Sometimes I Wish I’d Been Born a Boy in the Ancient World

Reading Mary Renault is dangerous.

Immersing myself in antiquity as brought to life by Renault’s coruscating prose stirs up a nearly unbearable longing for another world.

Renault’s protagonists are noble youths whose sense of honor is matched only by their beauty.

I want to be like them.

Lovely of form, righteous of mind, susceptible to human passions, but without meanness or cowardice or greed. They do what is right, even when circumstances would seem to render a correct choice impossible.

Bagoas, the narrator and titular character of The Persian Boy (in which I’m currently immersed as in a torrid love affair), is stolen and gelded at the age of ten, but not before witnessing his father’s brutal murder, his mother’s suicide, and the rape of his sisters. During the early years of his captivity, he must contend with the loss of his incipient manhood and his family, as well as abuse and degradation at the hands of his master’s friends. And yet, through it all, he is animated by an unrelenting pride that allows him to become the consort of kings.

He regrets that he will never be a warrior, never produce sons to continue his family line. But he recognizes that his destiny has shifted, and all that is left to him is to fulfill the duties of his station to his utmost ability.

There is something very attractive in rigidly prescribed social roles.

Sometimes the freedom of contemporary life is oppressive; the imperative to make something of oneself, to construct a suitably remarkable identity, to attain a sense of meaning and direction all one’s own, a burden.

I’m aware of my good fortune in living in this time and place. Because of material abundance and good nutrition and relative gender parity, I’m healthy and robust and well-educated and have access to pleasures unimaginable in much of the world.

And yet…

Sometimes…

I pine for old-time values and ideals, for a grounding tradition, for an assurance of my place in an interdependent web of meaning, for a sense of honor and duty, for freedom from the crushing permissiveness of a modernity that recognizes no gods, holds nothing sacred, and offers no guidance.

I romanticize a world which, in reality, had vicissitudes and trials all its own. Even beauty and honor can’t inoculate you against suffering and death.

I Actually Wrote This a While Ago

At the end of the day
I’ll get up, and be a person who stands
Recognize I’m essentially a piglet
Wrapped in pink skin, avid for play.
Eventually I’ll go out, see the stars and feel cold
Marvel at sensations that feeling brings to body
Opening to be swept up, just as it’s brought low.
A lark. At night you see
Farther, closer, wanting more
As you want less.

Too Many Thoughts Syndrome

Sins accrue in the body
Wearing us inside out
Portending demise
Certain, triumphant.

The sun is coming.

It will reach me soon
Warmth bringing succor
As deep and real, lasting
As long as love.

My fingers are a mess.

Skin frays and blooms
With welling blood,
Rising to reveal reason’s
Just a passing jest.

Too many thoughts.

Words are the friend
You want desperately
To delineate meaning,
But garbles it instead.

tmt

Ode to the Sonnet

In absence of ought else to fix upon
The restless movements of a mind so full
Of sense that all too easily is gone
Astir to many far-flung fancies’ pull
A structure to which meaning may ahdere
Is needed, lest the dreams themselves devour
Overtaken by lassitude or fear
Abandoned in insidious drift of hours.
What form can remedy insistent pain
Of flames’ expansion in a finite breast
Transmute to boon what heretofore was bane
Provide right work to justify sound rest?
To thee I flee when other standards fail:
In time your banner will release avail.

Ode to Thomas Cromwell

So apparently I’m addicted to writing sonnets now.

I read Wolf Hall a couple of years ago and fell in love with the character of Thomas Cromwell, his shrewdness and diplomatic brilliance, his canny navigation of the internecine politics of Henry VIII’s court. He (or, more accurately, Hilary Mantel’s depiction of him) influences and inspires me as I try to move through my own interpersonal challenges with evenhanded grace.

“Don’t say, ‘No, but.’ Say ‘Yes, and.’ “

A course unlovely visage may conceal
A mind acute, relentless in its quest
To open and delineate what’s real
From superficial dross that keeps the rest.
Appetite for praise, favor and acclaim
Though often they seduce and lead astray
To understand the vanity of fame
May guide the shrewd one to their proper way.
A strength and brilliance revealed in time
Will obtain far longer than what is shown
In appeal obvious as balmy clime
But with alacrity as sudden flown.
A blacksmith’s son from Putney gave the proof
That beauty must needs not always be truth.

August Tuesday Sonnet

I really like the sonnet form: its strictures provide just the right balance of challenge and reassuring structure. I’m certainly no master sonneteer. I’m vexed by my adherence to similar themes and a seemingly limited word-pool. I feel like I skirt around significance to dawdle in vagueness verging on inanity. But… there’s just one way to get better, right?

Discerned at first as little but what’s there
In daily sight and doings all shot through
May delicately grow til one’s aware
Of primal promise to unfurl anew.
A stone unturned remains a neutral thing
In potential like to any other
But once it’s grasped, fresh knowing it must bring
Work upon the sight which it uncovers.
A novel path to worlds as yet unseen
May stay obscure to those who seek it out
Yet offer itself up beheld between
The strait of curiosity and doubt.
Unbound by fear of subtlety is seen
A happily unchartable demesne.

 sonnet pic

 

Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity (Plus, Pie!)

Lately a hyper-awareness of my own mortality has brought with it a sense of the futility of all human endeavor. It may have started with reading this story in the New Yorker, which reminded me a lot of dreams I’ve had in which I’m about to die (usually via trauma): there’s an instant awareness that “this is it,” that “my time has come.” It doesn’t bring sadness, just resignation, a recognition of death’s inevitability.

It’s one thing to think about death and finitude as abstract properties that exists in the world, outside of one’s immediate experience: even when someone close to you dies, it happened to them, not you, extinguished their consciousness and put an end to their experiences. You’re still around to feel the agony of grief, to be irritated by your body’s continued demands in the face of consuming psychic suffering. The cliche of young people thinking themselves immortal has its basis in a profound truth: it can be really, really hard to wrap your head around the idea that you, like everyone else who has ever lived or will ever live (unless certain transhumanists get their way), will die.

But I’m starting to get it. My waking hours are shot through with the knowledge of my certain demise. What was once a highly theoretical proposition with zero emotional resonance has become a frequent refrain in my mind, popping up whenever I think of anything remotely long-term. Artistic achievement, for instance.

Talking with a friend last night, I realized that any desire I hold to gain recognition is simply a thinly cloaked bid for immortality. This probably seems obvious. But I had never really felt the truth of it on a deep level. Since everyone (and probably eventually everything) is going to die, what is the real point of trying to get approval and affirmation from others? I’m convinced that there isn’t one.

This may sound depressing. It’s not. Quite the contrary: the more I come to terms with these realizations, the freer I feel. Freer from the judgments of others and from my own judgment of myself, freer of the need to judge others. Freer to create things that are true to my heart and increase my understanding and amplify my joy and make me a more empathetic and honest person, rather than feeling constant pressure to create things that will bring me acclaim. Because when I try to make art with other people’s responses in mind, I don’t make art.

Similarly, the knowledge that, one day in the not-too-distant future, my body will be dust, is helping me to heal from a deeply distorted body image. I’m starting to relate to my body more as my own precious vessel, a miraculous thing of inestimable value that enables me to move through the world.  That there exists visible fat on my body is starting to recede into irrelevance. Deciding when and what to eat is beginning to have more to do with when I’m hungry and what I want, rather than an anxiety-addled calculus that has little to do with my actual health. Instead of seeing it as a malleable, and ultimately perfectible, reflection of my worth as a person (when I achieve a coveted sculpted thin shape everyone will think I’m really great!), I recognize my body as the part of my self that enables me to experience the sensory pleasures of which I’m so fond, to do work that has meaning to me. And I have the great fortune of having a very strong and healthy body that also happens to look pretty good (for now).

I’m going to die. But I have pie!

i'm still alive and it's still summer! peach and blackberry pie (farmer's market peaches, ship canal trail blackberries) also the tonsure had to go.

i’m still alive and it’s still summer! peach and blackberry pie (farmer’s market peaches, ship canal trail blackberries). also the tonsure had to go.