That’s how the light gets in

I couldn’t sleep last night (or should I say, early this morning), as I wasn’t feeling well. But I also had another feeling something was wrong. What could be more wrong than the terrible news from America (let’s not talk about it, expletives will come out of my mouth if I attempt to)? I picked up my phone and checked my social media and read that Leonard Cohen had died.

No doubt there will be a flood of opinion pieces, blog posts, articles and tributes online about him. I find myself wanting to write something too, but at a loss, because it feels like he has said all the words and there they stand, needing no accessories.

Instead, I find myself drawn to people’s personal stories, drawn from his words, or around them, such as my friend Will’s beautiful blog post here. I would share a long story of my own that is and is not about Cohen, but I feel I am still not brave enough to write it. So instead, I’ll share a shorter one: this morning as my neighbour was getting ready for work, he played Leonard Cohen. I thumped the wall in sympathy, as we sometimes do living in flats to show signs of life. He thumped back, and I felt this wordless noise was enough.

All I can think now is, tell me again how this poetry thing is not about the blood and guts of life?

There is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic...

I came across this video of Maya Angelou on facebook today via my friend Kate Forsyth (whose own discussions about what reading/writing have meant for her and her childhood are equally moving). This is profound in so many ways, so I decided to transcribe what she says in this video below.

Angelou is basically speaking my personal ethics here. I won’t deny that like many academics, I’ve been questioning what higher education has become and worried about the directions knowledge has been fed into. It feels like the entire world is being streamlined into some soulless dystopian vision of capitalist utilitarianism sometimes, and I wonder what it is we leave behind in this pursuit. I wonder if it’s our essential humanity. So this video is an important reminder to me.

It reminds me of things I often discuss with my students: one is that cynicism is the easy way out, even if life is hard and you feel like the system is against you. It’s still the easy way out. Cynicism requires nothing out of you. Idealism and believing in something is hard and painful – it can tear you apart and make you feel things you don’t want to. But it’s like love – living without it seems a soulless existence.

Secondly, it reminds me that literature, and art, and reading, and writing, yes – they do save lives. No, this is not an indulgence. As a teacher, I’m not in the business of creating productive little units for the workplace alone. My job’s greater aim is to help human beings remain human beings – to remind them that this world of literature opens up a world of knowledge and human fallibility, joy, pain. And armed with this world, you move within the ‘real’ one a richer person, more equipped to deal with the difficulty of life. I truly believe in this, because I can point to specific texts I’ve read that have electrified me, that have saved me, that have helped shape who I am. I can’t imagine my life without this element – and I can’t imagine it without having gone to university to be introduced to these texts.

I know the education I had was a privilege. I remind my students that their own education is one too. Often, when you are really young, going to university feels like a burden or a necessary step required by society. It’s easy to forget what a true privilege it is – it’s easy to forget how many people around the world simply don’t have this privilege, some of whom are literally dying and fighting for it. There is so much that is wrong with the world, and education shows you how to battle this – it is not simply a piece of paper for your CV. Jobs are fleeting things in the end, the core of your humanity is not.

Here’s the transcription (but I suggest listening to Angelou say these words herself here):

“When I was seven and a half, I was raped. I won’t say severely raped, all rape is severe. The rapist was a person very well known to my family. I was hospitalised. The rapist was let out of jail and was found dead that night. And the police suggested that the rapist had been kicked to death. I was seven and a half. I thought that I had caused the man’s death because I had spoken his name. That was my seven and a half year old logic. So I stopped talking for five years.

Now, to show you again how out of evil there can come good, in those 5 years I read every book in the black school library, I read all the books I could get from the white school library, I memorised Shakespeare, whole plays, 50 sonnets. I memorised Edgar Allan Poe, all the poetry. Never having heard it, I memorised it. I had Longfellow, I had Guy De Maupassant, I had Balzac, I had Rudyard Kipling. When I decided to speak, I had a lot to say, and many ways in which to say what I had to say.

So out of this evil, which was a dire kind of evil, because rape on the body of a young person, more often than not introduces cynicism. And there is nothing quite so tragic as a young cynic. Because it means the person has gone from knowing nothing to believing nothing. In my case I was saved in that muteness. And I was able to draw from human thought, human disappointments and triumphs, enough to triumph myself.”

