What do they think they’re up to, here? Well, there is the official answer; preparing themselves for life which means a job and security in which to raise children to prepare themselves for life which means a job and security in which. But, despite all the vocational advisers, the pamphlets pointing out to them what good money you can earn if you invest in some solid technical training — pharmacology, let’s say, or accountancy, or the varied opportunities offered by the vast field of electronics — there are still, incredibly enough, quite a few of them who persist in writing poems, novels, plays! Goofy from lack of sleep, they scribble in snatched moments between classes, part-time employment and their married lives. Their brains are dizzy with words as they mop out an operating room, sort mail at a post office, fix baby’s bottle, fry hamburgers. And somewhere, in the midst of their servitude to the must-be, the mad might-be whispers to them to live, know, experience — what? Marvels! The Season in Hell, the Journey to the End of the Night, the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the Clear Light of the Void… Will any of them make it? Oh, sure. One, at least. Two or three at most — in all these searching thousands.
Here, in their midst, George feels a sort of vertigo. Oh God, what will become of them all? What chance have they? Ought I to yell out to them, right now, here, that it’s hopeless?
But George knows he can’t do that. Because, absurdly, inadequately, in spite of himself almost, he is a representative of the hope. And the hope is not false. No. It’s just that George is like a man trying to sell a real diamond for a nickel, on the street. The diamond is protected from all but the tiniest few, because the great hurrying majority can never stop to dare to believe that it could conceivably be real.
“A Single Man,” Christoper Isherwood, pg 32.
pencil tapping against the desk
The first foreign language you study for years without using it, seemingly in a vacuum, wondering if it’s completely pointless. Those years that are like a waiting room for real life, spending countless hours learning things they say you’ll need later, learning slowly, thoroughly.
Now, the next language you’re learning all in a hurry, literally as you go along, out of direct necessity. You don’t find yourself with time to study correct verb tenses or the subtleties of phrasing; you just adapt from what you already know. And it’s efficient, and largely effective, but then eventually you hit a wall where you can’t find the longer, more specialized words you want to say, and you can’t remember what they were later to look them up.
Most of the things we need to know now we learn on the job, running, recovering from a mistake already made, wondering why they didn’t teach us this when we had all that time before.
And you sort of wish for those long afternoons in classrooms, even the ones in June, barely paying attention, when everyone’s eyes were out the window, planning what to do after school. When we had more than enough time to learn everything, but didn’t yet realize the luxury in that. We were in our own hurry back then instead.
letting the quiet in
Let me be like a little light, a little flame that grows, stronger, steadier and brighter.
I’m not religious (nor am I even Catholic to begin with), but I do like going into churches in Europe when I can; I like finding one in a city I stay in for a while that can start to feel like “mine.”
There’s just something incredibly peaceful about it. Walking the length of the apses slowly, looking at the candles people light for the sick or lost. The way the flame flickers when first lit, as if it might go out, but then it finds itself, settles, grows. When somehow a breeze passes through the church, all the little flames tremble together.
I like to just sit sometimes as well, for a sort of non-religious contemplation. Sometimes when I’m feeling mixed up, just being somewhere so quiet, so monumental, my thoughts come a little clearer. Sometimes I just sit down and it hits me: the things that are really important, the things I’ve maybe been neglecting. Who are the people that come to mind when I’m sitting there, just letting my thoughts wander? If my mind keeps repeating one person’s name, that means something, surely.
I think what it really is, is something psychological: creative people tend to work best when they find a rhythm - if you sit down to write every day at 6, somehow your subconscious gets used to that, and with time can automatically open at that hour. It’s why our thoughts can be so abstract if we’re up all night, when we should be dreaming. Similarly, I think your mind can “learn” to focus on the important things if we pick that place that matters, a place to conjure them up specifically, a place uncluttered by all the other things in our lives.
It can become a place where you can’t lie to yourself, where that little tiny voice of “stick with it” becomes audible.
Catedral de Santa Maria del Mar, Barcelona
just something that’s been on my mind lately…
“My first days were painful. I spent hours upon hours behind my desk trying to figure out what I was supposed to do. Every time B had his back turned, I called my best friend, who was a journalist, and way smarter than me, and she explained everything to me with more patience than I could believe. …
What happened because of this first experience is that I realized that I’m capable of… working. And even loving what I do! I understood that with energy and desire, you learn quickly. I was starting having just a little bit of that faith in myself.”
“Joan excels in the office. She’s respected as a woman and someone who keeps the ship running. But she lost some of that power, so she lost some of her confidence. There’s nothing more fun than being good at what you do and I think she missed that.”
The idea of capability. Isn’t this the kind of attitude we all want to have towards our work, whatever it is? When you’re good at it, and you love it, and that in itself blurs the line between work and fun. Something to strive for, anyway.
I’m not really sure why I wrote this, or why I’m posting it. But I found myself watching clips of one of my favorite movies, La dolce vita, the other day, and thinking about this article from New York magazine that I read (and that had been blogged about a bit),and where the ideas intersect. And I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I started writing it down. I don’t know, maybe I’m trying to figure out something about myself. I boiled it down to a question on twitter:
In the past 50 years, have women truly become liberated, empowered? Or have we just become completely neurotic about everything?
Watching old Fellini movies now, thinking about where we are today, it makes me wonder. The films are filled with women, in constant succession, types or stereotypes I guess you could say, revolving around the male protagonist (Marcello — not a bad gig for him, eh?). But each female character is still treated with a sense of dignity, a certain sort of freedom in it, in the certainty of those sexual roles, even those that are defined as a dichotomy in which you can never win. At the time, these were torn characters, just at the beginning of a moment of flux, starting to change but being praised and condemned for it at the same time. There’s a socialite (Maddalena) who in a way does have it all, lives it all, but she’s conflicted, calls herself a whore, seems to consider herself unlovable; a Swedish actress (Sylvia – Anita Ekberg) with gorgeous blond hair and a sexy black dress who goes cavorting in fountains in the middle of the night, carried away by romance and sexuality, as if she’s in a fantasy world; and the socially liberal aristocrats, “progressive” to the degree of breaking taboos just for the sake of it, seemingly completely crazy and upside down. (But, as Maddalena puts it: “What? You think we are any better? At least there are some things that they do with a certain elegance.”) Then there’s Marcello’s wife, who coos over a baby at a party and starts trying to nudge him in that direction, while he tries to avoid eye contact and duck out early.
Now, we want to be everything. Equally as strong as men at work, super-moms, good cooks, stylish and in shape, defining our own sexuality but still romantic in nature, wanting those “sweet gestures” done for us at the same time that we adamantly want to say we “don’t need men.” It’s become its own cliché that now women want to be perfect at everything, and feel stretched way too thin. (Not to ignore that men have faced changes too, a desire to be more engaged and involved in parenting and domestic life, but also an undeniable uncertainty about their role now in society. But that’s sort of a different can of worms.) Obviously I’m not against women’s liberation but I’m not sure we’re going completely in the right direction. We still haven’t found a way to be in control of our own lives because now expectation just takes over from every side. Society’s expectations that we internalize, and our own expectations of how happy we should be and how immediately fulfilling we should find our new choices.
Yet in a way Fellinian characters like Maddalena do have control, even in their desperation. The film is full of men (namely Marcello) trying it on with every woman they meet, but only with a half-assed feigned affection, nothing truly deceptive. The kind of thing you fall for only if you’re looking to fall for it, and the women are given the intelligence (that they often aren’t in movies today) to see it for what it is. It is based in some kernel of something real, admiration or appreciation maybe. But it’s up to the woman to put on the breaks, to not get wrapped up in the overdone romance of it; to value the playful experience of meeting, flirtation, those priceless moments when you don’t know where things will go – rather than actually getting anywhere. Maddalena, and Sylvia in the famous Trevi fountain scene, they’re playing into the romance, but for their own benefit; they don’t really believe it, or if they do it isn’t really hinged on Marcello. He is a symbol as much as they are, in those moments. And that fact isn’t judged either way. (But then one of the things I find Italy does so much better than America even today is objectifying men, almost as much as it objectifies women.)
The only declaration of love in the film is between two people who are drunk, joking around, wanting to love something and be loved rather than the genuine emotion. And it’s from far away, unseen, blind — just whispers in the dark through an echo between two rooms of the house — two people perhaps talking more to themselves than to eachother. Marcello is praising her, dedicating himself to her, as he says, not knowing if she’s kidding or serious, it doesn’t matter either way; but before he’s even finished, she’s off with someone else, and he soon is too. The most pure romantic exchange is the one that’s just words, that goes unfulfilled. Somehow it means more than the real thing.
And I think this independence, this attachment to the abstract idea of love rather than the person, is what attracts Marcello to her — compared to his wife, who seems to us unknowable, because she’s just like everyone else, wanting those banal things that don’t interest him. It’s the difference between wanting things like marriage and a baby for the sake of it, for those ideas in themselves, or because you find the right person finally, who makes you want it all as an extension of wanting them, of not being able to imagine being without them.
Now, we still have this “fairy tale” that many if not most women believe in, it’s just a slightly altered version of the fairy tale, the walls pushed out a little bit, but a lot more demanded of us once we’re there. We’re still not really defining it for ourselves, most of us. Whereas I guess the call that Fellini is making is for individuality, what Marcello is looking for in changing times, without putting a name to it. Even if in the end he runs the risk of seeming Peter-Pan-ish, never content and never adult.
youthful vanity in bloom
I read yesterday that Orlando Bloom has gotten married. And I’m waaay too old for this, but it made me sort of sad. I liked indulging this feeling though, even though I should really know better, because it took me back to 16, when we really felt these things, and it was ok to go with them. To be upset, dreams dashed, as if we had a chance in the first place.
How is it we seemed to believe that? Some sort of youthful vanity: the belief that, if they just met us, we could be everything to them that these film idols were to us — the most beautiful, funny, charming, interesting. Now, the concept seems ridiculous, laughable, because well it is. So we steel ourselves and usually wouldn’t mention such a thought out loud (or on a blog).
But I suppose I worry that this is one part realism, and one part self-defeat. Maybe we have that naive optimism when we’re young for a reason. Then we get ourselves into relationships where we just feel we do everything wrong, or let someone else make us feel like we’re not “good enough.” We get rejected in love, work, socially. Some of us have pets that don’t even seem to like us. Some of us could use a bit more of that vanity we used to have than is culturally acceptable these days.
People tell us to “just be yourself,” to “know yourself,” “to thine own self be true.” And I think that in order to truly do these things, we have to look inside with a sort of vanity, a belief that everything we find in there, in its pure form, is good, and “good enough.” A lot of people would say that blogging is an exercise in vanity. And maybe that’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Maybe to even begin to better ourselves, we can’t start from a place of inherent self-doubt.
“I have come to have the firm conviction that vanity is the basis of everything, and finally that what one calls conscience is only inner vanity.”
It is funny that reading a piece of celebrity gossip is what got me started thinking about all this, but in a way it’s perfectly fitting as well. It reminded me of a clip I saw a few weeks ago, of Orlando’s appearance on the British TV show Extras (the basic idea is that celebrities play themselves, in ridiculous caricature, on film sets). I think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve seen all year. A combination of celebrity vanity and thinly veiled insecurity to the extreme. Well, just watch it.
And yes, it’s funny because he’s absurd and obnoxious, but isn’t there also something … likable about it? Is it just me? There’s something I find almost enviable about that kind of ridiculous belief in yourself, reality and propriety be damned. Maybe sometimes we don’t want to be humble, modest, to listen first and speak second.
“No, objectively I am really good looking.”
So, congratulations Orlando, let me know if it doesn’t work out.
I went away, just overnight, for my birthday, thinking it would be better to be alone somewhere beautiful than just alone. In the end, it was still fairly lonely. But the things that caught my attention, in that strange sort of mood, were a telling surprise.
I found myself endlessly fascinated watching a small private boating club along the river. Early morning rowing lessons, sleek skinny boats taking off and coming back in, a little scratch of sand for soccer or volleyball, and tables at night, for a relaxed drink and beautiful river view. All seen from a distance, elegant but supremely low-key.
The idea of teaching these lessons at dawn, with energetic kids and dedicated teenagers making the early call, seemed oddly poetic to me, even though in the doing of it, it must be tiring. There are moments of immediate poetry in life, and times when it’s only in the bigger picture. And it’s obvious, but you can’t only ever chase the immediate.
Once you have realized your freedom, you have to figure out what to do with it. Something worthy, however you choose to define it.