Of Choices and Indecision

So today’s meditation is on the power of choice. Everything is a choice, including inaction.

There, that’s it.

Well maybe not quite. Nothing’s ever that simple or black and white– or at least, rarely is that the case. I’ve been thinking a lot about choice lately (obviously), and why it took me so long to declare my decision regarding my career switch, when it seems clear looking back over my posts from the last few weeks that I’d already made my choice. Announcing one’s decision out loud always makes it real, and I think this thought temporarily paralyzed me.

This is not the first time I’ve been paralyzed by the thought of making a choice, and there have been long stretches over the years where I haven’t wanted to make any choices for many reasons, none of which is my aim to discuss at the moment.

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It’s so easy to think– and I have been so guilty of thinking– that it’s better just not to choose anything, or at least not to declare one’s choice, because what if it’s the wrong choice or what if people think badly/differently/judgmentally of me after that choice or what if it alters my life/relationship/career in irrevocable ways? However, and this has taken me some time to see in my own life even though it is so easy to see in others’ lives and in history (isn’t that how it always is?), not deciding is just as much of a decision. Inaction is its own choice, its own decision.

I used to regard indecision (which is ironic in its very definition) as negative. And perhaps in many cases, it is. Hesitation has been the cause of much evil in the world perpetuating itself. However, sometimes when we feel it is impossible to make a choice, I have found the words of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins incredibly helpful. Hopkins wrote many of my favorite poems, but his poem “Carrion Comfort” is particularly apt here:

“Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.”

Now since this is not a poetry analysis, I’m not even going to try to expound upon all the nuances of Hopkins’s words here. I simply want to draw attention to the idea of “can something.” If planning far into the future is overwhelming, if there is something you must do or say that leaves you cold and nauseous at the thought of even contemplating, if even day-to-day decisions seem beyond the realm of possibility, you can still do something, unconsciously or consciously. Even if that action consists solely of hoping, solely of wishing day to come, solely of not choosing not to be- even so, it is action, it is a decision, and it is yours.

Indecision by Charles Baugniet

Indecision by Charles Baugniet

“In the end that was the choice you made, and it doesn’t matter how hard it was to make it. It matters that you did.”
― Cassandra Clare, City of Glass

Decision Time

Well, I’ve made my decision. In case it has not been abundantly clear thus far in my blog, I have decided to leave the world of academia and pursue being a writer. It’s been a decision a long time in the making, but I finally said it out loud to someone within the department at my university, and it suddenly became very real.

After I announced my decision to leave academia to this person in my department, I was surprised to find that on that same day– wholly unrelated and unprompted– a number of people asked me about what I was doing in the upcoming academic year. While I told each person who asked, it solidified more and more for me that I am switching careers, cities, states, and a whole lot of other terrifying things.

Retrieved from photobucket.com

Retrieved from photobucket.com

So, the plan is to move back to the South, get a job doing something to pay the bills, and work on writing and getting published. A vague plan, I realize (and also obviously so, given the brevity of this post), but I figure the only way to keep myself from going crazy is to take things one step at a time. I am both excited and terrified, but I also feel remarkably (and rather surprisingly) at peace with my decision. The only thing I’m not sure about is how to get through this next month of hellish work with anything close to motivation since I know I will be leaving. However, I like to finish strong and finish well, and my Victorian class is my delight, so that at least will be no trouble. The rest of it, day by day. I’ll get there, and then– forward!

Retrieved from tinasibley.co.uk

Retrieved from tinasibley.co.uk

Of Wooden Swords, Strange Women Lyin’ in Ponds, and Chivalric Codes

I’m taking a bit of a break from what seems to be my recent trend in self-empowerment posts. While I was at the beach recently, I also went to a show of Medieval Times, and I’m fixing to speak on that because 1) It’s amazing, 2) Everyone should know about it, and 3) I can.

