April 26, 2015

We shared, all of us, a powerful sense that what was at stake on those crowded stairs was nothing less than the rest of our lives.

Bridge of Sighs
By Richard Russo

"The terrible anticipation began on the stairs when, if someone tripped or an adult appeared on the first landing in an attempt to slow the throng surging upward like water through the damaged hull of a ship, the stairway would jam, desire and anxiety and unbearable hope momentarily thwarted, delaying by eternities our emergence into the gym, into Mystery itself, where the music--we could hear it in there in the stairwell--had already begun to play. Once, stalled in this fashion, I happened to look at the girl next to me, and when our eyes met, I saw that hers were full of tears. Possibly she was simply afraid of being crushed. She'd been separated from her friends, and though we couldn't move forward, those below continued to press upward, causing everyone in the stairwell, our feet locked in place, to lean forward, our hands pressing for balance into the backs of those on the next-higher step. In a matter of moments we were stacked there like semi-toppled dominoes.
That's one explanation. But I recognized this girl as a fellow East Ender and think now that her eyes had simply filled up with pent-up anticipation. She was imagining her friends already upstairs, dancing without her, getting so far ahead that she'd never catch up. By the time she joined them, the boy she'd been thinking about all week, whose eyes she'd met across the crowded cafeteria, who was too popular--admit it--to be a realistic aspiration, would already be taken. We shared, all of us, a powerful sense that what was at stake on those crowded stairs was nothing less than the rest of our lives, that our every move in that gymnasium had an unimaginable significance, that we were being watched, judged, elected or damned. Slow down, we were being told at home and at school, you've got your whole lives ahead of you. But to get stalled in that stairwell was to understand how little time there was, and how fast it was wasting."
(pp. 124-5)

April 24, 2015

I've always known that there's more going on inside me than finds its way into the world, but this is probably true of everyone.

via instagram.com/noeliasophia

Bridge of Sighs
By Richard Russo

I go through awful sleep patterns. This week, I've been falling asleep (unintentionally) as soon as I hit my bed, only to wake up at 2/3/4AM to shower and then stay up for the rest of the night. When this happened last night, it suddenly occurred to me that maybe my weird sleep & lack of it is what's kind of resulted in my strange mood these past few days. I've been tired physically but also mentally, which has led to discouraged thoughts, rising doubts & insecurities, etc. "Sleep is the key to happiness," I reminded myself early this morning. And I went back to sleep. So here I am, awake & feeling more optimistic (+ it's Friday!). Birds still chirping, but a little later now.

I like that my friends know to gift me books. So far, they haven't missed the mark. I've loved each one. Bridge of Sighs was a birthday gift, so it took me six months to finally pick it up. It's a monster of a book, a little more than 500 pages long, so maybe there was some intimidation there and some waiting for the right time.

"The self I meet coming and going is, I confess, relentlessly unexceptional. I'm a large man, like my father, and the resemblance has always been a source of pleasure to me. I loved him more than I can say, so much that even now, many years after his death, it's hard for me to hear, much less speak, a word against him. Still, there's also something bittersweet about our resemblance. I am, I believe, an intelligent man, but I'll admit this isn't always the impression I convey to others. Over the course of a lifetime a man will overhear a fair number of remarks about himself and learn from them how very wide is the gulf between his public perception and the image he hopes to project. I've always known that there's more going on inside me than finds its way into the world, but this is probably true of everyone. Who doesn't regret that he isn't more fully understood? I tend to be both self-conscious and reticent. Where others regret speaking in haste, wishing they could recall some unkind or ill-considered opinion, I more often have occasion to regret what I've not said. Worse, these regrets accumulate and become a kind of verbal dam, preventing utterance of any sort until the dam finally breaks and I blurt something with inappropriate urgency, the time for that particular observation having long passed. As a result, until people get to know me, they often conclude that I'm slow, and in this I'm also like my father.
I don't remember how old I was the first time I overheard somebody call Big Lou Lynch a buffoon, but it so surprised me that I looked the word up in the dictionary, convinced I'd somehow mistaken its meaning. This was probably the first time I recognized how deeply unkindness burrows and how helpless we are against it. At any rate, I've noticed that people who eventually come to like me often seem embarrassed to, almost as if they need to explain. Though I've been well and truly loved, perhaps more than I've deserved, my father is the only person in my life to love me uncritically, which may be why I find it impossible to be critical of him. In one other respect, I'm also my father's son: we both are optimists. It is our nature to dwell upon our blessings. What's given is to us more important than what's withheld, or what's given for a time and then taken away. Until he had to surrender it, too young, my father was glad to have his life, as I am to have mine."
(p. 12)

April 22, 2015

We usually expand our capacities without changing our lives.

Illustration by Zohar Lazar (for The New Yorker)

The Driver's Seat
By Adam Gopnik

I first read this on a flight home from my Savannah/Charleston/Nashville trip, where I logged approximately 15 hours in a car but 0 hours of the driving. (Many thanks to my friend Christina who graciously offered her car & driving skills when we first decided to do this trip.) I got my license when I was 17, the day before I graduated from high school. I had no real intention of using it often -- at least not then -- but I wanted to get the process of getting one over with. (I'm glad I did--I have friends who still haven't received theirs & it would be a bitch for me personally to try and do it now.) But still today, I don't entirely consider myself a driver. This is the lamest of all things, but I still haven't really driven long distances (or on high/freeways) without the assistance of a driving instructor. Currently, I don't feel like I need it. But when I take trips such as the one last month, it hits home-- it's a skill I should have and I should start building the confidence to be able to do so regularly, or at least at a moment's notice. I took refresher courses when I moved back home after graduating college. And last year when my mom went abroad for three months for new job training and I became the temp head of the household, I drove frequently (locally) to get things done. It was nice. I enjoyed the freedom and power being able to drive a car gives you. But as soon as my mom returned, I happily resigned myself to the passenger seat.
This is all to say I really loved this essay about a middle-aged man's experience of learning how to drive. And I want to be a better driver!

"The discrepancy between difficulty and danger is our civilization's signature, from machine guns to atomic bombs. You press a pedal and two tons of metal lurches down the city avenue; you pull a trigger and twenty enemies die; you waggle a button and cities burn. The point of living in a technologically advanced society is that minimal effort can produce maximal results. Making hard things easy is the path to convenience; it is also the lever of catastrophe. The realization of how close to disaster we were at every moment helped press my panic button, and, while Arturo's singing and commentary reduced the panic some, I tried to find other ways to overcome it as well."

"My not driving was, in some sense, a response to his driving all the time. We make ourselves in our father's sunshine but also in his shadow; what he beams down we bend away from."

"I put the license away in my wallet and have not had a chance to use it since. We usually expand our capacities without changing our lives. People go off to meditation retreats and come back to their Manhattan existence; on the whole, they are not more serene, but they are much more knowing about where serenity might yet be found. People go to cooking school and don't cook more; but they know how to cook. Dr. Johnson was once asked why he always rushed to look at the spines of books in the library when he arrived at a new house. "Sir, the reason is very plain," he said. "Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it." Almost all of our useful knowledge is potential knowledge.
The potentials may serve merely as vicarious experience, but almost all experience is vicarious: that's why we have stories and movies and plays and pictures. It's why we have drive-in movies in summer towns. We expand our worlds through acts of limited empathy more than through plunges into unexpected places. My father's "Now you know how to drive" had wisdom buried in its simplicity. The highlights of life are first unbelievably intense and then absurdly commonplace. I am now a licensed driver. But almost everybody is a licensed driver. Having a child born is a religious experience. But everybody has kids. Everybody drives, and now I can, too. That's all, and enough. Now I can drive straight across the country, without a stoplight. I don't think I ever will. But at least I know I can."

"There is a postscript to the story. My father called in early January to say that, on the eve of his eightieth birthday, he had been forced to take a driving test.
“But it wasn’t a driving test—” my mother interrupted, not for the first time in their sixty-some years together.
“I’m getting there,” he said, sounding unusually testy with her.
It had been a very Canadian test, he explained, a vision examination allied to a reading test, conducted in a friendly spirit—but its dagger end was present. One of the eighty-year-olds tested had had his license taken away, never to drive again. Social life involves being sorted by a few others who have, by the rest of us, been given the power to sort. Our illusion is that it ends on graduation, from one school or another, when one teacher passes us, and then passes us on. But it never really does. We go on being driven and sorted, until at last we’re sorted out, and driven home."

April 21, 2015

Most of the time, the universe speaks to us very quietly.

via instagram.com/noeliasophia
Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe

Look at how the subway car floors resemble the night sky in the picture above! Could have never seen them that way until the moment I laid the book on my lap. Kind of beautiful, no? Yumi Sakugawa's illustrations are whimsical and charming. A comfort. I bought this book for a friend and a month later could not resist purchasing one for myself. I needed it, too. I needed it today. Felt so defeated, tired. Sometimes putting in maximum effort doesn't yield maximum results. I hate wasted energy and feeling like what you do is not enough. But maybe I'm exerting energy on the wrong things. Not sure. This book teaches: sometimes, you just need to take a deep breath. Re-evaluate. Many gems in this one, and I can't decide which page to post. It's 4:30AM and it's quiet save for the sound of a bird chirping outside and my head feels the clearest it's been all day. Maybe this:

by Yumi Sakugawa (p. 25)

April 06, 2015

Life is most transfixing when you are awake to diversity, not only of ethnicity, ability, gender, belief, and sexuality but also of age and experience.

Illustration by Roman Muradov (for The New Yorker)

The Middle of Things: Advice for Young Writers
By Andrew Solomon

I like this:

"When one is young and eager, one aspires to maturity, and everyone older would like nothing better than to be young. We have equal things to teach each other. Life is most transfixing when you are awake to diversity, not only of ethnicity, ability, gender, belief, and sexuality but also of age and experience. The worst mistake anyone can make is to perceive anyone else as lesser. The deeper you look into other souls—and writing is primarily an exercise in doing just that—the clearer people’s inherent dignity becomes. So I would like to be young again—for the obvious dermatological advantages, and because I would like to recapture who I was before the clutter of experience made me a bit more sagacious and exhausted. What I’d really like, in fact, is to be young and middle-aged, and perhaps even very old, all at the same time—and to be dark- and fair-skinned, deaf and hearing, gay and straight, male and female. I can’t do that in life, but I can do it in writing, and so can you. Never forget that the truest luxury is imagination, and that being a writer gives you the leeway to exploit all of the imagination’s curious intricacies, to be what you were, what you are, what you will be, and what everyone else is or was or will be, too."

I'll be back again soon.