Sunday, November 23, 2014

Full Circle

I finally have a minute to breathe before the Thanksgiving holiday, so I wanted to blog about something that I've wanted to write about for a few weeks, but that I felt that I couldn't/shouldn't, until I had a bit of time to devote to it.

It's a post in which, by force of habit, I find myself feeling the need to choose my words carefully.  But it's also a post that I very much want to write, because it revolves around what it means to be thankful for long-term benefits that seemed like very negative experiences at the time in which they happened.  

It's about the paradoxes that appear when life suddenly comes full-circle.

Those of you who know me and/or follow this blog regularly (all 5 of you) may remember a struggle that I went through several years ago, after I casually dated someone when I was on sabbatical.  

When I returned to RI for the summer this year, he tried to reconnect with me.  We actually haven't spoken in several years, and quite frankly, I wasn't looking to change that.  

But this summer suddenly offered me a chance to gain some closure, so I took it.  It was a huge weight, suddenly and surprisingly lifted from me.  

Don't get me wrong: I have no interest in chatting with him, be it ever so briefly.  Based on past experience, no good can come of it.  

In fact, a large part of my closure involved making it clear that while I don't consider him an enemy, we just aren't going to be friends again.  That yes, it's all water under the bridge, but in the end, it's left the bridge too washed out  for me to contemplate crossing it again.

For me, he's just someone that I used to know.  Sometimes, that seems like a good thing--that I knew him and that he was part of my life for a while.  Sometimes, it feels like a bad thing, because in the end, it really wasn't worth all of the drama and unhappiness. 

That's how I've felt for a really long time now.  I'm thankful that life gave me the opportunity to communicate that openly.  I know it wasn't what he was looking for, but I'm grateful that l had the opportunity to say, "This is who I am.  And this is how I feel."

Several weeks afterward, I opened a news website to see that his ex-girlfriend was running for mayor.

No, I'm not kidding.  

Those of you who know me or who read my blog in the summer months of 2011 already know the story with her.  I'm not going to waste words or finger-strength reiterating it here.  

It was very odd to see her popping up on a somewhat regular basis and to think, "That's that... woman."  Especially so soon after the sudden and unexpected encounter with her ex-boyfriend.

It's an odd thing, when your past suddenly walks onstage into the present.   (She lost, by the way.)

In the end, I'm thankful for the odd turn of events that marked this summer.  Because as the summer unfolded, it became clear that, when it came to this woman, a lot of other people had had experiences with her that were very similar to my own. 

I came to realize that what happened back then had nothing at all to do with me or my blog.  Those were just the excuses that people used to do the things that they wanted to do and that they would have done anyway, regardless.

I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.  It happened, but it ended.  This year, for the entire summer, I was lucky enough to get regular reminders of that fact.

I always chalk the good things in my life up to my dad, because I know that if there is such a thing as an afterlife, he'd be doing what he could to make sure that things always work out okay for me.  So I'd like to think that this summer of sudden, unsolicited insights came from him, and I'm very thankful that it came at at time when I was open to receive them.  

But then he would know that too, now wouldn't he?

Sometimes, when things come full-circle, they arrive somewhere very different from the place from which they began.  

And for that, I'm incredibly thankful.   

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Life, Uncaptured

It's been a kind of crazy week.  (Again?)

I went away last weekend, on a bit of a spur-of-the-moment getaway.  For me, "spur of the moment" means I only planned it a few weeks ago, instead of a few months ago.  It went so well, though, that I think I'm going to be tempted to do more of that in the future.

Especially since, when I came back, I had all kinds of energy and productivity.

But then, Tuesday night (well, Wednesday morning, actually), bam.  Sidelined by the histamine imbalance: I ate the wrong thing for dinner and spent the night paying the piper.  As I told my best friend yesterday morning, "I feel like I've been hit by a truck in the shape of a tuna-fish sandwich."

So I was out of commission for most of the day yesterday, recovering and waiting for the benedryl to work its way out of my system.  (At least I managed to avoid the ER this time around.)

