An Unlikely Place for Advice

One would not think that insight would be gained in reading instructions from a 12th century monk to a 12th century nun on how to run her convent, even if the monk is Abelard and the nun is Heloise — tragic lovers and key figures of the Twelfth-Century Renaissance– and yet located within The Letters of Abelard and Heloise is a corrective to people who trump tradition (or custom) over truth.

The version I have is the Penguin Classics paperback translated by Betty Radice.  On page 224, Abelard writes:

The superior must take care that he orders well since it is sufficient for his subjects to obey well and not to follow their own will but, as they professed, that of their superiors.  For we absolutely forbid that custom should ever be set above reason; a practice must never be defended on grounds of custom but only of reason, not because it is usual but because it is good, and it should be more readily accepted the better it is shown to be.

He then quotes St. Augustine, who says:

‘Whoever despises truth and presumes to follow custom is either ill-disposed and hostile toward his fellow-men, to whom truth is revealed, or he is ungrateful to God on whose inspiration his Church is founded.’  Again, ‘In the Gospel the Lord says “I am Truth.” He did not say “I am custom.”  And so as truth was made manifest, custom must yield to truth.’  Again, ‘Since the truth was revealed, error must yield to truth, just as Peter who was previously circumcised, yielded to Paul who preached truth.’

He then goes on to quote other learned men of the church and Biblical passages, but one more passage will suffice, in Abelard’s own words (p. 225):

In taking counsel no one should follow the larger number of men but the better men; it is not a man’s years which should be considered but his wisdom, and regard paid not to friendship but to truth.

In light of ideological arguments against climate change, same-sex marriage, and reproductive rights, one sees a preference for custom.  And yet, here is an argument from a man who is part of that custom, convincingly writing that custom must give way to the truth.  Not that Abelard’s views were always welcome (he was excommunicated by the Pope, though the sentence was later lifted), or that his truths are our truths (for example, he believed that women were less likely to become intoxicated than men due to their moist, porous skin).  Yet today, we would do well to consider the words of the greatest logician of his time, and give over our prejudices and fears to what the better men are telling us.

On Reaching 35

Two days ago, I turned 35. One day ago, I finished reading Mozart: A Life in Letters.  Comparisons to Mozart are bound to end in disappointment, since he accomplished so much in his short life — more in 35 years than most people do in 80, and more brilliantly.  Yet, just as I thought of Jeanne d’Arc when I turned 17 (when she began her crusade against the British), 19 (when she was burned at the stake), and again at 20 (when I reached an age she never reached), I can’t help thinking of Mozart at 35.  Had he lived two months more, I would be thinking of him at 36, but 35 is also when people reach their creative peak.  I don’t know where I read this, and perhaps it’s complete nonsense, but Mozart and creativity go together, since he is the most protean of composers, and perhaps of all artists.  What he did would be akin to a visual artist becoming unsurpassed in painting, sculpture, and architecture; or a writer mastering poetry, novels, short stories, essays, and plays.

I find it interesting to read what I wrote when I turned 30.  Unlike then, I am out of my parents’ house; like then, I am still not published (minus my poetry book).  But I am closer to being published.  Much closer.  I visited my brother and sister-in-law last week and found new resolve in making the publication of my novel my top priority.  Even with SIFF coming up, and all the posts I will be writing about the festival, the novel will be finished this year.  With luck, the search for publishers will also begin in 2014.

Since I already looked back at my accomplishments at 30, I don’t feel I need to at 35.  Instead, I am trying to live more in the moment, while still attempting to peek around the corner and see what my future looks like.  To help with that, I have started meditating once a day.  Only on a few occasions have I not been able to keep up this practice, and whether from this or from signs of spring that are appearing in Seattle — like sun — I am hopeful.  I feel that my thirties will only get better, and that my future struggles will be not be the past struggles of survival, but of thrift.

And, if I live what’s considered a normal lifespan, I have more than half my life to still look forward to — unlike Mozart, who had less than a year.

On the Anniversary of Roger Ebert’s Death

Roger Ebert died one year ago yesterday.  To commemorate the day, Ebert Club members were asked to share anecdotes about how Roger influenced our lives.  Mine was quite long, and so it was edited down a bit before being placed on the Roger Ebert website:

While I believe the edit improves the remembrance, I thought I would also share the original message that I wrote.  If nothing else, it gives a lesson in how good editing can strengthen by exclusion.  I have copied it in its entirety below, and have put the cut portions in red, so as to be easier to spot:

How did Roger Ebert influence my life?  From the days when I first really started paying attention to movie reviews, he was the only movie critic I read, apart from local newspaper reviewers.  If I was on the fence about seeing a film, or if a really great film was coming out that I hadn’t heard of, Ebert’s review would help me decide whether to go or not.  And when I decided to start watching classic films on a more regular basis, he illuminated some that I would have missed, or might not have seen until much later.  Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, and Mizoguchi’s movies were all introduced to me through Roger Ebert.

A few months after I started my blog in May 2009, he influenced me in a more direct way.  I had come home from Japan roughly a year before, and had started the blog as a way to sell the last few copies of my self-published poetry book, as well as create a platform for my future writings.  Then Ebert wrote “The Blogs of My Blog.”  While my blog was not included in that post, he responded to my comment on that post in the following way:

“Dreams of Literary Grandeur” is one heck of a blog.  I see you came aboard here last summer but haven’t posted in three weeks.  If you’d been in the last two threads I’m sure you would have been included.

This was the first time he had responded to one of my comments.  He then responded to my protestations of humility by posting a link to one of my blog posts.

As a writer, I can’t tell you what this meant to me.  I still can’t.  A Pulitzer-Prize winning writer just called my writing good?  Over the next two years, I got a few retweets, a few shout-outs, and replies to some of my other comments from him.  He even started following me on Twitter.  After watching videos from Ebertfest 2010 and reading about the experience in blog posts by the Far-Flung Correspondents, I decided to go to Ebertfest 2011.

I should point out that, in October 2009, I had moved from the East to the West Coast, where I had initially stayed with two of my brother’s friends.  Other than them, I knew no one before the move, which is one reason why my Internet family became just as important to me as my actual family in the first few years out here.  Also, I bought my pass a few months after being let go from my job.  By the time Ebertfest rolled around, I had accepted a job offer, but as a sub, which meant I didn’t have guaranteed hours.  Besides unemployment, the only money I had coming in was from tutoring.  And yet, as my father told me, I had to meet Roger Ebert.  “This is an investment,” he said, “not an expense.”  And so I went.  Not only did I meet Roger Ebert, but I met people who I had connected with through my blog and through Twitter, including the Far-Flung Correspondents and Tom Dark (now also gone).  Even now, most of the people I follow on Twitter had some connection to the man.

Meeting Roger Ebert and getting to thank him for supporting me is one of the highlights of my life, and yet I wish there had been other meetings, meetings where I could have shown him some of my sketches (I had taken up sketching on his idea that it was a good way to meet women, after I posted a year after living in Seattle how hard it was to make friends out here) or at least shown him pictures of my nieces (I mean, I show EVERYONE those pictures).  During that first meeting, however, having gotten little sleep for two nights in a row, I babbled (though I did remember to congratulate him on his New Yorker caption contest win).  Still, when he retweeted my post on having met him, I was happy to see that he was, in fact, still reading my blog.  Sadly, that was the last post of mine that he retweeted, and the last time I had any sort of direct feedback from him.

I had a strange premonition the day before he died.  I had read his “A Leave of Presence” article where he had mentioned his resurgence of cancer, but as he didn’t seem concerned about it, no alarm bells went off in my mind, until I got a call from my landlord to tell me that one of our housemates, whom we hadn’t seen in about a month, had died of cancer.  That is the first time I felt worried that Ebert might die from his, yet I was still shocked when I saw the news the next day.  Appropriately, I found out on Twitter.

Somewhere I read that the impact people have on your life can be measured by the size of the hole they leave when they’re gone.  Despite the valiant efforts of those who continue to write on his website and create the Ebert Club newsletter and keep Ebertfest running, the hole has not been filled.  It may never be filled.  Sometimes, I go back to his reviews and Great Movie pieces and read them to remember what used to fill that hole, and for a time, I am content.  But then I go see a movie, one that he would have loved (or hated), and I wish he had lived long enough to see it, and to write about it.

All remembrances for Roger Ebert can be found here: