Thursday, June 20, 2013

Vertigo


Tonight, my heart is breaking, but at least it is, in some measure, at my own hand.  In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera defines vertigo as “a heady, insuperable longing to fall,” and it is exactly the result of this longing that has led me to where I am now: heartbroken, alone, and hoping by some magic that the phone will ring and it will all be undone. 

Before I remembered his word and definition, I would have defined this feeling as a desire to smash, to smash all of it, the entirety of my life.  I would have called it the siren song of the abyss.  It is, as Kundera says, “the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts us and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”  However, there is a point at which we give up defending ourselves and give in to the longing, this “intoxication of the weak.”  Suffering from it, “a man decides to give in rather than stand up to it.  He is drunk with weakness, wishes to grow even weaker, wishes to fall down in the middle of the main square in front of everybody, wishes to be down, lower than down.”  I found myself here, in this place, tonight, so I looked around for the biggest hammer I could find and smashed to pieces what I most depended on to keep me from falling, and now I sit in front of the computer realizing that it may be really and truly smashed with no magic spell to bring it back together.  However, I am confronting this realization as I have every horrible realization of the past few months: with numbness.

Like Kundera’s character Tereza, vertigo is a thing I’ve struggled with nearly always, though for a long time I didn’t recognize it as such because I thought myself to be strong, and I think I was and am, but despite my strength—or more likely because of it—I have always had a desire to fall really and truly, once and for all and be done with it.  This sounds suicidal, and at various points in my life, it has manifested itself as such, but mostly, it is something else.  Mostly, it is a desire to just give in, to just have the ability to give in.  I sometimes feel cursed by my strength, so at various times in my life, I’ve felt compelled to destroy my very foundation in the hopes that I can really and truly finally fall.

Now the desire is worse than it has ever been, though I am hardly suicidal.  It’s simply that life has dealt me a series of blows that ought to have crushed me, that I have feared would crush me, but wish as I might for it, I still wake up every day and go to work and teach my students and be kind to friends and strangers and just get through.  Wish as I might for it, I have not been crushed, and hence this vertigo, this smashing.

Of course, there is more to it.  I’m sure I’ve gone and smashed the foundation in part out of fear, fear I would lose it anyway, so why not shatter it in my own time and see what happens?  Why wait for someone else to do it?  Why not dive into the abyss head first?

As I sit here alone, I know the answers to my questions, answers I now wish I had risked.  We don’t smash things in spite of our desire to because we never truly know what we will lose until it is lost.  We fear more than ever comes to pass.  Though there is a beauty in falling, there’s also a beauty in standing strong and resisting the temptations of vertigo, but tonight I find myself unable to plug my ears against the sirens' song. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Happy Accidents

There are many things I love passionately in this life: yarn, films, chocolate, cupcakes, chocolate cupcakes. Of all the things I love, though, two have been foremost for nearly as long as I can remember: books & music. Both have been constant and reliable lifelines for me. Reading a book or listening to a song, I feel connected to someone else; I feel less like I am the only one in the world with a particular, and sometimes peculiar, thought or feeling. It should be no surprise then that in recent years as technology has become more portable, books and music are becoming hopelessly, and perhaps wonderfully, intertwined for me.

Like many New Yorkers, I have an iGadget for music, which is a necessary accessory on the subway, and like many New Yorkers, I always carry a book on the subway, another necessary accessory. There’s something about this great big city and about the subway in particular. It can make you crazy being surrounded all the time by the mass of humanity. You feel them pressing close to you always, jostling you and wanting your attention or just a little more space for themselves. Even in your home, you are never alone. There are the noises of the neighbors or just the noises of the street below your window. Sometimes that living breathing mass of humanity that you cannot escape can be comforting, can make you feel a part of some larger human community, but sometimes, you need to escape, and lacking friends who can lend you their cabin in the Adirondacks, you have to make your own escape here in the confines of the city, which is where your trusty iGadget and books come in handy.

Because the subway is the subway, though, and therefore crowded and full of people, it often is not enough to just read a book or just listen to music, especially during rush hours when the crush of people can overwhelm even the most seasoned New Yorker. As a result, I long ago developed the habit of listening to music as I read on the train. The music is there as background, as a buffer between me and the noise of everyone else. I’ve thought a lot about this, and I think it is simply that noise is not a distraction or an intrusion so long as it is predictable noise, in this case music, but the trouble with my fellow subway passengers is that they noise they make is unpredictable and unfamiliar to me. It’s noise I cannot choose or control, and as a result, it’s necessary for me to put up a wall of my own noise in order to create a space in which I can think, concentrate, and—in some small sense—be by myself.

Recently, though, I have become aware of an intriguing side effect of reading while listening to music. Early last summer, I read Moby Dick for the first time, and at the same time I was reading the book, I was listening obsessively to an album called Libraries by The Love Language. In point of fact, obsessively is generally how I listen to an album. I develop “crushes” on records or songs and listen to the same ones multiple times per day for days on end, sometimes for weeks. When the crush ends, I move onto another album or song.

It’s fair to say that while reading Moby Dick, I had a crush on Libraries, so while I read Melville on the train, I listened to songs like “Pedals,” with its slow instrumental beginning that gets louder and louder until all the instruments finally kick in and then words with their maritime talk of cannons and guns. I also listened to “Blue Angel” and its lyrics about sinking ships and learning to swim and to my personal favorite, “Heart to Tell,” where Stuart Mc Lamb sings, “I’m no sailor. I want to rock the boat.” In some ways, it came to seem like the album was made to accompany Moby Dick, like it was created as a soundtrack. It certainly became that to me. Over and over as I read, I felt the music punctuated the action of the novel, sometimes eerily so, and the music is now so intimately connected to the book that whenever songs from Libraries come up on my random shuffle, images and incidents from Moby Dick come into my mind and I’m invaded by an intense desire to read the novel again. I imagine that when I do read it again, I’ll have to listen to Libraries as I read.  If I don’t, I think the songs will play in my head anyway.

Since this happened, this total enmeshing of book and record, I’ve imagined it a freak, a one-off. I thought it was a lucky and happy coincidence never to be repeated, a special bit of serendipitous magic that I’d stumbled onto. Because it had never happened before that a novel and an album had resonated so fully, I imagined it would never happen again

Well, I recently developed a new crush on an album, Of Monsters and Men’s My Head is an Animal. At about the same time, I began reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. I cannot say enough about either of them. The album is full of things I love—beautiful vocalists both male and female who sing beautiful harmonies, songs quiet and thoughtful and songs raucous and hellbent on living, lyrics lush and quotable. It has an energy and life pulsing through it, even in its quieter moments. This makes it a natural companion to Woolf, whose novel similarly shimmers and pulses with life like the sea that is nearly itself a character in the novel. As I read To the Lighthouse, I too felt full of life. More than once, I did a little happy dance to release what the beauty of the words had pent up inside of me. The language is of a kind that you can hold inside of yourself for twenty years, as Carole Maso notes in her preface to her book Aureole. To the Lighthouse is a book you absorb and carry inside of you just as My Head is an Animal is an album you wake up in the morning hearing in your head.

As I read on the train listening to my new favorite album, the same thing that happened with Moby Dick and Libraries began to happen. There was a resonance between the novel and the album that became inescapable so much so that every time I played My Head is an Animal, I felt compelled to open To the Lighthouse and read. It was nearly Pavlovian, like a dog that salivates at the ring of the bell but my bell was a song like “Lakehouse” and my salivation was for a book, not a bone. 

