What a child remembers

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Days after he received the Nobel Prize for Literature,  Albert Camus wrote a letter to his elementary school teacher to thank him for the kindness shown him as a pupil. I was reminded of this letter today when I read this article.  (Link opens another tab.)

The letter in turn reminded me of one kind deed that my late aunt (my late uncle’s wife) showed me on my birthday when I was still 9 or 10 years old. I have many memories of my childhood, both sad and happy ones, but the memory of my aunt giving me money and kissing me on the cheek on my birthday because she said I looked so sad (and I was because my parents had nothing special to give me then!) is still as vivid in my mind as on the day it happened.
It seems to me a kindness shown a child remains in their memory long after they grow up and become adults themselves.

Camus’ gratitude, my own experience of remembering my aunt’s kindness and also reading the testimony of Dr. Herzenstube’s at the trial in The Brothers Karamazov, when he recounted how Dmitry as a grown man had stopped by his office to thank him for giving him (Dmitry), a pound of nuts when he was only a kid – these convince me that when you show a child kindness, they will never forget it and will remain grateful for it for the rest of their lives.

Some may say, this world can show many adults who had received kindness from their parents yet are ungrateful to them. Perhaps so, but the kindness or love from parents are to be expected because the parents had brought their children to this world. It is when the kindness is unexpected that the impact is stronger and therefore unforgettable.

Camus’ teacher was not family; Dr. Herzenstube was not family to Dmitry; my aunt was family, but not my parent, and she had her own 7 children! They did not have to do what they did; but they did it, and that’s what made the children who were recipient of their kindness, remember them well for, into their adult lives.
A child never forgets an unexpected act of kindness. Be kind to a child when you see one. You’ll never know when this child will show you his gratitude.
—-

Here is Camus’ letter to his elementary school teacher:

Dear Monsieur Germain,

I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honor, one I neither sought nor solicited. But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened. I don’t make too much of this sort of honor. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

Albert Camus

Absence: A Haiku

Liberty State Park, New Jersey

Everything’s the same

The view, the sounds and the breeze —

But now there’s just me.

A humble haiku version of one of my favorite poems, Absence by Elizabeth Jennings.

Arachne: A Haiku

Day and night she spins,

Weaving an intricate design

Borne of human pride.

—-

I don’t have a picture of a spider or a spider’s web, so this handwoven straw fan would have to do. It probably wasn’t human pride that led the maker of this fan to become a weaver, and no Athena to punish her, but like Arachne, he/she has to work hard.

Being alone in old age

“No one should be alone in their old age. But it is unavoidable.” Santiago in Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

I think I have written on this theme before, but I am reminded of this again recently rereading Old Man and the Sea and also by something I saw while walking at the park one evening.

While walking at the park a few evenings ago, when the lights had not been turned on yet although it was already a little dark (the lights are turned on at 6:30 in the evening), I saw this tiny, frail-looking white-haired woman, her back hunched, sitting alone on a bench under a tree.

I don’t know her story, maybe it’s not a sad one, but it made me think how at my age now, I love having a “ME” time — being alone during the day and certain of company later in the day when my husband comes home, having someone to talk with about how our day went.

Many times I have heard parents of young children and teenagers complaining about how they don’t have time for themselves and cannot wait for the time when their children become adults and leave the house. But I have also heard many older parents who talk about missing their adult children and hoping, waiting for them to visit or even just call.

Sometimes we behave as if we will always be what we are at present — strong, healthy, not needing anybody. I think the more often we remind ourselves that one day we will need company, one day we will need help, one day we will miss our children, one day we will fear being alone — the more gracious we will be in living our present lives, and the kinder we will be to people whom we think we have no need for at present.

Sure, aging parents can be a burden sometimes, especially when they become demanding or even mean. But perhaps it is their illness that makes them so; they would probably never think of saying or doing these things when they still had full control of themselves. Perhaps they need compassion and understanding more than anything.

I learned this from my mother whose own mother disliked her when my grandmother was still strong and able. But when my grandmother became sick and unable to walk, my mother came and offered to help and forced us, her daughters to help as well. At first my grandmother still refused to talk to my mother but after a while she probably realized my mother was not going anywhere. They were able to forgive each other before my grandmother died. My mother’s humility in front of my grandmother and her sincerity in helping her in her hour of need made an impression on us, her children. My mother was not perfect, but we loved her and took care of her the best way we could. From her we learned that though your parents made mistakes, they did raise you the best way they knew how, and just as you have compassion on strangers who are suffering, you can be compassionate with the ones who loved you enough to try to give you a better life than the one they lived.

We are all going to grow old and weak, if we don’t leave this world earlier than expected.

The sooner we realize this, the more compassionate we will become.

Blessings. 🙏🏽

T.

“Howards End” and the idea of death

“Death destroys a man; the idea of death saves him.” — E.M. Forster, Howards End

I read Howards End last week, and I made several notes on it on my Kindle, but for now I want to write about this line spoken by Helen Schlegel as she was talking with Leonard.

Death does destroy a human being, literally — our bodies decay with death. But the idea of death is what drives most of us to live our lives the best we can. Knowing that there is an end or becoming aware that the end is near, people tend to try to become their better selves — asking forgiveness, fixing broken relationships, showing kindness, completing tasks, etc.

Though I am afraid of a painful death, death itself, to me, is not something to be feared, but something that is merely necessary. It can be a hassle when you have responsibilities that you cannot simply entrust to somebody else, but you know it is a fact of life.

In the novel, Helen says: “I love Death — not morbidly, but because He explains.” And she goes on to explain how with Death, one can see the emptiness of Money.

Death does explain this and much more to us, but the idea of death leads us to ask the questions that really matter:

Why am I here if I’m only going to die? How can I make good use of my borrowed time in this life?

There’s not much use asking where you’re going after you die. It’s enough to answer the two questions above and live your life with purpose and passion.

May you find purpose for and passion in living your life. 🙏🏽

T.

On Chekhov’s The Death of a Clerk: When Something Means Nothing

Hardly anyone can stop oneself from sneezing, so when a clerk, Ivan Dmitrich Cherviakov sneezed in the middle of an opera, he accidentally sprayed the man in front of him, a general who served in the Department of Transportation. (I know some people don’t think of covering their mouths when they cough or sneeze, so I’m guessing this main character is of that kind.) He apologized to the general who simply dismissed it as nothing of importance, but our hero was convinced that the general did not believe it was unintentional and thought of him (Cherviakov) as being rude. Hence, he tried to apologize again, even going to his office days after the incident. In the end the general got extremely annoyed with the clerk Cherviakov and yelled at him to get out of his office.

The clerk deeply affected by this treatment, went home and died.

Sometimes we tend to attach meaning to actions of people who may not have meant for those actions to mean anything. Simply put, we misunderstand/misread/misconstrue people’s actions.

Such is what happened with Cherviakov. He was convinced that he made a bad impression on the general and wanted to rectify it even after the general had said, “Never mind, never mind” and later, “I’ve already forgotten it, and you keep at it.” He could not accept the fact that the general was dismissive of something he thought was important. He misread the general’s annoyance with his (Cherviakov’s) pestering him for the latter’s refusal to accept his sincere apology.

This is all too common. I know I was guilty of this in my past relationship when I was young and very immature: I insisted on being offended over something so inconsequential just because I wanted attention.

Some people simply lack the capacity to ignore paltry matters. Everything has meaning even when there’s none.

It is not uncommon to hear from someone you know about how offended they felt about something that somebody had said to them, or the look that was thrown at them by somebody, although you may personally think that it was not intended to mean anything.

Especially on social media today — a friend may post something like a meme, and another will think it is directed at him.

These days people get offended so easily. When have we become so weak? Why can’t we be like the general and simply let go of minor nuisances? Why do we have to be like the clerk who kept harping on something that the general dismissed as nothing of importance and for which Cherviakov later died?

The only one we are hurting by being too concerned about trivial matters such as what the clerk experienced, is ourselves because realizing that nobody else cares about what we deem important will just hurt us even more.

Let’s not allow trivialities to annoy us to death. 😉

Happy weekend! 💕

T.

On Friendships, Secrets and Hemingway

“THERE’S no such thing as autobiography.  There’s only art and lies.” 
— Jeanette Winterson.

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Friends are people with whom you share some of your deepest secrets, with the hope and faith that they would carry these secrets with them to the grave. But as it is, some friends are simply incapable of keeping secrets. If your friend is married, know for sure that your friend’s spouse will know your secret. In today’s world, especially among young people there doesn’t seem to be any secrets at all. The idea of “secret” seems to be dying. Everything is posted on social media for the world to know.

Still, how would you feel if you actually had an extremely embarrassing secret and told your best friend about it, and the next day when you woke up, you checked your Twitter only to find out you have become famous after your friend had posted your embarrassing secret on Twitter for everyone on Twitterverse to enjoy making memes about?

Since last year I had been re-reading Hemingway, but this year was the first time I read “A Moveable Feast.” I enjoyed reading it until I reached the part where he wrote about Fitzgerald. And I was just disappointed.

When I started reading it, I did not think of it as a memoir and simply enjoyed his description of his life in Paris — his struggles, the people he met and spoke with and his impressions of them. I did not even mind so much the things he wrote about Gertrude Stein as I did not feel there was real friendship between them.

But with Fitzgerald it was different. Here was someone who trusted him, and told him something very personal, obviously in confidence, and he wrote about it for all the world to read and know about a very private thing about someone he considered his friend.

I guess writers, artists have been doing this for ages — writing about someone in their life including what has been told them in confidence — and not thinking about how their revelation will impact the life not only of the one they are writing about, but also of those related to the person, their spouse, children, great-grandchildren.

If Hemingway had made an effort to protect his friend, he would not have been so explicit in sharing Fitzgerald’s problem to the world. He was quite careful in not saying so much about his then-wife and child, which shows that he could have refrained from revealing too much about Fitzgerald. As it is, the part on Fitzgerald just came out gossipy and not a gentlemanly thing to say at all.

Maybe it’s just me, but reading “A Moveable Feast” changed my mind about Hemingway, especially that he said this about Dostoevsky, my favorite author, “How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly and make you feel so deeply?” This book made me “feel so deeply” but not in a good way.

“Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night”

Three years ago this month, I lost my mother. And every year this month, I buy flowers (pictured below) that I put next to her photograph. Every year in March, as I look at both flowers and my mom’s photograph, I am reminded of the uncertainty of life, of its ephemerality and the sadness that comes with being left behind by those who go before us.

This month my musing on the transiency of life is made even sadder by the thought of 2 of my best friends facing serious illnesses. My 3 best friends, unlike me who wanted to die at 20, have always wanted to live long, happy, healthy lives.

For the lovers of life, I hope you never lose that WILL to live even when doctors give you that diagnosis that sounds like a death sentence. I hope in your heart will burn that desire to prove the doctors wrong and that you “RAGE against the dying of the light.” ♥️

T.

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night

by Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

South Korea blues

After 14 years, she finally saw him again. He was waiting for her at the airport. They saw each other at the same time. They hugged and laughed, incredulous at seeing each other again after that quick goodbye at an airport in China like a lifetime ago.

For the next three days, they went out to a number of places, different cities, exploring like they were racing against time.

But the truth is, they really were — they are — racing against time.

And as they drove past Surisan Mountain on her last day in the country, she thought to herself, “Goodbye, Surisan,” because she knew her voice would break if she said it out loud. But then she heard his voice as he said, “Goodbye, mountain,” like he knew exactly what she was thinking (perhaps he did.) And that was all it took to make the tears fall, and she looked away, trying not to let him see as she wiped the tears away.

They had said goodbye so many times before.

But this was different.

T. 💞

*****************************

A few minutes before landing in Incheon

Banwol Lake, Gunpo

DMZ, Imjingak

Sanbon Catholic Church, Gunpo

Blue and white and green — photos taken in Chomakgol Ecopark

View of Surisan from Chomakgol Ecopark

Main Gate of Seoul National University

Incheon Bridge on a cloudy day

The Indignity of Old Age and Dying

“..Death tears away the veil from all our secrets, our shifty dodges and intrigues.” – Dostoevsky, Mr. Prohartchin

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Taiwushan Cemetery, Kinmen, Taiwan

Death can’t reveal all of our secrets, because some of them we carry to our graves. But death can literally reveal what we keep hidden underneath our clothes; when we die (if our bodies are intact) then our bodies become mere objects seen quite objectively by doctors, nurses and embalmers, all strangers to our bodies. But of course one can rationalize this and say, “Who cares? The dead don’t.”

Perhaps people will say I overthink things when I say this, but I feel nothing but compassion for sick people in hospitals and how their bodies become merely like an object that the healthy can just point to or talk about as if it is lifeless. I felt this the first time I saw my mother being given a sponge bath by my sister. I felt this as I stood next to my mother’s bed as she lay there in pain, while the nurses were changing her clothes. I witnessed the indignity of aging, and it made me feel so so sorry for us, human beings.

Hopefully one day we won’t have to deal with incontinence, hip fractures, loss of mobility, etc. and just go quietly with dignity intact.

Meaning and Purpose in Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”

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In general, there are two kinds of people according to how they view their life: those who continually search for meaning and purpose in life, and those who don’t. These two kinds of people come to the same end, however. They die. We die. But that time just before death is where the dying differ. Those who believe (even without any real proof) that they have found meaning and fulfilled their purpose in life, pass confidently though sadly, and those who feel they have unfulfilled promises or dreams or tasks left undone, leave bitterly.

In my lifetime, I have seen enough number of dying people to see this. It is always sad as I know it is the fate of each and every one of us.

Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go” reminds me of that sadness I feel when pondering on the fate of human beings. At first I found this novel disturbing and then extremely sad; and only today, two days after I finished reading the novel, did I finally realize what I found so sad about it.

It is not that the “students” unquestioningly accept their fate of dying young because they are mere clones, created to become organ donors.
It is not that despite their being more humane than the humans who created and raised them, the latter are repulsed by them.

