“I’ll deal with it upon my return”

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The recent days have been flying. I wandered around the Tiszavirág Fesztivál, went to Budapest for shul, began preparing my Dallas lectures (on Homer, Dante, and Melville), and sat on the panel of faculty administering the graduating seniors’ oral exams.

With my trip to the U.S. only four days away, I couldn’t help thinking of the Roches and their song “The Troubles” (“We’re going away to Ireland soon….”).

I first heard them live in the spring of 1982, at Toad’s Place in New Haven, at the insistence of a friend. He especially loved Maggie Roche, the one with the contralto voice. Maggie died in February 2017. Here’s a beautiful photo memorial of her with her song “Quitting Time” (a Roche favorite of mine):

It is strange to be on the brink of visiting my own country, which has been turning into something unrecognizable, though I suspect I’ll recognize it anyway. (Which is the return–the trip there or back? And what is going on over there?) Yet just as here, I see more than one tendency at once. Trump’s decision to separate detained immigrant parents from their children–and to place the children in detention centers around the U.S.–drew such strong rebuke that he had to backtrack. Not only that, but individuals and organizations are persisting in their protest and seeking ways to help the children and families. I have barely begun–I signed two petitions and made a small donation to the Florence Project–but have received a wealth of information on how to do more.

I have also read good critique of how Americans speak to each other (or not): not only how Democrats speak to Republicans and vice versa, but how people overall handle difference and discontent. After Maxine Waters called on people to harass and heckle Trump administration officials (telling them that “they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere”), many objected to her call (while others applauded her).

A few days before Waters’s speech, one of my friends and colleagues had already written a terrific post arguing that when we write others off, in political and other contexts, we harm them, ourselves, and the structures our lives. I won’t quote the piece here–I don’t think it is intended for public broadcast at this point–but I hope to return to it in the future.

Frank Bruni argues that public shaming, while viscerally satisfying, fails miserably as a strategy. “It’s possible that public shaming will have no effect on voters’ feelings and decisions, which are largely baked in by now,” he writes. “But it’s also possible that public shaming intensifies an ambient ugliness that sours more Trump skeptics than Trump adherents, who clearly made peace with ugliness a while back. And those adherents, nursing a ludicrous sense of persecution, could turn out in greater numbers this November as a result.”

I would go even further. If any of us cannot treat a human being decently–whoever that person might be–then all our protest comes to nothing. Treating a person decently does not mean kowtowing or conceding. You can disagree fervently with someone, make that disagreement known, and still retain respect. Take that respect away, and you may not find it again; it falls out of language, out of the general way of thinking. People feel more and more justified in putting others down, writing them off, describing them as “toxic,” and hiding in their own rarified views and groups.

But we have not disappeared down the toxic tunnel. Many people have been calling for greater respect in speech, whether for strategic, ethical, or existential reasons. Respect is not a formality or embellishment; it requires perceiving and listening to another person. It also requires speaking up; you show no respect if you hide what you think and want. When our own president does not set an example of respect–when he tears respect apart day after day–there is all the more reason to repair and uphold it.

“Respect” seems insufficient as a word–too pat, too easy, overused–until one looks at its root. It derives from the Latin respectus, “the act of looking back at someone”; thus it carries the connotation of thinking again, not jumping to conclusions, not presuming to know who another is. In that sense, it is indeed the right word, or one of many. I am encouraged by the renewed respect for respect itself.

I took the photo at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál. The title of the post is a quote from the Roches’ “The Troubles.” Suzzy Roche would often say it near the beginning of the song, in performances but not on the album.

I made a few changes to this piece after posting it.

In This Grand Primordial Mess

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Messy people (including me) may be on the up-and-up. Behold, to the left, a desk, my desk. This is about as unmessy as it gets. At least once a week, the piles at least triple. They flow onto each other. They threaten to converge and topple. So I bring them down a little and start again. That has been my life since adulthood. In childhood and adolescence, it was much worse; my mess didn’t even organize itself into piles. But I enjoyed it in some way and did not want to become neat. Others tried to get me to organize myself; although I did, a little, over time, I also kept a good deal of messiness, since it allowed me to focus on other things.

So I was delighted to see Jesse Singal’s article on mess. Apparently there are more mess-defenders in the world than I thought. I learned about a new book, Messy:  The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by Tim Harford. Unfortunately, though, the title gave me IS (Instant Skepticism). It sounds like another “Great Secret to Creativity” book. I hope it’s not that. There’s lots to be said for a degree of messiness, but I don’t for a messy second believe that becoming messy will make you more creative or successful. (It may be that the title only flops askew over the book’s actual contents; I will wait to see.)

When and how can messiness be good? Well, first of all, it’s just the way some of us are. My students have described me as organized, but that’s probably because I have learned over time how to handle my mess. Even so, I don’t organize myself more than I have to. It takes too much time, and I have my mind on other things. I work better if I don’t have to worry all the time about putting things in their  proper places. As long as I know where to find them, and as long as I keep them in good condition, I’m fine.

I need some messiness; I need the freedom to pile book on top of book while I am looking into an idea and writing out an argument. Also, I like the look and feel of mess (up to a point); it reminds me of things I and others have been doing, and it keeps an array of materials at hand. This cannot and should not be pre-engineered; it’s just the way I work.

It may well be true that all creativity involves some messiness. This does not mean that you arrive at creativity by generating mess. Mess comes in different forms; there are people who maintain an impeccably neat exterior but allow themselves a pile of loose ends in the mind. There are those whose mess occurs in blogging, or in speaking, or in musical tastes. It’s unlikely that any “messy regime” will help anyone produce a work of brilliance.

On the other hand, it is nice to see some people questioning the despotism of neatness. Talk about hegemony. Some of us (including me) have had points taken off, throughout our lives, because we didn’t write as neatly as others, organize our notebooks clearly, take legible notes in class, or put everything away immediately after using it. For the sake of justice alone, I am happy to join in praise of limited mess.

Speaking of mess: I was delighted to come upon some videos of a 1978 concert by the Roches. I first heard them in 1982 (thanks to a friend who insisted I come hear them). I had forgotten just how beautifully messy (yet in time and in tune and inspired) they were. Here they are performing the wonderful “We.”

Oh, the title of this blog: Once upon a time, in 1989, someone’s beautiful mess, and the occasion of a tornado, inspired a sonnet from me. Here it is.

Tornado, July 10, 1989

The winds began to imitate your prance,
a rolling soda can became the lyre,
the sirens sang the lyrics, mixing fire
with something like your name. The dance grew dense,
a cat shot an accusatory glance,
and time was canceled. Wood, debris, and wire
were pulled like windowshades to curb desire,
since pagan hail had trampled down the fence.

Thinking survival hardly worth the cost,
I risked electrocution or success,
clambering over what was once a street,
with hopes that in this grand primordial mess
finding you in your element, I’d greet
what never had been had, and still was lost.