Secrets to a Happy and Lasting Marriage

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February 17, 2017. Today, the world celebrates Random Acts of Kindness Day, and while I’m all for practicing this non-official holiday, the date takes on a more significant meaning within the walls of our family home. Forty-two years ago, my parents made a vow to stay committed to each other for the rest of their lives—and so far (and so, forevermore), they’ve made good on that promise.

Theirs is a marriage that has been tested by my father’s illness and the rigors of raising four children, and with every test they’ve come across, they have emerged stronger than ever. Now, that is the type of commitment that every couple should aspire for. To commemorate this very special day, I’ve decided to write about marriage—specifically, the secrets to a lasting and happy marriage.

So, with that in mind, what are the secrets to a happy union? I suppose that that’s the million dollar question. In a world where most romantic relationships crumble and a trip down the aisle is no longer much of a guarantee for ‘forever,’ how does one begin to build the foundation for a strong and healthy marriage? Before I go about trying to answer that question, let me back those statements with statistics.

Staying is the New Shame

A few months ago, while on a TED trip on YouTube, I came across a very interesting talk by the renowned Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel. Although her talk was mostly about rethinking infidelity in the marriage context, she did touch on a myriad of factors why relationships tend to fail.

According to Perel, prior to marriage becoming the natural ‘next step’ after two people fall in love, marriage was more of an ‘economic enterprise.’ It was an agreement between two families for their betterment and a way for a man to ensure that his wife’s children were his. It was a way of making sure that his children were the ones who will inherit the cows, the land, etc.

Marrying for love, on the other hand, is a rather recent phenomenon. And yet, if nowadays, we get to choose the person we marry, why are so many couples still splitting up? In the context of infidelity, this is what Perel has to say:

But then we have another paradox that we’re dealing with these days. Because of this romantic ideal, we are relying on our partner’s fidelity with a unique fervor, but we also have never been more inclined to stray. And not because we have new desires today, but because we live in an era where we feel entitled to pursue our desires, because this is the culture where “I deserve to be happy.” And if we used to divorce because we were unhappy, today we divorce because we could be happier. And if divorce carried all the shame, today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.”

And indeed, divorce has become the go-to option for many couples when their marriages hit a series of snags. And, quite frankly, I’m not against divorce so long as it really is what’s best for the couple. But, here is the caveat. Divorce may be the best cure for a rotten marriage, true. However, isn’t prevention still better than any cure? The truth is, the average number of divorces worldwide may have dropped since the 1980s, but it’s still pretty high.

 

According to Divorce.com, a website that claims to be “Your best resource before, during, and after a divorce,” there are a number of countries where divorce rates per capita exceed 50% of the married population. The top five countries in their list include Belarus (68%), the Russian Federation (65%), Sweden (64%), Latvia (63%), and Ukraine (63%). The United Kingdom sits at 10th place (53%) and the United States is at 12th place (49%). The site also has a disclaimer about the difficulties of being absolutely accurate with their figures, so let’s try another round of statistics.

This time, it’s from an article from The Telegraph called “The Haven for Honeymooners Where Everyone Gets Divorced.” According to the September 2016 article, the Maldives has been recognized by the Guinness Book of Records for being the divorce capital of the world. We’re looking at 10.97 divorces per year for every 1,000 people in the country. According to the UN, the average Maldivian woman would have had three divorces by the time she’s 30—talk about a major quarter-life crisis.Also making it to the top five countries with the highest annual divorces per 1,000 inhabitants are Russia (4.5), Aruba (4.4), Belarus (4.1), Latvia (3.6), and the United States (3.6)

Supposing that the actual number of divorces per head in the aforementioned countries are slightly lower than reported, when placed in the context of how a lot of these marriages are ‘love matches,’ these figures remain rather unsettling.

Now, more than ever, it feels imperative that couples know the secrets that will inoculate their unions against the possibility of ruin. This brings us to the article’s original question: What makes for a happy and lasting marriage?

The eminent French philosopher Michel de Montaigne has a humorous answer to the question. According to Montaigne:

“A good marriage would be between a blind wife and a deaf husband.”        

Now, the statement may be funny, but if it were true, the vast majority of the world’s couples are screwed. Let’s try again.

Is it LOVE?

Love, it seems, would be the logical answer to the question, right?

The Oxford Living Dictionary defines love as “a strong feeling of affection and sexual attraction for someone,” and “a great interest and pleasure in something.” Now, that sounds about right; after all, the sexual attraction bit is what would differentiate husband/wife from friend or relative.

Another definition for the word love, particularly in the realm of sports, is “a score of zero; or nil.” That sounds about right too. Because as the great thinkers Sartre, Pierre Reverdy, and Jean Cocteau have pointed out:

“There is no love; there are only proofs of love.”

Cue Natalie Portman’s epic scene in the film Closer, where her character, Alice, tells Jude Law’s character, Dan: “Where is this love? I can’t see it, I can’t touch it. I can’t feel it. I can hear it, I can hear some words, but I can’t do anything with your easy words.”

The film came out right about the time I was taking my Theology 131 class called “Marriage, Family Life, and Human Sexuality.” Although the rest of the semester is pretty much a blur now, I do remember one particular lecture from my professor. He talked about the difference between loving someone and being in love with someone.

The feeling of being ‘in love’ is not something you can control. It’s the honeymoon phase of the relationship—the part where desire (or hormones) is present. And quite frankly, as anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship will tell you, this phase is temporary. It’s one you can rekindle multiple times in your relationship, but it’s not always present, nor is it always necessary.

Real, lasting love is a decision you make every day. See, you may not always be in love with your partner, but so long as you love him/her—and to love is still very much an action word as it is a noun—then there’s hope for ‘so long as you both shall live.’

I believe that the main secret to a lasting relationship lies in the constant practice of that action word called ‘love,’ and the following are the factors that make love in a marriage possible.

RESPECT

Respect is a fundamental part of loving someone. While it’s true that you can respect people you don’t necessarily love or even like, (your boss, your teacher, an actor/actress, a politician, etc.), it’s impossible to love someone without having a modicum of respect for that person.

Now, I’ve read a number of articles, that I won’t put here out of respect for their authors, detailing the importance of respecting one’s husband—his authority, choices, and decisions—and while I agree with these authors in some ways, I do believe that respect is a two-way street. It is just as important for a husband to respect his partner, and I’m not backing down on this.

FRIENDSHIP OR COMPANIONSHIP

“The first time you marry for love, the second for money, and the third for companionship.” – Jackie Kennedy

I’m not going to knock Jackie Kennedy’s statement—there is some truth to it after all. But I, for one, believe in marrying for love and companionship the first time. It will save you the heartbreak and the wallet drain of two divorces. This is a sentiment that Franz Schubert and Friedrich Nietzsche appear to be in agreement with. To quote them both:

“Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.” – Franz Schubert

“It is not a lack of love, but a lack of friendship that makes unhappy marriages.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

CONTENTMENT

This is advice better said in the Huffington Post article called “America’s ‘Longest Married Couple’ Wants to Give You Love Advice.” The article features a 2016 interview with John and Ann Betar, a couple who have been married for 83 wonderful years.

The couple had eloped in 1932, when Ann was just 17 years old, and John was just 21. Ann’s family had wanted her to marry an older man, so the couple decided to run off and build a beautiful life together. According to John, the secret to their long marriage is contentment.

