The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A book within a book within a book. A family history wrapped in newspaper headlines. A love affair — real or imagined? Family dysfunction and obligation. The dead sister brought back to life through storytelling. A meditation on old age. Oh, and an alien planet of lizard people and torture porn.
Only Margaret Atwood is granted the indulgence of pushing these threads 450 pages before delivering the payoff. It does payoff.
I enjoyed this less than expected but an excellent example of the masterful storyteller as plate-spinner. No one spins plates like Margaret Atwood.
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Here’s a thing that helped me today:
“Songwriting’s a lot like being a miner. It’s solitary work. You’re alone in a dark cave, and you just chip away everyday and most days it’s dirt and sometimes it’s gold. But with songwriting you don’t always know.”Jewel. “Jewel — You Were Meant for Me.” Song Exploder. 2020.12.02. https://podcast.app/jewel-you-were-meant-for-me-e123314125/?utm_source=ios&utm_medium=share
Here’s a thing I’ve been wondering. We get ourselves so freaked out wondering where our self goes for the long stretch of history after we have died. Why don’t we get ourselves equally freaked out wondering where our self was for the long stretch of history before we were born?
My friend B died today. We hadn’t spoken in years, having lost touch in the way one does through job changes, life changes and the vagrant tides of social media. B struggled mightily with adversities large and small. She struggled maybe sometimes more than she ought to have struggled but she was always quick to celebrate good news, to offer small, sincere encouragements and to smile when there was absolutely no good reason to be smiling.
When you find yourself sitting in a moment of contemplation, prayer or meditation, take a moment to be thankful with me for the kindness and friendship of a person in your life who is like B. And then, take another moment to send love to the families who are sitting with that enormous hole in their lives, that space the gigantic heart of B and people like B once filled.
I have spent an inordinate amount of my lifetime trying to write my way into stories the same way that I read them: in a straight line. Only just now does it occur to me to try getting into a story the way one gets into a secret room newly discovered hidden in one’s house: punch holes in the weakest parts of the wall until you find the beams.
I published my first Ubiquitous. Quotidian. blog post in December 2010. At the time, I was halfway into what would be my 20 year career as an academic librarian. I was father to a three year old child and the first generation iPad had just been released. I was fascinated by the emerging importance of mobile computing as I watched smartphone ownership transform the way everyone I knew worked, played and related to one another in real time. Being an idealist and informational professional, I was hopeful about the ways widespread (ie. ubiquitous) internet access might unleash and amplify creative capacities of all people in surprising, useful ways in everyday life (ie quotidian).
It did. Looking back these 11 years, I hardly recognize the place.
I thought of my blog as a place to chronicle observations about transformations in my personal life and society at large. I did some of that and captured milestones of my own contributions to that work at my college, library and home.
Looking back 395 posts doesn’t seem a substantial document of everything that happened in those 11 years. I also notice that, with time, I have written less and less about information technologies and more about the emotional and intellectual developments of my own mind. This is a thing, I am told, that happens with maturity. As we age, the world begins to make less and less sense to us and we begin to turn inward. In middle life we turn inward to gather resources for the work of making sense of our own selves. I call it “going into the forest”, which is a phrase I took from an author I read (James Hollis?) or a therapist I once worked with or a wise, long-bearded elder I once met sitting in meditation at the crossing of many roads. (Note: it was James Hollis.)
I have been quiet here in recent months because I haven’t known how I want to use this space. Several years ago, I changed the tagline from “Have Internet. Will travel.” to “Evolution of a Curious Mind.” The tagline feels right but the title no longer does.
My work here is about sense making. It is about protecting my own sense of wonder, inquiry and curiosity against the dulling effects of this never-ending, all-you-can-eat conveyor belt buffet of sensation, information and voice we have made of our 21st century lives. It is about the life and times of a digital magpie. It is about keeping one’s self sane.
I am thinking a lot about the idea of palimpsest:
- Palimpsest definition 1: “a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.”
- Palimpsest definition 2: “something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.”
The word fascinates me. Palimpsest evokes the realization that nothing new exists except in its relationship to everything else, everything that went before and everything that came after.
We don’t have thoughts really. Our thoughts have us. If we pay attention, we can see traces of our thoughts echoing up to us from the deepest past and echoing also away into the world and spreading toward future. Our thoughts are created from the interactions of thousands of other ideas, notions and expressions reaching us everyday. They penetrate and pass through us like radiation.
And we radiate our own thoughts, ideas and perspectives through interactions with one another every day.
It seems to me a confluence of the Buddhist notion of karma, emerging lines of information theory and the poetic possibilities of quantum physics.
That last sentence is embarrassing. It doesn’t actually mean anything except to say I am wanting a new way to make sense of things and your eyes on this blog matters because it means our lives have intersected, these thoughts I am having are touching some of the thoughts you are now having. And your thoughts, perhaps, are touching mine.
I am tired of my old habits of sense-making. I am going into the forest to find some other way of understanding. Something akin to scholarly rigor, spiritual awe and the feeling of “understanding without understanding” one gets from making poetry.
If you will continue to read, we can enter the forest together.
A proper Buddhist would not call oneself Buddhist,
would not think so much about having
proper meditation posture or
dwell so long with the framework of self we call
A proper Buddhist would not call oneself anything,
would not think about posture as a thing one has
or the self as being a framework for anything at all.
And yet, here I am. Sitting. Mind veering as it does,
stubbornly having posture and drawing lines
from myself to everything and from everything
back to myself. Wrapping everything up in language,
to bend it into a poem.
Avoid all Isms.
I am no Buddhist. There is no Buddhism.
