Turn Out the Lights

Just saw Julien Baker at Town Hall. A gorgeous, moving, fulfilling experience. Petal and Half Waif opened the show—wonderful musicians and people as well. Julien seemed so vulnerable on stage, but at the same time, bare-bones honest and heartfelt to the last breath. Hearing “Rejoice” live was a gift.

Earlier, before the concert, I read this New Yorker article and held fast to the last sentence. I still don’t know what I believe about myself, about people, about what we’re doing here, but I believe something. I believe something. It’s an unsatisfactory thing to say, but maybe a simple confession is the first step toward feeling whole again.

So I’m listening to her new album, “Turn Out the Lights” (just released today), on the subway ride back. I’m broken and mended. Split open and exposed, healed and protected. Sitting in this subway car that’s whirling toward a temporary home, sitting very still, like a rock against waves, like a trunk against the breeze, feeling my chest steady and my heart fill with gratitude and life.

Schumann

Thoughts after a piano lesson on Robert Schumann.


I’ve always dreamt of classical music as water: enduring, patient, filling whatever space it’s given, a balm for the soul to slake its thirst.

Now, for Schumann, I imagine that there existed a field of emotions in his soul. A field lined with thick trees and carved by a thin stream down its center. From afar, it would have passed for the idyllic countryside.

Except that the field was irreparable. A plot of land where weeds festered and brewed in silence, where the grass, no matter how tall or lush it grew, always crumbled at the slightest hint of a breeze. From time to time, the field was met with violent weather. Flash fires from uncanny lightning strikes, clouds of dust settling over the soil, flowers and plants diseased without sunlight. Day and night, year after year, something eventually died until there was nothing left to die.

The stream, however, was crystalline. It never ceased. Even during the winters, when the field was suffocated in snow, the stream would trickle along, sheer and lucent.

There was a slight dip at one point in the stream. The ground curved slightly, just about five centimeters of a gradual, downwards slope, which quickly rose and leveled off to its original flat course. If you plunged your hand into the stream where the dip occurs, stood still, and waited, you’d feel the water rush by like a heartbeat. (Clara, of course).

I imagine that the stream carried everything that Schumann held close to his heart. That, amidst the disorienting field, there was a singular purity, be it pain or love, in which his music existed for the sake of needing, desperately, to exist.

 

Ishiguro Impressions

I apologize for not having anything original at the moment—all of my creative output has been poured into workshop assignments and short stories (current project: ten pages of a girl who finds herself trapped in a Rilke poem, and her companion is a marble bust of Beatrice). Nevertheless, I still want to write about Kazuo Ishiguro and his Nobel Prize—I couldn’t believe the news, it was too surreal. As a disclaimer, I’ve only read two of his novels, but they left such oceanic impressions that I can’t not talk about them.

(Also a disclaimer: I read these books long enough ago that I remember very little in terms of plot details and specific literary observations. For the more eloquent and cohesive book reviews, check out the New York Times, etc).


The first was Never Let Me Go—one of his dabbles in genre-writing, alongside The Buried Giant, yet it retains his haunting prose and Austen-esque pacing. (The film adaptation is just as disquieting). While Never Let Me Go upholds Ishiguro’s signature themes of memory and looking at life through various temporal lenses, it houses a plethora of its own starkly gorgeous, albeit bleak, moments.

Take this quote, for instance:

“I keep thinking about this river somewhere, with the water moving really fast. And these two people in the water, trying to hold onto each other, holding on as hard as they can, but in the end it’s just too much. The current’s too strong. They’ve got to let go, drift apart. That’s how it is with us. It’s a shame, Kath, because we’ve loved each other all our lives. But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.”

I read that passage when I was fourteen years old. Can you imagine? It was a revelation that I never expected to understand, being naive and young and too full of dreams to know any better. Yet, I understood. I was heartbroken. The cold austerity mingled with honest affection. The awful acceptance of an end. It was the last thing I wanted to ponder in my youth: I wanted nothing to do with temporalityI had no business knowing that, one day, life would cease, and everything held dear to me would be nothing but an accumulation of things that were not enough. 

Isn’t it what that last sentence implicates? “But in the end, we can’t stay together forever.”  In my rational mind, I would say that immortality is more terrifying than death. But imagine these two kids, Kathy and Tommy, coming to the realization that love can only arrive at certain points in one’s life. For them, it was too late. Then, imagine them wanting time so desperately while knowing their inevitable fates.

God! Imagine the horror and beauty of being in love like that!

It was such a philosophical blow to my mind that, for a brief while, I feared the immense responsibility of life—that unending process of knowing that nothing gold stays, and the rivers dry up, and hands fall limp out of embraces, and night falls, yet enduring out of faith for the promise of something better.

The ethics and morals of the book were eye-opening as well. It was one of the staples that expanded my “soft sci-fi” appetite (think Ray Bradbury, Ken Liu, Octavia Butler, Margaret Atwood, etc.). But it also probed deeper questions, such as, why do we fear and ostracize people with illness? Can it be justified to alienate others with “inferior” genetics? Is it better to grow up sheltered or exposed to truth? Why do we betray those closest to us?

