If this is a man

Today I think of Primo Levi. And the silenced voices. I reflect about him and his stories more at Christmas time than any other time of the year. He presented the Christmas Tree in a most heartbreaking way in his book, The Reawakening, with the absurdity of the tree placed next to the gallows in Auschwitz. I think of him at anytime that I hear stories about the silenced. No matter the life, it had value and the candle was snuffed out too soon. The following is another poignant poem from Primo Levi.

“You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home.
Consider if this is a man
Who works in mud,
Who knows no peace,
Who fights for a crust of bread,
Who dies by a yes or no.
Consider if this is a woman
Without hair, without name,
Without the strength to remember,
Empty are her eyes, cold her womb,
Like a frog in winter.
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your houses be destroyed,
May illness strike you down,
May your offspring turn their faces from you.”
― Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

I also tend to lean on the words of other strong leaders from the past for wisdom. Love is a common construct in each of these. Kindness follows. I am fearful that those who were hurt will take it out on others. I am fearful that those who are not a part of something will become broken, bitter, afraid, and angry. I have become all of these things. But life is too short to live like this. You must give yourself over to love and compassion. Otherwise you will shrivel up and die in your anger.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.
Dalai Lama

Alone

Maya Angelou, 19282014
Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

From Oh Pray My Wings Are Gonna Fit Me Well By Maya Angelou. Copyright © 1975 by Maya Angelou.

Advertisements

Essential

I’m adding Fitzgerald’s reading list to tonight’s post. It’s from Open Culture, which I love. It’s a list of free, (read no signups necessary) for itunes courses, free ebooks, movies, etc. It’s a wonderful playground/library (ha they’re the same thing to me!). And it’s something that I visit once a day. Ah…wonderful knowledge get in the big brain of mine.

I skipped last night. Two nights ago I found myself at a point in the plot that I was hoping to write in January and I faced it and I cried through it and it hurt. Even fiction hurts sometimes, because the truth is not far away from the outskirts.  I’m feeling it. Not enough to drive my car into a pool or fire a weapon in a hotel, but I’m taking my characters to certain places and I’m wondering if some of me is going with them.


 

I’m reblogging a post made by Esquire of Fitzgerald’s write-up after Zelda was in psychiatric care. I wanted to read it without looking at Ads. Written by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The Crack Up

Originally published as a three-part series in the February, March, and April 1936 issues of Esquire

Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work — the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside — the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don’t show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within — that you don’t feel until it’s too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again. The first sort of breakage seems to happen quick — the second kind happens almost without your knowing it but is realized suddenly indeed.

Before I go on with this short history, let me make a general observation — the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise. This philosophy fitted on to my early adult life, when I saw the improbable, the implausible, often the “impossible,” come true. Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort, or to what proportion could be mustered of both. It seemed a romantic business to be a successful literary man — you were not ever going to be as famous as a movie star but what note you had was probably longer-lived; you were never going to have the power of a man of strong political or religious convictions but you were certainly more independent. Of course within the practice of your trade you were forever unsatisfied — but I, for one, would not have chosen any other.

As the Twenties passed, with my own twenties marching a little ahead of them, my two juvenile regrets — at not being big enough (or good enough) to play football in college, and at not getting overseas during the war — resolved themselves into childish waking dreams of imaginary heroism that were good enough to go to sleep on in restless nights. The big problems of life seemed to solve themselves, and if the business of fixing them was difficult, it made one too tired to think of more general problems.

Life, ten years ago, was largely a personal matter. I must hold in balance the sense of futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to “succeed” — and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future. If I could do this through the common ills — domestic, professional, and personal — then the ego would continue as an arrow shot from nothingness to nothingness with such force that only gravity would bring it to earth at last.

For seventeen years, with a year of deliberate loafing and resting out in the center — things went on like that, with a new chore only a nice prospect for he next day. I was living hard, too, but: “Up to forty-nine it’ll be all right,” I said. “I can count on that. For a man who’s lived as I have, that’s all you could ask.”

— And then, ten years this side of forty-nine, I suddenly realized I had prematurely cracked.

Now a man can crack in many ways — can crack in the head, in which case the power of decision is taken from you by others; or in the body, when one can but submit to the white hospital world; or in the nerves. William Seabrook in an unsympathetic book tells, with some pride and a movie ending, of how he became a public charge. What led to his alcoholism, or was bound up with it, was a collapse of his nervous system. Though the present writer was not so entangled — having at the time not tasted so much as a glass of beer for six months — it was his nervous reflexes that were giving way — too much anger and too many tears.

Moreover, to go back to my thesis that life has a varying offensive, the realization of having cracked was not simultaneous with a blow, but with a reprieve.

Not long before, I had sat in the office of a great doctor and listened to a grave sentence. With what, in retrospect, seems some equanimity, I had gone on about my affairs in the city where I was then living, not caring much, not thinking how much had been left undone, or what would become of this and that responsibility, like people do in books; I was well insured and anyhow I had been only a mediocre caretaker of most of the things left in my hands, even of my talent.

But I had a strong sudden instinct that I must be alone. I didn’t want to see any people at all. I had seen so many people all my life — I was an average mixer, but more than average in a tendency to identify myself, my ideas, my destiny, with those of all classes that came in contact with. I was always saving or being saved — in a single morning I would go through the emotions ascribable to Wellington at Waterloo. I lived in a world of inscrutable hostiles and inalienable friends and supporters.

But now I wanted to be absolutely alone and so arranged a certain insulation from ordinary cares.

It was not an unhappy time. I went away and there were fewer people. I found I was good-and-tired. I could lie around and was glad to, sleeping or dozing sometimes twenty hours a day and in the intervals trying resolutely not to think — instead I made lists — made lists and tore them up, hundreds of lists: of cavalry leaders and football players and cities, and popular tunes and pitchers, and happy times, and hobbies and houses lived in and how many suits since I left the army and how many pairs of shoes (I didn’t count the suit I bought in Sorrento that shrank, nor the pumps and dress shirt and collar that I carried around for years and never wore, because the pumps got damp and grainy and the shirt and collar got yellow and starch-rotted). And lists of women I’d liked, and of the times I had let myself be snubbed by people who had not been my betters in character or ability.

— And then suddenly, surprisingly, I got better.

— And cracked like an old plate as soon as I heard the news.

That is the real end of this story. What was to be done about it will have to rest in what used to be called the “womb of time.” Suffice to say that after about an hour of solitary pillow-hugging, I began to realize that for two years my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt. What was the small gift of life given back in comparison to that? — when there had once been a pride of direction and a confidence in enduring independence.

I realized that in those two years, in order to preserve something — an inner hush maybe, maybe not — I had weaned myself from all the things I used to love — that every act of life from the morning toothbrush to the friend at dinner had become an effort. I saw that for a long time I had not liked people and things, but only followed the rickety old pretense of liking. I saw that even my love for those closest to me had become only an attempt to love, that my casual relations — with an editor, a tobacco seller, the child of a friend, were only what I remembered I should do, from other days. All in the same month I became bitter about such things as the sound of the radio, the advertisements in the magazines, the screech of tracks, the dead silence of the country — contemptuous at human softness, immediately (if secretively) quarrelsome toward hardness — hating the night when I couldn’t sleep and hating the day because it went toward night. I slept on the heart side now because I knew that the sooner I could tire that out, even a little, the sooner would come that blessed hour of nightmare which, like a catharsis, would enable me to better meet the new day.

There were certain spots, certain faces I could look at. Like most midwesterners, I have never had any but the vaguest race prejudices — I always had a secret yen for the lovely Scandinavian blondes who sat on porches in St. Paul but hadn’t emerged enough economically to be part of what was then society. They were too nice to be “chickens” and too quickly off the farmlands to seize a place in the sun, but I remember going round blocks to catch a single glimpse of shining hair — the bright shock of a girl I’d never know. This is urban, unpopular talk. It strays afield from the fact that in these latter days I couldn’t stand the sight of Celts, English, Politicians, Strangers, Virginians, Negroes (light or dark), Hunting People, or retail clerks, and middlemen in general, all writers (I avoided writers carefully because they can perpetuate trouble as no one else can) — and all the classes as classes and most of them as members of their class…

Trying to cling to something, I liked doctors and girl children up to the age of about thirteen and well-brought-up boy children from about eight years old on. I could have peace and happiness with these few categories of people. I forgot to add that I liked old men — men over seventy, sometimes over sixty if their faces looked seasoned. I liked Katherine Hepburn’s face on the screen, no matter what was said about her pretentiousness, and Miriam Hopkins’s face, and old friends if I only saw them once a year and could remember their ghosts.

All rather inhuman and undernourished, isn’t it? Well, that, children, is the true sign of cracking up.

It is not a pretty picture. Inevitably it was carted here and there within its frame and exposed to various critics. One of them can only be described as a person whose life makes other people’s lives seem like death — even this time when she was cast in the unusually unappealing role of Job’s comforter. In spite of the fact that this story is over, let me append our conversation as a sort of postscript:

“Instead of being so sorry for yourself, listen — “she said. (She always says “Listen,” because she thinks while she talks — really thinks.) So she said: “Listen. Suppose this wasn’t a crack in you — suppose it was a crack in the Grand Canyon.”

“The crack’s in me,” I said heroically.

“Listen! The world only exists in your eyes — your conception of it. You can make it as big or as small as you want to. And you’re trying to be a little puny individual. By God, if I ever cracked, I’d try to make the world crack with me. Listen! The world only exists through your apprehension of it, and so it’s much better to say that it’s not you that’s cracked — it’s the Grand Canyon.”

“Baby, et up all her Spinoza?”

“I don’t know anything about Spinoza. I know — “ She spoke, then, of old woes of her own, that seemed, in telling, to have been more dolorous than mine, and how she had met them, overridden them, beaten them.

I felt a certain reaction to what she said, but I am a slow-thinking man, and it occurred to me simultaneously that of all natural forces, vitality is the incommunicable one. In days when juice came into one as an article without duty, one tried to distribute it — but always without success; to further mix metaphors, vitality never “takes.” You have it or you haven’t it, like health or brown eyes or honor or a baritone voice. I might have asked some of it from her, neatly wrapped and ready for home cooking and digestion, but I could never have got it — not if I’d waited around for a thousand hours with the tin cup of self-pity. I could walk from her door, holding myself very carefully like cracked crockery, and go away into the world of bitterness, where I was making a home with such materials as are found there — and quote to myself after I left her door:

“Ye are the salt of the earth. But if the salt hath lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?”

Matthew 5:13

Wichita: Riding Bikes

Writing creatively again after 5 years is not at all like “riding a bike” or an equally bothersome cliché that implies ease. My bike riding is akin to finally getting balance at top speed near the cliff face and have to make the split-second decision to ditch the bike or cause myself bodily harm. I always leave the bike behind, afraid to commit to going over the edge and leaping into the unknown. Yes, I remember how to type words in an order. I remember basic sentence structure. I know most of the jargon of writing, literature, and critique. I remember the authors. By looking at bindings of books I’ve read, I connect to those universes. I remember the faces, the struggles, the places I’ve gone with them. But I feel no ease in writing.

Crafting fiction for me presents a difficulty. I want to do more research. I want to find out how to make it perfect. I want to write the best sentence. Overall, I feel utterly inadequate. I’m afraid to make mistakes. I’m afraid to keep going. To write trash that I hate and keep going. I’m afraid that it will open too many doors I can’t shut. That while opening the floodgates, it will drain me and I’ll be empty after.

Also, I’m afraid to fail. I’m afraid to talk about failure. I’m afraid of not getting published when I finally stop failing to complete things. I’m afraid of never being able to complete things. I’m afraid that I will procrastinate until I’m dead. I’m also afraid that as soon as I become successful or not failing, I’ll get sick and die. I’m afraid that God will smite me for being happy or successful and I’ll be surrounded by accomplishments that I’m proud of and I’ll be struck by lightning (raised protestant, but still have a vengeful God).

