18.12.14

Decompression II

I am a poet, not a philosopher
(At least: one more than the other)
(And now I cannot add,
"Unqualified"
To my self-damnation,
As the qualifier bleakly observes.)
Words being the medium of both,
I thought there might be some blood-shared kinship
Lying between them like an abstract object.
But in fact,
What one makes love to,
The other tortures.
The same object under different tools, different hands, different eyes,
Here permitted to preen, flourish, shine;
There, subjected to mutilations that would make the torture report look tame.
Chesterton's madman was logical,
And his poets sane.
I think I should like that brand of sanity
Which contemplates the earth
And expresses it into that which it is not,
Celebrates it in symbols and daydreams.
Better to be crazed for a bird on the wing
Than agonized over the existence of universals.
My soul sings no nominal melody:
It does not care.

13.12.14

Decompression

Eyes wide open, I have looked in one direction, vision fixed by weariness and the deadened determination of nothing for it but to git er done. It's a special form of self-induced paralysis, this ability to see nothing peripheral (except in the dim hours of the night, when nothing that must be done can be done and there are a few still minutes of peace). Now, with one more lap to go, feet slow, breathing moves uncertain and uneven against a pace it can no longer count on for company. Arms fall heavy by heaving sides, and fingers trail behind, brushing against, catching hold of the soft, eager breezes of memories out of warmer times and sunnier days. Not sunny in fact: only in thought. The rain falls on the good and the grief alike, as the sun shines on both, and the difference is not the weather but the way the feelings go inside. We look out through windowpanes that are mirrors on a world populated by cardboard cutouts and the illusion of depth perception. Where are the souls behind the everyday interactions? For a moment, I believed the story; there is more to you and I than flesh and blood. But it becomes harder, when hard words come easy and soft words never come at all. Fierce and small, a hedgehog's spikes without a hedgehog's vulnerability. It doesn't matter as much when we cease to be human beings and become the props for life lived with head down, shoulders hunched, feet fast moving toward whatever end was deemed enough. When the shadows fled the spaces under your eyes, you looked like the innocence of heaven folded up with grasshopper legs and a five o'clock shadow. And then there were only words and words and words, without a feather or a clear stream to their name, names, unreferring, coreferring, nonactual existent objects in an actual nonexistent world.

These things like to end neatly with sunset, but the day doesn't care about your human events. Shall the sun rise and set, yes, always, on a barren landscape without poetry or plays to call it meaningful. No end.

21.11.14

Windowpane

Eli says that I owe the world a blogpost since I retracted my last one. All I have these days is poetry, so hopefully this satisfies his demands :)

Darkness robes the bare boughs of the trees
Which, otherwise denuded of their autumn finery,
Shiver and shake in the slight twilight breezes
--And a light:
The crimson burnt glory of a tree top
As the sunset spills down, picking out
A pale stretch of bark,
Unique, the chosen one
In a world of dark stripes against a darkening sky.
Soon enough: gone like the leaves;
And yet, perfect
In the flash and fleeting passing of a rush hour train.

28.9.14

Existential Fabric Shop

You are waves of time
Dizzy with the amber light of the everyday
Tasting of red, white, and blue
Not a 4th of July
Barbecue,
Just the things a million people see:
Mostly
Beauty
In the accidental arrangement of shade and machine.
We are peculiar in our sight for patterns,
We are open/minded and open/hearted and
The autumn leaves are just one stage
In our metamorphic mess.
You are the quiet of a moment of film
;I hear the music play.

27.9.14

Blackbirds

It comes upon me suddenly. Not when I least expect it, because I could have predicted it, but still, breathtaking in its swiftness. In need of free space on my phone, I was going through old photos, deleting mercilessly. And there it was: a picture that wasn't particularly interesting or well-composed, but it captured an all too familiar scene. The precious few hours of afternoon sunlight bending across my desk and the open, mostly blank page of a notebook. In the background, the upper story windows of St. Catherine's and the cut of the gable are like old friends. I feel as if I could lean a little closer and look down over Trumpington Street, or if I strained just enough to listen, I could hear the distinct hubbub of pedestrian traffic, a chorus of languages, of students and tourists and townies all going about their business.

It has been three months and three days since I got off my flight from Dublin, another four days on top of that since I left Cambridge. It's hard to believe that so few weeks have passed, but maybe that's just the union of space and time multiplying the days by the distance. So many miles and no going back. "Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow."

