Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: How will I turn these words into works?
In the immortal words of Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, ““I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.” As I think I’ve mentioned before, this has to be the movie for this year. Andy is in prison for a murder he did not commit and is forced by these circumstances to play the long game. He is the definition of someone whose commitment to slow, steady change pays off in the end.
And that’s key. I can’t see the future. I can, however, continue to cultivate habits and practices that should help me no matter what that future brings. I cannot change the world–but I can change MY world, and be a force for kindness, justice, and engagement with my community.
Today my soundtrack is all 15 Shostakovich symphonies. I began with #1 at 8:20 am.
Looking back, there is a wistfulness about what was to be and a sadness about what was. A year ago today, I was starting to watch the weather forecast for my trip to Michigan. I would end up leaving a day early to beat the storm, and as a result I saw Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 11 performed twice (even though the roads on the Saturday were nasty). Things had cleared on the Sunday, and I got to see the Meyer May House as planned. But 2020 had already started off with an ominous note. Just after arriving in Grand Rapids, I heard that Neil Peart had died.
Over the next nine weeks, life was fairly normal. I attended a number of amazing concerts. I went to SCA events. I worked on scrolls. I attended a 20s-themed brunch just a few days before my birthday. I planned for travel in late March. And then–it all vanished. Or, perhaps, the better word was it was all transformed. My job didn’t vanish. My hobbies, the things I loved, the people I care for–they didn’t vanish, either. And I didn’t vanish. I became a different version of me. I’ve always been introspective, but rarely critically so. And there are still learnings to come from that–surprising ones, and not so surprising ones.
For a couple of months, other than making masks, writing, and practicing the viola, I was in a creative lockdown. I had always been driven by deadlines and purposes for most of my artistic endeavours: Have a scroll done for a particular event. Have a piece of clothing made in time for another event. I had become rusty at creating things purely for the sake of creating them. It might have been the first SMASH scavenger hunt that opened up those doors by providing some of those missing deadlines for what turned out to be an assortment of goofy projects–but projects that involved real research, real creativity, and just the willingness to laugh again at the absurdity of life. I came out of that thinking, “why can’t I just embroider a thing because I want to and it makes me happy?” And so I embroidered several things, and surprised myself at what I could do, on my own, without a pattern to follow or a practical need to give me its blessing. I blame the Shostakovich obsession with not having the outlet of Shostakovich concerts to attend. But no apologies, really. If I had those concerts to go to, none of this likely would have happened.
Not long after I started embroidering things, I found Reddit–and rediscovered myself as a working historian. I left the world of academia 21 years ago, and I have had to deal with my own shattered expectations of myself ever since, even though my logical mind has told me that the choice I made had nothing to do with my value to the vocation I still profess. After writing a number of responses to questions on the AskHistorians subreddit–which has extremely high standards for replies–I applied for, and was accepted as a “Flaired” member, meaning I’d proven my worth in my selected topic (which for me was medieval Christianity, mansucripts, and culture, 1050-1300). Around about the same time, I applied for–and got–a role as a proofreader for the DSCH Journal, doing a lot to reawaken my love for editing. I’m not sure I’ll have the chops enough to actually ever write an article about Shostakovich, but I can sure as hell be a knowledgeable copyeditor. And I found time again for reading–not just nonfiction, but actual novels. I’m ending the year with War and Peace–finally making that move towards reading some classic literature I’ve missed over the years.
The summer months had a period of stress that few saw, and it is something I will continue to keep confidential–but suffice it to say that being Lawspeaker isn’t all just writing aspirational oaths and keeping the cats herded in moots. Sometimes there are real conflicts to deal with–ones where my main job is to make sure that fairness and justice are served. It is absolutely the job I signed up for, knowing this, and I endeavoured, with the help of a few others, to give it the best I could in this strangest of years. There was no kumbaya moment at the end, but there was a resolution, and books were closed.
There were new things to try this year. Most notable would be the Pathfinder RPG campaign I’ve been involved in for the past three or so months. My roleplaying experience is pretty minimal compared to that of many of my friends, but it’s really proven to be just the thing–it works perfectly well played remotely, and it’s allowed for both creativity and social interaction.
