Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Human Project

I discovered a new podcast and I am obsessed.  It's called Other People with Brad Listi.  I want to say it's a podcast for writers and book lovers, but that might not be the right description. The show's tagline is "in-depth, inappropriate interviews with authors," which makes me laugh and also reminds me how badly Lukis and I need a tagline for our movies podcast, Rabbit Hat Fix.  If you have a good one for our bastion of 90s movies, please email me!  If we use it, we will give you credit, props, and some kind of demented present.  

Speaking of book lovers, even though I can disappear into a book for whole days, I've never considered myself one.  I went on Good Reads once and had to leave because I got confused.  When people recommend a book to me, it takes six or seven times before I think, Hey, maybe I should read that.  Or, I stumble upon a book that my mom has recommended repeatedly and, finally reading it, go tearing around my days, my brain jacked up on its story like a frat kid on a coke binge. OHHHHHHH, I say to myself, this is what she was trying to tell me.

I think I might be an idiot, but that's neither here nor there.  I am constantly amazed at how "late" I come to things: marriage, vocation, Weezer.  When I discovered Wilco in my twenties, I called my friend from Chicago and terrorized her.  Why didn't you tell me about these guys?!  When I first pressed play on Summerteeth, I realized how egregiously I had wasted my youth.  I quickly caught up on early albums and Uncle Tupelo lore before disappearing down a hole of Tweedy fandom where I have lived ever since. 

So maybe you already know about Other People with Brad Listi.  If so, good for you, and I mean that sincerely.  You are probably also one of those people who exercise regularly without getting into a fight with yourself about it, and actually prefer eating vegetables to granola for dinner.  Really, good for you.  That must be awesome!

I recently listened to an Other People episode featuring Jennifer Michael Hecht, whose strangely beautiful poem appeared on that website I'm always raving about.  (Incidentally, while I adore The Writer's Almanac, I generally run screaming when Prairie Home Companion comes on the radio.) 

Hecht's newest book came out in November, and is titled Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It.  With how often I muse on the subject of suicide, like here and here, it might seem like I am obsessed with the topic.  I'd like to go on the record as saying I am more interested in the ways we are connected as human beings, and how much our spiritual evolution depends on being there for one another.  Suicide seems, to me, a dire forgetting of this connection. 

The statistics for how suicide influences others inside communities touched by it are astounding.  This is before you get into the depression, anxiety, and anger it causes loved ones of those who take their own life.  This is not to say I pass judgment on those who make that choice, but I do grieve deeply when it happens, even when I don't know the person.  If suicide prompts that response in a total stranger, I can only imagine the havoc it wreaks on those who are personally touched by it.

Hecht puts it beautifully her interview with Brad, who started the ambitious arts & culture website The Nervous Breakdown.  In the interview, they discuss her book and the philosophers who have written or spoken about suicide eloquently throughout history.  I am paraphrasing here, because I was cooking ground turkey while I listened to the episode and wasn't about to touch my computer with scary turkey hands, but in the interview Hecht says something like: The human project is very real, and we must keep up the beauty of it.  Meaning, I think, we are all going somewhere as a people, and we are citizens in this project of caring.  Her book Stay might therefore be an argument to consider the people around you when you are at your lowest, as much as it is an attempt to raise the issues of isolation, loneliness, and despair to the surface of our conversations, so we can take care of one another and stay connected to this project of being human together. 

This past weekend brought the chance to dive into Allie Brosh's Hyperbole and a Half, a book our friend sent in an excellent care package.  I laughed so hard I cried while reading it.  And while Brosh has two beautiful chapters about her own time facing down suicidal thoughts, her pieces about adopted dogs and a goose in the house are really what stole my heart. 

In HAAH, Brosh writes about her sometimes illogical interactions with the world, and how she gets upset that the world doesn't always behave as she wants it to.  I realized, reading the book, this is how I interact with getting dressed: I know it has to happen, every single day, but I still get mad when I have to do it.  An illogical series of thoughts happens in my brain, and I don't really understand why I have to get out of my pajamas.  This happens every single day, unless there is a trip to a donut shop or a breakfast diner in the works.  In those instances, I can hardly wait to get dressed, because there may be nothing sadder than not being able to get dressed for the prospect of hot coffee and treats. 

Anyway, here's to all you, and the human project of which we are all a part. 

With love,

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Essay / Essayer

Our house fell under an evil flu-like spell upon our return from Christmas break, and as Tim and I convalesce, our humidifier pumps steam at all hours of the day.  I feel like the grandfather character in Stuart Dybek's Chopin in Winter.  That lovely story hovers in my memory this week as steam fogs the windows. 

I also feel exceptionally close to my reading life, and have been blowing through essays lately.  Some I like, some, not so much. 

Anyway, my whole point here is that I've been sick, and as in pregnancy, I feel like I really know how to be sick, you know?  It seems like me and pajamas were made for each other, and if I start reading only to look up three hours later without having stood once, I feel okay with that. 

Once I rest, though, and I mean, truly rest, I return to the world with renewed energy and greater perspective.  It's like, rather than taking LSD, I just come down with a cold instead.  From what I hear, the mind-expanding results of taking LSD are about the same as ones I get from laying around in bed for a week. 

In one of the ridiculously smarty-pants essays in Zadie Smith's book Changing My Mind, she discusses E.M. Forster's role in the British canon, and mentions that the author found it increasingly necessary to open his mind and spirit as he aged. 

She highlights a paragraph he quoted in a BBC Talk, from a memoir called As We Are:

"Unfortunately there comes to the majority of those of middle age an inelasticity not of physical muscle and sinew alone but of mental fibre.  Experience has its dangers: it may bring wisdom, but it may also bring stiffness and cause hardened deposits in the mind, and its resulting inelasticity is crippling."

I was sort of jolted awake when I read Forster' take on humanism:  "Do we, in these terrible times [WWII], want to be humanists or fanatics? I have no doubt as to my own wish, I would rather be a humanist with all his faults, than a fanatic with all his virtues." 

If an old British novelist doesn't let himself grow certain and crotchety, what excuse do any of us have for doing so? 

I wrote recently about the hibernation that has taken over the majority of my pregnancy so far, and while it is winter in Colorado, and the roofs and sidewalks are coated in a fine crust of snow, and crows flit imperially around the open skies, roosting like paper cuts in naked trees, well, it's also the start of a new year and time, perhaps, to turn over some of those dead, wintry leaves skittering around my head. 

I also keep thinking about the epigraph in Changing My Mind, a quote from Katherine Hepburn's character in The Philadelphia Story, a movie that Smith adores and really is just about as perfect a movie as they come.  The quote? 

The time to make up your mind about people is never!

Well.  I've been meditating on that one for days.  I've been thinking back on my fall and how crabby I was for much of it, and how much that crabbiness can be traced to the stories I was telling myself about life around me. 

I once heard a definition of insanity as being at war with "what is."  I don't think the person saying it was referring to a traditional definition of insanity.  I remembered it because that's exactly what emotional resistance feels like to me: a riot of insanity on the cellular level, like a thousand tiny bonfires eating away at peace. 

Geez, that's a lot to think about.  Happy Freaking New Year!! 

The real reason I wrote today was to post some pictures of my trip to Ohio with Tim, Ohio where the skies are gray and the dispositions a great spectrum of taupes, beiges, and milky yellows.  I can't say why I love it there so much, although I know the land has something to do with it.  And the skies.  What can I say?  I'm a sucker for open spaces.  They make me want to drag out every book I've been meaning to read and sit down and read them all, and one day a week later look up proudly at a pile of books I've chewed through and say to myself, See those books?  Written by people you don't even like?  You gave them a chance!  Aren't you a grown-up!

Seriously, though, Happy New Year!  May your year be full of good intentions and two hundred corrections, so we all end up as sunny as we possibly can be.

With love,