“We struggled in the beginning, but, luckily, we were content with what we had. It’s just important to be content with what you have.”

Now, that’s pretty sound advice, wouldn’t you agree?

KINDNESS AND GENEROSITY (PARTICULARLY, GENEROSITY OF INTENT)

In 2014, The Atlantic released an interview with esteemed psychologists John and Julie Gottman. The couple has been studying other marrieds for four decades in a bid to determine what makes relationships last and what factors contribute to their decay.

According to the Gottmans’ research, kindness is the glue that keeps couples together. It is in practicing kindness that we are able to make our partners feel our love. Now, it is easy to be kind to your partner when everything is going well; but kindness is most needed not during these periods of happiness but during the down times, during periods of fighting and brewing contempt.

As Julie Gottman puts it, “Kindness doesn’t mean that we don’t express our anger, but the kindness informs how we choose to express the anger. You can throw spears at your partner. Or you can explain why you’re hurt and that’s the kinder path.”

This is also where generosity (of intent) comes in. When your partner does or says something that is hurtful to you, it is important to give your partner some ‘benefit of the doubt.’ Instead of immediately assuming the malevolence of an act, try to find its root. Beyond seeking to be understood, also seek to understand.

GRATITUDE

Last, but not least, there is the importance of expressing love through gratitude. In 2012, an article from Psychology Today discussed the role of appreciation and gratitude in maintaining relationships. It talked about a study conducted by U.C. Berkeley psychologist Amie Gordon. The study, which was featured in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, involved asking 50 couples to write in appreciation journals.

The results of the study showed that couples who practiced reciprocal appreciation were more likely to stay together in the following months. They also exhibited stronger ties with each other. So, it’s true. Showing love through appreciation really does help create a loving and nourishing environment for couples.

Now, I’m sure that this list of ‘secrets’ is far from complete, but I do believe that practicing these tips can help secure a lasting, healthy, and happy marriage. At the very least, true love is always worth the shot, right?

The Most Romantic Poems of All Time (Part I)

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For this particular reader, there are few things more romantic than a heartfelt and well-written love poem. Oh, a diamond ring is an absolute darling. But terrific poetry? Now, that is forever.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, I’ve compiled a list of the most romantic poems of all time. Admittedly, personal preference did come into play (a lot) during this selection process. So, if your favorite love poems failed to make the initial cut, just chime in. This is just the first of a two-part series—I’ll be happy to include your suggestions in the next list.

So, without further ado (and in no particular order), here are the most romantic poems of all time. Read and enjoy.

On Marriage by Kahlil Gibran

You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days.
Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

This excerpt from Kahlil Gibran’s immensely popular book, The Prophet, is one of the most popular wedding readings today. It’s a piece that encourages husband and wife to stand together in love but also to retain a semblance of individuality. Or, as Gibran puts it:

Give your hearts, but not in each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the Cyprus grow not in each other’s shadows.

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in] by E. E. Cummings

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Fact: many of E.E. Cummings’s most well-known poems are very avant-garde in terms of style. Also a fact: These works carry universal appeal, hence their enduring popularity. In [i carry your heart with me(i carry it in], Cummings gives the traditional love poem a fresh twist with his experimental use of punctuation and syntax.

(see my review of E. E. Cummings’s poem, l(a here.)

Love’s Philosophy by Percy Bysshe Shelley

And the sunlight clasps the earth
And the moonbeams kiss the sea:
What is all this sweet work worth
If thou kiss not me?

Now, here’s a poem about unrequited love. Love’s Philosophy was written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1820. In this poem, the speaker tries to convince his beloved to return his feelings by pointing out how everything in nature is interconnected and intermingles. As Shelley puts it:

All things by a law divine
In one another’s being mingle; —
Why not I with thine?

Pretty compelling argument right there, if you ask me.

Sonnet 43 (How Do I Love Thee) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

Sonnet 43, also known as How Do I Love Thee, by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, is the second to the last poem in the poet’s love sonnets collection, Sonnets from the Portuguese. In this poem, the persona proclaims the extent of her love for her partner—which according to the poem is pretty much limitless. It’s a declaration of an unbounded, inexhaustible, and infinite love. The poem is also said to have been written for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s husband, Robert Browning.

Sonnet XVII by Pablo Neruda

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you straightforwardly without complexities or pride;

This is one of my favorite poems from the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. It’s a poem that conveys the truth about love—that it is not always perfect but it is all-encompassing.

See my analysis of Sonnet XVII here.

Sonnet 116: Let me not to the marriage of true minds by William Shakespeare

…Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove.
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

No list of love poems is complete without this gem from the Bard of Avon. In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare gives us a beautiful definition of what Love truly means. According to Shakespeare, real love is unchanging—it is an ‘ever-fixed mark’ in the face of ‘tempests.’

Another Valentine by Wendy Cope

Our love is old and sure, not new and frantic.
You know I’m yours and I know you are mine.
And saying that has made me feel romantic,
My dearest love, my darling valentine.

Another Valentine by Wendy Cope is just the poem for those of us in long-term relationships. The poem starts out with the persona seemingly complaining about Valentine’s Day. “Today we are obliged to be romantic.” But as you can see, her tune changes soon enough. It’s a short, humorous, and sweet piece that’s a delight to read.

She Walks in Beauty by Lord Byron

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

She Walks in Beauty might just be the sweetest poem ever written. The way Lord Byron describes the poem’s subject—her beauty, her charm, and her grace—is nothing short of swoon-worthy. Now, according to several sources, the poem was inspired by the mesmerizing good looks of Mrs. Anne Beatrix Wilmot—the wife of Byron’s first cousin.

Valentine by Carol Ann Duffy

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
Possessive and faithful
As we are,
For as long as we are.

In Valentine, Carol Ann Duffy does away with the usual representations of love like the red rose and the satin heart. She goes for a more faithful symbol instead—the onion.  Like the onion, true love has its many layers. Its sting can blind you with tears, its fierce kiss is possessive and faithful, and its scent is one that clings.

High points for accuracy.

To My Valentine by Ogden Nash

I love you more than a wasp can sting,
And more than the subway jerks,
I love you as much as a beggar needs a crutch,
And more than a hangnail irks.

Humor is key to this lovely and lively little poem from Ogden Nash. With its unflattering imagery and easy rhymes, To My Valentine exudes the same innocent and childlike vibe as that old nursery rhyme that goes—“dogs and snails and puppy dog tails.” But the beauty of this poem is that underneath the uncomplimentary visuals it presents is a persona just reassuring his valentine of his immense love.

(See Part 2 of this list here)

Book Review: Spinster by Kate Bolick

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Title: Spinster (Making a Life of One’s Own)

Author: Kate Bolick

Genre: Non-Fiction, Cultural Criticism, Feminist Literature, Social Commentary

First Published: 2015 (Crown Publishers)

Page Count: 297 pages

“Whom to marry and when will it happen? These two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does or doesn’t practice… These dual contingencies govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”

And with that begins Kate Bolick’s highly informative, compelling, and entertaining defense against the dominating cultural viewpoint against single women (a.k.a. the spinsters). Her book Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own is one part autobiography and one part history lesson. Throughout the book, she details her own journey towards her brand of spinsterhood—a life lived mostly and happily in solitude or with like-minded individuals. Though not without romantic entanglements, it is a life that separates itself from the traditional notion of couplehood, which include cohabitation and marriage.