The school year began like a car crash. The Presocratic philosopher Parmenides denied that change occurs, because he claimed that we cannot think about what-is-not. He had his own reasons for arguing that, but the gaping pit of not in my ribcage begged to differ. I nearly cried when the professor for my majors seminar turned out to be an Englishwoman. It's difficult to say what was the hardest part, whether it was the hour-long commute clashing horribly with muscle memories of pleasant walks to lectures, day-dreaming about the world of trees reflected in silvery grey puddles, or the too long stretches of solitude. You find ways to cope. You even start to coax yourself back into the old moulds. But that doesn't mean that a second can't catch you off guard and leave you in tears.

How do I say this? I don't want to go back. It would be an impossible expectation--I know that now, with my spate of gap year community experiences behind me. The places don't change, or sometimes they do, but the atmosphere is never the same. The particular group of Footlights members who made me laugh til I cried on more than a few Tuesday nights will not be there ever again. The spring weather will probably not be quite so conducive to wet, cool rambles through the Grantchester Meadows, avoiding swans or cyclists depending on the track. The friends I've made will have moved on to other things, and the Americans, at least, will be an ocean away.

I didn't mean for this to be so unstructured. There is another thought in my head, and I usually try to work from the problem to the hope. But, in spite of the tears and the car crash opening, I feel like I've written all hope and no problems. How to explain? As I peel back the wallpapered shrine of remembered expectations and see the world-in-which-I-live beyond, I discover my wealth. For six months, I gave myself wholeheartedly to the project of remembering and cherishing every second. Even those last fifteen minutes of despair before hitting "send" on essays that I was not proud of: even those were loved in their own way. Who needs photo albums when I have an entire world of sense impressions inside my head? In a moment, I can be sitting on the bench by the library lawn surrounded on three sides by flowering bushes and watching the way the one blackbird flits back and forth from his perch above the old library entrance to the lawn as he calls music to his fellow on the next roof over.

And there is also myself. I am not unchanged, and that person who I've become is still in the process of discovering herself and her place in the world. She has remembered beauty and heartbreak and the way they go together. She is better able to deal with the challenges of philosophy and of engaging with the ideas of others. She knows some things that she wants, she's uncovered some issues that she really cares about. She doesn't know exactly where she's going, but she's going somewhere and that's something to hold on to.

This is not clean or neat. It hurts. It invigorates. It opens up possibilities and closes doors. Is this what it feels like to be alive with your eyes wide open?

13.9.14

The Peace of the World

I cannot help but love
The delicate whorls that have been etched
Into your skin, the texture of raised scar tissue.
Each turn a sentence spoken
For ears that hear the tactile sound:
They drink the draught deeply,
Not fearing to take the poison with the delight.
For you are life and a laugh on the lips of the lover;
You are the quiet peace of solitude in an occupied room.
Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh,
I am truly alone when I am alone with you.

2.9.14

"I Have Not Plummeted"

Lights off
Nightfall
Glasses by the bed
Seeing nothing
Moving about in the grey depths
Below a midnight skylight
Soothed by soft-fingered shadows
Womb-like in their gentle embrace
As the clock ticks meaninglessly
Into a timeless place

25.8.14

The Loneliest Giant in Greenland

All the things I don't know
Dig their claws into my skin
And draw tears:
Frustration, sympathy, a saltwater rain
To bathe wounds that are already healed,
Making the moment meaningless
Except
That somehow the distance has grown
As if silence itself could translate into inches
Widening the gap that, conversely,
Words are powerless to fill.

24.8.14

The Country of Marriage by Wendell Berry

I.

I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth, warm blooms and the nightsongs
of birds opening around you as you walk.
You are holding in your body the dark seed of my sleep.

II.

This comes after silence. Was it something I said
that bound me to you, some mere promise
or, worse, the fear of loneliness and death?
A man lost in the woods in the dark, I stood
still and said nothing. And then there rose in me,
like the earth's empowering brew rising
in root and branch, the words of a dream of you
I did not know I had dreamed. I was a wanderer
who feels the solace of his native land
under his feet again and moving in his blood.
I went on, blind and faithful. Where I stepped
my track was there to steady me. It was no abyss
that lay before me, but only the level ground.


III.

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.


IV.

How many times have I come to you out of my head
with joy, if ever a man was,
for to approach you I have given up the light
and all directions. I come to you
lost, wholly trusting as a man who goes
into the forest unarmed. It is as though I descend
slowly earthward out of the air. I rest in peace
in you, when I arrive at last.

V.

Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don't know what its limits are--
that puts us in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?
You are the known way leading always to the unknown,
and you are the known place to which the unknown is always
leading me back. More blessed in you than I know,
I possess nothing worthy to give you, nothing
not belittled by my saying that I possess it.
Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen time and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.

VI.

What I am learning to give you is my death
to set you free of me, and me from myself
into the dark and the new light. Like the water
of a deep stream, love is always too much. We
did not make it. Though we drink till we burst
we cannot have it all, or want it all.
In its abundance it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.

