3 June 2013
There is an episode from Spartacus: Blood and Sand called “The Thing in the Pit.” Spartacus, a slave turned gladiator, recently lost in the arena by signalling surrender. This not only brought shame upon the house of Batiatus, his master, but also upon the brotherhood, as gladiators win or die in combat, and either result would be honourable.
Perhaps the ugliest part of it all is admitting the defeat to himself. He is a Thracian soldier, a warrior–and up until this moment thought himself to be indestructible. To be made fully aware of his inadequacies is just painful. What to do now? His story arc calls for redemption. To reclaim the favour of his master, his position, and the favour of the crowd, he is made to fight in the Pit–a terrible place where there are no rules. If you think the arena is savage, then the pits are beyond that and more.
“If the beast cannot be tamed it must be unleashed,” says Batiatus. But is Spartacus really a beast? What he is, is a man who does not bend the knee and refuses to be a slave–until choice and will are taken away from him. And so he becomes the thing in the pit. But with each win he also destroys part of himself, until it comes to a point where he’s no longer sure why’s doing this, if he’s still who he thinks he is, if he’s still even a man. He kills and kills and kills until he’s broken.
I think about this today as I wake in my bed, back to everything that is familiar, back to the reality that is my life. My ‘vacation’ seemed to have happened a long time ago. I stare at the ceiling and I am filled with a horrible sense that I am back where I once was–a pit I can never get out of, where I crawl and stumble in the dark, knees and knuckles scraped, fighting demons.
Two nights ago I told myself that I will resolve to do better once I got back. Well, here I am. And all I could think about is: not again, not again, not again.
It must be that time of the year for commencement speeches. Here’s Oprah:
“Screwed by life”–yes, I know how that feels. I remember my own graduation. I can’t even remember who the heck our speaker was. Only that it was boring and uninspiring, and all I could think about were: these shoes are killing me, and what the fuck am I going to do with my life now?
“Relentless determination to succeed”–is it desperate to want to have this tattooed on my brain?
Here’s what she has to say about failure:
…You will, at some point, fall. And when you do, I want you to know this, remember this: there is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction. Now, when you’re down there in the hole, it looks like failure. So, this past year I have to spoon-feed those words to myself. And when you’re down in the hole, when that moment comes, it’s really okay to feel bad for a little while. Give yourself time to mourn what you think you may have lost, but then here’s the key: Learn from every mistake because every experience, encounter and particularly your mistakes are there to teach you and force you into being more of who you are. And then figure out what is the next right move. The key to life is to develop an internal moral, emotional GPS that can tell you which way to go.
What I would give to finally be able to figure things out.
There is an old cabinet just outside the kitchen, pictured above. It’s been there ever since I could remember. It’s been painted and fixed over and over. It has changed knobs, hinges. It has encountered leakages, typhoons, careless usage by humans. And yet it remains. And yet it endures.
I stare at it while I smoke and think about my next move. It’s June. We’re halfway through the year. I can’t stay a mess forever, I know that. I can hear a voice in my head: you dishonour yourself, and I wince.
In the meantime, here are some of the things I’m spoon-feeding myself:
The Polysyllabic Spree is a collection of columns that Nick Hornby wrote for The Believer. It’s called “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” and it usually starts with a list of books he’s bought for that month, vis-a-vis the books he’s read. The second book is Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. I’ve yet to buy the third collection (Shakespeare Wrote for Money) and fourth (More Baths Less Talking).
I like Hornby’s candidness. From time to time, I catch myself whispering, “He’s just like us,” and I realise it’s because he really is a reader. I feel like I’ve found someone to commiserate with in this house, about why I buy books, why they have to be so many, why some go unread for years, and so on.
So this is supposed to be about the how, and when, and why, and what of reading–about the way that, when reading is going well, one book lends to another and to another, a paper trail of theme and meaning; and how, when it’s going badly, when books don’t stick or take, when your mood and the mood of the book are fighting like cats, you’d rather do anything but attempt the next paragraph, or reread the last one for the tenth time. “We talked about books,” says a character in Charles Baxter’s wonderful Feast of Love, “how boring they were to read but how you loved them anyway.” Anyone who says they haven’t felt that way is simply lying. (13-14)
I don’t want anyone writing in to point out that I spend too much money on books, many of which I will never read. I know that already. I certainly intend to read all of them, more or less. My intentions are good. Anyway, it’s my money. And I’ll bet you do it, too. (14)
A couple of months ago, I became depressed by the realization that I’d forgotten pretty much everything I’ve ever read. I have, however, bounced back: I am now cheered by the realization that if I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever read then I can read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time.(43)
…I’m beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes. (44)
– Nick Hornby, from The Polysyllabic Spree
Yes, I believe we have talked about Tyler Knott Gregson. Sometimes he writes the truest things:
Does he have a book? I think that you once bought something from or about him, but can’t remember what it was.
I think that, sometimes, this format of letter-writing creates a distance unlike any other. Perhaps it’s because we also have to confront the vast space that is the internet, which connects us but still separates us, and is a much larger realm than the miles between Edinburgh and Manila.
There is a danger of complacency, of being falsely satisfied with reading your updates daily, that I need not care beyond what I read, because I can see that life goes on. The same applies with me talking about my day: I can tell you what happened, but not what really happened.
Then again, this place we have created for ourselves also provides a kind of intimacy and immediacy that actual letters can’t offer us. The ease with which I can make overly long letters like this, compared with doing it long-hand. The joy of giving you links that will send us to various worlds that we can come back to again and again.
Most of all, what I love: knowing that you are here, every single day. As I am. And I appreciate it. I know I may not always say it, but I do.
Another thing about commencement addresses–Conan O’Brien’s words for the 2011 Dartmouth College senior class is one of my favourites, maybe even replacing his speech in Harvard in 2000, where he said: “…my mistakes have been necessary,” and “…your biggest liability is your need to succeed. Your need to always find yourself on the sweet side of the bell curve. Because success is a lot like a bright, white tuxedo. You feel terrific when you get it, but then you’re desperately afraid of getting it dirty, of spoiling it in any way…Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally. And remember that the story is never over.”
Anyway, here it is:
…It’s not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can become a catalyst for profound re-invention.
…in 2000—I told graduates to not be afraid to fail, and I still believe that. But today I tell you that whether you fear it or not, disappointment will come. The beauty is that through disappointment you can gain clarity, and with clarity comes conviction and true originality.
…whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change. And that’s okay.
Clarity, yes. Kindness, yes. Now to find the courage and will to rise from the pit and start over. To accept that some dreams have ended, and that maybe it’s time to make new ones.