Aside from using initials in lieu of first names, Bolick recounts past relationships with unflinching honesty and sometimes, surprising alacrity. While in a long distance relationship with her college boyfriend W., she repeatedly writes about her ‘spinster wish’ in her journal. The spinster wish being Bolick’s secret code for living alone and the freedom it brings. Unsurprisingly, this wish had become the nail in the coffin for many of her long-term relationships.

Apart from disclosing the demise of her romantic commitments, she talks at length about the lives of her awakeners—a term borrowed from Edith Wharton. Bolick uses the term to denote the five women that had shaped her life. After her mother’s early death, the author had found herself needing conversation and guidance, and these she found in and through the works and lives of the poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the columnist, Neith Boyce, the essayist, Maeve Brennan, the novelist, Edith Wharton, and the ‘social visionary,’ Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Now, before we go any further, let this humble and happily humbled reader disclose this: I had not known what to expect of the book. It had sat happily on the same row as The Feminine Mystique—seemingly out of place among more palpably “serious” works. Spinster had snippets of glowing reviews from the Times, The Pool, The Lady, and authors like Rebecca Mead, Joanna Rakoff, and Susan Cain. But the image of a gorgeous model sat on an ostentatious gold couch, ornate teacup in hand, seemed a stark conflict with the subject matter promised by the book. After all, the beautiful woman on the cover can’t possibly be a spinster, could she?

Imagine my surprise and mild embarrassment upon finding out that the model was none other than Kate Bolick herself. And that’s exactly what the book does. It challenges the negative cultural attitude society has about spinsters. When Bolick writes about being a young girl, crushing snails against rocks, the image is partially disturbing because it is a girl doing it. Of course, it’s greatly disturbing either way, because no snail or any other animal should be subjected to such treatment, but there’s no denying how if it were a boy doing this, there is still the age-old argument that ‘boys will be boys.’

This memory also serves to illustrate Bolick’s early, though unconscious yearning for spinsterhood. There’s no denying the surge of happiness she had felt standing alone in an isthmus—her own kingdom, her own life to do as she pleased.

“I built then, my kingdom according to my own laws, and when the sun beat down, it beat down only on me, and when my feet acclimated to freezing water, it was my resilience that made this so. My experience of being alone was total.”

Throughout the book, Bolick also uses historical events and statistics to back the idea that despite the growing number of single women around the world, they—particularly single women in their 30s onwards—still continue to be regarded as anomalies, as social aberrations. As Bolick puts it, “Culture tells us that a spinster is without future—no heirs to bear, nobody to remember her when she’s gone.” One only has to look at history to understand this sentiment, this historical resentment.

According to Bolick’s research, 75% of the women accused of being witches during the infamous Salem Witch Trials were single women over 50 with above average means. Whether they had amassed their fortunes post-widowhood or were never-marrieds with a semi-affluent upbringing didn’t matter. Women of independent wealth were regarded with suspicion and disdain.

 Even the word “spinster” itself has gone through a radical redefining. In the 15th century, the word simply referred to European girls who spun thread as part of the trade. By the 1600s, the word had shifted to simply mean a single woman. But when the word crossed ponds to land in Colonial America, spinster developed an older, more cringe-worthy sister—the thornback. Any unmarried woman at 26 became a thornback—a word describing a scaly type of ray. Cue Bridget Jones’s famous line when asked why there were “so many unmarried women in their thirties these days.” To which, she replied, “Suppose it doesn’t help that underneath our clothes our entire bodies are covered in scales.” Brilliant.

Historically, women have also struggled—and to a certain degree continue to struggle—to be treated equally in the workforce. Bolick discusses that in the mid- to late-19th century, when women became an integral part of both the factory and the office settings, as factory workers, budding journalists and later, stenographers, they were subject to lower wages compared to their male counterparts. This is despite the fact that women were churning out the same amount of work as men. Their employers came up with a completely shady reason to underpay female workers—Functional Periodicity. This being the wholly invalid belief that women suffered from physical and mental debilitation during their menses.

Today, we still find working girls struggling to find their identity and dignity in the work space. Many are still under the impression that to succeed in whatever field they set out to work in, they’ll need to either bank on their erotic capital or blatantly imitate the mannerisms and the ways of men. As if skill alone were not enough for the woman to haul herself rung by rung up the corporate/organizational ladder.

She also argues that despite the changing image of the spinster (from the 50s old lady with cats to Ally McBeal, Murphy Brown, the ladies of Sex and the City), the underlying cultural attitude toward spinsterhood remains greatly unchanged. A woman, particularly, a single woman of a ‘specific age’ is still bound by expectations of motherhood and marriage. And until this “attitude” changes, until this status becomes not just accepted (culturally) and recognized and respected, women are not free.

The truth is, despite the fact that this is the 21st century and ideally, we have gone leaps and bounds past such antiquated notions, single women continue to be stigmatized. With spinsterhood comes expectations, fears, and visions of a life of madness. Think about it. The bag lady, the old hag, the neighborhood loon that dies alone in a house full of cats (or dogs)—to be found much later in a horrid state of decomposition. The spinster has become a cautionary tale to young women across the globe.

Instead of being thought of as a valid choice or decision, spinsterhood is believed to be the outcome of poorly made choices, unfortunate circumstances, tragedy, and heartbreak. Where is the respect for this type of lifestyle? Where is the dignity of which it’s due?

These are the queries that one arrives at after reading Spinster. Beyond giving her readers a well-written autobiography and a succinct but effective history lesson, Bolick opens her readers’ eyes to the continued struggles of the modern-day spinsters. And she does so beautifully in both prose and action.

But just like the spinster’s tremulous footing in today’s society, the book, Spinster, also shows Bolick’s own struggles in toeing what she perceives to be Pink Ghetto journalism. She is hesitant to divulge so much about herself. In an entry about her mother’s death, she offers a clunky and somewhat awkward explanation for her decision:

“The literary critic in me resents her role (her mother) in this book the way I would a sentimental plot twist in a movie. We all have had mothers, few among us want to lose them; I wish my experience had transcended such an obvious bid for your sympathy, and I could have become a different writer. But I can’t erase the fact that the first day of my adult life was that morning in May my mother took her last breath.”

 Was the story of Bolick’s mother a pivotal part of the book? Yes. So why did the author feel the need to clarify, (and consequently complicate), an otherwise sound decision to include her mother’s life in her narrative? The answer lies in the author’s fear of falling into the trap of pink journalism. Apparently, most female journalists fear that by mining their personal experiences and writing about decidedly feminine topics—lifestyle, sex, and fashion—they’ll be caging themselves in. They fear that these topics will ultimately make it difficult for their work to be taken seriously.

Now, personally, I enjoy reading about these pink topics and don’t see the need to really segregate between ‘serious’ journalism and their pink ghetto cousin. Well-written and informative pieces, regardless of whether we’re talking war or the importance of breastfeeding, are well-worth the read. In this humble reader’s opinion anyways.

Another part of the book that gave me pause had to do with Bolick’s views on marriage and children. Although not straightforwardly stated, I felt that there were moments wherein Bolick saw marriage and family life to be impediments to a woman’s personal success. Particularly in Neith Boyce’s case. Bolick writes about Neith being stuck at home changing nappies while her husband, fellow writer, Hutchins Hapgood, was globetrotting and furthering his own career.

Spinster makes plenty of great points and the aim of the book is to defend the choice for spinsterhood—that I understand. But the danger lies in the perspective that women who choose marriage and children may be missing out on something—the joy of solitude and the productivity the lifestyle brings. This may not be what Bolick means, but I fear that some of her arguments unwittingly pit singles against the marrieds. And that’s one trope that’s been exhausted in films, books, and plays.

But I’ve always believed that a book is always a conversation between the author and the reader. And despite our minor disagreements, Spinster is a conversation with Kate Bolick that I greatly enjoy and will frequently revisit in the years to come.

Rating: A+

This is a must-read for women of all ages, whether they be single or married, or in the hazy or concrete footing of the in-between.

Creativity may thrive in Chaos but Productivity Favors the Tidy

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While writing my review on Marie Kondo’s hugely popular book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” I came across a very interesting study on the correlation between creativity and ‘mess.’

In 2013, Psychological Science published a study that proved how having a ‘disorderly’ space could actually yield more creative thinking. The study was led by Kathleen Vohs, a psychological scientist from the University of Minnesota. Vohs had conducted an experiment wherein half of the participants were asked to stay in a ‘clean’ room, while the other half stayed in a ‘messy’ room. They were then instructed to think up of new ways to use ping pong balls.

Although both groups came up with the same number of suggestions, the answers from the participants staying in the cluttered room were deemed to be more interesting and creative. Now, as a hoarder and an aspiring writer, this is the type of study that I could really get behind.

However, in another 2013 experiment, this time by Boyoun (Grace) Chae and Rui (Juliet) Zhu, it appears that productivity may actually favor employees working in a neat environment. In the article published in the Harvard Business Review, the duo detailed an experiment involving 100 students. The undergraduates were brought to either a cluttered space strewn with paperwork and used cups or an orderly desk. The students were then asked to solve a geometrical problem—an unsolvable one—that entailed finding a way to trace the figure without lifting pencil from paper or retracing lines.

The result? Students working in the ‘messy’ environment gave up after an average of just 669 seconds. Compare that to the average 1,117 seconds that the students in the ‘neat’ environment were able to keep up. Now, while this may be a study on persistence rather than direct productivity, we all know that to succeed in anything, you’ll need to have the patience to stick it out.

So, does that mean that messy creatives aren’t productive and the neat go-getters aren’t creative? Not necessarily. Perhaps the solution lies in the middle ground. In life, few things are ever really black or white. Ultimately, I believe that everything boils down to preference and personality. That, or one should always keep one’s desk neat but with inspiration-driving clutter within reach. Food for thought.

Book Review: An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison

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Title: An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness

Author: Kay Redfield Jamison

Genre: Non-Fiction, Autobiography, Psychology

First Published: 1995

 

Over the course of the last couple of decades, the medical world has made significant progress in finding effective diagnostic and treatment procedures for Bipolar Disorder, formerly known as Manic Depression. The onset of social media has also contributed greatly in disseminating information and dispelling biases against the disorder. And yet, while we are seeing change in the public’s attitude towards the illness, there are just a handful of autobiographical accounts that tackle both the personal and medical effects of the illness as brilliantly as Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness.

Written in the early 90s by Kay Redfield Jamison, a Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, An Unquiet Mind is an eye-opening memoir that effectively changes the way one views bipolar disorder. Now, one of the factors that make the book so compelling is how Jamison—one of the world’s foremost experts on the disorder—pulls from her own experiences as a manic depressive to provide a holistic view of the illness. Bear in mind that this was written during a period wherein an admission such as this could have major personal and professional repercussions for a medical practitioner. Despite the confession’s possible effects on her personal life and career, Jamison decided that to make a difference in the lives of other manic depressives, she needed to speak up. She was also tired of hiding and having to feel as if she had something to hide. In her words:

 

“One is what one is, and the dishonesty of hiding behind a degree, or a title, or any manner and collection of words is still exactly that, dishonest.”

It is with this fearless attitude that she lays bare her struggles against an illness that has brought some of the world’s brightest minds on or past the brink of suicide. In An Unquiet Mind, Jamison paints a vivid picture of a life shaped and distorted by moods and madness. As a child, she was optimistic, driven, but also plagued by a mercurial temperament. Her first manic depressive episode in her late teens meant weeks of flying high only to burn out so quickly that it left her incapable of finding pleasure in anything.

“I counted upon my mind’s acuity, interest, and loyalty as a matter of course. Now, all of a sudden, my mind turned on me; it mocked me for my vapid enthusiasms; it laughed at all of my foolish plans; it no longer found anything interesting or worthwhile.”

As Jamison grew older, her moods continued to worsen. Three months into her work as an assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry, she had become a raving psychotic. Initially, her manic episodes conferred terrific advantages—the need for little sleep had coupled with amazing productivity. But at the tail end of those manic moments were long bouts of depression that had her frequently contemplating suicide. Eventually, the lines between the two states of mind became blurred. These episodes became even more pronounced during the time she was battling her way into the male-dominated world of clinical psychology.

After a terrible bout of depression, a colleague managed to convince her to see a psychiatrist. His diagnosis shook her to her very core.

“The endless questioning finally ended. My psychiatrist looked at me, there was no uncertainty in his voice. ‘Manic depressive illness.’ I admired his bluntness. I wished him locusts on his lands and a pox upon his house. Silent, unbelievable rage. I smiled pleasantly. He smiled back. The war had just begun.”

Indeed, the war wasn’t over for Jamison. She had been prescribed lithium—a life-saving drug that tempered her moods but also brought with it an unpleasant string of side effects. For a long time, she went on and off the drug intermittently. At one particularly bleak moment, she decided to kill herself. Her method of choice was overdosing on the drug that was meant to save her. She reveled in its irony. But help came on time, and over the years she realized that the pros of taking lithium greatly outweighed its admittedly many cons.

Ultimately, An Unquiet Mind is a lot more than just a ‘memoir of moods and madness.’ It is an illuminating piece that educates its readers about one of the most misunderstood mental disorders in the world. It’s also a success story, a light at the end of the tunnel for people struggling with bipolar disorder.

Written in incredibly magnetic and eloquent prose, this is a book that effectively pulls the reader in. At times, the emotions from the page became so palpable that it left me breathless. This is a book that has moved me to tears, the first, second, and third time I’ve read it. It has been an honor to have chanced upon this seminal work—and now it takes its place on my metaphorical shelf of literary greats.

Rating: A+++

Definitely a must-read and must-keep.

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

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Full Title: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

Author: Marie Kondo

Genre: Non-Fiction, Self-Help, Organizing

Originally Published: 2011

**Translated from Japanese by Cathy Hirano

 

I’m a hoarder. I’m a hoarder of a very specific sort. More than clothes, makeup, or shoes, I like to hoard books, CDs, journals, and an assortment of office supplies. At my messiest, these items would take up so much floor space that walking from one end of the room to another was a very real ordeal. Books, magazines, and half-finished journals would occupy the expanse of my bed, and I’d take to sleeping partially on top of them.

Now, while dealing with clutter has always been a part of my everyday existence, it doesn’t mean that I enjoy being the messiest person in the household. For the last couple of decades, my mother and I have been butting heads over my ‘mess’ on a daily basis. So, when I got Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as a Christmas present, I saw it as an opportunity to finally become more organized.

Besides, the book couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. The year 2015 had brought massive changes to my life. It was the year I got diagnosed with Graves’ disease and saw the end of a major relationship. After months of feeling lost and feeling at a loss, the book came as a sign that it was time to turn over a new leaf. Time to start over.

So, I started 2016 by cracking open my copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—and boy, was I glad I did! True to its name, this book from Marie Kondo truly is life-changing.

To properly organize one’s household, Kondo advises the reader to follow these basic rules:

  • Organize the house completely and thoroughly in one go (ikki ni). This is a period that generally lasts six (6) months.
  • Start by discarding, keeping only items that “Spark Joy.” I must admit the ‘spark joy’ bit did sound a little gimmicky at first, but it’s a gimmick that actually works. What she basically asks from the reader is to only keep items that he/she needs and loves.
  • Sort by category and not by location. Kondo points out that people don’t usually keep the same types of items in one place. Sorting by category instead of by room/space allows the reader to cull his/her belongings properly.
  • When sorting by category, follow this order: Clothes à Books à Paperwork à Miscellaneous Items (Komono) à Sentimental Items. Kondo intentionally puts clothes first and sentimental items last to help bolster the reader’s confidence in his/her culling abilities. It is a lot easier to decide on which shirts to keep than it is to pick out which pictures deserve album space and which ones need to be discarded.

Now, more than just offering concrete and doable tips on how to eliminate mess in the household, Kondo also forces her readers to take a closer look at their chosen lifestyle. To try to figure out why we hold on to so many items that we no longer need—or even truly want.

Working for the family business—which means working at home in my jammies—did I really need dozens of stilettos, scarves, necklaces, and cocktail rings? I have how-to-books on style, building capsule wardrobes, and makeup application—all of which I’ve read, none of which I’ve followed. I still had all my college textbooks, handouts, and notes. I had palanca letters from grade school and high school classmates. And while these items provided hours of joy as I flipped through their pages, I realized they were all good for that one moment of reminiscing.

A few weeks into my organizing phase and I realized that beyond being a book hoarder, I also have a tendency to hold on to items for sentimental reasons. While I had no problems getting rid of five large bags of clothes, dozens of shoes, and a box of accessories, I still couldn’t bring myself to let go of pictures and letters from people who are no longer a part of my life. And yet, as Marie Kondo puts it, “Truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard the objects associated with them.”

And that’s what I mean when I say that the book is life-changing. I was forced to ask myself why I was holding on to the past so much. I realized that a lot of it had to do with a fear of the future. See, most of the items I kept, which had lost their purpose long ago, came from a period of intense, carefree happiness. Band pictures and drafts of old songs, bodycon dresses that were two sizes too small, a chandelier earring that I wore during a night-out with old friends. These items predated my exit from the corporate world, a family member’s long-term illness, and the onset of my own physical limitations. I was holding on to these things because I was afraid I’d never feel those lighthearted moments again. And maybe I won’t.

But going through this organizing phase, this dogged application of the Konmari method, I came to the realization that things change. People change. I’ve changed. And maybe, just maybe that’s not such a bad thing. As we grow older, and hopefully wiser, our priorities shift—and consequently, the things that make us happy take on different forms. In my 20s, happiness meant getting gussied-up for booze-fueled all-nighters. These days, I get the same amount of satisfaction by going to a coffee shop and reading for hours, writing my novel, spending time with my family, having coffee-fueled talkathons with friends, and watching TV show reruns with my boyfriend. Some people may think my current life is boring, but the fact is, with my life now, I am never bored. And that’s all that matters.

Reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo has done more than just minimize my morning squabbles with my mother. It’s made me more appreciative of the things I own and the life I have now. And therein lies the magic of this book.

Rating: A+

Comments: It would have been an A++, except (SPOILER ALERT), Kondo has owned up to tearing pages out of her favorite books.

Sartre, Simplified: A Review of Existentialism is a Humanism

existentialism_sartre

Title: Existentialism is a Humanism

Author: Jean-Paul Sartre

Genre: Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Existentialism

First Published by: Éditions Nagel in 1946

Translated by: Carol Macomber

Introduction by: Annie Cohen-Solal

Notes and Preface by: Arlette Elkaïm-Sartre

Edited by: John Kulka

 

Legends:

Bold – important points in existentialism

“Italicized” – direct quotes from Sartre or another source

 

To fully grasp the magnitude of Existentialism is a Humanism (L’Existentialisme est un humanisme) by Jean-Paul Sartre, it is imperative that we understand its whys and why nots, the driving force behind this monumental piece. Existentialism is a Humanism didn’t start out as a philosophy book, rather it was originally a transcript of a lecture given by Sartre in Paris for Club Maintenant.

The club, which was founded by Marc Beigbeder and Jacques Calmy, was founded to help encourage “literary and intellectual discussion.” The lecture, which was held on October 29, 1945, was the perfect platform for Sartre to help clear the air of the rumors and unfounded criticisms that targeted his take on existentialism.

Earlier that year, Sartre had released the initial volumes of The Roads to Freedom. The novels The Age of Reason and The Reprieve were met with disdain by the era’s conformists. The characteristics of the unlikely protagonist did not kowtow to their idea of what a ‘hero’ should be like. Add to that the confusion and misguided notions regarding existentialism, and what he had was a crowd of detractors determined to go for his life work’s jugular.

In a bid to enlighten his critics, Sartre accepted the invitation for the lecture. He appeared in front of a packed crowd, sans notes, and proceeded to defend his philosophy. The strangeness of the situation was not lost on Sartre. Understanding that the discussion of existentialism had shifted from the purely academic platform of philosophers to the dinner table of the everyman, he said:

“In the past, philosophers were attacked only by other philosophers. The general public did not understand philosophy at all, nor did they care. These days, philosophy is shot down in the public square.”

 

The Public Trial: Charges against Existentialism

“My purpose here is to defend existentialism against some of the charges that has been brought against it…” And thus begins Sartre’s lengthy, didactic, and illuminating monologue explaining the tenets of existentialism. It was a simplified version of the philosophy addressed to existentialism’s main detractors—the Communists and the Christians.

Being an atheist, Sartre only aimed to correct the mistaken notions some Christians had about the philosophy. To his religious critics, existentialism focused too much on the basest parts of humanity—in the process, completely disregarding the better side of human nature. They also questioned the philosophy’s morality. To them, denying God’s existence and ignoring his teachings meant man could do exactly as he pleased.

As for the Communists, Sartre had hoped for some form of reconciliation with the movement. For while he was unbending on his views, he felt that by giving a thorough clarification of existentialism’s points, his Communist critics would find that their beliefs weren’t so different after all. But the Communists were under the impression that existentialism was a bourgeois philosophy, a contemplative doctrine that encouraged quietism, inaction, and despair.

Both sects also accused existentialism of focusing too much on subjectivity, thereby overlooking the possibility of and necessity for human solidarity. To this, Sartre answered with a definition of Existentialism. He asserts that existentialism is a “doctrine that makes human life possible and also affirms that every truth and every action imply an environment of human subjectivity.”

He claimed that the allegations made by Communists and Christians alike were furthered only by a terrible misunderstanding. Over the course of its existence, ‘existentialism’ had become a catchword, “applied so loosely that it has come to mean nothing at all.” Through the discourse, Sartre aimed to debunk these charges and to put forth the belief that existentialism is actually a form of humanism.