A letter to my students

‘It set him free,’ said Lee. ‘It gave him the right to be a man, separate from every other man.’
‘That’s lonely.’
‘All great and precious things are lonely.’
‘What is the word again?’
Timshel—thou mayest.’

― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

* * *

Last night I was thinking about your graduation, and I fell asleep thinking of smoothing the world out for you. Quite literally. I had a dream in which I was ironing out white sheets – sheet after sheet, endlessly. And then I realised the sheets were the world. It is a lovely metaphor, clean and simple. But we know life is rarely either.

To use another metaphor, I wish sometimes the world was like a slot machine in which you could insert things like passion, spirit, compassion, enthusiasm, and receive your reward, neatly packaged up. But it isn’t. And to be honest with you, you probably don’t want it to be. The best things have come to me through anger, frustration, exhaustion, and sacrifice. Including this job and getting to meet and teach you.

This is a short letter; no doubt you will hear many words of advice in the coming weeks as you supposedly ‘enter’ the ‘real’ world. My view is that you are already a part of it. I hope the degree you have earned will help you navigate this world in which you live, and love, and get angry. But most of all, I hope it has given you a deeper sense of your worth. You are more than a job, a salary, or a social status marker. You are a human being. It has been a privilege knowing you, because you are such excellent human beings – flawed and fantastic like the rest of us.

Thou mayest, and thou can, and thou should – or, to use another one of my favourite lines ever, ‘To burn always with that hard gem-like flame and to maintain this ecstasy is success in life’ (Walter Pater). Don’t lose your flame, whatever you go on to do.

90s babies

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I got highlights in my hair the other day. They are quite subtle and barely noticeable. Only I can really see them glinting beneath the layers of darker hair. They aren’t really a fashion statement, or an aesthetic choice to flatter myself. I got bored with myself (note, this is different from saying I am bored – I could do with being bored right now, too much freaking work). So I repeat, I am bored with myself. And so, I’ve been looking at photos of me, some from high school.

There are a few photos from the 90s, where I decided, for some stupid reason, to get blonde streaks. I remember the straw like texture of those bleached blonde highlights, and my shrunken t-shirts. I had two, one baby blue, one white, that I wore constantly to the point where my English teacher said to me he was very well acquainted with my belly button (note, English teachers can’t get away with saying that kind of stuff these days, but he was the best teacher, without whom I wouldn’t have done English at uni). And my hand-me-down sweatshirts and jeans from my brother and a skinny guy friend the same age as me who would give me his jeans when he knew I couldn’t afford new ones. He also gave me a black sweatshirt that I wore to death until, like all good things, it disintegrated into a mass of holes, and smelt like the pot from the lawn where we ate our lunch. RIP black, pot-smelling sweatshirt. To be fair, most of our clothes smelt like pot, you couldn’t really avoid the smell attaching itself to you in my school.

I remember how I would sit in his room and sew the bottom of the jeans, listening to Pink Floyd and Nirvana. And how we would put patches on our jeans from leftover fabric scraps stolen from our mothers. I remember the god awful clothes we all wore that made us look homeless. I remember raiding second-hand stores, because they were all the rage, and really, because they were all we could afford. I remember wearing them while watching Rage on TV (Aussies, you know what I mean – ahh, the nostalgia!). Fashion was utterly terrible, and also, utterly easy in the 90s for me. I often wonder whether it’s harder to be a teenager now – it seems like so much work. Whereas what we had was bad haircuts, bad bleached hair with dark eyebrows. I had purple lipstick that smelt like rubber. Shrunken t-shirts, and lots of flannel. Hand-me-down jeans. The same pair of Doc Martens.

Long live grunge. I may lighten my hair more noticeably. I may also go on a Nirvana binge. Go on 90s babies, join me.

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(Image credits: Image 1; Image 2; Images 3-5.)

Magic

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I bought this painting by the artist Tali today. It was an impulse purchase. I’m not given to buying things impulsively, as living for so many years with little money means I tend to spend ages thinking about every little purchase I make, even when I’m now on a full-time salary. But I bought it impulsively for two reasons. The first one is because things are quite terrible right now, from all ends, and it made me feel better, momentarily. But secondly, and more importantly, because the girl in the painting is the exact image of how I pictured a fictional character I loved when I was a teenager.

I remember reading a book when I was a teenager, visiting my relatives in Israel, who had black hair and was falling in love with a Russian immigrant. I remember one passage in which she was eating soup and he pulled her black hair from her soup. The perfect material for a teenage crush. But I was equally in love with her as I was with him (as you can only be when you are a teenager). The expression in the girl’s eyes is something I love too. It’s not often you come across a visual manifestation that aligns with a readerly one created by your mind. But when it happens, it feels like magic. This is reason enough to buy a painting, I think.

I hope that when I receive her in the mail, she will make me feel better – like anything is possible, and like big problems have solutions, and like magic is not lost in my life.

2015

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Each time I visit this blog it is with a sense of guilt and sadness. I wonder if I should just remove it and let it die a dignified end, or leave it here to linger slowly. Until I decide, it is stuck in limbo.

Well, 2015 is nearly over. I am proud of many things I did this year, including contributing two poems to this poetry book collection, being a finalist for ELLE magazine’s 2015 Talent Writing Competition, signing a book contract, adoring my niece (even though I had nothing to do with her creation, I feel my adoration is an achievement in itself), giving talks at the BFI and The National Theatre, sponsoring more donkeys and a puppy, getting to know colleagues better, occasionally going out on a date despite myself, signing up for ballet classes (a recent venture), making my English home a bit more cosy and me, perfecting the art of chicken soup, visiting The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, receiving messages, emails, cards and spoken thank yous from students, not dying from marking every spare moment of my existence, and hopefully, being a decent person (with the occasional lapses).

This list does not, of course, take into account the many days in the past year I wanted to give up, was so tired I couldn’t even bother to eat, felt stress caving in around me, experienced loneliness like never before, and questioned every one of my life choices. I would like to suggest 2016 will be easier, but I live under no such delusion. Resilience, I’m learning, is as much a skill as writing.

Take care friends, I hope you see this year out safely. And I leave you with a final request for 2015. I’m fundraising for Yad Vashem, to help raise money that goes towards recording Holocaust survivors’ testimonies. It costs $1,500 to record just one testimony, and these are of vital historical importance. Yad Vashem primarily relies on public donations and support rather than government funding, and so I urge everyone to please donate and spread the word. There will be a permanent link on my blog sidebar for this soon.

Be kind, 2016.

Wonder

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Last night I celebrated Havdalah with a bunch of great people by going on a small boat cruise on the River Soar. Havdalah is a Jewish religious ceremony that marks the end of Shabbat and begins the new week. We often conclude it by saying ‘shavua tov’ – ‘have a good week’. The distinction between Shabbat, the day of rest, and the working week, is becoming increasingly important to me. I’m also realising how much common sense there is to the spiritual practices that I’ve taken for granted.

I think in academia in particular, there is a tendency to conflate your identity, who you think you are and your sense of self, with your job. But I am not a job. I am not very good though at making this distinction all the time, just like I’m not very good at maintaining the distinction between the day of rest and the working week. I am a workaholic, and this is not news to anyone who knows me. If you’ve been fighting for a particular job for so many years, once you do get it, there is a tendency to ‘pay back’ your gratitude via overworking. But ultimately, as I’ve found, this is counter-productive to doing this job well. A job only works as a job when you learn to maintain perspective about it.

This made me think of a couple of things last night. Firstly, a comment I saw on a friend’s Facebook post (I hope she doesn’t mind me mentioning it here): this comment described how Rabbi Abraham Heschel argues that religion begins from wonder, and that this wonder is integral to ethics in our lives. I do remember discussing this a few years ago with someone. Interestingly, it made me think of Susan Sontag’s famous line that, ‘Cinema began in wonder’.

Last night, as I was watching the calmness of the water and sunset with a glass of Kiddush wine in my hand and a man playing the guitar next to me, I thought of both of these wonders. I wondered if my natural inclination towards researching cinema within my academic discipline and job is related to my wonder at basic things about the world: how is the water this calm and still, how is someone able to play the guitar this well, how is the rain this beautiful from the confines of a boat, and why do I find so much wonder in a religion that I simultaneously interrogate with that same curiosity that drives my research?

Okay then, maybe my job and my life are connected, integrally. Maybe it’s naive to think I can separate the day of rest from the working week so neatly and philosophically. But maybe that day of rest exists to remind me of that wonder, and so I need to protect it, even in small ways.