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So if you don’t know what Medieval Times is or have never been to a show, let me illuminate the issue for you: Medieval Times is a dinner show where you sit around a big arena while you watch a version of a medieval tournament with knights on horseback, jousting, swordplay, trained horses, etc. You also eat as if you were in the Medieval Ages, which means no silverware. I realize as soon as I say Medieval Times, some people’s eyes glaze over with visions of painful versions of LARPing– I’ve seen said glazing happen myself. But I thumb my nose at such naysayers.

The shows vary according to location and when you go see them– they have to mix it up to keep it fresh, clearly. The show I went to consisted of a dinner with half a chicken (yes, half of a whole chicken), the best spare rib I’ve ever eaten, and some other things that my carnivore’s brain remembers less well since they were not straight-up meat. The show itself had trained horses performing a number of tricks (if you’ve ever heard of the Lipizzaner stallions, picture that), as well as an actual falconer and trained falcon hunting down his prey in the arena.

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Retrieved from blog.visitnorthumberland.com

Then of course there was the actual tournament. We started off with some spear-throwing at targets, then some ring-catching on horseback (which means the knights ran their horses full-speed, their lances down, and tried to catch a teeny tiny ring on the end of their lances as they sped past). And then the jousting and sword fighting– on horseback and on foot. During all of which you are expected to cheer for the knight whose section you’re sitting in and boo all his opponents.

If you’re still not sold, then you’re missing out, but such is your right. But aside from championing Medieval Times and the need for everyone to go see a show, I do want to talk a little bit about chivalry because MEDIEVAL TIMES.

First off, I’m not advocating a return to the 11th century or the Dark Ages or anything like that. There were plenty of terrible things that thank goodness we don’t have to put up with any more. But as I screamed myself hoarse (I’m nothing if not an enthusiastic fan), I asked myself why this show appealed to me so much. Number one, swords.

Number two, (if I’m being honest), is that there’s something about it that’s like a UFC fight– lots of skills needed to make it good, violent, and appealing– only with swords, lances, axes, and flails.

Number three, it’s about honor and respect. *eye rolls from some* I know, I know, a bunch of men fighting each other with swords and shields, “the violence inherent in the system,” “strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords,” lobbed scimitars, and anything/everything else from Monty Python and the Holy Grail may not sound like much of a basis for honor and respect. There was plenty not worthy of respect or admiration in the Middle Ages. But guess what. You could say the exact same thing about today’s world. There’s something to be said for the ideal of a man’s word being his pledge, for the ideal of the stronger or more well-advantaged taking care of the weaker or less privileged (I mean here individually, not governmentally – but that’s another post), for there being a code. And by code, I don’t mean figuratively. I mean literally, the code of the five chivalric virtues: friendship, generosity, chastity, courtesy, and piety. Clearly, this is all incredibly idealized, but it’s also from a time when such things were held up as a paragon of behavior and not as subjects of mockery and ridicule.

Sir Galahad: The Quest of the Holy Grail by Arthur Hughes

Sir Galahad: The Quest of the Holy Grail by Arthur Hughes

Number four, it appeals to me because it hearkens back to when we were all kids and let our imaginations run wild. I saw little boys running around Medieval Times with wooden swords and shields, fighting imagined monsters; I saw little girls throughout the audience who were named Queens of the Tournament by their respective knights and giggled and blushed down to their tiptoes. There’s something here that appeals to us on a fundamental level, and I say this without distinction to gender– we want to be heroes, slay dragons, be the princess, kill the bad guy, do the rescuing and also be rescued, be loved and valued and part of something that goes beyond just us. Is it too much of a stretch to say all this just from watching a little girl get crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty at the tournament? Perhaps, but I don’t think so.

The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

The Accolade by Edmund Blair Leighton

So, today’s life lessons from Medieval Times:

1) You’re gonna get beat. Nobody wins everything all the time. Welcome to life.

2) When you do get beat or miss the mark, the worst thing you can do is just stop.

3) A man being chivalrous towards a woman doesn’t mean he doesn’t think the woman can do something (i.e., open a door). It’s a sign of respect, and a woman accepting such an action is to return that respect.

4) Don’t believe anyone who tells you dragons don’t exist. They’re wrong.

5) Don’t believe anyone who tells you dragons can’t be beaten. Again, wrong.

Well, perhaps this was more self-empowerment of sorts. Shocking. That’s all for today.

-Hannah the First, self-proclaimed Queen of Love and Beauty

Retrieved from the Texarkana Entertainment Blog

Retrieved from the Texarkana Entertainment Blog

Of Saints and Special Snowflakes

Happy Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone. So this past weekend, I went to the beach, watched the sun come up every morning, walked on the beach in the moonlight every night, and took a bunch of pictures. Here are a few of my favorites.

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I could really just leave this post at that– who am I to speak after the majesty of the ocean?– but since I am by no means a professional photographer (clearly) and this is not a photo blog, here are some thoughts of the day:

Last time, I talked about the importance of the individual and how we all are unique beings unlike any others. This is true. At the same time, I think it is important not to get so caught up in being special snowflakes that we forget how tiny we are in comparison to the rest of the universe. (See the connection to the ocean yet?). We are tiny, finite, fragile creatures, achingly so in comparison to such vast, seemingly endlessly renewing founts of life like the ocean. And I think it’s important to remember our smallness. If we don’t, we run the risk of becoming so enamored of ourselves and our own ideas (believe it or not, I’m actually not just talking about academics here) that we forget how much of a bigger picture we are part of.

It is also important, however, not to lose sight of the fact that while we may not each be the emperor and empress of our own– or any– universe, that doesn’t meant we aren’t each gifted to speak to, of, or for the world in different ways– so long as we always bear in mind the fact that we are but one part of a vast, terrifying, and exquisite universe. If you don’t first recognize this fact, how can you ever hope to find- not to mention take- your place in the world?

So here’s my Saint Patrick’s wish for everyone: “May you have warm words on a cold evening, a full moon on a dark night, and the road downhill all the way to your door.” And to this saying, may I add: May you find the road easily in the darkness or the light, and may you drive all the snakes of doubt and fear and what-have-you from your life as decidedly as Saint Patrick drove them from Ireland. Sláinte.

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Of Dying Gauls and Creativity

Last weekend, I went to Washington, D.C., to view a temporary exhibition at the National Gallery of Art: The Dying Gaul, a sculpture on loan from Italy. It is a marble sculpture from the 1st or 2nd century of a warrior who has been fatally wounded and is experiencing his last moments of life. The sculpture has only been out of Italy once before since its creation some two thousand years ago, and that was when Napoleon borrowed it for a bit. In D.C., it was displayed in the rotunda of the National Gallery, right behind the Mercury fountain and between two massive columns– fitting for a Roman sculpture, I think. When I went, the fountain was surrounded by sculpted azaleas, like pastel bonsais, right behind which rested The Dying Gaul.

Azaleas in the Rotunda

Azaleas in the Rotunda

This post will get to a point soon– but I have to describe my awe at this sculpture before any of the rest of this will make sense. The sculpture is actually believed to be a Roman marble copy of a Greek bronze original even older than itself. The Roman copy was somehow lost or buried centuries ago, and was only rediscovered in an excavation sometime around the 1600s. So, knowing all that, here it is:

The Dying Gaul

The Dying Gaul

As far as the actual sculpture goes, I have very little to say. I think it speaks for itself (in volumes) regarding nobility, bravery, war, loss, resignation, and defiance– so I won’t presume to speak for it. What I do want to talk about is the notion of originality and art.

