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Commander Logic tells you how to get unstuck. (Question #146)

Smeagol wears a party hat and brings you dead bunnies.

PARTY SMEAGOL BROUGHT YOU BIRTHDAY GIFT, PRECIOUSSSSS

Here’s another guest-post from Commander Logic, who has posted here on the topics of  long-held virginity, Game-of-Thrones-and-Tits,  and finding your people and your place. She was recently seen plying friends with hot stew and beer during an epic showing of the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy.*

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It’s my 35th birthday today, so I wonder if you could gift me with your wit and wisdom?

I’m basically feeling stuck. After Uni I struggled and worked crazy hours in the type of liberal arts work I really enjoyed, but which is very badly paid and very busy, and meant I was constantly moving around, barely making ends meet and staying in shared flats with bad heating and volatile hot water supply, although mostly great company. Things getting better was always just around the corner, but it seemed that things were moving up and I’d get a stable job surely, one of those days.

Now, the last job I had turned into what I slowly realized was a two-year bullying marathon. In terms of the work I did, I got results that were recognized – by peers outside, not within the institution  – but it left me utterly exhausted, listless and unemployed 7 months ago.

Basically, I feel like I am back to zero. I am in a new country, I need to get a job, a flat, and hopefully a bunch of good friends around me. I’ve not had a regular relationship ever. For the last months, I have felt,melodramatically, crushed, or rather immobile. I do make sure to take care of myself, doing exercise, eating decent food, keeping in touch with friends and family, going out as much as possible to meet new people and not shut myself in. I also look at the job openings every morning, and I do apply for jobs. I’ve done a bunch of unpaid stuff  to keep somewhat connected to ‘my field.’

Money’s running out, and for the first time since I turned 18, I am dependent on my family but I can’t be for much longer… It’s kind of hard to keep feeling ok. And my first reaction, alas, is insomnia, which makes me even more prone to sluggish anxious mornings and a defeatist outlook.  I’ve always been kind of shy, and – I digress – I’ve never learned how to wear make-up or a suit, and I tend to feel like I can’t look to ‘fit in’.

I just wonder how to get the energy to do something. I’ve not felt this unmotivated, and down on me and the future before, I’ve always had enthusiasm and projects and energy, and I am kind of disturbed by my current passivity and lack of energy. I’d also really not like to go back to working all the time, and maybe start to explore the having sex with other people thing a bit (sounding like the shy wee girl that makes me feel like…).

So, if you could give me some idea, that would be brilliant or awesome or lovely indeed,

Feeling Stuck

Hey there, Feeling Stuck.

First, I hope you’ll forgive us for missing your birthday, and I hope you’ll also forgive me for ruthlessly editing down your question.  I did read all of it, and there are important details in there, but we’re going to deal with broad strokes.  You live close up to your life, like a normal person does.  Step back with me a little bit and let’s take it in.

A diagram showing how math problems work.

The f is for "weird shit happens in here."

You are doing everything right.  You’ve ALWAYS done everything right.

You got a good education, you got the jobs in your field, you worked hard at those jobs.  Well done!  You are applying for jobs and being socially active and taking care of yourself as best you can.  Good work!

But it didn’t work out like you thought it would.  The jobs left you through no fault of your own.  You don’t have any markers of success that you thought you’d have.  You don’t have all the things you thought working hard would bring you: stability, prosperity, savings, love.  That isn’t fair, right?  Other people didn’t work as hard as you!  Other people didn’t do the right things!  You are completely right to be entirely pissed off about that!  You don’t have to hide it.  Be pissed off!

Life is weird and annoying for geeks like me, because it doesn’t adhere to logic a lot of the time.  It’s a wild Seussian machine.  We put in Hard Work and Passion and Money and expect to get back Success, when we’re just as likely to get back Failure or Wild Monkeys or Surprise Baby.  The hell of it is, we are told by the culture, our parents, ourselves, that Life is a logical machine.  Now, sure, it’s really rare to put Nothing into the machine and get Success back from it, so it makes sense to load the machine with good stuff, but sometimes it’s just going to shoot out a giraffe at you.

A giraffe

Congratulations. Now it's yours. And it loves you.

So, here you are, with your giraffe.

You’re in a new country, supported by your family, working for free, and getting nowhere fast in your job search. You don’t know if you want to stay on the same career path.  You want to have sex and/or a relationship with people (maybe).