Now that I’ve read the final words, I do not know what I’ll do when I play the album. I cannot help wishing the novel had a sequel or wondering if it would be strange to read the book again from the beginning after just having finished. To the Lighthouse and My Head is an Animal seem oddly made for one another right down the boat-creaking sounds that end “Little Talks,” one of my favorite cuts from the album. I’m not done with my crush on the record, and I don’t want to let go of the refreshing solace that diving into Woolf’s words brought. Reading the novel was like “standing up to the lips in some substance, to move and float and sink in it, yes, for these waters were unfathomably deep. Into them had spilled so many lives.” That’s how Lily’s consciousness expresses the vividness of life at certain moments like returning from a journey or just at the end an illness or like the final morning described in To the Lighthouse.

Tonight I feel, as I did at the end of Moby Dick, that some beautiful and life-changing love affair has, against my will, come to an end which I’m not yet prepared for, an end which I may never be prepared for. I feel marked and changed, and I believe fully that the albums I listened to as I read are as much a part of this feeling as the novels. I have no way of knowing if the songwriters of these albums even read the books I’ve so passionately adored, much less if they had them in mind at all as they wrote their songs, but honestly, it doesn’t matter if they did. All that matters in this moment, on this evening is that I have been given these gifts of accidental juxtaposition and that I have hope, thanks to the little bits of technology I carry with me in my pocket, of experiencing more such happy accidents.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

My Thoughts on McNally Jackson and "July's People"

One of my hand's down favorite bookstores is McNally Jackson. It is certainly my favorite bookstore to spend time in. The employees are so knowledgeable and passionate about books, and the environment is so inviting. I go in there, and I always get this palpable thrill, and this wonderful anxious desire to read all the books in the store. It's a little bit of heaven, one you have to visit if you are in NYC.

I mention McNally Jackson because they have a few ongoing book clubs, and the main book club, run by Ms. McNally herself, had July's People as their selection for April. I've been looking for ways to get out and meet new and interesting people, something that is difficult to do in the best of situations once you are a grownup but something that seems even more difficult in a city like NYC. People are friendly here, and you have lots of interesting and fabulous chance encounters, but they so rarely amount to more than a one-off conversation. I'm trying to get past that, hence the book club attendance.

However, I read this book not only because it was a book club selection. After all, I'm not one to follow the crowd except inasmuch as people who refuse to follow a crowd comprise their own crowd--a very large crowd in New York. I decided this would be a good month to attend because I'd never read Nadine Gordimer, and the book jacket had an interesting enough description. Besides, I do have a love of books about or set in Africa, especially about whites in Africa. I guess it's something to do with the tension of feeling like a place is your home but knowing in some fundamental ways that it's really not yours because it is something your ancestors have taken and stolen. There's a sense in which I feel a kind of kinship with white Africans of European descent. Their home, the only one they’ve known, is not really theirs; it’s the only place they belong but it’s a place they know they do not, in some very real ways, belong. Perhaps I am projecting, but it’s a feeling I’ve had, so I think that’s why I am fascinated. Their drama is mine on a much larger and more life-and-death scale, and I think that’s one of the reasons we read novels—to see ourselves and our lives reflected back at us in a way we can begin to make sense of.

This novel was one that I saw myself reflected in, quite frankly, in ways that were sometimes discomforting. In fact, discomfort was definitely the theme of the evening at the book discussion; this novel left very many people discomforted. It was described by one lovely woman as claustrophobic, and there’s something apt in that. However, the novel is also stunningly beautiful in its language and in its portrayal of people whose lives have been totally upended in such a way as to become unrecognizable.

The language, in fact, was one of the standout stars for me. It was sometimes melodic and poetic and other times jagged and broken. In a way that I think very much mimics poetry, Gordimer uses the words and syntax of the sentences themselves as reflections of the atmosphere and the characters’ feelings. The language is at the heart of the tension and claustrophobia, but it also brings into focus so much that is usually, as another attendee put it, at the periphery. There’s a tense scene late in the book, for example, where a woman is running through the bush, but instead of concentrating on her or her feelings, the author draws our attention to the details in nature. Furthermore, everything is so compressed, so succinct. More than once the author conveys big feelings, big ideas in very few words, and it isn’t just the word choice but the arrangement of the words that makes the language so powerful. This is a short, beautiful, discomforting book. If that is something you can handle, this book is well worth your time.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A little something I'm working on about the pleasures of the text

Sadly, I'm not writing about the Roland Barthes text; I'm just writing about reading. I haven't posted anything to this blog in literally years, and a bunch that's on here probably ought to be moved. My original intent was to write about reading and writing, and nothing presently here is really about either.

Being who I am, I have no plans to strictly limit myself. Nonetheless, I have a knitting blog and a cooking blog, neither of which I've written for in quite a long time either. I have, however, been putting an emphasis on actually writing these days, so here's something I've actually written, and as it is about reading--something I've been doing and thinking a lot about lately--this seems an appropriate place. If you read this, feel free to leave comments. This essay is in a very rough state. It's self-indulgent as I imagine rough drafts often are, and I'm not sure that it's finished. I simply became exhausted while I was writing and had to come to a close.

On the Joys of Reading and Rereading (Not really the title because I haven't chosen one)

Once upon a time, I lived in San Antonio and worked at a place called City Year and rode the bus. A city like San Antonio just isn’t friendly to people who don’t have cars. I say this because it took forever to get anywhere on the bus. Really. For. Ever. What’s more, because we’re talking once-upon-a-time time, there were no iPods or iAnythings to fill up all that interminable bus time with. Some people had cell phones, but not many and not me. I wasn’t that cool. What I was, and am, however, is a reader, and all that interminable bus time was simply time where I had to read. I had to. What else was I going to do? Stare out the window? Listen to the criminal confessions of my fellow passengers? (I’m not joking about that last bit. It really happened. More than once.)

So I rode the bus, and I read. A lot. It was impossible to find me without a book in my possession, and even before the time of iAnythings, my books made me something of a novelty on the bus. People would actually stare, and sometimes they’d talk about me. They’d wonder why I was reading and what I was reading; they’d talk about what I was doing as if the fact of my reading rendered me deaf. Whether in English or Spanish, I never failed to understand that they were talking about me. It was fun to stare at the page and eavesdrop on their conversations, but there is one exchange I’ll always remember, not least of which because I actually wrote it down in the book I was reading.

Two people, middle-aged people, a man and a woman I think, started to talk about me and my reading. I only became conscious of it gradually because I was near the end of the book, a book that, though I had read it before a few times, was utterly absorbing, especially near the end. When their conversation about me entered my consciousness, they were trying to figure out what it was I was reading. I guess I must have had the book in my lap with the cover down so they couldn’t see it because they were speculating about the possible choices for my reading material. After probably throwing out a couple of things, the man said, “It’s not the Bible, is it?” I smiled with a pleasure that is still palpable and looked up, replying, “No, it’s not the Bible.” I think I looked down again almost immediately and went back to my reading, though not so quickly that I didn’t notice the look of embarrassment they both wore on realizing that I had heard every word they’d said. I’m almost sure I never told them what it was I was reading, but their conversation clarified for me something I’d known for a long time but don’t think I’d put into words: books, the ones I love, are my bibles. I memorize passages of them and recite them in times of trouble or joy; I quote them as advice to friends and sometimes strangers; I look to them for guidance about how I should live and how I should be in the world.

The book I was reading that day was The English Patient. It’s a book I’ve only just finished rereading. I don’t remember why I was reading it then. Perhaps I just felt like it; perhaps it was in the time of Richard, a man I’d fallen head over heels for; or perhaps it was, unknowingly, in preparation for falling for him. I was reading it days ago because I’m going through something in my romantic life, a kind of turmoil, and I wanted its comfort, its wisdom. I wanted to curl up inside of it the way one can always curl up inside of one’s favorite books. For me, anyway, it’s a kind of coming home and crawling under the covers of the most comfortable bed you’ve ever been in, warm and cozy and safe and at home like you can never be anywhere else. Unlike Kip, one of the novel’s characters, I have learned to trust in books.

The English Patient, particularly, is a novel I have come back to again and again. I must have read it nearly 10 times by now. In fact, I own two copies because my first one was filled with too many notes and underlinings in too many colors of pen and pencil. I’d needed a new one because I’d wanted a freshly made bed of paper filled with the dreams other people’s names. I also wanted to come at the novel fresh without the notes of former selves telling me what to think or feel about it. The copy I read this time I’d read only once before, so I had company, but it wasn’t crowded, even with the five main characters and the old me.


What strikes me about this book every time, aside from the concentrated poetry of the language, is how very much it has to say about my life, a remarkable feat if you consider that it is set at the end of World War II and just before and is populated by a Canadian, an Italian-Canadian, an Indian who would become a Pakistani after partition, a Hungarian, and an Englishwoman. That list ignores the multinational cast of characters in the desert and Cairo and the nasty German and his cohorts in Italy. Its locations are also foreign. I’ve never been to Italy, North Africa, Canada, or Pakistan. Furthermore, I’ve never been in a war or in a desert at all like the Sahara. In fact, nearly everything in the book is foreign to me. Except that it’s not.

How can a man from Sri Lanka and Canada writing about these lives so unlike mine, or probably his for that matter, know so much about me, so much about what I think and feel and know and need to know? That’s the magic of books, though, isn’t it? Like the Bible, they contain multitudes—multitudes of men and women and places and stories. The good ones do, anyway, and I think that’s the trick, really. It’s the way books, the Bible and bibles, connect us to one another and lay the world out at our feet. They allow us to see and be so many people and places and times. They make us bigger than ourselves and our small lives. They make us and remake us, and in doing so, they remake themselves because each time we come to them, we come to them as new people, and so they become new books.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Left-handed or mirror knitting

I'm about to start my first sweater, and I'm finding myself really frustrated by the knitting help available out there for people who knit like I do. One problem is that with the lack of resources and the scatteredness of the resources there are, we often have to figure out our own ways of doing things, which means we all end up doing things very differently, so what works for one left-handed knitter might not work for another. Another big problem is the way a lot of right-handed people seem to want to get involved in the discussion. This is particularly annoying when they want to tell us we lefties are doing it wrong. The way I figure, there is no right or wrong. The only thing that matters is the end product. If it came out okay, which is to say the person who made it and the person who is going to wear it are happy with it, then as far as I'm concerned, it is all good. Honestly, I find myself feeling that I understand knitting a lot better than a lot of people who've been doing it longer because a) I have to think a lot more about what I do and can't always just follow the instructions and b) I've had to figure out a lot of things by trial and error, so when I do finally get things right, I understand how they work and why.

So how do I knit? Well, I don't know all the technical terms, but I hold my yarn in my left hand and I throw my yarn with my left hand. As for the direction of my stitches, they move from the right needle to the left needle. I'm not 100% sure, but I think this amounts to knitting English style but mirrored.

Right now, I'm feeling the need to get organized with knitting, to understand it more at a fundamental level. I've set aside a journal, and when I figure stuff out, I write it down. I'm also planning on using some of the cheap yarn I inherited from Andrea to make swatches of different techniques done different ways. You see, after a personal situation recently--I hesitate to call it a tragedy because I'm physically fine, and though it happened to me, it didn't happen to me--I went a little overboard buying yarn. I've decided to wrap myself in my own warmth this winter, which means I'll be using all this yarn to make sweaters. If you know anything about knitting, you know good quality yarn--even at half-price, which is what I paid--isn't cheap. You also know that when I say I bought enough for 10 sweaters for myself, that's a lot of yarn and a lot of money, which means I'll be doing a lot of knitting, and I want to do it right since I'm going to be wearing what I make. I'm not really sure what I'll do with all this knowledge I'll be acquiring, but it seems a shame to keep it to myself, so I'll try to post some of it here. Stay tuned...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Why a girl can't marry a CD is beyond me

I'm not going to be the first one to say this. In fact, what I'm going to say is nothing revolutionary. It's practically pedestrian, but I'm going to say it anyway. You need the new Grizzly Bear CD, Veckatimest. Really. You need it.