VII.

I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark,
containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning.
I give you the life I have let live for the love of you:
a clump of orange-blooming weeds beside the road,
the young orchard waiting in the snow, our own life
that we have planted in the ground, as I
have planted mine in you. I give you my love for all
beautiful and honest women that you gather to yourself
again and again, and satisfy--and this poem,
no more mine than any man's who has loved a woman.

7.8.14

"Don't Call Me Smart."

Let me just begin by saying that this might sound silly to some people. One more person with something to whine about. Yay. But maybe there's some merit in it, so bear with me here.

I was sitting with a friend's daughter the other evening, talking about Doctor Who, Harry Potter, and, eventually, the upcoming school year. She's going into sixth grade. At the risk of sounding cliched, she reminds me a little bit of me at her age, except she can text and that wasn't really a thing when I was in sixth grade. She's a pretty bright kid, near if not at the top of her class, but as she informed me, her one weak spot is math. The funny thing is, she doesn't really mind. 

I knew that was coming when she mentioned it, because we had just been having a conversation that lies close to my own near and dear experience. The "smart" talk. It's awkward, being that person. And yes, I get it, probably everyone has some single label affixed to them at that point in their lives, but it sucks a little bit to be that person whose friends are super excited when they get higher scores on tests. You're the benchmark, so I guess there's a hidden compliment in there, but that doesn't make it feel better. And there's also that feeling you get when everyone else does poorly, and you wish you could just silently cherish your good grade and move on, but you don't have that option because everyone wants to commiserate and you just squirm when asked, and they look knowing and even if there's no resentment, you're still the excluded outlier. So when she told me that she doesn't want people to call her smart, I totally got it.

The thing is, I still don't like it when people call me smart. What does that even mean? How can it be used? It's too vague to be helpful, but we spend so much time attaching percentiles and scores to it. And then, after teaching kids for 18 or so years, maybe more if they go to college, that smart is something worth being, they're left without any context in which that word has meaning and in which they can be placed on some kind of scale. Being "smart" only gets you so far, and then there's the real world, where we all have to survive, and the smart people don't necessarily have an advantage in that space.

"Smart" is a lazy term for people who don't want to take a moment to consider exactly what sort of skill a child or even another adult is using. Tell them they're good at asking questions, at critical thinking, at creative problem-solving or connecting the dots. Those are all specific observations, and they help inform another person's self-conception in a meaningful way. Maybe there is some kind of raw intelligence that corresponds to this smart word, but it's rather hard to pin down, and probably does more harm than good when repeated ad nauseum.

So as I get to know my friend's daughter better, I plan to honor that cringing feeling and not call her smart. I hope to discover and praise many other, more specific and concrete traits and skills, because it is good to know thyself. And if she takes a guilty pleasure in not being good at math, well, I'll be happy to help her understand difficult problems, if she wants the help, but I'm certainly not going to be the one pressuring her to bring her Bs and Cs up to As for the sake of a well-rounded report card. For one thing, that would be promoting a terrible values system, but that's another story entirely.

25.6.14

A Pensieve for Your Thoughts

Leaning back on a deck chair, front legs off the ground--not enough to be precarious, but enough to push against calf muscles. Feet rooted to earth by the interplay of Newton, eyes locked on the stars. The skies here aren't ideal for stargazing. We're in a bit of a bowl, with the mountain for which the town is named rising up on three sides, and so many trees that the ring of the horizon is furred and vague in the black of night. But it's also miles in any direction to proper civilization, so I guess the lack of light pollution balances out the abbreviation of the starry sphere.

Millions of miles away, distances beyond imagining, globes of hotly burning gases are... not suspended, but self-contained in pockets separated from one another by vast, empty space. Scientists have found ways to fill the void with their math and telescopes, but it doesn't erase the sense of lonely insignificance. Basking in the feeling is a bit melancholy, it's true, but there is also a soothing element to it. I think perhaps it comes from what we like to call perspective.

The scuffle of feet on wood and clack from the gate latch bouncing shut. No longer alone with the stars, but not quite in society either. You are quiet too, in my daydream. So much talking, so much catching up and concern. I have been torn between the childish desire to avoid you, because everybody wants to be with you and I don't want to be 'everybody,' and the human desire to say hello, ask how you've been, mention that thing that made me think of you recently. So perhaps it's no surprise that if I wanted to orchestrate a meeting it would be here on the rooftop, when we have both drawn away.

Silence.

What words would I make you say, if I could? There are too many questions that dare not be asked. And history suggests that I've tried often to reach out to you, but rarely with a response.