I’m doing OK on that latter front. I have the weekly Zoom meeting with the Eoforwic group, my two Toastmasters clubs (the newer of which just got to charter strength as of yesterday), and, back in those months where we could, days with friends in our “bubble” that allowed us some social interaction with folks we hadn’t always had a chance to keep up with at events–teaching me a valuable lesson, I think, on how to sustain closer friendships. I’m not always that great at doing that–mainly because I tend to think I rate low on folks’ scale of priorities, and so talk myself out of things before the questions are even asked. But I’m finding that what I am also missing is the energy of larger groups of people or the novelty of places I’ve never seen before–not because I am a social butterfly, but because I am am an observer. It has forced me to look more closely at those places I can go, noticing the turning of the seasons–budding, growth, florescence, decline, and hibernation, the beauty within shades of green as well as in shades of browns and grey, and the differences in the gurgle of a waterfall in summer vs. the icy rush of December.
After writing for 100 straight days after the lockdown started, I slacked off a bit, but when I discovered the Daily Stoic website, I started using the Daily Stoic Journal writing prompts to begin again, this time thinking about my place in the world and the kind of person that I don’t just aspire to be, but are actively working towards becoming.
At 3 pm, the 3rd movement of the 8th symphony has just crashed into the numbness of the 4th.
I’m still here. I am realizing through all of this that at 53, I am not done growing and learning yet. That applies to new skills and new knowledge, or the extension of old knowledge–including fundamental things about how I see myself. I learned many years ago that there was no belief system that could quite encompass how I perceive the universe, other than a sense of deep and profound mystery, what I might call the power of unknowing–to paraphrase the Rush lyric–the more we think we know about, the greater the unknown. We humans try to stick labels onto things so our brains can make sense of them in the context of our own world and society, and sometimes these labels are necessary to function in the world. Sometimes what we do know about the world is what keeps us alive–such as knowing how viruses are transmitted and reproduce, and how we can hijack those processes to produce vaccines. But even in at the very core of science, there are things we may be able to describe but our minds cannot completely understand. How can light be a particle and a wave at the same time? What is the nature of infinity?
But I think we can understand that human societal norms are not science. Genetics will do the job of putting together a (hopefully) functional human being from a bunch of DNA, of coding all of the things our body needs to be able to sustain life, including digesting food, breathing, and removing toxins. It has a role in capacity for learning, in basic body shapes and sizes, in colours of skin and hair, and in whether an individual is fertile and/or can gestate another human being. It sometimes makes us more susceptible or resistant to particular diseases. But my genome does not tell the story of who I am, nor does it predestine me to be a particular kind of person. The society we live in–for good or not so good–plays the lead role in that, and in our own self-perception as we grow and mature. I am a decent writer because I was encouraged by society and told that to be “smart” was an admirable goal. I also had the opportunity and privilege to pursue the dream of being a historian all the way up to the PhD. level, and that privilege stacked, meaning I had opportunities to practice and advance my knowledge that were due to the fact that I had opportunities earlier on and seized upon them.
But another part of maturing is realizing who you are a propos the roles society has assigned to you. This is the kind of maturity that often occurs over the span of a lifetime, and it comes in fits and starts. Some people just seem to know from day one, but others simply never take time to ask the questions. I’d started to ask those questions about race many, many years ago, but not in a way that caused me any real discomfort. That had started to change a few years ago, but in 2020 I took time to think about what it meant to be a white person, to be a product of a particular culture, and whether I liked those assumptions or wanted to begin to challenge that received knowledge about the world that seeps through all my pores regardless of whether I want it to or not–and simply willing it not to be there would not change a thing. I am still not “comfortable”–but “comfort” is no longer a goal compatible with justice for me.
And this questioning of assumptions goes deeper than that. There are other truths to be acknowledged. But that will hold for tomorrow.
Meanwhile, I’ll get about living. 2020 has already passed into history in most of the world. At 4 pm (Moscow time), I had a dash of vodka, a little smoked eel, and lifted Shostakovich’s favourite ironic toast, made in response to Stalin’s claim in the late 30s that “life was getting better and better”:
“Here’s to life not getting any better.”