I resisted Grizzly Bear for forever. I'm a resister. It's part of what I do. Take Facebook, for example. I don't have an account. I'm the girl at the concert who will not clap or wave her hands or shout just because some people on stage tell me to; they have to make me want to. I can be a bit of a contrarian. It is childish, yes, and it has made me miss out on good stuff. Then again, I'm never the girl asking herself why she wasted those hours reading that crappy book or seeing that crappy movie that had all the hype. Sadly, though, the second everyone starts buzzing about something is the second I'm going to start pretending it doesn't exist. That happened with Grizzly Bear. Back when Yellow House came out, it was buzz, buzz, buzz, and I ignored it.

What made me decide to give Grizzly Bear a serious try was NPR. Yeah, NPR. I love that stuff. I've got the All Songs Considered podcast, among others, and I check out it every once in a while. I tend to store up a lot of them and then knock out 3 or 4 episodes in a Saturday afternoon. Well, on a semi-recent broadcast, which I've since deleted so don't ask me which one, they played a live Grizzly Bear track recorded at SXSW. It was stunningly gorgeous. I may even have cried a little. After that, I resolved to download the entire album from iTunes (because I only rock the legal stuff or what my friends give me from their own collections) once it became available. Unfortunately, my iTunes was acting up and wouldn't let me download anything until just last week, so I didn't get the album till then despite it's being out for nearly a month.

No exaggeration, I have listened to it multiple times everyday since I got it. I am madly in love with this CD, the entire thing. I keep finding new favorite tracks. It is simply gorgeous. Now, I'm not a music critic; I just know what I like. I cannot talk about chord progressions or production values, but I can say that this album gets inside of you. I wake up hearing it in my brain. The lyrics are simple and bare, often seeming to be sketches of lyrics more than fully formed stories or even ideas, but the way the lyrics are sung imbues them with meanings that the words on the page don't have all by themselves.

The point is that I'm having an intense and madly passionate love affair with this CD, but since it is a CD, I don't mind sharing the object of my love with anyone and everyone. If you are looking to buy just one new CD, get this one. As was the case with Arcade Fire, my stubbornness nearly caused me to miss the bandwagon on one of those too rare occasions where it is actually worth jumping on.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rice Pudding Update

Well, I've tasted the rice pudding as has my friend Dr. Freud. (I wonder if she'd like that I've named her Dr. Freud...) We both concur. It's yummy. The only thing that I might've done differently was use more cardamom.

Should you decide you want to make the cardamom-rosewater version, you want to add 2 tsp. of rosewater when you add the vanilla at the end. A lot of the recipes I checked out online used significantly more. Some of them had more rice, but still. I think 2 tsp. is plenty. Oddly, the rosewater makes it seem a lot sweeter. Maybe that isn't so odd. I don't know. At any rate, I think I used only 1 tsp. of cardamom, but I'd use more if I were you. I did use some cinnamon as well because I'm a sucker for it. It added up to about ½ tsp. You could use more of that, too, if you wanted to.

Finally, a note on the brown rice. It didn't affect the taste too much, though I did add 2 tblsp. extra sugar to the orginal recipe, but I did notice that the rice grains weren't soft as with other rice once the pudding cooled. You really do bite them and chew on them. If that isn't something you mind, brown rice is healthier. It might be the only healthy thing about this dish, as a matter of fact. However, next time, I think I'll try to use white rice. Then again, this is made from rice leftovers, so it'll probably be made from whatever is in the fridge.