 

Christian Existentialism vs. Atheist Existentialism

Underneath the umbrella of existentialism resides two distinct philosophical movements—Christian Existentialism and Atheist Existentialism. While both movements believe that existence precedes essence and that subjectivity should be the philosopher’s main point of departure, there are fundamental differences between their treatments of these notions.

Now, before we delve into the disparities of these two movements, let’s take the time to understand what we mean by existence precedes essence. For Christian Existentialists, existence precedes essence because man is the product of God’s intelligence. But for Atheist Existentialists—the movement which Sartre belongs to—because God does not exist, the only being whose existence precedes essence is the one being that exists prior to developing its essence and morality. That being is man.

Another notion that separates Christian existentialism with its atheist cousin is its understanding of the human condition. While Christian existentialists believe in ‘human nature,’ which helps explain man’s actions, atheist existentialists only subscribe to the idea of a shared ‘human reality.’

Human reality is a term borrowed from Heidegger. It does not concern itself with dictating human nature, rather it talks about the shared limitations of man. To paraphrase Sartre, the human reality is this—man is born into the world, exists among others in the world, and will eventually perish in the world. There is no shared nature that predetermines man’s actions.

This brings us to the first principle of existentialism—that “Man is nothing other than what he makes of himself,” or in simpler terms—the world of human subjectivity.

 

What does Sartre mean by Subjectivity?

Merriam-Webster defines subjectivity in philosophy as “relating to the way a person experiences things in his or her own mind.” For existentialist philosophers, subjectivity refers to how “prior to man’s projection of the self, nothing exists.” Man only begins to exist after he begins to exercise his freedom of choosing his projects/morality. Because man is responsible for what he chooses, he is also responsible for who he becomes.

But beyond being responsible for himself, man is also responsible for the rest of mankind. This is because what man chooses for himself, he also chooses for all men. According to Sartre, “to make a choice is to affirm at the same time, the value of what we choose.” So if a person decides to live an honest life, he is, in fact, saying that all men must lead honest lives. Sartre also points out that man must “always choose the good and nothing can be good for any of us unless it is good for all.”

Once man comes to terms with these truths, he experiences the weight of anguish, abandonment, and despair. Existentialists redefine these words to illustrate the effects of their philosophy.

 

The Existentialist’s Anguish…

 Sartre defines anguish as man’s realization of his “full and profound responsibility.” It is an awareness of his inability to move past human subjectivity, an acknowledgment that his choice matters to the rest of mankind. As a guiding point, Sartre says, we must always ask ourselves, “What would happen if everyone did what I am doing?” To not ask this question or to ignore it completely is to lie to oneself. To create excuses for one’s behavior is to act in bad faith and to struggle with a bad conscience.

To illustrate this anguish, Sartre tackles Kierkegaard’s idea of the anguish of Abraham. In the Bible, God sent a messenger to Abraham asking him to sacrifice his beloved son. Abraham made the choice to believe that it was God’s will. While he was determined to follow God’s orders, the choice was not without pain or anguish. This is the same emotion felt by generals and commanders during the war. For the sake of the greater good, they may sacrifice the lives of their men in the process—it is a torment-filled decision, but one that does not stop them from acting.

In our daily lives, we too are sometimes faced with choices laced with anguish. It is an emotion anyone with responsibilities can attest to. It is a shared experience, but one that is rooted in subjectivity and resulting in action.

 

… Sense of Abandonment…

“Man is condemned to be free: Condemned because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free because once cast in the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” – Sartre

Abandonment is what man experiences because God does not exist. Because there is no God, and consequently no code of conduct that must be followed, we bear the full responsibility for the values we choose to uphold. Dostoevsky once wrote, “If God does not exist, everything is permissible.” Indeed, that is accurate. It is one of the starting points of existentialism and is one of the accusations hurled by Christians against the philosophy.

But while everything may appear allowable, existentialists believe that there are no excuses for our actions. Because God does not exist, a person cannot explain his choices as being a result of ‘human nature.’ In Sartre’s words, “We are left alone and without an excuse.”

Man cannot hide behind passion or signs. Because feelings are built by the actions we take and choices we make, emotions can never be used as guidelines for our actions. As for signs, we are the ones who choose to interpret their meaning. In short, abandonment is the acknowledgment that we alone must decide who we must become—and that decision entails anguish.

 

…and Despair

Despair, on the other hand, is the idea that man must limit his decisions and actions to things that he can control. Choices are made based on the available probabilities that will allow action. As Descartes once said, “Conquer yourself rather than the world.” For existentialists, this means acting without hope or expectation.

 

A Response to All Allegations

That existentialism breeds quietism and inaction. As a response to the Communists’ allegation, Sartre replies that existentialism cannot breed quietism, because reality only exists in actions. Man is nothing other than his project…he is nothing more than the sum of his actions, nothing more than his life.”

That it is a pessimistic description of man. Outside of it being an atheist philosophy, according to Sartre, existentialism is actually rather optimistic because it’s one that furthers the belief that man’s destiny lies within himself. And that while man is nothing more than his project, it is a project that does not define him completely. For projects can be reevaluated, re-planned, and repeated.

That existentialism is a bourgeois and individualistic philosophy. Sartre acknowledges that the point of departure is the Cartesian cogito, “I think therefore I am.” But this is so, only because existentialists want a solid base to build their philosophy—one that is not based on “comforting theories full of hope but without foundation.” But contrary to the philosophies of both Kant and Descartes, the existentialist’s idea of “I think…” is to think within the presence of others, to see the other as a condition of one’s own existence. So rather than dwelling in the world of subjectivity, existentialism actually enters into the field of “intersubjectivity.”

That the philosophy leaves man free to do as he pleases. While on the one hand, this is true, Sartre asserts that “Man finds himself in a complex social situation in which he himself is committed, and by his choices commits all mankind.” And since man is responsible for all his choices, he must always choose what is good, not only for himself but for the rest of mankind.

That the philosophy makes it impossible to judge other people for their wrongdoings. Again, this is both true and untrue. For when man commits to his project in a lucid and genuine manner, in the pursuit of what is good for all, then he cannot choose anything else. However, if the choices are made in bad faith—then these choices can be judged for having been made in error.

To which, Sartre says, “Those who conceal from themselves this total freedom under the guise of solemnity, or by making determinist excuses, I will call cowards. Others, who try to prove their existence is necessary when man’s appearance on earth is merely contingent, I will call bastards.”

That existentialism makes it impossible to build a human community. While the philosophy teaches its pupil to focus on the areas of life one can control, it doesn’t mean that one cannot belong to an organization or party. Sartre advises the existentialist philosopher to act, create, to invent, but without illusions or unfounded hope.

 

Existentialist Humanism

Ultimately, Sartre proves that existentialism is a humanism because it is a philosophy that reminds man that (a) in his abandoned state, man must make his own choices, (b) that man’s choices must be good for all (not just himself), and that (c) man will only realize himself as truly human when he commits himself to a project or special achievement that betters the state of all.

 

A Reader’s Reaction to Existentialism is a Humanism

As a reader, the question here is whether or not Sartre was successful in defending existentialism against its critics. In this humble reader’s opinion, Sartre did well in addressing all their concerns and in establishing the foundations of his young philosophy. Admittedly, some of the points were rigid and lacking in refinement. But it is important to remember that this was an attempt from Sartre to simplify his philosophy and make it more palatable to the masses.  He was also at the point in his life wherein he was yet to fully fine-tune his philosophical and literary work.

Now, despite being an incomplete picture of existentialism, I highly recommend this work to anyone in crisis over the purpose of life. For a book on philosophy, this slim volume is an easy read and one that comes with a lot of chewable and digestible truths.

Rating: A++ (because one + is not enough)

Thoughts on “Economy” by Henry David Thoreau

Walden

 

Title: Economy (from Walden)

Author: Henry David Thoreau

Genre: Non-Fiction, Essay, Philosophy, Memoir

First Published: 1854

 

Before starting the actual review, let me stress that this is just my thoughts on the first chapter of Henry David Thoreau’s acclaimed work, Walden. I find it necessary for us to have at least a brief overview of the main text; that way, we can have a fuller grasp of the reasonings behind the creation of this compelling piece of literature.

Now, Walden is essentially the byproduct of Henry David Thoreau’s ‘immersion’ in nature. For two years, two months, and two days, Thoreau decided to live apart from society and its stifling standards by erecting a cabin in the woods near Walden Pond—about two miles from his home. There, he sought to understand society and its workings by paring down life to its bare essentials. This act of ‘economizing’ life had tremendous impact on Thoreau and his views; and this shows, especially when the reader explores the philosophies introduced by the writer in this chapter.

These days, when we say economy, we often use it to refer to either the economic climate or conditions of a particular country or area, or to the prudent and efficient use of finite resources. In the chapter aptly titled: Economy, the reader is given both an accurate portrait of the economic mindset of early-to-mid nineteenth century America, and an extensive how-to on keeping one’s daily expenditures at the bare minimum.

Note that the previous paragraph reads: “an accurate portrait of an economic mindset,” and not an economic state. This is deliberate; because while Thoreau does touch on fiscal matters and household management, he focuses more on denouncing the notion of the common mode of living as being the only socially acceptable one. He recognizes the futility of laboring constantly to meet the living standards set by society; standards which are not so much suggested as they are levied on the common man’s head. This is a sentiment, which I still find relevant today. Let me qualify that statement by dissecting the text with you.

In Economy, Thoreau uses very strong pronouncements such as “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… but it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things (p.11),” and “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that is which determines or rather indicates his fate (p.10),” to illustrate what he thinks of man’s reasons for his laboring. Thoreau believes that man has begun to live according to lofty standards dictated, not by his personal nature, but by an external force which one can only surmise as the “popular opinion” of a society geared towards consumerist living. The following excerpt sums up the essence of the author’s beliefs regarding this particular mindset:

“When we consider what, to use the words of catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. (p.11)”

Thoreau urges the reader to reconsider this popular “meaning of life” by recognizing that “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind,” further stating that “With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor (p.15).”

He explains these statements by pointing out that man, like most other animals, need only fuel, heat, and shelter to survive. To attain fuel, man eats—but he does not stop at eating to nourish, he feasts to taste. To retain heat, man covers himself with clothes—but he doesn’t wear clothes just to stay warm. He must wear the latest fashion, to rise in the esteem of his peers. And lastly, he doesn’t settle for whatever shelter can protect him from the elements, he must decorate his home, lest it be deemed unacceptable by his neighbors.

Now, let us explore each category, for I fear I do Thoreau no justice with such elementary summations. [My personal thoughts contained in brackets.]

On Fashion:

“No man has ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience. (p.21)”

Though the statement may appear harsh, it must be understood that Thoreau’s views on fashion stemmed from his own experiences of having been prematurely judged based on his clothing or appearance. In Economy, he shared one such experience. While being measured for a new coat, Thoreau mused: “Of what use this measuring of me if she does not measure my character, but only the breadth of my shoulders, as it were a peg to hang a coat on?”

He offers the notion of freeing oneself from the pressures of fashion, to enjoy a certain liberty, as is enjoyed by “a man clad so simply that he can lay his hands on himself in the dark…that if an enemy take the town, he can, like the old philosopher, walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.” (p.23)

[Though this particular idea may seem extreme, it’s one that I feel quite strongly about. For how many of us have been judged unfairly by our appearance or outwardly garb?  Being a woman of a particular color and stature, I cannot count how many times I have been subject to once-overs or been given a different brand of service inside certain establishments. While vanity has always been a shortcoming of mine, I have always believed in personal choice and personal style. I have always believed that if a man was to be judged, it would be according to his character, not his costume.]

 

On Shelter:

“While civilization has been improving our houses, it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them. (p.30)”

In discussing the topic of shelter, Thoreau does not deny the necessity of having one, though he does make a case about how man has opted to rent “a larger and more luxurious box, (p.27)” when one of a simpler nature would suffice—such as the wigwams occupied by the Native Americans. The chapter discusses how the dwelling of the chief of a village offers little disparity when compared to the wigwams of his tribesmen; while in a ‘more civilized nation,’ less than half of the population can afford to own homes. People opt to pay annual tax to rent these luxurious boxes, ‘which would buy a village of wigwams, but now helps to keep them poor as long as they live. (p.28)”

He further illustrates this point through a poignant example of how a farmer tries to make a living using a “formula more complicated than the problem itself (p.30).” He speaks of how the farmer uses his skills ‘to catch comfort and independence,’ not knowing that he himself has been caught in his own trap.  Man thinks that by obtaining luxuries he can attain freedom from a life of strife, and yet he spends his entire life working hard to maintain what luxuries he’s got .As Thoreau puts it, “And when the farmer has got his house, he may not be the richer but the poorer for it, and it be the house that has got him. (p.30)”

 

On the Perpetual State of Discontent:

“Most men appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbors have… Shall we always study to obtain more of these things, and not sometimes to be content with less? (p.32)”

In man’s pursuit for something greater, “Men have become the tools of their tools. (p.33)” That is the truth that Thoreau preaches throughout Economy. Man’s constant state of discontent propels him into action—but it is that very action that keeps him in a rat race that can only be broken by a change in perception. This feeling of dissatisfaction and the limitations it produces extends beyond the citizen’s private life.

“Nations are possessed with an insane ambition to perpetuate the memory of themselves by the amount of hammered stone they leave. What if equal pains were taken to smooth and polish their manners? One piece of good sense would be more memorable than a monument as high as the moon. (p.48)”

 

On the Practice of Philanthropy

“Philanthropy is almost the only virtue which is sufficiently appreciated by mankind. Nay, it is greatly overrated; and it is our selfishness which overrates it. (p.63)”

Thoreau offers an unconventional and somewhat unpopular view on the idea of charity. With staggering declarations like “As for Doing-good, that is one of the professions which are full. (p.60),” and “There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted. (p.61),” it is easy to misconstrue what the writer is trying to say. While he expressly states that philanthropy is an exercise that is not for him, he also explains that he would not stand in the way of genuine charity. He only asks that the intentions be pure and that the acts of charity be true. He believes that goodness should not be transitory or incomplete, rather, that the do-gooder would also spend himself alongside his money and would persevere even after public or private discouragements.

 

Verdict: All in all, Economy is a solid introduction to an extremely powerful piece of literary history. The persuasive and sound nature of Henry David Thoreau’s arguments guarantees his place as one of the greatest American writers and philosophers of all time.

