Category Archives: existentialism

I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala translated by Ann Wright and edited by Elisabeth Burgos-Debray

I first learned about Rigoberta Menchú when I was getting my undergraduate minor in Spanish. I think I might’ve even read excerpts back then, but I was a few pages into this book when I realized I had definitely never read I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala.

I Rigoberta Menchu An Indian Woman in Guatemala

image from powells.com

At first, I thought it would be too painful for me to read. Lately, I’m always on the lookout for books that substantive, but aren’t too stressful–a difficult balance. But the book drew me in as a voyeur of indigenous life. I was fascinated to read about perspectives and beliefs so different from the world I live in. Like a typical imperialist, I even felt nostalgic for some of the rituals, customs, family, and deep commitment to and love of community (I write this all self-critically). I was also moved by the extreme poverty and suffering these people endured.

As Menchú grows up, the political climate in Guatemala becomes increasingly violent. Unbelievably violent. Once I was committed to the book, I was also committed to reading through the deaths, gruesome tortures, and murders of her loved ones. I was also struck by how recent this history is. Menchú is still alive today, and Guatemala doesn’t seem so far away. These human rights violations felt real and close to me as I read. I couldn’t help but think of the protests and violations that have played out over the last year here at Standing Rock. I couldn’t help but think of the political discord in our own country and the fear surrounding the newly elected leader and how quickly political systems can turn.

To have the firsthand account of someone who lived through this struggle is an unbelievable gift to humanity, so that we all might be  to be able to understand how politics, governments, war, and economies can change and be changed.

The political influence is clear in the retelling of her story. She becomes much more radicalized throughout her life as a direct response to her incredible suffering. As I read, I thought of the power in naming something. She doesn’t really learn Spanish until she is in her 20s. That kind of illiteracy makes a person vulnerable to radicalization from a church or a government. In this case, the reader can see how Menchú was exposed to the language of Communism while acquiring the Spanish language. At the same time, the ancient way of her home culture has some very…communist…ideals. The community is the family. Family and community are prioritized over all else. Each family has their own land and their own food, but they share very generously with the community, even when their own livelihoods suffer. This is their ancient way, but her literacy also emerges as Communism takes hold in South America, and the reader is left wondering where the community mindedness ends and the political influence of Communism begins.

I’m not exactly sure how I ended up reading two books back to back with such a clear connection between Catholicism and Communism, but I did, and it was fascinating, and heartbreaking, and Rigoberta Menchú’s story is a “must read” for all informed citizens of the world.

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The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

As usual, I’ve had a hard time finding the right thing to read lately. I want something that’s light and easy–a break from difficult scholarship. But, I also want it to be substantive. The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day was the perfect solution during the holiday break. First of all, I had to read it with a title like that. (When I saw her face on the cover, I also knew I had to read it.) Secondly, I am always fascinated with and inspired by women who are doing things a little differently than the status quo, and Dorothy Day certainly has. The book is about her experience with community and the sacrifices she’s made in pursuit of her beliefs about the best way to live.

image from amazon.com

The first two-thirds of the book was of the most interest to me personally. In the first third of the book, she writes extensively about her childhood, about her friendships, her family life, and the reader can see the subtle ways these experiences influenced the choices she made later. Her descriptions of various little girls she befriended seemed tedious at times, but I think it helped make her larger point–that these connections and interactions we have with people are the stuff of life and far from inconsequential.

Next, she wrote about being a young women, her unconventional “marriage,” the birth and joy of her daughter, and the decisions she made to convert to Catholicism. In this section, I was deeply interested in her relationship with her partner and her response to her baby. I identified much with those very human experiences, even though I haven’t had them myself exactly.

The last third dragged on and I had to force myself to finish. I didn’t identify quite as strongly with her decision to convert to Catholicism. Like much of her thinking and decision making, as a reader, I sometimes had a hard time understanding her motivations. She’s very matter of fact about everything, and I found myself responding, “Yes, but…” That said, I love her unapologetic descriptions of joy and love earlier on, and I don’t need her to explain “why.” Still, the social activism, the writing, and the experiences with various people are a part of her story, but I was less interested, in part, because it was less about her and more about them.

Here are some insights I gained from reading the book. Day is unfaltering convinced that we must live together. After living alone for the bulk of my adult life, I am feeling ready to not live alone. I have felt loneliness and fear–something that was quite rare for me throughout my twenties. That’s fine. I was pursuing other things. Now I’m in a new stage, and I want to live in meaningful relationships. I have a much stronger urge to connect to other people and invest in them. In this way, Day’s message really resonated with me at this time.

