Review of Susan Elia MacNeal’s forthcoming The Queen’s Accomplice

London is in a blackout, which means the Blackout Beast comes out to play, or rather to kill, in Susan Elia MacNeal’s sixth novel in the Maggie Hope mystery series, The Queen’s Accomplice. If Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante, the fifth novel in the series, is infectious, then The Queen’s Accomplice is addictive.

As in the prior books, the aptly described environment and characters shape a multidimensional World War II stage, this time in London. The realistic details and apropos literary, art, mythological, dance, and musical references contour the setting. The allusions befit the educated clan that populates the Maggie Hope novels. The well-researched world that MacNeal paints with words is believable, even to the hand a wedding ring would occupy depending on the European country in question. As with the others in the series, The Queen’s Accomplice is a quick, compelling read with MacNeal’s dashing style and story-telling prowess at its apex. The novel successfully weaves and balances a pace of intertwining subplots while advancing the central plot leading you seamlessly, as a partner at a dance party, to the threshold of the upcoming seventh novel.

The theme of friendship threads The Queen’s Accomplice as it did in the previous novels. And Maggie’s friends who accompany her in her adventures are the kinds of people you’d like to have as your friends. Except for the ones who want her dead, of course. Her friends demonstrate the kind of unconditional ties and love everyone craves, especially, in her case, when biological family might be the enemy. They find her when she’s lost, rebuild and renovate her home, and shelter her when she needs safety. We can only hope we all would be so fortunate to forge such steadfast relationships, many of which are the paradigm of platonic love and family in the truest sense of the word. The Queen’s Accomplice showcases and develops the strengths and personalities of Maggie’s friends, drawing you into her circle and allowing you to appreciate the good that might balance out the evil that dominates the World War II era.

The Queen’s Accomplice highlights a number of issues relevant to our contemporary world under the broad category of “good versus evil.” The most obvious of these is the one of gender inequality, especially regarding unequal pay and misogyny. MacNeal illustrates gender discrimination by characters’ derogatory and judgmental opinions of women’s ideas, characters, and personalities. In the book, MacNeal features the lose-lose situation women often find themselves in where the same strength that would be valued in a man might undermine a woman’s reputation. Additionally, women’s appearances are overvalued, whether the woman be attractive or not, whereas a man’s appearance is generally considered irrelevant and diminished in importance compared to his abilities or, perhaps, even just his gender. Another presented idea is the danger of first impressions based on someone’s appearance, which is good for all of us to keep in mind.

In The Queen’s Accomplice, MacNeal explores many evils, one of which is the ingrained misogyny that leads certain people to wage wars against women, against working women specifically in the novel. One critique might be that the men in The Queen’s Accomplice might be too black and white, obviously discriminating, and prevalent, possibly painting too many men simplistically as being villains. However, the lack of subtlety and sexist ubiquitousness does lead the reader astray in trying to identify the Blackout Beast, keeping the reader guessing. Additionally, the degree of gender discrimination that faces Maggie Hope might very well be more accurate than we’d like to admit in her line of work or during that era at large. However, despite the war of the genders that Maggie encounters, she never concedes but recognizes steadfastly, as others in the book say, that “women are our secret weapon” in the greater war facing Britain and the world.

The book focuses on good versus evil, also highlighting the good in people like Maggie Hope and some of her compatriots. Her courage as a secret agent will inspire you to be your bravest self. The choices that the characters must make will precipitate you to question if you would suffer and perish for your ideals, should you be in the same position as they are. When the time comes, will you sacrifice yourself for others? Although we might feel safe from war, as MacNeal writes, the “war never, ever begins or ends.” The war didn’t begin with the Nazis, though they presented a patent evil, nor has it died with their demise.

Maggie Hope is fearless and brilliant yet humble, courageous yet human. In the case of capturing the Blackout Beast, her need for mathematical precision might have slowed her down, since her calculations were redundant compared to circumstantial evidence, and her need for certainty and proofs might well have been to her detriment, rather than a strength. Yet she stayed in character, and her logical brain and resistance against seismic emotions are what ultimately keeps her alive in each book, even when things get a little psychedelic.

“It isn’t fair,” some of the characters shout from the book, each with a different agenda and perspective. No, life isn’t fair. But with Maggie Hope as your friend, life is a little more enjoyable.  And exciting.

On Florence Foster Jenkins, Our Voices, Others’ Voices, and Mirrors

When you look in the mirror, what do you see? What do others see? This is at the crux of the new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, which led to the following speculations. When I look in the mirror, I see some wrinkles here, some pockets of fat there, an ill-sculpted wordy poem, some characters in my newest novel that I find increasingly compelling and whom I love, and someone who struggles so hard to live a worthy life.

This weekend the plan was to write on my second novel and engage in practicing more music. I am happy to convey that my second novel is progressing and that I have also been more committed to my vocal and piano practice, though still not as much as is necessary for adequate progress. Writing this, I reflect on how far I’ve come compared to when I was struggling to practice at all (some sort of a mental block that I hear is not uncommon; as an aside, if you struggle to practice too, what helps me overcome this hurdle is not to plan on lengthy practice sessions but aim for twenty minutes here and there). I awoke this morning in need of inspiration, so I ventured to see the new Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant movie, Florence Foster Jenkins. The movie is billed to be about the worst opera singer in the world, which is how the critics might have judged her, but there is a hidden depth that emerges throughout the poignant story which inspires and delights.

Florence Foster Jenkins was a wealthy socialite from whom the hardships and bullies of life have not ground out the spirit or self-belief. I wonder if bullies are kinder to the wealthy, and of course she could never have realized her dream toward the film’s finale had she not been exceedingly rich and privileged. Yet, she had been willing to forgo her wealth for pursuit of her musical passions, which is testament to her true character, and was very generous as a patron to music and supported musical ventures and even her own accompanist. She is portrayed as a complex character in the film, both powerful and strong-willed, yet fragile and in need of protection. And she did not live a charmed life free from suffering of various kinds or compromise, even in her closest relationships. Yes, she might be perceived as egotistical, but I see her instead as a dreamer, as someone who lived life to the fullest that she could, as someone who found meaning in life through pure fun and an appreciation of music.

It is true her self-image was a distorted illusion. Though I found her vocal instrument, her voice, to possess strong qualities, because of her difficulty in tuning, consistency, phrasing, and modulation, the effect was extremely comedic to hear. I also know, from personal experience from myself and listening to others in recitals, how difficult it is to sound tolerable while singing, especially in the early stages of training or if you have not found a teacher who connects with you and understands you and your instrument. I truly could empathize with her, though in some of my early recitals as a vocal student, I was all too conscious of my vocal blunders and difficulties and felt my “music” a dishonor to Mozart and the very art. I remember staring into the audience and seeing the blank expressions on everyone’s faces, feeling horrified and very out of character during the aria. Of course, the anxiety I felt about performing and singing, and even singing in my apartment where I might be overheard, which I rarely did, contributed to the tension that dominated my performances as my hands and face made rhythmic involuntary movements throughout the pieces. It is interesting that my perception of the performances are far worse than when I see their recording on DVD, though I can also discern improvement over the years. In part, my lack of belief in myself contributes substantially to my vocal difficulties, whereas in the film, Jenkins was deluded about her abilities, fed by the praise her husband bought for her. It is true, she had the fortune of being able to purchase her dreams and the misfortune of buying others’ deceitful praise that instilled her with false belief in her abilities. Had her circle of companions been truthful and truly supportive, could she perhaps have worked toward correcting her vocal problems? Truth and honesty form the basis of any relationship, an extremely valuable commodity, and in the film’s portrayal of her life, Jenkins’s life was rife with false praise and false belief, which I think did her a great disservice. She gave everything of herself to others, her passion and her wealth, and they took advantage of her generosity by deluding her. Or was it their way of giving back, to make her feel good, to fulfill her dreams? The film is complex. I know for myself I value truth and integrity above feeling good, and I believe with the truth can lead us on paths that will ultimately lead us to positive experiences anyway.

Death loomed constantly over her life, yet she did not let it deter her ambition. She lived a life of courage. Love. Friendship. Dreams. Loyalty. She aged gracefully. And shouldn’t we all have a little fun before we perish? She also worked hard, practicing daily with her coach and pianist. Isn’t this too, something we should value? I believe the movie portrayed Florence Foster Jenkins as one possessing a great talent, a great talent for life. And I found it an inspiration not to give up and to work hard for my dreams and to achieve a little fun as well, as she did. And though I value loyalty in my relationships, I hope to nurture the type of loyalty that elicits the truth about myself from those close to me, instead of deception. It is only with the truth that we can push ourselves to conquer our challenges, be aware of our deficiencies, and work to become someone we can accept and maybe even learn to like or love and to be our best versions of ourselves. So we can be the best to our loved ones and to our chosen paths.

Wealth is not as valuable as society deems it, leading to people failing us in important ways. This is one lesson from the film. Another is that the voices inside our heads might not echo our voice as perceived by others. We might not be the best judges of ourselves, our opinions forged on complex histories and messages from our childhoods. I think it’s important to seek those trusted, yet loyal, friends and mentors who will help us see our truths and to look inside and try to discover the truths about ourselves as well. It is important to cultivate a talent for life, a generosity for others, and perhaps some measured generosity for our own foibles and faults, and to cultivate our dreams and to work toward them. Indeed, the film, Florence Foster Jenkins, served as an inspiration for reflections.

Review of Galliard Syndrome’s Velvet Rings: A Musical Expression of Carpe Diem

To appear soon on Wellesley Underground.

Galliard_scale

Image of Galliard Syndrome provided with permission by Christos Ntanos

Music. It’s more universal than cultural ties or genetic bonds, though my introduction to Galliard Syndrome arose from both. A few years ago my cousin, a now newly minted PhD engineer from Athens, Christos Ntanos, introduced me to Galliard Syndrome’s “Velvet Rings” video. Michael Andritsopoulos, who was an original member of the band on guitar, composed the score and wrote the lyrics for the video produced under The Leaders Records label. Current members of Galliard Syndrome include vocalist Dimitris Barbas, Ilias Mitatos, on guitar, Christos Ntanos, on keyboards and production, Serafeim Georgousopoulos, on bass guitar, and Michalis Galanis, on drums.

The opening bars of “Velvet Rings” transport you from the cement-walled office you might be occupying to a sunlit morning in an Athens park with the distinctly Greek sounds emanating from a single guitar. The buoyant chorus, the feel-good vibes, the patent joy in the upbeat sound will have you instantly hooked. The whimsical video features the romps of an initially untethered dog who, with a woman companion later, leads us from morning to night as the companion disseminates fliers for the band. We also follow the band from relaxing and grounded on verdant grass to a rooftop at sunset which later evolves into night. This diurnal, unending cycle seems to be the basis of the song about the indefinitely persisting velvet rings. In the video we encounter the development of life in a individual day, a musical version of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, from a young couple admiring an ultrasound of a fetus to an elderly woman reflecting on photographs from her youth. The life cycle repeats itself, as in the lyrics of the song, which parallels the infinite evolution of the universe as well. The idea of infinity is indicated by the band’s logo, a Mobius strip fashioned into an infinity symbol. The song elucidates that this is the rationale, presumably for everything. It’s true; if right now you are buried beneath the psychic burdens of life or perhaps the existential meaningless of it all, watch the “Velvet Rings” video. You will unleash your joy, recall your youth, and recognize the importance of relishing the present, a moment you share with the band and audience on a rooftop in Greece. Galliard Syndrome’s Velvet Rings is a musical and visual expression of carpe diem.

Naturally when I heard of Galliard Syndrome’s 2015 Velvet Rings album release by The Leaders Records, I was eager to discover more novel sounds from the band. Velvet Rings contains much of the same feel-good, joyous tones, though with an eclectic potpourri from other musical traditions and philosophies creating a dynamic, fresh collection of distinct songs, an antidote to the stale overly electronic sounds that dominate the radio waves. The album is a musical journey from a peaceful Celtic mood conjured in “Celtic Forest,” produced by virtual symphonic instruments, to a heavier metallic frustrated rage expressed in both the lyrics and music of “Pissing against the wind” and “Your Love is a Game.” “S.M.S.” (“Save My Soul”) elicits a combination of lyrical, symphonic sounds as well as more electronic ones in a collaborative project with the Youth Choir of Lycee Leonin with lyrics based on the students’ fears and dreams. As the song progresses, the choir of teenagers accompanies the band’s vocalist, Barbas. The dichotomy of the chorus and Barbas creates a beauty in its balance and reinforces the band’s theme of unifying generations.

The album’s song “Ode to Beer” is also a mixed lyrical and slightly electronic-sounding song that might be a substitute (or a co-conspirator) to its suggestion (to consume alcohol) for coping with a soul-robbing experience. Although at times it seems beyond the vocalist’s range, this doesn’t detract much from the song’s expression of a drunken despair. “Under One Sky” is a song sung twice, once in Greek with a Greek folk feel and once in English with the band’s more signature sound. I prefer the English version as it is more compatible with the vocal range of Barbas. Although I am ignorant of the Greek folk song’s translation, the English version’s advice not to surrender parallels vibes, both in lyrics and music, of some of the band’s other songs.

The album also features a number of songs in Greek most of which possess similar addictive choruses and lively melodies that characterize Galliard Syndrome’s English language songs. Some of the songs are inspired more by folk roots, others more by rock ones. Though I can’t translate the lyrics, retaining the Greek language for some of the pieces captures a diverse and ethnic authenticity that enables you to take part of a cultural experience, to travel via music to Greece.

In “Galliard” we hear a lyrical, bittersweet song accompanied by the sounds of ocean about meeting again in some possible future. It leaves you with thoughts of parting and impermanence, in contrast to the perpetuity of “Velvet Rings.” Incorporating water as an instrument lends a sense of life’s journey to the piece.

In “Everlasting Feast,” Galliard Syndrome returns to a carpe diem theme of “Velvet Rings” with a slightly less folk and more electronic feel. The lyrics capture the same impression of savoring the beauty, dreams, and lights in life, the stars in the night sky as opposed to the black-hole oblivion to which humanity seems to be careening (if you’re too cognizant of the media). In the song, which constructs a space-music ambiance that could easily be at home in a planetarium, the uplifting lyrics are synchronous with an equally positive musical accompaniment. “Everlasting Feast” is, indeed, a musical fountain of youth that can rejuvenate even one afflicted with a psychological arthritis and induce her to get up and dance.

In short, Galliard’s album Velvet Rings, features diverse musical sounds and ideas and lyrics, often converging within a single song. The overall caliber of all of the songs achieves a level almost unmatched by a single rock album, which usually contains songs of mixed quality. Although some of the songs will provide you with misery-loves-company community for those days you feel the dreary bruises that befall us all, overall, the album leaves you in an optimistic state of mind seeking to fill your day with pleasure and the pursuit of your dreams.

Do you need to refresh your brain? Are you stagnating in a less than optimal place, either physically, emotionally, or elsewhere in your life? Do you need to escape the dregs of your existence, even just for a few moments? Then I prescribe viewing Galliard Syndrome’s “Velvet Rings” video or listening to their album for a jaunt in Greek-rock sounds and images. Music. Inspiration. In Galliard Syndrome’s Velvet Rings you will find a combination of both providing therapy for the soul.

Bravo.

 

La Fleur

Below is a poem I sketched with some ideas in homage to Shakespeare (the idea of two becoming one), Antoine de Saint-Exupery (the idea of the flower), and On the Waterfront (the idea of being a contender).  I hope you enjoy this little poem!

La Fleur

withered outcast
a solitary souvenir
of the bullies’ playground
the Others who had incised
and marked
their twisted signatures of hate
cursing the once vital bark
to a solitary confinement
still seeking a glimmer
to nourish
and redeem the bleakness
pitched inside
the core’s decrepitude
an interior desiccation
hollowed of tears.

tap tap tap
an excruciating issuing
of her sap
the thin sallow remains
that she can proffer
those few to whom she pleas
a beggar she is
for companionship
to forget
for just a moment
her desolation
a drug
to assuage her seared skin

a tree that no longer a tree can be
a bending hunch
under the weight of Boreas
slim drooping branches
pecked by beaks
a home to parasitic thieves
robbing her of all that could have been
a contender in the game
instead of a target for Zeus’s arrows
abandoning her to an electric drought

on the horizon
the rim of the heavens
the tree glimpses beyond her arid ruins,
relics of a youthful neglect,
and spies a forest, a village of trees
lacking the deadened thirst
that fills her malnourished innards
and canvassing the sky with dreams

brave encounters
with amputations and inward probes
Others slicing and burning her branches
fairy embers of beauty
distilled from wounds
that, she wonders, might signal to her sisters
that she still stands
a flame
a gorgeous truth
conceived by her pain

the tree searches her roots
with wonders
at their sprawling tenuous nest
grounding her to her history
and hopes that someday she could produce
a thought, a seed,
to skip along with the Zephyr
a word to commune
and silence the assault of loneliness

but
one day
a Flower dances across the sky
an unforeseen solution
and kisses the tree’s broken bark
before sharing the tree’s soil
their roots intertwine
as they meet each onslaught
of the Others
together
splintering the hurts
and translating bruises
into a symbiosis
where two become one
always facing assailants
but
always
standing
together

Review of Variny Yim’s The Immigrant Princess

The opening pages of Variny Yim’s The Immigrant Princess construct a scene of three generations of royal Cambodian women emigrating from their home, culture, and family amidst the foreboding of a military threat in December, 1974. What unfolds is the narrative of these women’s stories alternating with glimpses of the past and Cambodia’s complex and troubled history. The novel is written in a quick-paced, conversational, journalistic tone, befitting the protagonist’s profession as a member of the press. Posed early in the novel is the idea of the Apsara, the mythological female dancers who endured despite the maelstrom of Cambodian politics. There is magic and might in the depiction of the Apsara, a sisterly motif to which the book often returns. Likened to the Greek gods that color Western mythology, the theme of the Apsara threads the novel’s narrative with rich and dynamic Cambodian images and symbolism.

Predominantly in the first half of the novel, the narrative establishes a contrast between the present, 1999 Washington D.C., and pre-Khmer Rouge Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Through flashbacks and historical notes, Yim paints, the political struggle dominating Cambodia due to World War II, the Vietnam War, and French colonialism in addition to internal conflicts. A critique might be that the exposition seems at times a bit heavy-handed, though this is consistent with the novel’s feel that it is being told by a reporter. Through blending history and a depiction of both the family’s royal and common Cambodian roots with the plot of the daughters, the audience observes the daughters’ full inheritance, including their independent, hard-working natures.

The Immigrant Princess not only honors the Cambodian culture and heritage but also honors our ancestors who immigrated to the US to flee persecution, starvation, war, or death with only their courage and work ethic as their baggage. In their bold escape they enter a new culture, forsaking their native language, family, way of life, and belongings. The book illustrates that immigrants do not enter the US with the expectation of an easy life but carry with them a staunch work ethic and survival instinct, desiring to contribute to the economy and to support their families. Like the Lim family in the novel, some immigrants might desert a royal lifestyle to embrace a modest one in the US where they might have to clean after wealthy Americans and live in a humble home. They might even have to trade their own name for one which is easier for Americans to pronounce. But the immigrants bring something else with them. They bring a beauty of the music of their language, the palette of their food, the magic of their dance, their spirituality, and a mythology that contribute new colors to their adopted country. In this way, The Immigrant Princess makes a powerful political statement regarding immigration policy: by welcoming immigrants, from whom we are all descended, the US strengthens its base of hardworking individuals who have overcome enormous hardships to attain the American dream.

This novel is a profoundly American story, since the immigrant American dream, American work ethic, and professional and personal dreams are so central to all the characters as is the melting pot theme. It is also an interesting reflection on identity, prejudices against cultural differences to which no one is completely immune, perhaps, and an individual propensity to anesthetize and to repress the past and pain rather than to process, accept, and reconcile with it, necessary for a person to grow into her full power. There is also a lesson of letting go of attachment throughout (including misguided romantic relationships), which is in keeping with Buddhist thought, while embracing novel encounters with new connections and discovering new inner strengths buried beneath a polite docility ingrained in so many of us. The Immigrant Princess is for anyone who was raised in an environment where polite, deferential respect to authority is revered. It is for anyone brought up by protective parents with instructions “not to make waves,” perhaps to her professional disadvantage in the wake of more vocal, assertive, and flamboyant peers, who, nonetheless, might be less industrious and less valuable. It is for anyone who might have experienced familial claustrophobia and guilt.

