Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Visions despite a tarnished future

In 24 hours, the whole world has experienced an extraordinary series of emotions. First, there was promise, then anxiety and nail-biting, soon resolution. For some, that led to an even more pronounced set of feelings - fear, worry, depression. But somewhere in there, I feel I may have found a degree of hope.

This morning I woke to news that requires no restating. I no doubt believe it is an historic occasion, though its portrayal in the history books of tomorrow remains to be seen.

I processed the stages of grief - through denial to anger to bargaining to depression, but acceptance seemed an improbability if not an absolute impossibility. Instead, I opted for distraction.

Hours and hours and a hot chocolate later, I've had a peace wash over me with an origin that is two-fold and (I believe) key to moving forward in the face of this incredibly inauspicious moment in history:

1. In the hours following the definitive conclusion of the past many months, I watched as my community of friends and family wrote to each other with visions of solidarity, love, and compassion in the face of fear. Amidst the pain of a tarnished future, they spoke words of love and shared ambitions to become more active for causes in which they believe.

2. I re-read an essay that opened my eyes to the fact that even the most automatic destructive feelings can be combatted with education and compassion.

This is Water, a very beloved commencement address given in 2005 at Kenyon College by the inimitable late David Foster Wallace details the nature of automatic thoughts and how conscious thinking can challenge even the most inherent negative feelings.

His speech (worth taking several minutes to read through) reminded me of a moment I had less than a week ago in a train station. As I stood at a ticket counter putting away my wallet, a man behind me muttered in automatic anger, "hurry up." I was immediately filled with the expected self-consciousness of bothering him, followed by indignation at his rudeness. What I did not expect was to feel compassion for him just a few moments later.

I've been in his place. I've stood in a line, in a hurry and wanting things to move just a few ticks faster. I might have even muttered under my breath under those circumstances. And I recognized that he likely acted not out of a conscious desire to be cruel or hurtful, but out of an automatic feeling of self-centeredness that is present in us all.

In moments like what we have witnessed today, it is the easy answer to submit to automatic feelings. Resentment begets vitriol which creates a cycle of negativity. This is the rhetoric that got us to this point in the first place. In the words of Wallace, "...the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self." If we choose that path, we find ourselves as flaming meteors barreling towards the Earth, the very destruction that we claim to despise.

"The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day."

Wallace spoke of this kind of compassionate form of living years ago, yet it is so very apropos to the events we have witnessed today. It is a universal truth. The active decision to breed grace is the antidote to the automatic desire toward animosity.

In such a short time, I have witnessed so much love on the internet and in my social circles. I hope for your sake that you did too. The forthcoming days, months, and years may continue to challenge us. Yet, the hope that we claimed to possess eight years ago has not worn thin. This is but a blip on our timeline, and if we just keep our hearts linked and keep pushing forward toward empathy, then I believe it possible for good to always trump bad.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

What I thought versus what I know: Amsterdam, London and Dublin

When I first went to Paris at seven years old, my only knowledge of the city was what I had seen in the movies. I fell in love with the landscapes and architecture watching Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was taught that apparently traveling to Paris meant finding a French boyfriend from Mary Kate and Ashley’s Passport to Paris.

But seeing the city in all of its real, immersive glory was something altogether unique and totally separate from the repeated VHS viewings I’d witnessed on my adorably tiny 10-inch TV screen.

In the past few weeks I’ve spent time in London, Amsterdam, and Dublin. In the course of these days as a solo traveler, I’ve had quiet moments of contemplation to think about how very different it is to imagine a place and to see that same place for what it is.

London is the city I know best. I can usually walk the streets with minimal use of a map and travel the public transportation without consulting a trip planning app. But no matter the times I come here, there’s always something inspiring and new about the city to discover.

Just two nights ago, I found myself in the middle of a street fair in Bloomsbury. In this area, where I’d studied abroad four years back, I’d somehow neglected this vibrant street which on the night of the festival teemed with art installations, music and dance. I could barely believe this place I thought I’d known could be home to something that had skirted just outside my peripheral vision for so long.

If my familiarity with London is so often being tested, then my travels in other cities are like whirlwind educational experiences.

Amsterdam's gabled roofs (Rachel Poletick/Instagram)
I arrived in Amsterdam on the afternoon of October 3rd, and walking out of the Centraal train station
on the northern edge of the city, I felt overwhelmed. Not merely because my pre-holiday research hadn’t involved learning how to get a ticket for the subway and trolley system in the city, but because of the scope of what stood before me. Beautiful canals meet architecture that appears somehow equally inviting and intimidating in its ornate beauty.

Over the course of a few days traversing the city, I walked a number of residential canals, met a fellow traveler at a restaurant serving traditional Dutch cuisine, avoided direct eye contact in the Red Light District, walked back and forth and back and forth past the beautiful Rijksmuseum, cried through the Anne Frank House, and thought of my friends, my family, and the path that led me to where I was. Amsterdam, for me, felt nothing like it is in the public mindset. The deviant culture I’d been told about gave way to one of the most open and friendly societies I’ve ever encountered. The three crosses (XXX) of Amsterdam’s coat of arms that graced so many surfaces around the city felt like a postscript to every moment. Its historical significance (and modern reinterpretation) aside, the symbol felt like a set of kisses tacked onto every moment, an offering of belonging and love.

My trip to Dublin came less than two weeks later, on October 17th.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic (Rachel Poletick/Instagram)
My goal in arriving in Dublin was two-fold: 1. Awaken myself with the Irish perspective about their fight for independence from Britain and 2. Wind down with some traditional music. I accomplished my goals, but in the process learned so much more than I could have anticipated. Prior to arriving, I thought of Ireland as a smaller, greener version of the UK. I knew little about the history of the nation save for what I’d been taught in one class session during a course on British history.

Just traveling to Dublin was like a masterclass. The city is forever altered by the struggles and resiliency of its people. On my first day I went to Trinity College and saw a full print of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, not realizing that this symbol would pop up several times over my few days in the city. My passing knowledge of the 1916 Easter Rising became an expanding history of the struggles of the Irish people. I visited Kilmainham Gaol, a prison which at different times held debtors and political prisoners in great numbers. I felt the pain of separated families due to injustice. In other moments, I listened to music and discovered a side of Irish pride that is centered in an undying passion for cultural traditions. Dance, music and art became a focal point of my travels, as did the brief but incomparably lovely interactions I had with Irish people. Of the dozen or so store proprietors I spoke to, I came away with more jokes, pleasantries, recommendations, and stories than I have experienced in any other city I have ever visited. It’s hard not to feel like you belong in Dublin when you spend even a short amount of time there.

I walked away from these moments in places - both the familiar and new - and considered how little it is that I know despite how much I seem to think I know. Being in a place is nothing like reading about a place. Meeting people is nothing like hearing from people. Thinking is nothing like knowing.

On that first trip to Paris, I remember walking through Notre Dame after perhaps 50 viewings of the Disney film accumulated over four years. I was struck with something - the checkerboard floors - no doubt drawn directly from reality by the animators of the film. They had a special meaning to me because they were as real in my filmic knowledge of Paris as in reality. In subsequent visits to the church, I’ve looked at those floors and seen the familiar. I’ve known the reality of the floors of Notre Dame, just as I’ve seen it on the screen in my living room at four years old. To say that the translation of the dream to its tangible counterpart moved me to tears is an understatement. On my last visit to Notre Dame, I stared down and cried as my past, my present, and my future collided in this one small observable thing: the floor of this cathedral.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Once upon a time in London

My view of London from Primrose Hill a couple days back. (Rachel Poletick/Instagram)
Let's go back in time. Not too long ago or far away. Nowhere very difficult to imagine or impossible to believe. A mystical, magical time nonetheless: September 2012.

This time four years ago, I was in a position not too far off from where I am now. Within the same time zone. In the same postcode area, even. And with a similar goal in mind: fulfilling a dream of living in London (if only temporarily).

Back then I was a student starting a three month study abroad program in the city. As exhilarated as I was, on some level I was also frightened. For the first time I was not only at a distance from my family, but an entire ocean away on a foreign continent. London had long felt like a second home to me, but the homesickness was undeniable and the culture shock was almost immediate.

One of my first days in the country, I asked a server at a restaurant for silverware. That's when I saw something I'd never before seen in England: the blank expression of an apparent language barrier. She asked me to repeat what I needed. I looked at her confused, "Silverware? A fork, knife, spoon?" She corrected me, "Oh, cutlery." And I felt like a baby learning to walk for the first time. I stumbled, and would likely do so again, but soon I'd be at it like an old pro.

The strangeness of moving to a new city on one's own is a special kind of awkwardness. No matter where you're from and where you're going, the learning curve is evident from the moment you step foot in a new apartment or walk down the street looking for the best place to get toothpaste. In one way or another, you will feel lost.

That is where I am right now. Despite the familiarity of my surroundings, the comfort I have with most of the necessities of London life, having returned to spend three months here I find myself running into cultural disconnects: forgetting to switch on the electrical outlets and unplugging my phone only to realize it hasn't been charging the last hour and a half, or watching pedestrians speed through busy intersections and remembering that jaywalking isn't illegal in the United Kingdom.

Other aspects of live here feel so familiar it's like I never actually left (though, just for clarity's sake, I did leave after three months in 2012. Please don't misread, immigration officers!): the paths I would take to get to favorite spots in the city, the aisles where I'd find particular foods at my local Sainsbury's. Some things never leave you.

Most of my week since arriving in this beautiful city on Monday has been spent running errands and exploring places I once knew. While four years is a long time to have come and gone, I strangely feel as though not much has changed at all.

Still, as I venture on into the next few months I hope I do find things have changed, that my perspective has broadened and that my connection to the city is even deeper and more personal. I plan to take this blog along with me in my journey toward discovery. Whether or not I keep it updated every day like I did four years ago, I can't promise. A time machine can only relive the past, it cannot change the present.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Once in a day

My five year diary is both aesthetically pleasing and a super low stakes commitment! (Rachel Poletick / Instagram)
Four years ago when I started The Songs of Spring, I unwittingly found myself caught in the midst of a year-long experiment in endurance. After writing steadily every day, I challenged myself to keep my streak going. Even after 365 days had passed, I had grown so used to the process of coming up with a topic worth writing about every day and then immediately putting pen to paper -- or fingers to keyboard -- that I could not let go. I kept writing daily blogs for a while after my year had elapsed.
Now, like hobbies often do, this blog fell by the wayside to make time for other responsibilities. Where I've lost one commitment, I have gained several others. Yet I have learned since 2012 that having something to hold you accountable on a daily basis can be rewarding, even cathartic.

We often talk about sameness as boring. We use buzzwords like "adventure" and "change" to indicate our hopes and plans for the future. Settling into a routine can be a struggle because it can feel like it lacks stimulation.

The more aspects there are to our routine, the harder this predictability is to bear. Time is our greatest asset and our biggest enemy. We crave more of it. We procrastinate when we feel the time we have is inadequate. We get discouraged. The cycle repeats.

Since 2014, I have been writing in a separate -- private -- journal every day. Short entries, only a few sentences each. Certainly not the same level of engagement and talent required for a blog since I am writing for my eyes only, rather than attempting to explain a theory or a feeling with any complexity.

But writing to foster talent is not what I'm getting at here. What I have discovered since starting this new once-a-day project is that doing something every single day is really awesome. Knowing that you will be carving out even five minutes from your day to do something meaningful not only reinforces values like patience and diligence, it also makes you feel confident on days when you may have been less than productive.

We all would benefit by taking a little time out of our days to reflect. That can mean any number of things, from writing in a journal to sending a note to someone you love to quietly meditating. Our lives, even when they are monotonous, are far too hectic. How often do we stop to just think?

So do that right now. I hope it will be as wonderful for you as it is for me.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Gilmore guys and unfinished business

The Gilmore Girls cast including two of the three returning love interests, Dean and Jess (bottom L & R). (Warner Bros)

The past year and a half has seen Gilmore Girls go from age-inflicted obscurity to the shining beacon of the revived television zeitgeist, and I have a lot of feelings about it. Most of them involve me breathing heavily into a paper bag because I'm so excited that I'm becoming a emotional wreck.

As a loyal viewer of the show since my 12th year of life (which was also Gilmore's 5th season), I have been waiting for this moment like a dog waiting for food to fall from the dinner table. Every time someone figuratively shifted in their chair - I see you, Gilmore Guys episode where Scott Patterson suggested the show might come back - I ran and yelped and begged for food, but to no avail. It all just felt like a big tease.

And then it happened. Somehow, my years of waiting patiently had been given a purpose: to bring me to the day when I could finally say once again: "I'm watching Gilmore Girls tonight." Well, the premiere date for the Gilmore reunion hasn't been set yet, so I'm still waiting on the day when those words will pass my lips. But just the knowledge of a return has turned me into a loon who spends practically all of her free time thinking about the show.

To be brutally honest, there was only one thing I needed from this revival. And recently, my dream came true.

From my perspective, there was a satisfying finality to Gilmore Girls' season 7 ending. Though the infamous loss of Amy Sherman-Palladino as showrunner before the final season will never be excusable, the path that the characters took did not feel wholly inauthentic. (Warning, spoilers ahead!) Lorelai ending up with Luke was certainly no surprise and Rory putting her work before her relationships was a pretty fitting way to end the series.

Yet in the latter case, I couldn't help but feel that the story never seemed complete.

Recently the news surfaced that not one, not two, but all three of Rory Gilmore's love interests will be returning to Gilmore Girls. And while my feminist side wants desperately to say "who cares? Rory is better off focusing on her career because boys don't matter," I just can't not feel an incredible sense of relief that the loose ends will be finally tied up in this area.

A little over three years ago, I wrote a blog about my feelings on Rory's three boyfriends. At that point, I decided that after years of being attracted to the "devil-may-care" boyfriends Jess Mariano (Milo Ventimiglia) and Logan Huntzberger (Matt Czuchry), I'd come to the realization that the "good guy" boyfriend Dean Forester (Jared Padalecki) was the best, most aspirational love interest of the bunch.

In the years since and a ton of repeat viewings later, my inclination has changed once again, perhaps with even more discerning insight.

If you listen at all to Gilmore Guys podcast, you know that hosts Kevin and Demi (until recently) were decidedly anti-Jess. They weren't exactly Team Dean or Team Logan, however they were pretty confident that Jess was a bad fit for Rory.

For a while I felt this way too.

Now, as the series reboot is in production on the WB Studio Lot and I spend practically all my available brain space on Gilmore Girls theorizing, I've arrived at a new perspective on the "stable of hot boys" (inside Gilmore Guys reference) and how I actually hope the story arrives at a fair and satisfying end.

While many fan theories stand against the trope of "girl ends up with boyfriend from her youth after years apart," I'm going to play devil's advocate. So here it goes...

I believe Rory Gilmore and Jess Mariano are meant to be together.

As fans of the show will undoubtedly be aware, the relationship between Rory and Jess in high school was not a good one. He flirted with her while she was in a relationship, she flirted back and kissed him without being honest with her boyfriend about her infidelity, when they got together their relationship was dramatic and childish, he eventually left without even saying goodbye.

It was as the story progressed and the characters grew older that I believe their paths to one another started to become less marred by weeds. Jess leaves town in season 2, breaking up with Rory without a word, but upon his return in season 4 something has changed. He forgoes his distant and mysterious persona and tells her outright that he wants to be with her. In his still immature fashion, he asks her to run away with him.

If the story had ended there, I would not be Team Jess.

But when Jess returns again in season 6, there's an obvious shift in their roles. Rory has dropped out of college and lost her sense of self, while Jess has followed a more definitive and mature path in life. An independently published novelist and full-time employee at said publishing house, he knocks sense into Rory's head about her goals. In a sense he reinvigorates her most intrinsic desires when she's at her most lost and vulnerable. If it weren't for Jess's urging, she may not have returned to college, and quite possibly she would not have chosen her career over Logan's proposal of marriage.

With this understanding, as well as the romantic tension between Rory and Jess that is so evident in their last moments together in season 6, how can anyone have any doubt that the story has set everything up for their inevitable reunion?

The way the Rory-Jess story ended was deeply disappointing because it did not feel like it was truly over. They kissed and Rory broke it off because she was still involved with Logan - the same she had done when she kissed Jess while she was with Dean four seasons earlier. The parallel suggests the same depth of passion and unfortunate timing.

I just can't see any other outcome than a rekindled romance being quite as gratifying.

The last time I tried to quantify how many times I'd seen each episode of Gilmore Girls I said somewhere around five or six times. Three years later, I'd probably place each episode at around 10 to 15 times, and for those I really love potentially 20 to 30 views apiece. I know that seems like lunacy. Gilmore Girls has become like my Bible (pardon the sacrilege), defining the way I perceive and interact with the world.

What I want from the revival is the finale we've been waiting for since 2006 (a year before the show ended). Based on what we know of the characters, there are certain obvious routes we must travel down, and to see those play out not just in the fan fiction in my brain, but with actual characters on actual sets with actual dialogue would (nay, will) be a dream.

From one Gilmore Girls fangirl to the many, we've been waiting for this for so long. However you feel it should end, I'm sure we can all feel the same in saying we're ready to find out: Copper boom!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Primrose Hill Contradiction, a poem

I see the sun peek through a cloud on Primrose Hill. (Rachel Poletick)
I did not feel my best today. But sometimes when we're at our worst, life gives us a moment to contemplate on our best. When I consider me at my best, most thoughtful self, I think of poetry.

So here is one I wrote a while back, in a moment of quiet observation. I don't consider it a masterpiece. I've never felt terribly eager to publish it before today. But in the vein of living in one's past, present and future with equanimity, I thought I might share.

Primrose Hill Contradiction

This hill is vibrant
Full of voices and cameras
Chatter and clicking interchangeably
It's a moment in time
That catches you and makes you
Perceptive, even if you didn't want to be.

The view pierces previous thought
Where iron and glass
Meet stone and brick
Which in turn meet leaves and bark
A line which seems impenetrable,
Yet almost so close as to reach it.

I'm not sure how I came to be here,
How I can be so close to life,
Yet miles away.

But somehow it feels perfect,
Unchangeable and unfathomable
All at once.

And I know I must come back.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Always have existed, always will exist

It is 2016. I am 23 years old. I have dark hair, brown eyes, olive toned skin. I know these things, but I also know they won't last forever. Nothing lasts forever.

Every stage of life has felt, at least in some respect, like a continuation. I have never stopped feeling like a kid, never stopped feeling like a teen, never stopped feeling like an undergrad, never stopped feeling like an intern. Though all those stages in my life have elapsed, in my mind they are all still vibrantly, almost tangibly real.

Though it's been a few years since I picked up the book, there is one thing in particular I remember quite vividly from reading Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five: This notion of time existing not as a straight linear progression, but on a sort of continuum. It's somewhat akin to Doctor Who lore. Instead of living in a location bound by space and time, it's the suggestion that we can live outside of our temporal reality and extend our consciousness to past and present.
"The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever." (Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five)
While the book reads as science fiction, there is an inherent truth to its message. While we may live in a moment, we are also not entirely separate from our past and our future - particularly the former. At any moment we choose, we can place ourselves in the past through our memories, the future through our plans, and those experiences can feel almost as real as the present. In the case of dreams, they can feel more real than reality.

I may look back at my childhood and think of it as a time long gone and expired, a period in my life to which I may never return. But in a moment of reminiscence, the thoughts and feelings and sensory responses I had can come back and feel wonderfully, occasionally spookily "in the now."

Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to let go of the previous versions of oneself. Having experienced the various stages of my life, I live in the memories of them and never feel like they are fully over. Each moment leads into another, making up the whole - a whole which is, by its nature, incomplete because it consists of a future as well.

This is all exceedingly metaphysical and perhaps incomprehensible brain melting philosophizing. Yet it's something I feel plays a hugely important role in life.

Do we live based in our present - a moment to moment progression of events? When each is done, we move onto the next? Or do we reside in a more nebulous space of distinct and relevant past, present and future - perhaps divided into even more meaningful categories of recent past, distant past, soon and faraway future?

To me it seems most definitely the latter, and that's what makes the science fiction of Vonnegut's world so impactful and human. The confusion over identity - in my case whether I'm still a kid, a teen, or a college student even after passing those stages in life - is not a question of truth or fiction, but a confirmation of the existence of this continual process and the fact that in some ways some things do last forever.

It will always have been 2016. I will always have been 23. I will always have had dark hair, brown eyes, olive toned skin. I will always know these things, so that knowledge will last forever (even though I cannot).

There's a bittersweetness to all of this. And I think it's why time is at the center of so much of our culture and our art. Our lives revolve around time. But maybe if we stopped thinking about time as such a static state, it would stop being our enemy and start being our companion and friend. In our finite days we are given infinite opportunities. There's beauty in that, there's beauty in time.