Writing a story suggests a rhyme and a reason, but sometimes they don't exist. Sometimes it's nothing but miscommunication and random moments of connection, glad in their own way, but confined to that time and place. I guess I just don't know what to make of the awkward silences. That's why, when we sit together on the deck above the old classroom (for all I know, it exists only in memory, perhaps demolished during recent renovations) in this moment in my head, we aren't speaking. Because somehow it's more gracious, less fumbling, and though there aren't any words to speak, it's still enough just to sit with you.

10.6.14

Reality Checkpoint

Cambridge is a city, but it doesn't always feel like it, especially when you spend all your time amongst the colleges. These are concentrated in the older part of town that is nestled in a curve of the River Cam, and beyond the river, in what is a less densely populated area that gradually blends into countryside. On the other side, this part of town is bordered by a large number of greens and common areas, from Jesus Green on the northeastern side down to Christ's Pieces and Parker's Piece. The only side that isn't thus distinguished from the rest of the city is the south side, and even that feels as if it has a boundary in the form of Lensfield Road, which is wider and handles a higher volume of traffic.

Clearly, I am not the first person to recognize the discombobulating shift that takes place when you walk from the western side of town toward the eastern side. I know this, because in the middle of Parker's Piece, there is a towering streetlight at the junction of the two walking paths that cut across the roughly rectangular green at its diagonals, and this streetlight is locally known as the Reality Checkpoint. The idea, of course, is that there is an entire, intensely self-absorbed world on one side of town, and when you pass the streetlight, you're entering the real world with all the shocks attendant on that experience.

The ivory tower of academia is a funny thing. You can lose your thoughts in the vast reaches of space, contemplating stars and time or whatever lofty things you like, but as big as you may think, the humble world is unchanged when you stop looking through your telescope and start looking out your window. It's easy to grow monsters in your mind--and often just as easy to kick them out with a dose of fresh air.

I had my own little reality checkpoint this morning, as I tried to remain calm and focused enough to read through objections to Descartes's real distinction argument without panicking over all the things that are sure to go wrong this afternoon: the questions won't be on things that I've looked at closely, I'll forget all of the fine-grained distinctions that I need to keep straight, my supervisor will once again be deeply disappointed by my inability to respond to his feedback on previous essays, I'll completely miss the point and write several hundred words arguing an irrelevant point... There are so many ways this could go wrong.


This paper has been especially painful for me, because I'm not used to being so thoroughly aware of my shortcomings without being able to remedy them. When I got a sense of what my supervisor was looking for with my first essay, I went into Easter break with the determination to master universals and Abelard, and write the clearest, most focused response that I could, far surpassing my first, admittedly poor attempt at Boethius. Noble enough, as sentiments go, but quickly dashed when I sat down to read a summary encyclopedia entry and found myself struggling to get through each paragraph. The lowpoint, at which I resigned myself to making a hash of my second essay too, was when I spent two hours reading three sentences from Abelard's Glosses on Porphyry, and could make neither head nor tail of them.

I think the pre-test anxiety was too great to be sustainable, though. Not that I was nauseated or anything. In that sense, I'm usually just fine. But having reached a point of personal despair over my inability to meet my supervisor's expectations, I sort of fell out the other side in the middle of real life (this has actually been happening a lot lately, but I guess when you've gone down the rabbit hole once it gets easier the next time around). For me, that moment meant realizing that I was going to take the test, I was going to give it my absolute best, and whatever happened would not change who I am by a single iota.

It sounds silly, doesn't it? I think I face this a little too often: the feeling that if I get less than the very best grade, I must have done something wrong, slacked off a little too much or maybe just failed to be smart enough for that class. Every year, I promise myself I won't do it, and every year, I, Sisyphus, climb the hill again. But in what feels like a precursor to an intense bout of senioritis, I'm just not as ready to identify myself with the numbers on my transcript right now. There's a lot more to life, and while I should do the best that I can now, I don't want to miss out on the other riches to be had, whether that means lingering over a letter, listening to blackbirds at twilight, or spending an entire day ambling around Cambridge with a friend while making hobbit-frequent pauses to eat. These things take away from studying, but they certainly don't impoverish me, and they're probably what I really want to take away with me from these five months anyway.

6.6.14

Zur├╝ckhaltend

 We pilgrims dress in the camouflage of gray:
Not truly hidden from sight--not properly invisible,
Simply the nondescript, the travelers who
Wear smiles just enough, speak just enough
To be unremarkable and readily forgotten.
We are hiding, you see.

Under the plain clothes, our hearts ache,
Forever tasting the bittersweetness of undoing beauty
As it seeps into joints, thoughts, unending daydreams.
But it is a pain contained: we melt into words
That lie dormant on our tongues,
Hiding out of sight when lips spread to utter
The merely commonplace and mundane.