Here are a few lines and ideas worth further consideration:

  • One hundred years ago, there were free medical clinics. If you were not poor, there was also affordable medical clinics that were a little nicer.–I can’t imagine how freeing it would be to go through life knowing that, should a major medical event occur, you could go on living without being forever indebted to a financial institution. We are living in fear or modern slavery.
  • Much of Day’s life’s work is in writing and writing for The Catholic Worker, and she understood what I am only being forced to understand now, which is just how crucial freedom of the press is and how important it is to communicate with the masses in this way.
  • “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore” (285).
  • “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that that only solution is love and that love comes with community” (286).

By the end, I sort of just wanted to rise with the sun, and garden and bake bread, and pray and read and meditate, and wake the next morning to do it all over again.

Willfull Disregard by Lena Andersson

At last I’ve found a book that I really, really like. (!). It’s Willful Disregard by Lena Andersson, and I can’t remember how I found it, but I’m very glad that I did. I read it quickly because it’s a library book, and I’m at the end of summer semester, and so I’m busy grading, but also busy getting ready to hit the ground running, which is what I do every summer since adulthood and even now in order to escape my current city and state. (Gorgeous state. Currently insufferable.) So, I only had a week to read this thing.

image from amazon.com

When I first learn of the title, I knew Willful Disregard was going to be my kind of novel. It is funny and smart and good in exactly the way that title is funny and smart and good. It’s the kind of book that makes me glad to learn that the author (Lena Andersson) exists in the world. It gave me hope for humanity.

It’s funny, but it’s also devastating. It captures the analysis and the over analysis and the helplessness of unrequited love. It captures how long it takes. It captures the intense meaning read into every single event and adverb and sideways glance. You think you’re better and smarter than all of this, only to see (years later with the clarity of hindsight) that you were insane, that your precious friends and onlookers were gentle with your…willful disregard of all evidence and reality suggesting otherwise than your well laid plans, intentions, and interpretations.

And even if you have been strong enough or numb enough to have never fallen into this type of stupid, full-body kind of love, you’ll probably still enjoy the deep insights into humanity, the smart philosophizing, along with mocking pretension that Andersson offers up in this novel. It’s her fifth book and first translated into English. With any luck, we’ll get more from her.

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling

As you know, one of my favorite genres is a memoir from a female comedy writer. It’s like hanging out with a really funny best girlfriend all weekend. Is it weird that I artificially fabricate this experience through reading? Maybe. I don’t care. I read Mindy Kaling’s first book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? during a frantic “pleasure reading” phase I went through between the time I submitted my dissertation and the time I graduated.

This time, I am realizing (perhaps late) that Kaling writes, plays, (and maybe is?) just one character. But, like Jack Nicholson and James Franco (maybe I’ve only seen his stoner films?), nobody cares because it’s such a good character. The Office’s Kelly Kapoor, The Mindy Project’s Mindy Lahiri, and the identity Kaling develops in both of her books are all basically the same person. She’s a myopic, worst/best basic bitch kind of person, and it’s hilarious. She’s always simultaneously doing great commentary on gender and femininity. She describes the persona best: “Mindy is…a combination of Carrie Bradshaw and Eric Cartman” (75).

image from books.google.com

Here’s the take away of Why Not Me: First, you will want to eat McDonalds. And yes, there is some filler content. All of these books have filler. Like, okay, I’ll read a script that’s not going anywhere and a commencement speech that you gave. And, yes, the book was probably written by a ghost writer (but that ghost writer does a great job maintaining Kaling’s voice throughout!) And regardless, Kaling writes some grade-A jokes for these books, and even inspires her reader a bit toward the end. I was thinking, “Hey, yeah, why not me?!” Then, laced up my running shoes and achieved my dreams.

Here are some of the lines I loved:

Real Talk

  • “I’m skrilla flush with that dollah-dollah-bill-y’all” (4). This is the single best description of me on payday.
  • “[T]he gulf between a friend and a best friend is enormous and profound” (27).
  • On breakups: “So, the only decent way for him to have broken up with you is to not break up with you and stay with you forever” (39).
  • “As someone who enjoys secrets, exclusivity, and elitism…” (40).
  • People don’t say “Give me your honest opinion” because they want an honest opinion. They say it because it’s rude to say “Please tell me I’m amazing” (125).
  • “[R]ecycling makes America look poor” (139).
  • “[H]ard work must be rewarded with soul-replenishing gossip” (139).
  • “I have a terrible habit of impulsively sending text messages that reveal my true feelings” (140-41).