Rather it is that human beings despite their being “superior” to the clones, are ignorant of the real meaning and purpose of their existence, while the clones aren’t. Hence, the former can face death which they aptly call “completing” without fear or regret, albeit with a little sadness. Ishiguro found the perfect word to call death in this novel. When the clones die from having donated their organs, it is because they have accomplished or “completed” the purpose of their existence.

There are people who are convinced that they know their purpose for being in this world – they have faith or they make up their own purpose, but is it really the real purpose for our existence? How will we know for sure?

This is why I envy the clones in the novel, at least there is no doubt in their heads why they exist. For somebody outside looking in, it is a very sad existence, but the “students” in Hailsham had a happy childhood, lots of fun memories, and there was no question in their head as to what was going to happen to them, how their lives would end. As for us, humans, though we know our time is limited, and we attach all kinds of meaning or purpose for our lives, in the end we are all Jon Snow.

We know nothing.

Daily Prompt: Grit 


By understanding the enemy and yourself, you can engage in a hundred battles without ever being in danger.”   Sun Zi 孙子

This is good advice not only for those who have enemies but also those who battle challenges, temptations. Some of us don’t have enemies, but on a daily basis we are confronted with situations that test the firmness of our character, our grit.

As important as knowing what we are up against is knowing what we are and what we are not capable of doing. We need an honest assessment of ourselves and work from there. If we truly understand who or what we are up against, and we truly understand our strengths and weaknesses, we can be confident of not being defeated.

You can play with fire with the confidence that you won’t get burned. 😁
T.
(I’ve been rereading Sun Zi’s Art of War. It’s always an interesting read.)

“Too much love will kill you” 

The title of this post is in quotation marks because it’s a reference to Queen’s song of the same title.  I was reminded of this song after I finished reading Balzac’s Father Goriot, which is such a tragic novel about a man who had spoiled his beautiful daughters, sacrificed himself for them but whom he didn’t get to even see before he died.

M. Goriot’s mistake was loving his daughters too much that he forgot to teach them what they needed to learn to be able to live independently. Perhaps his spoiling them was his way of making himself feel needed by his children for the rest of his life. And that he surely got from them — they needed and got his money until he was left with nothing except for the rags he was wearing.

One of his daughter’s, Anastasie, also made the same mistake in loving a man (not her husband) who made her happy but who was only using her to support his gambling. She gave up everything — husband, children, father, her reputation for this lover who only loved her for her money.

In a lecture by the neuroscientist, Vilayanur Ramachandran, he talks about a hypothetical situation where he, in his capacity as a neuroscientist, shows a woman the brain scan of a man who is supposed to be in love with her and which parts of the brain are activated. The woman says, “My God! Is that all? It’s all a bunch of chemicals?” Ramanchadran advises the young man to say, “My dear, this proves it’s all real. I really am in love with you. I’m not faking it….” 

Now that we know that “love” is all a bunch of chemicals, we ought to be more careful about how it controls us.

If we are aware of how our bodies are reacting to the presence of another person, and we think it is “love,” we ought to ask ourselves if this “love” is right or wrong for us and the person we “love.” If it’s only “good” for our bodies, I don’t think it’s wise to simply give in. (My friend would say, “Jeez, just don’t think!” But I say, YOU HAVE TO THINK!) 

Be it romantic love or fraternal love or paternal love, our actions should be guided by reason not just by what our bodies tell us. I know sometimes it’s easier said than done, but at least we can try.

Don’t let love kill you.😇
T. 💕

Unhappy? 


Happiness may be momentary, but then so is unhappiness. One can’t be happy every second. It’s just not possible. I’m sure even the happiest person in this world has had his/her share of heartaches.  And one can’t possibly be unhappy every second. Even the most depressed person can find something to smile about, no matter how fleeting that moment may be.

I’ve been reading Balzac’s Father Goriot, and in this novel the titular character, M. Goriot devotes his life to making his two beautiful daughters happy even if they do not really care about him. His young neighbor, Eugene, asks him why he does everything for his daughters and even live so poorly when his daughters live such extravagant lives in their luxurious homes. M. Goriot replies, “Some day you will find out that there is far more happiness in another’s happiness than in your own.”

When we truly love someone — our spouses, children, siblings, parents, friends — it makes us happy to see them happy especially if we are responsible for that happiness. It does not even matter if they consciously do something to make us happy or not, just seeing the happiness reflected in their eyes is enough.

And this is proven to me every time my son laughs or smiles at something I say or do. That look on his face and the sound of his laughter give me joy that last as long as I can recall them.

It is easy to be happy: make someone happy. 💕

Have a lovely week!

T.

Thoughts on Passions, Boredom, and Kindness from Gogol’s “Dead Souls” 


It took me a while to finish reading Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls. I have to be honest and say, I did not enjoy reading it as much as I did Dostoevsky’s novels. This is bias on my part, perhaps, because I am a Dostoevsky fan. It was an almost an effort reading this novel to the end.

Still I am glad I finished reading it even though the novel itself ends in mid-sentence.

Here I would like to share some of the lines that I highlighted and why they struck me.

“For human passions are as numberless as is the sand of the seashore, and go on to become his most insistent of masters. Happy, therefore, the man who may choose from among the gamut of human passions one which is noble!” 

The mistake of Paul Ivanovitch Chichikov, the main character, is choosing the ignoble passion of greed, of wanting much more than what he has, and doing everything he can, even if it is wrong, just to get ahead.

Yes, it is human nature to desire, but not everything we desire can be ours. This is the reason it is most often not a good idea to just  do “whatever makes you happy.” If every single one of us just does whatever makes us happy, will we all be happy? Someone is bound to cry.

This is not to say that one cannot be happy without consequently hurting other people. Rather, there are many things that can make one happy that won’t hurt others at all, but there are a few things that will surely hurt the others that one cares about if one selfishly follows the desires of one’s heart. I think every human being has been through this kind of dilemma.

“Weariness of everything is a modern invention. Once upon a time one never heard of it.”

Platon Mikhalitch is a young and rich landowner who is weary of life. He finds life and work boring. He visits his neighbor, Peter Petrovich Pietukh, whom he finds annoying because the latter is always cheerful thinking of what to eat next, while he, Platon, is always gloomy.

I can understand weariness of life, and if I have a choice between a long or short life, I’d choose the latter (just until my son can live on his own). However as I still have life and the ability to move, I can think of so many things to do. The problem is not having enough time to do all the things I want to do. So I do not understand boredom when I am doing something.

Maybe it’s because people are made to think that their work has to be fun or exciting or interesting that has caused them to get bored with their jobs. WORK is work. In the past, people worked the land to put food on the table. I don’t think they considered whether it was fun to do or not. They just did it.

Now people don’t have to work so hard to put food on the table, and they get bored. Easily.

So I agree with the author: Weariness of everything is a modern invention. 

“Therefore, if it really be that you have no genuine love for doing good, do good by FORCING yourself to do so. Thus you will benefit yourself even more than you will benefit him for whose sake the act is performed.” 

Murazov spoke these words to Chichikov after the latter confessed to his lack of real love for what is good and only wants acquisition of property.

Murazov is a wise man. He knows how habits are formed. Even doing good deeds can be made into a habit. In the same way, forcing ourselves to be kind to people we don’t particularly like will benefit us even more than it will benefit them. How?