Oh, but there is a meeting and a moment:
For a few days, brief span of life's spectrum,
We find one another. We walk together.
And we flow into a softer space,
Where thoughts, words, images recognize each other,
Set fire to the fellow soul;
In the burning, there is joy.

The white feather of the dove.
The black feather of the raven.
Such tokens, I give you.
Not as symbols: soft wisp of edge, delicately veined;
Not as physical objects: soaked with mysteries and chants.
All is the simplicity of itself
And the communication of every other.
For at the crossroads, we part--doomed wanderers,
Yet not lonely: there is the starry heaven.

25.5.14

Call Me Old-Fashioned, But...

I don't want love.

You're thinking, "This is classic single girl denial, right?"

Well, no. I don't think so anyway. There are lots of things I'm not ruling out here, and, to be fair, I sacrificed accuracy for a dramatic hook.

I'm in the middle of Emma, having just finished Pride & Prejudice and Persuasion, and given Austen's typical subject matter, I've been inundated with perspectives and approaches to marriage. Austen's heroines are situated in a somewhat different social context, to say the least. As women, they are fairly limited in their life aims: learn a variety of amusing occupations--embroidering pillows or playing a few, lively country songs--, cultivate personal charms, and hopefully set oneself in the way of an appropriately wealthy man of either similar social status or sufficient independence to overlook a want of connections. But, though their circumstances are fairly homogeneous (with the exception of Emma Woodhouse, whose situation renders her slightly more independent), their attitudes toward marriage are somewhat more varied.

There's Charlotte Lucas, who observes to Elizabeth that it's better not to know someone's flaws before marrying them nor to require too much similarity of taste and disposition, because people change greatly in the course of their lives. She follows through on her sentiments by marrying the undeniably silly Mr. Collins without having any particular love for him, but desirous of the security and material advantages that the marriage will obtain for her. Elizabeth, of course, turns down Mr. Collins, finding little incentive where Charlotte, seven years her elder, is not so discriminating. However, she does marry a man with a large estate and ten thousand a year, so whatever the strength of her feelings may be, they've conveniently also improved on Mr. Collins quite substantially. I don't mean by that observation to cast doubt on the sincerity or depth of her attachment to Darcy, though, because Elizabeth of all people has seen the unhappy result of a marriage without regard, in viewing the relationship between her own parents.

Young Anne Elliot is prepared to marry for love of Captain Wentworth, but allows herself to be dissuaded on the grounds that he cannot properly provide for her, so her love is conditioned by practical concerns, even if they are largely imported from Lady Russell. Emma Woodhouse, being already well-situated, tells Harriet that she has no reason to marry, except for love. For the parentless, connectionless Harriet, however, Emma is somewhat more circumspect. She wishes Harriet to reject Mr. Martin and to attract Mr. Elton, the latter having many superior qualities and higher status, but she does so by encouraging her to be attracted to the latter. Of course, following on all of these, there are the likes of Elizabeth Elliot and her sister, Mary Musgrove, who are so fixated on status that they want neither to marry nor to be connected with anyone of inferior rank.

While the word "practical" does not have a romantic ring to it, I think it's one of the things that I like best about the relationships portrayed in Austen's novels. When seeking any sort of long-term relationship, the charms of a well-spoken, amiable individual like Mr. Wickham or William Elliot make for a rotten foundation, but they are certainly attractive--not only, in Wickham's case, to the foolish Lydia, but also, at first, to the more sensible Elizabeth, who takes his case with such blind partiality that she abuses the right man in favor of the wrong.

My circumstances differ somewhat from those of Austen's heroines. I don't have to rely on marriage to supply my living or social status. I have Emma's luxury, of marrying entirely for love, and only if I so choose. But consider Emma's choice: she doesn't fall for the handsome, young vicar, who writes love riddles and praises her every gesture. Instead, she chooses the older family friend, perhaps not so wildly romantic or dashing, but still a good life companion, partly because he's able to see through her to both her admirable qualities and her deficiencies without dwelling on either to the exclusion of the other.

So I suppose it's not that I don't want love, but that I don't want to choose someone on the basis of a giddy feeling or a rush of chemicals, and those are so often the pictures associated with love. The person whose interest is most likely to gratify my vanity right now is quite possibly not the person who possesses the sort of qualities that are likely to contribute to a lasting relationship. After all, communication skills and being wise with money, just to take two examples, don't tend to manifest themselves in physical features, and if what we're vying for is the approval of others, we'll desire the appearance of a Wickham far more than the good judgment of a Mr. Knightley. Not that there aren't people who unite the two worlds, but in our self-imposed limits ("at least 5'9"," or "not more than 5'4"..."), we may overlook what is right in front of us because it doesn't look like what we've decided on for ourselves.

