Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Cracked Cup of Kindness

Often I have some idea of what I want to say when I sit down to blog, but this evening I'm just aware of a pile-up of stuff -- I don't know what I want to say about it all--I just feel like rambling on about some of it and not even straightening out the tangled syntax.

Last week I read something that really shook me up:
"The Crack-Up" by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
He wrote this personal essay--three essays, actually (if you click on the link above, be sure to read all three, if you are so inclined)--in 1936, when he was thirty-nine years old and realized he was broken, damaged, in ways he felt were irreparable... and since he died five years later, partly self-destroyed, I guess he was right.

I've tried but I've never cared for F. Scott before, but in this piece, he was so unsentimental, so surgically precise, in his depiction of his own utter spiritual desolation, I was stunned with admiration.
I thought I should write something about it--or something as honest myself.

And I couldn't.
I mean, I just could not start.
There's a forcefield guarding certain things in my life (you know, love, death, that stuff) I couldn't get past. And that's part of what blew me away about "The Crack-Up": that F. Scott even could write it, nevermind how good it is.

I've written about this before but it bears repeating that having a terrible burden generally appears thrillingly romantic only if you don't have one. And who doesn't, sooner or later?
"The Crack-Up" is excellent in its complete lack of glamour. Nothing diaphanous, nothing glowing, beckoning on the end of a pier.

Writing honestly like that is good, because eventually everyone bears something burdensome, and it seems to help to read and write about it. It's helped me, anyway, at the most basic level, to say, to hear: Oh, there it is. It really is that bad.
The point is most definitely not to get sympathy. No! It's to get truth. This is a core tenet of religion/philosophy, right? Look. See. Even if it's damn bleak.

(Where one goes from there, well, that's another question. I would hardly look to F. Scott for help with that.)

So I kept thinking I w/should give it a shot, and each morning I woke up intending to blog about it. And couldn't. By Sunday afternoon I was so depressed I could barely move. Not metaphorically, either, I mean I could hardly move my body, it had become so leaden. I just sat there and dreaded the arrival of 3:30, when I had agreed to go to a movie with my neighbor.
But when my neighbor came and knocked on my door, I got up off the chair and went out into the day.

Though I'd dreaded it, I had also thought it might do me good to get out, and it did. We went to see Clint Eastwood's latest, Gran Torino, a movie so sweetly well-intentioned you forgive it its amateurish screenplay, with dialogue along the lines of the old Korean War vet saying to the kindly, fresh-faced Catholic priest of the kind we haven't seen since Bing Crosby, "Father, a man doesn't go to war and then just forget about it. He sees things that haunt his dreams."
Just terrible clunkers.
And its message of redemption is ridiculously see-through.
I loved it.
It was a godsend.
I left the movie theater reminded that toxic stuff needs to be dealt with in its own time. Or not. At any rate, pushing doesn't help. And redemption doesn't necessarily come with a sign on it saying, "This is it," it comes in unrecognizable and sometimes unwelcome forms.
Wait for it.

So, yesterday, Monday, instead of trying to write about eviscerating pain, I asked the publisher if I could write the revision of the Great Moravian Empire book I mentioned typing out.
Actually, it's a geography book on Slovakia, from the same series that I wrote titles for, for four years--work I took a sabbatical of sorts from almost a year and a half ago.
The old text was so interesting and so impersonal to me that I truly wanted to do the update.
Luckily no one else had signed up to do Slovakia, so it is mine.

I feel comforted to have a safe, predictable writing task again.
Writing is like travel--you keep upping your comfort level; but there are times when you've pushed too far into discomfort and, if you're lucky, you get to pull back, you're wise to pull back, before an anaconda smothers you.

This is one of the things I adore about Star Trek, for which I am tremendously grateful--it's been such a comforting, cheering travel companion this past year. Bad things happen, but none of the companions we care about ends up like F. Scott.
Or if they do, maybe, come just a bit too close, Mr. Spock is there with his kind and loving hands to ease the pain: "Forget, forget..."

Of course we, I, don't really want to forget old acquaintance, but sometimes it sure helps to take a cup of kindness, whatever form that may come in.
For me, right now, writing about Slovakia looks like just the thing.
Bonus: they pay me money! It's so little, you wouldn't believe it, but they give it to me, not the other way round.


Jennifer said...

Slovakia is yours, Fresca! Whatever else, remember that.

Fitzgerald pulls no punches there, does he? Bleak reading and very honest. Where's Stella in all that, I wonder? I don't know the history of the Fitzgeralds very well, I have to admit.

Let me know if there's anything I can do to cheer you up! Perhaps I can convince my students to write a few more blog entries--aren't they the greatest?

fresca said...

You mean Zelda, his wife?
She was locked up in a mental institution by then.

Thanks, Jen: Your students' blogs are indeed great.
"My English is broken" is a perfect cracked cup of cheer! That, Slovakia, and Captain Kirk will get me through. : )
You know, really, I'm fine--it's just life. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut says.
(Did you know his mother committed suicide?)

Jennifer said...

*blushes* Why in the world of all names "Stella" would come to me I do not know. I prove my point about not knowing the background! I did know she ended up in an institution, but I wasn't sure when it all took place...long before this, then. Sad stories and not at all tragic in any deep and meaningful sense, it sounds like...just sad.

I didn't know about Vonnegut's mother! But his philosophy is so resolutely anti-tragic it seems right, somehow.

fresca said...

Maybe you were thinking of Tennessee Williams's
Streetcar Named Desire?
And Marlon Brando's Stanley bellowing, "Stella! Stella!"

I do love Vonnegut's philosophy--very much of the unadorned "here it is" type I admire--complete with all the wonderful humor that attends absurdity.
Not in love with the tragedy of his own suffering, as perhaps the Fitzgeralds were? And maybe that's why I don't love F. Scott usually?

I don't know--because I haven't loved his stuff, I haven't read deeply--just happened to be caught by the opening lines of "The Crack-Up" in an anthology:

"Of course all life is a process of breaking down, but the blows that do the dramatic side of the work--the big sudden blows that come, or seem to come, from outside--the ones you remember and blame things on and, in moments of weakness, tell your friends about, don't show their effect all at once. There is another sort of blow that comes from within--that you don't feel until it's too late to do anything about it, until you realize with finality that in some regard you will never be as good a man again."

Eeek. I better go watch some Star Trek now!

momo said...

A paying gig! that you asked for! most excellent.

I will have to read those essays, but not now. I am in the throes of new syllabus design, which alternately fills me with great joy and extreme dread, so going there would probably stop me in my tracks.
As I was reading what you said about F Scott's writing and his death a few years later I thought of David Foster Wallace, who also lost that battle recently. It's good to have appointments with friends, to get up off the floor and go out. I can remember a time when I called a friend and said I don't know how I can get through it, and she said, "what can you do in the next ten minutes? can you wash a cup?" So I hung up the phone and washed a cup. Ten minutes at a time.

fresca said...

No, don't read it, Momo. Wait till summer or something. Or never.
I thought of David Foster Wallace too:
His essay "The Depressed Person" is similarly brutally clear-eyed. It's almost unreadable, and yet I marvel at and am enormously grateful for these "tell it like it is" writers.

And, oh god, how excellent, your friend's help: can you wash a cup? Wow. Yes. Sometimes that's exactly what gets us through. Don't talk to me about philosophy, give me a dishcloth.
That gives rise to the kind of humor I mentioned, like Kurt Vonnegut's.

Good luck with the syllbus design! Very exciting. Good work--that pays money!