Oh, and that ending. Jesus, that ending. Spoilers, of course, but Kathy standing in that field, crying, looking at that strange rubbish. The one and only moment in the entire novel where she has an inkling of the feeling that she deserves more. The one moment where she briefly understands the value of her own existence.


Several years later, the second book was An Artist of the Floating World—I read this with two friends, each of us sharing the same copy, making annotations, and mailing it to one another in succession. (The result is that I have a copy of the book filled with three distinct voices in conversation with each other and the text. It’s one of my most cherished objects).

This book was less affecting, and I can’t say that it held a great deal of emotional resonance for me. But it did prompt my interest in the concept of “the artist”—the isolation, the ephemeral “floating world” that artists inhabit as the “real” world around them changes. I remember noting that Ono was an unreliable narrator, but also feeling sympathetic to his petty struggles. There was allure to that floating world. I could see it reflected in my own experiences: staying at the music school late into the night, having dinner with my teachers, blissfully oblivious to the obligations and concerns of practical life. Continuously in search of both the “intoxicating present” and “hazy aftermath” of artistic endeavors.

The topics of the novel are broader than I let on; there are attempts to decipher cultural and familial traditions in pre/post WWII Japan, the issue of arranged marriages, and the way societal perceptions of art can shift rapidly. Ishiguro offers a great deal of attention to the renewal of generations—the shedding of the old and the change of the new. But it’s mainly the floating world concept that returns to me from time to time. Artist of the Floating World. A potent explanation and accusation if I ever heard one.


I’m thinking of The Unconsoled as my next Ishiguro book. I’ve heard polarizing reviews about it, so I’m eager to find out where I’ll fall on the spectrum. But from what I’ve read of its synopsis—world-renowned concert pianist, anxious dreams, stream-of-consciousness, the cult of art—it’ll be right up my alley.

 

tea time: quotes and musings

White / peach: I wonder how much the Greek artists considered that sculpting marble is straight out of mythology. “Brought to life from stone.” Whenever I visit the Greek and Roman Art wing of the Met, I think of two words: devotion and endurance. And there’s something unsettling (yet god-awfully captivating) about it all.

Green / jasmine: when Charles Simic writes, “Every art is about the longing of One for the Other,” I think of Andrei Tarkovsky: “Art is born and takes hold wherever there is a timeless and insatiable longing for the spiritual, for the ideal: that longing which draws people to art.” The whole notion of art as an ideal seems relentlessly cruel, but perhaps, as artists, we are conditioned to see this ideal as an opportunity for truth and beauty.

Black / earl grey: “He was crazy, he was a dreamer, lovely and dark, / Like a chinaberry tree, a pond, a stump with a jar of lightning. / Lord, he had a way with him: His eyelids were like louvered shutters. / When he looked at your face, he looked at your face.” (The Lacuna). It’s good to be reunited with you, Frank.

Oolong / Dong Ding: It’s a late observation, but New York weather fits the personality of the city. Always shifting and moving. Always adapting. Always something to complain about, when it’s abysmal.

Pu’er / dragon pearl: In terms of dreams—most of these happen at the edge of the sea. Think Alessandro Baricco. Because at the end of the waves, where the shoreline hits land,  you look outward, and there is too much possibility. I was fumbling through my short story drafts and there’s this one fragment, some midnight idea, typed in a word document: “sunrise. the boy stands with the ocean up to his knees. an empty rowboat floats toward him. he swims over and climbs inside—but then realizes something is off. the sky is the sea and the sea is the sky, and light coruscates through the water around him. he walks (or rather, drifts) through the air as his skin is pressed by a vague, familiar coldness. he breathes in.”

Home Yesterday

Final days. I loved this summer, I truly did. It was quiet, much-needed refocusing, and despite its occasional hiccups, it allowed me the time to center myself. But the doubts are creeping in once again—I was reviewing my schedule online—is this class a good choice? is it challenging enough? do i really want this for my major? what should i major in? will i have time for this? Old habits, I suppose.

I took a walk last night for some field recordings, and behold, I came across a house where Country Roads was playing out in the backyard—

I hear her voice
In the mornin’ hour she calls me
The radio reminds me of my home far away
And drivin’ down the road I get a feelin’
That I should have been home yesterday, yesterday

It felt like a scene out of Whisper of the Heart. I will miss this place, again.

Microfiction II

Part two of “brushing up the writing chops.” Here’s some “microfiction” (mainly blurbs) and poetry inspired by various songs and pieces of music. You can find all of the music on this Spotify playlist.


“String Quartet No. 15, Op. 144: 1. Elegie” (Dmitri Shostakovich)

The door clicked softly and Luce stood between the smoldering ground and the burnt sky. She could hear the voices going after one another from inside the house. Pitiful arguments in alternating, jagged rhythm. The only thing left, the only thing she wanted to do, was to pull the darkness over her skin and sleep until the pain grew old.


“fullmoon” (Ryuichi Sakamoto)

He helps me teleport to her house. He is right: the positive side effect is that I can walk. It is weird and amazing, I stumble, trip, and fall many times, all with joy.

She lives in some type of boarding house. She said to me before she left: third window from the right, first floor, I will be reading a book as usual, but I won’t remember you—I overheard my parents talking. They’re going to wipe my memory.

Peeking in at 4:30AM, sure enough, she is still awake reading a book (of course, with her fingers), something about pottery. I tap on the window, and she senses my presence. She asks who I am. I almost choke right then, and I fumble and hesitate and then lie, saying I’m a checkup doctor, sent by her nanny. She looks puzzled but still meets me outside the building. And then we walk outside into a park nearby, lit under a flickering lamp. She asks why I’m here and I say that I was wondering if she was okay. Just wanted to check. She laughs and says that she is fine, no need to worry. I give a little smile and nod. Few seconds of silence pass then we sit on two low wooden benches under a drooping tree. Then she asks, after a pause, why are you here, really? I try to smile but my mind is swimming. I can smell the chamomile perfume she wears, faint but lingering. She says my name. I look at her and stutter, I’m sorry, I don’t know how to say this. She looks confused. I don’t even know what I wanted to say and put my head in my hands. I say, you know me, you do, we met and you know me. You won’t understand, but I have to say this. At this point I start to cry. I’m sorry. It’s my fault, I’m sorry. You can’t remember and it kills me. You can’t remember how beautiful it was. I’m sorry I don’t know why I feel this way. Ever since you came into my hospital room that afternoon, I couldn’t help it. Of course, you don’t remember. I cry some more. She looks scared and I stop. She says she should go. I nod. I don’t know what is going on. Only that I have confessed something and she has to live with it. And in that moment, her body is swallowed by the shadows of trees and a lossless night. She is gone, a moonlit tide washing away, again and again.

And then I remember. She remembered my name.


“Kreisleriana, Op. 16: 2. Sehr innig und nicht zu rasch” (Robert Schumann)

Take it from me: everyone loves a little poem / when the earth crumbles. / Oceans falling / apart at the seams / and I’m sipping tea at the dinner table. / What’s the password? / Flaming dusks. Low-flying fighters. / Your lips on the barrel. / A second too soon and we’d all be waltzing / in the dead atmosphere, / marionette limbs angled / like skewed compass needles. / There’s a whole war out there / and you’re sitting on the porch / with your legs caked in mud. / Hands cut from picking lemongrass, / chin smudged with dirt. / You smile and for a split second / I forget the engines are burning. / So it’s you, bent over the garden, / and me, boiling water over a paraffin stove. / We have our fallout figured out. / I think. A teapot and the dust bowl sky.


“Forgotten” (Punch Brothers)

“Hello? Is anyone here?” The words swelled in the silence. Hector beamed his flashlight around and squinted. The insides of the warehouse were dismal and old. The high support beams were rotting at their ends, and cobwebs decorated the outer perimeters. Lined across the sagging walls, hundreds of multi-colored boxes formed a packed congregation. It was as if the warehouse was readied to serve every imaginable storage purpose only to be abandoned in each process.


“III Revised” (Frank Zappa)

“Looking for a room?”

“Yes.”

“How long?”

“One night.”

“You fine with a standing room? It’s the only one we got left at the normal price. Unless you want to upgrade to a suite.”

“Standing room is fine.”

“Alright. Name?”

“Alex.”

The receptionist raised a straggly eyebrow. She blinked, confused, and then realized.

“An error,” she said quickly. “A1093, Model J.” The fake tag rolled out with ease, and she prayed that it would check in when the receptionist ran the code. He punched a few keys and a resonant little ding sounded.

“Alright. Twenty chip drives, or a diskette if you got one.”

She slapped a fistful of copper chip drives on the counter and nodded. The receptionist then asked her to plug her signature into the mainframe, and once that was done he handed her a silver key and jerked a thumb toward the dim hallway.

“Fifth door on the left. Have a nice stay.”

The room was a tight fit. Stray charging wires drooped overhead, miscellaneous nuts and bolts strewn over the floor. The floral wallpaper felt cheap and forced.

She closed her eyes. Alex. She’d made too many mistakes already.


“10 dEATh bREasT” (Bon Iver)

The night is a fever dream / in the hands of dark things / roaming through ache after ache / like the skeletal lizard / scuttling through thick brush / or the wind whipping rocks and blinding stars / with its many voices of holiness / and the cottonwoods / bathed in the sky’s blood / and the old lovers waiting / for a hitch in the air. / It lies on its back, silent. / Throat dry, thunderstruck.


“Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral,’ Mvmt. II” (L.v. Beethoven)

“What’s that?” She gestured toward the photograph on the table.

“Old memory from Yellowstone. A grizzly we saw at dusk, just as the crowds were leaving and the land was falling down under.”

She squinted at the dark, blurred shape. “What was it doing?”

He smiled a bit and his eyes flickered toward the shadowed ceiling.

“Munching on snacks.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Rodents?”

He laughed. “Yellow balsam-root flowers. It was eating flowers.”