On Body Image

  • “One of the great things about women’s magazines is that they accept that drinking water and sitting quietly will make your breasts huge and lips plump up to the size of two bratwursts” (10).
  • “I cannot imagine a life more boring and a more time-consuming obsession than being preoccupied with watching what I eat” (194).
  • “But my secret is: even though I wish I could be thin, I don’t wish for it I don’t wish for it with all my heart. with all my heart. Because my is reserved for way more important things” (202).

I want to say some more about the body image stuff. So, I can work to get the sick body, the one with that weird vein between your lower ab and hipbone, but it does require me to think about what I’m eating and get regular exercise. It takes time and mental energy–time and mental energy I’m not always willing to give. Take graduate school, for example. I knew I would take four years and focus my energy on learning. And, so I didn’t think much about what I ate, and I taught and practiced yoga several times a week. I gained weight. I felt fine. This lasted four years.

Now, I can focus more time and energy on my body. Most people I know who pour 100% into looking good look great, but aren’t very interesting to talk to. Additionally, I simply have the kind of brain that requires me to spend time thinking about the meaninglessness of life and experiencing existential angst. I simply can’t/don’t want to transfer that energy into diet and exercise. I liked when Kaling wrote, “I don’t wish for it I don’t wish for it with all my heart. with all my heart” (202), and I think that’s a healthy approach. Anyway, I certainly haven’t found a balance, and I sort of don’t think a balance is possible (for women), and that sucks…is the way I’m going to end this post.

The Skeleton Twins by Craig Johnson

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are amazing in this film. They have a ton of chemistry and that probably goes back to their days together at Saturday Night Live. If you’re me, and you’re a fan of SNL, and you’re a fan of Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, you’ll love watching these two together on screen. Comedy actors can really excel at drama, and you see that in The Skeleton Twins.

image from wikipedia.org

image from wikipedia.org

Before I saw the film, I was told by a trusted person that it was “good, but dark.” And, that’s true. My mind goes in a million directions when someone says “dark,” and it really wasn’t so dark as all that, but it is a heavy film. It’s about twins who are desperately struggling in their lives. They are estranged, but the reasons are unclear throughout most of the film. Toward the end, catalyst for their decade-long estrangement slowly unfolds.

The acting is great. The characters are unique and real. (Luke Wilson is really good in this too!) The plot, writing, and direction are all unique and nuanced and good. However (HOWEVER!), I don’t think the film addresses a universal truth, and that’s something I think good film should do. I left the film thinking, “Yeah, it’d be nice to have a twin that is tuned in to me in my times of suffering, a twin who holds the key to cheering me up when I am down, but I don’t have a twin, and most of us don’t have a twin.” Life is long and hard—we see that in the film. Unlike the Wiig and Hader’s struggling characters, the rest of us have to schlog through this life alone. Maybe if we’re lucky we have some parents, a sibling or two, a few close friends. But very few of us have a twin.

Somehow this film reminded me of Broken Flowers—also critically acclaimed and good in so many ways (and Jarmusch!)—but lacking, in my view, of a universal truth or experience. The films look very closely a unusual circumstances. Now, this isn’t to write the film(s) off entirely. For some people, this story (and fabulous acting) is enough. I’m finding, though, that I want my films to get at something more universal—something that is moving me and something I know is moving my fellow audience members as well.

brains

For most of my life I’ve felt relatively happy and well-adjusted—this despite a few run of the mill traumas and dysfunctions. Some of my beloved friends and close relatives, some with genius IQs and crazy good artistic abilities, have not always faired so well mentally. They struggle with addiction and various mental illnesses, i.e. depression, anxiety, a bit too much paranoia, et al. They are all wonderful and funny and great to be around and to talk to, except when they are not. They have brains they all contend with daily. I love them. They are wonderful people. The best people. Though, being around them, I’ve often wondered how I got so lucky to feel pretty good most of the time. Well, here’s the answer: I don’t.

This is a surprise to me because it’s a fairly recent discovery.  I’ve had a few dark periods in my adult life, but they were situational and could be measured in months. I was always able to improve with simple things like exercise and time. What I’m realizing, though, is that my sanity may have been a direct result of keeping my brain very very very busy. Basically, I’ve noticed that if I’m not keeping busy by practicing yoga, falling in love, playing the piano, or earning a PhD, my brain gets bored and tries to take itself to crazy town.

When I completed my PhD, I thought I was done with school forever. Now, I’m not so sure. After ten years of school, I wanted to develop other aspects of myself besides just my intellect. These days I have to practice piano, I practice yoga, I make art, and I volunteer with work that (sometimes) seems meaningful for my mental health. (Though several times in the past year I’ve been tempted to stop the volunteer thing.) Meaninglessness in everything is one of the tricks my brain plays on me, and so finding meaning in life is crucial to my happiness. Basically, I have to work at keeping this brain of mine happy. I love my brain, but I’m learning I have to give it what it needs or else it will punish me.

my (new to me) piano

my (new to me) piano

My Body Is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta

image from amazon.com

image from amazon.com

For those of you who miss the bygone days of the grad school creative writing workshop, My Body is a Book of Rules by Elissa Washuta is going to be your jam. It fostered in me nostalgia for those rapid cycling days of pushing myself to the psychological and intellectual limits to produce the wildest new thing imaginable only to discover it’d already been done, and better, and then I was back to the drawing board, and I did this on repeat for a couple of years until maybe (maayyybee) I really did create a few new things.

Washuta’s book has the messy feel of a creative writing workshop. In many of the sections, you can almost imagine the writing prompts to which she’s responding. Readers unfamiliar with this kind of (independent?) prose could very well be put off by this book. And to be fair, even as far as independent presses go, this book has some clunky, first effort moments. As a reader, I was okay with these moments because I was just so glad to be reading something new and different and good and incredibly personal and raw. Maybe too raw.

It’s difficult to write about one’s own mental illness without seeming off-puttingly self-indulgent, and Washuta is aware of this problem and bravely soldiers on. Her themes are so smart—a beautifully nuanced commentary on interactions between race, gender, government, and society. It’s weird. Life’s weird.

Interestingly, both Lena Dunham and Washuta published their books last year and both sometimes use a footnote method, where they break down a piece of text (such as their online dating profile or food journal) with footnotes. The footnotes are so great and so real. It feels very intimate. The only downside (and it’s a big one for me) is that you’ll get vertigo from going back and forth between the original text and the footnotes.

Here are some words I loved:

First, the title: My Body is  Book of Rules is genius.
Next, a chapter title that she should’ve saved for the title of her next novel: “Faster Than Your Heart Can Beat.”

Her descriptions of bipolar:

“…decreased social judgement” (12).

“…a window left open to let the murderers in” (13).

Commentary on Cosmo’s “sex tips”:

“…definitely don’t forget his sack” (18).

Her literary criticism:

She nails her analysis of Catcher in the Rye (a book with which I was previously enamored) like I’ve never seen before when she writes that it “Talks about what’s wrong when that’s not really what’s wrong” (63).

Her insights on life:

“Hope is the thing that comes before the very fucking scary thing” (135).

“do it because you want to, so badly, because you can’t not” (176).

“I am enough” (177).

“Nowadays, when someone else wants to reach me, they get a perpetual busy signal while I whisper sweet nothings to myself late into the night” (177).

“Perfection is hard to stomach” (183).

Meru directed by Jimmy Chin, et al

This year at Sundance, I had the opportunity to see Meru, a documentary film about Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk’s summit of Mount Meru, or the “Shark Fin” in the Himalayas. I was a little worried that I might spend most of my time averting my gaze from the vertigo-inducing shots of men hanging by a rope over 20,000 foot drops. While there were plenty of those shots, there are also a lot of beautiful scenes that did not invoke a need to cover my eyes. The cinematography is absolutely beautiful and unforgiving throughout.

image from Meru trailer

image from Meru trailer

At about the mid-point, viewers get a lot of backstory on these three climbers. Each of them overcomes absolutely unbelievable obstacles. (Well, maybe not so unbelievable given that they are elite climbers.) I went in worried that this would be one of these films when men (yes, men) do these insane things that make no sense and risk their lives and everyone’s lives, and for what? But I enjoyed and admired these men throughout the film.

They each brought such unique personalities to the screen. Conrad is the hardened old-timer with tons of experience. He’s got a remarkable record for safety, but he’s got a thin exterior might be pushing too hard at this point in his career. There is evidence that Jimmy is aggressive and unstoppable in his pursuit of success, but he’s so quiet and understated about it. Renan has a natural, physical ability, but he’s got a spooked look in his eyes—maybe it’s the fear of being a newcomer or maybe he’s haunted by what’s to come.

Watching the film, I was proud to be in the same species as these guys. It makes me think about the things we’re driven to do. The things we obsess over until we absolutely must do them. Some of us know what we have to do, and it usually means logging countless hours alone with one’s self. This is why, though I recognize my need for relationships, I trust solitude. Important things happen there, and etching out that time and being willing to spend that time alone is key. For some people, that great thing is having a child.

During this film, though it is very masculine, I was reminded of doula work. Like the men climbing Meru, women in labor are inexplicably driven, but they reach their breaking point, they’re brought to the brink, and then beyond to the place where their skin starts to break—just like the climbers. They continue on as the animal body takes over and the higher intelligence and the spirituality are all forced to work together. All three are required, which is one of the lessons, I think. I always say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or it weakens you badly.” However, in this film, what doesn’t kill them actually does make them stronger. Cliché as it may sound, the film reminded me of our greatness as human beings. I feel newly inspired to pursue the things I must do in this life, for more quiet focus to better understand what those things are, and a deeper commitment to the solitude they require.

compulsory new year message and ruminations on entertainment

In the past few days, I’ve had some pretty dire thoughts about human existence, which is just that it is a pointless string of entertainment, that is horrifically toxic to all living things, and then you die, having killed countless other living things along the way.

pointlessness of existence

pointlessness of existence

Since I’ve been home, I’ve been caring for my nephew quite a lot. Now, understand that he is the cutest and best kid. I’m not used to being around children, but this one is wonderful. He is kind and friendly and curious and smart and just generally a wonderful blessing to be around. As wonderful as he is, caring for a young person has me thinking some deeper, more existential and nihilistic thoughts about the pointlessness of existence.

A friend once told me that 10% of the population is creator and 90% of the population is consumer. I am not a huge consumer of entertainment. In part, that’s because I grew up in the backwoods of Eastern Oregon, where “entertainment” was not readily available. As a result, I’ve always been a builder and a creator. Even if just in small ways. Even if it is just with these blog posts. I’d rather spend my time creating than being entertained.

In caring for a young child, I am struck by how everything is geared toward entertaining the child. There are the movies that play on repeat, of course, and the toys. I even find myself planning crafts and cooking activities. And, while they do provide an avenue for artistic creation and even some usefulness, I find that lately I’ve been thinking about them as entertainment as well—some way to pass the time between nap and bedtime. How profoundly pointless.

In the past year, I have created. I wrote a poem. I wrote some scholarship. I had some meaningful conversations with people from whom I had something to learn. I wrote articles. I wrote these. But more so than ever before, I entertained myself as a coping mechanism to deal with some heartache and some loneliness and some general and newfound directionlessness. To fill the void, I’ve entertained myself with pointless distractions that are not really in accord with building and creating, even if only in small ways.

Last night, for New Year’s Eve, I fully intended to stay in (subzero temperatures also made this appealing). I wanted to take some time to read, write, and reflect on 2014 and see if there were any insights to gain based on my actions. Unexpectedly, I was invited to join a small soiree of my mom’s new work colleagues. I had to drag myself out of the house (as usual), but I am so glad I went. These people lived in a home they had built on a mountainside many decades earlier. The walls were covered with paintings, macramé, brocades, and batistes that had been carefully gathered from around the world. Guitars, a harmonica, and books were lying throughout the home, and cozy couches and chairs circled an open fireplace. It was a space conducive to wine and intimate conversation. It was a home I might aspire to create for myself one day.

The people were a generation or two older than me, old hippies, academics, retired doctors, all passionately interested in ideas. One retired doctor, in an old shirt so awesome it had come back in style, pulled me aside for an impassioned conversation about memory. “I am my memory, but memory is undeniably fallible. So, then, what am I?” I love this man, I thought. This is what Z will be like when he is old, I thought. In the end, on New Year’s Eve, I was surrounded by my people. I was not entertained. I was engaged in conversation. I was staying focused. I was learning. I was enriched. I spoke with several women, with beautiful white hair and wrinkled faces, who told me about how they’d done things a little differently, and how it had all been for the best and that I could do things a little differently too. I felt encouraged. I have to remember that.

It was a beautiful, life-affirming evening, and I hope it is a harbinger of things to come in 2015.