Book Review: Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf

Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
My tattered copy of Virginia Woolf’s essays

Title: Three Guineas

Author: Virginia Woolf

Genre:  Essay

First Published:  1938

“Three years is a long time to leave a letter unanswered…” And thus begins Three Guineas–Virginia Woolf’s powerful essay on how the practices of the Victorian patriarchal system could be likened to the unarguable evils of tyranny and fascism. The essay is drafted as a response to the letter of an educated gentleman seeking Woolf’s opinions on how war could be prevented. Though many answers have suggested themselves to Woolf, the gentleman’s letter went unanswered for over three years.

Woolf clarifies that this is because none of these answers could be left without ample explanation. The differences in the psyche of the educated man and his sister had created a seemingly unbridgeable chasm that made immediate understanding of the reasonings of each sex near impossible. So, to answer the gentleman’s question, Woolf had to delve into the root of this ‘misunderstanding’ and find what unique and effective solutions could arise from it.

To illustrate the differences between the ways of thinking of the educated man and his sister, Woolf offers the reader the AEF or Arthur’s Education Fund. The AEF, as seen in the Pendennis, figures into household ledgers as the educational funds set aside for the sons in the family. This fund is designed to pay for more than man’s schooling, it also pays for all the other ‘essential parts’ of his education–including travel, leisure, lodging, and society. According to Woolf, the account has been in existence since the 13th century, and the educated man’s sister has paid her dues to the AEF for just as long. Though monetary contribution was out of the question–for the daughter of an educated man had no money of her own to contribute–she paid her dues through the sacrifices she was forced to make for her brother. For centuries, women were barred, not just from the professions but also the universities.

For a long time, Psychology became the only unpaid-for education available to women. This is, of course, going with the assumption that choosing a husband and making a marriage work are forms of practical Psychology within themselves. For a long time too, up until 1919 in fact, marriage was the only ‘profession’ open to women.  So you can understand how the social, physical, and educational limitations imposed on women during this period could affect her understanding of the necessity of war and violence. While a great majority of men saw war as either the ultimate manifestation of machismo or the natural expression of patriotism, out of their own shared experience under patriarchal rule, women were more inclined to question the need for war. Having been brought up to submit to fathers, brothers, and husbands, these women found no glory in violence. Faced with the possibility of war, they were more inclined to ask, “Why fight?”

Even the need for patriotism was questioned; for how has patriotism directly benefited the educated man’s daughter? During Woolf’s period, when a woman married a foreigner, she was asked to relinquish her citizenship and take on her husband’s. How then was she to form loyalties with a country that was not her own once she married outside of it? What did she owe a society that had caged her for as long as she could remember? But the possibility of war must be fought–as is made evident by the abundance of pictures laid out before Woolf. Images of homes torn asunder by bombs, the countless and faceless dead… But how to effectively prevent it?

While answering the gentleman’s letter, Woolf turns to two other documents that lie open on her desk. One is a request for funds to rebuild a women’s college, the other asks for financial support to help women gain a more secure footing within the professions. Woolf then uses these letters to illustrate how supporting these causes can, in fact, also be considered support for the anti-war movement. She addresses the gentleman:

“…But we have sworn that we will do all we can to help you to prevent war by using our influence–our earned money influence. And education is the obvious way. Since she is poor, since she is asking for money, and since the giver of money is entitled to dictate terms, let us risk it and draft a letter to her, laying down the terms upon which she shall have our money to help rebuild her college.”  – excerpt from Vintage Classic’s A Room of One’s Own & Three Guineas. p.129

And that is exactly what Virginia Woolf does. She imagines this experimental college founded on youth and poverty. This cheap college that focuses not on segregating and specializing, but a college that offers freedom from ‘the miserable distinctions of rich and poor, of clever and stupid…’ (p.133) It was, by all means, a college that did not breed vanity, competition, jealousy, and unreal loyalties. Instead, it was there to educate women, to help them earn their livings, and more importantly, to give them the freedom to have an opinion that is other than what is taught in the household, in church, or in whatever institution demands their blind loyalty…To the treasurer of the women’s college, Woolf relinquished her first guinea.

Then, it was time to look at the other letter. This one was from the honorary treasurer of a society designed to help women find employment in the professions. Here is where Woolf discusses the politics of economy as seen in the household. As Woolf puts it, ‘It seems that the person to whom the salary is actually paid is the person who has the actual right to decide how that salary should be spent…’ (p. 155) Marriage, by all descriptions, is just as noble as any other profession–but it is one that is unpaid. Woolf posits that without power over her own finances, a woman is robbed of the right to participate in such noble causes as that of the gentleman writer’s, if her husband disagrees with it. And so goes Woolf’s second guinea. As she puts it:

“…It was necessary to answer her letter and the letter from the honorary treasurer of the college rebuilding fund, and to send them both guineas before answering you letter, because unless they are helped, first to educate the daughters of educated men, and then to earn their living in the professions, those daughters cannot possess an independent and disinterested influence with which to help you to prevent war…” (p.182)

Finally, after much meandering–though it was justified meandering–Woolf addresses the gentleman fully. To his cause, she offers her third and last guinea. She explains that while she supports his anti-war effort, she cannot become a member of his society. For the fundamental differences between the male and female perspectives must remain for continued (mental, political, societal, cultural, et al.) progress to be attained.

The Verdict: A+.

Although Three Guineas was written almost 80 years ago, this supercharged polemic from Virginia Woolf is just as moving as it was back in the day. It certainly isn’t what you’d call a ‘quick read.’ In fact, if it took Woolf three years to draft this letter, it took me three months (and several shots of tequila) to write this review. Well, technically, I wrote this in one go, but the ideas have been simmering in the back burner for months.  So while it isn’t an easy read, it is one that is ‘necessary.’ There is much to glean from Woolf’s writings. That is why I’m putting this up as a ‘must-read’ for everyone. Believe me, it will do you a world of good.

Read my review of Virginia Woolf‘s “A Room of One’s Own.”

Free Verse: Letter to Sylvia – by Kristel Marie Pujanes

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An Open Letter to Sylvia Plath – by Kristel Marie Pujanes

I

 

Sylvia, dear Sylvia,

Where do you hide?

I have rifled through the leaves of your memory,

Hunting down words, unearthing

Your anagrams, the loose codes

Of your alliterations, mounting the apex

Of your imagination. Thumbing through

Text, I have expanded my parentheses;

Cut thumbs with metaphors—

Bled disappearing ink: written letters

You’ll never receive. I’ve buried

Each and every note—under

Beds, under stairs, under stars,

I have hallooed the Sandman and sent

My regards. And still,

Your meaning eludes me.

 

II

 

Sylvia, dear Sylvia,

Where do you hide?

I have sought for your person

In every sylph of a woman,

Every self of a child.

I have scoured through

Each and every disguise.

Now every intersection is another dimension

Where they say you’ve lived,

Where they say you’ll die. Over

And over again.

I refuse their ill substance,

Their ill-timed lies: yours is a truth that cannot die.

It becomes the valley, the trenches, the sky.

And the tree that knows

Every spectrum of color, every pulse of light.

 

III

 

Sylvia, dear Sylvia,

Why must you hide?

I have grown grey traversing

the avenues of your memory,

the grand maze of your mind.

I have chased your shadow

For miles and miles. Seeking your tone

In every conversation that starts with “I…”

Or every phrase that ends with “wither,” or

“pure,” or “white.”

The years thin over time.

I tire of this barren pursuit. Crouched:

I grow cold for your solitary moon—

Your solid weight. Your promised effacement,

The delivery of my child, my fate.

And still I wait.