“You see a [wo]man with too many books, I see a [wo]man with not enough shelves.”
“A tedious argument of insidious intent…”
I recently saw this phrase used as a social media tagline — and it wasn’t a T.S. Eliot account. It struck me as a pleasing expression; i didn’t immediately recognize its origins.
I should have. I studied Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in college, though that was admittedly more than a few years ago.
Looking up phrases online, mine and others, is something i make a habit of in order to properly attribute them or to make sure one i’m about to use is original.
Rather than assume its social media user had concocted this one herself, the online search for this snippet rewarded me with a reminder of Eliot’s stunning craft.
Located in its original context, latticed with evocative imagery, the locution is even more striking, of course:
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question…
I find it surprising and dismaying that this beauty had become buried beyond recall.
It’s got me thinking about the imprinting of our experiences taking place as our lives unfold, how memories get stored away and what prompts their later recollection.
A common observation holds that because of modern computing developments we now farm out our mental storage to the cloud. But this may simply represent an acceleration of a much longer-term trend.
Whether reacting to a digital snapshot onscreen or to a sepia-tinged print in an old photo album, the sensation is still, “Oh yes, *now* i remember that!”
(The flip-side occurrence is when we thought we remembered something that turns out not to be so. “I could’ve sworn…”)
The observation may be more apt with respect to ordinary pieces of information. We less regularly memorize phone numbers, for example, because our gadgets store them and no longer require us to tap out frequently used numbers manually.
Memorization as an everyday skill becomes instead an art that must be deliberately fostered.
The same technology that can diminish memorization, however, made possible the ten-second research that led me back to Eliot this morning.
Without the internet, would i have made my way back to these certain half-deserted streets today?
Not terribly likely — though it’s possible i’d have reunited with them sometime by reaching for a poetry anthology from my bookshelf.
Such reacquaintances — whether mined from my own mind, sought in the pages of treasured books, or happened upon via the web — swirl up further memories and generate gratitude.
As Cicero perceived: “Memory is the treasury and guardian of all things.”
To argue with that would be tedious.
P.S. One of my favorite pop songs from the 1990s references Eliot, borrowing language from this poem for the title, and juxtaposing jolly music with melancholy lyrics about illness and aging.
I plan to update this post later with a link to it.
(Bonus points for any of you who identify it before that.)
Update: Here’s that song.
It’s about how the end justifies the memes.
Ok, that’s not a serious answer — although it’s true that this blog does include the occasional meme.
Over the years, i’ve given a fair amount of thought to answering the query concisely — starting with concocting the tagline about reflections.
When i began blogging, i’d had little exposure to the blogosphere in general. I simply set out to write about what interests me, hoping to make it interesting to others.
Now that i’ve been around the blog-block for a bit, i sometimes describe mine by noting what it’s not…
It’s not a running public diary of personal experiences.
It’s not designed to sell a product or to promote a lifestyle, and it isn’t centered around a visual art form or hobby. Nor is it constructed to cover news and relay my opinions about it.
Yet personal experiences, hobbies, lifestyle and news do get braided in, with a smidgen of humor, music, and short fiction.
I consider the load-bearing wall of the blog to be the essays, with the animating principles behind them being:
Are these ideas both true and meaningful?
Salient for others and elegantly expressed?
Emerson is said to have greeted his friends with the question, “What has become clear to you since we last met?”
That’s what i propose to answer with each post. Sometimes it’s only questions that become clearer, rather than answers.
The hope is for one free-hearted writer’s vicissitudes, tartly observed yet sprinkled with fellow-feeling, to be a refreshment to others.
It’s October, so — for those of you this appeals to — i’d like to think it’s the pumpkin spice latte of your blog browsing.
The rest can fill in the best meme for you.
Don’t you hate it when you miss your turn-off?
Yes, i know, many of us use GPS now. But i still like to study a map at home before heading to the airport.
I tend to become anxious about catching the information in time to get to the lane i need, so it calms me to have an aerial view in mind as i’m trying to follow the signs and instructions.
The idea of planning for changing lanes came to mind when i noticed the date first thing this morning. Today marks seven years since the name change which precipitated the title of this blog.
I like it when dates sneak up on me like that. This anniversary wasn’t one i’d been looking ahead toward, as i’m prone to do, hand at forehead shading my squinting eyes.
It feels good to be reminded by surprise that returning to my birth name represented a lane change i eagerly chose, emblematic of setting off for a fresh future, and reconnecting with an earlier selfhood.
What a wild seven years it’s been.
Taken alongside other arbitrary blocks of time, it has been marked more by disrupting and blindsiding turns and twists than by planned lane changes.
Regular readers will understand the reference to surviving cancer along with its attendant losses. To the years it took to navigate the obtacles and detours, getting far enough through them for the eventual silver linings to make themselves plain.
Here’s to finally landing, for now, back on a main road — where dreams can re-stir. Dreams of venturing to new places, of telling the stories, of influencing my own direction among the lanes left open.
Not just external options have changed, but also ways of seeing.
There are lanes to choose internally too.
A post five years ago listed a few take-aways from that time.
I have a few to add, being down the road a bit farther…
…Some but not all seemingly small moves turn out to be momentous, for good or ill.
And i don’t usually get to know which ahead of time.
…I can’t compute a percentage of an unknown number.
In other words, pondering how to spend the number of days i might have left is hampered by not being privy to that figure.
…Unlike my trip to the airport, any life map i purport to go by keeps needing to be redrawn as i go.
…Missing a lane change isn’t as bad as i feared.
There’s usually place up ahead to get back on track.
It might take extra time, i might even miss my flight, but, well, see the above take-aways.
As it happens, the past several weeks have brought about a few unanticipated medical and financial detours. But nothing close to the level of difficulties of a few years ago, just faint echoes.
Those reverberations, along with the seven-year reminder, nudge me to pause, take a good look around, and then pull way up to get the drone view, a fresh aerial perspective.
From up here, it’s easier to see the layout.
And it looks like things are going to be alright.
Foggy roads and grieving hearts make it hard to grasp where you are.
Fans of the brilliant songwriter John Prine will recognize an echo there with a line of his. I borrowed its framing as a tribute.
(“broken hearts and dirty windows make life difficult to see,” from ‘Souvenirs.’)
When we look back on this time at some far future point, we will each recall hallmarks large and small that most remind us of it. Events that moved us from an abstract sense of its singular seriousness to reality hitting home.
The manner in which we lost this songwriter is one such marker for me, given what he succumbed to after surviving so much else.
It says something significant about the times we’re in that readers across the globe will instantly grasp what i mean by ‘the times we’re in’.
It’s been about two months since something most of us had never heard of before became the most commonplace reference in our conversations.
Now nearly anything spoken, recalled or observed from this period cannot help but reflect it.
While that may be true, in a sense, of any utterance or recollection, today’s shared frame of reference for humanity in real time is indeed novel.
A few posts ago, i recorded some observations about movement — what feels good about it, how it feels when it’s blocked. The satisfaction of setting a course rather than drifting.
These Virus Times have provided quite the illustration of some of those ideas.
Feels like every day is Blursday.
Chosen stillness is a relief. Stillness imposed against our preference is harder to embrace.
The post you are now reading began with thoughts i set out to express weeks ago.
Its movement was first blocked, then knocked off course.
Having paused and then resumed it with so many weeks in between will forever be another personal marker for me of these times.
Reasons for the derailment are complex, but a prominent feature of these times — a persistent background anxiety — is certainly at the core of it.
Anxiety brought about by ongoing disruption of routine.
The anxiety of knowing how anxious others are.
Fear for the wellbeing of loved ones near and far, grief for those suffering needlessly and those already lost.
When i first started this essay, it was my purpose for it to not be about the Virus Times.
But this is where i am. This is where we are.
This will be with us for a while.
On some horizons, things are sluggishly brightening up.
People feel desperate to get moving again.
The other day while out walking, i waited at a stop sign for a car to pass. As it did, the notes from its blaring stereo became gradually more faint as it drove away, until i could no longer feel the pounding…
The song we are all hearing, a sad one we didn’t select, is deafening.
It’s a misty road we’re on. The times are disorienting.
We will always recall what this was like.
But we are also fixing our gaze ahead — looking forward to when the car is out of sight and its over-loud notes are less piercing.
(Rebecca Newberger Goldstein)
A few months ago, i wrote a post about movement .
Its theme was how we experience movement through time, and i said i would write a further post on the subject. Here it is…
As i noted in the earlier piece, i got to thinking about movement when i became able to return to it after a period of stagnancy and lack of control.
Movement, to put it simply, feels good.
When i think of enjoying movement, i think first of bodily motion. The visceral elation of being on a swing as a child and going as high as i could, for example. Or the excitement of driving a fast car or being on a roller coaster. Thrilling physical motion feels as though we can almost be taken out of time for a moment.
A second notion of movement (which i focused on before) makes me think of time passing, and why there’s a sense of satisfaction in noting our relationship to it.
We like checking things off to-do lists and finding shortcuts that help us move through tasks more efficiently.
When we don’t sense progress we say we are spinning our wheels or treading water — not very positive images.
A third aspect of movement has to do with our emotional experiences.
I acknowledge a subtle shift in meaning between these usages, but i think there’s a relevance between time passing and being moved in our sentiments.
We say we are moved by a piece of art, or we find someone’s words moving.
Motivational speakers and advertisers aim to move us to make a change or make a purchase.
(The word ‘motive’ derives from the same root as ‘to move’.)
Inspirational writers wish to move us to embrace an idea or take an action.
We connect with great literature because it moves us to contemplate and gain understanding about humanity and ourselves. The more deeply we identify with the characters and ideas, the more emotionally moved we are.
An insightful way to describe someone is to point out what moves them.
Music ties together two of these meanings — movement through time and the effect on our feelings.
(The word ‘motif’ in music or literature also traces its etymology to movement.)
Anyone conversant with classical music may already have noted that sections of music are themselves called ‘movements’.
Just as experiencing motion and emotion in music is satisfying, so is experiencing momentum toward achieving goals.
In contrast, inertia often suggests something must be wrong.
When we are grieving the passing of a loved one, or the demise of a relationship, it feels as though forward motion stops while we begin to cope.
Conversely, healing is signified not only by life’s momentum returning to some normalcy, but also by no longer being as quickly moved to tears when that person comes to mind.
When my sons were little, i relished each birthday as a marker of their movement toward maturity, at the same time being moved to a tinge of melancholy, witnessing their childhood delights becoming part of the past.
Even now, both of them well into adulthood, this still strikes me as the epitome of how the passage of time itself moves me emotionally.
Many might readily suggest this is attributable to our underlying and uniquely human awareness of our own ultimate physical end.
That awareness can bring a clarity of purpose to how we decide to spend what time we have.
Meanwhile, our sense of being pleased by movement may explain why it can be difficult to simply pause, to deliberately choose restorative stillness from time to time.
So as we are moved to both delight in and lament life’s curiosities, here’s to finding harmony too between motion and stillness.
As i was about to post that quote this morning — one equally applicable to our social surroundings as to our internal selves — i realized today is a personal anniversary, marking six years cancer-free. It was almost an afterthought. (Almost.)
The quote pairs well with this one: