Tom Robotham’s Notebook
Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself in dark woods, the right road lost….And yet, to treat the good I found there as well, I’ll tell you what I saw. ~ Dante, The Inferno, Canto I.
In my last essay in this space, I mentioned parenthetically that I would devote my next column to reflections on my experience of seeing a psychotherapist. My motivation for doing so is simple: While American society has evolved to some degree in its attitude toward psychotherapy and various forms of emotional instability, we still tend to stigmatize these things.
I mean, think about it. To this day, if the press were to reveal that a politician running for high office was or ever had been in therapy, he or she would be sunk. Especially he—by which I mean that going to see a therapist is still considered unmanly in some circles. The attitude is rooted in the idea that real men don’t talk about their feelings; they just “suck it up.” In popular culture, I can think of no better illustration of this than Tony Soprano, who sees a psychiatrist for anxiety but knows that if this fact were ever leaked he would lose credibility as a boss.
As I noted earlier, I do think we have evolved beyond this machismo to some degree. There was a time not long ago, for example, when soldiers, sailors and Marines returning from war were discouraged from seeking help for post-traumatic stress disorder. In the last year or so, however, I’ve met a few men—some of the toughest guys I’ve ever known—who’ve talked openly about their struggles with PTSD. But we’ve not made enough progress in this regard.
Nor is the problem rooted exclusively in old, simplistic notions of what it means to be a man. The ambivalence reflects a problem far more widespread—and it has to do with what I’ve been writing about in this space over the last few months. That is to say, it has to do with a widespread fear of deep emotion. And not just in men.
My basic premise here—that we shy away from dealing with depression, anxiety and various other mental troubles—might seem false to you, given the proliferation of psychotherapeutic drugs over the last few decades. But this phenomenon simply reinforces my point. The solution often recommended for people dealing with these problems is, take a pill and move on.
I recognize that for some people with severely debilitating conditions, medication is necessary. I’ve seen its efficacy first hand. Last year, for example, I had a student in one of my classes—a model student. One day, however, he showed up for class and began acting very strangely. Subsequently, he was arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit acts of terror. Turned out he’d been on medication for severe mental illness but had stopped taking it for some reason. It was tragic, and I think about him often, hoping that he is getting his life back on track.
I also realize that many therapists will prescribe medication only in conjunction with therapy. But as I continue to talk to people about this, I grow more convinced that pharmaceuticals are over-prescribed. In many cases, they are merely treating symptoms, not the disorders themselves, because deeply exploring the roots of those disorders is too frightening, too strenuous and too time-consuming. No time to be depressed. Gotta get shit done!
This is certainly at the root of our tendency in recent decades to pump children full of Ritalin or its equivalents. Finding ourselves utterly incapable of addressing the causes of attention deficit disorder—food additives, lack physical activity, lack of free play, and overstimulation through everything from over-packed schedules of extra-curricular activities to over-exposure to electronic media—we simply give our kids drugs and tell them to do their homework.
Same goes for our failure to confront the real causes of depression and/or anxiety in adults.
I’ve thought so much about this because I have suffered from both of these conditions myself. I’m grateful that I have yet to sink into depression so severe as to prevent me from going about my day. But there have been times over the last few years—especially alone, late at night—that I’ve slipped into terrifying despair.
On several occasions when I’ve reached out to close friends in those moments, they’ve recommended medication. But I’ve resisted. I would rather continue to try to understand the causes rather than simply treat the symptoms.
Don’t get me wrong. I would never criticize anyone else for doing so. This is just not a path I want to go down unless I come to the point where I feel that there is no other option. And I’m perfectly willing to admit that I could be wrong about all this. I’m also perfectly willing to acknowledge an inconsistency, since at times I have a tendency to self-medicate with alcohol. But I don’t know that pharmaceuticals are any better (except for the liver, perhaps!). For now, at any rate, I plan to continue on my present course of trying to understand the roots of my problems.
I first went to see a therapist about 15 years ago, but after a year or so I stopped. Then, in 2007, after the end of a two-decade marriage, I went back to see him. I’ve seen him weekly ever since. Yeah, I know. That may seem like a long time. Reflecting on it, I’m reminded of Woody Allen’s remark in Annie Hall. “I’ve been seeing my analyst for 18 years,” he says, “and he thinks I’m making progress.”
But therapy, for me, is not simply about curing an “illness.” It’s an ongoing process of self discovery. Delving deep into experiences of early childhood, adolescence and young adulthood, I’ve come to understand some of the patterns of my own behavior and the internal narratives that drive them. These patterns have caused problems with me in relationships, prevented me from more fully realizing my own potential and—in the process—brought me inexpressible inner conflict and pain.
I’m still not out of the woods by a long shot. But that’s OK. Back in 2007, when a series of major life disruptions were just beginning, a friend recommended that I read Dante’s Divine Comedy. It has been one of my go-to books ever since. Dante’s character had to journey through hell to understand himself and the true nature of love, which, ultimately, is the only thing that can save us all. Whenever I feel that I’m lost in emotional hell, I remind myself of this necessity. I’m reminded as well of The Matrix. Taking Zoloft or some such thing would feel to me like taking the blue pill. I’d rather venture down the rabbit hole of my own psyche, frightening as that can be at times.
I would never presume that this sort of path is for everyone. For me, it’s intertwined with my work as a writer: True insight, whether in essays, poems, memoir, fiction, or song lyrics, can come only through self knowledge. That, in turn, can come through a variety of activities—journaling, meditation, reading, solitary reflection and intimate conversation with like-minded people. But none of these things can completely substitute for regular talks with a professionally trained therapist. In my case, I’ve found that my therapist will connect the dots of my thinking and give me insights in ways that neither I nor my friends can.
When I mentioned to publisher Jeff Maisey that this would be the topic of my newest column, he noted that it is timely because we’re coming up on the holidays—a time that is especially intense and troubling for a lot of people because it forces us to confront old family wounds or, in some cases, accentuates feelings of profound loneliness. Most of us, it seems to me, could do a better job of helping one another through such difficult times. The frantic pace of our daily lives and the aforementioned over-stimulation make it easy to forget or neglect the fact that sometimes a simple phone call asking someone how he or she is doing—with sincere interest in hearing the answer—can make all the difference in the world for the person on the other end of the line. Conversely, the lack of such outreach can be very painful. Indeed, silence and apparent indifference from people you care about can feel devastating.
But that’s where therapists come in. The roots of emotional pain always go deeper than they appear to. And so, I will continue my journey, trying my best to understand and love myself as I am, while also trying to love others more fully—both the wonderful people in my life who care, and those who have brought me pain.
Loving people in the latter category can be a challenge. It is hard to extend your love and feel that the person to whom you are offering it sees no value in it. But ultimately, love means nothing if it is based on expectation of reciprocation. This is certainly the essence of the Christian Gospels. It is also what the Buddha taught. And it is, as I said earlier, the only thing that can save us. If we strive continually to do so, I have faith that we will confront at last, as Dante puts it in his closing lines of The Inferno, “some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears—and once more [see] the stars.”
Hip to Hate Hipsters (October 15, 2013)
By Tom Robotham
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…/angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. ~ Allen Ginsberg, Howl.
The other day I was talking to a friend about hipsters—a friend who, because of her hairstyle, fashion choices and sensibilities, might easily be labeled a hipster herself.
“You ought to make that the subject of your next VEER column,” she suggested.
When I floated the idea on Facebook, as I often do when I’m contemplating an essay topic, I got a wide variety of reactions. A number of people thought the topic was played out. “That’s so last year,” one person commented. “Yawn (eye roll),” wrote another.
Such comments made me all the more inclined to pursue the topic. If it really is played out, after all, why bother commenting at all? There’s something fundamentally hipster about asserting your indifference. I was also amused by the “so last year” comment, since hipsters tend to favor things that are so 50 years ago, from Clark Kent glasses to vinyl records.
Yes, it was clear from the 80 or so comments that this topic still touches a nerve. Indeed, I know a lot of people who’ve expressed a visceral hatred of hipsters, and their disdain is reflected in a May 2013 Public Policy Poll that I assume was conducted somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Just 16 percent of respondents had a favorable view of hipsters, and 27 percent said they thought hipsters should be subject to a special tax “for being so annoying.”
At the root of the disdain is a perceived self-righteousness coupled with hypocrisy. “They claim to hate corporate culture but have to have the latest iPhone,” one buddy of mine observed.
In contrast to the hipster-haters, on the other hand, were the many people I talked to who simply hate the word.
“It’s meaningless,” one friend argued.
His comment is understandable. Whenever I try to get at its essence, I’m reminded of the late Justice Potter Stewart’s comment about pornography: “I can’t define it but I know it when I see it.”
That seems like a pretty good place to start, since people are often labeled hipsters by appearance alone: skinny jeans on men, torn stockings on women and an androgynous embrace of other things by both men and women: piercings, tattoos, artfully disheveled hair (or wool-knit caps, even in summer), thick-rimmed glasses, high-top Chuck Taylors or work boots. The list could go on. Shopping at thrift stores is a must.
Beyond that, as Urban Dictionary points out, “hipsterism is really a state of mind.”
If it means anything at all, it is simply a rejection of middle and upper-middle class values—values shaped and pounded into our heads by corporate consumer culture. The same mindset, in other words, that the Beat generation embraced in the 1950s.
And why not? Many of today’s hipsters, after all, came of age under the same pressure to conform. Education, they were told, was about Standards of Learning, which, as I’ve often commented, were clearly designed to turn out standardized minds. Learn all this, and you too can have the house in the suburbs, a BMW and an SUV, and membership in Country-Club America. All that’s required is obedience.
Well, maybe not so much. Just as they were coming of age the World Trade Center blew up, the economy tanked, the cost of college skyrocketed, and the jobs disappeared.
If you’re starting to think that by saying all this I am in sympathy with the hipster mindset, you’re right—to an extent. Given the choice of being stranded on an island with hipsters or yuppies, I’d take the hipsters in a heartbeat. Corporate America, and the expectation that we should all become cogs in the machine, makes me sick.
Hipsterism at its core is a resistance to this kind of conformity.
Ah, but therein lies the rub: As several friends pointed out while we were discussing this, hipsters appear to have rejected conformity to one set of values for conformity to another.
Beyond the fashions and fondness for old vinyl, it is—as another Facebook friend pointed out—largely defined by an embrace of “irony.”
And this is where I begin to have a problem with it. My sentiments are reflected and beautifully articulated in a wonderful little book by Jedediah Purdy: For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today. The book was published in 1999, so perhaps that makes it so-last-millennium. But I think it’s more relevant today than ever.
“Irony,” Purdy writes, “has become our marker of worldliness and maturity. The ironic individual practices a style of speech and behavior that avoids all appearance…of naïve devotion, belief, or hope….His wariness becomes a mistrust of language itself. He disowns his own words.
“The point of irony,” he continues, “is a quiet refusal to believe in the depth of relationships, the sincerity of motivation, or the truth of speech—especially earnest speech.” [Emphasis added].
Thus, “believing in nothing much, especially not people,” has become “a point of vague pride…”
In answer to this, Purdy issues “a plea for the value of declaring hopes that we know to be fragile.” For an openness, in other words—for heartfelt expressions of sincerity and an idealism rooted not in fixed ideology but in aspirations of the soul.
One thing I find heartening is that the hipster’s conformity of appearance—which for all its variety is a rejection of neatly pressed “corporate casual”—masks a bright spectrum of individualism. I know a lot of people whose appearance screams “hipster” but whose minds and hearts are as varied as humanity itself: Vegans who are intensely sincere, passionate and idealistic; musicians who love Bach every bit as much as they love buskers; highly knowledgeable political activists, and a host of other people with brilliant minds and soaring aspirations.
Knowing them is a constant reminder of the need to suspend prejudice and seek deeply individualized interpersonal connections.
What I find disheartening is that it can be difficult to sustain those connections for the reason that Purdy cited: a widespread distrust of openness and commitment, in tension with an underlying desire for those things. As my therapist told me recently (at some point I want to write in this space an appreciation of psychotherapy), we live in a culture in which people are seen as things to be used rather than individuals to be valued—a mindset that rests on the assumption that people will always let you down. (I’m reminded of Leonard Cohen’s great lyric—“All I’ve ever learned of love is how to shoot somebody who outdrew you.”) A culture, in other words, that encourages cynicism. Even simple respect for other people’s time and feelings seems unimportant to a lot of men and women I know. Making plans seems a quaint and outdated social convention, and keeping them—if they are made at all—is wholly unimportant. Plans can be canceled at the drop of a hat if we’re “just not feeling it.”
The temptation to fall under the force of this domino effect is very strong sometimes. But in the end, I can speak for no one else. All I know is that I shall try to resist the cynicism. To continue to have faith in people, when so much evidence suggests that faith is foolish; to continue to have hope, when so much evidence points toward nihilism; to continue to strive for earnestness rather than smirking irony. To continue, in other words, to try to love people at their core, regardless of the profound distrust of love that has become a virus in the body of society. So many people wear masks, whether of the corporate executive, the Bro, the woo-hoo party girls, or the too-cool-to-care variety of hipster. But beneath those masks, most people share the same fundamental yearnings. There seems to be a fear on the part of a lot of people I know of confronting those yearnings—in themselves and others—and of honoring them. But the fear must be overcome, lest life become nothing more than a game of Grand Theft Auto, where we can do as we please without worrying about the consequences. It is easy to delude ourselves in this regard because the damage goes unseen: the spiritual carnage and the wounded hearts, which grow calloused but never heal beneath the scars. And yet, to paraphrase Thoreau once again, I somehow hold out hope that we can learn to treat ourselves and one another more tenderly.
Required Reading (September 15, 2013)
By Tom Robotham
I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. ~ Henry David Thoreau.
Last spring, shortly after the end of the academic year, I met a former student of mine for coffee. She’d earned an A in the course, but wanted to talk about how she could improve her writing. We went over her final paper line by line, talking about organization, sentence structures, word choices and other elements of style. On the back of the paper, I made some additional notes about these things, followed by a list of suggestions. Number one was, “Read Walden!!!”
There are many books one might read to help you improve your writing, I told her. But it was clear to me that she was looking for more than advice on the crafting of good sentences and paragraphs.
She understood as well as any student I’ve had that higher education is not simply about the development of skills in the service of preparation for the job market. Or shouldn’t be, at least. It’s about gaining a deeper understanding of the self—and the beginnings, at least, of an inner vision so clear and powerful that it will not be clouded or diminished by distractions or the judgments of others.
Her dream, she’d already told me, was to “own a taco shack in Key West.”
I knew right away that she didn’t mean that literally. The image of running a taco shack on a beach was, for her, an emblem of a way of life: one defined by simplicity, the enjoyment of nature and friends, and ample time for reflection.
She remains well aware that this emblem doesn’t conform with the expectations of society, which defines success not by happiness (the Declaration of Independence notwithstanding) but by adherence to the values of corporate America. In this era of skyrocketing student debt, the pressures to quickly find a lucrative career are greater than ever. I’ve had first-year students—18-year-olds—admit to me that they already feel anxious because they haven’t yet figured out what to do with the rest of their lives.
But let’s be clear: These pressures emanate not just from the looming presence of student loans. They emanate from notions that are instilled in us from an early age: the idea that happiness lies in conformity—drinking the Kool-Aid, as they say, and becoming a middle class team player for the corporate oligarchy.
If I sound to you like some would-be revolutionary, you misunderstand me. I’m not calling for a massive revolt against the system. When I talk with my students about this, I simply try to impress upon them that they should question everything they’ve been taught to believe. If, in the end, they re-embrace those beliefs, so be it. But we still live in a “comparatively free country,” to borrow another phrase from Thoreau, and they needn’t automatically buy into someone else’s vision for their lives.
I’ve been mining the gems of Walden for more than 30 years, but lately—because of heightened awareness of the pressures students are facing—I’ve come to embrace it as the most important book I can teach.
The book is widely misunderstood. It is only partially about living in harmony with nature. During the two years he lived in his hand-built cabin on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, Thoreau was conducting an experiment of a more fundamental kind—a stripping away of luxuries and distractions so as to see more clearly what makes life truly meaningful.
