Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A.S. Byatt, The Shadow of The Sun (1964)

I just love this book so, so much. How much? and Why? Listen and I will tell you:
Then he went through into the kitchen, where Caroline was rolling out pastry on a cool, rose-veined marble slab.

She was singing to herself, withdrawn. When alone she had a private life in which she sang Mozart at Glyndebourne; each morning, over the cooking or the dishes, she would re-enact her triumph, from the arrival of the elegant audience, to whose dresses she added a new rose, a new shawl, every day, to the final aria and rapt silence which followed it. She was not too pleased to be called back from her stage, and would not be interrupted in mid phrase. She motioned to Henry to be silent, and sang calmly and tunefully to the end of her passage, whilst he paced the kitchen from door to door, and then she made him a little inclination of the head, as though he should applaud, and said, 'Well, what is it?'
I mean, how can you not love that? Utterly? If you don't, I don't want to know you.

Also, I adore A.S. Byatt because she fucking hates Harry Potter, just like I do. Yes, yes I do.

The Complete Review - A.S. Byatt and the Heliotropic Imagination - A.S. Byatt at

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

'God bless the man who yields to temptation'

Music is my boyfriend, music is what keeps me going, and I miss writing about it, so lucky intratubez, here you go.

God bless the man who stumbles
God bless the man who falls
God bless the man who yields to temptation

God bless the woman who suffers
God bless the woman who weeps
God bless the children trying her patience

Trouble getting over it
Is what you're in for, so pour yourself another
'Cause it'll take a steady pair of hands

I've had this song on repeat ever since first hearing it, in one of those so-lame-it-must-be-true coincidences, hanging out in that modern secular West Door of the therapist's waiting room (KEXP was piped in and my therp was late). I had no idea who was singing it (yes, I really am that out of any and all cultural loops) and just scribbled down snatched approximations of the lyrics, enchanted, in my day planner so I could Google them later at home.

God bless the house divided
God bless the weeds in the wheat
God bless the lamp lit under a bushel

I discovered hell to be the poison in the well
So I tried to warn the others of the curse
But then my body turned on me
I dreamt that for eternity
My family would burn
Then I awoke, with a wicked thirst

By my baby's yellow bed
I kissed her forehead and rubbed her little tummy
Wondering if she'd soon despise the smell
Of the booze on my breath like her mom

The line that of course snagged my attention, as a recovering alcoholic (seven years sober now, since 1 April 2002), was God bless the man who yields to temptation.... I plugged that in and it brought up not just the lyrics and who wrote them (like everyone else who did time in the nineties I have three or four Pedro the Lion CDs, mea culpa) but also a Stereogum interview snippet:

"Bless This Mess" covers a lot of territory -- dysfunctional families, alcoholism, mirrors, forgiveness, history. What inspired it?

The song is largely autobiographical. So any narrative in the song reflects actual events. Though I may have embellished a bit. But the main lyrical gimmick is sort of a self-conscious and hopeful interpretation of the Beatitudes, which I have an uneasy relationship with as the narrative tends to illustrate.

God's blessing a number of things in the song, good and bad. It ends with "God bless the history that doesn't repeat." It's intended to be hopeful?

It's only in hindsight I'm able to evaluate why I wrote a lyric or what it might mean. At the time I'm usually just scrambling to write words that I like and that feel good to sing. But now that I have some distance ... in my mind historically, when God's blessing is invoked by someone saying "God bless this" or "God bless that" it's an expression of humility and need combined with some amount of optimism about the outcome of their situation. But the way that I've seen it used more recently ("God Bless America") tends to express pride and a sense of superiority with the always underlying themes of manifest destiny. And I think that's bullshit. So yes, I do feel like it's hopeful.

When I first sobered up, I clung to some popularized-Zen paperbacks because it felt like they were all that was between me and a very very dark road going off three miles left of nowhere. A therapist had recommended Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness to me earlier, but I'd been too drunk and lost to read it. I don't remember if I read about this exercise in that book or another one, but it's something I remember and try to carry out to this day: bless everything you see. The idea is you look around and bless every single object in your visual field. Right now, I can: bless my desk, bless my computer keyboard on which I'm typing these words, bless the books on the desk which I can read and distract myself with because it's 1:43 in the morning and why am I still the hell up, bless the floor and the walls around me which create shelter for my books and computer and me, and so on. Doing this can humble and focus you in a startling way.

In early sobriety, I thought this was one of the most dumbshit things I had ever had the misfortune to hear about, but I was desperate, so I gave it a try. I was walking to an AA meeting (in which I told this story about fifteen minutes later) across the UW campus. Bless the pretty stone buildings, bless the sunshine, bless the blue sky, bless the flowers....okay, this was going well. I felt a renewed appreciation for everything around me and my clarity of vision, my sobriety, that was letting me see it. Then I turned a corner and saw a table full of Young Republicans snagging innocent coeds passing by and handing out various slickly printed folders, attempting to infect others with the contagion of ignorance and fear. Fucking fuck. But, in all my admittedly limited and hasty reading about Buddhism up til then, there was nothing that said 'Bless everyone and everything, except the people you really disagree with.' So I gritted my teeth. Bless the Young Republicans.... I can't say it was terribly sincere, but at least I said it.

Through a darkened mirror
I have seen my own reflection
And it makes me want to be a better man
After another drink

God bless the man at the crossroads
God bless the woman who still can't sleep
God bless the history that doesn't repeat

That kind of wry wisdom is what leapt out of the slyly funky, almost bouncy, sound of the song at me: bless even what looks blasted, because it's all we have. During the session, my therapist actually held up a sign she'd made out of a page from her clipboard, writing on it sidewise in large capital letters: IT CAN NEVER BE FIXED. / IT CAN GET BETTER. Those two thoughts aren't actually diametrically opposed; they just look like it. Or no, maybe they are diametrically opposed; the only way it can ever get better is to admit that it can't ever be fixed.

I can't ever go back to not being an alcoholic. That damage can't be undone. I can't even say that I'll be sober the rest of my life (that is purely just asking for trouble). I can say that I'm sober right now, that I'll be sober until I go to bed and that's my job every day. All I have to do is stay sober every day, all through the day, until I go to bed. That is better; that's the definition of getting better right there. That is my way of blessing everything I see.

We are all weeds in the wheat. We are all that tableful of Young Republicans. We are all dark reflections, seen darkly. We can't ever be fixed. But we can get better.