One Day, One Thing More

Everyday observations

Month: May, 2013

Tisane and sympathy

The seeds of this project (the Proust-reading, that is) start at the time I went to the French School at Middlebury College. I was an undergraduate there, and returned for a French immersion program–which I undertook as the least efficient way possible to pass the translation exam I needed in order to get my MA.

Books are often associated with specific places for me–not where I was when I was thinking about them, but where I was when I had a specific insight. The last block of Cedar Street going toward Broadway in Somerville is permanently associated with Clarissa’s “mad papers,” for instance, because I was explaining them to Ariel while walking from the 7-11 on the corner back to my house. And Powderhouse Circle has a more lowbrow association: Daenerys Targaryen breastfeeding her dragons as she walks out of the flames.

There’s something about an initial moment of insight that imprints itself on my mind–the less embodied version, I guess, of Proust’s insight that “the past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which the material object gives us) of which we have no inkling.” The moment when I learned that the title “Remembrance of Things Past” was in fact a mistranslation, I was getting a piece of cherry pie in Proctor dining hall.

The difference here is that these are associations that imprint themselves moving forward. Suddenly, I found myself unable to walk up Cedar Street without thinking of how it is the Lady who was foolish–the Bear was just acting within its nature. The kinds of recovered memory that Proust is talking about here, that come upon you in a flash, are often more visceral.

My favorite of these is also from French School. One of the hallmarks of the Middlebury program is the Language Pledge, in which you promise on the first day to refrain from speaking English for the duration of your time at the school. I only marginally followed the Pledge, leaving for meetings every day and calling my sponsor regularly. But I did my best to stick to it, and this newly alienated relationship with language must have triggered what I now recognize as my earliest memory: jealously watching my younger sister breastfeed. Stupid Kate–she gets everything.

So I’m thinking today about patterns of association, and how they’re laid down. What is it about a particular place or smell or taste that imprints itself on our memory? Put another way, why is it the madelines that bring Combray back, not something else? It has something to do with heightened emotions, I suppose, but I wonder if it isn’t also about the familiarity of a particular way of making connections? That summer I was at Middlebury was also the summer I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, and when I was informed by my doctor that my insurance wouldn’t cover treatment for what I’d just discovered was a chronic, incurable condition. I responded by turning to hippie doctors, who told me to limit my diet and deal with my unresolved anger. So I wasn’t just not speaking English–I was also not eating sugar or dairy or wheat, not smoking, not drinking, not having ill-advised sex. Not not not. It’s the limit that opened up the door in my memory, I think.

I’m back around the bend to negativity, which is apparently the concept that will preoccupy me through this experience of reading Proust–what I’m thinking about here is how memory, and maybe the pattern of how we get attached to things and people writ large, happens across these negative spaces. The absence of access to the object of my desire (expression, food, my mom, alcohol–anything can fill the space) becomes a cavern I have to get across, and I fill it up with attachment. It’s not the place I was when I was reading the book that I remember–it’s the place where I created the book in its absence, the place where I filled it up with whatever parts of myself I project into fantasy when I’m reading. That’s what I remember.


Triumphs of the will

I’m a bit behind on writing–as usual, the delicious passivity of reading and the pressure of everyday duties have overtaken my good intentions re: daily writing. So what I have to say today is behind where I am in the book, but whatever. The point of a blog is that I’m the boss, right?

So the bit in Swann’s Way that I’ve been preoccupied with lately is this: the narrator misses his chance to get his good-night kiss from his mother, and decides that he’s throwing caution to the wind and confronting her at the top of the stairs when she comes up for bed at the end of the night. He knows he’ll be punished–especially since it’s his emotional outbursts that get him in trouble more than anything–but he’s thrown caution to the wind. When his mother sees him there, she’s angry as usual, but his capricious father gives in, telling his mother that the boy is obviously upset, and that she should sleep in his room that night. It’s the narrator’s response that gets me:

And thus for the first time my unhappiness was regarded no longer as a punishable offence but as an involuntary ailment which had been officially recognized, a nervous condition for which I was in no way responsible: I had the consolation of no longer having to mingle apprehensive scruples with the bitterness of my tears; I could weep henceforth without sin. … It struck me that if I had just won a victory it was over her, that I had succeeded, as sickness or sorrow or age might have succeeded, in relaxing her will, in undermining her judgement; and that this evening opened a new era, would remain a black date in the calendar.

Partly, he’s sad because he’s caused her pain, but the thing that’s gotten me thinking is more his grief over the way his parents now seem to view his melancholy as an unchangeable thing about him–that it’s just part of his makeup, not something that could be trained out of him. It’s a perfect representation of the self-reflexive loop that is depression, for one thing: “If only I hadn’t been so sad, then I wouldn’t be so sad.” Part of what’s so interesting about this to me is that it offers a counterpoint to the disease model of depression (and perhaps mental illness more generally). I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of the disease model in my life–most obviously around thinking about alcoholism, but in terms of mental health as well. It does give “the consolation of no longer having to mingle apprehensive scruples with the bitterness of tears.” And when I’ve allowed myself to fully identify with those negative feelings, it’s tended to be a central step in getting past them.

But it’s this emphasis on “getting past them” that the passage makes me question. Throughout the book so far, I’ve been really interested in the connection Proust makes between depression and creativity, and it’s rung true for me. The first academic paper I wrote after returning to school, for instance, was written in a single great blast the night I ended my first sober relationship. The breakup devastated me–we’d only been dating for about three months, but I was practically bedridden with grief for six. That first night, the act of writing kept me rooted to the earth. Throughout those bleak months, my sponsor kept telling me that I’d emerge from the other side of the experience of grief with a set of spiritual gifts that I couldn’t see from within the experience, but that I had to have faith. She was right, and it’s been a story arc that I’ve held on to: “Pain is the touchstone of spiritual progress.”

But here’s the thing: I think this focus on the potential “gifts” of negative emotions sells short the experience of depression–and forces it into an upward-trending shape that denies the potential insights borne by sadness. I’m particularly focused on this question right now because I’m watching my half-sister deal with the death of her grandmother and all I want to do is jump in and try to impose some kind of positive narrative structure on her experience of grief. Or, less wonkily, I want to talk her out of her sadness by “helping” her to see how it’s a byway to creative power. She keeps a beautiful, brilliant blog (which is anonymous, so I won’t link to it here, but trust me), which started out of her anger and grief over her divorce and is now gaining new life (as it were) with her sadness over her grandmother’s death.

Is there a way to value sadness and grief on their own terms without insistently linking them to a triumphant narrative that ends in recovery and happiness? Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for recovery and happiness, but there’s something about the “pain is the touchstone of spiritual progress” line that feels at times brutally focused on self-improvement. And it ignores the truth of what being inside depression feels like. Artists like Allie Brosh and Maria Bamford (and Proust) make me believe that there are amazing things that come out of depression–insight, empathy, hard truths–but it’s so easy to get trapped in an economic way of thinking about it. That the benefits make the experience “worth it” somehow. Maybe the challenge offered here is to come up with a way of thinking about hope (and the lack thereof) that isn’t linked to winning or losing something. Maybe a more productive metaphor wouldn’t be exchange but instead connection? That all the feelings are connected to one another? One experience touches another, but the causal link isn’t so straightforward as succession in time might suggest.


We’re deep in the moving process, so I didn’t get the chance to read any of Our Man Marcel today, but I did last night, and one moment stuck out most to me. It’s his description of the pain that comes from the fleeting nature of pleasure: when his mother comes to kiss him goodnight, he remembers that it was “for me a moment of the utmost pain; for it heralded the moment which was to follow it, when she would have left me and gone downstairs again.” I think I’ve spent most of my life in that moment of pain.

The other thing I can’t let the day go by without mentioning is gay marriage passing in Minnesota. I was sitting in the car waiting for Ariel to pick up our take-out dinner when I stumbled upon my younger sister’s live-tweeting of the testimonies from the Senate floor, an hour after the vote. And even though I’d lived in Vermont when civil unions were passed there (and, as a Radical Twentysomething, had been excited but also felt like only assimilationist losers would want to get married), and then moved to MA a year after marriage equality happened here, and am myself gay-married (or “garried”), my response this time was more intense–even than at my own marriage. I choked up a little while reading my Facebook feed, but when Ariel got into the car, I completely broke down. Thinking about my home state, and more importantly, my suburban box-store, anti-choice-billboard-lined hometown suddenly officially becoming a place where a family might mean lots of different things, made me feel like there had been some kind of quantum shift in the air. Like how a sci-fi TV show signifies a move to an alternate universe with a different color filter on the lens.

As I mentioned, we’re moving right now–to the town next door, just to the other side of the line where greater Boston shifts from city to suburb. So it’s a quiet, tree-lined street, and there are little kids Izzy’s age on either side of our house. The thing that got me, though, is how many lesbians there seem to be in Arlington, particularly how many young lesbian families. Combined with the vote in Minnesota–an idea that would have been literally unthinkable to me as a queer teenager–the world feels walleyed and full of strange potential. Is it possible that another definition of “the new normal” is that the world is changing? That there might be a way to extend legal privilege that doesn’t lead the people who get it to forget the ones who don’t want it? That a national, public commitment to celebrating families different from the one you have/were raised in might help people to meet the Other with love, joy, and a commitment to curiosity and surprise?

This seems impossibly optimistic. And I fear that optimism can disable social change–that people will revel in the feeling that we have Arrived and will stop agitating for change. Or worse, that people with privilege will just lay back and enjoy that privilege and lose sight of others who are still screwed. But maybe a better way to think about it is how I think my mother must feel about my and my sister’s relationship to femininity. My mother, born in Dallas in 1948, always limited her ambitions, and remains unable to think about her value in the world as independent from her ability to attract a man. She’s done amazing things–supported her family on her own, built a career as an artist–but her sense of herself is that she’s by definition ancillary. Kate and I have never had this problem–not exactly. It should go without saying that I think postfeminism is a fucking ridiculous concept (like the bumper sticker says, I’ll be postfeminist in the postpatriarchy), but feminism was in the air my whole life. While it has pretty much always been clear to me how women get the short end of the stick (as it were), I never believed that this was just our fate in the way my mother did.

My hope is that this more recent change-of-filter, this Alternate Universe, might inspire a similar kind of historical shift. I know that, like our Narrator’s joy at his mother’s kiss, this feeling can’t last, and the thought that I’ll return to my rote relationship to my surroundings is sad. But for today, I’m full of wonder, and wanting to reach backwards in time towards my self-hating femme teenager in the hopes that I might help her imagine something new.

Sleeplessness and the menace of creativity

We’re moving house on Tuesday, and with this new beginning, I’ve taken on a reading project that I’ve wanted to do for a long time: Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. When you move, there’s always the chance that you’ll be full of new energy and vigor, right? I see myself waking up early, finding a sunny window spot or curling up on our gigantic new sectional and losing myself.

So I thought I’d start tracking my responses to the book. My initial intent with this blog was for it to be something daily, with little overt critical pressure on each entry–just collected observations and thoughts, and I could see where that took me over time. Proust seems like the perfect example/sounding board to return to that intent.

I started yesterday, and one of the first things that struck me about the book is how the opening scene is impossible to place in time. He’s writing about his seemingly lifelong struggle with sleeplessness, one that I share, and I assumed that he was describing childhood insomnia (which he is, but only kind of). I suppose there’s something about that sense that you can’t quite ascertain your relationship to the world that is endemic to childhood, when you have so little control over that relationship. Some of my clearest memories of childhood are of lying in my darkened room, attempting to will myself to sleep, listening for action outside the door. I tried to read under the covers like you hear of people doing, secretly placing the flashlight next to the bed, but I could never handle the airlessness of spending extended time in a little homemade tent under the covers.

As I got older, my insomnia became a more noticeable problem, and I started taking on strategies for sleep. Counting was the big one–I’d get into the two or three hundreds and would get worried about losing my place and have to begin anew. Upon the suggestion of a doctor, I got a hypnosis tape that, while it didn’t really work, did provide some sense of companionship in the night. A deep, taffy-like man’s voice would encourage me to relax each muscle group, moving progressively up my body from my feet. “Picture the muscles in the ball of your left foot, like a handful of loose rubber bands.” The secret was that the two sides of the tape were different–the first side just encouraged sleep, but the second included a brief pep talk at the end, presumably after you’d been lulled into slumber. “You are a good person. People enjoy your company.” I wasn’t fooled, but I recognized it as a nice gesture.

It’s possible that these long lonely nights were when the seeds of my writing life were planted. At our house in California, there was a lot of action in the sky at night, and it set my imagination to work: the searchlight announcing a new car dealership looked like a beacon, and the dim orange glow of the sodium lights made the familiar trees outside seem full of uncanny possibility. One of the things I love the most about the early bit of Swann’s Way is how Proust captures this surprising menace of creativity. He describes how he’s given a magic lantern by a well-meaning relative, and how the intended kindness backfires:

Someone had indeed had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lanterns, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come; and, after the fashion of the master-builders and glass-painters of Gothic days, it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colors, in which legends were depicted as on a shifting and transitory window. But my sorrows were only increased thereby, because this mere change of lighting was enough to destroy the familiar impression I had of my room, thanks to which, save for the torture of going to bed, it had become quite endurable. Now I no longer recognized it, and felt uneasy in it, as in a room in some hotel or chalet, in a place where I had just arrived by train for the first time.

As my daughter is starting to demand more and more dolls in her crib before she falls asleep, I’m remembering how I insisted on having all my dolls in my bed with me as well, arranged in a specific and rotating pattern around my head. My mother found this adorable, and has a picture of me sleeping in a photo album, explaining my strict rules. But the truth was that the pattern was carefully set so that I could combat my fear that some of the dolls might know that I preferred another. Every night, I would have a different doll closest to my head, but never for more than one night in a row. I felt a similar responsibility for the feelings of my furniture, and would sit on uncomfortable chairs so they wouldn’t feel left out.

So that’s the most evocative bit for me from this first piece of Remembrance of Things Past: the way that creativity, perhaps because it offers a way out of melancholy, is inextricably tied up with it.