Understanding Via Ambiguity

“What is the meaning of life?” is obviously the most cliché philosophical question you could ask.

To rehash for the umpteenth time what the existentialists said, life has no meaning if you aren’t religious. A lot of people turn to religion in order to imbue meaning into life as part of some bigger plan by God, which Sartre scorned as defeatist.

The next biggest cliché is that if life has no meaning, you have to create your own meaning. Sartre called this l’engagement. Camus took it a step further and suggested that the best sort of engagement is one that derives meaning from creating meaning for others. In other words, being a humanist as a hobby.

The logic seems sound enough, if not a little cruel. The purpose of life is to self-impose a purpose of helping others create a purpose out of something meaningless. It’s kind of a vicious cycle.

Yet perhaps the existentialists and the religious alike were both wrong. Maybe it’s not a dualistic “to be or not to be” type of question. There is and never will be an answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” The only answer with which we can content ourselves is that we do not know.

We have to be okay with unanswered questions. Even Hamlet’s question was answered with “the rest is silence.” Life is not a math problem or essay graded by your professor. Ambiguity is uncomfortable, but once we realize that there is no definitive answer, maybe we really can choose the response we want.

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“Even when I thrust my ear to the seashell”

Even when I thrust my ear to the seashell

I did not hear your voice —

But the ocean’s yawn,

The seagull’s elegy,

And the cackling of the lapping waves upon the sand.

Written February 19, 2019.

Parameters: freeform, Emily Dickinson. Inspired by Barceloneta Beach.

They say you can hear the ocean when you stick a shell to your ear, but in reality you just hear empty space.

Valentine Reads: “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair”

We all know Valentine’s Day is commercialized. We should be celebrating our loved ones every day, singles get the short end of the stick, most of us only care about the chocolate, etc. etc. Instead of drowning in despair over capitalistic hedonism, why not drown in the despair of Pablo Neruda’s “Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair?” Ideal if you’re a secret hopeless romantic who is mad at your partner, you’re a pining single, and/or you’ve run out of quality fanfiction with your OTP.

These poems are beautiful, striking, and heart-wrenching. Neruda twists surreal imagery with truths of human connection. The result is a powerful narrative encapsulating the experience of being romantically involved. When I read these poems, I too almost felt like I was going through the motions – falling in love, futilely hoping, having my heart broken.

Read it in Spanish if you can, otherwise I recommend the version I linked above.

Some memorable lines:

Here I love you and the horizon hides you in vain. / I love you still among these cold things.

– “Aquí te amo”

Love is so short, forgetting is so long.

– “Puedo escribir”

The birds of night peck at the first stars / That flash like my soul when I love you.

– “Inclinado en las tardes”

Pablo Neruda and Edna St. Vincent Millay are my favorite poets and are big inspirations to my writing.

Check out more of Pablo’s work and maybe look up some of Millay’s poems to top off a perfect anti-capitalistic hedonism version of Valentine’s Day.

Sketching in Monaco

I fell out of the habit of sketching three years ago when I entered Wellesley because I got sucked into academics. But this past year, I slowly started drifting back into it. In Monaco, I went to the Japanese Botanical Gardens and Larvotto Beach intending to sketch.

Art has always fascinated me, because with the exception of photorealism, artists never show the world as it truly is. I wonder if artistic “creativity” is sometimes simply perception error causing a rift between what they see and what they put on the page. But whatever it is, through their morphing of reality, we see a more aesthetic, ideal vision of the world.

I sat on a rock overlooking the koi pond while I sketched. Curious strollers would stray off the path to watch. And a few times, we had some brief conversations – one Moroccan young woman whose brother lives in LA, and one Monaco native who also enjoyed drawing.

During the trip, I also talked for 3 hours with a man on the bus about everything from Benin culture (his wife is from Benin) to the olive and cork trees that are cherished in southern France. He showed me photos of his grandson who is growing up quadralingual and taught me a lot about the Jean de Florette-esque life of Provençals. I also had a long exchange with our Blablacar driver, who taught us about Carnaval traditions and the beauty of Eastern France.

It’s these kinds of brief encounters that I and many others simultaneously crave and fear. Pleasant connections with individuals who teach us how to appreciate the world around us, who remind us of small things that make life special, but who disappear after helping us discover a bit more.

Memory is faulty. The Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve condemns even the most seemingly indelible of memories to transience. But that is why we do things like draw and write, I believe. Making art of a situation captures the memories in a way that Instagram photos cannot. By imbuing our memories with our subjective perception – however inaccurate – we remember not only how we saw the world in that moment, but how we felt then too.

Changing the Road Signs: Adulthood, Women’s Roles, and Resilience in “You’re Aging Well”

Listen to this song on Youtube.

When I was a little girl, my mother used to always keep a batch of CD albums in the glove compartment of her Honda minivan. She’d play them on repeat whenever she drove us to playdates or appointments. Nearly every day, I’d hear “You’re Aging Well” by Dar Williams. At 7 years old, I didn’t quite grasp the meaning behind the lyrics. At 20 going on 21, I can now start to appreciate its message.

First released on her album The Honesty Room in 1993, this song deals with the process of maturing, especially for women, in a contradictory modern world. It also celebrates her relationship with mentor Joan Baez, who served as a primary source of encouragement in both her professional and personal life. The two recorded a duet version as well.

The song begins with a lament: “Why is that as we grow older and stronger the road signs point us adrift?” She declares that she will repaint the road signs, defying the paths society ushers us down if they are to leave us continually doubting – “You never can win. Watch your back. Where’s your husband?”

These lines encapsulate some of the contradictory issues that women face. We should be feminist, but can’t be too feminist for the sake of a relationship. Our friends might stab us in the back. We should have significant others, but we need to keep an eye on them. And if only our “lower calf, upper arm were half what they are.” Yet still we are tempted believe that these will lead to a “road of enchantment.”

These kinds of narratives rampant in our culture leave us “with a collection of sticks,” with which to “fight back the hundreds of voices.” We become cynical, absurd – well aware we can only eat “the poisonous apple… not a story we are meant to survive.”

But Williams offers us not just hope, but the promise of companionship in a world that seems indifferent. The refrain of the song is “I’m so glad you finally made it here. You thought nobody cared, but we did, we could tell.” With age, we discover that with suffering comes empathy and understanding. Above all, while hardships can seem abnormal in a world where everyone is walking the road of enchantment, in fact, making it through to where we are today is a sign that we are maturing just as we should be.

It is the the final verses that I feel the most keenly. Sometimes, the “language that keeps us alive” that we’ve been searching for on this endless, misguided roadmap is given to us by someone unexpected or found in unexpected places. And when we’re lost, we’re frustrated. But some things can only be achieved through simply living life as it is, and the fact that we’re right where we are now is a sign that we are, indeed, aging well.

I’m so glad that you finally made it here

With the things you know now, that only time could tell

Looking back, seeing far, landing right where we are

And oh, you’re aging, and I am aging.

Oh, aren’t we aging well?

How To Actually Have A Better Year: On Toxic Relationships

One thing I’ve seen people advocate this past month is dropping toxic friendships from your life. I agree, but I also think that removing bad doesn’t necessarily guarantee the addition of good. Instead of simply ridding ourselves of what hurts us, we need to also become the kind of person worth keeping. We need to set the example of what is good.

Security, reciprocal emotional responsibility, and clear communication are qualities we often take for-granted. But people worth keeping exhibit these, and more.

We all basically understand that toxic people leave you emotionally drained, devalued, and/or feeling stifled in your attempts at communication. We shouldn’t dehumanize or vilify them, though – they are insecure people who deserve compassion. But they lack responsibility of both their own emotions and those of others. They may believe that admitting their own shortcomings, fears – thereby being vulnerable – is a weakness. Or they may source their own value in others’ esteem and project.

In contrast, people worth keeping are those with whom you can have conversations about everything from the weather to your wildest dreams. They know that everyone has faults – themselves and you – but know that everyone is trying their best. They know that everyone has just as many if not more strengths. When something goes wrong, they let you know while still taking account of the fact that every story has two sides. When something goes right, they tell you, encouraging you, building you up.

To simplify, in a harmonious relationship, communication is earnest and reciprocal, ambitions and vulnerabilities are validated, and both individuals are responsible.

Getting rid of toxicity won’t guarantee that the rest of our relationships will be fulfilling. We all want people who build us up, make us excited to reach for our goals, and make us feel safe. But to find these kinds of relationships, we need to be those kinds of people too. In 2019, we need to all become people who communicate respectfully with others, are strong enough to be vulnerable, and responsible enough to nurture truly positive relationships.

The Imperativeness of Being Earnest

To be honest, honesty is overrated. Earnestness, on the other hand, is extremely undervalued.

Who hasn’t before heard (if not said) the passive-aggressive preface, “Just being honest?” Firstly, honesty is not an excuse to be an asshole. Honesty should only be used where an outsider perspective that conflicts with another’s interpretation of events is constructive, whether that be to truly help someone for their own benefit or to defend yourself if your rights are violated.

Secondly, honesty is an abstract notion. Honesty, according to Merriam Webster, is “adherence to the facts.” But when we preface a subjective statement with “just being honest,” we are not honestly adhering to the correct definition. Who is to say that my interpretation of reality is a fact? The only fact in that statement would be the fact that you think something different.

Finally, people know that being “honest” can often provoke others. They sometimes thus use honesty as a pretext for inaction, likely also blaming the other party for not permitting them to be honest, which brings me to my next point.

We seem to confuse honesty of words with something virtuous. Sticking to the “facts” is impossible. But being sincere is not.

It is an age old adage that “actions speak louder than words.” Honesty is certainly not always the best option, but earnestness usually is. If you truly, honestly care about someone, it isn’t so much the content of your words that will demonstrate it as it is your actions. Listening to people. Reaching out to them. Gestures that show you want to understand and care for them. Is this always completely possible? Of course not. But it is indeed the thought that counts, and more.