Dear Richard

That you should quote Dylan Thomas! Last night I watched Set Fire to the Stars. In it, Thomas says something about liking humanity more when it sleeps. I don’t know if he really said that, but I’ve been thinking about it since then: before bed last night, on this morning’s run.

It’s too late now to recall anything I might have thought while sleeping.

“The world is too round now, too constant.” (a line from my own unpublished poem). It seems now humanity never sleeps. And seeming is everything, isn’t it? We are aware of every individual atrocity over the globe. We wake to bring into our awareness a bombing that happened somewhere turned toward the sun, while we were turned toward the darkness. Isn’t it odd that the closer we get to omniscience, the more occupied we are with our own significance?

I don’t think we were meant to know it all. What is it they say? We can handle five close friends, 150 acquaintances? How many instances of man’s inhumanity toward man can we take in? What if we all took care of our small circle of physical presence? Did what we could to make it right. Not a new thought, I know.

I have been reading about immersive theatre. There is a theoretician who describes the form as one of “aestheticised experience” rather than an aesthetic experience. That is: we are not viewing a painting (or a play presented under the premium arch) and having an aesthetic experience, we are having an experience within the environment the theatre-maker creates and we objectify our experience: our experience itself becomes the aesthetic object.

My problem with this is that it is not possible to share this with other people. You and I cannot have the same aestheticised experience. While we may not respond similarly to a painting, we are at least viewing the same aesthetic object. We will respond at individuals to a shared experience. But this is far more isolating.

When I think about this, I get cold. I’ve been trying to put on a finger on it, but I think it actually frightens me. How is this “art”? It feels like anti-communication.

At the same time, I am completely seduced by the sensual immersion that this theatre turns attention toward. It is almost as though the theater form is bring us what we miss the most in our lives- no not bringing it, but just an elaborate illusion.

That last bit was a slight digression. Where I was going with this was the idea that we are presented with information continually. We receive and mentally complete narratives (often conflicting) about things that are occurring across oceans. It seems to me this is a form of object-making. This is where fiction and fact do blur. With no real-world basis for information, we create our individual story of the present from our imagination. We pick and choose from a table overflowing with options. Yeah, I know what they say about “echo chambers”, but there is a huge variety of materials out there to construct our personal experiences. We are so damned creative. When we do this, aren’t we objectifying life instead of experiencing it authentically? Our lives as immersive theatre? Immersed by completely alone in the experience?

There is this guy named Diderot from the 1800th century who said that, while the actor is faking the emotions, the audience is not. But those emotions that the audience is experiencing are aesthetic in nature. Watching a film where a character you love dies, is not the same living through the death of  loved one. “Real emotions, and real emotions, Fru Bloom,” as the Norwegians say.

Recently a friend on Facebook passed away. Someone whose story I had followed the past several years. I never met her. I never met her husband. I have no idea what there lives were really about. What is missing in his life now? I don’t know what their living room smelled like. What their laughter sounded like. Isn’t my sadness over her death an aestheticised experience?

I worry that I am becoming truly narcissistic. Or pyschotic. What is real? Is the popularity of Immersive theatre an indication of our desire to get back to a “real” world with sensual boundaries?

Of course the cliché is that life imitates art. And I know I sound like a pedant, but I earnestly believe that we become the stories we tell. We are fascinated with dystopia. I believe we have conjured Brexit, Trump – all this discord. I am honestly having difficult grasping what is real and what it entertainment. And this includes my own emotional and psychological responses. Am I just practicing for an apocalypse? My mother told me once that she used to “practice” for her own mother’s death.

I remember my Grandfather talking about how the internet was nothing but porn. How we wouldn’t buy a computer, because (apparently, to him) if you went on line to search for a fishing lure you would find nothing but porn images. But he was so wrong. It isn’t porn, it is meanness. Most of the accounts I follow on Twitter are literary presses and poets. And yet, it seems every third posting is sarcasm (literally: a verbal attack) or ridicule. Occasionally, an unimaginative “fuck you”. I am not off the grid, but discovered this week that more quiet time is healing.

On the other hand, maybe it is all porn: a graphic diversion in place what we really want? Connection.

Time is passing, I want to chose the environment in which I want to experience it. Running, oh, yes. As an experience, not a means to an end, though. Like sex at this age, perhaps? Nothing showy about it. Just being in the moment, not objectifying it –  nothing to Instagram.

I liked your recollection of the 60-year-old lover. Shouldn’t we all bring all of ourselves to bed, each and every time?

Yes, but that is my point. 60 years-worth of self is much more interesting than 20. Which kind of brings me (oddly enough) to your frustrations with the school system. I get it. I do. But speaking as a teacher in that system, I have come to believe that upper secondary school is little more than hoops and perspective. And I believe a huge part of my job is to help kids see that.

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My movement students as human cogs. (I have their permission to use the image.) Here is the video, if you want to see them in action go here.

 

I would actually love to prose a upper secondary school called “Hoops and Perspective”. I’d throw out everything except the subjects Bureaucracy and History. I wouldn’t seek to explain how the former works, but how to bite your tongue and push through it. Because that is all that is waiting for us once we have our little diploma. Proof we can do what is necessary to function in the culture: to keep a job when it demands absurdities of you. Few of us will leave in a world where we only have ourselves to answer to. Or only have to answer to the things that make sense. Is there any reason to make kids wait until their 20s to put that particular myth on the shelf alongside Santa?

(I read a great book a couple of years ago that talks about the purpose of religion. The author suggests Mormons are the perfect example of the social purpose. When a person will devote two years of their lives traveling around the world talking about a god who hands out planets to the good people once they kick off this Earth, you know they will make a good partner: stick by you out of loyalty – no matter how odd things get. I think of bureaucracy as a substitute for this kind of religious affiliation. A hoop that we jump through to prove we are trustworthy in terms of working with and for a community. Even when it is a stupid hoop.)

I think the take-away of the practice bureaucracy is for our youth to keep their creativity flowing, to value it, to value their subjective views/beliefs/experiences while acknowledging their experiences are subjective, and that no one needs to applaud them or provide external validation. It is my job as an adult to help them create a basis of self-esteem – not encourage their dependence on my (or anyone’s) approval. To teach them to see a grade in context, and not measure themselves by it.

I encourage creativity, but don’t believe it is my job to grade it. I grade why I can teach, what they learn, not who they are. Schools aren’t designed to be arenas for children to perform their talents and for us to applaud. And I think we have an obligation to teach children that they can learn things that they can continue to disagree with. It is also wrong for me to express and opinion or grade their quality of original thought. Lord, how they covet their “originality”.

There seems to be a fear that if one carefully and thoroughly reads a treatise one disagrees with, one might become contaminated or diminished. It is a fear that stops learning  in its tracks. Worse: it snuffs out curiosity. It’s akin to superstition.

I would teach History because it is everything, and we are insignificant as individuals. What lasts are stories that rarely have anything to do with the individuals and truths. Certainly not any one person’s truth. Humility. That is the antidote to the trump-ing culture. We fight fire with fire instead of cutting off the source of the fuel. Even satire is a form of praise in that, by definition, it legitimises/acknowledges power.

Isn’t that what school is for? To prepare you for the real world? To make you realise that you are not the centre of the world? That it all kind of sucks. Then we can help young people find a way to live a meaningful life anyway?

I guess my school wouldn’t fly, would it? It’d be like opening a restaurant called Dead Animals and Stuff We Dug Out of the Mud.

I keep thinking: what was Thomas’s point to “set fire to the stars”. Kind of pointless, isn’t it? You know, stars already being on fire and all?

I am curious what he was thinking.

I should stop pontificating and be more curious.

If this were paper, I would consider tearing this up and starting again. Such depressing navel-gazing. I apologise for this.

I will question more. Tell me what you are questioning now. What you think while you are running…

Much love.
XO Ren

Richard’s reply.


This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.

 

 

Dear Di

What a beautiful quote.

The nest of fish was crisp under a coarse snow of salt and smelled so simple and good I thought they might save my life.  Just a little.  Just for that moment. – Paula McClain

What a perfect reminder to be present in our bodies, in the world of our sensual perceptions. It’s nice to be reminded that a piece of fish, a bowl of fruit, can save one’s life: in that – perhaps – it is the reclaiming of the only things that truly make-up our lives? Touch. Taste. A sense of balance, perpendicular to the earth, in vrksasana.

They say there are actually as many as 21 senses. Lately, I’ve decided to stay with those.

 

 

For now, at least. If there really is more to our existence, there will be time for  when I’m forced to untether from the 21.

It’s so good to hear from you. This wriggling into a new year has not been easy for many of us. For disparate reasons. Maybe it does have to do with our expectations? I feel that for months, I have woken with a sense of dread, and a fear that sits in my muscles, stitching them together with cold, wire threads. I’ve been wearing a corset of sorts, unable to breathe. The corset is not literal, but the breathing problems are.

I read somewhere that protest was becoming the new brunch. We tie ourselves up with fashionable constraints sometimes, don’t we? I look at Melania Trump’s heels and think they are our cultural equivalent to (albeit non-invasive) foot-binding. I see the sea of pink pussy hats in a photo, and am both encouraged and reminded of my conflicted identity as a victim. I read a black woman’s account of her son’s brief life in the USA; and I am shamed, silenced and confused.

There is a balance somewhere between apathy and the absurd. I’m still looking for it.

I’m taking a break from social media, and I’ve removed all the news apps from my phone, save the New York Times and NRK. I get up at 5 and do yoga and meditation before I check the news. I figure, if the world is ending, I will have squeezed another peaceful half-hour of life before it does. I’m not saying ignorance is bliss, but why forfeit all that is good?

I’ve checked the Times this morning. The world didn’t end. It’s the same amount of personal apocolypses that has always been scattered over the globe on any given day. So I sit here, with the rosemary oil burning slowly over a tea candle, writing. And I’m grateful for this little room. I could swap the rest of the rest of the house for just these few square meters behind this veleteen curtain.

I think of you and your safe spaces, public spaces, your unique blend of voyeurism and participation. And I take care that my admiration doesn’t become envy.

I guess there are things we choose, and then things we can only choose to frame in particular ways. You talk about self-care. I think that is difficult. Finding the balance between kindness and firmness with myself. Or perhaps realizing those are not opposing attitudes at all?

I love the image of you “floating” home, and up your marble staircase after an evening of music and laughter. I am glad the triangle of your life is finding form. The social aspects, the creative, the personal.

Last week a student told me his parents remind him often that if a person is not successful by the age of 24, they more than likely won’t be. It broke my heart. What a narrow view of successful. What a narrow passage through life. Narrow and linear. I find the older I get the more reticent I am.

Do you allow yourself to believe that your life sucessful, Di?

I have moments of clarity. I have moments where I seem to touch that space of contentment, where life is meaningful of its own sake. Of itself.

My life, too.

Then the moment passes and I worry about being productive or useful again.

Speaking of which. It’s time to head downstairs to dress for work. To catch the train and face the teenagers who view me with half-veiled pity… and fear. Yes, follow your dreams, I would tell them if they would listen: follow the dreams, but be conscious of what is real, and what is really worthy of a life.

This morning, noticing the chamomile tea on my deks and the sunrise creaping through the gaps in the blinds – I am successful.

E. is out of town. I will bake fish for dinner this evening. And think of you.

Much love,
Ren


This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order her

Dear Richard,

As I write this, I know you’re in New York. And I’m hoping your back didn’t give you trouble on the flight. And I hope that C. is feeling stronger, and has a forward tug now.

I suppose if I say that there’s nothing worse than the helplessness we feel when our children are in pain, it’s only repeating a truism. But I also believe these experiences are unavoidable and have a purpose. As much a part of living as ageing and death. We have to give them meaning, I suppose. We’re supposed to name things. Give them meaning. Though I’m not convinced we can actually help our children with that.

We seem (as a society) to be stuck in a martyrdom trope: people who have been hurt go on to be saints – better people than everyone else on the merits of their suffering. I think this only makes it all the more difficult to share our pain. We risk being accused of self-righteousness, or worse. Especially now, perhaps, with social media and every post looking like a cry for attention, for the sake of attention.

