moving away–far away–across the Atlantic for good. It was as if I had paused while the world continue to rush on around me. It took several days for the idea that I would probably not see them again for a long time–if ever again in person–to settle itself in my brain. Separations happen all the time, but when it happens to you and people you care very much about…

You see why I say that loved ones should not part.

But life must go on. Loved ones do part. We all have our own paths and we must follow our own opportunities for growth. The lesson here is to never take for granted the friends and family you have while they are with you. You never know how much time you have.

Do you have any Shakespearian insights to share?

Posted in Poetry

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?

Posted in Poetry

The Stuff of Neglected Dreams

Blue-Sky-and-St-Johns-Wort_Yellow-Flowers__IMG_3804-480x320

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?

 

Posted in Poetry

Why We Read, Why We Live

romance-novel-with-rose

It’s no story if it’s not a love story…somewhere in there.

Any literature enthusiast would probably agree with me that romance seems present in almost every fiction story we read. Even with the most masculine-themed, secular, historical, or scientific stories out there, a splash of the human love element sneaks its way inside the pages of the story…it seems almost required for the audience to appear. Let’s be honest, many appreciate a good love story.

Before my guy readers began snickering at what seems to be only a womanly folly, we must consider that women authors have not enjoyed the prominence that their men counterparts have throughout history. Most of the works handed down to us are, therefore, children of the male brain and this brain seems equally preoccupied by the relationships of men and women.

Recent experiences made me wonder, “That which is true in fiction writing, is it also true in real life? Is love a requirement of life the way love seems to be a requirement of fiction?”

During one of my poetry practice sessions, I opened my British anthology and read an old poem by a poet named Robert Greene. With elegant metaphors, Greene lists the many different life purposes that people pursue. The speaker is “sitting by a river side” where he contemplates what men spend their lives chasing. The list includes money, honor, friendship, good health, and power. He asserts that none of these holds a candle to “true love.” Whatever that means.

Okay, so, before we get snarky here, let’s consider the cultural, no the human, tradition we’ve been handed down. I am sure that most of my readers can quote several poems, stories, and even contemporary songs that croons the same point. It is one of our oldest themes. As I read it, I immediately thought of the hugely popular Alicia Keys’ song from the last decade that claimed nothing at all mattered “If I Ain’t Got You.” If we can put the bombast of love literature aside, could we answer this question? Does life mean anything, does it interest us, challenge us, give us a reason to get up in the morning, if love is not a part of it?

Some time ago, I would’ve said that it could, it does. A confusing and fruitless affair leaves me unsure. After I decided to let go of a situation,  a promise of love, because I thought it was best for me, I felt a painful pang of emptiness and soft despair for months. I tried to fill my life with positive thinking and numerous, cherished hobbies, but every morning I had to fight to convince myself that my life was worth living.

The intellectual un me had to realize that even a bad relationship had sweet undercurrents of something that poetry or art or science or nature could not give me. Let’s say: an explosion of bright blue on a dull screen or a warm splash of curry on a bland dish. No, I don’t believe that love is all; I respect the individual human spirit and the arts and sciences too much for that blasphemy. And yes, my eyes will continue to roll at the onslaught of sentimentalist, gooey literature.

Still, I don’t know. Having love in your life does make it all seem worthwhile. As Montaigne would claim, this is not a blog that claims truths and spews statements and facts, it is an essay, an attempt to reason it all out.

What do you think? How does the issue figure into your life? And to my writers, how do you incorporate the inevitable romantic subplot in your work and what challenges does this bring?

In the meantime, find Robert Greene’s original poem “Philomelas’ Ode,” if only for another variation of our oldest theme.

 

Posted in Novels

Cynics Are The Biggest Softies

Gaines

Recently, I read a post where a couple of experienced bloggers explained what made them continue to read certain books. Others they would abandon for various reasons, but some held them to the end. It made me consider why I choose to finish certain books, and some I toss backward right in the middle of them.

I must identify with the protagonist. I must sense in their strengths and weaknesses their humanity, and therefore my own. I must leave a book knowing more about the world and myself. The protagonist doesn’t have to be anyone who anything like me in physicality, race, gender, age, or culture. I must, only, see me when I read; I must see us all.

I recently read a short novel by Earnest J. Gaines called “A Lesson Before Dying.” I don’t know if there’s something about first-person narratives that aids our identification with the main character, but I felt immediate recognition with Grant Wiggins. Why? He is not your typical good guy.

The novel centers on this black elementary school teacher in the poor South during the oppressing Jim Crow days. A big case comes up: one of Grant’s acquaintances (Jefferson) gets caught up with the bad crowd and ends up the only one alive after a failed robbery attempt and a shoot-out. Naturally, the all-white jury finds him guilty of murdering the white store owner, although he was innocent. and he is sentenced to death. This is all business as usual, though. The real kicker comes from Jefferson’s state appointed lawyer, who claims that Jefferson should be set free because he knows no better than a pig and it would be wrong to kill an ignorant pig, right?

We’re talking about a human being here. We realize that there was not only something wrong with the legal system back then, but also the prevailing mindset of an entire generation of Americans (or pick any culture that dehumanizes others because they are different). So, Grant’s auntie and Jefferson’s grandmother tries to convince Grant Wiggins to teach Jefferson that he is not a stupid animal, but a man, before he dies. A hero would’ve taken on this assignment with courage and gusto, but Grant Wiggins is not a hero. He’s a cynic. He wants nothing to do with any of it.

That’s what got me.

Grant lived in a world where idealism could not thrive. As a teacher, as a young black man, he’s witnessed generations repeatedly fall into the same death-courting traps. No sign of relenting appears on the horizon. A strong, powerful system prevented his people from rising above their abject state, and he watched his people flounder in it. Once again, another type of man would’ve found the impetuous to fight the system, or at least do what he could to help the individual people around him. Not Grant. He’s over-educated, unhappy, frustrated, simmering with resentment, completely insensitive to the needs and desires of the very people he cares about.

He was human. It’s what happens to us when we really believe in something, when we really want something, when we want to correct a prevailing injustice, and we can’t. We are hurt. We stop caring. We become self-centered, sarcastic, cynical. The truth is, though, the worse we become reflects how much we initially cared. The point of this novel, then, was not so much the education of Jefferson (who ends up the real hero of the novel) but the education of Grant, and his getting his concern, love, and humanity back.

Cynicism is not, then, a position of strength; it is a scared, defensive position. It is not courage; it’s diametrically opposed to courage. The hurt person becomes afraid to care too much, afraid to be engulfed by the pain of fighting for a cause that will fight you back, make you bleed. So, what’s the cure? It begins, Gaines seems to show us, with trying to teach or convince others of some truth that you’re struggling to believe, that you’ve given up on.

Perhaps it works even when the other person does not respond. I tried the cure. I was attracted to a person who I believed was just like me: hurt, defensive, cynical. Even now, I believe that we loved each other on some level. I didn’t trust relationships, though. Growing up with the emotional dearth that I did, I initially had no hopes. But I begin to think, if I could just convince him that it was possible to trust again then maybe I would begin to believe, too. He could not respond. I was disappointed, but I realized that I had grown. I believed again. It will still be a long, hard road, but I would make it.

Even though I have moved past our relationship, I don’t blame him for not responding. I respect the hurts of others. I only pray that one day he feels the hope and happiness that I feel now that I’ve let go of cynicism and embraced courage and empathy.

What about you? What qualities of your favorite characters have you identified with?