My own private iconoclasm: making the word flesh once and for all

After many many years of reading, writing and thinking, I have arrived at the rather unremarkable conclusion that reading, writing and thinking are neither important nor unimportant in and of themselves.

They are human activities like any other and, as such, their value is ultimately determined by other humans. They can influence others — if they influence at all — only because of the values and valuings of families, peers, and communities. They can’t convince, compel, or convert on their own. They do not have quasi-divine and human-independent power to influence humans and their affairs.

I mention this only because I suspect that I may have implicitly believed all these years that reading, writing and thinking did have quasi-divine powers, even I can’t recall ever explicitly thinking to myself, “if I read, write and think just so, people will have no choice but to understand and agree.” Why else would I spend so much time reading and rereading, writing and rewriting, thinking and rethinking? Of course, I enjoyed it, but there are many other enjoyable activities I might have pursued instead. The intensity of my dedication seems to imply that I was hoping for something more.

School, university and academia probably helped to engender this implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking. From the earliest days of school until the very end of academia, I was taught that the correct reading, writing and thinking would produce and, perhaps, even compel the appropriate mark, degree, or publication. It was as if there was a kind of magic at work — a magic that inevitably produced success when it was invoked correctly.

The implicit hope for the quasi-divine power of reading, writing and thinking was also stoked in the early days of social media. Time-and-again, it was (and is) claimed that there is a uniquely correct way to succeed at social media. Do it correctly, we were (are) told, and the followers, likes, pageviews and advertising dollars will inevitably flow. In the end, we have learned that there isn’t anything entirely unique about social media. Like any other human activity, there are many familiar but not entirely certain paths to success and failure.

I suppose William Carlos Williams also contributed to my implicit hope. As a young man, I was entranced by the idea that he remained a doctor, lived in Paterson, New Jersey, and, nevertheless, became a towering literary figure. According to the official hagiography, he opted out of the lifestyle of a poet but, nevertheless, became one of the greatest. I assumed, at the time, that it was the power of his words and talent that helped him overcome the geography of his choices. I see now that I overlooked the true power of the relationships he maintained.

I am tempted to be troubled by the non-divine nature of reading, writing and thinking, to characterize it as a problem, and to draw some profound conclusion, but I’ve been down that path too many times before to make the same mistake again. The absence of God only seems troubling if you characterize it as an absence, but to do so is a mistake. That which never existed can’t be absent because it was never present to begin with, no matter how it might have otherwise felt.   

The only real consequence of this realization is that I must give up on an ancient and essentially childish dream. Neither the bug-eating mystic in the desert, nor the stone-throwing philosopher on the mountain, nor the house-call-making poet in New Jersey can, by the shear force of reading, writing and thinking, legislate on behalf of the world. Read, write, and think if you enjoy it, but don’t expect or pretend that it will have any more influence on humans and their affairs than counting blades of grass, memorizing all the digits of pi, or surfing off the coast of Maui. To influence human affairs, one must be a part of them. There is no escaping that fact of human existence.

Thus spoke Zarathustra.

The game of life: there is no way around it.

Once upon a time (but, really, not that long ago), I think I believed I could, if I worked hard enough at it, write a poem, a story, an idea so high and wild that I would never need to write another. To put it less allegorically and less plagiaristically, I think I believed I could craft a text that could compel others to action and, if not action, at least, maybe, it might compel others to like and admire it.

I say, “I think I believed” because I don’t recall ever explicitly thinking, “If I get this sentence just so, then, people will understand, act, and admire.” But, looking back on all of it, it certainly seems like this belief was implicit in my dogged pursuit of an aesthetic and conceptual perfection that was forever just beyond my reach and entirely unseen by everyone else (my Harvey, I suppose). It is as if, it seems to me now, I worked so hard because I thought perfection would give my words and ideas super powers. Otherwise, why bother?

Once articulated, it seems like a rather childish and somewhat spooky hope for a well-read and well-travelled atheist such as myself, but you don’t have to look very far to find this hope in others. For example, the rhetoric of debate is built around the notion that arguments are expected to compel belief by the sheer force of their logic. People’s heads explode online and around the dinner table precisely because they expect others to change their beliefs in the face of arguments that are so obviously correct that any idiot should be able to see it. In fact, and to put too fine point on it, as I so often do, it could be claimed — and, heck, I am going to go right ahead and make the claim — that the hope at the heart of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Modernism and the entire Western liberal tradition — is the hope that truth, whether accessed through faith or reason, can compel people to change their beliefs and behaviours to align with it.

And that hope, in case you didn’t know, is almost certainly wrong.

There is no property independent of people that can compel people to believe or act any one way or the other. And while there is still much to be learned about brains, beliefs and behaviours, I feel pretty confident in asserting that the key consideration, when it comes to belief formation, is going to be the people with which one identifies. Moreover, the evaluation of beliefs and behaviours will always be done by people. So, even if it turns out that we can sometimes come up with a new idea completely on our own (p.s. it won’t, but let’s pretend), the value of the idea will always be determined by people and is not intrinsic to the idea itself.

So, I suppose this is a very long and unnecessarily elaborate way of saying (as per the uzhe) what most teenagers have probably figured out — that fitting-in, ingratiating oneself to a group (ideally, one that is wealthy, powerful and beautiful) is the only path to success. If you want to be a successful anything (writer, plumber, banker), you need to ingratiate yourself to the people who determine who is or is not x, y, or z and who also determine whether or not people are a success at it. There is no way around it.

The Right Kind of Writing is Good for You. Bonus: It’s Simple!

Writing Is Good For YouI have always had the hunch that writing helps me make sense of my life in a way that’s beneficial.

It turns out I was right.

There is solid empirical research indicating that the right kind of writing can have a measurable benefit in your life. More surprisingly, it benefits you both emotionally and physically.

The good news: “the right kind of writing” is very simple to do. It also doesn’t require a huge time commitment.

This is what you need to do.

  1. Identify an emotional upheaval in your life.
  2. Write about the upheaval over four consecutive days, for 15-20 minutes.
  3. Focus on your deepest feelings and aim to create a meaningful account that makes sense of the upheaval by day four.

That, believe it or not, is all it takes.

In controlled experiments, people who used this simple exercise reported better moods, received better grades at university, missed fewer days of work, showed improved immune system functioning, and were less likely to visit the doctor.

One important caveat: don’t write about the upheaval too soon after it happens. Use it only when you’re ready.

Want to learn more? Here’s a good article.

I read about this research in two different books: The Happiness Hypothesis and Strangers to Ourselves. Both are very accessible, very enjoyable, and cover a lot of research that will be relevant to anyone who wants to make sense of an upheaval in his or her life. I recommend both of them.

If you want to explore the ideas and research in these books (and others), I can help.

On the Remembrance of Things Past: Heading West To Paradise Lost and Found.

The Garden of EdenIn remembering, I realized I had long since forgotten to remember.

I realized this as I reread Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden, which, for me, is itself an act of remembering because I first read the unfinished novel in high school — towards the end, I think. It moved me greatly but, years later, I couldn’t really remember the details of why. I knew only that my long time desire to run away to the south of France with someone I loved originated with this book.

I came to be rereading the novel because, on a whim, I had decided to visit the Rosemount Public Library, to roam randomly for books, as I once did, when I was young and first falling in love with books and reading and libraries. As I scanned the stacks for possibilities, it dawned on me that the library is no longer set up quite as well for browsing as it once was — except for the children’s section — because of the wonderful convenience of online search and home branch delivery.

I decided, then, to look for authors, who came to mind easily. When I found no Ursula K. Le Guin, I looked for Hemingway, who I haven’t read in years, but to whom I often return for a window to the adolescence in which I found him, and, as I approached the Hs, I thought, “wouldn’t it be perfect, if I found The Garden of Eden,” because I have been dreaming of running off to the south of France, if only I had someone to take with me, and there, to the delight of my storytelling synchronicity seeking brain, it was. I almost didn’t check it out, for fear of ruining the magic of the not fully knowable feeling that originated in my first reading of it.

To my surprise, from the outset, the novel was much better than I had expected and also much more juvenile than I remembered. Hemingway is rightly vilified for his simple-minded women, but his men, even his protagonists, are not much better. If they seem any more complex, it’s only because we are granted greater access to their inner experiences. If one focuses only on the dialogue and action, the men are as simple minded and stunted as the women.

Nevertheless, there is more than enough charm in the opening pages of this re-imagining of Adam and Eve as Romeo and Juliet, if they had managed to escape the poison of Verona and sneak their way back into the garden to test the norms of middle class complacency, thanks to the privilege of inherited wealth and literary talent. In Hemingway’s defense, love, like these newlyweds, David and Catherine, is simpleminded and beautiful, and, yes, wouldn’t it be splendid to be in love with a beautiful devoted wife or a handsome doting husband, in the south of France, without a care about money, while eating, drinking, making love, napping, and tanning, and doing it all over again.

I found myself remembering, while reading, because, about half-way through the novel, after the short declarative and perfectly presented presentation of now, during which paradise is enjoyed and the seeds for its loss planted, David returns to writing, which, for him, is a remembering in words with pencil and page. He returns to remembering, to write some of the hardest stories he has not yet written, stories he has avoided writing. He returns to them now, it seems, to avoid the blooming reality of Catherine’s now acutely obvious mental illness. She is not only Eve, we have discovered, but the devil, too, and, by this point in the novel, she has brought another beautiful woman into their relationship, to serve her own unfulfilled desires, to destroy the marriage, and to have a replacement ready for David when she falls totally and completely into the madness she also sees looming before her.

Hemingway is at his best in this novel, I think, when he writes David’s experience of writing, even if I think Hemingway writes writing falsely. He writes it, I think, as a reader would likely imagine the experience of writing. For David, as Hemingway writes it, writing is a return to the reality he writes. I’m not convinced writing can ever be like that. Writing, at its best, is a transcendent experience, but one is brought to a nowhere place in which spirits are channeled but not directly experienced, until the rereading of what was channeled, which is never writing but reading. Of course, my experience of writing might simply be different than his.

In remembering (and now I can’t even remember what I remembered), I realized it had been a long time since I had remembered, in the exacting and precise way that David remembered. I have never been one for living in the past, but detailed reminiscing helps to make measure of the time we’ve lived and maps a sense of who we have become. I had and have no immediate answer to the question of why I have not been remembering in this way, but I suspect the perpetual present of social media has some role to play in the final explanation.

I was also surprised to discover that loss and sadness pervades the whole novel, despite the fine shimmer of beauty and love running throughout. Even in the opening pages, when all seems well and true and good, we know it can’t last because the conventions of the novel demand that it won’t, and we easily see the early signs that Hemingway provides to remind us that it won’t. And yet, despite minor and major tiffs, even when they are three, paradise remains paradise, in part because it is paradise, with or without snakes, and in part because of this trinity’s implacable ability to ignore the obvious, to ignore the dread, and to drink hard, strong booze at every opportunity.

It’s a strange story. David loses one love, but he gets another. His stories are destroyed by Catherine in a moment of madness and spiteful pettiness, he swears he will never be able to write them again, but the book concludes with him doing exactly that. He loses everything and nothing. One beautiful wife is exchanged for another, who seems much more understanding of his work, and, yet, there are already early signs that she might not be entirely different. Beauty is everywhere, melancholy and dread pervades all of it, but this story isn’t a tragedy. It is, at most, a happening.

I suppose the juvenility of the story best explains why I enjoyed it so much as an adolescent. Love lost, love found, and the wet dream titillation of having two beautiful and overlapping loves would have been compelling reading for my younger brain. There is also the eating, and drinking, and lazing about, too. The portrayal of one writer’s creative process also would have been a draw and, of course, all that melancholy beauty.

Twenty years or so later, I enjoyed The Garden of Eden because it is expertly written, even if unfinished, because it is a window to the adolescent I once was, and because it reminds me that I am not as juvenile as I sometimes think I am. The thin line between me then and me now is our different attitudes to sadness, melancholy, and dread. Then, my response was one part sublimation and one part romanticism. Now, I accept that melancholy, sadness, and dread can be a part of life, but I know the best response is to experience them directly, without romance or wallowing, and never to bury them. Paradise is lost and found and lost again, but our demons will only haunt us if we refuse to exorcise them.

Remembering is like heading west to find the Indies, one hopes for Asia, but, in the end, one only ever discovers, colonizes, and exploits a new world.

An Eulogy for Apartment 601: The Incubating Paralysis of Freedom.

Tree601Thursday evening, I dropped the keys to my former apartment through the mail slot of the building’s administrative office. The “former” was now official.

I moved into Apartment 601, 345 Clarence Street, almost seven and a half years ago. I have never lived in any one place any longer. Previously, the longest I had lived in one place was four, maybe, four and a half years — a childhood home. As a matter of contrast, in New Zealand, during the five years I lived there, I count seven different homes.

The punchline: Apartment 601 is my least favorite apartment I have ever lived in. The story of my stay in that apartment provides one summary of the story of my time in Ottawa.

In February 2007, when I arrived in Ottawa, with a couple of bags, a guitar, and some new suits, I had a one week hotel stay in which to find an apartment, while, at the same time, starting my new job on the Hill. The building’s Clarence street location looked good and, because I was still in student-mode, when the rental agent showed me two apartments, I took the smaller, older, and much shabbier apartment because the rent was fifty dollars less.

One year later, I was pretty sure my time on the Hill would would soon be over. I would, of course, leave Ottawa as soon as that happened, so I decided that I might as well carry on with the shabby apartment — renting month-to-month. A year after that, I was working in the arts and wanted the freedom of having no lease. The low rent and location were important perks. A year after that, I had too much debt and too little income to move. The year after that, I was working a short-term contract. And, again, I was sure to leave Ottawa once the contract wasn’t renewed. After a string of contracts and, at last, a permanent position, upheaval at work made me wonder again if I would be in Ottawa for much longer. Besides, the location was great and the rent, thanks to rent control, was now very good.

Fortunately, I was saved by a good friend, who managed to dislodge me from the story in which I had ensnared myself. He was in need of a tenant and was happy to let me rent month-to-month. The rent was good and the location great. The apartment even came furnished, so I could once again tell myself that I was well-positioned to bolt when the conditions were right. I finally managed to fax the official notice to terminate my tenancy at Apartment 601 in May 2014.

The Ontario Government, it should be said, is partly to blame for my paralysis. To legally give notice in Ontario, one must give the landlord a full two months warning, which, in practice, means one really needs to know where one wants to be a full three months in advance. On more than one occasion, I was ready to pull the trigger on moving, until I counted off the months, and thought, “I have no idea if I will have any reason to be in Ottawa three months from now.” As a matter of contrast, in New Zealand, I only had to give three weeks notice.

Nevertheless, the catalyzing cause of my paralysis, undoubtedly, is this assumption that I will leave Ottawa any one of these days now. This assumption primarily exists, I think, because I was born and raised in Ottawa and swore not to stay or return. More than one old friend and acquaintance has said to me, “I never thought you’d come back.” Now, they say, “you’re never leaving.” I also want to say the assumption exists because I have never really seen myself in the mirror of the city, but, as soon as I say it, I realize it is the assumption itself that may be distorting my view.

Whatever the reason, and whether I stay or go, I am glad I returned and that I have stayed as long as I have. A few months ago, when I was certain that this was it, I’m really leaving this time, I started to draft in my head the eulogy for my time in Ottawa. I realized that my farewell speech would be one of gratitude, not regret. I’ve met some great people, reconnected with old friends, and, most importantly, terraformed the geography of memory that defines every space. Because of my return, and my Jedi-mind trick extended stay, Ottawa is no longer the city of my childhood and youth. I have remediated that brownfield of memory.

And now I find myself living in the very neighborhood in which I was physically born and in which the I-that-is-me was also born. Connaught Public School and Rosemount Public Library are where I first discovered the power of words to create, to remake, and to remediate. Words can transform. Words can also externalize and expel, like an ear ridding itself of wax, cleaning as it goes. If my life were a work of fiction, surely this would be the moment for a dramatic twist in the plot and even a climactic third birth.

Life, of course, isn’t a work fiction. It is bound by no dramatic conventions and is unimpressed by the narrative potential of a native son’s homecoming to a land that is strange only because of his literary exorcisms. Life isn’t art, however artfully we try to live it.

So, thanks, Apartment 601, 345 Clarence Street, despite all your shortcomings and very many false fire alarms, despite the fact that I lived in you for far too long because of an adolescent desire to tell myself a story of freedom, I will remember you well. I didn’t know it when we first met, but you were an incubator for a me that was coming to be.

In My Beginning Is My End: Sounding The Tongue.

beingI finally figured out what I’m doing around here.

By “here”, I mean this blog and, by extension, my other artistic droppings. Perhaps, by “figured out” I really mean “remembered.”

I’m sounding the tongue.

I’m not sure when I coined the phrase, but it was probably towards the end of my undergrad, when a friend proposed that we produce a chapbook of my poetry. I needed a title and either that’s what I had at hand or that’s what I came up with in the moment.

The phrase means that I make words to measure and test the depths and limits of the language and my own language. I measure and test not for the sake of either language, but for the sake of self-understanding. I share the results only because they might, by chance, be of use to someone else charting a similar course.

Contrary to one of the dominant views in modern philosophy, human being is not reducible to human language. We are much more than the word-making parts of our brains. Language is a tool. By way of it, we can come to understand ourselves. In the vibrations of language, we can find the depth and measure of who we are.

This blog shares my efforts to understand and, perhaps, to determine my becoming.

Epilogue / Prologue

Happy Birthday BlogIf my blog were a novel, I would have ended it with my last post. That post is the perfect period to the run-on sentence of the last 5 years. It also nicely parallels the end of my novella.

I might rewrite my blog as a novel someday, but a blog is not a novel, and a novel is not a life.

Blogs and lives shift, change, evolve. They are imperfect and finite aspirations. A novel, in contrast, is an aspiration for an unattainable, immortal, and infinite perfection. Its perfection is unattainable because a novel’s immortal and infinite words are forever after read by imperfect and finite aspirations.

It may seem sometimes like we are made in the image of our words, but it is we who remake words in our image. We make a mirror of every text and see therein only our imperfect and finite aspirations. With each new reading, we sacrifice once more and again the word for our sins.

Once more and again, an end and a beginning. Happy Birthday, blog. Happy Birthday.