I’m going to suggest something that’s going to sound counter-intuitive: Take a major break.  Let’s say three weeks.

Do not search for a job.  Do not work, even for free.  Do not look for a new flat.  Do nothing to change your situation at ALL.  Just be.

As an active person myself, I can feel your rising panic from here.  “BUT WHAT WILL I DO!?!?! About money! About food! About the future!”  Nothing.  You’ve spent the past 35 years working really, really hard for… what?  Even though you’ve been unemployed for seven months, your letter tells me that you’ve been striving mightily all that time.  Life owes you three weeks of nothingness.  Take it.  Thank your family for the funding and use it to buy coffees and amazing soups.  Thank your friend(s) for a few days on their guestbeds and couches and sleep safely.  Take walks.  Go to museums.  Go to free concerts.  Go to an entirely different country.  Go home to your original country.  Buy strangers a cup of coffee and chat.  It is a 35th birthday gift to you from the universe.

Because you didn’t ask how to get a new job.  You didn’t ask how to make friends or lovers.  You know how to do all that.  You asked how to get the energy to want to do something, and the answer for you, for now, is to stop worrying about how to do things.  Do nothing.

It can be absolutely terrifying to be so free.

Humans, on the whole, tend to be at their worst when there isn’t any structure.  If you can be or do ANYTHING you want, how do you ever choose?  So even though life is much more open now, and that’s a good thing, we cling to meta-narratives ever more tenaciously.  Meta-narrative?  Oh, you know, the rules.  The story of how a Good Life goes: do well in school, get good grades, get good job, work hard at job, find love, get married, make babies, live happy, then die. There are cultural differences and filigrees, of course.  For example, Feeling Stuck, your family’s meta-narrative includes: get arrested for civil disobedience and be a successful activist.

Eowyn spits on "should."

"Should" Eowyn have stayed behind in Edoras to be Queen? Probably.

Meta-narratives give us a script to follow or to rebel against, the anvil on which we pound out the contours of our own life story.  Maybe the idea of following the narrative makes your shoulders go up to your ears.  Maybe the idea of giving the finger to every single point makes you happy.  Maybe you just kind of shrug and say, “Yeah, that sounds pretty good! With a couple of tweaks?” and that can totally work for you! But without any sort of meta-narrative to compare ourselves to, we human-type people can feel lost.  Free, but lost.  What I’m getting from you, Feeling Stuck, is that you are at odds with your narrative.  The story hasn’t gone the way it should have gone! You’re “shoulding” all over yourself and it’s freaking you out.  (For way more on “shoulding” see the Art of Manliness on this topic. It’s seriously great reading, and pretty much covers what I’m going to say next:http://artofmanliness.com/2011/01/24/dont-should-all-over-yourself/)

There is almost nothing that you have to do simply because you’re told or believe you should.  Standing behind the yellow line on the bus is one of those things you have to do.  Staying in a job you hate because you “owe” a friend is not.  So, after your vacation from life, consider your personal narrative, and your meta-narrative, and start forming a plan, making sure that every single thing you plan to do is something that you CHOOSE to do.

And going back up to the Weird Seussian Machine thing, it’s hard!  You aren’t guaranteed that you’ll get what you want in the end.  But you may as well try getting whatever it is in your own way, because you are the story you tell about yourself.  That story is always starting over. Start over clean.

Best love,

CommanderLogic

*Extended editions, obviously.

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25 comments
  1. monica said:

    This sounds like it could be clinical depression–lack of motivation & anhedonia are classic, classic signs. If it’s within the writer’s means, I strongly recommend at least being evaluated by a therapist.

    • commanderlogic said:

      I did actually think of depression, and in an earlier draft of this, I said that the letter writer should at least get depression ruled out. So I guess now I’m putting it back in. Hey, letter writer: go get evaluated for depression.

      But given how involved she is in improving her life (working out, making friends, applying for jobs, etc.) I’m going to say that – in my completely NON PROFESSIONAL OPINION because I am NOT a licensed therapist – it’s probably not clinical depression. Everybody gets down sometimes and she has a totally legit reason to be down. But yeah, good idea to just chat with a professional and get evaluated. Better safe than without help if you really need it!

    • JenniferP said:

      Indubitably, even if just to rule it out, though forgive me for laughing that the ONE time we don’t recommend therapy the first commenter is on the spot. :)

      • commanderlogic said:

        “Therapy” is just what goes for “FIRSTIESLOL” around here. :D

  2. Mortisha said:

    Love this answer. Personally I needed a reminder not to “should” all over myself.
    I’m on a voluntary long extended break from my work too at the moment. Totally burnt out.