I am no Person. There is no Personism.
I am no Poet. There is no Poetism.
An improper Buddhist doing Buddhism improperly.
I set aside my writing because I could no longer understand the world and, thus, could no longer properly hope to describe it.
I left social media because it was making that swelling sense of tumult and incoherence even worse.
I even left reading for a time because it felt hollow and unconnected to things that were happening in my life. I realized, after a while, that I was no longer reading well. Words and ideas were blowing through me, and I was making no effort to catch or keep them. I was losing them and allowing them to be lost.
And so, I turned my attention to learning to read differently. To capture what I read. To annotate, denote. I am creating a practice of commonplacing, a habit I am still trying to cultivate and deepen. Commonplacing helps me hold those fleeting moments of insight called inspiration. Commonplacing helps me connect ideas together and find ways to allow my own thoughts to intersect and interact. Commonplacing is reintroducing myself to my own mind, which has grown weirder and more mysterious with time, to be sure.
I am getting weirder, but I no longer feel as frightened by my inability to catch ideas, to find relationships among thoughts, which is to say I no longer feel as overwhelmed, no longer as convinced I have nothing of particular use to say.
The words no longer simply blow straight through me.
I feel myself become weird and getting weirder.
For a time, I thought this must be middle life.
I am going to allow it keep happening. This is maturity.
I am telling you this because I want you to know.
I am writing.
I have been trying to make sense of the world and failing. I lost the plot sometime long before the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic turned everything upside down. Even before the political, cultural and spiritual nightmare of the 2016 election, I was finding it hard to keep tied the worn narrative threads I had used to explain what the world is, how it worked and my place in it.
My priorities changed. I took less and less satisfaction in the work of my twenty year long professional career. The culture of my workplace had become psychologically treacherous, toxic, though the poisons hid themselves well behind a veneer of being “like a family”.
I was sad, stressed out, and anxious but couldn’t figure out how to articulate why. I began working with a therapist who quickly diagnosed mid-life ennui. It was easy enough to spot the symptoms of existential dread, a sense of impending loss and a generalized confusion that lay like a blanket across most everything.
Never a big taker of meds, my therapist prescribed poetry and a few books on mid-life. I came to understand my journey as mostly spiritual, an urge to grow larger on the inside than I was on the outside. Kinder. Simpler. More generous. I am learning to treat my anxiety like a compass, which can be used to navigate my way toward a better sense of balance, a sense of purpose and, perhaps someday, clarity.
In May 2020, I left my job for a better work situation. This was a time when millions of other people were losing jobs due to the pandemic. I wanted to write about my year-long job search experience because it was so surreal, dispiriting at times yet also fascinating. But writing about my successful career shift seemed wrong at at time when so many others had just been tossed out of theirs without a similar degree of agency.
And then, the challenges of joining a new work team while working entirely remote. This was also an experience I thought I might write to share what I was learning. But I had just recently stood in a crowd at the local Black Lives Matter rally, all of us masked against the contagion of virus. I felt a sense of solidarity and belonging, but I also felt the disconnect between the modest upsets of my most recent challenges and the generational fears of people whose worries went so much deeper — would they work, would their kids have housing and food, would they get killed for walking through a neighborhood or park or shot by police while reaching into the car glove box for license and registration.
Nobody should care what I had to say about career changes and joining a new work team.
I have come to think about the sustained existential collapse of recent years as a collapse of privilege. I am a white guy — 47 years old, college educated and fairly affluent. I was taught to expect to understand the world and that, most of the time, the world’s self-interests would align with my own. I came to believe that I could do the most good by not making trouble, by being agreeable and friendly which, it turns out, is not quite the same thing as being kind or useful.
Being kind and useful require making trouble sometimes. Being kind and useful means being disagreeable and, when required, unfriendly.
All of this is to say I am trying to understand what is required of me in this moment. What have I taken as true that is untrue? Where has the fear of being thought unkind become mortar to patch and preserve the crumbling status quo? Where has privilege taught me to expect I deserve the equilibrium of comfort, ease and unending entertainment?
What is this world and what is my place in it? What do I wish it might become?
And then, how do I stop myself from living in the world as it is and start myself living in the world as I wish it might become?
Today was a good day. Donald Trump is no longer my president. The inauguration went off without violence. Kamala Harris was sworn in as my country’s first female Vice-President and Joe Biden as President. Biden delivered the kind of aspirational, affirming speech that leaders should deliver in times of crises.
There is no shortage of crises. 400,000 Americans have died from COVID, a number certain to climb as winter deepens. An economic recession has tossed millions out of work and out of their homes. Our democracy survived a stupid but blatant insurrection that killed five people with the intent of killing many more. White supremacists have openly committed themselves to ongoing campaigns of violence against local, state and federal government. And cries for racial justice, some 400 years unheeded, have still not been adequately addressed.
And yet, there is hope. There is hope that a change in rhetoric can inspire more of us to heal than to hurt. There is hope that the unfinished project of American democracy can continue and has not been forgotten or abandoned.
So many moments today in which to take hope. For me, none was greater than when 22 year old Amanda Gorman delivered her poem, “The Hill We Climb”, a call to action to continue building our unfinished country. Well-written. Incredibly well-delivered. Poets often can’t properly read their own poems. Amanda Gorman delivered hers, and the nation picked it up. So many people today, like me, inspired and struck by a poem heard. My own daughter, 13 years old, heard those words and marveled. She didn’t know poetry could do that. I knew but had forgotten.
Today a poem held our attention and brought us back to ourselves. Today I was reminded: poetry is a tool which which we can remake our lives.