What is it like to love someone more than you love yourself?

Dear Reader,

Do you know how when you read stories of mothers and fathers that explain they did not know love until they met their child, howsoever they arrived into their families? There is a mythologizing of our capacity to experience of love relative to normative family structures. Parents, children, and love. Love is valid when it is expressed in open, consensual, and meaningful ways. I am, however, torn on the idea that love is an epiphany that we experience on the other side of a birthing table. The love that we experience, nurture, and develop throughout our lives is meaningful and important to every subsequent platonic and/or romantic relationship in which we engage. The first models of what love is comes from our parents or guardians. In some cases, we experience positive models of love and in others we do not. So, perhaps the mythologizing of love comes from this so-called originary model and self-perpetuates throughout cultural ideas of love. I suppose we have Rousseau to thank for this in the rhetoric in the west, as he argued for parents to be involved in the emotional and intellectual needs of their children. Indeed, we centre the idea of love and wholeness around the relationships between parent and child. These relationships can be vital and overwhelmingly important in the best ways (or even the worst). But what does it mean when we look outside the familial or even the human? Is it important that we learn to love and the consequences of love only through loving other humans? in some constrained network of Darwinian succession? The answer, quite simply, is no.

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Fashionista Misha

I’d like to introduce you to my dog, Misha. She is fourteen, and we got her when I was about thirteen. I grew up with her, I went away to school, and I came home to take care of her because she was sick. Although it would be nice to wax poetic about how her life reveals my own life, I’d argue, rather, that from her and her life, I learnt how to love deeply, firmly, and unrelentingly in the face of annoyance, joy, and the fear of death. (I’m basically going to wax poetic, though.) When we first got her, I wanted all of her attention. I wanted to be able to talk to her, to be her best friend, to have our own world. Basically, I wanted to be Dr Dolittle, but without all the Doctoring. I just wanted to have a best friend. Before we got Misha, I had always wanted a horse and a dog. I would ride by bike around the neighbourhood, or, rather, I would ride my horse, Black Beauty, around the neighbourhood. He had 21 gears. Behind us, in my wildest imaginations, trailed not only my hair (it was actually greasily crunched under a helmet) and my ‘dog’ Michelle. (I should note that my baptismal name, Michelle, became the name of all my imaginary friends, including dogs. The similarity to Misha’s name is purely coincidental. Misha was named for her likeness to bears, changed from the Polish spelling misia to Misha.) I always wanted a dog, and I always wanted to run free with her.

Of course, when you’re that young, your experience of pets is quite self-centred. I wanted her for my own needs. I was not the biggest fan of having to go on walks after I got in from school, nor did I particularly love that she was technically walking you because she would pull you by the pant leg down the street. Okay, it was funny, but hard to explain to my friends who thought it was weird that such a small dog was pulling me down the street. I did/do love chasing her. I did love when I tried to train her to stay in our backyard in the winter. I love the time that I took it upon myself to get her used to wearing boots in the winter. I made her walk in circles, like a circus animal, in the snow. I, of course, made a trail for her first. I remember panicking, as a thirteen-year-old-does, because I put the boot on her incorrectly and it rubbed into her leg making it red. I remember tears in my eyes because I had hurt her, unwittingly as it had been. I remember how she patiently waited for me to learn how to do it right. Thirteen years later, we know exactly what we’re doing. Peas in a pod. Paws in a boot.

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A maze constructed for the pupper by moi. This is from 2016/7.

She’s always happy. As long as I can remember, she has wagged her tail happily. Only, once when she was sick (in these past few years), she had her tail down. It broke my heart. When she was younger, and her eyesight was better, she would run to people in the neighbourhood to greet them so happily. She would wait at their houses, refusing to walk further, because she wanted to stop to say ‘HELLLLOOOOOO!’. Misha has always been very stubborn. This means that Misha, thank god she is a small breed, is carried home. Hah! I just remembered that I would walk the neighbourhood with a giant dog bag containing at least ten different toys. The bag was meant to be to carry her home, but it became the means by which to stop and play with Misha and neighbours. Misha in tow in one arm and a large, lofty bag full of toys in the other. Misha has always been the source of so much joy and pure happiness in my life. I don’t know if knew the same love then as I did now. I’d like to think I did, but I know that the meanings and shades of love shifted as I grew older. I would never say that age discounts or invalidates love that one feels at any stage in their life. I can only say that my connection with love and its stakes have evolved over time, through experience and introspection.

In our relationship, she is more like a little sister than a child. Our mom is our mom. When we play, we are Cheeny Bambini (a variation of what I called myself as a child; it translates to Kat the Kid) and Misha Peesha (that one is probably easy to work out). We go on adventures late at night counting stars, skunks, and steps. I carry her in my arms in the dead of winter, which is the best time to star gaze, and sing to her that the stars shine yellow just for her. They were so yellow. Even when I was younger, I would always take her out quite late at night. I am a night owl, which is a new combination for dog story. Dog and Owl: Who is this God anyway? I went to bed quite late during high school, so sometimes I’d walk her at 1 AM. I love the streets at night and the occasional pure fog and the serenity of large trees hugging the asphalt surrounded by dreamers snug in their beds. I love the cool air. I love that Misha loves it too, the freedom of the night; she does occasionally wake me up at 4 AM to go out. We count raccoons then. However, Misha is always very naughty after late-night walks. This has never changed. I would lie down on the floor in the living room to model what sleep looked like. Surely, that’s all she needed, a visual reminder of the joys of sleep. One time when I was about fifteen, I had a tissue in hand because when I am tired my eyes tear. My hand was near my head, laying on the floor. And, all of a sudden, this bullet, torpedo, rocket is launched at my head. At the last second, it veers course in a game of nuclear chicken and steals the tissue from my outstretched hand. Well, let’s just say, modelling sleep did not work. It never has. Misha can model sleep for you but not the other way around.