    You know what? I’m doing nothing. Fuck All. It is awesome.
    I can’t afford to travel to an exotic location, don’t want to take an self improvement /career developing course cause I’m sick of people yammering at me. Just enjoying sitting of the backstep drinking coffee, talking to the dog, cuddling a hen and growing some flowers & veges.
    I’m not even trying to ‘find myself’.

    Interesting the reaction you get from people though. The thought of doing nothing is incomprehensibly to some. Even embarrassing.

    To their friends, my relatives have relabelled my arseing about doing nothing as a “hiatus” (well La De Da), or a “gap year”? wtf?. Interesting the social gymnastics to describe my ”situation”.
    If it HAS to have a label I’m thinking along the lines of a ”couldn’t give a shit’ break.

    • commanderlogic said:

      Dude, that is SO awesome.

      “Couldn’t Give a Shit Break” is EXACTLY what I’m advocating.

      Perhaps for the friends/relatives, you’re taking a Career Nap. Someday? You will retire and never work again. But right now? You needed a bit of a nap. Who hates naps?

  3. Ensign Perception said:

    That Art of Manliness post is so excellent! Thanks for linking.

    LW, you’re gonna get this thing figured out. Unfortunately being “on” all the time does not save us from occasional weird lulls in life. My advice is to take some time and focus on getting to know the new place you’re in! Does this country have any special foods, music styles, customs etc. that you could go out and experience? How about awesome historical sites or art museums? Christmastime is pretty damn awesome for learning about unfamiliar traditions, too.

    Go be a tourist a little bit now, because lord knows once you find a regular gig you won’t have very much time to bum around your new city / region / country. Consider getting one of those “____ On 10$ A Day” type travel guides, or just make like a Situationist and dérive: http://www.cddc.vt.edu/bps/SI/2.derive.htm

  4. Very excellent post about what another commenter correctly recognized is clearly the phenomenon of “burn out”, and how to recover from it.

    Related to this is that people need to take regular time away from their intense life pursuits–work, love, hobby, children, etc–in order to *avoid* getting burned out in the first place. And the regular time away needs to come on a variety of time scales.

    I was noticing this very clearly in a new biography of the Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist Paul Dirac. He would work long hard hours on intense mathematical physics at certain times of day, but would always take breaks at other times to go for a walk. And he would always take one day a week completely off. And he would always take full weeks off several times per year.

    This kind of periodization of effort allows one to be more productive in the long run than just trying to GO, GO, GO until you are burned out.

  5. xenu01 said:

    Commander Logic, you are wonderful. Also, Eowyn is one of the only reasons I watched all three of those movies. Because love.

    I don’t know if the GO GO GO is unique to America (in fact, I am pretty sure it is not) but I know here that a lot of people are always working always (which sort of makes the whole ‘Americans are fat lazy slugs’ thing that much more amusing). And we work so freaking much! We take three buses over two hours to get to our jobs and work ten hour shifts, or we cross state lines daily. We rack up our overtime. We put off having a good life because we feel like we must earn it, and we never ever ask for help.

    LW, telling yourself you need to “not be a shut-in” is part of the shoulding process. When I burned the f out many years ago the only thing that got me out of it was to be a shut-in for a while. I’d come home from my crappy jobs, make myself a sandwich, and climb into bed with my laptop, some Netflix and the cat. I’d say do what you feel like you want to do, even if you’re embarrassed to be a hermit. If you’re normally a social person, you’ll reach a point where you want to go out eventually, and then it won’t be a struggle because it’ll be something you truly want, not just something you are Doing To Prove You Are Just Fine Thanks. In my humble opinion, of course.

  6. Hannah said:

    So here’s a question:

    I empathize lots with this post: burn-out, panic, paralysis. My issue now is that I’ve been trying to give myself a break to figure out what I actually want to do next instead of what I think I should be doing for the past four or five months. And I’m still stuck.

    How do you know when you’re done with the giving yourself a break? And how do you deal with it if finances dictate that you have to be done now, regardless of how you actually feel about the matter?

    • JenniferP said:

      Good question! I can’t answer it.

      Maybe you start with Any Job. Receptionist. Cashier. Data Entry. Barista. Something to bring some money in, something that gets you in the rhythm of having to show up somewhere regularly, takes some skill, leaves you tired at the end of the day, but not SOUL-tired.

      Exercise wouldn’t hurt.
      Voracious reading wouldn’t hurt.
      Journaling wouldn’t hurt.
      Volunteering wouldn’t hurt.

      But take care of yourself financially and don’t worry too much about how you *feel* just yet. The question “What am I supposed to do with my life?” doesn’t have to be answered at exactly the same time as “What do I do to make next month’s rent?”

      • The question “What am I supposed to do with my life?” doesn’t have to be answered at exactly the same time as “What do I do to make next month’s rent?”

        Damn. Where was that bit of knowledge after I self-ejected from grad school? That is awesome.

    • commanderlogic said:

      Hey Hannah.

      I gave the Letter Writer a set time limit of three weeks for a couple of reasons. #1 among them being that the break isn’t the time you spend sorting out what you’re going to do next. Sorting out? That’s work. And you’re not doing work in the break. The break is a worry-free zone. There is no future, so she shouldn’t worry about it during the break. When future think and shoulds start creeping in, they get shut in a box marked “OPEN AFTER BREAK.”

      AFTER the break, you follow the Cap’s advice above. Don’t stress about Starting My Career (Perhaps Again), just get A Job. If nowhere will hire you, borrow $50 from someone and get dog-walking/house-sitting business cards made. It’s really hard to give Work rather than Career advice without sounding “bootstraps!”y, so I do acknowledge that our advice at this time is probably super annoying.

      But here’s the internal script of the Break: I have X amount of $/time to just drift. I will not strive or worry. When I’m down to ($ amount/time left), I will go to (final location) to start figuring things out. Until then, nothing gets figured out. I just do stuff that sounds [adjective of choice].

      I’m not saying that after that time, you will automatically have an epiphany with angels and stuff. But you’ve been worrying for SO LONG that just getting out of that rut may help give you some perspective.

      In that earlier draft I mentioned up-thread, I had some stuff about being contrarian about your shoulds. “I should get a steady job in my field of expertise.” Why? What would the opposite of that be for you? Does anything about that appeal to you? “I should be in a relationship.” Why? Do you need other people to make you happy? The answer may be yes! And that’s not a crime. “I should volunteer more.” Why? Maybe you hate people.

      So yeah. If you don’t have time or money for a true break, get a day job you can live with and be contrarian for a while.

      • Hannah said:

        Something in there shook something loose, so thanks to you and the Captain. I think it was the bit that I’m interpreting as “it’s okay to not know what happens next” — I’m getting to be pretty okay with not having A Job, or A Career, but am starting to think that I’m really not okay with not having A Plan. Not sure how long the stuck bit will stay unstuck, but it’s been a productive afternoon of swearing at those stupid questionnaires on online employment applications, so yay for that!

        I am quite fond of giraffes. There are definitely worse things to come out of that black box there.

    • “How do you know when you’re done with the giving yourself a break?”

      When you can’t wait to get back to it. And if you never reach that point, then it’s a sign of a different, more essential issue.

  7. bellacoker said:

    I think that there is a technical aspect to this as well, everything you feed into that allegorical machine also has to come from somewhere, you can just keep putting out new inputs without shoring up your own reserves.

    Those reserves have to be built out of rest and relaxation and good foods and just being, like the Commander said, but also out of novelty and whimsy and new and fresh personal experiences that help your perspective keep growing and maturing. We are awesome, but we’re not yet everything we are going to be. So, perhaps you might also purposefully do some things that aren’t things that you would do, things that scare you but are within an acceptable range of dangerousness, or things that you think are too silly to take seriously.

  8. kirinjirafa said:

    Sometimes you get a giraffe…

    Love this. Good luck, writer! If you lived near me, I’d be your friend, and I’d give you a job. Which is a lot less useful an answer than what most of the other people here are saying…

    Maybe take up jogging? That seems to work out all my problems, even though it never really creates a solution. Sometimes what I really need is to just burn some physical energy and then keep going, even though everything is still the same. :|

  9. m said:

    well, this is stupendous! i’m so glad i read this tonight. i had never heard of this site before, and followed a random link (from cary tennis’ salon.com column – i think he linked to another page of this site in one of his answers this week), and i think i clicked around a bit here, and found this page, read the title, and kept it open in a window for a few days, waiting for a good frame of mind and quiet in the flat to read it.

    now it’s friday night, i’m back from a (most enjoyable) solitary visit to a museum (late-opening friday), and it’s been a kind of evening where i could feel the barge shifting not just a millimeter, but maybe a few inches at once (i’m of the age where metric blends with imperial, except for celcius – can’t get a handle on celcius….) the barge is figuratively my life – the thought goes that it (the barge) got stuck in a tributary that is too shallow/narrow for it, and i’m spending a huge, huge, amazingly vast amount of time and energy trying to turn it around and get back to somewhere normal, or at least somewhere where the barge can move in a direction – any direction, just to move and be alive again.

    i’m aware that i sound half out of my mind, or drunk or something, and i’m not in the slightest. :-) but i’m trying to say that i completely understand where the writer is coming from. i hit this point several years ago, and then things got weird externally (a series of bad breaks, unexpected occurrances and accidents, etc.) and i scraped along, and did a great deal of the sort of “3-week time out” that is recommended here (it’s now been about 2 years of a constant time out) because i was hoping that doing so would give me energy, motivation, caring, passion, a direction, etc.

    well, i can say that it was vital that i took this time out, for my physical health and frame of mind, but it didn’t give me a direction or passion or motivation. but at least i feel somewhat physically fortified to strike out again into the hurly-burly of grown-up life, out of necessity, not necessarily out of desire. in addition to refusing to be manufactured or enthused-up, the desire/motivation i wish i had simply isn’t going to show up if i rest long enough, i now realize, but maybe one day it will creep up on me and rejoin me on my wanderings. maybe not.

    anyway, desire and motivation aren’t necessarily constants in life (especially when one is low in energy, ill, beaten down, shell-shocked, or wise/mature enough to be quite calm and philosophical about most things), which the american culture doesn’t teach kids to expect. it’s like there is something wrong with you if you don’t want a bunch of things and experiences and power and socializing or whatever. actually, there isn’t anything wrong with you. but the modern world doesn’t have much respect for hermit-y folks, or many niches for them (like, i don’t know, monastery resident, crazy lady in log cabin in the woods, governess in remote castle, shepherd, bizarre artist in a hovel,… ?)

    before i reached this point of heavy-duty ennui/anomie/something-frenchific-sounding a few years ago, i had and was diagnosed with clinical depression because i was bullied as a 35-year-old at work (bullied for the first time in my life) by two psychopathic people (they had a history of having done this to others throughout the years), and i was failed by the rest of the “system”, and treated illegally by the organization and left to fend for myself, etc. — to make a long story short.

    anyway, for a year i was really pretty depressed and took antidepressants which did nothing for me. there was not any chance to see a counselor because i was in the UK and relying on the NHS and they had like a 6 month waiting list for severely clinically depressed people to see a counselor for a few sessions so all they could do was give a generic antidepressant (smart allocation of resources, that).

    i explain that because i think that the original letterwriter sounds british to me, and if she’s now living in the UK, she probably would get the same treatment as i did if she went to see her GP about being depressed. i’m not saying that she shouldn’t – she should certainly seek medical advice because depression is very serious – but it’s not a certainty that the medical care that she would get in the UK would be anything like the kind of care one of the more-fortunate americans who do have good health insurance (a minority these days, even in the US) would get. she probably would see a GP for a couple of bland 10-minute visits, have a few blood tests, get prescribed a generic antidepressant drug (and not really be given a chance to try other ones if that first one doesn’t seem to work), not have ANY option to see a counselor, and after a year the GP might say that it’s a good time to come off the drug since it’s not helping, and there you are, feeling similar to how you started, and left on your own to just get on with life. yet, it’s now on your medical record, and you can legally be kept from certain occupations in the future.

    most people do recover from depression after a while with or without treatment, but they can dip into it again later in life and need to guard against it, because with each subsequent episode the risk of suicide apparently goes up.

    i recovered from my serious depression into this malaise of melancholy. it’s actually a beautiful thing, solitary and deep and a very human experience – i’ve never felt so connected to the nameless and countless people throughout history who must have felt the same way around midlife, if they were so fortunate to live long enough and not be in constant pain/warfare/domestic violence/starvation etc.

    but – there is no way i can explain this to people – most people have no idea, think you are a flake, think you are a layabout, think you just need a good shag/kick up the butt to get you moving along with the majority.

