Love, heartache, and 9/11: A review of Tayo Oredein’s His Ph.D. is in Hypocrisy…and other poems about my crappy ex-boyfriend

On Friday I spent six hours out and about in Winnipeg. North. West. South. I spent much of that time on the bus, reading my Wellesley sister Tayo Oredein’s poetry memoir, His Ph.D. is in Hypocrisy…and other poems about my crappy ex-boyfriend.

It was Romeo and Juliet.  It was West Side Story.

But in Tayo’s case, Romeo cheated on his Juliet.

Tayo’s volume reflects a modern vibe and syntax, rife with repetition like the catchy chorus of a song. It reads with the clarity of a memoir, telling the story of her volatile romance with “Steve.” She, an African American Christian woman. He, a pale Muslim man. The poems follow a rhyming rhythm capturing the atmosphere and language of New York City at the turn of the millennium. It buzzes with trips in the fast lane of love, poetry in neon lights possessing its own musicality.

The poems snap an emotional image of falling in love, the butterflies, the excitement, the fireworks. My body might have been traversing all over Winnipeg the other day, but my mind was immersed in the story of the doomed lovers, doomed not by differences in race or religion or fractious families, but by human frailty and hypocrisy.

It’s a story of a lovesick girl who offers her beloved second chances. And third chances. Only to be rebuffed. Reading the bare, raw, honest poems, you feel like Tayo’s best friend as she confides in you her relationship’s journey. This book is for anyone who ever had an obsessive love for the “bad boy.” You know him. The one who, attractive and charming, opens you to new worlds yet who manipulates your heart and whose heart never belonged to you anyway. We rationalize his behavior over and over and over again. Until the relationship cracks apart.

Tayo then depicts the fall-out of her relationship’s demise, vividly expressing her unbearable, devastating heartbreak.

The book ends with the 9/11 tragedy, and Tayo’s wisdom to understand the meaning that her relationship with Steve gave her, how it informed her not to respond to the attacks in hatred, even though she was personally affected by the event (her best friend escaped from the twin towers). Although the book ends with a painful time in American history, there’s a sense of peace and resolution in the final poem. A sense of love, not for Steve, but a love resulting from an enlightened growth to look beyond superficial blame and animosity. As she writes in the preface, “everything, even heartache, happens for a reason.” Her sentiments mirror my own philosophy of living, of striving to leverage setbacks and pain into artistic endeavors and self evolution, seeking silver linings of sorts as much as possible.

Relationships. Connection. Loss. Growth. Isn’t that what life is all about at the end of the day? In Tayo Oredein’s His Ph.D. is in Hypocrisy…and other poems about my crappy ex-boyfriend you will find the essence of all of these elements.

Advertisements

What story will you write this week?

Someone once told me he never promised me a rose garden, quoting the Joanne Greenberg book. He also advised me to be committed every day to keep going, no matter how bad things get (his exact words were more colorful, which I would repeat if I were talking to you on the phone, in person, or not writing on such a public forum). Words possess power. A kind word or maybe some salient sage life instructions, like these from a trusted advisor, might resonate in our minds a lifetime, as do the harsh remarks from bullies or an offhand remark from a generally well meaning teacher or friend as well. It is difficult to be vigilant all the time, to avoid the occasional careless comment which might strike down a fragile ego. We are all guilty of occasionally being inconsiderate or unkind, usually when we are experiencing a painful hurt or feeling internal turbulence within ourselves. With those in our immediate circle we can recognize our transgression and apologize, but, if the comment is overheard by a passerby, the damage is irrevocable. Someone I knew once shouted an inappropriately critical remark at a music school window where a soprano was rehearsing. He felt remorse for his comment which cannot be undone. As a singer and pianist, I know rehearsal sounds do not always meet the aesthetic that the repetitive, deliberate practice aims to attain as the final product. And we all feel fragile when rehearsing or performing as we participate in a very personal exposure, especially in voice.

In this essay I publicly apologize for any hurtful comments I might have made in passing or otherwise; they were unintentional, I promise. I try to be kind and supportive always, but I am human and with that life sentence carries the flaws and imperfections of my affliction.

I have always been mired in existential doubt and confusion. It makes making decisions a little tricky because I place so much gravity on even the simplest of choices, such as what on my agenda to tackle first. I completed two contradictory essays on whether it is better to live a life scripted by a disciplined routine or whether to follow a life of passionate determination, sloughing the Spartan robes of rules and discipline intended for soldiers rather than scientists or artists. The question is, do we rule the rules we construct for ourselves or do the rules rule us? In each essay I presented arguments, one to be guided by goals and measured work, the other to be ruled by passion, working in tempestuous energetic bursts. Due to variations in my mood which often leave me feeling depleted and unmotivated, I have worked most of my life via cramming intensely followed by restless days of trying, yet failing, to be productive. I have a hunch that if I committed to a routine despite the moody pitfalls in my daily constitution, my emotional stability would improve, and I would feel more productive. Also, I came to the conclusion recently that our identities are comprised of our actions and words. I have felt a little lost recently as I have spent my time doing physics for the last decades of my life and do little of it now, though it shapes my perspective, my world, and how I think. But I can sculpt a new identity by the fruitful investment of my time in my writing and music, and yes, in some research. It is bizarre. I have written extensively my entire life, for example performing to the entire third grade a play I wrote about three sentient squabbling cats and writing a novella at age 17 in addition to writing almost daily in short stories, poems, longer works such as my novel, and diaries as soon as I could write. Yet writing never formed part of my identity. I did it because I had to. Like breathing. Not because it was a choice. Do you consider breathing part of your identity? What do you do without a choice?