One thing these chronic conditions teach you is patience.  I had a big long list of things I was going to get done yesterday, and it had to be scrapped in favor of simply focusing on getting the one thing done that I couldn't not do (a super-important committee meeting).

I used to feel really angry and frustrated when I got sidelined like that.  But now, perhaps because I've had it happen quite a few times this year, I think I have a bit more equanimity about it.   (Not a lot, but a bit.)  

I focus on recovering from, instead of reliving, the problem, and remind myself that it's a set-back in an otherwise generally positive move forward.   My health is far better this year than it was last year at this time, and that's definitely something.

In what will seem like a non sequitur, I read an article in Psychology Today this morning that examines the need to constantly photograph our surroundings.  In the age of the smartphone, we can't imagine not taking a picture of a beautiful sunrise--or sunset--but we often do so at the expense of the experience itself. We're so busy thinking about the picture and the subsequent social media posting, with all of its attendant praise and feedback, that we miss the moment itself.

I often think about how my generation was one of the last (I think) to grow up in a world in which the ability to take photos (or videos) was somewhat circumscribed by the necessary expense and often-unwieldy size of a camera, the need for film, and the subsequent need to take that film somewhere, pay to have it developed, and then wait a week and see if any of the photos you took actually look... good.

Don't get me wrong: I like a world of photos of everyday life, as opposed to a world filled with special-occasion-only photos.  And I like that people can stay in touch and share their experiences more easily.

But I do think we've lost an aspect of that experience and that what looks like "connection" may not really be true connection at all.  If you can't photograph something, you have to live it and remember it and figure out a way to store that memory.  And if you waste that moment lamenting the absence of your smartphone or the presence of a dead (or dying) phone-battery, then you truly waste that moment and the richness of its presence.

When I went to Paris in 2007, I deliberately didn't bring a camera.  I'm not a photo-person in general (as my blog so clearly testifies), but in this case I decided not to have a camera because I wanted to see Paris, not worry about getting a good picture.  It was the first time I travelled somewhere without a camera.

Oddly enough, it's one of the trips I remember best.  I remember the sights--but I also remember the sounds and the smells and the look of the city itself.  It was raining at Versailles, and I remember what the gardens looked like in the rain, and how cold it really was inside that damn palace if you weren't going to be wearing silk and fur and lighting enormous fires in every fireplace.  I remember the sound of the music on the Pont Michel and the tortuous streets of the Ile Saint-Louis.  

I also remember the Eiffel Tower--both what it looks like up close, and in the distance, as a feature of the Paris skyline.  I have my own, personal (mental) images of the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame, and I would venture to guess they're as vivid as anything I've seen on social media.

My point is, I think that sometimes, opting to remain in the moment instead of constantly thinking about what the future will hold is actually a really good strategy for living a good life and forging rich and happy memories.  

When illness hits, you're in it, no question, and reminding yourself that "this too shall pass" is actually a good way of coping with such moments.  

But when life itself is happening--whether in the form of a vacation or a relationship--I think that occasionally reminding oneself that trying to "capture" a moment is always an inherently futile gesture isn't necessarily a bad idea.

It compels us to truly live those moments instead.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


By a strange twist of fate, this year, my Halloween was all about Frankenstein.

I went to see the National Theatre Live's rebroadcast of Frankenstein shortly before Halloween, because I'm going to be teaching Mary Shelley's novel for the first two weeks of November.

A little over a decade ago, I actually published a scholarly essay about Shelley's Frankenstein.  It looks at the issue of "responsible creativity" in the context of Mary Shelley's reworking of the Prometheus myth.

Prometheus is the Greek Titan who steals fire from Zeus and gives it to human beings.  In Aeschylus' play, Prometheus Bound, Prometheus does this because he feels sorry for humans: Zeus has created them, but then left them to fend for themselves and they are suffering as a result.  Implicit in Prometheus' defiant act is the idea that, by giving humans fire, he gave them the ability to challenge the divine.  (Needless to say, Zeus is not pleased.)

Shelley's Frankenstein,  I argued, is concerned with the moral obligations that a creator entails when s/he creates life.  In particular, I examined the scenes in which Frankenstein and his Creature debate their mutual obligation--or lack of obligation--towards one another.

So this has been my first time returning to the novel after a long hiatus from teaching it.  And thinking about it.

In many ways, I think now what I thought then: that this is a surprisingly complex novel for a self-educated woman to have written in 1818--when she was only 18 years old.  Mary Shelley zeroed in on an issue that directly impacts women (giving birth) and examined the concept through the lens of science and technology--creating a dynamic conflict between Victor Frankenstein and his unsightly creature that would stand the test of time and lend itself to being told and retold.

The story of the novel is an overwhelmingly sad one: Victor and his creature mirror one another, in terms of their desires and ambitions and voices, yet few literary protagonists have ever spoken to each another at such cross-purposes.

That is what has always stood out to me about the conversations between Victor and his Creature: the extent to which they both argue themselves into positions from which they cannot compromise.  Victor admits he was wrong to create the Creature, but he cannot conceive of acting on that admission in any way other than to claim that it is his "right" to kill it.

The Creature, similarly, argues that he would have been good--that he is good at heart and always wanted to be kind and virtuous--but others have made him what he is (both literally and figuratively).  If others reject him, what option does he have but to seek destruction and revenge?

To kill and to seek revenge: these are the only two options that Victor and the Creature seem to be able to entertain with any seriousness.  Their vague attempt at a compromise--the Creature will go away and leave humans alone if Victor makes a female creature to be his companion--is entered into half-heartedly (at best) on Victor's part and seems to be little more than a last-ditch effort on the part of the Creature to carve out an existence for himself that doesn't involve desolation and revenge.

The novel is also a retelling of Milton's Paradise Lost: as the Creature himself admits, he "should be Adam," but he identifies instead with Satan--cast out, he seeks to destroy everything dear to those who have rejected him.

To some extent, the Creature can't be Adam, however, because Victor is only playing God.  Unlike the omniscient deity, he shows little or no concern for the welfare of others and he is remarkably adept at rationalization and self-justification, particularly when it feeds his overwhelming sense of pride.

In a sense, if the Creature is Satan, so too is Victor.

An element of the novel that, to my knowledge, hasn't ever been explored fully is the way in which Frankenstein, as a "modern Prometheus" is more like the brother of the Greek Titan, Epimetheus.

In Greek, "Prometheus" means "forethought."  "Epimetheus," on the other hand, means "after-thought."  According to the ancient myth, Zeus created the first human woman, Pandora, and then gave her to Epimetheus.  (Bear in mind, Prometheus had warned his brother not to accept any "gifts" from Zeus, because he suspected reprisals for his act of stealing fire.)

Pandora had a container (a kind of jar, actually, but the word pithos was translated as "box" and the image of "Pandora's box" has stayed with us).  She opened out it of curiosity, unleashing all of the evils of the world.  She shut the lid as quickly as she could, but the only thing she managed to trap inside was... Hope.

Like Epimetheus, Victor Frankenstein's actions are frequently marked by after-thought rather than fore-thought.

The question remains, however, whether Shelley's text can in any way be viewed as a hopeful one.  Victor dies, and the Creature simply disappears.  The narrator, Walton, is forced to turn back from his quest and return to home and family.  The secret of the life that Victor created--how exactly he managed to animate dead matter--dies when he does.

Or does it?  It seems to me that, if there is a kind of hope underlying Shelley's text, it lies with the reader.  Will we learn to see what Victor and his Creature do not?  We will understand that, when the forces of nature itself have been tampered with, when death is brought back to life and life itself becomes riddled with death, questions of right and wrong and justice and responsibility become insoluble problems that can only be endlessly debated, to the point of despair and destruction.