It seems, by comparison with Austen's worlds, that it's nice to have the luxury of choice to marry or not to marry, and then, if marrying, to do so on non-economic grounds, but the option of "marrying for love" has not diminished the truth that someone who is likely to love long and well will do so, not because they can take Abercrombie model couple selfies with you or can set your heart fluttering with a single melting glance, but because they have good character and know you, not as a convenient fulfillment of their romantic dreams, but for who you are, flaws and all.

2.5.14

Fingers in the Current

I'm sitting on the second floor of a Caffe Nero, overlooking a brick-paved shopping area that ends on a beautiful park. It's not quite the charming country spaces or the splendid architecture of the Cambridge colleges, but it's still a very English scene to me. Meanwhile, I scroll my Facebook wall to see pictures of American friends, news items from American politics, and status updates about the weather back home. I feel like Harry looking into the Pensieve: suddenly swept into another world, from which the return is a shock of ice water. One moment, my mind is tracing the streets of Media, the next, it's taking in a scene set a thousand miles away. So close, so far away.

Every stage of this journey has brought its own challenges, from overcoming fear of the unknown to venture forth and try new things, to traveling and appreciating the people and the sights beyond exhaustion, to enduring through the mental weariness of the final few months. The emotions run wild, following their own curves and spikes to make no day like the last. And now, I cannot simply nestle into my surroundings, locked in a present filled with delight and wonder. There are tomorrows to be faced, and the tomorrow is rapidly approaching when this will not be my home.

It's hard to figure out how to live in this moment. Do I start reaching out to friends back home, making plans with them and locating all of my hopes there? Do I begin the long, slow process of withdrawing my heart from this place that I've come to know and appreciate? The underlying question: how to balance the tensions, when I am homesick for Pennsylvania and lovesick for England.

But there is no simple way to reply. This moment's answer does not always hold in the next. And that's the project and the game. Being able to live in the present, fully and fiercely, and being able to adapt to the demands that each situation brings. Not giving up or hiding in my room for the next seven weeks in an attempt to cushion the pain of farewell, but not throwing myself so wholeheartedly into these weeks that I fail to provide for the return journey. Life doesn't stop, and in its unstoppable unfolding, we have two choices. To live in one mode, one time, and thereby cheat ourselves of the full richness of experience, or to embrace complexity and dwell in all times, allowing each day, each judgment to be informed by a past that's unforgettable, a present that's unrepeatable, and future that's unavoidable.

20.3.14

Undercutting a Blush

Pride is a slippery, tricky creature. The second you think you've found it and caged it up, it slips through the bars and slithers into the shadows, not to be seen until you look closely at yourself and see its familiar outline against the backdrop of an otherwise sunny landscape. It makes a good chameleon, because it tells you what you want to hear about yourself, and who bothers to look back and see the face attached to the voice whispering in your ear when the kingdom you survey appears exactly as you believe it ought to?

It's not just sunshine either. Jerome Miller talks about the pride that undergirds self-hatred, and the way that it hides behind our own ways of punishing ourselves. We do not realize that we have wrapped ourselves in the comfort of a dissociation: the judge, self-righteous and stern, digs his booted toe into the side of the self that we don't wish to be. In our own self-hatred, we do not acknowledge that we are that self.

This sounds extreme, fair enough. But what about self-deprecation? It's the petty cousin of self-hatred. The part of the self that wishes to get in a snarky comment about one's flaws just as if to say, I may be flawed, but I am self-aware. I see what you see. And I can belittle it even more quickly and cleverly than you. It's the perverse game we force ourselves into, because even in our moments of loss, we're playing to win. Humility admits a fault. Self-deprecation flaunts it.

18.2.14

Small Homes in Large Spaces

There's this bit (I think it might be in Heretics but really just the entirety of Manalive while we're at it) where G. K. Chesterton criticizes Kipling for something like being a man who is so much thinking as a world traveler that he has never bothered to understand home. If you happen to have read Manalive, I'm drawing a connection with the idea of being actively, even aggressively content with your circumstances rather than endlessly pursuing others, that is, occupying your own small world rather than always seeking something out in the bigger one.

I have this conundrum where I don't like small spaces, but I don't want to take the whole world for granted either.