It is strange what we consciously consider as our identity. If we possess a disability or illness, that likely makes up part of who we are. But we don’t often include possessing sight or the parts of us that are healthy and normal as constituents of our identity. I likely think our identity is a complex collection of our actions, mirrored opinions of others, and our own perception, which may or may not reflect reality. In effect, our own self image and imagined identities might contain some fantasy and fiction.

I never promised you a rose garden. Your struggles, whatever they may be, are yours and part of your life and who you are. As my advisor prescribed, stay committed to surviving your struggles. You can’t control many of the harmonies which compose your life, but think about the actions which you can control which might backreact (that is a physics term for when some object influences its background) and add more desirable melodies. We are the authors of our lives. Sometimes we might choose to alter our courses.  Sometimes an event in life will alter our courses for us. We take our previous histories with us as we write our new chapters and forge new layers to our identities. Act kindly and gently, for everyone you meet is suffering her own challenges.

I have read some advice by writers who say you should write every day, even when you are not inspired. It is the same as your job. You don’t do your job just when you feel like it but are disciplined to do it every day. I learned this from a quote from a video interviewing the ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov. He worked at his art every day, even saying to himself, that you like this job repeatedly. In the interview he stressed the value of a routine, doing your work even when you have a cold or don’t feel like it. This principle applies to scientific or mathematical research as well as music. There is a reason why there are so many sayings about practice. “Practice makes perfect.” “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” To take care of yourself, you brush your teeth every day, sleep, eat and hopefully exercise. You perform these activities whether or not you feel like it to nourish your body and mind. I think a lot of learning the art of living is about learning how to take care of yourself and others, about how to nourish mentally. I am learning from my interviews with writers for Wellesley Underground that writing, like any job, is hard too. I never promised you a rose garden.

My goal is to try, for a change, to live with less spontaneity and chaos. To try it with commitment for a week and see what progress I can make on my new novels and music preparation, which would backreact to feeling less like an impostor in these worlds. To use the Ten Minute Rule. Despite my impassioned essay espousing a lifestyle imbued with passionate pursuits dictated by internal propulsion and an inner flame, I have concluded that a daily regimen is likely to get the job done, such as music exam preparation and completing more novels, so long as flexibility is made available for some passionate obsessive sidetracks into a final push, reading or writing poetry, daydreaming, looking at the clouds and nature, and wondering.

I will try this new regimen.  I have already tried it for three successful days.  I wish you committed actions to cope with your struggles and send you all my compassion in your challenges and writing your stories. And expand your universe. You likely possess beautiful aspects of your identity which you have not explored by your actions.

How will you write your story for the next week?

What are your source texts?

A few months ago I attended a poetry workshop in which we were asked to write our source texts, those seminal texts of our origin which have influenced and shaped us the most. I remember writing The Goldberg Variations by Bach; I listened to them almost daily since I first really discovered them many years ago and credit my progress as a PhD student to Glenn Gould’s renditions of these (especially 1981 version). I also included J.D. Salinger’s books which I discovered at a library book sale as a teenager. Franny and Zooey remains to this day one of those books that pivoted me and left its impression on my soul. Then there were the physics books which crafted my thinking. The part of Joe Polchinski’s canonical string theory book that I worked through blew me away, for example.

I can’t remember if I included Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in my list. If I didn’t, the omission is as manifest as fireworks not raining on a Canadian July 1st night (or July 4th in the US).

I don’t remember a time when I hadn’t seen the 1968 Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have large parts of the play committed to memory. I remember reading it greedily in ninth grade English class. I can’t remember a time when the story did not form one of the pillars of the temple of ideas in my mind. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a hopeless Romantic. Yes, with a capital R. In fact, I assumed I was destined to die unmarried because I would never find true and enduring love. Of course a chance meeting changed that premonition a long time ago.

I won’t bore you (or embarrass Andrew) with our love story. But the other morning, somehow, I remembered how I watched scenes from the 1996 Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet almost daily in my dorm room as breaks in college at Wellesley. I watched most of the film during some spring week when there was a showing on a gigantic outside movie screen. I curtailed my viewing due to studies that required attention, but I soon bought the video.

Okay, so what does Romeo and Juliet have to do with anything?

Everything.

It is why when I awoke the other day I conceived of editing two chapters of my novel, but ended up editing eighteen over the course of two days. Upon awaking, I struggled with depleted energy to go for a walk/jog, returned home, and in the afternoon embarked on editing. I listened to the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge while writing, intending to edit two chapters, which reminded me of Romeo and Juliet, a story so central to my past but whose dusty, faded words have not been present in my mind of late.

Romeo and Juliet serves as inspiration, not just that epic, impossible loves are possible, but it exemplifies that anything, despite obstacles, is possible. Boundaries separating the possible from the impossible can be crossed. Okay, it is inspiring because it was passionately written about passion, which transcends the passion between people into the passion for a purpose, the passion for a pursuit. Passion has infinite applications. Romeo and Juliet, I argue, is a source text for ardent, fearless living. Spoiler, it doesn’t end well for the protagonists. But they don’t sacrifice their principles, their fervency, their love for each other. Maybe each day we can live a little more passionately and not sacrifice intense leaps over cliffs for a mundane even road.

So I finished my second (or is it third?) draft of my novel. There will be more drafts, but I can see that I’ve scaled the hardest part of this mountain.

Do you live a life led passionately? Will you risk everything for love, be it love of another person, love of ideas, love of freedom, love of truth, or love of some pursuit? Or all of them?

You know my answer.