Last year I read an interesting book about the history of happiness (as people have defined or shaped the concept). It touched on how Christianity, with the promise of happiness after death function(s, -ed) as a tool for oppression. “The meek will inherit the earth” is a promise that coerce (s, -ed) people to accept mistreatment in the present. I think this pressure to look upon evil with compassion is a way to coerce us into forgiving the unforgivable. Our reward being complacency: we can be confident we’ll have a leg up in the final hierarchy.

We’re caught in society’s catch-22 of being unhappy: do share, but don’t share. There is an invisible line you can’t cross, and it’s like a game of chance. A mine field. Will a troll run a spear through my heart if I use this word instead of that one?

There’s also that related trope, that worries me: “evil is the result of pain”. Our rewriting of so many  and contemporary tales that give us the back stories for our “villains” to explain why they are so mean. It seems to me a whole genre has developed these past twenty years or so?

I believe these stories reinforce the idea that evil or cruelty is simply cause and effect, and that people are “damaged goods” when they have been a victim. It casts suspicion on victims. We harken back to the Naturalists, who lead us to eugenics and other solutions to attempt to avoid passing on our pain. (Well, now I’ve crawled into my own bubble of parental pain and am projecting a parallel in your situation where none exists. Sorry about that. But since I’ve landed here…)

What a crap binary to get stuck in.

What is it about our human nature that drives us so desperately to categorise and sort ourselves into strata? Who wins by virtue of conquering – in the current climate, who’s winning by virtue of perceived wealth, and popularity – who wins by virtue of loss and disadvantage?

I guess it’s more complex than a binary, isn’t it? I’m just thinking out loud. Last week I was talking to a friend of mine who is also bipolar. I was saying the most difficult part of the disorder is never actually being allowed to be happy. All joy is suspect. I’ve been wondering if, maybe, that isn’t also just human nature? Everything is suspect if we are living the examined life. Maybe Socrates was wrong.

But back to C., whose pain isn’t caused by “the evil people do”, but of some unique alchemy of chemistry and spirit that varies in each of us? It’s good to see she reaches out to you and M. for support as she does. And that she dares to reach forward to others through her blog. She has your bravery there, and your generosity that is expressed by the willingness to be vulnerable. I am certain you have made a difference there, as helpless as you might feel now.

Maybe as we age we will learn to give in to helplessness? Our bodies being only a small part of it. You know, if you did have a body transplant, I am sure M. is telling the truth here in that she wouldn’t be delighted.

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Old things are much more interesting in the light.

I find younger men quite beautiful: as animals, like sinewy leopards. But I view them with the same objectivity as I do (as a heterosexual woman) when looking at a beautiful woman. I’m not sure if it is because I have grown sons, or simply because I love that a body reflects life experience: there are stories in the aches and the sagging flesh. It’s what makes it all more interesting: less ornament, more art?

And if that’s not a truism, it’s certainly a cliché, I know. It also feels slightly hypocritical coming from me, I’m aware of that, too.

In my twenties, I had a lover who was nearing 60. It was different, being with him. He brought his whole self into the bed. It was like having a tiny window into his lifetime. There was a depth to his experience, and consequently to mine.

And it was rich, in a way that had nothing to do with sexual skill. (And certainly not acrobatics.)

Maybe I’m lucky, in that I wouldn’t have back my experience of “youth” for the world. Even if that means I have pain in my big toe, in my knees; bifocals and a tendency to say, “Huh?”.

I’m lucky that because of my youth, I know that the rain that beats on the roof will eventually stop. And that all this political turmoil will pass, one way or another. And one way or another we move on. Regroup. Grow.

Forgive. I guess.

It is all contained, after all: “our little lives don’t count at all”*. Just a tiny sliver of time. That’s kind of comforting, in a way, isn’t it? It means that being nice – loving – is good enough. In my cosmos, we are all rewarded for our effort: no tallying of wins.

I hope things are good in New York now. That you are home and safe soon. That C. is healing, and that M.’s gorgeous baked goods (Instagram) are helping everyone. Homemade food. I just realised that every time I get depressed, I stop cooking.

So, with that revelation, I need to go make the week’s menu. (I am writing again, but not ready to write about writing.)

Much love to you and yours,
XO
Ren

*I would love to quote poems, but I’m afraid show tunes always spring to mind. This time and ear worm from Les Mis.


This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.