I want to get into the daily writing habit and shake off some of the hesitancy to write that’s left 10 (count ’em, 10) posts in the purgatory of drafts. And I’ve decided that I’m never too busy to write. So here it is in the 15 minutes I have before work: some preliminary thoughts on a poem that gripped me, the text of a piece my college choir had commissioned, Arlo Bates’ “A Winter Twilight.” I’ve put the full text at the end for reference (haven’t figured out all these blog formatting things yet–we need LaTeX for blogs!) I won’t do much analysis here. Line-by-line readings have been the death of my poetic understanding before: but here is the substance of a first encounter with the poem, the first-striking things.
First, the sound and rhythm. Notice the shortening syllable count in the first four lines: a relatively wordy introduction (still with surprises, like the gem “beryl”), building up forward momentum with the enjambment. Then two lines that balance each other in their parallel character: both four syllables, with the same pattern of stresses, both reaching toward the spaciousness of a five syllable line with their contraction and elision. And the rhythmic pattern of these lines suggesting airiness and flight. Then a real, solid four syllable line to close the idea, the harder syllables of “dying day” and the increased stresses suggesting some finality, an arrival point.
But then a shift again–a five-line idea, balancing shrouds and lights, a host of qualifiers that can be steps away or towards: the “first fair evening star” is brought forth by that description, as the sense of the dying day recedes by “half.” The first star we see is imbued with human significance: of all the ones out there, it’s special to us, chosen for no particular reason but that we are connected to it by an accident of perception. The “half” here is supreme comfort, not a backing away: this star retains the majesty of the crystalline heavens, but it touches the speaker as a human: and “half human” isn’t a diminishing here, it adds to the greatness of the star. The lines are longer: they need room for amplifying adjectives and the telling of a story, where at first there was only a peek at the scene.
And to close, returning directly to the personal. The act of perception over, and rumination replacing it: calm rhythms, long adjectives, the lessening of pain by its diffusion, rendered with the unstressed syllables now used. When the stresses come back, in the last two lines, it’s to render the hardnesses that are being taken away.
Worth taking a look at the delicate interweaving of rhymes here too, which connect these three different parts of the poem I’ve delineated and circle back and forward in a meaningful way. But that’s more time than I have to spend on this.
I was recently diagnosed with ADHD, after taking time off from school because I was melting down from the stress I put on myself, and how unnecessarily difficult everything related to scholarship seemed to be for me. I think a lot of people struggle with the same issues that I was struggling with (and still am): productivity, procrastination, wanting to feel like we’re doing our best work, focusing and giving deep attention. I need to write about these things to say that, while they affect all of us, they are that much harder for those of us with ADHD. I’m being open about it with most everyone, because I think my case is not unusual, and I think it’s important to know we’re not alone in the things we struggle with.
The thing is, it’s not always so easy to diagnose ADHD. And its effects go way beyond having trouble with homework: it affects basically all areas of functioning one needs as a responsible adult. I need to remind people of that because in this society it’s easy to dismiss signs you see, to put off going to the doctor, to dismiss problems that might arise from ADHD as character flaws, or to think people with ADHD just wanted extra time for their tests. I went for 21 years without a doctor properly recognizing the signs–I “passed” because I have a special talent for ad-libbing and grinding out decent work–but it finally got to me in a big way. Even when there aren’t many external signs–perhaps when you’re performing “average” by your own standards–it can really be affecting you internally (again, this was the case for me).
I’m talking about these things so that I have somewhere to point people to when they ask about how ADHD might affect aspiring academics, or when I just want to explain more about my own ADHD. Mostly I need to say this because there are a lot of things that really ate me up, that I really beat myself up about, that ended up having a partial biological basis out of my control.