When I was 17 going on 18, I left for university. It didn’t feel major to leave Misha. She had my family. I was super homesick, but I would be home at Christmas, and I would be home all summer. Most of my undergraduate and first masters went this way. I went home when I could, I would give her a bath, and shower her with love and gifts. Constantly, I left to go back to school. I always loved her during that time, but it’s what you do, you leave your family to go to school, and Misha is part of that family. When I went to England to do my M.A in History of Art, everything seemed okay. However, just as I started writing my dissertation in the summer, I was told that Misha was very unwell, and that they did not know if she would be alive when I came home. I was overwhelmed. One of my really close friends went home, and I had to ask her to stop talking about dogs altogether because I could not leave to be with Misha, and I had to work on school.

Alright, so I got home, and she was alive. *breathes* But it was very stressful because she was still quite sick. I had already decided to take time out from school to find work and just be at home because I knew that was what I wanted. As I job hunted, I took over being Misha’s full-time carer. In the beginning it was rough. Her medication made her pee a lot, so before I figured out her schedule, she would just pee during her sleep. Then she would have fits all night long, which meant I never slept. I slept on the couch for months, but that became too uncomfortable for me because my legs hung off the end, and when she choked, I had to run across a room. I moved her to my bedroom, but I couldn’t sleep vertically because she didn’t like it. So, we slept horizontally. Her on my feather duvet, me with my legs, once again, hanging off the end. Also, sometimes, Misha chooses to take your spot, and then in the middle of the night, decides she wants to go back to her spot. We played a lot of musical beds. I developed a 5-walk schedule around her pill schedule. I saw that crushing her pills was better for her. Very slowly she made progress. We cut out foods that aggravated her condition. It’s been three years. I have to say that again; my dog has lived three years longer than we thought she would.

In that time, I’ve learnt what it is to be sitting cheerfully one minute, and go into full emergency mode as you are not sure whether she’ll be okay at the end. (Also, I want to add that she isn’t being kept alive in some cruel ego-centric fashion. The issue is that her fits are unpredictable. She gets the attention and care that she needs, so she doesn’t suffer.) But, in those extreme moments, you never know. It is an emotional rollercoaster. I love her so much that it aches. And, it’s not odd because she’s a dog. I understand the reasons why humans create divisive structures of difference between ‘animal’ and ‘man’, but that construct is nonsense. Dogs dream, they remember (and they bloody-well remember exactly that you ate something they wanted for days…..and will go to where you ate that thing they wanted to remind you of it), they are happy or unhappy. Animals, like humans, are vast and complex and every single one is precious. In taking care of Misha, I’ve learnt the various capacities of love and what it truly means to love someone else in a totalizing way. Perhaps, that’s what the aforementioned parents feel. They feel the vulnerability of a being that needs your help; there has also been a lot of poop and pee and some vomit involved. I’ve learnt patience. I’ve learnt compassion and empathy. I’ve learnt to read her body language. I can hear her a mile away. I can tell by the way she breathes if she wants me to pick her up. I can tell by the way she punches my sternum (when I die, they’ll find paw prints on my bones during my autopsy) that she wants to go down to roll, play, drink, beg for food, or just get away from me because I’m breathing all the air out of the room. Humans and their big noses—eh? The most important thing I’ve learnt is how to let go of my ego in the face of doing what is best for her.

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‘I think you’ll find this is my bed’.

I love her, and, now that we sleep vertically, I’m always happy to let her choose which side of the bed she wants. I’m happy when she wakes up in the middle of the night and lets out a sigh because my leg is in her way. I’m just so happy.

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‘Just doing some light reading on your paperwork’.

In a very short while, I am going to be going back to school. I’ll be too far to help her. And, I don’t know when I’ll be home next. I’m afraid that she’ll miss me because we are best friends. I’m afraid that she’ll be upset that I’m gone, and that that will hurt her. I’m afraid that if she dies, she won’t hear my voice beside her, the one that comforts her and loves her endlessly. I look at her as she sleeps, deeply and full of supersonic snores, and I think to myself, ‘I wish I could make it so you know you’re always loved’. I wish I could give her absolutely everything because if anyone deserves it, it’s her, my best friend. My argument has been, throughout, that love and fulfillment appear in unexpected places. Love is eternal, even if our vessels are transient. Your experiences of love are valid, and they are significant. How you have experienced and related to other beings is part of your odyssey; don’t be afraid of the power of love. Although I feel this deeply, as others have felt love and its pangs, I repeat to myself: It is better to have loved, than to never have loved at all.

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Heaps of love,

WordPlay Xx

Reading Anna Karenina

Dear Reader,

In the autumn, I am going back to school. I’ll be moving out of the country, and I can’t take my books with me. I’ve been fretting over which is more important to me, reading big books or writing/editing episodes for the podcast. I think I’ve come to a compromise; I believe that I might just read big books and break them up into smaller chunks to discuss. I had been apprehensive about this approach in the past because I felt that my opinions about certain things in the book might change. But, that’s just how reading works, and I need to let go of this idea of perfection. So, I have decided to read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and I feel really warm to the book right now. Previously, I have picked up the book and put it down because it did not speak to me. However, I switched editions to the OUP edition, translated by Rosamund Bartlett, and it is very readable–to my taste anyway. Translated fiction can be really hit or miss, and I think the best thing you can do is to find different translations and sit down with them to see if they appeal to you. What works for me might not work for you. In this sense, translated fiction is your echo chamber. Echo away, little birds, echo away.

So, I am speculating that I will follow the eight-part structure of the novel to construct the episodes. It’s very likely the episodes will be mini-sodes, but I will include historical tidbits, because I do quite love Russian history. The goal is to not let the episode writing distract me from reading the book because I am also trying to get through some methodology books in the meantime. We’ll see how it goes.

 

Warmest wishes and happy summer,

 

WordPlay Xx

 

 

Measure

In suspended time, I watch
the gears kiss, intertwined, their
teeth fitting into one another
with perfect ease. Metal mouths
in shared labour, producing
objects lesser than the sum of
its parts.

A mind tinkers away at the machine’s
organs, tip-tapping the beating heart
abreast the congested breaths
heaving in an over-boiled temper,
monstrous,
seething in gasps and grunts, a glint
of threatening metallic fangs.

Time swims languidly toward the shore,
Unsure of direction, meaning, chronology,
Biting my flesh, leaving lines for
my recollection.
In laughter, they are clearest,
thrusting their happiness into
my being.

A mirror reveals them, a reflection
that is me, but not me. There but
also here. Reality slips into
a displacement that soothes
my soul, for it finally shows
the chaos I know,
suspended in uncanny
being.

© Kat Manica

Rethinking Kristeva, with dog poop • Unpacking Theory

Dear Friends,

So, a long time ago I wrote an “Oh Woe is Me” about what it’s like to pick up dog’s poop. Well, we’re going to really get into it, today. Okay, not really, but I am going to examine what I thought was correct about Kristeva’s theory of abjection, and apply that learning again. It will be fun; there will be dogs involved! 🐶

Okay, so my initial premise was taken from the fact that Kristeva says that “defilement” and “shit” and “pus” are the things that invoke abjection. Abjection is the affective (emotional response) feeling of deep repulsion, of gagging, and that which causes you to question existence and meaning. Importantly, that which exposes the fragility of borders is abject. For example, Kristeva says that if you see a corpse with pus and wounds, the response you have to the pus and wounds is abjection, for it exposes what keeps us alive and the fragility of life in the face of death/mortality. However, “signified” death is a whole other kettle of fish. Signified death is the flat line that shows you there is no longer brain activity. You are being shown that death has occurred, and you can process that information in different ways. It is not the immediate confrontation of death, but the confrontation with that which tells you death has occurred.

So, let’s think about dog poop. I made the argument that picking up my dog’s poop was uncomfortable because of its relationship to abjection. However, I believe that this example was incorrect. Perhaps, for my tiny little dog with her superego structure, being confronted by her own poop might domino into an existential crises of meaning and being, but, for me, her poop signifies. Let’s think about that, I am not being confronted with abjection because fragility is not being exposed; her poop signifies her health and her continued existence for me. However, the confrontation with the abject occurs when we walk and other owners have not picked up after their dogs. Just thinking about it makes me unwell. This is because this poop does not signify, but it invokes death and disease and defilement.

So friends, pick up after your dog because your relation to it is not abject, but think about all of the abject people walking about exposed to the fragility of meaning because you’re too lazy. You do not want to be held accountable for that, do you?

 

 

***

There are likely going to be more of these philosophy bites coming your way. Brace yourselves.

Gobble Spiders

I wish there was a ghost
who would walk beside me,
gobbling up spiders
into the ether, quietly.

I don’t wish the spiders to be dead,
Okay, it’s complicated,
but maybe
I do.

I know they eat the other things
that are too small for
us to see.
I also know that centipedes

hunt them, rather–
rather gleefully.
I don’t want the ghost
of a centipede to walk

with me.
Maybe just an arachnologist
who isn’t finished her
work quite yet.

It would be harmony
and synchronicity,
and there would be less
spider corpses

hiding under
the spines of
the brave books
that protected me.

Yes, I wish there was a ghost
who would walk beside me,
Then my cold hands,
Would simply mean

our hands were interlaced,
and the shivers of my spine
would signify a spectre
of warmth hereafter.

 

 

 

 


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On Sherlock and Other Feelings ⎟ Bildungsroman

Dear Reader,

Do you remember sitting in grade 9 English (or if you’re not in North America, the age of about 13/14) learning the word bildungsroman? It’s rather an ugly word, it’s like trying to spit your tongue out and juggle it. A bildungsroman is a novel or story in which the main character, or protagonist, comes of age or develops. Usually, young people read them because, they too, are coming of age. For example, the Harry Potter series is a bildungsroman in which the protagonists and other students at Hogwarts develop into adults and learn about the complicated morals of the (adult) world.

A lot of the time, books that follow the development of a main character will also employ archetypal representations of good and evil. Sometimes, there is a slight complication of those tropes, but, usually, they glare right at you. Consider the way that Voldemort is just evil. Consider the way that the Slytherins are, likewise, represented as evil, evil eleven-year-old children. Now, Rowling complicates our ideas of good and evil with Harry’s struggle between understanding his own goodness in the face of Voldemort’s semi-possession of his mind in book five. She also complicates it with the character of Snape. Yes, an abusive teacher that frightens his students, but also, a hero to some? I have a difficult time with Snape, but he is meant to be read as someone who changed their mind about something because it was someone for whom he particularly cared. The author sets up clear lines between the states of pure goodness (think Lily, who sacrificed herself for her child) and pure evil (think Voldemort, who tried to kill said child), as if such categories truly exist, in order to play around with ideas of good and evil. At times, Rowling complicates persons somewhat effectively such as Dumbledore, but other times she uses Dudley’s fatness as an indicator that he is bad. We are just meant to read some characters as good and some as bad, especially some bodies are good and others as bad.

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This type of heavy-handed coding is also clear in Western films. You know, those racist ones where white guys ride ride horses and call themselves cowboys. There is always a lot of salooning, frisky whisky, spurring spurs, and blink-speed shooting. The good guys wore white hats, and the bad guys wore black hats. This was in part because it saved a lot of story-telling time for audiences to have a coded way to read the film and the story. It also made it easier for audiences to distinguish between two cowboys (because white people look the same). Most importantly, white, whiteness, and the white hat were meant to be read in terms of white equating with goodness, purity, and morality. Blackness, read as the opposite of whiteness, was thus sinister, evil, and immoral or, perhaps, amoral. This, of course, also applies to how race has been used in film, literature, and popular culture.

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Let’s parse these things out a little bit. When Harry defeats Voldemort we get a glimpse of the heroes happy life in the epilogue. We are to read that ending as a happy ending. Our characters have developed, they have children, and their children are going to Hogwarts, where they will grow into wizards and witches and maintain the status quo. (I am not including The Cursed Child or Fantastic Beasts in this discussion.) The end message is that Harry, Hermione, and Ron have triumphed and the world is good. Likewise, in a western film, when the good guy expels the baddie, all is well in the world. The order of the cosmos have returned to a state of flourishing, principled, law-abiding, and, I suppose, happy status quo. There really isn’t any development beyond that because everything that could be done is done. We move onto another story, imagining that these characters are moral and developed characters. Think about how Disney princesses get married, and the story that young viewers are told is that that is the happy ending they should want in life. The adults in the room chortle knowingly; life is far more difficult and less certain than this Romantic ideal.

When we engage with these types of stories, we need to consider the motivation of the story. Why and how does this character or these characters come of age? What lessons do they learn? What are we supposed to learn from their actions? How can we learn to grow up like these characters? What will it take for us to reach a final state of goodness? (Hint: there is no such thing, but more on that later). Inculcating people to particular behaviours is not a new concept, but specifically targeting young people and children is new enough. In the eighteenth century, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote a book called The Social Contract (1762). He wanted ‘man’ to be forced to be free in his new world order; there was to be a return to nature and a lot of outdoor dancing (a noble-savage trope, popular in this era). But people needed to know how to be ideal citizens in the world, Rousseau thought. So, he taught them with his novel/bildungsroman/educational guide Emile, or On Education (1762). A young boy, Emile, and girl, Sophie, are shown to grow up and learn to be the right kinds of people.

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Rousseau indoctrination à la life-style guide creates stable statuses for our two grown-up protagonists: the manly man and the passive woman. (Please note the use of creates in the previous sentence; such ideas of gender are man-made, not inherent.) A lot of bildungsroman follow the same trajectory. The character grows to be an (young) adult, and their future is boundless and hopeful because of the lessons they’ve learnt along the way.

This is rather dissatisfying. Isn’t it? Are any of our lives actually like that? I doubt it. We should be chortling at it, knowingly, because we don’t just learn a lesson once and know how to live correctly, as it were, for all of our lives. Also, I’m certain that bildungsroman novels have generally precluded the inclusion of other races because most of these growing-up opportunities were likely only available to white protagonists–boys and their dogs.

Moreover, this stasis of reaching the clarity of pubescence is rather a sham. We might be told that we are going to get to a point where we’ve reached moral untouchability, but that’s simply not true. People aren’t either good or evil. For instance, one might suppose themselves to be a good person, but perhaps that doesn’t fit with the fact that you told someone’s secret to someone else or you said something cruel about another person to make that other person feel the anger you feel. And yet, one might also do kind things, too. I wrestle with this idea of a dichotomy that seems to be solid state of good versus bad.

This is where Sherlock comes in. In the first few seasons, the characters tried to remain relatively themselves, but they rubbed off on each other provoking change. Watson learnt that he really wanted to be a soldier again. Sherlock learnt that he could be more vulnerable.  Without giving any plot twists away, this new season, while a little unlikeable for other reasons, has these characters seriously interrogate their morals. There is not just a state of goodness to be occupied, but it is a conscientious journey. It is an act in motion.

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Formidable story-telling reminds the reader/viewer/listener/audience to query their ideas of good and bad. We may do good or bad things, but those things have to be complicated beyond a tropism of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ (we should always be complicating how we view people as good or bad, and how we have come to understand what those terms mean). Of course, as I think about the polarized villains such as Moriarty and Magnussen, I’m sure some of you will query this stance. Recall that Sherlock and these villains have many of the same traits. It is often the uniqueness of Sherlock that is employed against him as a foil. We are meant to align Sherlock with these villains and the danger that he might easily slip into being a villain. What is it that Sergeant Donavon says to Watson? “One day we’ll be standing around a body, and Sherlock Holmes will be the one who puts it there” (“Lady in Pink”). The traits of the villains encourages the audience to view Sherlock’s character as constantly in danger of slippage into evilness, but, as we learn from Mrs Hudson, Sherlock’s responses are always emotional. Also, we cannot forget both Irene Adler and Mary and their complicated roles as both villains and heroes.

The idea of character growth within the Sherlock narrative is fitting because Watson is our meta-narrator, informing us about Sherlock and his adventures. Watson strives to paint Sherlock sympathetically to his readers. We are hyper aware of this meta-narration, particularly with the release of the Abominable Bride,” in which the audience comes face to face with Sherlock Holmes in his nineteenth- and twenty-first-century portrayals and Watson’s intentional framing of the stories explicitly shown when Mrs Hudson rebukes him for cutting her lines. It is the on-going space for growth within a narrative of puzzles of crime that force the characters to confront their own morality and values and how they match up with their own crisis of self.

I’d like to extrapolate from these literary and filmic examples to my own life. I think we grow up reading books, assuming that we’ve got it figured out by the time we’re fifteen. We declare ourselves to be Hermiones or Lunas, but in doing so, sometimes we fail to recognize the complexities of our selves. Certainly, this is not easy, or at least, not always easy. Working to understand ourselves and quieten our ego in the face of making our world equitable and the goal of empathy teaches us how to see ourselves and other people as complex beings with multiple and conflicting emotions. Sometimes, intentions are all in order, but the heart fails to grab the bit. It’s hard to convince yourself to move past the things you feel, even if it would seem easier if you could just switch on a dime. It isn’t always possible. Learning to be fair and kind in the face of what is difficult is not an easy lesson. If it were, then we would already live in a fair world. We don’t always have kindness or the capability for kindness; that’s okay, we’ll try better together. Take the time you need, dear ones. Stare sadly into the distance, wipe that tear, look for friendship and love, feel joy, feel angst, feel ecstatic. Learn to be kind, for in our endeavour to kindness we should be the physically impossible perpetual motion of learning to have empathy and compassion. You’ll slip up. I’ll slip up. You’ll lose your temper, and so will I. But we’ll always be growing.

So, dear reader, just when you thought your journey was over, it’s time you head into the woods and find the most gnarled tree. The grooves, the slopes, the dips, the crevices, the moss growing all over, that is what your bildungsroman should look like. It’s complicated, compelled to grow and pay host to other lives.

 

Heaps of love,

Kat

 

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When Breath Becomes Air ⎟ Book Exchange Series

Dear Reader,

I recently took part in a Book Exchange. A friend of mine posted a status asking if anyone wanted to take part in a gift exchange. I had often seen posts like this before. In the past, I’ve never answered the call because I felt uncomfortable giving my address out to total strangers. This time, I decided, I was just going to jump in. My friend sent me a long message immediately after I replied that asked you to send your favourite book to Person A; you would make a similar post on your wall and those who responded would send a book to Person B (the person who’s post I had seen and to which I had responded). One swapped addresses as the chain of connections grew.

At first, I was a little overwhelmed. I was about to say, oh, maybe this isn’t for me. But, I embraced it. I embraced that I would be asking my friends to send my friend a book and that their friends would be sending me a book.  I was to send a book to the person who caught her in this web of gift-giving, and those who responded to me would send my friend a book.  I kind of liked that this whole experiment was at least once-removed. It felt like a connection wherein you shared part of yourself to someone you did not necessarily know. I didn’t even think about the books I would get, I just thought about the book I wanted to give and the person who would receive my book.

Since money is tight and our government insists that young people just need to get used to precarious employment, I told the friends who responded to my post that it was perfectly okay to send a used book or to buy from cheaper online shops, an advantage being that one can ship directly to their person. I know that we should be supporting independent shops, but there just aren’t any around me. I suppose the ideal situation would be to send a book with a care package and a small gift, but that wasn’t in my budget and I didn’t want to ask anyone to spend beyond what they were able. The only downside of this method is that the person who receives the book doesn’t know who sent the book. I’ve decided to make a post for every book I receive and extend my most heartfelt thanks and bow in humility to those who sent the precious gift of a book to me.

 

***

Yesterday, I received a book from the book exchange. At first, I was trying to remember what books I had purchased. I was awaiting some Roald Dahl books and Black and British, and when I opened the bubbly envelope, out popped When Breath Becomes Air. Afterwards, I realized this wasn’t a book I’d purchased because of the name on the label, it had my nicknameI was a bit shocked. I knew that everyone was super hyped about this book; I was not. Two humans in my life had told me about Paul Kalanithi, one before Kalanithi’s death and one who had fallen in love with this book.

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I really wasn’t convinced. He was sold to me as someone who had crossed the invisible but very tangible boundary between the arts and sciences. It seemed ludicrous to me. In my experience, science has heralded itself as the worthy occupation, and arts are usually sidelined as a luxury. It felt that science was a career, but literature, art, history, economics (not commerce), philosophy, etc., those things are considered to be hobbies. I’m wary of this crack in the earth, this line in the land, this unfathomable fissure. I never used to feel that divide so strongly when I was younger, I had studied physics and maths in secondary school, and I loved reading and history. I, myself, debated between studying engineering and history. My dad’s friends, engineers that had lived through Nortel Networks, told me to do history. So, I did.

As I studied, the prejudices against the arts from the sciences ruffled my feathers. It was like constantly going against the grain, and even though I was moving through molasses, people believed that work was somehow meaningless in the greater scheme. I had many existential crises in the library: what was the meaning of anything? History and revisionists and philosophies, oh my!  So, I let those experiences inform my opinion on this book, and I decided against reading it. I was wrong to have those prejudices.

Certainly, Kalanithi understands his own prejudices, the arrogances and ego that come with medicine or any career, really, and he conscientiously works against them. He notices it, and he remarks that it doesn’t feel right. Next time, we do better. I think that is one of the most refreshing aspects of this book; he recognizes that we are not always going to have the answers or be the same person day after day. Each day we have to struggle with the good and bad things that inform our past actions, we must be held accountable, and we must strive to shift our experience beyond what we know to be true.

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Although Kalanithi doesn’t explicitly state: BE EMPATHETIC, his entire memoir is an ode to empathy and understanding. It does not bridge the gulfs created by class, race, and gender, but it does remind us that privileges may make us heedless to how others think and feel. We might become solipsistic, the sole ego that denies souls to others.

The book is chockfull of references and allusions to erudite and esoteric literary works, and, by applying texts that might seem elusive, dusty tomes directly to his professional and personal experiences, Kalanithi encourages us to think of them as relevant to our own lives. Things that seem elitist are within our grasp; he evidences this by the fact that his mother’s revolutionizing force in the previously somewhat bereft local education system gave opportunities to all students.

Indeed, I’m still figuring out how education and elitism go hand-in-hand, particularly when so many  young people are educated but lack the hoards of moveable property that accompany the elite. Moreover, I know reading classics of western literature is laden full of privilege and historical prejudices, and, surely, our sense of their beauty is tied to the colonialism that accompanied(s) them. And yet, words, literature, and thoughts are profound and full of meaning. Canonical western literature is not the be-all and end-all. There are so many voices to whom we should listen. We must actively make social and public spaces for those voices.

We must also not forget that Kalanithi had an extraordinary education, Stanford and Cambridge. I cannot ignore this in my review because it would deny the fact that many persons will not and do not have access to these kinds of experiences. I would also like to make note that the book does contain some privileging of able bodies and able minds. The book, at times, seems to preclude a world inclusive of neurodivergence, but that these are problems to be solved. I am not well-informed enough in this area to speak to it fully.

Kalanithi’s bridge between Literature and Neuro-science and -surgery echoes his investigation of the mind/body nexus, a philosophical problem as old as time. We accept that language gives us the tools of expression, meaning, feeling, intelligence. ‘Man’ has believed that what made him man was language. (Animals, meanwhile, have argued that it was the red-flower.) And then there is the brain that controls the lot. If we want to understand how we think and what we think, do we engage in philosophy or neuroscience? If parts of the brain that become damaged or put under the pressure of a tumour influence how we behave and act, then what does that mean about what it means to about selfhood? Kalanithi doesn’t give us a straight-forward answer; rather, he engages in a well-thought discourse that attempts to meaningfully untangle the seemingly unsolvable. Unsolvable things such as life, death, mortality, suffering, the liminal experience of the patient who may or may not return from the cusp of death, and the place of those who remain after death.

To me, and I think most people will agree, it is the abridged and purpose-driven autobiographical narrative that a parent would hope to leave their child, especially if the parent will die before the child can ask the parent questions about their life.

Finally, I’d like to finish by quoting one of my best friend’s favourite lines: ‘You can’t ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving’. A life in motion, a life that moves forward, learning from others, ourselves, and how to engage with people as people and not as problems or a ticking clock.

 

Heaps of Love,

Kat Xx

[Edit: see below]

P.S. In my desire to publish this before I had to take my dog out, I forgot to emphasize a few things. The main takeaway that I want people to have from this book is the importance of reading and the act of reading as a tool to build empathy. For all of its flaws, children that grew up reading the Harry Potter series have been shown to be more empathetic. Because so many young people have this shared experience, they are also able to connect through it. Likewise, we may not agree on which religion or why, we might agree that Hermione’s activities through SPEW are indicative of white feminism. We were given a language to discuss child abuse and the loneliness that teens and young adults feel alongside the loneliness and isolation of adults (re: Sirius). Literature is important. People who study literature are important. Their brains work in wonderful and often uncelebrated ways.

In addition to noting the importance of literature, I did make the point about the prevalence of western literature throughout the text. When I was studying, I was co-Chair of an off-shoot of a charity that builds local-language libraries, supports local-language publishing, and gives money for girls to go to school. When I was part of this charity, it was always important to me that the books that were placed in the libraries and the books that were published were not western exports. Those books are usually readily available, but it was important that money was given to regional and local authors. It is never about exporting the western canon elsewhere; it is about recognizing that we need to support local publishing. This is why writing, and empathy, and developing our individual and shared vocabularies through reading, writing, and supporting authors is important.

Look at the ways in which my own world was broadened by this book. Those are the things that are important.

 

Book rating: 3.5/5

CARS! WOMEN! HISTORY! ⎟ voicing my opinions

Dear Reader,

Yes, I’ve used clickbait, possibly. I’d actually identify it as the general gist of this post, or the tl:dr: CARS! WOMEN! HISTORY! But, you know, you could stick around for the whole post to see just what I have to say on the matter.

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I don’t watch much film. I don’t have the patience for it. Perhaps, my brain has been ruined by technology. Nope. That’s not true. I’ve never really enjoyed just watching television or film. I get annoyed really easily. I can read for hours, yessir, but put me in front of the television and it had better be The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter for me to sit put, and, even then, I get antsy. I just find it really difficult to pay attention, I usually multi-task when I watch films. I’ll bake, or I’ll do my nails, or do a face mask. Once, I popped blisters from a really bad sun burn I had whilst watching a Bollywood film. I needed the longest film Netflix would offer, so I could happily distracted from the pain that I got when I couldn’t stop reading. Also, I tend to find Bollywood films more engaging, if only for the music. I love music, but it has to be just right. Music affects my mood, quite easily. Oh, I’m going off topic.

The point is, if you were to ask me what my favourite film of all time is, unfortunately, I could not point to a well-developed vocabulary of filmic experience and repertoire. I’m sorry, it’s not my forte. But, I’ve recently altered my stance on this. I think after suffering from anxiety that probably has a lot to do with too much caffeine consumption, I started looking for media that soothed me rather than aggravated me. And, I found it, without realizing I had. The Lady in the Van, I proudly identify as, if not my favourite film, one of the best films I’ve seen. I don’t identify it as a favourite because it doesn’t have the same emotional response from me, like my five-year-old self clutching a handful of cantaloupe and screaming to the fruit gods about how this is my FAVOURITE FRUIT! But, I do, don’t get me wrong, love this film.

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When I first saw it, I didn’t need much convincing that it was worth my time. Dame Maggie Smith plays Miss Shepherd, Margaret, or was that Mary, Shepherd. The film is a lightly fictionalized account with elements of magical realism of the author’s, that is, Alan Bennett’s, relationship with Miss Shepherd. If you don’t know the story, look it up. The film was based on a play of the same name, but I do recommend the film, too. The film contains two manifestations of Alan, the author’s ego and the man-in-the-world: the author is the more snippy and curt of the two, the man-in-the-world is proudly, Britishly timid. He moves into Camden Town, in London, after the success of his writing and plays. The street upon which he lives has a lady in a van. Every so often she moves from house to house. That is, until new zoning laws require that she move the van. Miss Shepherd hints that a driveway, such as the one Alan has, would be the perfect solution. Alan offers Miss Shepherd the space, and she accepts suggesting that it won’t inconvenience her too much, possibly.

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So, for fifteen years, she lives in his drive. She loves to paint all of her vehicles bright yellow with a pot-cleaner. She may be homeless, but she has a wealthy patron who gifts her cars. She receives a new van at one point, quickly painted ‘custard’ yellow, and the three-wheeler that joins the canary colour scheme. And, although our narrator is Alan, the story is about Miss Shepherd. We learn from one of the neighbours that she was a nun and during the war she was an ambulance driver during the blackouts. She knows London very well. She cannot stand music. We learn that she was a very gifted pianist, that was told by nuns that playing was a temptation from the devil. So, through negative associations, she has put music behind her. But make no mistake, music is a big part of the film. She went to Paris as a young woman to study under a virtuoso pianist. She was an artist. She was a traveller. She spoke fluent French. She was a religious woman. She was a nun, twice over. She was forcibly made to leave because she was strong-willed. She feared, for over half of her life, that she killed a young man, who crashed into her van. The film leads us to the conclusion that her homelessness was a self-prescribed, earthly purgatory for this particular sin (a sin that did not belong to her, but she feared it did).

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Throughout the film, Alan denies that he is her carer. Rather, he identifies himself as her neighbour. He does her kindly acts, like offering her the drive, or encouraging her to walk more for energy, check in on her, ensure that she is left alone by ruffians or dubious police characters. But, in a rather political stance, he is not her carer. He does not behave as though her presence is a burden, aside from when her after-dinners are left in his path to trod on. But by not taking her on as a burden, she maintains her independence. She is not in the possession of a man, being carefully minded.

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The end of the film reveals a blue plaque being places on the side of Alan’s house to mark where she lived. His house becomes her house. It becomes, in a religious sort of way, a site of pilgrimage. His house loses meaning as the place where he lives, where his economic affluence and male privilege afforded him a right to live, and it takes on the meaning of recalling and reiterating her right to that space, too. This film is important because it writes Margaret Shepherd’s history, and it does so unapologetically.  Well, Miss Shepherd seems like the sort to be unapologetic about her right to space, and all women and marginalized peoples need that kind of role model. Of course, Maggie Smith brings her award-winning acting to the role.

Think about the importance of this film. The person about whom we are encouraged to wonder and care about, if not for, is an older woman. We are told that her life and its path is and was meaningful. She is not just an old lady in a van, she is a woman with a story and a role in history. Throughout history, women have been written out of existence. One wonders if there were women at some points? But, this film, although it starts to tell the story of Alan Bennett (and he does share some of the story time), the story is the story of a formidable woman.

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The camera does not shy away from focusing on Maggie Smith’s face, without conventional make up. She is not glamourized. She is very filthy. She is a person with personhood. She is the subject of the film, not the object of the straight-male gaze. Our star is not young, and this is important, because the camera is teaching us that women are valuable socially. Human beings, as they age, do not become useless or valueless. Their lined faces, their incontinence, their will to live are all important and deserving of space in media and our lives. I have an older dog, and she looks and acts like a puppy, at times. She does have health issues that take a lot of work and often disrupt my sleep. But, in spending time with her, I realize that if humans aged the same way dogs do, without the perception of showing how age marks their physical bodies, we would find them more valuable. We wouldn’t want to put them away in homes and deem them less worthy of life or our time. We wouldn’t be afraid of the mortality they represent. We would see them as alive. We would treat them better. In our society, women don’t have to age much to be regarded as less worthy. Whilst men are valuable silver foxes: the world is their oyster, their adventures are yet to begin at 62; women, at 25, have become dusty on the shelf.

This film contravenes a narrative of shelving women (in binders or not) because their social value has been deemed less than. Indeed, Alan, who narrates the story, only has a story because of this woman. His voice is diminished, is non-existent, without Margaret Shepherd. The film reaffirms the hope I have for the future. The happiness I will feel at being an older woman who has no filter. I hope that by that time I’m held accountable for my filterless nature, and it’s not written off as being an addled old lady. I’ll just smile and say, hey! I’ve been dropping that mike before Yeezy publicly smiled. Ahahahaha. 🙂

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A few other things that I love about the film include how happy Margaret is represented at times, in spite of her earthly purgatory. There is a scene where she travels to the seaside, and she eats chips and rides a carousel, where young children are also enjoying themselves. Her enjoyment is echoed and emphasized by the children that go round and round just as she does. I think a clear point is that adults lose some of their child-like joy when they grow up, but when you hit a certain age you wonder why you stopped shoving your face with sweets or cantaloupe, whilst jumping up and down, fists full of fruit, and the fountain of youth dribbling from your mouth.

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Alan is gay. This inclusion and representation in the film is also really important. It is coded when he tries to ask an actor to help him decorate his flat, but the actor has a girlfriend. It is clearer when he has young men that leave his flat at night. If you can’t pick up on it, you are triply mocked by Margaret who knowingly *taps nose* says the young men are clearly communists, possibly; by the unknowing housewife who, at a dinner gathering of neighbours, asks aloud when they are going to find Alan a girl–the other neighbours laugh awkwardly; and by the snobbish neighbours that explain to the audience, or each other, that his plays are about him not coming clean (about being gay). But, the social climate doesn’t allow an outright speech act from Alan, that is, until the end of the film, when he has a partner that encourages him to stop arguing with the author-ego and talk to him.

The film ends beautifully, like Raphael’s Transfiguration of Christ, Margaret Shepherd ascends into God’s willing arms. All I can do is smile, because the magical realism complements the stark realities of Margaret’s hard life.

Heaps of love,

WordPlay Xx

Shhhh, don’t say that ⎟ voicing my opinion

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I used to find navigating how much is posting too much on social media very difficult. In a lot of ways, it is tied to performances of femininity and gender. Ladies hide their emotions behind their fans; they do not overshare. And, I wouldn’t say that I am an over-sharer because there is a lot about me that a lot of people don’t know. But, I do like to speak. I like to have words crawl out of my mouth, dragging their weightiness behind them. I love words. Sometimes, or a lot of the time, I may say things I might not necessarily mean, but I am trying to work my way through ideas or friendships or concepts or relationships. If you can give voice or expression or audience to what you feel or feel you mean, it can help to clarify things up.

For instance, you might be really angry with someone and call them a total wanker. But then, maybe in a day or two, because you’ve vented that anger you start to piece together what made you feel the way you did and parse it from the actions of that person. Yes, they might be a total wanker, still, or you might be the total wanker, but at least you can gave those emotions their time and their place, and you can begin to understand and grow from that situation.

In terms of social media, there are times when I don’t really have anything to say to a general audience. Sometimes, I totally forget about my phone and twitter. And there are other times when I need to share things that have happened. When I have really vivid dreams, I want to tell them to people. At times, they’re super scary and you need to connect because you don’t want to feel alone. Loneliness is real–reach out to people, and, most importantly, allow people to reach out to you and recognize them. That is vital. Other times, my dreams are absolutely, off-the-walls, bonkers, hilarious, cute, problematic, romantic, sweet, endearing, stunning, or a bit odd. I don’t know what it is about my over-active subconscious, but perhaps because it is *in* my brain, I have to give in to a speech act to evidence my internalized experiences. Externalizing my introspection like a boss bitch. (I usually really hate that word, but I quite like the alliteration.)

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I used to think that it was not dainty to share the things I thought. I didn’t have 10 people liking or engaging with what I had to say, and that seemed to mean that what I had to say was not worthwhile. It actually just made me realize that it is more likely they weren’t my audience. As a human being, I don’t get to demand that people pay attention to me. What is this, reality tv?? I do not want to dismiss the fact that I do have amazing friends and family to engage with my thoughts, and I love them and appreciate them. I feel like our brains connect for a moment, as we move through this chaotic reality. That is worth everything. However, I do think that I can’t not express myself because I am afraid that people might know too much about me, or they might judge me (I don’t care what you think, unless you’re thinking about ways to make having three shitzus affordable whilst saving up to go back to school, coz I bloody-well love dogs), or that my noted presence might come off as all of the diminishing adjectives you can use to describe women. I’m not going to give them space here because they are wrong, and it is not necessary to tell you what sexist or misogynist things are already in your mind.

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I was once asked to stop using my Facebook as a platform to spread politicized posts. I responded with: I have an extraordinary amount of privilege to have a Facebook as a platform to communicate with a number (even if its finite) of friends, colleagues, and or, acquaintances–of course I am going to put other people’s voices forward in my space of privilege. That is what being an ally is about. You have to shush your own space, to make sure that people who might not be heard have their voice(s) heard!

So, it makes me wonder why I then give into that feeling that tells me I shouldn’t say this or I shouldn’t say that. I can’t post photos of myself because that’s so vain (even though I don’t think that about other people’s photos, I love them!); I have to post photos of my glasses, or the edge of a book lest you think I’m trying to be too smart, my tenth cup of delicious coffee, or mushrooms. I actually love mushrooms. If I could be, I would be one: coz I’d be a fungi. Yes, it’s an old joke, but I’m hilairrrr.

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I guess I’ve decided to make my public self and my introspective self a little more hand-in-hand. I don’t think I’ve been lying to other people, but I’ve been lying to myself about how I’m allowed to perform my being. We are always performing, and that is okay; it’s good! Perform your hearts out. As much as one might want to, one cannot live a vocal life when you’re afraid of having your own voice heard because you’re so busy whispering as silently as possible that people just think you’re farting at them, or something like that. When you say one word, it gets a lot easier to keep saying more and more. If someone doesn’t want to hear what you have to say, then they can tune out: block, unfriend, click the x, mute, unsubscribe. I don’t want you to feel you have to leave, but I want to speak–to sing to the heavens and drink deep into the caverns of existence.

Please feel free to join me in the caverns; I also like coffee and Twinings’ earl grey tea (with coconut-almond mylk and one sugar).

 

Heaps of Love,

WordPlay: one that is going to feel more free to speak out loud.

E.M Forster’s Maurice ⎟ sex, love, and philosophy

PODCAST REVEAL ⎟ E.M Forster’s Maurice

 

Dear Reader,

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The podcast is finally here! Click below to hear about E.M Forster’s Maurice and about sex, love, and philosophy! I mean! Rock and Roll! iTunes link to come soon.

 

 

<<Download this episode here>>

 

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Heaps and heaps of love,

WordPlay Xx