It can be stifling, after all--the small space, that is. I was just reading this New Yorker article called "Life in the Nineties" by Roger Angell, and he talks about the comfort of a serene almost-boredom, when one has had the same friends for decades, the same haunts, the same daily patterns. The predictability is no longer a threat, but rather has become a friend itself. I sympathize with that sort of sentiment--I do, after all, go to the same coffee shop every morning around the same time to order the same thing and do more or less the same sort of work for the same amount of time--but still, it sounds like a gradual slide into claustrophobia. If you have to ask yourself whether you're doing something because you want to or because you have to, then maybe it's time to rethink your routine.

Coffee shops aren't the only things that become fixtures. The way we think. The way we choose to communicate. Our relationships that don't really go anywhere, but are what we know, so we stagnate in a back and forth between appreciation for loyalty, or at least longevity, and aggravation over those quirks that we have learned to live around without ever quite resigning ourselves to them. We put off ambitions until tomorrow, because what we're doing right now seems to be working for us, if we just ignore five, ten, fifteen years of duct tape and krazy glue. And slowly the world shrinks into an infinity of circles.

I loved the moment this morning when I was, yes, drinking my usual morning americano while eavesdropping on the accent of an American supervisor meeting with his English supervisee and reading the aforementioned New Yorker article. There are many things I could say in Cambridge's favor, but one thing is for sure, I never quite get to feel like the world is small here. I am perpetually reminded, whether from overhearing French, German, Italian, Spanish, Mandarin, Japanese, so on, so forth or from brushing the tips of my fingers lightly along the disconnected connectedness of home ever presently but impotently invading the here and other, that though Cambridge is small, the world is huge, vibrant, complex, and not as far away as it seems.

How long, though, until that feeling too becomes commonplace?

It's so easy to get addicted to a feeling without even noticing it. I became so accustomed to moving at one point that it felt wrong to stay anywhere longer than ten months. I didn't know how to live past the introduction, familiarization, beyond the strangeness into acculturation. Selective vulnerability comes cheap and easy when you know it doesn't have to last for very long. It was the thrill of newness coupled with re-creation--just move on before the gaps show through, and you have to deal with what's behind them. It's like the illusion of freedom that comes from skinny dipping. Like if I just take all my clothes off, all of the expectations, constraints, failures, whatever, somehow I will be liberated from all of the hurt and the pressure.

Where to suspend oneself between wanderer in the broad world, at risk of jaded cynicism, and occupant of a self-sufficient yet tiny space, at risk of suffocation? Not a question I'll pretend to have an answer to - nor do I think there is any particularly objective one. As usual, they both have their place, somehow, in the bigger picture. So perhaps, for now, to embrace the time but remembering to look it full in the face, every now and again, to trace its peculiarity and recall its fragility, and at last to go home without protest, relinquishing what is no longer right nor life-giving.

25.1.14

Placating the Weather Gods: A Selection of Vinaigrettes from the Other Side

[It's a joke. I do know the difference between a vinaigrette and a vignette, thanks.]

The lights are off. The curtains are open. The stars look on, impassive, as week two is blown away by a wind so chill that it cuts through coats, sweaters, and scarves to lacerate your skin and make all but the hardy few retreat to their radiators and sweatpants.

That feels like how it ought to be: dramatic, intense, and exciting, and sure, it's all those things. But this is also everyday life. Even as culture shock and travel weariness have faded and made way for routines peppered with lectures, hours upon hours of reading, supervisions, seminars, more americanos than I care to admit, and the like, what I said in my last post still holds - and probably will always hold, since it is a rare individual who masters the art of confronting the wild and wonder of every fleeting second of his life.

So if it is not an edge of the seat thriller, what is it?

Moments.

The colleges seem to be oriented largely around staircases. It's a little hard to explain to Americans, because we're used to a single staircase connecting different floors, and I think that's probably the case in most modern English buildings too. But it seems that rather than creating significant horizontal levels, the rooms are all organized around staircases, a few to a level. There's another girl from the International Programme who lives on my staircase at Corpus Christi, and she has been something of a saving grace to the past two weeks. When a friend of hers came up from London today, we bravely sallied forth to fight weekend tourists for a spot at a tea shop and ended up getting surprised in the street by a sudden hailstorm instead. It had been windy and was drizzling a bit, but we were still caught off guard when the drizzle broke into an icy downpour, driving us into the closest doorway along with every single other hapless individual so unfortunate as to be out on the pavement. Startled, with nervous laughs and stamping feet, caught in a tiny space with a crowd of the similarly marooned, watching in wonder as signs blew across the paving stones in the gusts and employees ran to rescue their outdoor furniture. Breathing in the scent of warm crepes and wondering, in a cafe with every table filled, what next?