The Immigrant Princess possesses poetry in its messages both in the the women’s cultural inheritance and in the protagonist’s, Sophea’s, fearless journey toward empowerment and the fulfillment of her ambitions without sacrificing her ideals and integrity. Throughout the novel, Sophea reflects on her cultural past. The author alludes to the struggle for women everywhere to overcome subjugation in their roles with men, be it romantic or professional. There is a parallel between the doomed love story of Sophea’s mother, whose husband sacrificed everything to preserve his family, and Sophea’s romance tainted by disrespect. However, the prevailing lesson from Sophea’s heritage is not to succumb to the loss of self for an unworthy partner, who might enter deceptively robed in the trappings of an attractive appearance and successful career. Her father, who was a commoner, did not possess the royal blood of her mother but instead wore the crown of a noble interior, education, and work ethic, which he passed on to his daughter.

Yim broaches an interesting angle on feminine beauty. Although the Lim women religiously follow international beauty pageants (though they do mock them some), which feminists traditionally might judge as archaic and sexist, Yim conveys a sense of a continuity in a woman’s beauty throughout her life, even in the aging generations. The beauty which the women in the novel worship is more individualistic and less conformist to a Hollywood ideal. Beauty is treated as a celebration of femininity rather than a denigrating objectification. The treatment of beauty is more empowering and inclusive than degrading and exclusive, suggesting that true beauty includes working hard, integrity, ambition, and appreciating physical beauty but of a more natural form rather than an anorexic mold. And in one character’s makeover, Yim illustrates that any woman can find her beauty and that it is not just the providence of movie stars and models.

There is so much diversity in the roles in the book, anyone can find pieces of herself amidst the mosaic of characters and food (including Greek, Indian, Mexican, French, Italian, Thai, and Cambodian), which itself is almost a character in the novel with its power both to soothe, nourish, and yet also to numb. I’ve held a lifelong interest in Asian aesthetics, philosophy and religion, and culture, and realize, on one hand how superficial my exposure is, to the point where I worry about being offensive, and, yet, on the other hand how I am not as divorced as I had thought I am because of the commonalities, not just from being raised in an immigrant environment, but by nature that despite differences we all share central experiences by virtue of our humanity. Through the blend of cultural backgrounds in the characters, Yim encourages the sharing of cultural traditions and indicates that we can all learn from each other, commune, and celebrate our commonalities and differences while retaining our own inheritance. The book engages throughout and resonates with truths about human connections. Its conclusion satisfies without being trite.

At the core of the novel is the discovery of identity through one’s family. The Lim family might be unconventional, as it consists at first only of women, and the eldest daughter lives at home well into adulthood. However, as the novel develops, the Lims welcome diverse new members into their coterie, into their family, which parallels the dynamic notions of how we view family in the twenty-first century. The prior family paradigm in the United States has evolved to no longer exclusively mean a father, mother, children, and perhaps ancillary extensions such as grandparents. As with the Lims, the family construct encompasses many variations transcending tradition. And as the book alludes, family and close human connections are crucial, be it a traditional family, a sisterhood (or brotherhood) of those you have adopted into your inner circle, three generations of women, or any permutation of this. And through your connections with the people in your life you espouse as your family, through the history and legacy of your ancestors, you will grow as a person and develop an identity, one both individualistic as well as one more robust from the influences around you, as the Lim family did. As you read the Lim family story, you learn how identity is not static and that unearthing the truth about people and about yourself and embracing your family, whatever that means to you, only strengthens your development into the person you were meant to become. The Lims truly represent any family connected by blood or friendship and illustrate an institution, people who care about each other, which powerfully opposes the aggression and oppression in the world. The novel offers us perspective: the Lim’s family and country were subjected to genocide, and though their tragedy influences their identity, they do not surrender to anyone the permission to rob them of their integrity, love, dreams, memories, or spirit, which, too, powerfully contributes to who they are.

A central message in The Immigrant Princess is the dishonor of silence. What might be present in the public’s mind regarding Cambodia is the country’s history of political turmoil and genocide. Variny Yim introduces the often neglected aspects of the culture, the Apsara, the swirling colors of its dancers, the care in preparation and flavors of the culture’s cuisine, the quiet Buddhist traditions and temples, including the Angkor Wat, a World Heritage Site, and the universality of human desires and needs, especially for love and family, be it one forged by blood, romance, friendship, or a sisterhood of Apsara. The Immigrant Princess not only voices a universal immigrant story, but also dispels the silence and, in doing so, honors Cambodia and makes the culture come alive.

Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast

Maybe you’re like me. I experienced a major life event a few weeks ago followed by a host of increasingly exasperating minor (hopefully) health issues, some of which are not only uncomfortable but affect morale as well (i.e. being extremely limited in my diet, which, though bad for the last five years, worsens).

Maybe you’re like me. Your life has become unstructured, and you become anxious or down about things those close to you feel are unworthy of your concern. You are accustomed to pressuring yourself with deadlines and goals and have removed these in an effort to assuage stress, but this has translated into your routine collapsing into a mayhem and a disorder that dominate your days. You’ve slipped out of your usual routine. Maybe you’ve become distracted by the endless web of links on social media which can devour hours of your time.

Maybe you’re like me. You are connected to people who are experiencing depression, and you feel helpless to raise them from their quagmire. May is mental health awareness month, but mental illness seems to prevail, and the war to restrain its greedy talons feels dauntingly unbeatable.

Maybe you’re like me. You feel the sentence of mortality keenly which impels an internal impetus to achieve and to accomplish by cramming. You feel you have to fulfill your dreams by a certain age or accomplish arbitrary goals by a deadline. The frenetic pace at which your mind dictates you should conduct your life leaves you too depleted and starved for the necessary emotional space to begin. So you dangle, seemingly in an abeyance of activity, though the clock of your heart unfailingly counts the minutes passing anyway. Tempus fugit, the Latin saying goes, has guided your approach to living.

Maybe you’re like me. You need some stimulus to reboot the hard drive. In the last forty-eight hours or so, I’ve encountered a number of experiences that have triggered me to evaluate how I need to reboot. These included attending the Sarasvati staged reading of Breaking Through, the reading and book signing at McNally Robinson of editors Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini of their book on Carol Shields’s writing notes, Startle and Illuminate, writing emails regarding self-care, and posting my Wellesley Writes It interview of the Why.Race.Still.Matters blog founders, Bai Kamara, Portia Allen-Kyle, Yasmine-Imani McMorrin just moments ago.

Andrew and I attended the Sarasvati staged reading yesterday of Breaking Through, aimed to break the silence of mental health issues. In this play, one message was that “silence is the disease.” Other messages included that you are still loveable even if you struggle, that not everyone will be understanding or compassionate, that one in four Canadians will suffer mental health issues, that people, even those close to you, might say insensitive things which you need to accept and perhaps not take personally, that you still have a voice, that you’re not selfish because you’re suffering and might need the help of others. My notes to continue this dialogue include: Would you blame a cancer patient for being self centered or accuse her of crying for help because she requires aid? Would you ever blame someone for developing cancer because she is sick and compare her to other people who didn’t acquire cancer? Would you think less of her because she is sick or accuse her that she is responsible for her illness? And another message in the play was that maybe, just maybe, your distress, be it OCD, hearing voices, or possessing a distorted body image, is due to irrational thoughts, a disease, rather than an actual identifiable danger or accurate perspective of reality.  And perhaps it is safe to disclose your vulnerabilities. That the only way to move towards an acceptance of what many struggle with daily is to discuss it. And to accept that maybe your struggles will shadow you throughout your life, and your coping with them will be lifelong, that there might not be a cure in the end, but rather an acceptance, much as the character John Nash accepted his hallucinations at the end of A Beautiful Mind and recognized their presence but acknowledged that they were delusions and lived in spite of them.

At the McNally Robinson reading, Anne and Nicholas Giardini discussed how Carol Shields did not embrace the principle of Tempus Fugit. It seems as though she lived her life deliberately, moderately, and without rushing. In the end, her life was somewhat short: she lived to be 68. But would she have profited from a higher quality of life had she pressured herself more and felt the grips of time? Of course not. And perhaps her discipline of writing and editing one or two pages a day was more effective than those who aim to cram ten pages a day, feel overwhelmed by the task, and don’t even begin, or whose work suffers in quality. I recall Friar Laurence in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, who cautions Romeo by stating, “Wisely and slow; they stumble that run fast.”