So today after discovering a note in one of my books, I have decided to feel slightly better. It is a postcard or a patron note from The Wichita Art Association. On the back it has a quote:

“We want to give every man, woman and child in this broad country of ours the same opportunity which most of us have had, to gain from a knowledge and appreciation of art and the happiness that art will bring.”
-Robert W. deForest

The Thinker (don't really know the name of this or the print maker...)

The Thinker (don’t really know the name of this or the print maker…)

Robert deForest lived from 1848-1931. And he was the fifth president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was elected on October 20, 1913. He also was one of the founding members of the American Federation of Arts which hoped to “bring the museum to the people“. I also found a publication that gave me a little more information from November 25, 1922. It gave me some insight into who he was and showed the first picture of the DIA (Detroit Institute of Art, which probably was the coolest thing I found — I’m in love with that place).

So share your art. Get it out. Stop being afraid (this last bit mostly for me).

Letters to a middle-aged poet

My hands then gropingly reach out for love,
because I want so much to pray sounds
that my hot mouth cannot find.
-Franz Kappus, “Sonnet”

 

Do not assume that he who seeks to comfort you now, lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life may also have much sadness and difficulty, that remains far beyond yours. Were it otherwise, he would never have been able to find these words.

Rainer Maria Rilke, from “Letters to a Young Poet”

I’m not middle-aged according to our current life expectancy, but for romantic, modern and beat poets, I’m middle-aged. If you look at the places where I find security in writing, in life, and in relationships, you would also assume I was middle-aged. Looking at the last 10 years of my life, I’ve had more than my share of experiences, careers, losses, and failures. So arriving at this point I should feel some great wave of wisdom going forward, but I’m actually right in line with Socrates:

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.
― Socrates

I have arrived at this age without having anything figured out. I know absolutely nothing. Before I write my next 5-year plan, I want a direction. Currently, my only goals are short-term. Tangible. Plannable. Changeable. And yet, I know that this is not a solid or long-term solution. I’m just trying to add positive habits to my life. Starting with writing, working, time-management and brainstorming. Next up is changing diet.

While some thing have been exceptionally difficult to get over, get through and get by, it has rewarded me with some strength. But it has also made me timid in situations and anxious in public. Somehow, I am making it.

Slowly, vaguely, and with a few guides and a lot of prayer.

Getting Unstuck: Finding the Words

This was me for a long time.

I’m one to talk. I’ve had adult onset writers block for five years. I told myself that my day job would give me time and the ability to write at night. It was a lie I told myself. I’m not sure where I was able to ditch the 8-7 (9-5 is also a lie).

But I know I can force myself into writing. I can trick myself. I’m rating these on normal to “unique” (think of the most patronizing way you can say that) and none of these should actually be used to fix an actual diagnosed case of writer’s block.

Hopefully, I can overcome this feeling some day…

  1. Timed lists (write as fast as you can in bullet points about your character for 5, 10, 15 minutes).
  2. Generate plot with a plot generator (google plot generator)
  3. Timed sentences (write as many coherent sentences as possible, see #1.
  4. Draftin.com in Hemingway mode. (This is my favorite tool for writing, it is distraction free and Hemingway mode makes you keep going without a backspace. No editor. My perfectionist right brain nightmare. But it works.)
  5. Alcohol. A small amount, 1-2 drinks is the perfect elixir for the writing anxiety that accompanies starting, make goals for yourself. Example: at 1000 words start the second beer.
  6. Brainwave meditation tracks to increase focus and creativity. YouTube search for more brain wave meditation or therapy tracks and really limit your time to 2 hours so that your brain can go back to a normal cycle quickly.
  7. Meditation. Sit and breathe.
  8. Maybe imagine your characters in different places or times and how they would react. Get to know them by asking questions.
  9. Exercise. A brief walk with your characters can change your mind about them or where you are taking them.
  10. Imagine how the story would be if it were a movie, a screenplay, a poem. Write the scene as this new genre.

Go get ’em!