For years and years of my schooling, I insisted to parents and teachers that I didn’t feel I was learning deeply, that I didn’t feel I was doing my best work, that I was cut up about having bad work habits but couldn’t seem to change them. Mostly people were confused and a little dismissive, especially before college, because objectively I did so well in formal schooling–very high grades and test scores. Neither they nor I knew better than to think I was being a high-strung perfectionist and worrywart with my standards. But, and I realize this more in hindsight, the internal struggling was real, and I am so glad to have part of an explanation for it. I really started to think I was crazy for feeling the way I did about my work; I just couldn’t figure out why the disparity, and I’m bad at settling for not understanding.
Here are some things I beat myself up for as a student that I now understand to be partially related to ADHD: Procrastinating and “getting away with it” by receiving decent grades (not enough motivation to change my lazy, awful habits, I thought). Very poor test taking skills in college (when the tests started to not be trivially easy; if I had to focus, I failed. And there was a spiral effect: for every test that I did badly on and confused my professor by how badly I did, I felt more pressure to show that it was an anomaly, and the next time went worse.) Not starting assignments til the last minute, even when I enjoyed and engaged the class: and then convincing myself that I wasn’t really learning anything, I was being lazy. Not being dedicated enough to mathematics–because, I thought, who in their right mind aspires to be a professor when she can’t handle basic undergrad classes all the time? Not being cut out to do academic work: because I was bad at organizing my time, because I clearly couldn’t learn on my own, because I didn’t always get through all my reading and go beyond, because I felt I could be distracted by practically anything. These thoughts ate up so much of my time–I can’t begin to describe how much.
So here it is: we all struggle with these things as aspiring scholars and teachers. It’s normal, and we’ve got to support each other through all that. But sometimes it goes beyond what’s normal anxiety or troubles, and that’s when it’s time to enlist all the help you can find and figure out what’s going on. Please, please don’t assume you’re a bad person, or you’re just not cut out for what you want to do. Give yourself a chance first–the best chance–by finding all your options for knowing yourself and how your mind works, how to manage yourself, with medical intervention or talking it out or otherwise. It’s so worth it–and it can catch up with you if you neglect your mental health.
These reading posts have nothing to do with math–just my compulsion to write about and record things I’ve read. I finally got around to East of Eden in September; it was my uncle’s birthday gift to me in 8th grade. It was so great I feel I should’ve read it earlier, but then, I don’t think I would’ve appreciated much of it back then, before I paid very much attention to the ways authors use words to make images, and before I was interested in how memory is represented in fiction.
One of the most striking things here is how a simple story (the retelling of the Fall) is infused with every human emotion, and a panoply of characters. And yet none of the characters are quite real: They fit into archetypes and grotesques (Anderson’s kind), they have lives that we aren’t sure extend beyond the parts that the narrator recollects. And we’re not sure how the narrator, John Steinbeck, is getting all his information, or what is real and what is created, like Sam Hamilton’s flights of fancy or Adam Trask’s Cathy. Some characters, like Cathy/Kate, change lives quickly, yet never really change their character (deceptive, evil)–and still yet, we never come to understand a motivation behind Cathy’s actions in any normal psychological sense. We come to know Cathy, but we don’t understand her. Then there are other characters who we see over a lifetime, especially Adam, and that lifetime is entwined with the turning of the years in the West, and some greater sweep of history and generations. And though we see Adam discover a truth about Cathy, we see him go through many phases, he is suspended out of time, with Charles coming back to haunt his thoughts, with regrets about Cathy always near to him as he makes his new plans, bringing baggage into the West, to a country that is supposed to be all about progress forward. Sam Hamilton has an Irish past, but it doesn’t give him roots in the story–just that, an unknown past. And the conversations between Lee and Sam Hamilton, the philosophical debate they start among the rabbis about the interpretation of timshel (“thou mayest!”) have the feel of the most grounded, human conversations in the book, unencumbered by types and wild fancies.
The narrator is a mystery in another sense: he alternates between telling the story of the Trasks and the Hamiltons and making sweeping comments about the West and about good and evil, the nature of man. Like the omniscient narrator in Jones’ The Known World, he presents a full roster of all the characters in these people’s lives, and seems to know all of them. But he stays out of it too: his chapter openings alternate between things like, “Sam Hamilton rode back home in a night so flooded with moonlight that the hills took on the quality of the white and dusty moon” (174), and “When I said Cathy was a monster, it seemed to me that it was so. Now I have bent close with a glass over the small print of her and reread the footnotes, and I wonder if it was true” (184) and “A new country seems to follow a pattern. First come the openers, strong and brave and rather childlike…” (215) and “I have wondered why it is that some ppeopl.e are less affected and torn by the verities of life and death than others” (291) and “…I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one…Humans are caught…in a net of good and evil.” (411) For a while the story will settle down to the telling of everyday events, but then it’ll jump out of time to talk about good and evil. There’s little sense of place or groundedness: many places are in the story, but only as stories, memories, names.
I’d be inclined to pan Steinbeck’s characters as unrealistic–and yet he makes no claim for their realism. They create exaggerated versions of the worlds and life stories we all create for ourselves. The narrator says upfront that he depends on “memories which are hazy and mixed with fable” to tell of the Hamiltons.
I loved this book. I couldn’t put it down–not for the action or the characters, but the language and the fantasias of thought. Here’s a few:
“They loved to hear Samuel talk of the world and its thinking, of the poetry and philosohy that were going on outside the Salinas Valley. He had a rich deep voice, good both in song and in speech, and while he had no brogue there was a rise and a lilt and a cadence to his talk that made it sound sweet in the ears of hte taciturn farmers from the valley bottom.”
Also the characterizations: “The children came along as regularly as the years…Liza had a finely developed sense of sin.”
And the strange, disturbing, unreal spaces of childhood. Adam pleasing Alice Trask by leaving little gifts around the house, Charles taking the credit. The excesses of Cyrus Trask, Private Trask who wormed his way to army high command advisory with fabricated tales of heroism as a lowly private (it has certain resonances with my family life…) “In the total telling, it made him at once the most mobile and ubiquitous private in the history of warefare. It made it necessary for him to be in as many asfoujr places at once. But perhaps instinctively he did not tell those stories close to each other. Alice and the boys had a complete picture of him: a private soldier, and proud of it, who not only happened to be where every spectacular…action was taking place but who wandered freely into staff meetings…” (17) The moment “when a child first catches adults out…[and] his worldfalls into panic desolation….And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to build them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.”
Charles “put on paper many things he did not know about himself,” like many who could not speak.
“You can see how this book has reached a great boundary that was called 1900. Another hundred years were ground up and churned, and what had happened was all muddied by the way folks wanted it to be–more rich and meaningful the farther back it was.”
“Sometimes a kind of glory lights up the mind of a man. It happens to nearly everyone. You can feel it growing or preparing like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms…A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and sombre. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and plae. ANd then–the glory–so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished. And I guess a man’s importance in the world can be measured by the quality and number of his glories. It is a lonely thing but it relates us to the world.” (131)
“Adam Trask grew up in grayness, and the curtains of his life were like dusty cobwebs, and his days a slow file of half-sorrows and sick dissatisfactions, and then, through Cathy, the glory came to him. It doesn’t matter that Cathy was what I have called a monster.”
And funny: “[Olive Hamilton’s] theology was a curious mixture of Irish fairies and an Old Testament Jehovah whom in her later life she confused with her father.” (149)
And lyricism all over, like this picture of the desert: “Samuel Hamilton rode back home in a night so flooded with moonlight that the hills took on the quality of the white and dusty moon. The trees and earth were moon-dry, silent and airless and dead. The shadows were black without shading and the open places white without color. Here and there Samuel could see secret movement, for the moon-feeders were at work–the dear which brose all night..The wind of the afternoon was gone and only a little breeze like a sigh was stirred by the restless thermals of the warm, dry hills.” Living houses, living places.
The normal events in family life, but magnified, made strange. Adam Trask not naing his babies for a year, Aron going off to college as the world is falling apart. “Doing the inevitable things” people do in wartime, yet everywhere, individual agency mixed in with the sweep of things, old threads picked up again, old events with undiminished power as the generations scroll on.
Anyway. A pretty remarkable book.