Thoughts on the Real World

My life continues to truck forward, as long-term projects gain roots. I’m not a very

Looking through a traditional mashrabiya, photo by Brett
Looking through a traditional mashrabiya, photo by Brett

exciting person. On a scale from one to ten, I crop up somewhere in the middle. Right now, I’m living at home–yawn–researching philosophy PhD programs–super yawn–and brushing up on personal finance and fitness as I set out to join the “real world” with whatever jobs and internships can sustain me for a year–asleep yet?

But one week from today, I drive to the airport, battle through the baggage lines, and hit the air, sandwiched on a stuffy plane, on my second trip to Egypt to teach English.

I’m both nervous and excited.

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The Good Life

Miniature giraffes and gold-encrusted chairs clearly mean the good life.

What many people consider creativity doesn’t occur in flash of sudden brilliance. A Mona Lisa doesn’t leap from the brush. In Search of Lost Time doesn’t write itself. Maybe sometimes, but not often. Most creative people slog through long hours, laboring without much inspiration, until their little efforts accumulate into a sizable project.

As French writer Albert Camus put it in an essay on French novels, “Works of art are not born in flashes of inspiration, but in a daily fidelity.”

One can never underestimate the sustained effort of a single person. But a person needs a direction first. Simply running and working without direction leads nowhere. Like a dog chasing its own tail or a hamster sprinting on its wheel, undirected effort–no matter how hard it is–remains undirected and fruitless.

One needs something to structure effort, like a goal or even a way of life. In many ways, this was once the role of philosophy.

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Feeling “at home”

I spent the last three days traveling to Boston with an old friend and his girlfriend, House picturescouting for apartments. They’ll both be PhD candidates in the fall–one at B.U. and the other at MIT. My old friend called me about a month ago to catch up, and we decided it may be neat for me to move in with them.

I didn’t get into the MFA programs I applied to last winter, and the prospect of a gap year living with my parents at home as I applied to other programs didn’t seem pleasant. My friend agreed. Boston would have plenty of people, schools, and opportunities to explore. I’d be out of the house, living in the world.

The plan was to find a two-bedroom in Cambridge area for a reasonable price. Turns out, it wasn’t that simple.

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A quote on love

I’m a bit too busy today to write a full post, so I figured I’d leave a quote I’ve been thinking about regarding love, especially with Valentine’s Day earlier this week. symbiosis-oxEnjoy.

A Tibetan mystic saying goes: We are here to realize the illusion of our separateness. The spiritual sentiment has a biological cognate. Our xenotropic drive — to merge with what is not us, temporarily in sex, or permanently in symbiosis or cross-species hybrids — is more than a metaphor. But it also offers spiritual solace. When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent. In the fullness of time, we may all be linked. In the meantime, eros brings us together, making us more than we are alone. Cupid’s arrow, quivering into the heart of loneliness, kills us even as it sets us free.

-Dorian Sagan, in Death and Sex

Kant and Camus: The is and the ought

Last year I was reading the giving The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein to my nephew,

German Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)
German Philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)

around five at the time. In the book, a tree sacrifices everything for a particular boy who gradually grows into into an old man. First simple things, like leaves, but by the conclusion, the tree is a stump with nothing left to give.

I closed the book, just like my dad did when I was a kid. “Believe it or not,” I said. Henry snuggled next to me with Eddy the Elephant and closed his eyes. The house was quiet, his brothers asleep in bed, his parents downstairs. Then, in the most innocent voice—as if he were asking for a cookie—he asked, “Why do people die?”

“I don’t know,” I said. It hurt to say it, but I couldn’t lie.

And I don’t think I’ll ever know. I may be able to craft a very elegant “I don’t know,” but in the end, that’s all it will be.

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My brother

Writing my memoir piece, I’ve been reading a lot of my old journals and blog posts, Gemini-astrology-15139447-1753-1274“dredging the self” as I called it in my last post. I found this and thought it quite relevant, considering the season. So I polished it up and posted it below.