Eventually we will forget why we didn’t like them in the first place. And if we do not dislike anyone, then our minds are more at peace. Nobody’s living rent-free in our heads. (The irony is the more we dislike someone, the more often we think about them. And nothing is more annoying!)

*****

Published in 1842, Dead Souls is supposedly “widely regarded as an exemplar of 19th-century Russian literature.” But for some reason, I do not find it as interesting, as thought-provoking or as moving as The Brothers Karamazov or The Idiot or Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s novels, their characters and their stories are somehow more memorable. But as I’ve spent time on it, I made sure I learned something.

Have a peaceful week! 💕

 

T.

Thoughts after Reading Gogol’s The Overcoat 

I’m not entirely sure if it’s mere coincidence that last night I read Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat , and this afternoon, I watched the second episode of The Young Pope where Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII spoke to the faithful for the first time, and he said something like we have to be closer to God than to each other, that he will never be closer to the people than he is to God because we are all alone before God. 

Akakievitch’s death was truly tragic, just as tragic as his life. Tragic to the reader, anyway. If he existed in our times, he would probably be diagnosed as being on the spectrum and would get some help. But in the story, in his adult life, no one cared about him. 

The quote I pasted on the photo reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend a few years back. I told him how the sight of so many people who came to my father’s funeral made me think there would be very few people who would come to my own funeral because as I grow older I’ve become less sociable, less friendly. Especially now that I’ve been away from home for 14 years, and most of my friends and former students have left the city or the country, and I don’t visit friends or relatives whenever I go home; I don’t attend family (clan) reunions….

At my mother’s funeral last year, I was moved by the number of people who came to condole  with us. A lot of them I’ve never even seen before — my sisters’ co-workers and friends, my mother’s former co-workers and students, my father’s former co-workers. It was comforting to see so many people cared about my family enough to come to my mother’s  funeral. My parents were luckier than Akakievitch. 

Now and then I would remind my husband not to die ahead of me, or I would never forgive him. We often laugh when I start talking about this, but we both know I am serious. No way he’s dying before me. Good thing is we agree this is a good idea. 

Having said that, I’ve decided to try to be a little more sociable again. Not because I want people to remember me, but because I want my husband and my son to find comfort in the thought that they’re not alone, that there are people who care enough to come to my funeral. 

In today’s society where fake online friendships are common, will people care if one day you just disappear? Or will you be like Akakiy Akakievitch whose death mattered to no one? 

On Kafka’s The Trial

Franz Kafka became one of my favorite authors after I read The Metamorphosis. The two stories In the Penal Colony and The Hunger Artist” were just as interesting to me. More than a couple of times in the past years I tried to read The Trial, but I couldn’t finish reading it. Until two days ago, that is. 

After reading the last few sentences of this novel, (even though I hate to admit that this came out of my mouth,  but it really did) I went, “WTF?” And to me, that’s what I am supposed to take away from the novel — that it was simply absurd. That life is absurd. 

The only way I can explain what this novel seemed to me like is: Imagine you are dreaming, and in your dream you are the same YOU in your waking life; and even though everything and everyone else around you is acting strange, you react in the same way you would in your reality. 

The whole time I was reading, I kept asking the questions, “What was his crime? What did he do? Why weren’t they telling him? Why didn’t he insist on being clearly told what his crime was?” 

Reading this novel gave me the same kind of feeling (though not literally) that the main character, Josef K., had when he went to the court offices for the first time: “It was as if he was suffering sea-sickness.” The novel just kept getting stranger and stranger as I read. It was not like this with The Metamorphosis where I was prepared for the strangeness because right at the beginning, I knew it would be strange because — who wakes up and finds himself transformed into a giant insect? 

This novel might not have made me question and ponder on things like Dostoevsky’s novels have, but  it’s left me with a very strong feeling that life can truly seem absurd, surreal, that if we look closely into our day-to-day life, we would find a lot of absurdities. 

 ————- 

My weekend starts on a Thursday evening, so…I hope you have a not-so-absurd weekend. 🙂 

T. 

On Ideal/Real Men as Heroes 

      Two incidents brought this blog topic to mind. The first was my friend laughing at me for always, in our conversations, referencing Jack Bauer of “24” (portrayed by Kieffer Sutherland, who I still ADORE after all these years. He will always be Jack Bauer to me. Lol.) The second was reading the narrator’s description of Nikolay Vsyevolodovitch (good luck remembering the spelling!) in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed (The Devils). 
So why do I like Jack Bauer so much, even when he cold-bloodedly killed, assassinated, mutilated his enemies? Of course he is the “good guy” in the series. I know Jack Bauer is not a unique action “hero”; most action heroes are just like him: tough, cool, gentle with women and children, and merciless with bad people. (So I guess I like Jack Bauer because he’s Kieffer Sutherland!) 
Today I found the answer in Dostoevsky’s description of Nikolay:
 “Stavrogin would have shot his opponent in a duel, and would have faced a bear if necessary, and would have defended himself from a brigand in the forest as successfully and as fearlessly as L—n, but it would be without the slightest thrill of enjoyment, languidly, listlessly, even with ennui and entirely from unpleasant necessity. “
     “Without the slightest thrill of enjoyment…and entirely from unpleasant necessity. “
To me this is what distinguishes a real man from a child or a bully. When a real man defeats his enemy in a REAL fight, as in battle, (not in sports nor any game,) he does not gloat. He does not laugh. He does not feel proud at having killed another human being. Rather to him, it’s an “unpleasant necessity.”
There are bad people. “Bad” as society have judged them — the likes of former dictators who died a brutal death in the hands of their own people. The people’s anger is justified, but I find very disturbing that one can laugh about the very violent and public death of these people. If you find joy in killing a murderer or in watching his violent death, what makes you different from him?
Jack Bauer never smiled nor laughed after killing his enemies. You can say he’s a fictitious character. True. So is Nikolay. But why are these characters created? With fiction being based on reality, is it because there are REAL men like Jack Bauer and Nikolay? Or is it because these are what we hope our heroes should be?
Only a child or a bully (an adult with the mentality of a child) or a sick person, can smile or laugh at the death of his enemy.
Real men/women, tough men/women would not find the “slightest thrill of enjoyment” in defeating them.

Old Age and Dependency in Neruda’s Don’t Go Far Off

dont-go-far-off
Mindanao, Philippines 

Don’t go far off by Pablo Neruda

Don’t go far off, not even for a day, because —
because — I don’t know how to say it: a day is long
and I will be waiting for you, as in an empty station
when the trains are parked off somewhere else, asleep.

I like the hesitation expressed in the repetition of “because,” as it seems the speaker seems unsure whether the reason he is going to give for asking the other person not to go too far even for a day, would be reasonable enough for the latter. And to me, he succeeded in sounding convincing with his use of the imagery of the empty train station – empty of not only people, but of the trains as well as they are “parked off somewhere else, asleep.” This last line of the first stanza emphasizes his feeling of emptiness – everyone and everything else has gone and they are asleep (not dead, just having a rest), which I think signals what the speaker himself is going through (revealed in the last line of the last stanza.)

Don’t leave me, even for an hour, because
then the little drops of anguish will all run together,
the smoke that roams looking for a home will drift
into me, choking my lost heart.

His demand not to be left alone becomes urgent as he argues even an hour would be too long. He knows himself and knows that slowly but surely anguish will come in full force. I think “smoke” here refers to fear that can overwhelm a person and make one’s heart rate grow faster thus “choking my lost heart.”

Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;
may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.
Don’t leave me for a second, my dearest,

Whereas in the first and second stanzas, he gives reasons for not wanting the other to leave him (he will be waiting, feeling empty; he will be full of anguish and be heartbroken), in the third stanza, he reveals further that he is not only thinking of physical distance, but emotional as well – “may your eyelids never flutter into the empty distance.” These words show the total dependence of the speaker to the other person. He never wants to lose sight of this person (“Oh, may your silhouette never dissolve on the beach;”), nor to have this person not being in the present with him. From not being able to be without this person for a day, then for an hour, then for a second, the speaker obviously relies heavily on the other person for his existence.

because in that moment you’ll have gone so far
I’ll wander mazily over all the earth, asking,
Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?

Normally, I would be very cynical about people being too dependent on other people, emotionally. But I totally understand that certain people like the elderly and young children, and people with certain developmental disorders cannot help being so. And this is how I see the speaker of this poem. He is not a young and healthy man in the best years of his life. Rather he is old, and nearing his end and fears dying alone. This is not a man speaking to his lover, but a mere human being asking the one he trusts not to leave him, physically and emotionally.

This is not a love poem.

A couple of times, I have heard old men, who when they were young, were once brave soldiers and then, stern fathers; but, as they became old and frail, they became fearful of being left alone, begging their children not to leave them. This, I find extremely sad.

This is perhaps the saddest Neruda poem I have ever read.

 

Here’s the Spanish version (probably the original)

“No lejos de mí un solo día”
Pablo Neruda

No estés lejos de mí un solo día, porque cómo,
porque, no sé decirlo, es largo el día,
y te estaré esperando como en las estaciones
cuando en alguna parte se durmieron los trenes.

No te vayas por una hora porque entonces
en esa hora se juntan las gotas del desvelo
y tal vez todo el humo que anda buscando casa
venga a matar aún mi corazón perdido.

Ay que no se quebrante tu silueta en la arena,
ay que no vuelen tus párpados en la ausencia:
no te vayas por un minuto, bienamada,

porque en ese minuto te habrás ido tan lejos
que yo cruzaré toda la tierra preguntando
si volverás o si me dejarás muriendo.

 

 

On Reality

reality

When I was still a child, I often heard my mother tell people about how I liked to look up at the sky —  wondering, (over)thinking, imagining, which was why she didn’t let me wash the dishes. It took me forever to finish.

These days I find myself doing the same thing — taking some time to finish washing the dishes because I keep looking up at the sky from my kitchen window and wondering, “Is there somebody up there watching us live our lives here below?”

I shared this thought with my husband, who simply laughed and said, “Oh, yes! And they are looking down and saying, ‘Oh look at this cute little girl bravely asking such questions!” (Let me be clear on this one: No one else thinks I’m cute except my husband. That’s why he’s my husband.) 

Ever since I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Marquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” and Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” over twenty years ago, I’ve always wondered about the nature of “reality.” I remembered asking the question, what if there was another world where their idea of reality is different from ours?

It was a few years later that I read Bradbury’s stories, and watched “The Matrix” and my idea of “reality” was further changed. Two years ago I watched “Interstellar” and the scene where Cooper was finally able to communicate with Murph (they once thought there was a “ghost”) made me think of what we think is “real” or “imagined.”(Some of my friends who are into science fiction weren’t very impressed with “Interstellar,”  but I’m not a big sci-fi fan, so it was very impressive for me.) 

These days there are more and more people talking  about the simulation hypothesis and consciousness and how human beings can suddenly change because of some damage to the brain. Reading about the brain and consciousness and theories on reality and our existence makes me even more eager to know the truth about our existence, our reality.

Just yesterday I started watching the HBO TV series, Westworld, and perhaps this is the reason at 11:31 in the evening I am still up writing this. Hopefully with the popularity of this TV series, more people will be asking questions about our existence and actively seek answers to these questions.

Who are we?

I really want to know.

 

Self-made Prisons: Thoughts on Dostoevsky’s The House of the Dead

house-of-the-dead    I just finished reading Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead or Prison Life in Siberia, and as I was reading about the different people he met in prison — the ones he liked, disliked, tried to avoid — I couldn’t help feeling life itself is like a prison. This feeling was made stronger after a friend complained about the shamelessness of a former colleague who had lied about his condition to the employer. He said he couldn’t stand working at the same place as this unscrupulous person. So I said to my friend, “I told you this is like prison. You can’t choose your prison mates!” 🙂
The main character, Alexander Petrovich, a noble, observed the peasants in the same prison he was in and said, “…you’ll never know what is at the bottom of the man’s mind or heart. You may think you know something about him, but it is all optical illusion, nothing more.” Isn’t this true of people, in general? It is truly impossible to know one person fully. How many times have you been surprised or shocked by something done by a person you think you know inside out, something so out of character?
Petrovich also said this of Suchiloff, the man who volunteered himself to serve the former, “It is indeed difficult to know a man, even after having lived long years with him.”
In our lifetime we sometimes have to live, study or work with people we do not like. It is stressful to always try to be polite with them, which we still do because it is what we were taught to do since we were kids. Be nice. Be polite. Be courteous. Perhaps we can learn from the main character, Alexander Petrovich, how to deal with the oppressiveness of a “prison,” surrounded by people with whom we are not comfortable: “I soon understood that work alone could save me, by fortifying my health and my body, whereas incessant restlessness of mind, nervous irritation, and the close air of the barracks would ruin them completely. I should go out vigorous and full of elasticity. I did not deceive myself, work and movement were very useful to me.”

Sometimes we create our own prisons. If we are aware that we put ourselves there, then we can get ourselves out of that prison. Unless we are too afraid of freedom, just like some convicts in Dostoevsky’s time “…poor devils who commit crimes in order to be sent to hard labour, and thus to escape the liberty which is much more painful than confinement….”
Why do some people stay in an unhealthy relationship for decades, for example? Could it be being in “prison” where their role is set is less painful? Or the person they are with, no matter how vile, is predictable and therefore not as petrifying as the uncertainty that freedom brings?
I think each of us has his own “prison.” Some have luxurious “prisons” — they have a materially rich and luxurious environment, but inwardly they are tortured by their own demons. Others probably have even worse than the barracks in Siberia in the 19th century — economically poor, uneducated, unemployed living in squalor among those who want to be forgotten by society. And there are those who have just enough — neither too much nor too little — but they get bored easily, so they create their own “prisons” and for some time their minds are “occupied” as to how to get out of it, and they may or may not admit to being responsible for creating it.
The House of the Dead, like all the other novels by Dostoevsky that I have read, leads the reader to think and re-think ideas or previously held ideas about humanity — individually and as a group. One critic of Dostoevsky berated his endless psychologizing and philosophizing, but to me, these are exactly what made his novels achieve greatness. His characters are people that readers get to know deeply, and with whom we can relate because underneath all the masks worn and personality and experience of each one, is a real human being, and no matter how vile a character may be, because we get to know him, then we understand and have compassion.
I know I’ve said this before in this blog: the more Dostoevsky works I read, the more I admire the man, the more grateful I am for his words.

(The House of the Dead by Fedor Dostoieffsky with an Introduction by Julius Bramont)

On Words and Immortality

sonnet 18

I personally know a few people who look forward to the discovery of making humans immortal. Although I’d be very happy for and proud of humanity should they make such an achievement, I don’t think I will be around long enough for that, and I don’t really wish to become physically immortal.

Having recently seen someone I love suffer, I cannot see the point of prolonging one’s life if one is unable to function normally, both physically and mentally. It is heartbreaking to see a fellow human being’s condition deteriorate like that, especially when it is one you hold close to your heart. It makes you wish you were suffering instead of them.

So, no. Immortality in the physical sense is not for me.

I have said before that I would probably reconsider if life could be painless, and one could remain young and healthy. But I think that is too big a dream for humanity — one I find extremely hard to hope for.

However, some people have successfully immortalized themselves and others they cared about thru arts and literature. There are too many works and artists and writers to mention them all, but one poem that promises immortality thru poetry that has really stuck with me since I first read it as a student is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The first two quatrains of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 explains why the speaker cannot possibly liken the subject (supposedly a young man but some people insist it’s a woman; it doesn’t matter to me) to a summer’s day. The third quatrain explains further how time nor death cannot rid the subject of his/her beauty.The couplet promises eternal life to the subject, saying, for as long as people can read this poem about him/her, he/she will always live.

And the poet has been proven true to his promise. We are still reading about the young person’s beauty. You are reading about it now as you are reading my post.

To me that IS immortality.

How (in what way) would you like to be immortalized? 

Neruda’s “If You Forget Me”: A Lesson in Loving

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Centennial Park, Iligan, Philippines

Whether Pablo Neruda wrote this poem for his country, Chile, or for his wife, Matilde Urrutia does not make much difference to me. I like the kind of love portrayed in this poem. I like the tone of the speaker as he warns his lover …

“If you forget me

I want you to know
one thing. ” 

It is not the sound of a desperate, pathetic lover who begs or promises to continue  to wait even though the other has moved on.

It shows a speaker who thinks and is not controlled by silly emotions, a speaker/lover who demands reciprocity in a relationship.For truly, if one can be, and is reasonable, one will demand reciprocity in a relationship.

(Even God demands, commands love and faithfulness!)

“If suddenly
you forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.”

Who wants to be forgotten by the one person you cannot forget? Of course, trying to forget someone is easier said than done. The more you try to forget, the more you will be reminded. This is perhaps the speaker’s way of saying, “Don’t think  I will be pining for you. I will forget you before you can completely forget me!”

“If you think it long and mad,
the wind of banners
that passes through my life,
and you decide
to leave me at the shore
of the heart where I have roots,
remember
that on that day,
at that hour,
I shall lift my arms
and my roots will set off
to seek another land. 

“…and my roots will set off/ to seek another land.” This is how it should be. One should be brave in seeking and starting a new life and not waste time and energy on someone who has forgotten.

Yet….

Though the poem begins with a kind of warning, a threat as to what the speaker can do should his lover forget him, it ends with a promise, an enticement as to what he can give if his lover remains true to him,

“…ah my love, ah my own,
in me all that fire is repeated,
in me nothing is extinguished or forgotten,
my love feeds on your love, beloved,
and as long as you live it will be in your arms
without leaving mine.” 

Reciprocity.

  • Click here for the English version of the poem
  • Click here for  the Spanish version (Si Tu Mi Olvidas)
  • Click here to listen to Madonna read the English version of the poem.

Stop. Look. Listen. Feel. Be grateful. Move on. 

   

Sunset at Dalipuga, Iligan, Philippines 

One of my favorite poems that I can recite by heart is Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I kept reciting this poem to my baby when I was still pregnant, and even after my son was born. HBO’s Classical Baby The Poetry Show includes a reading of this poem by Susan Sarandon, and it is now my 5-year old son’s favorite part of the video.

A thought came to mind today as I watched my son give me the sweetest smile when the video clip began. A few months after our son was diagnosed with Autism, my husband wished Eli would not grow so quickly. Today, only for a moment I wished Eli would never grow up, so people can excuse his strange stimming habits, his speech delay and other autistic traits. Every now and then  I worry about whether or not he will be able to live independently, when my husband and I won’t be around to look after him anymore.

Frost’s poem talks about how we, once in a while, encounter something that makes us wish could last at least a lifetime, but we all have other things to do — duties, responsibilities, roles to play in other people’s lives — so we have to move on, continue living our lives.

The speaker in this poem though was truly in the moment. He   noticed his surroundings: the snow-covered woods, the frozen lake; he heard the sound of the harness bells and the wind. He also used his imagination (“My little horse must think it queer…”), and was quite aware not only of the lack of danger (…He will not see me stopping here/ To watch his woods fill up with snow), but also of his responsibilities and of the life he had to live,   (But I have promises to keep/ And miles to go before I sleep/ And miles to go before I sleep.) 

Oftentimes I look at my son and wonder what life will be like for him. Will he ever be able to speak like a neurotypical person? Will he be able to read by himself the books that he loves for me to read to him? Will he be able to write down his own name?  But then I stop myself from doing this, and instead do things with him. Not much use wondering about the future when so much of it depends on the present.

What I liked most about Frost’s poem is the idea that though we can (and we should) live our lives — face our responsibilities, fulfill our duties, find our way in the darkness — we can stop once in a while and just enjoy what we have in our lives: food on our table, clothes to keep us warm (or cool), roof over our heads,  air we breathe, water we drink, family, friendship. And love. And faith that everything will be all right in the end.

Thank you. Salamat. 谢谢。

The excitement over meeting at night

 

meeting at night

No moonlight photos because I found I have never taken good enough photos of the moon. I seldom go out at night these years. Sigh

Click here to hear a reading of the poem. 

(So why am I talking about love again? Because I’m tired of hearing people tell me I look tired or miserable. In short I’m tired of feeling tired. Logical? No? I don’t care.)

This poem has a sister poem called “Parting at Morning.” But I don’t want to talk about parting. Meetings are exciting. Partings can be beautifully sad or sadly beautiful, both of which are my usual preference, but I’m not in the mood to be sad. So, exciting things for now.

Now let’s imagine this man traveling on a boat, obviously all by himself, on a dark night and crossing quite a distance (“three fields”) to meet with his lover  — a woman (this is Victorian poetry, and we know Browning wrote this for his wife, Elizabeth Barrett, so.) He braves the darkness and the distance to be with her. One can feel the excitement in the imagery in the third and fourth lines of the second stanza. In the darkness — a small light, and a soft familiar voice.

I’ve read some analyses of this poem, but not thoroughly because I do not like to be influenced heavily by what others say about this poem. I prefer to have my own understanding of any poem. We did read this in our poetry class some twenty years ago (ouch!), all I remember is the sound of my professor’s voice reading it. It was always relaxing.

I digress. 

This poem is often interpreted as having a male speaker because the poet is male. But read the poem again and imagine the speaker being a woman. Does that work for you? It certainly does for me.

Reading this poem in the 21st century, one may ask, why can’t the speaker be a woman? Surely, women can “gain the cove with pushing prow”? Women can cross “three fields” to get to the secret meeting place? I bet a lot of women have braved weather and distances to meet with a lover.

But whether the speaker is male or female is not my main point. My main point is actually quite simple: when you’re in love and you have to meet with the object of your affection, meeting in secret, especially at night, can have its excitement that for the moment you wish would never end.

But of course it ends. Duh.

 

 

 

 

On Trying to be Good

 

Sunset over Mindanao Sea (Bohol Sea), Philippines

My heart has been “battered” for weeks now, so I’m not praying for more; but these days this sonnet has been like an earworm (brainworm) in my head.

Holy Sonnet XIV by John Donne

Batter my heart, three-person’d God ; for you
As yet but knock ; breathe, shine, and seek to mend ;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town, to another due,
Labour to admit you, but O, to no end.
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy ;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me. 
 

People raised to believe in heaven and hell, or just raised to be a good person and to be sorry for doing bad things,  most likely feel guilty for being bad and continually endeavor (and, perhaps, still fail) to be good.

The sonnet expresses that desire to be good (to be with God) again, and the supplicant is willing to be cleansed in any way (by God) just to become pure again.

Perhaps because it’s the Lenten Season, or maybe it’s just because somebody reminded me of this sonnet, that it’s stuck in my head, but it’s been awhile that I have not prayed like this.

Arrogance? I don’t think so. Too busy living? Maybe. Had enough? Well….

On living, loving and leaving

shakespeare1

Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare

That time of year thou may’st in me behold 
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, 
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day, 
As after sunset fadeth in the west, 
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest. 
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire 
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie, 
As the death-bed whereon it must expire 
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by. 
   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

 

There has been much debate on the meaning of this sonnet, particularly the last couplet:

   This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
   To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

What is the young man supposed to eventually leave before long: his friend or his own youth?

I will not join in the debate, but I am quoting the sonnet here because I was reminded of it (and John Donne’s Sonnet 10) twice today: first, when I read this poem by John White called Laughing about it ; second, when I read Temple Grandin’s tribute to Oliver Sacks, who also wrote a moving article reflecting on his relationship with his Orthodox family and the Sabbath.

Whether the speaker meant that the young man had to leave his friend or his youth, to me, is not the point, rather that the knowledge that one is leaving something valuable makes one appreciate it or love it even more.

My first real understanding of this line happened one summer day when my best friend and I stood in a forest, listening to the sound of the leaves of the trees as the breeze was passing through, and I said it was beautiful I wish it could last forever; and he said it was beautiful simply because it was not going to last.

(Not long after that my best friend left, and for a while, that memory always made me cry. But with time, I have learned to call on that memory, and it just brings a beautiful feeling.)

If we truly love someone or something –a place, a person, a pet or life itself —  the knowledge of our imminent leaving of it/them will make our love for it/them even stronger.

Perhaps it is the best way to live every minute of our short life here: to always remember that we won’t be here forever, that we are always about to leave. Perhaps then we can love wholeheartedly, not only for a minute or an hour or for a day, but for a lifetime.

On Choosing Whom to Love

fromm1b

“All my life, as soon as a person got attached to me, I did everything to distance them. The first person whom I loved and I was faithful to escaped me through drugs, through betrayal. Maybe many things came from this, from vanity, from fear of suffering further, and yet I have accepted so much suffering. But I have in turn escaped from everyone since and, in a certain way I wanted everyone to escape from me.”

“I sometimes accuse myself of being incapable of love. Maybe this is true, but I have also been able to select a few people and to take care of them faithfully, with the best of myself, no matter what they do.

– Albert Camus as quoted in Camus, A Romance by Elizabeth Hawes (I bought a hardbound copy of this book years ago, but I saw the book again yesterday as my husband and I were sorting books to throw and to keep!)

Camus was a known womanizer, he talked about loving the many women in his life in the love letters he wrote them, yet in his journals he wrote of distancing himself from them. He sometimes wondered if he was incapable of love, yet admitted to “taking care” of a few people faithfully the best he could no matter what these people did.

I am not writing to justify nor excuse Camus’ womanizing, but rereading this quote from him reminded me of how simple it can be to love somebody, truly love somebody, anybody; but people, especially men like Camus make it so complicated. To me, he WAS capable of love, and indeed he loved those whom he faithfully took care of no matter what they did.

You cannot choose who to like or dislike or be physically/sexually attracted to, it’s a feeling. But you can definitely choose whom you give your time, energy and yourself (body and soul) to – and that’s love.

You cannot choose your biological family (not yet, anyway, perhaps with technology it will be possible), but you can choose to love or not love your family. You may like your family, but you may not love them. (“Yeah, they’re alright. They’re cool. I haven’t heard from my folks for a month!) You may not like your family sometimes, but you may love them because you take care of them, you provide for them, and make sure they are all right.

Now I can totally understand when young people make the mistake of “falling in love” with someone who everyone thinks is the wrong person, because as recent findings reveal, the brain, particularly the pre-frontal cortex responsible for regulation of emotions, does not reach full maturity until mid-20s. Young people may not be able to “think ahead” and “make mature decisions”, and it’s perfectly understandable because neurologically speaking, they are not of that age yet.

But if you are a “typical” (I no longer like using the word “normal” because, really, what does it mean these days?) adult, you should be able to think and choose whether or not to invest in a person or a relationship. If a part of you is doubtful whether you should give more of your time, energy (and money) to be with a person who doesn’t seem to give the same to be with you,  you don’t need to pray to the gods or ask your friends over and over again whether this person loves you or not. Get that pre-frontal cortex working and figure it out yourself. It will be good exercise for your brain. 🙂

Game of Life: Excitement, Fear, Exhilaration, and then Reality Bites 

Li Tian Yuan, Tongan, Xiamen, China

Li Tian Yuan, Tongan, Xiamen, China

 I’ve never been an adventurous person. When I was younger, I only dared to do crazy things out of love for or silly attraction to some guy, like going up alone to a military camp located on a remote hill in a city where a bomb exploded just the day before, just to get the signature of a colonel on my then-boyfriend’s clearance, or going to a city that was in the middle of a war just because an attractive journalist-friend had asked me if I could go with him, and I couldn’t say no. Sigh. So 15-17 years ago.

I’ve only been in a pendulum ride once, and I am very, very sure I will die if I try it again. The only thing I ever felt the whole time I was in that monstrous thing was FEAR. And after a minute or two of that fear, I mustered the energy to just meditate. So I did, and my two guy friends who were with me and having so much fun, were yelling, “Therese, are you OK?” They thought I had died. Ha!

But a couple of weeks ago, when I saw the zip line at the amusement park my former students had invited me to, I just wanted to give it a try. It didn’t look scary because it wasn’t too high nor too long, and below was a calm river with people on pedal boats. It looked non-threatening enough that I excitedly volunteered we go. So we did. I was the first to get up on the platform, but then insisted that a colleague go first. I was having second thoughts.

And then it was my turn. I wanted to back out, but there was a line of young people behind me, the same ones I had rallied to join me. How could I ever back out? I made the sign of the cross at least five times! Then I said to myself in the same way I did as I was being wheeled to the delivery room to have my first (and only) child, “OK, Therese. You’re doing this. You can never back out on this one!”

So I jumped.

And I screamed in fear. Waaaahhhh.

Then I yelled in exhilaration. Wooo-hoo!

I know it was probably less than a minute, but it was a moment I will never forget. I waved at the people on the river, threw my head back and consequently, spun and saw everything around me. After all that fear, I felt the most beautiful, exhilarating feeling. Andthen it was over. My knees were shaking, but I couldn’t shake off that excitement right away.

Even weeks after that experience, the feeling is still quite vivid for me — those few seconds of joy. And one day, as I thought about that moment I remembered a few lines from three of Dostoevsky’s works.

In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin talks about what actually goes on in his head while he’s having a seizure. He sees beauty and feels immense joy that he’s never felt in his waking life that sometimes he actually wishes he can have a seizure again just so he can experience that happiness, that joy.

In White Nights, the sentimental hero of the story after witnessing the happiness of Nastenka, who asks him not to be unhappy because of her happiness, says he will never do anything to ruin her joy, because he knows how precious that moment is. “My God, a moment of bliss. Why, isn’t that enough for a whole lifetime?”

In A Faint Heart, Vasya is overwhelmed with gratitude and happiness that he goes insane. His friend, Arkady, on his way home pauses by the Neva and, ” A strange thought came to poor Vasya’s forlorn friend. He started, and his heart seemed at that instant flooded with a hot rush of blood kindled by a powerful, overwhelming sensation he had never known before. He seemed only now to understand all the trouble, and to know why his poor Vasya had gone out of his mind, unable to bear his happiness.”

Perhaps Arkady himself experienced this few seconds of happiness or he wouldn’t have understood the cause of Vasya’s insanity.

Some happiness-es just happen. Others can be had by choice. If by choice, we then have to be ready for the consequences which can be either harmless, productive or disastrous.

So many people will tell you to “follow your heart, pursue whatever makes you happy, don’t think, just do it.” If everything turns out fine from an uninformed decision, perhaps it’s only due to luck or coincidence. One cannot predict the future but one can try to make an intelligent guess or infer from the current situation as to the consequences of a particular decision.

When something or someone new comes to our lives, they may bring us so much excitement, and we may feel fear as we think of the changes they will bring to our lives. Some have experienced just abandoning everything for the sake of “love,” throwing caution to the wind, and they make it sound so romantic. And it sounds like it is all good, but life is not a fairy tale that ends with “they live happily ever after.” After that brief moment of bliss, comes reality and more often than not, it is ugly.

If I have the certainty that the consequences of my action would be harmless, not seriously hurt anybody whether I care about them or not, I wouldn’t mind experiencing that few seconds of bliss. Like Camus’ Sisyphus, I wouldn’t mind rolling that huge boulder on top of a hill just to be happy.

But how often are our pursuits of happiness, of excitement and exhilaration harmless? Or, how harmless are our pursuits of happiness, of excitement and exhilaration?

I really enjoyed my first time on a zip line, but even though I know it’s safe and exciting, I think once is good enough for me. (Not adventurous!)

Love of Words, Words of Love

JMU lake 2

One of the many things that I like about Dostoevsky’s style is the distinct voices of each of his characters. (Perhaps credit is also due tothe translator who understands the nuances of the Russian language.) If the character is highly educated, then he or she can speak eloquently in long, complex and profound sentences on a variety of subjects with numerous allusions to literary works. Such as the narrator of White Nights, who speaks so eruditely, that Nastenka, who considers herself a simple uneducated girl has to say to him: “You describe it all so splendidly, but couldn’t you perhaps describe it less splendidly?” The narrator’s language is reflective of a person who is used to internal monologues, and not that of one accustomed to conversing with other people.

Nastenka, on the other hand, simple as she is, expresses herself in the simplest way possible. Her sentences are short, even incomplete sometimes reflecting a very conversational use of language.

****
White Nights, a sentimental story from the diary of a dreamer

It makes a huge difference that Dostoevsky included “a sentimental story from the diary of a dreamer” in the title, because then the reader can excuse the sentimentality of the story, for are we not prone to sentimentality ourselves, albeit only in our heads?

The narrator, a 27-year old dreamer, who hasnever been with a woman, meets an 18-year old heartbroken woman, and they become friends and each other’s confidant. The woman, Nastenka, asks of him only one thing — not to fall in love with her, which of course, is impossible, she being the only woman (beautiful at that) to ever spend time with him, and listen to him.

Nastenka is distressed because the man who promised to come back to Petersburg to marry her has not come to see her yet even though it is past the date they have agreed to meet. The narrator counsels and comforts her, until he falls in love with her and finally one evening tells her. Nastenka does not turn him away, saying she will learn to love him as she already loves him as a friend. They walk, holding hands, happy with life when the man she has been waiting for, appears and she runs to him. And they walk away, leaving our poor, poor hero behind.

Days later, the young man receives a letter from Nastenka that says, “We shall meet, you will come to us, you will be for ever a friend, a brother to me.” And she asks him to forgive her, and to continue loving her because “when one loves a wrong is forgotten.” Then she tells him she is getting married and wishes for him to be there at their wedding.

Our poor hero ends his story with these words(only in his head):

“But to imagine that I should bear you a grudge, Nastenka. That I should cast a dark cloud over your serene, untroubled happiness; that by my bitter reproaches I should cause distress to your heart, should poison it with secret remorse and should force it to throb with anguish at the moment of bliss…. Oh never, never! May your sky be clear, may your sweet smile be bright and untroubled, and may you be blessed for that blissful happiness which you gave to another, lonely and and grateful heart!

“My god, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for a whole of man’s life? “

I know very few women and not a single man who could love that way.

Apart from parents, how many people can truly love selflessly? To wish nothing for oneself but to see the happiness of another, even if it means being neglected, abandoned?

*****

“I don’t know how to be silent when my heart is speaking.”

The narrator says these words to Nastenka as he tells her about himself.

These words remind me of the biblical verse, “Out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.” Rare is a person who can keep his secret love totally secret from everyone but himself.

When one is in love, why is it difficult to keep that to oneself? Even if one does not admit he is, he will not be able to stop mentioning the subject of his affection in every conversation, and he will always find a way to keep in touch with the same person no matter how mundane it is that he says to her.

But indeed some secret feelings are better carried to one’s grave, especially if they will not do any good to anyone.

If the narrator were my friend, I would have advised him to keep his feelings a secret, then he would not have had the unwanted pity that Nastenka must have felt for him. And he himself would not have felt guilty for making Nastenka worry about him, and their friendship would have remained pure and unsullied by knowledge of romantic feelings one had for the other.

To keep a friendship one has to be silent sometimes. Or even silence one’s heart.

Restraint is key.