Explaining Myself with Help from a Song Dynasty Cityscape

I think people misunderstood my last entry. Or maybe I led them to the wrong conclusions; I apologize for that. I am not a basket case, but writing is an exhale for me. It is a way to repel the forces at war inside myself, which sounds incredibly hackneyed and I almost winced when I wrote that because I am not a tortured artist by any stretch.

Forgive me, I can’t explain myself plainly at the best of times. I don’t carry conversations easily, you might find. As many words as I may spit into the air over my lifetime, all my better and more intimate thoughts make their first homes on paper.

But it seems my stupid scribblings fail to convey what I mean even now, so I’ll speak through the ancients. To paraphrase from Dream of Red Mansions: referencing an old thing, after all, is better than creating a new one.

And the best allusion, the best metaphor even, I have to explain my state of mind is this:

Along the River During the Qingming Festival. Or rather, just a snippet of an 18th century reproduction of the 12th century original which is 17 feet long. Click the image to view the entire original scroll.

This is a detailed view of a painting called Along the River During the Qingming Festival or Going Upriver on the Qingming Festival or whatever slightly inaccurate translation that you prefer to refer to it as. Painted by Song Dynasty artist Zhang Zeduan this panorama stretches over seventeen feet long. Seventeen feet.

The room I’m sitting in right now probably doesn’t even have that much square footage.

And it’s not an empty scroll of Zen landscapes (each with a wide textile border) instead it depicts the day of the Qingming Festival in the Song Dynasty capital. The temporal setting of this work, the Qingming festival, is sometimes translated as the Tomb Sweeping festival. It’s the day you go to clean up and honor the graves of your ancestors, which were usually out-of-the-way places. Chinese people didn’t believe in keeping their dead close. Better a tomb be kept where no road would ever be built over it.

Close-up detail of the Chinese cityscape hands...

Close-up detail of the Chinese cityscape handscroll Along the River During Qingming Festival, ink and colors on silk, 24.8 x 528.7 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But there’s a beautiful paradox here, because this painting isn’t about death at all: it’s about life, flowing into the capital like a river from the mountains. This scroll is bustling with people and activity, growing more populated as the landscape slowly changes from bucolic to urban. Its people are clothed richly and poorly. Stylized though they may have been, the painting is populated by recognizable characters: from peddlers and actors to even tax gatherers. It was a snapshot of a vibrant, living city on a day dedicated to remembering the dead.

And what I mean to say is that I’m living that duality right now. I grieve in bursts, but I don’t spend my time wallowing in a pit of tar-like sadness. In fact, at this precise moment, my major concern in life is that I can’t sleep because of words and also because of the late-running birthday party at the bar across the street. But at the same exact time, the greater context of my life contains death and I do spend days dedicated to remembering. But even on those days there is life. While I sometimes speak hopelessly, theose feelings are passing. Like ships on the Qingming, they must still leave the harbor despite the day. Because the painting, after all, is populated by the living, and they have their tasks.

Close-up detail of the Chinese cityscape hands...

Close-up detail of the Chinese cityscape handscroll Along the River During Qingming Festival, ink and colors on silk, 24.8 x 528.7 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Let’s Talk About Our Feelings

I can’t really keep it together right now, which is why I’m writing this. 

The hope, usually the hope, is to talk about these things to someone before they get to this point, but I guess the stupid truth is that it’s easier to tell everyone than just someone. Because these days, no one makes the choice to see me. Which is fine. I understand. If losing parents has taught me anything about my friends, it’s not to expect. Most of them are horrible with death. And I love them for it. I do. It’s fine. Except.

I just wish someone could say an impossible thing to me. I wish they could tell me that it would all go away. I want to be normal: that girl you actually like, who is not always sad and frustrated about everything, who is not inadvertently bitchy. I’m such a burden. I want to be someone who can work hard and never has to sleep or eat and never says the wrong thing. I’m trying, and I slip up, and I’m not her. I can never be her. And I think I might just be cementing my position as supremely not her by writing this.

I want someone to tell me that it’s not my fault, that it’s okay. But no one is going to do that anymore. I don’t get the reward system, too old for things like approval: achievement is expected, is adequate, is the default state of being. 

I want to know if my parents are proud of me. But I’ll never get to know that: not anymore. I want to know that it’s not my fault that they can’t be, that they aren’t here anymore. Please, I just want to talk to my mom again. I just want to see my mom the way she was before Dad died: before she got too thin. I can’t even remember what she looks like because my own traitorous brain won’t let me. Please if I could just see her in my mind when she’s not hurting. 

I want to know what my dad would think of me and what I’m doing with my life. I need his advice. I want him to help me with all these things I’m working on and tell me that everything is going to be okay, that I’ll be able to learn everything I’m trying to because everyone can learn it and that I’m just lazy for not understanding physics. Because it’s so simple. Everything’s so simple.

Please just make everything simple. I just want to understand why I feel so alone.

 

 

Nocturne

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NoLita in the dark.

My suite mates are apparently having a party or something…which makes me slightly upset that I’ve never dragged people over because I’ve kind of wanted to have a party but I always felt it would be inconvenient.  Yes, I’m stupid and petty.  Regardless, it doesn’t look like I’m sleeping soon. Far too loud. I’m also not social enough to actually go out and talk to anyone: so…

Some thoughts on night in the night. It’s not like my drive towards nocturnal started just now, anyway, even though it’s often hard for me to be productive in the darkness. But nights aren’t really for productivity until it gets so late it’s almost morning. And speaking of that twilight place: how do we define night? In or minds and programmed into our bodies.

Night sometimes means sleep, of course, that crushed velvet sensation of letting your bones lay weary against the earth. Most of us enjoy the feeling of sliding sideways into darkness: the curl of blankets and pillows forming a safe cocoon. I must confess, odd as it may be, that I do miss nights spent awake and on the road. Admittedly I have only ever been a passenger, one who can afford to meditate on the darkness. It’s astonishing how beautiful the world is, blurring by in a string of houses and highway signs, cities and railroad tracks. The “I” of me melts away until all that’s left is just a pair of eyeballs, drinking in the sideways slip of the world outside my window. Those are the nights when I never want to reach my destination. The hum of the road is home enough. At least until dawn, rosy in the east, unmasks the dark silhouettes of the trees, or mountains, or skylines—whatever my companions had been in the evening—and wakes the world until it’s no longer quiet. Until traffic is a scream. The bubble bursts.

After all, nights are the times of dreams: waking or not. It’s when you are close to people, even strangers you’ve only just met. Anyone can become friends right around three am. The world is soft, then. You all share the dream. Any other time those pretty words you so willingly exchange, flitting on their gossamer wings, would be too heavy. Would fall out of the air like dead things.

The nocturne is its own song, and it compels us to our feet. We dance because it’s harder to feel ashamed in the darkness. We dance because we don’t remember our daylight faces.

Not that there isn’t a danger in forgetting: there is no innocent dark, which pains me deeply. I want nothing more than to stalk the streets and learn the city’s moonlit face: unlined and dewy with summer. But I can’t, just out of simple fear. Because I’m not especially intimidating or good at violence. Because darkness shields dangers in the alleyways. And anyway: the world is stifling and warm, and I will not ruin it by seeking confrontation.

Instead, I’ll content myself here in the cocoon of my lamplight, hung sweetly in the summer night.

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SoHo’s Skin

I want to capture the night before it slips away from me and becomes just another Friday in New York. They tore up Broadway, tonight, down in SoHo where the stores shuttered up early and tight. Friday’s usual victims were all just stepping out, all aflutter, clumping gorgeously in the streets with their high heels and blazers, pre-game faces on. But beyond them were great metal beasts, their maws tight against the ground as they chewed up the pavement, a layer of dust rising around them and blowing into the sidewalk. It swirled in the work lights hung low in the street, giving a blur to those holes punched in the darkness. I can’t quite capture what was ever so captivating, between the industry and the revelry, excess and renewal. But those great steel beasts giving Broadway a fresh skin of pavement drew attention to the scaffolding lining the streets, sometimes on both sides. It reminds me that this city is always changing, even if we don’t notice it at ground level, caught between sidewalks and skyscrapers, that it’s like a lizard that constantly sheds its skin. Let me remember that all things change around me, that they in turn change me.

Genius Loci and Jamais Vu

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Neil Gaiman offering a little bit of inspiration up in here.  You’d think the solitude would make the words come to me more easily.  Untrue.  My greatest distraction has always been myself.  It’s how it always was: that blank page staring so accusingly, crushing your rosy dreams with its stark truth.  

My friend recently talked to me about the jamais vu phenomenon, which is best explained in relation to deja vu.  Deja vu is the feeling that you’ve been somewhere before, even though you’ve never actually been to that particular locale in your life.  But it’s not so much that the place is familiar to you seeing as the location is still alien. Rather it’s that the emotion it evokes from you, that rises like a treacherous serpent from your chest, is familiar.  Jamais vu is the opposite, sometimes more sinister phenomenon.  It’s when a familiar place suddenly seems foreign.

I’ll admit that it has come to me amicably.  Notably, on a clear, cloudless morning on my way to The Strand bookstore.  Union Square wasn’t its usual eyesore.  The farmers’ market blanketed the earth with its early harvest.  And the city didn’t feel like home suddenly, like my old stomping ground, but rather as a place wholly unfamiliar and utterly foreign.  It was amazing.  I should explain that I was suffering a great deal of wanderlust at the time.  For me, that morning was a chance to leave while my feet were still tied to the ground.  If I could bottle that feeling to take with me and give the world just a light spritz whenever I feel too stuck in one place, then maybe I wouldn’t have the urge to travel every few months: to tie up my scarf and roam like a nomad over the packed earth.

Still.  There are times when it’s not so pleasant.  Like my mother’s whole apartment after her passing.  All of its home-like qualities vanished, and an unnerving darkness settled there instead: as bleak as the River Styx.  It was clearly and irrevocably not ours anymore, or familiar except in surface.  If it weren’t, you know, actually sharing three walls with other people’s homes I would have wanted to torch that place to the ground.  When I’m writing, in the future, and I need a genius loci or two I will have a model for one that is wholly unpleasant to the point of being evil—not in the double double toil and trouble sense necessarily, but in the twisted sense of reality gone horribly, awfully wrong.  Of the world careening off axis.  Of the familiar becoming alien to the point of incomprehensible.  Jamais vu.

I have that feeling now, slightly, sitting on the floor I actually spend the majority of time at at school.  I’m technically working, actually.  It’s Friday night around ten o’clock and I am seriously wondering why I’m still here, seeing as it’s become abundantly clear to me this evening that no one else will be showing up.  And in the quiet stillness, there is a slight sense of jamais vu.  Not for any sinister reason, merely because in my mind, except for in the very, very early mornings, this floor is always packed.  At least one of the buchlas is always screaming like a theramin, music and AV clips are always leaking out of different studios, and there’s always a bunch of stupid undergrads like me with our feet blocking the aisle, cursing ourselves blue.  To be honest, it’s a bit unnerving not to have all of that.  It sounds kind of stupid but this place has been my bedrock this semester.  While I’ve been losing my last parent and burning my childhood and leaving home, it’s been kind of constant. Unwaveringly alive.  To feel alone here is foreign.

Nothing like a little jamais vu to spice up your Friday night.

Possibilities

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I like to think that the image is blurry because the colors ran in the heat, but there’s the Empire State Building lit up all purple for the Violets.  

Congratulations class of 2013!  If I had started college right after I graduated high school, I would be with you.  But then again, I wouldn’t be here in New York probably, or studying music of all stupid, wonderful things.  Or trying to be an engineer (seriously, what is up with that?).  

But more than anything else this last week has reminded me of the forward motion of existence: how the gears of the universe keep pushing us forward in spite of any inner inertia.  Let go of the irreversible past, it tells us.  Every moment is a chance for change.  Apparently all of our lives have been predetermined since the first particle burst into existence.  I don’t believe that.  Note: I have no background in particle physics.   Still, there are days when you can almost see that everything is in flux, riding on the currents of a greater force that is thundering through nature, knocking old plans askew and opening up possibilities.  

A few nights ago Ace and I talked about what we could say to your younger selves.  I remember as a child hating change so much that any new beginning—or rather any ending—would make me physically sick.  But life is full of little deaths, and that’s fine.  Progressions begin and end but the beat goes on.  

Secret Worlds

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”

Neil GaimanSandman Vol 5 A Game of You

There’s a scene in Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War by Clive Barker (Abarat is a series that I read voraciously when I was younger but probably will never revisit because it will give me nightmares now) where the heroine gets harassed for the contents of her dreams.  Not dreams like the ones that visit us in the night mind you, but our waking dreams that we may or may not share with anybody.  And in that scene, all of the characters carry their dreams over their heads like little universes: there for all the world to see.

Some days I wish I could be so open.  My dreams, or any part of my whole inner world, appear only when they slip out. Maybe the word I’m looking for here is not slip but ooze.  I’ve been told that I’m carrying all the worst parts of myself on my sleeve—something I should have realized myself, long ago.  It’s frustrating, because I know there is a shred of a kernel of me buried deep down that is as adamantine as diamond, as pure as Vajra fire, but it never sees the light of day.  Instead, I am all sharp smiles and serrated edges; so full of complex longings that my horrors have hydra heads: for each habit I break three more spring in its wake.

The lighter I try to tread upon the world the more I sabotage. My thoughts are treacherous. They betray me: selfish things I should deny or put away because they are too sharp, and to run with them means someone always ends up losing an eye.

The best part of you is that you always try to help other people.  A woman told me this when I was seventeen.  She encouraged me to play the cello from this part of myself, so that my sound would always be pure and fulfilled.  Oh, if she could hear me now.  How mean and thin a line my bow makes against the strings.

It goes back to worlds again. I hurt people (inadvertently, on purpose, in small or big ways) when I’m being selfish. In Chinese the word for I (我) “wo” has a dagger inside it.  The ancients avoided using it.

I am modern, and stupider than they.  I am selfish and do not live for others. And when I do not consider the other as having his or her own complex, beautiful world inside of them with a myriad motivations and sensitivities, I sometimes find myself wanting to change people or cookie cutter them, both of which are profoundly stupid things in which I will never succeed.  It’s hypocritical in the extreme to try to place people in boxes when one of my most firmly held beliefs is that there is always hope for change: that the malleable nature of humanity and the constant flux of the universe always mean becoming better is possible.

And really, the only times I ever feel hurt myself are when I’m being selfish.  When I focus only on how the actions of another affect me rather than realize that, in the grand schemes of their lives and motivations, I count for very little at all.

I should offer understanding instead. I should know that in the collisions of the universe, things that look accidental have reasons behind them all.  I should always try to do better myself.  There is no one I can change but me.

After all, there is a world inside of me that I need to cultivate so that when it flourishes, all of those around me may reap the fruits.