I do apologize for the occasional “recycled” post. It’s not that I can’t write another one or that don’t want to, but I find I can’t replicate some sentiments. Writing, I find myself dragging my net through the world, searching for a story, and sometimes particular moments have an eloquence or meaning that only lived during that brief space. Taking my net out again, I know I cannot find it.

So it is with this.

But a brief backstory may help. Last year, as I’ve alluded too, I was battling a depressive episode. I took a four-day stint of solitude, where I did not see a single person. Sometimes I rested, or walked in the forest, or meditated. I did what the hours allowed. The piece below was a reflection I wrote from the period, not anything grand or academic, but my own tangled thoughts about the world.

Thank you.

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Gradually I’ve made progress on my to-do list. Today I submitted my thesis for final approval. Once my advisor gives the OK, I defend it. My graduate applications continue in a steady stream. In time, those will be done.

I can finally see the horizon of the next projects: my coming-of-age memoir for an honors project and a short story I’ve had simmering for a few months now. I’ve got some reading piling up as well. From one project to another, I guess.

Last week, I spoke to one of my professors. He had just finished his dissertation and felt an odd sense of freedom. Without the project tugging him along, he didn’t have anything to direct him. It was liberating, but disconcerting. An open horizon. A void.

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Falling in Love

You don’t fall in love like you fall in a hole. You fall likefalling through space. It’s like you jump off your own private planet to visit someone else’s planet. And when you get there it all looks different: the flowers, the animals, the colours people wear. It is a big surprise falling in love because you thought you had everything just right on your own planet, and that was true, in a way, but then somebody signalled to you across space and the only way you could visit was to take a giant jump. Away you go, falling into someone else’s orbit and after a while you might decide to pull your two planets together and call it home. And you can bring your dog. Or your cat. Your goldfish, hamster, collection of stones, all your odd socks. (The ones you lost, including the holes, are on the new planet you found.)

And you can bring your friends to visit. And read your favourite stories to each other. And the falling was really the big jump that you had to make to be with someone you don’t want to be without. That’s it.

PS You have to be brave.

–Jeanette Winterson, answering why do we fall in love?” in Big Questions from Little People: and Simple Answers from Great Minds

A few thoughts

I’ve been thinking a lot lately, going over old photographs and reading articles. It’s been introspective. At such times, I always recall an image a friar once used to describe spiritual growth: Augustine’s wineskins.

Augustine noted that a fresh wineskin is too tight to hold much wine. Someone fills it, and it strains, bulging and stretching, ready to burst. Gradually, it stretches enough to hold more, so we pour more in, but again, it fills quickly. Still, it stretches, and as we repeat the process, it can suddenly hold gallons.

Likewise, life stretches us through challenge, reflection, and experience. The same events that hurt us or stretch us as we grow, let us hold more. As another friar told me, “The older I get the more grief I can hold.”

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Own it: Authenticity

Rain clouds loomed outside as I sat across from my spiritual advisor, Br. Robert, in the simple room. “You have to own it,” he said. “You’re an artist. Own it.”

He talked about his early years as a friar. The other friars didn’t think much of his penchant for painting, forcing Br. Robert to sacrifice his own time, money, and space for it. At one point, he even tried to suppress the urge because it interfered so much with his religious duties. Just as Thomas Merton complained about his “double” as a writer pestering him during his early years with the Trappists, Br. Robert struggled with the artist fighting for expression from within.

When he left the friars–and the Catholic Church for a time–Brother Robert lived on Skid Row, trying to make his work as an artist. He found a deep, resonant calling. Surviving on rice and beans–tuna fish, when he could afford it–he scraped by, but his art taught him his vows better than his stint with the friars. Poverty. Obedience. Chastity. The words clarified as the years wore on.

For Br. Robert, devotion to art proved a devotion to God.

“Own it,” he had said. The words made sense as he said them, but didn’t resonate. As the years has pass, the words Br. Robert and I shared deepen and clarify, like his vows. Tempered and stretched by experience, his wisdom grows. I understand him now.

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