Then there were the emails I wrote to others regarding self-care. It occurred to me, that without realizing it, my attempt to relieve pressure also removed the self-care structure I need to ward off my internal opponents. I had slipped in the last few weeks into making ambitious schedules regarding my music, novel-writing, and research goals. The plans were as equally ineffective motivators as the idea to remove all pressure by structuring much less into my days. What do we need every day? We need exercise, good food, hydration, healthful comforts such as tea, and some movement toward our goals. We need social interaction (which is different from mindlessly clicking online links but could include online or email connections we’ve made or phone calls). And we need some minimal goals and structure, taking at least baby steps toward productivity and progression. When I think back to doing scientific research, typically on any given day I saw little movement toward the completion of the project. But the daily work accrued, and in time I finished the project. Even just working on a few paragraphs of the writing part of the project a day, a typical paper can be written in a week or two. There is a delicate balance between pressuring ourselves to the point of exhaustion and burn-out and not disciplining ourselves enough, regardless of motivation levels, to engage in a minimal amount of activity in an attempt to thwart gravity’s force on us downward.

The final motivator I had to reboot was posting the Why.Race.Still.Matters interview. I am very shy and a bit hesitant at self-promotion, reluctantly forcing myself when necessary, but I realized as I was posting the article to Wellesley Underground that I had to share the piece with the Wellesley FaceBook Community, something I’m not sure I’ve ever done before with any of my articles. This article, I realized, was significant. I think about race a lot, worrying that in some subtle ways I’m as insensitive as others are to me about my anxiety or gender. Do I behave in subtly insensitive ways? How can I be better educated about race issues? What do people of non-European descent have to deal with on a daily basis? How can I help? These are the questions that motivated my queries in the interview. As I proof-read the article one last time and put it together, I acquired a perspective about the concerns that precipitate my anxiety and realized how irrational they are. As I read Portia Allen-Kyle’s words based on her powerful post, “I am Sandra Bland,” I realized I need to redirect my energies from distorted worried minutiae to the bigger picture, to trying to make some small contribution to the world, be it through words, physics, music, or living a healthier lifestyle, so that I can be my best self to help others. I still need to read Daniel Deronda, but in the film, I remember the title character suggesting to help others and to look outside of yourself as way to find meaning in your life and to counter your inner struggles (and perhaps emptiness). So, as I often conclude in these blogs, Wellesley has it right: Non ministrari sed ministrare. Looking outside yourself and helping others really is the keystone to a good life.

Do you need a reboot? I recommend, though I’m not a professional in the area, to be compassionate with yourself and with others, to recognize what worries or comments from others can be irrational, to slow down, to find a cause larger than yourself to engage in, to make small doable goals every day, and to try your best to live in a healthful, constructive way.

Closed String

This poem first appeared on Lake Waban Blue here.

caltech

This picture was taken at the California Institute of Technology where I hung out while I was studying string theory as a graduate student at UCLA.  I recently wrote this poem on a worldsheet.  If you look at the first line of each stanza, it describes a closed string (like a rubber band) sweeping out a worldsheet.  Strings, one-dimensional objects as opposed to point particles, are the smallest components in string theory, a theory which unifies all the forces.  Particles are created by the vibrations of the strings.  You can calculate string interactions using worldsheets, much like Feynman diagrams.  However, they smooth out singularities and remove infinities.

Simple
Life should be
an elegant routine
between the poles of the day

Of one dimension
Paths should be
a directed plan
a vector from the origin to the destination

Encircling a point
We should be
sharing our centers
to all dimensions

With a defined radius
our Family & Friends should be
attached and not abandoned
not to be left as singular

Of points around
our Knowledge should be
traversing from Vermeer to Britten
a mind’s voyage through space-time

Sweeping out a two-dimensional surface
our words should be
painting characters on the canvas
like the elegant solutions to equations

A worldsheet, a dynamic object
our minds should be
as we focus with discipline
and accept the charged currents of change

For a theory of everything
the forces between should be
though we are not
the theory is perfect.