The half hour before you email your essay to your supervisor is the worst, especially when it's your first one - or maybe it gets harder afterward, because you're afraid that your writing doesn't reflect the careful, thoughtful input you received the week before. I don't know yet, since I've only submitted one paper. But your heart races a little bit, and as you scroll through the Word document one more time, every single flaw and failure is highlighted in glowing neon, as if you've contracted temporary synesthesia when it's too late to be any help. Redundant points that can't be ripped out and mended over, the suspicion that for every good quote and explication you've made there isn't a shred of argument to be found, everything merging into a pang of doubt that says, "Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe you shouldn't be here." The sweetest relief is the moment when your supervisor tells you that, sure, you didn't have an argument, but you had a really great understanding of the text, and that your writing is stylistically good, and then launches into a discussion of the differences between American and British education systems as if it's not really the end of your life and there's always next week and the week after to walk together through the learning process.

For my first two days in England, I thought it might end up being a repeat of the last trip. I thought maybe the sun loves it when I'm here. Then the clouds came and reality set in along with the occasional shower (it's not as rainy as you'd think, but it's usually damp and puddly, and there's always the sense that it's thinking very seriously about doing something a little more official in the way of downpours, only maybe after it's had its tea and biscuits, thanks). The clouds conspire with the lack of daylight savings time to make mornings interesting. The first day that I was able to wake up before 8 was a victory, because it's hard to drag yourself out of bed when the sun probably won't even show its face before the afternoon sets in. That's when you get those two blessed hours of beautiful blue skies that serve to slacken the tense threats of the morning's dishwatery gray clouds, but the hours pass quickly enough, and then it's a prematurely aged day, already conceding defeat and climbing into its armchair with a newspaper and a mug of warm milk near at hand.

It has been two weeks of so much coffee and tea, finding dining halls, nutella and stroopwafels, late night episodes of The Wire, stressing about Plato, making friends, trying not to miss family too much, serious hunts for the best postcards in town (relatively speaking), navigating absurdly complicated libraries with their own absurdly complicated cataloging systems, sitting silently through hour and a half long reading groups with postgrads who are excitedly arguing over painfully fine points of philosophy in the early middle ages, eating Chelsea buns from Fitzbillies but not too often, and occasionally waking up from a deep sleep with the jarring realization that getting out of bed means going out into an unfamiliar world to live an unfamiliar life, grateful for every outstretched hand that anchors your heart and your sanity.

Some of the moments, not all of them, not particularly dramatic or exciting, though often intense; and still more are waiting in the wings, ready for their cue to enter from stage left as their predecessors take a quick and, for some, final bow.

12.1.14

Alterity on the Ground

A wise friend tells me that the best way to get over jetlag is to sleep at the normal hours, but that doesn't help me much with jetlag-induced insomnia. Can't say I've experienced it before, but since I'm too tired to read Plato and too awake to do more than toss and turn, how about a first blog post of the trip?

There is something fascinating about the first few hours, or perhaps even days of one's first venture far outside of one's comfort zone. The body shuts down and goes into survival mode. It's the fight or flight response, a state of heightened awareness tempered by exhaustion, and if I recall my Psych 101 correctly, part of that response is a temporary shut down in the digestive system. Fact: I like to eat. But when faced with the unfamiliarity of another culture, however close to our own, and the uncertainty of awkwardly navigating various modes of transportation to get from point A to point D, the absolute last thing in my mind, except perhaps as a weary mental note, is whether I've eaten or not.

You learn a lot when you listen to your body.

One of the myriad fantastic things that Jerome Miller observes in The Way of Suffering is that we always find ways to patch over ruptures in the fabric of our everyday reality, all of those little or large tears that point to the deeper fact of our lack of control and the indifferent world outside of our small, secure space. We don't dare look them in the face ("Only that now you have taught (but how late) my lack / I see the chasm."), because we fear the unknown and what it might do to our concepts and our percepts.

That's how I could sit at Gate A17 and hold back the ocean of tears that arose at the aching prospect of saying farewell to my sisters for over five months. Keep looking past the ache, and it's not there. That's how I could step off the plane and get through immigration (without being detained, hallelujah!), maneuver through Heathrow, and then navigate the Underground more or less calmly and rationally (excepting that moment at Canada Waters when I totally missed my stop and prevented some poor woman from getting on the tube) without collapsing after a long week, a red eye, and a meager four hours of sleep. If you don't let the sensation of walking in an alien place get to you, then maybe it isn't really happening after all.

The problem is that if I don't let the alterity of the situation affect me, then I might as well have taken a semester off to hang out in West Chester. I might have even learned more that way. It's how we respond to the ruptures, daring to near them, even embrace them perhaps, that really opens up our minds and our worlds.

On the other hand, this insomnia thing? Not a good time to listen to my body. So the real moral of the story is: be alert enough to listen, and be wise enough to discriminate. Or something like that.