I feel like I’m losing my bearings and the ability to think. Can I place the blame on external factors such as mask wearing and the increasing number of rules and red tape that surround us ? The only time I feel relatively relaxed is when I walk our dog around the neighbourhood. Even then I bring along a mask with me just in case. I feel listless. Even if you do not want to hear more about the pandemic, you will have to deal with its impact and you don’t want to be socially irresponsible in your community. We are kept informed about how efficient these viruses mutate and our leaders are still grappling with ways to contain the situation. Why don’t we say viruses evolve just like we do? Is it because evolution takes more time and the process is gradual? We are fed with old and new information and we are not wiser. We are so adrift with the matrix of the situation that we lose the map of our reality. What if the world is a figment of our imagination, can we consciously change the course of our physical reality by seeing beyond what we are told ? Can we possibly alter the butterfly effect of the pandemic that has taken a toll on our psyche simply by living in the here and now? Perhaps that is the only option.
Change is the only constant yet we long for normalcy to return. We long for the time when we can feel exhilaration and not exhalation that we need to step up our measures to combat the spread of the virus. The new norm gives me more time and space to be introspective but it also allows mind to meander and I have to be mindful of these thoughts and let them pass. Since young, you are so conditioned to be told what to do and it is safer to follow the pack when you do not have the answers. A certain social distance is recommended for one another. You find yourself stopping in your tracks when someone is walking past you too closely for comfort. As it is we have many distractions. Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, Tik Tok, emails etcetera, etc. I should turn off all my electronic devices but I need to google and research about stuff… the list is endless. Brains are cluttered and scattered after spending a big part of our waking hours on virtual platforms. I find myself forgetting how to spell certain words when I used to be able to visualize those words so vividly.
I recently read a post by Stuart Danker, the author of Tinhead City, KL about the practice of Morning Pages https://stuartdanker.com/2021/08/24/how-morning-pages-can-improve-your-writing/ so I looked it up. You write in your longhand what you think and not think what you write. Morning Pages are not meant to be read by anyone.The idea comes from The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. I have several note books that I scribble on. I picked up one blue notebook that I have scribbled stuff on sporadically from time to time. Inside the blue notebook, some were just flashes of ideas or notes about writing but mostly titles of books that I have read and passages from there. I flipped through the pages, voila I had ‘Julia Cameron’s books’ jotted in red ink and circled above the words ‘Aunty Lee’s Delights p 196 and Aunty Lee’s reflections p228-229 both’. Those were jotted down some eight years ago. Julia Cameron is mentioned on Yu’s website. I once had a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant by Hewlett Packard) that I carried when I travelled. You think technology can save the forest but some of us end up going through more than one electronic device.When you discard them you think about how you contribute to the wastes that will pollute the environment. At the end of the day, it is nice to pick up a pen and just write .Morning Pages sounds like a good way to unclog whatever that is troubling you and to know your thoughts.
When I was thirteen, I kept a journal. Right now I am tearing the pages out page by page, some bits were useful in reconstructing certain memory from teenage years but mostly were just teenage angst and self-righteousness plus those ugly scrawny handwritings that I so want to disown. Thoughts do not belong to you, I comfort myself. When you are a child, you like to think that there must be fairness and justice. Life is not intended to be fair. They do not teach that in school. In Calvin and Hobbs, Calvin’s dad tells Calvin ‘The World isn’t fair , Calvin’. To that, Calvin responds,’ I know but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favour?’
In Kudos by Rachel Cusk , Faye, a British writer is on her way to an unspecified city in Europe to attend a literary event with a view to promote the book she has just published. The chain of narratives are made up of the conversations that Faye has with the characters whom she encounters. On the plane, she listens to the stranger seated next to hers telling her the story of his life : his work his marriage and the harrowing night he has just spent burying the family dog before flying off. At the literary festival, she meets her young publisher, writers and translators and they have all these conversations about art, about family, about politics, about love, about sorrow and joy, about justice and injustice all the questions that we humans ask. From these conversations, you only learn that Faye is divorced and has since remarried. She has two sons and the city that she is in is one that she once visited with her son. She serves as a conduit for the characters that she encounters and narrates the conversations that she has with them. There is this fascinating exchange between a young guide and Faye that I find relatable.
The young guide’s mother is the festival’s director. Herman is his name and his mother has decided to make use of his unusual navigational abilities to guide participants around the city. ‘His recollection of pretty much every place he’d been in his life was entirely clear, as well as that of many places he hadn’t been, since he liked to study maps in his spare time and to set himself topographical challenges that were often very satisfying to resolve. He had never visited Berlin, for instance, but he was fairly sure that if he were dropped in the middle of it he’d be able to find his way around and might even outwit some of the natives in getting, say, from the swimming pool in Plötzensee to the Berlin public library in the shortest possible time.’
I wish I could have a fraction of his navigational abilities as I have poor sense of directions and I cannot quite recollect every place I have been in my life. From the conversation, we know that his mother has encouraged him to read books.
‘All his life his mother had encouraged him to read books, not because she was one of those people who believed reading books improved people but because she had pointed out that studying imaginative works would at least enable him to follow certain conversations and not mistake them for reality. As a child he had found stories very upsetting, and he still disliked being lied to, but he had come to understand that other people enjoyed exaggeration and make-believe to the extent that they regularly confused them with the truth. He had learned to absent himself mentally in such situations, he added, by going over passages he had memorised from philosophical texts and revisiting certain maths problems, or sometimes by just reciting some of the more obscure bus timetables in his repertory, until the moment passed.’
Herman goes to a specialised school for maths and the sciences. He is an excellent student and he is popular with the other pupils as he is able to help them with revision for the public exams. He has not got on all that well with his teachers and he hears his mother be criticised on his account but she has never criticised him. His mother said this :
‘It was human nature for people to wish cruelty on one another simply because they have been shown cruelty themselves : the repetition of behavioural forms was the curious panacea with which most people sought to relieve the suffering caused by precisely those same forms. He had tried to find a way of expressing this contradiction in mathematical terms, but since it was inherently illogical he had not yet succeeded. As far as he knew a problem couldn’t be solved simply by infinitely restating it, unless you relied on infinity itself to break certain factors down.’
Herman tells Faye that he ‘concluded that most questions were nothing more than an attempt to ascertain conformity, like rudimentary maths problems. According to his mother he had been completely silent until the age of three : she had got into the habit of talking to herself aloud with no expectation of a reply, and she was therefore very surprised when one day as she was looking for her keys and asking herself where she’d put them, he informed her from his highchair that the keys were in the pocket of her coat, which was hanging in the hall. After that he had talked non-stop.’
Herman also tells Faye that the college gave a special award called ‘Kudos’ to its most outstanding male and female student. He says,
‘It was interesting that in conferring this award, the fact of gender was retained beyond that of excellence: at first it had struck him as illogical, but then he had decided that having never personally found gender to be a factor, he was perhaps not in a position to fully understand its significance.’
Herman won the award. He asks Faye if her children are good at Maths. When Faye expresses her concern that neither of them has pursued that subject and she sometimes worries that it was the consequence of her own interests lying in a different direction, so that she had involuntarily made some aspects of the world seem realer and more important to them than others. Herman responds that such an idea is impossible and there is no reason to trouble herself on that account ‘ since research had proved that parental influence over personality outcomes was virtually nil. A parent’s effect lay almost entirely in the quality of his or her nurture and of the home environment, much as a plant will wilt or thrive according to where it is placed and how it is cared for, while its organic structure remains inviolable.’
He elaborates that his interest in maths pre-existed any attempt to encourage or thwart him. Faye argues that she has known many people whose ambitions were the result of parental influence, and many others who had been prevented from becoming what they had wanted to be.
Herman believes that Nietzsche ‘had taken for his motto a phrase of Pindar’s : become what you are.’ He recognises that he has been fortunate in that no one,as yet, has tried to stop him being what he is.
It is incredible that such wisdom has come from a young person like Herman.
Kudos is the third instalment of Rachel Cusk’s trilogy following her earlier novels, Outline and Transit. In Kudos, Faye’s inner life is illustrated through her observations on the landscape, conversations with the young guide, the other writers at the festival, the journalist, the publisher and also her son who called. Splendid writing, beautiful prose, insightful and thought-provoking .