Saturday, January 14, 2017

Beethoven's Heiligenstadt Testament (read for Deal Me In 2017)

When Beethoven was in his early 30s, he addressed a letter to his brothers explaining his withdrawal from society and misanthropic behavior.

He tells them that for several years now he’s been losing his hearing and can’t bear the thought of people finding out. He considers the humiliation, the wounds to his pride:
Oh, how could I possibly admit an infirmity in the one sense which ought to be more perfect in me than others, a sense which I once possessed in the highest perfection, a perfection such as few in my profession enjoy or ever have enjoyed.
This is a common response to personal struggles - self-imposed isolation, to spare oneself from pity or insensitive reactions. He expresses its agonies, the fear of exposure warring with the desire to be understood.

What’s most powerful in his letter is the tension between craving life and desiring an end to his suffering. He admits that he considered suicide. What mostly held him back was an urge to keep working on his music. Though virtue, too, might have played a part in holding suicidal thoughts at bay, he emphasizes the role of art even more: “Oh, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had forth all that I felt was within me.”

Continuing to live to see out one’s potential, and what one can keep bringing to the world, even in the face of suffering and uncertainty, means everything. It isn’t something that can be encouraged through platitudes or rote admonishments. It’s bloody and raw and hard-won (and can be easily lost too). It’s everything.

Beethoven lived another twenty-five years after writing this letter. Here’s his last symphony, courtesy of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on their YouTube channel:

I read this letter as part of the Deal Me In 2017 challenge.

Week in Seven Words #324

He bullies away the gaps in his knowledge, filling them with loudness.

The driver reacts to the near-collision by shouting at everyone else.

Wind that could tear the hair from your scalp.

When asking for feedback on her poems, she doesn't expect a blast of criticism, but braces herself just in case. It's an act of vulnerability.

The branch has landed in a silken reflection of trees and clouds.

The tree has a bare trunk and a tangled mass of branches at the top, like a nest for a giant bird.

I pose badly, she says. It's in the way I hold my chin, look past her shoulder, keep my lips pursed so I won't laugh. But it doesn't matter, because the end result is the same: two sets of ellipses for eyes and glasses, a beaming crescent mouth, and a nose that looks like a raven in flight. I cherish it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Week in Seven Words #323

Pushing him on the swing, his small, solid back against my palm.

Peeling the lid off a bin full of sheets and towels and bringing them to my nose for a deep breath.

We dissect twigs and seed pods with plastic knives that he calls "plant knives." Afterwards, he shows me some plastic animal pets, including a rat with a yellow splotch on its back that he calls a "sunspot rat." (It also has white spots on it, but he says those are there to make it look sick so other animals don't eat it.)

The dog is nearly beside herself with the need to press her nose into people.

In the first round of our drawing competition, we both draw tigers, and he declares himself the winner. Second round, after I've drawn his sunspot rat, he graciously calls a draw.

The silence of what we're not telling each other makes the car feel like it's going to implode.

They take hide-and-seek to another level, not only finding the most improbable places to hide but texting each other updates on the seeker's location.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

How do you write about the city? On "Here Is New York"

I read E.B. White's "Here Is New York" for Deal Me In 2017.

White wrote this sprawling essay in the 1940s. NYC has changed quite a bit since then, and was changing moment-by-moment even as he was writing about it. That quality is something he tries to capture in the essay - that even as he sits alone in a stifling, hot room, all the city’s activities swirl around him.
A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry…
What I liked best about this essay is how it shows the challenge (futile, perhaps, but worthwhile) of trying to tackle a subject as big as the city. White is trying to capture what the city is and what it means to people, but there’s so much of it, so what does a writer do?

He approaches the city from different angles - making observations about various groups of people, neighborhoods, the way you can remain fairly insulated from major events if you want. He’s trying to throw a net around a massive fish, and in the dark it struggles and eludes capture. Now and then he records glimpses of its body and sometimes clues as to what it is as a whole, but it slips away.

(These are issues general to writing - what details do you focus on, and what do you leave out? When is a work of writing complete?)

White glides from general statistics to descriptions of specific streets. He discusses a trend and tosses out an anecdote. He breathes the romance of the city and lays bare its darkness (“the cold menace of unresolved human suffering and poverty”). You get a sense of what the city is, while realizing that there’s so much you still don’t know. And I like how White does this - with the essay unfolding not so much as a walk, but as if White had wings and were hovering here and there, pointing things out, before going off to have a drink.
All dwellers in cities must live with the stubborn fact of annihilation; in New York the fact is somewhat more concentrated because of the concentration of the city itself, and because, of all targets, New York has a certain clear priority. In the mind of whatever perverted dreamer might loose the lightning, New York must hold a steady, irresistible charm.
Whatever the city is, humanity and its burning questions are caught up in it. (For instance, how can so many people live more or less peacefully in a cramped space?) He hopes that the city will endure. It must.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Week in Seven Words #322

The immaculate bareness of a garden with its gates closed.

"Please, no quarters," the cashier says. "A lady came in this morning and paid me 56 dollars in quarters."

They dial up the excitement in a game of Twister by trying to put each other in chokeholds.

I keep thinking this is going to be an awkward, painful conversation, made more uncomfortable by the fact that it's over the phone - not face-to-face or by email, which is what I prefer. But it goes well. There are no leaden, sinking silences.

Reaching a private, hard-won milestone that gives me hope.

It hits me that I don't look like anyone in the room. Superficially, I could say I have the same hair color or skin color as most of them. But I couldn't blend in if I tried. One after the other, hair, clothes, gestures, unblemished sameness, and I'm amazed and a little afraid sitting there sticking out.

Colors creep into a brisk, cold landscape. The shades of blue in the reservoir, the green tint to the gray plants by the wayside that hold out for warmer weather.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

"The water sustains me without even trying..."

A beautiful duet. Have listened to it over and over again. The lyrics are poetry.

Week in Seven Words #321

Finding something I wrote in all earnestness when I was young, when I so earnestly wanted to please.

Cleaning deep under my desk, I find something that makes me wish I'd cleaned sooner.

Connect Four pieces clattering on the table like a slot machine jackpot.

One guy grunts at the weights, another groans at the weights, a third vacuums the carpet, and a fourth gasps on a treadmill.

They'd like me to be a receptacle for their unpleasant emotions. A sponge that will soak up their excesses.

The standup routine is raunchier than anything they've watched before, giving them new words to mouth in wonder.

In every season there's something to make you slip: ice, leaves, a slurry of mud and motor oil, blossoms rotting.