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What makes something art? What constitutes an original idea? People always say “there is no such thing as an original idea,” like it’s a terrible thing, like every idea in the world is just a recycled version of something older, that nothing is ever new and genuine– like this is a bad shameful thing due to people lacking creativity. And maybe there is “nothing new under the sun”; things do seem to come in cycles, repeating history and stories in seemingly endless ways. There are, however, two ways I disagree with that. One, if it is impossible to create anything new, that certainly does not negate the value or goodness or art which is created. Two, the idea that there are no more original ideas implies that there was (once upon a time) an original Idea from which all others sprung.

It’s about to get real serious.

So, first off, we have The Dying Gaul. This incredible sculpture– far too beautiful and exquisitely painful even to attempt to put into words– is a copy. Not an original. A copy. Is every copy of an ‘original’ so beautiful? Certainly not, but The Dying Gaul in its turn inspired countless artists who painted or sculpted figures in similar positions because they found the lines– not to mention the emotions– of the Roman sculpture so inspiring. Just because something has been done before, just because a love story has happened at some point in the past, just because a tale of bravery in battle has been told– none of this means that we should stop telling stories, stop creating art, because someone somewhere at some time has done something similar. A new war story does not detract from an old one. A new sculpture does not negate the value of an older one. Can you ever have too many tales of goodness, truth, courage, resilience, redemption? Maybe plot points are similar (like myths of so many cultures, not to mention other stories told and written down over the centuries). Maybe lines of sculptures and paintings are inspired by others. Maybe one dance step is remarkably like another, one swell of music reminds you of another string of notes.

However, that doesn’t mean none of them are “originals.” They were inspired by each other– a reaction against, a move in support of, or something else. Isn’t that what links us together as humans? Isn’t that why art so often transcends nationality, race, class, age, time period? It speaks to something deeper, some thing that makes us human, that makes us interdependent as I think we were always meant to be. Which leads me to point #2.

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So let’s say there are no “original ideas” anymore. If that’s the case, there still was once an original Idea, which all subsequent ideas are imitations or copies of, inspired by in some way. Which leads me back to the question: why do so many myths share so much? Because I believe there is an original Truth, from which all other truths derive. There is good and there is evil, and I believe the battle between them is what has driven the world for longer than we can imagine.

Told you it was getting real serious.

So if we say there are no original ideas but only copies of something from the long long ago, aren’t we all original individuals? I know there are those who would disagree, but I believe there has never been– in the history of the universe (that’s right, I said it)– an individual exactly like you (or me). We are each uniquely made, uniquely gifted, and I think that this uniqueness– this originality– is what makes our work, our art, our creations, our stories, our selves, original. Maybe the idea is “recycled” but what we bring to it as individuals is not; our genuine selves (see my last post for more on that) are what make what we do, new.

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”

-John Donne, Meditation XVII, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

Addendum to Clothes are just Clothes

Just a few quick thoughts today, mostly to follow up on my post last week about performance: The very notion of identity performance seems condescending because it seems (and is) the brainchild of people who live only in their heads with no real referents in the real world. It seems to arise from a very privileged position, and it also assumes that other, less ‘intelligent’ or less educated people simply do their ‘performances’ without knowing it because ‘bless their hearts, they are just playing their roles like we all are, only they don’t know it because no one has explained it to them and come to enlighten them’– which is why I find it offensive as well as wrong.

This identity performance idea also implies that there is no genuine self, because we are always consciously or unconsciously performing, which leaves no time for just ‘being.’ If you believe that you have no genuine self (as some academics purport to), and that your identity is just a reflection of other people’s and your own projections/expectations/etc., that makes me truly sad. Even when we do put on masks to ‘perform,’ that does not mean that the performance is not also part of our ‘self,’ and more importantly, that implies in its very conception that there is something to mask– that there is a self we wish to cover up, in whole or in part. I think the reason for that masking is in many ways self-protection, and if we are seeking to protect, then there is clearly something to be protected: a genuine self that we fear people will reject, hurt, or judge.

That’s all my thoughts for today’s addendum to last week’s post, but here are some beautiful Pre-Raphaelite paintings I think everyone should see (and which are also a reward for slogging through all my thoughts here with me):

"Boreas" by John William Waterhouse

“Boreas” by John William Waterhouse

"The Beguiling of Merlin" by Edward Burne-Jones

“The Beguiling of Merlin” by Edward Burne-Jones

"Gather ye rosebuds" by John William Waterhouse

“Gather ye rosebuds” by John William Waterhouse

“GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.”

-Robert Herrick, “To the Virgins, to make much of time”

Sometimes, Clothes are Just Clothes

“We all wear masks . . . metaphorically speaking.” Why yes, I am starting off this post with a quote from 1994’s The Mask. Happy day after Mardi Gras, everyone. And since the Mardi Gras Conference I recently returned from dealt heavily with mask and disguise, I’ve been thinking a lot about disguise, performance, and identity. A frequent contention that has been cropping up in class or at that conference, is that we all ‘perform our identities’– in other words, in all our interactions with others, we are always staging some sort of performance. We never just ‘are’; we all put on different masks to perform the roles that we believe different situations and different people call for. Whether we don these different masks– different identities, if you will, at least to some degree– to please others or to make ourselves more at ease, is just one question. I think it equally– if not more– important to ask if this idea of always performing our identities is in fact accurate.

Jim Carrey in The Mask

Jim Carrey in The Mask

I am going to disagree with a number of my colleagues here and say no, everything is not a performance. I don’t even mean not a performance in the theatrical, possibly melodramatic sense of the word. I mean that both unconsciously and consciously, we are not always shifting ourselves to please others or ourselves, to mask the ugly and don the pretty. To be clear, the idea of identity performance also has to do with using our body language, our expressions, our words, and even our clothes, to convey a certain message or impression to those with whom we interact. Is this true sometimes? Of course; you don’t show up to a job interview in cut-off jeans and a ragged T-shirt. You put on nicer clothes, groom yourself, try to speak well and clearly, and engage with the interviewer so he believes you to be a dependable and employable person. Does the same hold true for every social interaction? Do we always construct and present ourselves in a calculated way in our interactions with other people? Sometimes, sure. Always? Definitely not.

To imply that we are always scheming and plotting how we will present ourselves to others, and what their responses will be, makes us all sound like the Lannister clan from Game of Thrones. I refuse to believe that all our interactions with others are that calculated, even unconsciously. Even so, the conference did get me thinking about those instances in which I do ‘perform my identity’ in some way. For example, how much of what I do is to please others, and how much do I do simply because it’s expected of me? (And expected can mean I believe others expect it of me, or I expect it of myself.) I behave differently around the students I teach than I do around my friends, for sure, but I think this is less due to performing a different identity, and due more to the idea of “code-switching.”

Retrieved from uptake.com

Retrieved from uptake.com

Code-switching is used in many different fields to refer to several different phenomena, but for my purposes here, I intend the term to refer to when a person switches the way they speak (or write) based on different situations. So for example, if I’m talking to a close friend, I’m probably going to be much more laid-back and informal in my speech than I will be if I’m talking to my work supervisor. In the same way, the way I write in text messages or emails to friends is going to be vastly different from the way I write to my students or a professor. The ability to code-switch is an excellent skill to develop, but not because we’re shifting identities or presenting false (or even partial) selves, but simply because some things are not appropriate to say or write to certain people which would be appropriate to others. 

The idea that we pick out clothes (consciously or not) to create a certain impression all of the time, I cannot get behind. It seems to disregard seasons, moods, nationality, personal taste or preference, money, among a whole host of other things. There is also something about the very idea of “identity performance” that seems condescending in its conception to me, though I haven’t quite laid my finger on that yet.

Which leads me to my conclusion, or at least the end of this post, for today: sometimes, a smile is just a smile. Sometimes, hands on the hips are just because your back hurts. And sometimes, clothes are just clothes.

Photo Credit: Roy Rainford/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis

Photo Credit: Roy Rainford/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis