Melissa Stanley

Once a blogger, now in a reading-other-blogs phase.

Homepage: https://melissathenettlesome.wordpress.com

Rereading/refraction

Today I am reading the last weary, shimmering chapters of From Here to Eternity, a novel by James Jones about soldiers stationed in Hawaii on the eve of World War II. It’s my second reading of the book: the first time was with a battered copy from my university library two years ago. I came across my own careworn red copy of the book the very first time I went to look for it in a used bookstore, about ten months ago, but I saved the book with delicious anticipation until this past January, reasoning that I would appreciate its sunny Hawaiian setting the most if I read it in the dead of winter.

From Here to Eternity is always going to be vivid and clear in my memory, and not just because of the book in its own right. Everything about my life vis-à-vis this book has seemed fateful, from the mysterious ease of finding a copy (almost nobody that I know has heard of the book) to the events that have occurred around my readings of it. What I will never forget about my first reading is the day in the library when the book was open in front of me but my thoughts were elsewhere, on a friend with whom I was going through a difficult period. Minutes later, in a university of nearly 30,000, that same friend ran into me. The resulting tension brought about one of the only times I have ever cried in public. I left the book spread open on the table and we went outside for a talk which I think was a turning point in that relationship.

This time, I am not in the sun-drenched rooms of UCSD’s library but breathing the pollen-choked air of Japan in late March. As two-and-a-half months of rereading draw to a close, I feel a clean, tentative optimism. The knots that Jones ties in these last pages suggest to me endings that hold the promise of new beginnings. Warden and Karen’s tender farewell seems to blend smoothly into the hope of dawning spring; protagonist Prewitt faces death with a heroism and Zen-like acceptance that seem naïve and pointless but also good and right.

How can I convey the way that the chapters of this book interweave themselves with my life? This past winter, besides steadily making my way through 789 pages of World War II epic, I came to understand the huge significance of my home – my country, my culture, my family and friends. The teeming America of From Here to Eternity is not entirely the same as my America, but it instills in the characters the same sentimental patriotism that my tenure abroad has begun to instill in me.

There are a lot of things to dislike about this book. It’s long. Many of the characters are suspiciously similar to one another. It’s flippant in its sensationalist reproduction of the misogyny and racism that apparently plagued the US Army in 1941. Yet the arc of the novel, its sweeping scope, its vivid universe of so many lives, loves, betrayals, leave me confident in calling it my favorite book. Like the flawed characters, caught up in pride, lust, anger and general wrongheadedness, the book is real and beautiful in its imperfection.

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Women, weight and race

Lately I’m beginning to feel like writing and sharing things outside of the Japan blog. (My big ongoing project is an analysis of the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix! Stay tuned!)

This post caught my attention today. I really like most of what Ms. Lamb has to say, especially her rejection of the “Barbie makes girls hate their bodies” thesis (although I think the issue is too complex to categorically dismiss dolls as an influence on girls’ self-image). Her focus on the culpability of the fashion industry is spot-on.

However, towards the end of the post, I think she handles race pretty clumsily. She writes,

“We live in a world of magazines that hail how beautiful and curvy Beyonce and Mariah Carey are at a size 12-14, but then the same magazines call Jessica Simpson a cow for being the same size 12-14. Women of color can have curves, but us white gals need to look more like Posh Spice.”

This fails to address the body issues facing not only African-American women, but women of every ethnicity and background. To imply that the weight and body image craze targets white women and spares minority women is ignorant, disrespectful, and only weakens us in calling out and fighting this issue. Here’s a good place to start for other perspectives on the shaming of women over weight or health.

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Living across the pond!

I think I’ll be putting this site on a bit of a hiatus while I’m studying abroad for the fall. In the meantime, please check out my blog about my time in Japan!

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Yearbooks late at night

I’ve been having trouble sleeping. This happens to me a lot: I’ll go through periods of a few weeks where I lie awake for hours before falling asleep.

This time, I think it has to do with the fact that I’m going to live in a different country next week, not to mention that I’ve just begun spending a lot of time with a person who happens to live here in the States and not in Japan.

When I can’t sleep, my first recourse is to lie in bed with my eyes closed, then open, then closed, willing my mind to let go. It doesn’t cooperate. If thoughts aren’t running through my head, it’s music: I remember one particularly resilient bout of insomnia that struck when I was taking a class on Bach my freshman year. Bach will stay in your head forever.

I’ll often get hungry, having eaten dinner some 4 or 5 hours before going to bed anyway. Can you think of anything more profane and boring than standing in a silent kitchen, munching on mozzarella in order to quiet your stomach without actually getting any enjoyment out of the act of eating?

So what have I been doing tonight? Since I’m going to live halfway across the world soon, I’ve been cleaning my room. It’s an archaeological exhibit. Since I left for college 3 years ago, I’ve been aware that I have been allowing things to pile up in here. But some of this goes waaay back. This week I unearthed six yearbooks from third to eighth grade. SIX. Beginning at age EIGHT.

So I find myself looking through yearbooks late at night. This is a terrible pastime. Rehashing the past is pretty much never a great idea. It’s not that it makes me terribly sad or resentful — but it does make me mushy and nostalgic. And I find myself doubting that I really took the best course of action in some small, insignificant area of my seventh-grade life. Like resenting the very pretty girl whose photo always appeared next to mine in the yearbooks and, year after year, overshadowed my long forehead and braces.

You can always tell, looking back, which kids were going to become the popular ones. The supreme confidence with which they worked the camera, the uncannily mature poses adopted at age 11 or 12. One of those future popular boys appears on the first page of my eighth-grade yearbook, blond hair spiked, cocking both hands like guns at the camera in an incredibly effortless example of 13-year-old cool. In two years, that boy would pass by me in Spanish class and say to me, “Your makeup looks good today.” I think those were the only words he ever spoke to me, and I was flattered to a degree that embarrasses me now.

This is the problem with looking back at those early years now: I cast a (more or less) adult outlook on adolescent circumstances. I judge my younger self — and, worse, the younger selves of my peers — too harshly. As kids, we were all rash, insensitive and at times a little cruel. Or, we were on the receiving end of actions and words motivated by those traits. It’s easy to forget that the irritation I feel, looking back on those years, was born well after the fact. At the time, I was perhaps a little confused and more than a little angsty, but for the most part I was content with my life, like I am now at age 21.

I think that my perusal of old yearbooks can be attributed to a peculiar and slightly obsessive personality, so I doubt if I have to warn any (imaginary) readers against doing the same thing because it wouldn’t occur to anyone else. But I guess I’d like to say, in general, avoid analyzing the past. It’s there to guide you as you make your way through the present, but nothing good will come of applying your current perspective to a younger self. Especially not sleep.

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Finding the good in suffering

I think it’s safe to say that the aspect of religion that bothers people the most is not the questionable truth of holy texts or the rituals performed in religious communities: it’s theodicy, or the problem of evil. How is it, we ask, that a God can exist and allow innocent people to experience suffering?

I’ve been reading Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu, and I’d like to share some of the possible answers I’ve found there. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French geologist, Jesuit priest and theologian in the mid-20th century. His work The Divine Milieu deals with many of the problems of Christianity, like balancing work in the world with spiritual devotion. Another balance that he seeks to reach is between our activities — productive work in the world that creates or uplifts — and what he calls our diminishments, like doubt, illness, accidents, and finally death.

God, Teilhard writes, “cannot ordain that the elements of a world in the course of growth… should avoid shocks and diminishments. But God will make it good… by making evil itself serve a higher good of his faithful, the very evil which the present state of creation does not allow him to suppress immediately. Like an artist who is able to make use of a fault or an impurity in the stone he is sculpting or the bronze he is casting so as to produce more exquisite lines or a more beautiful tone, God… transfigures [diminishments] by integrating them into a better plan.” (1)

So evil is like a grain of sand that can be turned into a pearl. It’s like a threat to survival presented to human ancestors in the course of our evolution which compelled us to adapt in new and miraculous ways. Yes, this is not very satisfying or convincing if you’re already certain that no god exists. But for me, as a Christian, it’s a source of hope and courage.

In the same passage, Teilhard discusses more concrete examples of the transfiguration of suffering into something that works toward the eventual perfection of the universe. “[T]he lives of all those who have been outstanding for intelligence or goodness, are full of these instances in which one can see the man emerging ennobled, tempered and renewed from some ordeal, or even some downfall, which seemed bound to diminish or lay him low for ever. Failure in that case” acts on us like pruning shears on plants, making us “shoot up higher and straighter.” (1)

Because I’m a music nerd, this passage immediately reminded me of the lives of so many great composers who’ve died young, fallen in love with unattainable women, contracted terrible illnesses or lived in poverty. I’m thinking specifically of Beethoven (my Beethoven geekery is severe. I wrote a paper on him a few years ago and have been enamored ever since). He began to notice his hearing loss around 1799, when he was only 29 years old, and finally in 1802 he couldn’t bear to keep it a secret any longer. He took some R&R in the small town of Heiligenstadt and wrote the famous Heiligenstadt Testament.

For me, the Heiligenstadt Testament is incredibly poignant and inspiring. Beethoven writes of the incredible suffering he had been experiencing, not directly because of his deafness, but because it erected a wall between him and the rest of the world. “[F]orgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood.”

The next year, he began work on the Eroica (“Heroic”) Symphony, a seminal piece of music in his career and in the history of classical music.

Beethoven channeled and transformed his suffering by expressing himself through his music, and he truly became one of Teilhard’s great men. This is not to say that suffering is a prerequisite to greatness, and in most cases the potential goodness in suffering is much more difficult to discern. But I think Teilhard’s thesis is fertile ground for pondering how we deal with the evil in our lives, and what part such evil may play in the greater trajectory of the universe.

(1) Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Divine Milieu. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1960. pp. 86-87.

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College is a wonderland of openmindedness and the conscientious exchange of knowledge!

Just kidding!

I had the weirdest experience in class today. The lecturer had split us into groups and assigned each group to define a term in preparation for the final. Easy enough. My group’s word was linguistic insecurity. This is an idea put forth by William Labov in the 1960s; basically it means the awareness that the way you speak is not the “right” way. In this country, it would apply to anyone who speaks any dialect other than Standard American English.

Anyway, the girl next to me already had her 25 pages of typed notes in front of her; she flipped to the relevant page and began rattling off definitions of linguistic insecurity and the accompanying concepts of hypercorrection, misrecognition, and Standard Language Ideology (the state-propagated belief that linguistic homogeneity is beneficial to society).

The other two women we were working with nodded dumbly at the stream of jargon we’d just been subjected to. Yeah, that’s the definition all right.

I said, timidly, “You guys don’t want to translate this into layman’s terms? For the benefit of the class?”

“Actually, this definition is exactly what SHE said,” said the 25-pages girl, pointing with an odd mixture of reverence and accusation at the lecturer sitting 5 feet away.

As we moved on to the next part of the question, I saw my chance to inject understandable language into the conversation. Why is linguistic insecurity important? I offered a very straightforward sentence about how the concept perpetuates stratification by subordinating anyone who doesn’t speak Standard American English.

“That’s beautiful,” said the girl. The other two nodded dumbly, again. The first girl took down my humble sentence word-for-word. And added it to her canned definitions, for a result that was about a paragraph long. When she proudly recited said paragraph to the class, the lecturer laughed in nervous, half-hearted approval.

It was so depressing and frustrating to work with this girl who couldn’t seem to function outside the world of buzzwords. College should be about understanding, not regurgitation. But we’re so apathetic that we faithfully take down every word on the PowerPoint without allowing it to reach our brains. In the Information Age, God forbid we should actually process information; just accumulating it is apparently sufficient.

Gotta love that this took place in a linguistic anthropology class, though.

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The case for tried-and-true

A few months ago I went to a dance at my university and experienced, for the first (and last) time in a while, the way our generation dances — that is, grinding. The experience has haunted me enough to inspire this post.

I couldn’t look at any couple without being strongly reminded of the way a dog or an insect would mount another. In any other setting, most guys wouldn’t be caught dead swinging their hips the way they do on the dance floor, in order to accommodate the girls situated neatly on their crotches (sorry, I’m trying to avoid as many gory details as possible). Faces are slack, expressionless, concentrated on matching the rhythm of the partner’s hips. It’s instinctual, repetitive, easy — and it feels damn good.

But I think we can agree that this kind of dancing is also intrinsically artless. There’s nothing to memorize, no sequence of movements to practice at home or learn under someone’s instruction. While the dancing of 50 or 100 years ago had elements of performance and procedure in it, grinding exists only in the moment and there are no rules.

Ritual is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner.” (Side note: Instinct had directed me to Dictionary.com, but my higher brain function, which has been co-opted by my unpaid editor jobs, took over.) I actually like the Dictionary.com definition better because it includes the words “pattern of behavior” rather than just “series of acts.”

Compared to the past, I think that our behavior (as a culture, as individuals) is perhaps losing some of its association with patterns. The silliest evidence is the evolution of “random” into a catchall reaction or descriptor (“That’s so random!”). But more generally, our daily choices and actions are influenced by technology that offers us unlimited choices. Commercials for smartphones flash city streets, lavish living rooms, the interior of a bar or just eye candy of the device itself, in just a few frames each. Why spend time and effort doing something you’ve done before, when your “intelligent, maybe even genius” device (Verizon’s words, not mine) can always lead you to a new experience?

Personally, I see a connection between our growing impatience with routine and the increasing secularism of the first world (and of American society in particular). While there are many more factors to this than the abandonment of ritual, as a Christian I know that a major turnoff to religion for many of my friends and peers is its reliance on repeated rites, singing or speaking in unison. Even within the religious population, many communities of worshippers are employing a more “contemporary” approach that eschews the centuries-old hymns and books in favor of guitars and PowerPoint sermons.

As for me, I love the simple hymns and the prayers we say week after week. I eat that stuff up. I find that having something stay constant in my life makes it easier to examine what’s different today, this week, this year. I have studied karate and yoga, and the challenge of learning to do something in a set way, and to replicate it, is a valuable experience.

So I think ritual and routine are underrated. You can take this with a grain of salt because I happen to be a very plan- and routine-oriented person; I love waking up at the same time every day and fixing my Cream of Wheat and cup of tea the way I did the day before, and the day before that. But the point is, I think ballroom dancing, yoga, karate and religious rites exist because people are programmed to imitate, learn and reproduce (sequences of actions as well as DNA) — and in a culture that prizes originality and individuality, we’ve lost sight of that.

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