    it’s gotten to the point where i’ve got this massive gap in my resume / cv, and i am terrified to try to explain it to people. i don’t even know where to start to try to produce a resume or talk in an interview setting about what i’ve been doing the last couple of years. surely most people want to hire folks whose lives have been much more conventional.

    and the thing is, the world really is falling apart around us right now. in the UK, 25% of people 25 and younger are not employed, not in school, not in training, not in unpaid internships. that is going to move up the ages, and the current 10% or so unemployment of people over 25 will start to worsen as well. just today the IMF/Christine Lagarde warned that we could easily slip into another Great Depression like the 1930s.

    i know it sounds unbelieveable, but i really felt this coming even 10 years ago. i did a masters and a partial phd in business, and things just weren’t adding up — i thought the economists were off their rockers. and i knew a lot of major-financial-center bankers and how the value system they were working in was oriented, how the business world has a disproportionate % of psychopaths (less-intelligent psychopaths make up a big % of the prison populations; more-intelligent psychopaths make up a big % of boardrooms).

    so it’s my opinion that most SANE folks, considered, intelligent, decent folks with good hearts, should currently feel pretty burned-out, nervous, frozen, on pause, rationally not making many moves, because there is a real possibility that our modern life/society is about to implode. there is no point building a house on the slopes of mount vesuvius if you can feel earth tremors. put up a tent, maybe. pack what you can carry into a backpack and venture to another territory (but you probably won’t be able to get far enough, in time), maybe.

    lines from the poetry of rilke come to mind these days – he had many beautiful thoughts about being in this strange state of mind/on this strange kind of life path that you never meant to go down, but now you are on it. i would quote some here, but i get the feeling that i’ve exceeded my word limit already, and this comment might be rejected as is!

    • JenniferP said:

      That was indeed very long, but welcome, and hit us with a little bit of Rilke anytime.

  10. m said:

    By the way, I LOVE the last piece of advice in the answer —
    “…you are the story you tell about yourself. That story is always starting over. Start over clean.”

    It appeals to me, and it hit me square in the stomach – I needed to hear it tonight. Because I’m struggling to create a new story about myself, both for myself and for the consumption of others.

    However, I do think it’s a particularly American take on life, and it’s not as easy in other cultures, to reinvent oneself, make up a new interpretation, start over clean again and again. That pioneer, manifest-destiny, always new-territory-to-encounter-and-stake-a-claim-on mindset is gorgeous (I am SOOO glad I grew up an American in the 70s! when the American Dream was closer to being a reality than it will be for the next coupla generations).

    In a work setting, I’ve trained many British people about living in other countries, and it’s so interesting how much more narrow their perceived options in life are — options to change their “class”, their aims, their beliefs, their career, their group of friends, etc. Being slotted into a more-or-less stable position for the rest of their lives starts with tiny tots here, and it’s very hard to get beyond. When Michelle Obama came to the UK last year and took a group of female students from a poor, inner-city high school to a lovely old dining hall at Oxford or Cambridge and told them that they were ALLOWED to dream that they could attend such a university, it got almost constant news coverage the whole day, because NO british person of any rank would ever dream of saying such a thing, or making such a gesture, and it was beautiful and sad and very foreign (only an american would be so bold as to come over and do something like that here with all the news channels watching) and really touching and inspiring, but (of course) it was not enough to change the rigidity of the social structure that they have here.

    I just thought I’d make this comment because it sounds like the letter-writer is originally British and she might authentically be in a position where it’s much harder than the average American can imagine for her to start out now with a brand new story about herself (even in a place where she has no friends yet, no job yet, etc. — if it’s in the UK, that makes it all the worse, because they will particularly try to pin her ‘definition’ down to where she last had friends, a job, a position on the class ladder, etc.)

  11. m said:

    By the way, I do not mean to imply that British people don’t care about those topics – not at all. There is a genuine concern now in the UK about this topic — they call it “social mobility”, and they’ve got commissions looking into it and think-tanks trying to come up with ideas and the government is concerned and trying to do something, but they have found it hard to change ANYthing, because the way things are is so complex, mostly invisible, and entrenched. They are reporting on the news that social mobility in the UK is worse now than it was in the 1970s, and that’s pretty depressing because it wasn’t so great here even in the 70s.

  12. m said:

    Here is some Rillke, since you asked.

    They are excerpts that I noted down while reading his poems about 20 years ago — just lovely.

    The translator was Stephen Mitchell — an amazing scholar with fingers in many pies. (I try not to hold it against him that later he married “Byron Katie” of Oprah fame.)

    Apologies for “hogging” so much space in the comments area here.
    ==========

    Rainer Maria Rilke snippets

    We can so easily slip back from what we have struggled to attain, abruptly, into a life we never wanted, can find that we are trapped, as in a dream, and die there, without ever waking up.
    This can occur.
    Anyone who has lifted his blood into a years-long work may find that he can’t sustain it, the force of gravity is irresistable, and it falls back, worthless.
    For somewhere there is an ancient enmity between our daily life and the great work.
    Help me, in saying it, to understand it.

    ——-
    Yes–the springtimes needed you.
    Often a star was waiting for you to notice it.
    A wave rolled toward you out of the distant past, or as you walked under an open window, a violin yielded itself to your hearing.
    All this was mission.
    But could you accomplish it?
    Weren’t you always distracted by expectation, as if every event announced a beloved? (Where can you find a place to keep her, with all the huge strange thoughts inside you going and coming and often staying all night.)

    ——
    Whoever has no house now, will never have one. Whoever is alone will stay alone, will sit, read, write long letters through the evening, and wander on the boulevards, up and down, restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

    ——–
    You who never arrived in my arms, Beloved, who were lost from the start, I don’t even know what songs would please you.
    I have given up trying to recognize you in the surging wave of the next moment.
    All the immense images in me–the far-off, deeply felt landscape, cities, towers, and bridges, and unsuspected turns in the path, and those powerful lands that were once pulsing with the life of the gods–all rise within me to mean you, who forever elude me.

    You, Beloved, who are all the gardens I have ever gazed at, longing.
    An open window in a country house–, and you almost stepped out, pensive, to meet me.
    Streets that I chanced upon,–you had just walked down them and vanished.
    And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back my too-sudden image.
    Who knows? perhaps the same bird echoed through both of us yesterday, separate, in the evening…

    ——-
    Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were behind you, like the winter that has just gone by.
    For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter that only by wintering through it will your heart survive.

    Be forever dead in Eurydice–more gladly arise into the seamless life proclaimed in your song.
    Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days, be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang.

    Be–and yet know the great void where all things begin, the infinite source of our inmost vibration, so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent.

    To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb creatures in the world’s full reserve, the unsayable sums, joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count.

    ——-
    For this is wrong, if anything is wrong: not to enlarge the freedom of a love with all the inner freedom one can summon.
    We need, in love, to practice only this: letting each other go.
    For holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.

    ——–
    As once the winged energy of delight carried you over childhood’s dark abysses, now beyond your own life build the great arch of unimagined bridges.

    Wonders happen if we can succeed in passing through the harshest danger, but only in a bright and purely granted achievement can we realize the wonder.

    To work with things in the indescribable relationship is not too hard for us; the pattern grows more intricate and subtle, and being swept along is not enough.

    Take your practiced powers and stretch them out until they span the chasm between two contradictions… For the god wants to know himself in you.

    ——-
    Evening

    The sky puts on the darkening blue coat held for it by a row of ancient trees; you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight, one journeying to heaven, one that falls;

    and leave you, not at home in either one, not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses, not calling to eternity with the passion of what becomes a star each night, and rises;

    and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel) your life, with its immensity and fear, so that, now bounded, now immeasurable, it is alternately stone in you and star.

    ——-
    Lament

    Everything is far and long gone by.

    I think that the star glittering above me has been dead for a million years.

    I think that there were tears in the car I heard pass and something terrible was said.

    A clock has stopped striking in the house across the road…

    When did it start?…

    I would like to step out of my heart and go walking beneath the enormous sky.

    I would like to pray.

    And surely of all the stars that perished long ago, one still exists.

    I think that I know which one it is – the one that stands like a white city at the end of its beam in the sky,…

    ——-
    Imaginary Career

    At first a childhood, limitless and free of any goals. Ah sweet unconsciousness. Then sudden terror, schoolrooms, slavery, the plunge into temptation and deep loss.

    Defiance. The child bent becomes the bender, inflicts on others what he once went through. Loved, feared, rescuer, wrestler, victor, he takes his vengeance, blow by blow.

    And now in vast, cold, empty space, alone. Yet hidden deep within the grown-up heart, a longing for the first world, the ancient one…

    Then, from His place of ambush, God leapt out.

    ——-
    (an excerpt from) Turning-Point

    The road from intensity to greatness passes through sacrifice. – Kassner

    When he, whose vocation was Waiting, sat far from home–the hotel’s distracted unnoticing bedroom moody around him, and in the avoided mirror once more the room, and later from the tormenting bed once more: then in the air the voices discussed, beyond comprehension, his heart, which could still be felt; debated what through the painfully buried body could somehow be felt–his heart; debated and passed their judgment: that it did not have love. (And denied him further communions.)

    For there is a boundary to looking, and the world that is looked at so deeply wants to flourish in love. Work of the eyes is done, now go and do heart-work on all the images imprisoned within you; for you overpowered them: but even now you don’t know them.

    ——-
    Moving Forward

    The deep parts of my life pour onward,
    as if the river shores were opening out.
    It seems that things are more like me now,
    That I can see farther into paintings.
    I feel closer to what language can’t reach.
    With my senses, as with birds, I climb
    into the windy heaven, out of the oak,
    in the ponds broken off from the sky
    my falling sinks, as if standing on fishes.

  13. m said:

    I’ve just read this article written in the UK’s _Guardian_ newspaper by a filmmaker about her documentary that premiered at the London Film Festival recently,

    and I kind of thought of this blog post, or rather, my reaction to it and comments on it.

    Some readers may find the article unexpectedly moving if they care to read it; I did. It is:

    Joyce Carol Vincent: How could this young woman lie dead and undiscovered for almost three years?When the film-maker Carol Morley read that the skeleton of a young woman had been found in a London bedsit, she knew she had to find out more…

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/oct/09/joyce-vincent-death-mystery-documentary

    The documentary is about a woman who had a lot going for her, had many acquaintences, had several serious relationships in her past (even a 2-year engagement), had family members, yet died alone in London in her late 30s, single and childless, and wasn’t found for 3 years – when they entered her apartment which was bolted on the inside, her skeleton was on the sofa, the tv was still on, and Christmas presents she had wrapped for other people were on the floor.

    Why did those people (the people she was friendly enough with to give Christmas presents to) never follow up to see what happened to her? What was going on with her family? Why did her life go from being promising, pretty, talented, and gregarious (dinner with Stevie Wonder, backstage meeting with Nelson Mandela, responsible accounting-type of job at Ernst & Young for 4 years, etc.) to being utterly alone, forgotten, and dead (the cause of death was left undetermined)?

    My life has been different from hers in most of the particulars, of course, but this definitely could have happened to me, and it could still happen to me, especially here in London, which is so impersonal even though I’ve been here years. It is so easy for a rockslide to obliterate the trail ahead and to lose your way and be surrounded by fog and silence. I am feeling a wave of compassion for people out there, now and in the past, who have also been not that far away from this woman’s sad fate’s being within the realm of possibility for their lives. And for most of them, you’d probably never guess it if you were a casual observer or mere acquaintance.

    In the last few weeks, my subconscious has been throwing up tiny reminders about a story I read in 7th grade English class, _Bartleby the Scrivener_, by Poe I think, and how he kept saying, “I prefer not to” to everything and slept in a cupboard or something like that and obviously was completely depressed and alone. I don’t remember which books I read last year, let alone the plot of a short story from 32 years ago, so I probably should dig it up and skim it since there is something about it that is “knocking on my mental door”.

    I expect that the responsible, mature, enlightened reaction to this touching of my heart would be to consider how I could get a job or use my free time in a way which allowed me to help folks who are in this sort of predicament, but at the moment the idea exhausts and scares me — I would need to make sure I’m safe and comfortable and ensconced in a secure situation first.

    That might take a while, but I’ll get there.

    I am also reminded, as London starts to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens’ death or birth or whatever it was, that he secretly funded a home for ex-prostitutes where they could stop working on the streets, learn a trade, have good meals and a clean and safe environment, and prepare themselves to go to Australia to start a new life with a new identity. After a few years, it was publicized that he was funding this sanctuary, and he had to pull out of it due to some whiff of scandal, I think.

    [Note: A couple of weeks ago, I saw a BBC culture review tv show where 4 commentators discussed this documentary about Joyce Carol Vincent after they saw it at the London Film Festival, and 3 of them didn't like it very much - they felt it left a lot of crucial information out, that it was a bit sensationalistic or something. My tv was just on in the background, so I wasn't paying close attention to their review or to what the subject of the documentary was. In any event, the story itself as told in the newspaper article is sad and interesting.]

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