He was motivated by what he had seen as he emerged into adulthood: the men and women around him leading “lives of quiet desperation”—people who were “so preoccupied with the factitious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that its finer fruits [could not] be plucked by them.”
“Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises?” he wondered. His observations and reflections suggested to him that most people think they have no other choice.
That is my observation as well. I know people who have labored away for 40 years at jobs they despise or find barely tolerable—or at best, somewhat interesting but not deeply meaningful—so that they may retire in comfort.
The plan doesn’t always work out so well. I once knew a man in New York City who had worked hard since he was teenager with the simple goal of making a lot of money that would allow him to enjoy his retirement. Two days after he retired, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
And yet, most people labor on, feeling that they must “keep pace with [their] companions,” as Thoreau puts it. But why, he asks, should a person not “step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away”?
The consequences of not heeding the music of our own souls are considerable. I know many people, in fact, who gave up before they began and never even found their passions. Others found a passion but left it by the roadside early in their life journeys. Too impractical, they were told. And so they believed it.
As I reflect on these people I’ve known, I am continually astonished by how prophetic Thoreau was. His book seems more relevant today than it did when it was written. The myriad distractions that were already abundant in his day have increased a thousandfold in our over-stimulating culture, giving us, as Thoreau puts it, “the Saint Vitus’ dance”to the point that we “cannot possibly keep our heads still.” Saint Vitus’ dance is a disorder leading to uncontrollable jerking movements. But it seems to me that it’s also a good metaphor for ADD, which has become an epidemic in our times, especially in a generation of people whose childhoods were defined by cramming for the SOLs, then rushing here and there from soccer practice to violin lessons to Scout meetings, all the while hoping to find a little time to play brain-rattling video games or IM their friends on AOL.
But all of this new-generation stuff is merely an acceleration of a frenzy that began in the post-War era, was briefly challenged by the counterculture of the 1960s, and then resumed with a vengeance by hippies-turned-yuppies. My generation.
And why wouldn’t most of us have caved? Countercultural ideas stood no chance against the early influence of television, which hammered into our unconscious minds the singular message that we needed to march in lockstep. Don’t fall behind! But yes, by all means, be distracted along the march—look at all these things you can have if you play the game! Just don’t get any ideas that there might be another way to live. Yes, distractions of this sort are useful to those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
But Thoreau reminds us that we needn’t be so distracted if we live by one principle: “Simplicity! Simplicity! Simplicity! Let your affairs be two or three and not a hundred or a thousand.”
One problem some people have with Thoreau is his tendency to generalize. I know some people—my former karate instructor, for example, and a guy who runs a horse farm in Bedford County—who live Thoreauvian lives—lives of focused passion and simplicity. To my mind their examples only make Thoreau’s observations more resonant because they serve as proof that he wasn’t simply building castles in the air.
For most people, the pressures to settle are enormous. And the messages become confusing. We’re taught from early age that we must learn to focus—but not by the natural means of stillness and reflection that Thoreau is talking about; rather, we’re drugged so that we may focus on the “right” things as society defines them. Your child is having trouble focusing on the Standards of Learning, her teacher tells you. (Another way of saying, we’re having trouble standardizing her mind.) Put her on Ritalin. You’re feeling anxious about work? Take Xanax. No longer feeling motivated to continue the rat race? You must be depressed. Take Prozac.
Ask your doctor if they’re right for you. Surely, he’ll say yes.
I’ll be the first to admit that I face these pressures all the time. I need to make more money, I tell myself. The bills are piling up. Ack! Now I need a drink. I need distractions of my own. I’m thankful that I have a clear sense of my own vocation—my calling—and the opportunity to earn a modest living at it. But I still have a hard time finding that stillness and simplicity that Thoreau advocates.
It’s a result, I suppose, of more than half a lifetime of cultural conditioning. Which is why I try to reach my students when they’re young. Yes, it will be hard for them to stay their own course and find their bliss. But they can begin to take on the challenge simply by thinking for themselves about what they really need and then what they really want. Or as Thoreau puts it, by tending to the “finest qualities” of their individual natures, like the blooms on fruits which can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. We do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly,” he observes. But tomorrow, he reminds us, there will come another dawn. And with it, an opportunity to begin anew.
Age and its Discontents (August 15, 2013)
By Tom Robotham
Age is not better…qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. – Henry David Thoreau.
In my last three essays in this space, I’ve written about race, religion and sex. The topics might appear to be unrelated, but to my mind they’re connected in one very important way: the manner in which we think and talk about all three subjects illustrates our society’s preoccupation with labels and neatly defined categories—black and white, believer and non-believer, gay and straight.
We think and talk about age in the same way. Indeed, for every phase of life—for every age group—there are associated societal expectations. In our late teens and early 20s we’re expected to “find” ourselves; when we hit our late 20s or early 30s, we’re expected to “settle down,” buy a house and start a family; the 40s and 50s are decades for career growth; the 60s, time to look forward to retirement, which, as near as I can tell, means playing a lot of golf, going on cruises or moving to a “seniors”-only community in Florida, where dinnertime is at 5 o’clock and bedtime at 9.
Eek!!! I get nauseous just thinking about it. Especially since I just turned 57.
Fifty-seven! Merely to utter that age out loud feels utterly surreal. The truth is, physically and mentally I feel no different than I did in my early 30s.
But that puts me in a strange position. For one thing, ageism is nearly as strong in our society as racism or sexism. A lot of older people I know tend to blame younger people for this, and that’s understandable. We have always been a culture obsessed with youth. Even Henry David Thoreau, one of the wisest of American writers, argued that he had “yet to hear the first syllable of valuable advice from [his] seniors.” In the 1960s, this attitude came to the cultural forefront with the oft-repeated slogan, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” Much more recently, right here in this town, a leading member of the so-called young “creative class” argued that it was time for the “old” generation to get out of the way and make room for the new.
But it is not their fault, for many members of my generation completely buy into this idea. Indeed, not long ago a friend who is a mere four years older than I said, “Our time has passed. It’s time to let the younger generation take the lead.” Another friend about the same age expressed a similar sentiment when I told him I was thinking about getting another graduate degree. “Aren’t you a little old for that?” he remarked.
Thanks to widespread acceptance of this attitude among young and old alike, it has become thoroughly institutionalized. My friend who questioned the wisdom of getting another degree at my age may have been right, in a sense. In corporate America and academia alike, ageism abounds. My friend Rick, who earned an MFA in Creative Writing when he was in his late 50s, told me recently that he quickly gave up on the search for a job in academia after a series of interviews. “As soon as they saw me, I could tell from their expressions that I was no longer in the running,” he said.
We have, of course, a handful of cultural expressions that we use to counter this attitude: “Age is only a state of mind,” we say; or, “You’re as young as you feel.” But few people, it seems to me, really believe these axioms.
The upshot of all this, as I told a 23-year-old friend the other night, is that I don’t feel like I belong in any age group. Most of my friends are between 20 and 30 years younger than I. Two of my best buddies are 27 and 30, respectively, and the women I’ve dated over the last five years have tended to be considerably younger as well. This latter fact has raised some eyebrows, associated as it is with the cliché of middle-aged men seeking the company of younger women. But for me it’s about seeking the company of people to whom I most comfortably and naturally relate.
“The truth is,” I told my 23-year-old friend, “most people my age bore the shit out me.”
She understood. “They do tend to be rigid,” she said.
You can see this rigidity in attitudes toward music. While I know a small handful of people my age who stay abreast of musical culture and still regularly go to clubs and concerts showcasing contemporary artists, most people in my age cohort, it seems to me, live in a bubble of nostalgia for music of the 1960s and ‘70s. In their minds, anything produced after about 1980 or 1985, is pure garbage. And forget about rap! “That’s not music!!! It’s noise!!!” I’ve heard more than a few 50-somethings grumble, unaware, apparently, that they sound exactly like our mothers and fathers did when they talked about the Rolling Stones.
But this rigid resistance to today’s music is a mere reflection of a much more fundamental attitude. I recall one moment at a suburban cocktail party when I was still in my early 40s and I raised some philosophical question. I don’t recall the particulars; it might have been about the nature of art or the meaning of life, or whatever. It doesn’t matter.
“Geez,” he said, “That’s the stuff we used to talk about in college. Haven’t you outgrown that yet?”
Realizing that I was barking up the wrong tree, we went back to talking for a while about real estate values, home additions and whose kids had gotten into the “gifted” program until I was sorely tempted to ask the hostess if she had a gun that I might use to blow my brains out.
I guess what I’m saying is that I tend to prefer the company of young people who haven’t yet “settled down” because I like their openness, their passion, their idealism and their searching souls. Indeed, I feel as if time has gone in reverse. It is why I relate so strongly, as I said in my essay about Bob Dylan in last month’s issue, to the refrain from “My Back Pages”: “I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.”
And yet, I’m not in total denial. I realize that I’m hurtling headlong toward the solid wall of biological reality. I also realize that while my closest young friends are conscious of our age difference, my larger circle of younger social acquaintances probably see me as “that older guy who can still hang.” I suppose at times that I’m more conscious of my age than I’d like to admit, for the very reasons I’ve cited here: Society at large won’t let me forget it.
But this isn’t just about social interactions and a preference for younger peer groups, if you’ll allow me that oxymoron. It’s about a society that supposedly celebrates “individualism” but in reality expects conformity to a whole set of social norms.
I suppose that in bigger cities like New York, this attitude isn’t quite as pervasive—but I’m not sure. Even there I know people in their 50s who say they feel “old.” I suppose, in part, that’s a function of physical ailments, which as of this writing I’ve not suffered, in spite of my regular enjoyment of copious amounts of beer and parties or jam sessions that go on until 3 or 4 a.m.
I’m sure there will come a time when I’ll gradually alter my lifestyle for physical reasons. But one thing that’s not in my future is “retirement.” The very word is anathema to me. It suggests not only an abandonment of one’s life work, but a retirement from our culture and a new kind of “settling down” with one’s age cohort.
I have no desire for any of that, though I’m aware that some readers may mutter upon reading this, “Methinks thou dost protest too much.” Admittedly, as I said, the prospect of aging scares me because I feel pressured to accept these norms.
But for now, I’ll continue to try to enjoy the company people as individuals, regardless of age. Social communion is, for me, fundamentally about shared sensibilities. For that reason, however, I will likely continue associating with people who are much younger. Perhaps the ultimate reason is that I agree in some sense with Thoreau. In my associations with younger people, I see little relationship between age and wisdom, or even age and maturity. Some of my 20-something friends have more wisdom about the meaning and conduct of life than many people I know in their 50s and 60s. My acquaintances in the latter age group generally find that hard to believe, but I suspect that’s because they’re operating on cultural assumptions, reinforced by the mass media, which loves to trade in stereotypes. They see tattoos, body piercings and unconventional hairstyles, for example, and they assume that these works of body art signify immaturity and irresponsibility.
It is a prejudice as egregious as any because it has no foundation in truth. But as Thoreau also said in Walden, “It is never too late to give up our prejudices.”
Sex and the Single Soul (July 2013)
By Tom Robotham
Here we are at the edge of the world, the very edge of Western civilization, and all of us are so desperate to feel something—anything—that we keep falling into each other and fucking our way towards the end of days. ~ closing voiceover, Showtime series, Californication, season one, episode 6.
Recently during a late-night conversation, a friend recalled something her father used to say: “There are three things you should never talk about in polite company: politics, religion and sex.”
“Wow,” I responded. “The three most interesting subjects of all.”
In the course of the evening, we covered all of that and more. But after she left I started thinking about how odd—and all too common—her father’s notion was. First of all, if we don’t talk about politics, we’re screwed. Civil yet vigorous dialogue about current affairs, after all, should be at the heart of any democratic society. The same goes for conversation about religion, which by and large just divides people today.
But what about sex? Why talk about that? Why not just enjoy it?
That would be nice, I guess. Trouble is, American culture has always been weirdly ambivalent about it. On the one hand we appear to be obsessed with it. Sexual imagery and narratives are everywhere, from mainstream movies and television shows to magazines and advertising for both men and women. On the other hand, our Puritanical roots remain firm. Most parents, for example, still blush at the thought of talking about it with their teenagers, and this mentality, to my mind, reflects a broader assumption that there is something “dirty” about sex.
And so we end up whispering and awkwardly laughing about it in our various subcultures: men talk about it with other men, but often in jokey asides; it’s a common subject among women, too, especially during “ladies night out.” It’s even a subject in academia, where scholars of cultural studies write papers with titles like, “Sexual Politics and Power in a Post-Feminist Age,” or something comparably esoteric. And feminists themselves talk about it, but generally in terms of the problem of “objectifying” women.
Then there are society’s self-appointed moral police, like Ken Cuccinelli, who not long ago decided that upholding Virginia’s anti-sodomy law was one of the most pressing priorities for the Commonwealth.
The upshot of all this is that one of the most pleasurable and potentially spiritual aspects of human nature has become compartmentalized rather than something that’s fully and comfortably integrated into our lives. In many respects, in other words, our culture remains stuck in adolescence as far as sex is concerned. We hide sex between the mattresses, as it were, like some dog-eared copy of Playboy.
And yet there is wisdom to be found. One of the best books on the subject, to my mind, is The Soul of Sex: Cultivating Life as an Act of Love, by Thomas Moore.
“We have a habit of talking about sex as merely physical,” he writes, “and yet nothing has more soul. Sex takes us into a world of intense passions, sensual touch, exciting fantasies, many levels of meaning, and subtle emotions. It makes the imagination come alive with fantasy, reverie, and memory. Even if the sex is loveless, empty, or manipulative, still it has strong repercussions in the soul….”
Our obsession with sex, he observes elsewhere in the book, is like our obsession with junk food. We eat as much as we can because there is nothing there. “We need more sex, not less,” he adds. “But we need sex with soul.”
The notion of sex in contemporary culture as a kind of junk food—or recreational drug—is also poignantly explored in the Showtime series Californication, starring David Duchovny as troubled writer Hank Moody.
Hank is in love with a woman named Karen, and they have a daughter together. But at the outset of the series, they are already living apart. In an effort to fill the void, Hank sleeps with a lot of gorgeous women, most of whom mean nothing to him. He is “drowning,” as he says at one point, “in a sea of pointless pussy.”
The show plays games with the male psyche—the female psyche, too, I suppose—by simultaneously making us want the abundance of pleasures that Hank enjoys without effort, even as we realize that he is running away from his own soul and the souls of others.
Many of the women he sleeps with seem just fine with this kind of thing, and that strikes me as a prophetic reflection of our times. Much has been written about today’s “hookup” culture, but it’s worth thinking about a little more deeply. One friend of mine recently told me he’d met a woman and had slept with her a number of times but wasn’t sure they were going to actually start “dating.”
When, I wondered, did this reversal of romance occur? For generations, people dated, then slept together after they’d gotten to know each other. The 1960s counterculture changed that to some degree, and when I was in college and my 20s, casual sex was not uncommon for me and my friends. But in spite of the ‘60s celebration of “free love,” the traditional process survived to a large extent.
Today, sexual activity—among many single people, at any rate—seems more detached from the soul than ever. That’s understandable, given the power of sexual desire. I sometimes wonder whether monogamy is even healthy—whether, in other words, we might be polyamorous by nature and monogamous only by the pressure to conform to Puritanical mores.
But I agree with Moore that all sexual encounters have repercussions for the soul, whether we’re willing to admit it or not. The additional trouble with the hookup culture is that sex involves two souls that may be yearning for different things. Rarely, it seems to me, are people good enough at communicating—or in touch with their own needs—that they are truly on the same page.
The river of hookups in our society, in other words, leaves spiritual and emotional carnage in its wake. Which only adds more fuel to the urge to just hook up. Thanks to “social” networking, suburban isolation and a whole raft of other cultural influences, we’ve lost much of our ability to truly connect with one another. And then when we try, we often get hurt. A fair number of people I know have, as a result, closed off their hearts to real intimacy. Like drivers on the freeway—to borrow an analogy from Bret Easton Ellis—they’re afraid to merge, for fear of being crushed. But sometimes fear causes more accidents than boldness.
The irony is that hooking up for a night or three of pleasure can feel and look like boldness and fullness of living. But it is a charade.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not arguing here for monogamy. Nor am I arguing against sex without ultra-serious intent of commitment. I agree, once again, with Moore, who writes in defense of the Epicurean life, which, he argues, “is rooted in moderate attention to the deepening of pleasure and to the honoring of desire. This kind of life takes more courage, I believe, than a life of repression.”
Again, the hookup culture may seem to coincide with this philosophy. But neither Moore nor I are contemplating sexual abandon with reckless disregard for the feelings of others.
In the end it’s about balance; it’s also about rising up above our obsession with sex on the one hand and our embarrassment with it on the other; finally, it’s about rising above fear of being open and honest.
Easier said than done, to be sure. A lot of these meditations I’ve shared with you come not just from thinking and reading, but from several years of learning what it is like to be single again. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve hurt others, and I’ve been hurt.
If only we could find as a society some middle ground, some open and honest celebration of human sexuality in all of its fullness, not as a drug that allows us to feel some semblance of intimacy or temporary numbing of pain but of a full expression of the soul and caring for the souls of others. It’s certainly not just about “looking out for number one,” as the title of a despicable 1980s self-help book suggested, and as today’s culture seems to have re-embraced. It’s about openness and tenderness and celebration of the intermingling of souls.
“The beauty of the Epicurean life,” writes Moore at the end of his book, “is that there is nothing to figure out, nothing to understand, nothing to subject to painful analysis. The work, rather, is one of educating the senses, giving them their due abundance, finding the soul in them, and loving with such consistency as to appear foolish and imprudent. The ultimate Epicurean is the holy fool, whose wisdom is judged by a standard made in heaven.”
Slouching Towards Bethlehem (June 2013)
By Tom Robotham
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold. ~ W.B. Yeats
A couple of years ago, I wrote something called “A Letter from My Soul.” I’ve never published it, though I have shared it with a few close friends. I wrote it simply because I was struggling through a difficult phase of my life and wanted to understand why.
The gist of it was a recognition that I was running away from myself—or, to put it another way, my ego, or smaller self, if you will, was running away from my Soul, or higher Self. A religious person might say that I was running away from God—and I find it useful to think about it in those terms. While I’m not a believer in any conventional sense, I continually find metaphorical wisdom in the Bible.
I started thinking about that again recently after a conversation with a friend about religion. She grew up in a very conservative Christian family and experienced religion as an oppressive guilt trip. To her credit, she’s come to believe that religion can be seen from other perspectives. But I have many friends who grew up in similar circumstances, and most of them see religion as worthless bunk because they were taught that it is to be taken literally and with the threat of hellfire. They can’t imagine seeing it any other way.
I think that’s a shame, especially in this divisive age of extremes. Why can’t we find more middle ground—common ground? If we could do so on the subject of religion, it seems to me, we could do so on any number of other issues that divide us.
Indeed, I think there’s great value and relevance in the stories of the Bible, even for people who believe in nothing more than the material world.
For starters, consider a religious concept that makes many people recoil: the concept of sin.
Most people I know think the concept is bullshit to the core—and why not? The word has been used over the ages to judge people for drinking, smoking, enjoying sex out of wedlock—or enjoying sex at all.
Does that mean that the very concept of sin is worthless unless you believe in a conventional (and vindictive) god? Or a redeeming Son of God? I don’t think so. The great Catholic writer Thomas Merton helped me see it from a different perspective with his small book Life and Holiness. “Sin,” he writes, “…is a refusal to be what we are….To be what we were created to be.”
I realize that this will still strike some atheists and agnostics as problematic, since Merton himself was a devout Christian, and his definition of sin implies the existence of a “creator.”
But another book—written largely from a secular perspective—helps shed more light on Merton’s concept. The book is The Soul’s Code, by James Hillman.
Just as an acorn has encoded within its DNA the specific oak tree that it is destined to become, Hillman suggests, so each of us has a destiny based on our fundamental makeup. Under optimal conditions, the oak tree and the person alike will flourish in accordance with that destiny. It falls upon us simply be true to that destiny.
The trouble is, many of us spend much of our lives running away from it—usually out of fear. And this is where the Bible comes in. It is filled with stories of people running away from their destinies.
The most famous of these stories, perhaps, is the tale of Jonah, who literally tries to “flee from the presence of the Lord” to escape his own destiny. Moses tries as well, figuratively speaking, when God instructs him to tell the Pharaoh to free the people of Israel. In essence, Moses replies, “Who me? What are you crazy?” (I always hear that, by the way, in a strong New York Jewish accent. Too many Mel Brooks movies, I guess. But I digress.)
For me, though, the most touching of these stories is in Luke 22, where even Jesus tries to resist his destiny.
“Father, if you are willing,” he says, “take this cup from me….And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.” He eventually finds the strength to utter the words, “thy will be done.” And according to the story, he does so with the help of an angel.
More nonsense, my atheist and agnostic friends would argue. But again, this has a purely secular application to my mind. I can’t help thinking of Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent phrase, “the better angels of our nature”—just another way of referring to our higher selves. Our true selves.
To do that—to live that way—we must have faith.
Ah, but there’s another problematic word—all the more so because it has become synonymous with the conventionally religious. The relatively recent term “faith-based organizations” has reinforced this notion.
But must faith be the exclusive purview of the religious? Can we not find in all the Biblical stories about great leaps of faith applications to secular thinking? How about faith in ourselves, faith in other people and faith in the laws of nature?
Indeed, with regard to the last of these, I’m reminded of yet another favorite story in the Bible: the parable of the seeds. When a sower scatters seeds, Jesus tells his disciples, most of the seeds will quickly die. Some will be eaten by birds, some will be scorched by the sun, some choked by thorns. But some will fall on rich soil and flourish.
And so it is with what we have to offer the world. As children we scatter our seeds, as it were, in utter faith. But as we grow into adulthood, it’s easy to lose that faith as our “seeds” are scorched and choked in this sometimes terribly cruel or indifferent world. Scarred by experience, we fall into the fear trap. We run like Jonah, or stutter like Moses or shed tears like Jesus, praying, “please take this cup from me.”
I’m using the first-person plural here because in my observations, many people do this sort of thing. But perhaps that’s presumptuous. Really, when push comes to shove, I’m speaking only for myself. I’ve come to realize that I have done this sort of thing—run from my destiny; tried to avoid full realization of my potential; tried to resist becoming the man I was meant to be—because it’s hard and sometimes terrifying. If you can relate to this, then perhaps we can chat about it sometime.
All I’m saying, for now, is that I think it’s a shame that the great stories of the Bible, and related fundamental concepts like sin and faith, have been largely shunned by secular society as religious fundamentalists have co-opted them. It’s a shame because there is so much wisdom in them, if only we are willing to think about them in imaginative ways—think about them as allegories of the human condition.
Lord knows, we can use all the wisdom we can get right about now, both as a society and as individuals. Indeed, I know so many people who are struggling at this very moment with their own psychic turbulences. Perhaps it has always been so. And yet I feel that I see more of it these days, as our culture continues its process of fragmentation, and as the brutalities of a world constantly at war (literally and figuratively) make us ever more fearful of connecting with one another and with our own true selves.
I pray—and use that word without apology, take it as you will—that we can somehow begin again to mend this brokenness. To love ourselves more—and one another—regardless of our varying beliefs.
Cries and Whispers (May 2013)
By Tom Robotham
How big a problem is America’s racial divide? Not as big as it once was, obviously. In my lifetime, the United States has evolved from a nation that relegated black people to the back of the bus, to a country led a black president.
But this progress poses a problem that is in some ways more insidious.
Nothing in recent memory illustrates this more clearly than the eruptions of violence during College Beach Weekend at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront late last month, and the discussions that took place afterward. On the one hand, we had the mainstream media coverage, which scarcely mentioned race at all. But in many backyards, barrooms and coffee shops across Hampton Roads—and all over the Internet—race was front and center in the conversation.
Some of the Internet discussions—which undoubtedly echoed countless private conversations—were overtly racist. Indeed, when I did a Google search for news of the riots, one of the first links to pop up was for a website called Chimpmania.com—a site wholly devoted, according to its managers—to “nigger news and behavior.” Near the top of the site was the headline, “Nigger Utes Riot in Virginia Beach.” (The use of the word, “utes” was an allusion to Joe Pesci’s pronunciation of the word, “youths” in My Cousin Vinny.)
One reader commented: “I used to live there 20 years ago. It wasn’t that bad then, at the Oceanfront. But niggers were all over the place in Ocean View….Lots of niggers in the Tidewater Area. And we had rough neighborhoods, but you didn’t see too many on the beach. Why would niggers want to go to the beach, anyway? They can’t swim; especially in a rough ocean where big waves can knock them on their fat asses. They don’t need to sunbathe. They’re black enough as it is. I have not seen any niggers that like to play volleyball or build sand castles. They have no real interest in going to the beach. Except to drink, muh dik, and rob humans.”
Before I continue, let me say this: A lot of people will take issue with the fact that I’m even quoting something so offensive. My answer to that charge is that this sort of attitude is far more widespread than most people in “polite” society like to believe. I encounter it all the time—though not nearly as often as black people do, I’m sure. One student this semester—an 18-year-old black woman—told me that while she was walking along Hampton Boulevard toward campus recently, a group of young white men drove by in a car and yelled, “Why don’t you go back to Africa, nigger?!”
And therein lies the big problem with mainstream society today. We delude into thinking that if we ignore such racism it will just go away. That’s like having a roach infestation in your kitchen and simply turning off the lights in hopes that the problem will disappear. The only way to deal with this kind of hatred and ignorance is to bring it out in the open.
That said, I suspect that people who harbor this kind of racism in their shriveled hearts and minds represent a small minority in this country. A force to be reckoned with—but a fringe force, nevertheless.
And yet, if you pay attention to what people are saying about the riots, you’ll discover simmering racial animosities that are far more widespread. The top headline on the website libertynews.com read, “Media Covering Up Minority Riots…in Virginia Beach?”
“The Pilot Online, WAVY, local government and those reporting on the chaos,” the article stated, “refuse to point to the obvious critical fact that minorities were indeed responsible for the violent riots and shootings over the weekend. I don’t bring this up to suggest anything other than the fact that we need to get over a fear of reporting such information when it involves minorities….Political correctness has no place when it comes to crowd-powered violent riots, shootings and robberies such as this.”
I heard lots of similar comments from people at a local pub on the Monday evening following the riots. A pub, by the way, that tends to attract fairly open-minded people.
Curious to see how widespread this sentiment was, I posed the question on Facebook: “The local news media are carefully avoiding the subject of race in reports on the VA Beach riots,” I wrote. “Meanwhile, the Internet is abuzz with complaints about this—many of them overtly racist. Isn’t there some middle ground somewhere? Seems to me this represents our ongoing failure as a society to deal with racial tension. Anyone care to weigh in? How should the media report things like this?”
The sixty-plus comments I got reflected a cross-section of opinion.
“It seems like a great opportunity to open public dialogue on the subject,” wrote one Facebook friend. “The media have the power to lead a forum [and] hopefully, discover some truths on how to move forward together.”
Another friend was less optimistic. “Race and any or no discussion thereof,” he wrote, “is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t topic.”
Yet another person posted this: “I’ve been raising the very same issue over the last few days….And yet nobody wants to either agree out loud or pick a fight over it. One friend refers to the ‘racism … just under the layer of VB affluent skin.’ Only that racism isn’t so ‘under the layer’ any more. When I see and hear affluent young professionals…using racially offensive language and posting pictures of Somalian gangsters brandishing Uzis over headlines saying ‘Welcome to Atlantic Avenue!’ I see disintegrating social capital and a dismal future.”
Still another person wondered if “‘soft-core’” racism isn’t harder to deal with than out and out ‘hard-core’ racism. At least with the hard-core variety one knows where he stands.”
“My point exactly,” I responded.
There were other people, of course, who argued that race had nothing to do with this—that it was about young people getting drunk; about the inevitably of violence in a crowd that large; about class, not race.
It’s hard to answer any of these questions definitively because we don’t know much about the instigators.
“I was there, and I’m not really sure,” an African-American student of mine told me. “I heard it was a gang, or gangs,” she added. “I was really scared.”
Given the nature of gang culture, it seems likely that one or more gangs showed up with the intention of starting trouble and did so easily amidst thousands of drunk people. It’s also important to emphasize to that, yes, this was caused by “minorities”—in more than one sense of the word. A minority of the crowd.
Nevertheless, various videos I watched seemed to reflect racial tension even in parts of the crowd that weren’t overly violent. One video was especially telling: It showed two police officers attempting to handcuff two young black women who were resisting arrest, while a crowd of bystanders—almost all black—taunted the cops with accusations of “police brutality.”
The problem with this charge was, the cops remained remarkably and admirably calm during that particular incident. Whether there were other incidents of actual police brutality that weekend, I do not know. That—among many other facets of this story—is something the local media need to investigate.
At the same time we need to consider this: Does it not cheapen the phrase “police brutality” if people hurl it every time a white cop tries to arrest a black suspect? I think so. Police brutality remains a real problem in some quarters and cops who engage in it must be held accountable. But police also need to be free to arrest people who are posing a threat to public safety without fear of being harassed by bystanders.
In any event, we need to come to terms with the bigger picture here: There remains in this country widespread racial animosity in segments of the black community as well as the white community. And in some cases, as I believe the aforementioned video demonstrates, the animosity is misdirected; it is based on prejudice and knee-jerk reactions.
It is understandable, to be sure. When the early colonists imported the first African slaves, and when our Founding Fathers utterly failed to address the problem of slavery in the original Constitution, the seeds of American racism took root. Nor were they uprooted by the Civil War or even the Civil Rights Movement. America’s original sin haunts us to this day.
It is incumbent upon every American recognize this. Especially parents and teachers, our first lines of defense against the insidious disease of mindless prejudice. White people need to realize that racism—hardcore and soft—remains a pervasive problem in our society, and stop responding with the simple-minded reaction, “Just get over it.” At the same time, we need to recognize and acknowledge that the problem is also fueled by anti-white prejudice in some segments of the black community. While that is understandable, in a historical context, it is still wrong. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
In short, there is no question in my mind that racial tension played a big role here. How could it not, in a region and a society as a whole that remains deeply divided along racial lines? To pretend otherwise is the utmost expression of psychological and sociological denial.
There are no easy solutions here, but for starters, we desperately need more open and honest interracial dialogue in this country. Right now we just whisper about it. Have you ever noticed how white people, for example, will be telling a story and then suddenly descend into a whisper when they utter the word “black”—even when there aren’t any black people nearby? We’ve grown terrified of even uttering certain words, as if acknowledgement of race is somehow unacceptable.
And God forbid, white people and black people should talk openly to one another about their experiences and perceptions, with an aim toward actually understanding each other. It happens here and there, but rarely. Teachers of mixed-race classes tend to be terrified of the subject. The news media are even worse. They tiptoe around the subject. Not long ago, a local television program with a black host and an all-black panel took on the subject of the word “nigger.” And yet, the host wouldn’t allow the guests to utter the word. She opted instead for the euphemism, “the N-word.” Only one guest protested—“But we’re talking about the word nigger,” he said. “We need to be able to say it.” (A black friend of mine agrees with me wholeheartedly. “I hate when I hear the expression ‘the N-word,’” he’s told me on several occasions. “What are we on Romper Room?”)
It’s especially hard in this region, which consists of a core city that remains strikingly segregated, and a larger suburban community—Virginia Beach—that was founded on white flight. Beach officials have their heads in the sand of that historical fact. But it is a fact. It’s also a fact that history shapes the present.
As one of my Facebook friends pointed out, the mainstream media—especially—need to take a leadership role on this. Right now, they’re shamefully abdicating their responsibility. But then, so is society as a whole, black and white.
Community of Spirit
By Tom Robotham
I like certain months of the year better than others. I’ve always loved June, both because it is the month of my birth, and therefore brings a sense of renewal, and because it marks the end of the school year and promises a vast expanse of gloriously warm, sun-drenched leisure—an opportunity to play lots of tennis outdoors, ride horses through woodlands that are bursting with life and sit or play for hours on the beach in Ocracoke. I love, September, too, when school begins again and I enter the classroom with renewed enthusiasm for lighting students’ minds on fire.
But of all the 12 months of the year, April may be my favorite: April, when light begins to drive away oppressive darkness, and warmth and fragrance begin to fill the air; when the baseball season begins, stirring memories of childhood; when, locally, the Virginia Arts Festival brings a plethora of music and dance to delight the mind and soul.
April, in short, is a month that has the potential to awaken our poetic sensibilities—and it is, in fact, National Poetry Month.
I used to be ambivalent about these kinds of designations, as if those things we are supposed to celebrate—poetry, black history, or what have you—have no particular importance the other 11 months of the year. But I’ve had a change of heart, realizing that any excuse to shine a spotlight on important facets of our culture is welcome.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of poetry, not only because April is its designated month but because I’ve been trying as best I can to teach about 70 students (most of whom are not English majors) how to read and appreciate poems.
It’s always a formidable challenge because my students tend to be puzzled by poetry. It rarely yields its meanings immediately, after all, the way clear prose does, and they quickly grow impatient.
What to make of lines like these, for instance, from one of my favorite poems, “Sunday Morning,” by Wallace Stevens: “Complacencies of the peignoir, and late / Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair, / And the green freedom of a cockatoo / Upon a rug mingle to dissipate / The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.”
Eventually I try to get them to consider what the “ancient sacrifice” might be, using the title of the poem to put the line in context. Before that, I ask them to engage their senses—to smell and taste the coffee and oranges, as they bask in the sunlight streaming through the window and take comfort in the enclosure of their favorite chair. But even before all that, I invite them to just savor the words and phrases, regardless of meaning. As I try to get this point across, I’m fond of quoting Frank McCourt, who writes at the beginning of Angela’s Ashes that when he was a young boy he used to love to read Shakespeare aloud; though he didn’t understand it, he recalls, simply uttering the words was like “having jewels in his mouth.”
Another of my favorite poems, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” by Amy Clampitt, exemplifies this quality beautifully. It begins: “Ground fog blurring the dogwood, / black haw, sweetgum, sassafras / and hickory along the waterways, / the branches overhead so full / of warblers on the move toward destinations…”
Again, aside from the wonderfully vivid imagery that will be familiar to anyone who’s contemplated the beauty of Virginia’s natural landscape, I love this poem because I love simply saying those words together—“black haw, sweetgum, sassafras…”—which through their mere sounds and sensuality seem to share the juices of life of the things they name.
But of course poetry is more than sound and sensation on the tongue. It is a means of expressing the whole range of human experience—our desires and yearnings, our losses and laments, our righteous indignation or our letting go—in all of its mystery and contradiction. In other words, poetry has a power that straightforward prose often lacks.
Consider, for example, my favorite poem by E.E. Cummings, which was used to brilliant effect in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters:
Somewhere I have never travelled, gladly beyond / any experience, your eyes have their silence: / in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me, /or which i cannot touch because they are too near // your slightest look easily will unclose me / though i have closed myself as fingers, /you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens / (touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose // or if your wish be to close me, i and / my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly, / as when the heart of this flower imagines / the snow carefully everywhere descending; // nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals / the power of your intense fragility: whose texture /compels me with the color of its countries, / rendering death and forever with each breathing // (i do not know what it is about you that closes / and opens; only something in me understands / the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses) / nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”
I love poems about every conceivable subject: Wilfred Owens’ piercing reflections on the agonies of World War I; Ted Hughes’ meditations on the natural world; Keats’ ecstatic odes about truth and beauty. But I suppose I’m partial above all, as many people are, to poems about love, since love in all its varieties is the most complex, intense and elusive of human emotions.
My favorite poem by Pablo Neruda, for instance, speaks to both the pain and possible transcendence of loving someone “as the plant that never blooms / but carries in itself the light of hidden flowers; / thanks to your love a certain solid fragrance, / risen from the earth, lives darkly in my body.”
In many of his other poems, Neruda expresses the quality of erotic love better than anyone. “Your whole body holds / a stemmed glass or gentle sweetness destined for me,” he writes in the opening of his poem “The Potter.” “….Your knees, your breast, / your waist, / are missing in me, / like in the hollow / of a thirsting earth / where they relinquished / a form / and together / we are complete like one single river, / like one single grain of sand.”
When all is said and done, however, I always return to the poems of the 13th century Persian poet Rumi. Whether dwelling in sadness or joy, I am comforted by his wise reminder of the infinitude of love in the world, or at least the possibility of love, beyond the ego’s seeming insatiability. And so, I’ll leave you with these lines, which speak not only to the availability of such love but to the call of springtime and the promise of poetry: “Join the community of spirit. / Join it and feel the delight / of walking in the noisy street, / and being the noise. // Drink all your passion, / and be a disgrace. // Close both eyes / to see with the other eye. / Open your hands, / if you want to be held. // Sit down in this circle. // …. Move outside the tangle of fear-thinking. / Live in silence. // Flow down and down in always / widening rings of being.”
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a City
By Tom Robotham
I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms.
~ Wallace Stevens, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.’
This January marked my 22nd year as a resident of Norfolk. During those two decades, a lot has changed in my personal life. I’ve watched my two children grow up; I’ve owned and left two houses; I’ve been through a divorce, and I’ve formed meaningful relationships with dozens of people, many of whom have subsequently moved on to other places.
And yet, in contrast to all that change, it doesn’t seem to me that Norfolk itself has changed very much at all. Oh sure, you can point to a number of specific developments: downtown development; the addition of a light-rail line; the transformation of the ODU campus. But in spite of all this, Norfolk still feels, by and large, like the sleepy town to which I moved in 1991.
Reflecting on this recently, I got to thinking about Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem about the importance of perspective.
Perspective, it seems to me, is everything. It shapes our moods, our experiences, our philosophy of life and our very sense of identity. It all depends on focus. When I contemplate the dissolution of relationships, for example, I try to remind myself that I have the choice to grieve the loss or dwell in gratitude for good times. But ultimately, I’ve concluded, it is unwise to choose one or the other. To fully understand anything, we must see it from multiple perspectives.
And so it is with this city, my adopted home.
I. At times Norfolk seems more than sleepy; it strikes me as downright catatonic. All the talk of art districts or other initiatives to attract the grossly misunderstood “creative class” is not going to change that. Indeed, in spite of the much-celebrated downtown “renaissance,” the energy level on lower Granby Street is barely a notch or two above what it was two decades ago, when it was largely a ghost town. That’s not my perspective alone. Some years ago, at the very height of the so-called “renaissance” of downtown Norfolk, I was a guest on a radio program of a talk show host who was visiting from New York City. It was a Tuesday morning in early spring. At one point on the show, he asked me whether it was a local holiday of some sort. I told him it was not. “Oh,” he said. “I was just curious because earlier I took a walk and saw hardly anyone on the street.” Little has changed in that regard.
II. Little has changed, I believe, because our city’s leaders have never wanted Norfolk to become a bustling city. They want some of the benefits urban vitality—a variety of businesses and better mass transit, for example—but also want it to retain the highly sanitized character of a suburb. And there is, to my mind, an upside to this. It is what attracted to me to Norfolk in the first place: the relaxed atmosphere and the ease of getting around. Norfolk will never become a bustling center of creative vitality, but it remains a great place to raise a family.
III. I don’t mean to suggest that Norfolk is utterly lacking in creative vitality. Only that the creative energy comes in isolated and short-lived seasonal bursts: the Virginia Arts Festival, the Stockley Gardens Art Show and the Sea Level Singer-Songwriter Festival, for example. All of these things are wonderful. There’s no shortage of things to do here. It’s just that the city lacks a kind of connective cultural tissue because of its largely suburban character and mindset.
IV. Perhaps our greatest asset is Old Dominion University. OK, I’m a bit biased in this regard because I teach there. But the value of ODU should not be underestimated. In addition to pursuing its core mission of educating nearly 25,000 students at any given time, it provides a cultural enclave for the community, with its University Village, library and other facilities open to the general public. It also attracts many international students, who bring a cosmopolitan flavor to the city and thus offset the parochial mind set of the old-Norfolk elite.
V. The vast military presence does the same thing, not only because people stationed here have lived all over the world, but because it attracts visiting military personnel from other countries. A case in point: One night at my favorite pub—The Taphouse Grill in Ghent—I struck up a conversation with a group of French Marines who were here on some kind of training exercise. My college French largely failed me, and most of them spoke little English, but we had fun trying to converse, and the experience reminded me that this area does have an international flavor.
VI. That said, the military presence has a twofold downside. First, Norfolk is far too dependent upon the military economically. Second, it secures our national reputation as a “Navy town.” Justifiably or not, this image often overshadows the area’s cultural offerings.
VII. Another characteristic that undermines cultural progress is Norfolk’s lingering racial divide. Norfolk’s leaders like to pretend that there’s racial harmony in this city, but let’s face it: The city remains largely segregated. I had thought that Old Dominion University offset this, but a student of mine told me recently that the legacy of racial segregation remains evident even on campus, particularly in the student center. This is not exclusive to Norfolk, of course. But vestiges of the Old South remain strong here. About seven years ago, for example, a neighbor of mind sold a house in West Ghent to a black couple. Another neighbor got in his face about that, saying, “This is West Ghent. We don’t sell houses to those people.” Thus, the West side of Norfolk remains largely white, while the east side remains a territory that many whites fear. I know some fairly liberal-minded people, in fact, who are afraid to visit the Attucks Theater for fear of being mugged. Their fears are largely unjustified, but the effect of these attitudes is very evident.
VIII. Racial prejudice—euphemistically known as fear of the “inner city”—is, of course what gave rise historically to the city of Virginia Beach and the fragmentation of our region. And that’s a problem. Let’s face it: Virginia Beach is a “city” in name only. In reality, it is a vast and sprawling suburb that, for better or worse, secures this area’s largely suburban mindset.
IX. Not that Virginia Beach is utterly lacking in sites of interest. There are some nice nightspots at the Oceanfront, and two superb small music venues that come to mind: The Jewish Mother at Hilltop and Havana Nights Jazz Club at Town Center. But I don’t visit these places nearly as often as I would like because if I’m going to go out and have a few drinks I’d rather be closer to home. A serviceable mass-transit system would help, but that is at least another generation away, if indeed it ever emerges at all.
X. It should be clear enough why this is so: Traffic, as I said during a recent roundtable discussion, the transcript of which was published in this magazine, simply isn’t bad enough to heighten demand for better mass transit. And that, of course, has its upside. Having grown up in the greater metropolitan area of New York, where traffic can be murderous, I continue to enjoy the ease with which I can drive across the region.
XI. Over the years, I’ve also enjoyed this area’s opportunities for outdoor recreation, whether in the form of a canoe trip on the Lafayette River, a visit to the beach, or a stroll through Norfolk’s Botanical Gardens.
XII. I also enjoy Norfolk’s proximity to other places of interest: The Outer Banks, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Washington D.C., among them. Moreover, Norfolk’s airport, while limited, is a relatively pleasant place, compared with, say, the oppressive intensity of Newark Airport.
XIII. In short, there are a lot of ways to look at Norfolk and its surroundings, and many of them are quite lovely. But its image problems will continue to hold it back. In addition to the aforementioned reputation as a “Navy” town, it remains too weak to earn respect from the residents as the urban heart of the region. As such, it is just a piece of something called “Hampton Roads,” a region with a ridiculous name and without a clear identity.
The Tragedy Continues
By Tom Robotham
Jesus Christ…saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there…But what a distortion did his doctrine and memory suffer in the same, in the next, and the following ages! ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
In the wake of my last column in this space (“An American Tragedy, January 2013), I had planned on writing something a little more light-hearted: a celebration of the local music scene, perhaps, in recognition of the VEER music awards, or an essay about the pleasures of good beer. But after reading an article in The New York Times last week, I feel compelled to write about the Newtown massacre yet again—and our massive failure to learn any lessons from it.
According to the article, a Lutheran pastor—The Rev. Rob Morris—was reprimanded by the leader of his denomination for participating in an interfaith prayer service in Newtown. It seems that the denomination has a prohibition against interfaith worship because such activities might appear to be an endorsement of “false” religions.
In all fairness to Lutherans with more open minds and hearts, I should point out that this particular pastor is a member of something called the Missouri Synod, a 2.3 million member church that is more rigid than the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that this kind of thinking is limited to a few fringe groups. Indeed, I sometimes get the feeling that our country is overrun by people who call themselves “Christians” but seem to be entirely unfamiliar with the Gospels.
A case in point: Some years ago when I was more involved with the Episcopal Church than I am now, I went to a bishop’s conference. During a break, I was chatting with someone from another church in Norfolk. “It’s our job to bring people into the fold,” he remarked. “After all, Jesus said there were two great commandments: Love God, and go out and preach the gospel.”
Talk about a misquote! In Matthew 22, Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment. “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind,” he replies. “This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The irony is that the most strident evangelicals rarely quote the Gospels. Instead, they go directly to the epistles of Paul, which do, in many respects, put judgment before love. That, in fact, is precisely what the Rev. Matthew C. Harrison, president of the Missouri Synod, did in his open letter asking the Rev. Morris to apologize for participating in the interfaith service. Citing Romans 16:17, he asserted that Morris’ participation “violated the limits set by Scripture regarding joint worship.”
This sort of trivial thinking has been going on in churches for a long time, of course. When Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke to the senior class of Harvard Divinity School in 1838, he argued that “historical Christianity” has largely missed the point. Many churches, he said, have “fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal…[and] the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons. It invites every [person] to expand to the full circle of the universe, and will have no preferences but those of spontaneous love….The manner in which his name is surrounded with expressions, which were once sallies of admiration and love, but are now petrified into official titles, kills all generous sympathy and liking.”
Emerson went on to observe that the “idioms of [Jesus’] language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth. Churches are not built on his principles,” he added, “but on his tropes.”
He might, as I’ve said, added that churches are not even built on Jesus’ tropes, but on Paul’s.
That, at any rate, is my reading of the Bible and historical Christianity. A testament to the genius of our Founding Fathers, of course, is the fact that they wrote into the Bill of Rights a clause embracing the idea that each and every man, woman and child in America has the inalienable right to believe whatever he or she pleases. Though I find the Rev. Harrison’s position to be a gross distortion of the spirit of the Gospels, I would fight for his right to live in accordance with his own beliefs. The Rev. Morris as well. In his own defense, he argued that before the interfaith service he spent hours educating his parishioners about the differences between Lutheran teachings and “the teachings of false religions such as Islam…” [Emphasis added].
Yes, it is their right to believe what they please. And it is their right, in accordance with the First Amendment, to publicly denigrate other religions. But I see no contradiction in defending freedom of speech while still finding some expressions of belief utterly sad.
What is it about human nature that causes so many people to feel so insecure in their beliefs that they must put other people down in order to feel elevated themselves? Why isn’t the Gospels’ message of unconditional love enough?
Surely, in this dark hour of our nation’s history, we need such love more than ever. To paraphrase Emerson, is the figure of Jesus really more important than his message? Does it really matter whether agape—as the ancient Greeks called love of humankind—comes from the teachings of Jesus or the Buddha or Muhammad, or simply from the instincts of the human heart?
Over the course of my life I have drawn on all of the great world religions in an ongoing effort to find some glimmer of wisdom. For me, it is an ongoing struggle that cannot be resolved by some simplistic acceptance of creeds of any kind. And yet, to this day, I continue to find great personal value in the Anglican ritual. All the while, I have known many self-proclaimed atheists who are far more Christ-like than I—far more generous with their time and resources in their efforts to help the less fortunate, for example. And perhaps far more loving.
That is my cross to bear. And with this in mind, it occurs to me that I might greet the Rev. Harrisons of the world with more tolerance and love than I am sometimes capable of doing. Perhaps in time I will be able to do so. But at the moment, such apostles of divisiveness just leave me feeling sad, and despairing for the future of our nation and our world.